D-Day Beaches: Top Sights
By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
The 75 miles of Atlantic coast north of Bayeux, stretching from Ste-Marie-du-Mont to Ouistreham, are littered with WWII museums, monuments, cemeteries, and battle remains left in tribute to the courage of the British, Canadian, and American armies that successfully carried out the largest military operation in history: D-Day. (It's called Jour J in French — the letters "D" and "J" come from the first letter for the word "day" in either English or French.) It was on these serene beaches, at the crack of dawn on June 6, 1944, that the Allies finally gained a foothold in France, and Nazi Europe was doomed to crumble.
All along this rambling coast, locals will never forget what the troops and their families sacrificed all those years ago. A warm regard for Americans has survived political disputes, from de Gaulle to "Freedom Fries." This remains particularly friendly soil for Americans — a place where their soldiers are still honored and the image of the US as a force for good has remained largely untarnished.
Planning Your Time
If you only have one day, I'd spend it entirely on the beaches and miss the Caen Memorial Museum. With the exciting sites and upgraded museums along the beaches, the Caen Memorial Museum is less important for most.
If you're traveling by car, begin on the cliffs above Arromanches and see the movie at the Arromanches 360° Theater to set your mood. Walk or drive a quarter-mile downhill to the town and visit Port Winston and the D-Day Landing Museum, then continue west to Longues-sur-Mer. Spend your afternoon visiting the American Cemetery, walking on the beach at Vierville-sur-Mer, and exploring the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument. Try to find time for the terrific Utah Beach Landing Museum, and consider visiting the strategic town of Ste-Mère Eglise to learn about the paratroopers' role in the invasion. Make a quick stop at the German Military Cemetery on your way back. Canadians will want to start at the Juno Beach Centre and Canadian Cemetery (in Courseulles-sur-Mer, 10 minutes east of Arromanches), then pick up the itinerary described above.
For those sans car, it's easiest to take a minivan tour or taxi from Bayeux, or — for a really full day — combine a visit to the Caen Memorial Museum with their guided minivan tour of the beaches. Public transport is available, though very limited. Many find that a one-day car rental works best.
Arromanches: Port Winston and the D-Day Landing Museum
The world's first prefab harbor was created by the British in Arromanches. Since it was Churchill's brainchild, it was named Port Winston. Walk along the seafront promenade and imagine the building of this port. On June 7, 1944, 17 old ships crossed the English Channel under their own steam. The crews sunk them so that the bow faced the next ship's stern, forming the first sea barrier. Then, 115 football-field-size cement blocks (called "Mulberries") were towed across the channel and sunk, creating a four-mile-long breakwater located a mile and a half offshore. Finally, engineers set up seven floating steel "pierheads" with extendable legs; they were linked to shore by four mile-long floating roads made of concrete pontoons. Soldiers then placed anti-aircraft guns on the pontoons, protecting a port the size of Dover, England. Within just six days of operation, 54,000 vehicles, 326,000 troops, and 110,000 tons of goods had crossed the English Channel. An Allied toehold on Normandy was secure. Eleven months later, Hitler was dead and the war was over.
The D-Day Landing Museum (Musée du Débarquement), which faces the surprisingly visible remains of what was intended to be a temporary harbor, provides an instructive hour-long visit. Take a good look at models and images illustrating the construction and use of the prefabricated harbor. Then gaze out the windows that look directly onto the harbor's remains, allowing you to mentally reconstruct this amazing accomplishment. Ponder the remarkable undertaking that resulted in this harbor being built in just 12 days, while battles raged. One video recalls D-Day; the other features the construction of the temporary
Hike 10 minutes to the top of the bluff behind the museum for the view from the Arromanches 360º Theater and ponder how, from this makeshift harbor, the liberation of Western Europe commenced. Inside, The Price of Freedom offers D-Day footage in a noisy montage of videos on its 360-degree screen. But the most thought-provoking experience in town is simply to wander the beach among the concrete and rusted litter of the battle, and be thankful that all you hear are birds and surf.
American Cemetery and Memorial
Crowning a bluff just above Omaha Beach and the eye of the D-Day storm, 9,387 brilliant white-marble crosses and Stars of David glow in memory of Americans who gave their lives to free Europe on the beaches below. You’ll want to spend at least 1.5 hours at this stirring site.
The heart of the cemetery's Visitor Center tells the stories of the individuals who gave their lives to liberate people they could not know, and shows the few possessions they died with. This adds a personal touch to the D-Day landings and prepares visitors for the fields of white crosses and Stars of David outside. The pressure on these men to succeed in this battle is palpable.
Omaha Beach is quiet and peaceful today, but the horrific carnage of June 6, 1944, is hard to forget. A good orientation table looks over the sea. Nearby, steps climb down to the beautiful beach below. A walk on the beach is a powerful experience and a must if you are sans both car and tour. Visitors with cars can drive to the beach at Vierville-sur-Mer.
In the cemetery, you'll find a striking memorial with a soaring statue representing the spirit of American youth. Around the statue, giant reliefs of the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of Europe are etched on the walls. Behind is the semicircular Garden of the Missing, with the names of 1,557 soldiers who were never found. A small metal knob next to the name indicates one whose body was eventually found — there aren’t many.
Wander through the peaceful and poignant sea of headstones. Dog-tag numbers are etched into the lower backs of the crosses. During the campaign, the dead were buried in temporary cemeteries throughout various parts of Normandy. After the war, the families of the soldiers could decide whether their loved ones should remain with their comrades or be brought home (61 percent opted for repatriation).
A disproportionate number of officers are buried here, including General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who joined the invasion despite having a weak heart — he died from a heart attack one month after D-Day. Families knew that these officers would want to be buried alongside the men with whom they fought.
Pointe du Hoc
The intense bombing of the beaches by Allied forces is best experienced here, where US Army Rangers scaled impossibly steep cliffs to disable a German gun battery. Pointe du Hoc's bomb-cratered, lunar-like landscape and remaining bunkers make it one of the most evocative of the D-Day sites.
This point of land was the Germans' most heavily fortified position along the D-Day beaches and held six anti-ship guns capable of firing 12 miles east to west. Omaha Beach is 11 miles to the east; Utah Beach is seven miles to the west. For the American landings to succeed, the Allies had to run the Germans off this cliff. So they bombed it to smithereens, dropping over 1,500 tons of bombs on this one cliff top. That explains the craters. Heavy bombing started in April of 1944, continued into May, and hit its peak on June 6 — making this the most intensely bombarded site of the D-Day targets. Even so, only about 5 percent of the bunkers were destroyed. The problem? Multiple direct hits were needed to destroy bunkers like the ones here, which were well-camouflaged and whose thick, dense walls were heavily reinforced.
Utah Beach Landing Museum
This is the best museum on the D-Day beaches and worth the 45-minute drive from Bayeux. For the Allied landings to succeed, many coordinated tasks had to be accomplished: Paratroopers had to be dropped inland, the resistance had to disable bridges and cut communications, bombers had to deliver payloads on target and on time, the infantry had to land safely on the beaches, and supplies had to follow the infantry closely. This thorough yet manageable museum pieces those many parts together in a series of fascinating exhibits and displays.
Built around the remains of a concrete German bunker, the museum nestles in the sand dunes on Utah Beach, with floors above and below sea level. The highlight of the museum are the exhibits of innovative invasion equipment and videos demonstrating how it worked: the remote-controlled Goliath mine, the LVT-2 Water Buffalo and Duck amphibious vehicles, the wooden Higgins landing craft (named for the New Orleans man who invented it), and a fully restored B-26 bomber with its zebra stripes and 11 menacing machine guns — without which the landings would not have been possible (the yellow bomb icons indicate the number of missions a pilot had flown). Entering the simulated briefing room, you sense the pilots' nervous energy — would your plane fly LOW or HIGH? The stunning grand finale is the large, glassed-in room overlooking the beach, with Pointe du Hoc looming to your right. From here, you'll peer over re-created German trenches and feel what it must have felt like to be behind enemy lines. Many German bunkers remain buried in the dunes.