"All those with dead grandparents, get off the bus. The rest of you wait here." A hollow minute ensued, as we shuffled aside to allow a handful of our tearful classmates to alight.
The rest of us waited in silence. Until someone farted. Then the sniggering began, paving the way to an intense period of blatant ignorance and sinewy teenage flirtations.
I’m English, so naturally I’ve visited France more times than I have Scotland and Ireland combined. I’ve partied in Paris, flirted in Nice, bounced around Bordeaux, mulled around Monaco and trundled through the sparse French countryside like a lost goat. However, the memories of one particular visit to France will be forever with me. Memories which, until recently, I never knew existed.
At twelve years old, going to see the battlefields of Normandy was good for one reason: There were “well fit” girls on the bus. It was 1994, the rise of the Channel Tunnel and Apple Computers, and the fall of Commodore and Kurt Cobain: why would I want to hear about someone else's war, when I was waging my own?
Sixteen years on, I’ve seen enough war memorials, and read enough history to realise the impact of war on the lives of every nation I’ve visited. War never leaves us. If I can be so bold as to put the death and destruction aside for a moment, and say that the residue of a destructive war can offer 21st Century travelers a poignant edge to their journey.
Shortly after midnight on June 6th, 1944 the greatest invasion in modern history began in Normandy, a region in northwest France. The skies were alive with a 1,000 strong flock of dull aircraft, screaming through the night sky to pepper the enemy lines with 24,000 paratroopers. At 06.30 the carefully chosen landing beaches felt the first crunch of the 176,000 men, and 30,000 vehicles that poured from over 5,000 Allied ships.
By nightfall, over 9,000 Allied soldiers were dead or wounded, yet more than 100,000 had made it ashore to begin liberating coastal France. Within weeks of the landings, up to 20,000 tons of supplies were being delivered onto the Utah and Omaha beaches, and on August 25th of that year, Paris was liberated by the Allies, paving the way to the fall of Nazi Germany and the Axil Powers.
Before visiting any historic war site, it is highly recommended you do some background research on the history of the region. For this era of World War II consider the films: The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan and the TV series: Band of Brothers, and The War. The American historian, Stephen Ambrose has written extensively (and often controversially) about events of war, and his bestselling books come highly recommended.
Normandy is a pastoral region of north-western France, fringed by Le Manche (the English Channel) and famed for such non-war related delights as calvados (apple brandy), camembert, cider and cows.
While it’s possible to utilise the expansive rail network in France, it’s more enjoyable (and reliable) to rent a vehicle. By doing so, you’ll open up some of the most affordable accommodation options in the area: France's charming gîtes (French holiday homes), come in various shapes and sizes for any budget, and offer the promise of a playfully rustic escape in the countryside.
Normandy’s rolling landscapes are an easy day trip from Paris, however it would be slightly foolish to stay less than a few days. Meanwhile, for travelers coming from the UK, a return trip from Portsmouth to Caen in Normandy costs as little as £52 return with Brittany Ferries.
Close by to Caen, is the fertile heart of the region, the affable town of Bayeux, which makes an ideal base for exploring Normandy. Bayeux also served as the departure point for another famous invasion: The Norman Conquest of 1066, which is detailed in the world famous, 230-foot long Bayeux Tapestry.
If you’re limited for time, here's a run down of the most incredible D-Day locations in Normandy:
Sainte-Mère-Église: This pleasant town in Lower Normandy is famous for being the first town to be liberated during the invasions. Heavy casualties were incurred, as invading Allied paratroopers became easy targets in the fire-lit skies. Today, a dummy paratrooper hangs from the church spire in reference to the remarkable story of John Steele, who dangled there for two hours after his parachute became snagged on the steeple. He was captured, before escaping to rejoin his troops. It's also home to the excellent Airborne Museum.
Pointe du Hoc: During the D-Day Invasions, the American 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled the 150-foot (46m) high cliffs of Pointe du Hoc under constant gunfire, to commandeer the advantageous point. In the two days following their ascent, the soldiers fended off several German counterattacks. By the end of the mission, this formidable force was reduced from 225 to just 90.
Omaha Beach: This 4-mile long beach, codenamed Omaha, was one of several key landing beaches during the D-Day Landings. On June 6th, the strong German 352nd Division came up against the battle hardy, 1st Infantry Division from America. A combination of catastrophic misfortune resulted in 27 of the Allies 32 amphibious Sherman DD Tanks being squandered in the sea.
Their bad luck was compounded by ineffective air strikes, and poor naval bombardments. This set up the Allied troops against an almost unscathed German front, armed with machine guns capable of 1200 rounds per minute. The only chance of cover, was to run towards the enemy. The event is serialised in the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan.
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial: This 172-acre cemetery is maintained by the US Government, in memory of the 9,387 American men and women buried beneath neat white Crosses, or Stars of David. Most of them were killed during the Normandy invasions and following operations. The incorporated memorial garden features a wall bearing the names of 1,557 soldiers who could not be located, or identified.
Unless you’re a self-proclaimed expert in the Second World War, it is highly recommended that you book a tour in advance with one of the operators in the region. You’ll find that many local (and expat) guides are incredibly dedicated to sharing their personal passion of war history (rather than the inverse of being paid to be passionate). The subject deserves your full attention, and you’ll find it hard to take it all in from a stream of silent information boards.
The legacy of the Normandy sites — and WWII sites around the world — is becoming more and more poignant as the years pass us by. The veterans of these awesome events are ageing, and dying. While the subject of war is one of the most emotive journeys a traveler can adopt, it’s also one of the most empowering. It can offer a sense of the everyday hero within us, and open our eyes to the unity, and individual power of humankind.
As I look back at my own formative steps into this forgiving corner of France, I find myself aching to discover all of my unknowns. Perhaps it’s time I turned down Nirvana, switched off the Mac and hurled myself through the Chunnel: "All those with dead grandparents, get off the bus. The rest of you, follow behind.”
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