Storming the Beaches

As the season is beginning to pick up, I find myself out of the city of Paris more and more often. With so much to see both in Paris and in the surrounding countryside, there is no shortage of inspiring and fascinating places to visit. Today I am going to talk about Normandy.

The history of Normandy dates back to an agreement between the Vikings and the king of France. After the many viking raids on Paris, the king decided to offer a parcel of land to the Vikings as part of a peace settlement. The head of the Vikings became the first Duke of Normandy. They would not have called themselves vikings, but rather North men or Norse men, the name of the area became Normandy.

Fastforward over 1000 years and Normandy has a new association; World War II and D-Day. June 6th, 1944. Over 150,000 Allied troops land on the beaches of Normandy and begin the European invasion against Nazi Germany. This coordinated attack from air, land, and sea involved 5,000 boats and 2,000 planes. It was the largest amphibious invasion in history.

 

On my tour of Normandy we visit Utah Beach, one of the two beaches assigned to the American troops, the other being Omaha. The other beach sections were code named Juno for the Canadians, Gold and Sword for the British. Utah Beach is the most successful in terms of military victory. Of the 23,000 troops that land, there are 200 causalities. The other beaches combined have 7,000 to 10,000 causalities. One of the factors historians attribute to the success of Utah is the presence of General Teddy Roosevelt Jr. He was the only general and oldest person to land on the beaches on D-Day. With the troops landing more then a mile off target, he famously says “We will start the war from here.” Along with several factors of pure luck, the success of Utah allows reinforcements to head over to the more heavily fortified areas in Omaha.

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Utah Beach at low-tide.                                                                               June 6th was specifically chosen for the precise height of the tides. If the tides were too high, the landing craft would not have been able to see the beach obstacles. If the tides were too low, the soliders would have had too much open beach to run across without any cover.

We then visit Pointe du Hoc, one of the only places in Normandy where they left the site as it. They did not fill in the bomb craters or tear down the bunkers. Walking on top of the cliffs, one really gets the sense of the impact the war and the invasion had on the countryside. This is also the site of the brave story of the 2nd Ranger battalion that fought their way up the cliffs to take out the German troops and weapons stationed on top. They began their mission with 225 men and finished with less then 90. It was one of the worst casualty rates on D-Day.

We finish the day at the American Cemetery where almost 10,000 American troops have been laid to rest. It is a humbling experience being face to face with the size of the sacrifice made 74 years ago. The average age of the solider buried was 24 years old.

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It is vital to continue visiting these sites to preserve their legacy. My job as a guide is to keep history alive (and help it from reoccurring), pass along these stories, and share their importance with each guest.

 

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