France has a lot of history. A history that is certainly not long-forgotten in the minds of the people living here. A trip to Normandy on the west coast of France would not be complete without visiting the D-Day beaches and paying your respects to soldiers who fought so bravely and have fallen here.
There are 5 main beaches where the D-Day assault started on June 6th 1944. From east to west, on the coast of France along the English channel, these were:
- Sword Beach – 28,000 British troops
- Juno Beach – 21,000 Canadian troops
- Gold Beach – 25,000 British troops
- Omaha Beach – 43,000 American troops
- Utah Beach – 21,000 American troops plus 14,000 airborne
In addition, the landscape is dotted with cemeteries and monuments to the dead. The Allies’ target was Caen, the capital of Normandy, to gain a foothold on continental Europe.
The total distance between the 5 beaches is only about 62 miles (100km), so you could visit all the beaches in a day, if you were so inclined.
However, I’d advise saving some time for the museums and the cemeteries, as there is a lot to reflect on. To make the best use of your time, here are the top sights I recommend in your D-day Beaches tour of Normandy.
1. Omaha Beach
If you are American, you will likely want to head to Omaha Beach. It is a quietly beautiful place, with many monuments along the shoreline. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” depicts this landing and the subsequent battles.
The primary objective at Omaha Beach was to secure a beachhead 5 miles (8 km) long, linking with the British landings at Gold Beach to the east, and to link up with American troops landing at Utah Beach.
Initially, the Americans were to land only on Omaha beach, but Utah beach was added to the invasion plans at the eleventh hour so that the Allies would be near the French port city of Cherbourg.
Many historians agree that of the 5 landings, Omaha was one of the most difficult of landings. The beach had a large number of German troops and Allied bombings had failed to take out the German strongholds. The beach was riddled with mines, traps, and other artillery.
As a comparison, U.S. troops on Utah beach landed 1 mile (2 km) south of the planned location, which would have been more dangerous, due to the tides. German resistance had already been weakened, and the Americans there suffered comparatively minor losses, with some 50 dead and around 150 wounded.
Interestingly, although the beach names (Omaha, Sword, etc.) were simply code names that the Allies came up with, today those beaches officially go by those names. When you arrive at Omaha Beach, you see it is called Omaha Beach. And if you speak French, it is not called Plage de Omaha for instance (plage being the French word for “beach”).
Omaha Beach actually spans across 3 different communes (towns) between Vierville and Colleville-sur-Mer. So if you are driving and wondering what to enter into the GPS, just enter “Omaha Beach”.
The beach has cliffs on either side, so you can imagine the carnage upon landing, with the area bristling with field guns, mortars and machine guns.
You can climb up the nearby cliffs to see the German bunkers, and walk the replica pier taking you out to see a portion of the combat artillery that was left in the water as a monument. Attention: the armaments are only visible at low tide.
A few minutes walk inland is the Passerelle Mulberry, an artificial bridge that was used by the troops in their landing under heavy fire. The bridge was brought down just days after the landing on June 19th, 1944.
The poem placed on the beach reads:
|French version||English translation|
Ils embarquèrent le coeur serré
Sur des péniches ballotées par le flot
Par une mer folle ce matin-là
L’aube s’était nimbée de brouillard
Comme si le ciel ne voulait voir
L’enfer qui s’annonçait déjà.
They climbed aboard with anxious heart
The madly sea-tossed landing-craft,
The sea-fog on that sad morn
All but shrouded the pale dawn,
As if heaven itself dared not see
The hounds of hell that day set free.
|Ils débarquèrent sous la mitraille|
En vomissant toutes leurs entrailles
Faces aux collines qui s’embrasaient
Les vagues charriaient des corps brisés
Sur cette plage ensanglantée
Où la mort faisait son marché
|They disembarked under hail of fire,|
In spewing up all their guts
Facing those cliffs ablaze
Waves carrying broken bodies along
On that bloodied beach,
Where Death was on march.
|Il n’y eut pas de héros|
Tous furent héroïques,
Ces jours épiques
Où l’humanité jouait sa peau
C’est peu dire qu’il fut élevé
Le prix de notre liberté
A l’heure des premiers combats
|There were no heroes|
Though all were heroic
In that eventful day,
Where mankind put all at stake
It’s an understatement to say it was high
The price of our liberty
At the time of that first fight.
|L’écume est rouge|
Plus rien ne bouge
Le vent emporte au-delà des mers
Les âmes des enfants d’Amérique
Et le soleil réchauffe parfois
Leurs vingt ans qui dormant aujourd’hui
Face à la Mer en Normandie.
|The foam is red|
All is now still,
The wind carries back across the seas
The souls of America’s children,
Whilst the sun warms sometimes
Those twenty-year-olds who sleep today
Facing the sea in Normandy.
2. Normandy American Cemetery
Just above Omaha beach lies the American Cemetery which serves as the final resting place for over 9,000 U.S. soldiers. Although you can see the beach from the cemetery, there is no direct access from the beach.
The cemetery lies in the commune of Colleville-sur-mer, and you have to drive around 10 minutes from the beach to the cemetary parking lot to enter.
While there are several WWII cemeteries in this part of France (including German cemeteries), this cemetery is dedicated to those Americans who perished during the D-Day landings and fighting that occurred in its aftermath.
There are graves with crosses, stars of David, crescents buried next to each other, soldiers-at-arms just as they were in life. There is a Wall of the Missing with the names of over 1,500 soldiers missing in action.
Two children of President Theodore Roosevelt, his sons Theodore Jr. and Quentin rest among more than 9,000 other graves. In recognition of their losses, the land has been donated by the French government to the United States.
3. The American Museums
There are two museums dedicated to the American war effort within 10 minutes of Omaha Beach.
Omaha Beach Museum
Right off of the beach is the Omaha Beach Museum which is around 1400m² and showcases a collection of uniforms, vehicles, personal objects, weapons. It takes around an hour, with life-size models recreating what it was like for those soldiers at war.
A bit further away, but larger in scale is the Overlord museum. This is a private collection that today partners with many WWII associations in the U.S. and the local tourist boards in the area. Personal items from soldiers and armoured fighting vehicles from the forces in Normandy are presented in a series of reconstructions, with stories of individuals and their bravery.
4. Caen Memorial Museum
While the American museums concentrate on the U.S. forces invasion, the Caen Memorial Museum looks at the invasion from a larger perspective, including the impact on Caen and this part of Normandy.
The museum covers the years after World War I, when the rise of dark forces began across the continent. Known as the “phoney war”, the rise in strength of the the German Reich readying itself for war give way to images of a tired France still recovering from the previous war.
It then moves on to the start of the WWII when after a short battle, France fell under occupation. Covering the daily life for French people, it includes stories of those who collaborated with the occupying forces, and those who in the French resistance.
A 2nd section in the museum covers the D-Day landings and the battles aftermath, up until the liberation of Caen, and later Paris. Once the Allied forces landed and started pushing their way inland, the Battle of Caen began.
Caen is about 9 mi (14 km) inland from the coast, at the junction of several roads and railways. The communication links made it an important objective for both sides. For two months, the city was under fire, with locals caught in the middle.
Before the invasion, Caen had a population of 60,000 people. On 6 June, Allied aircraft dropped leaflets urging the population to leave but only a few hundred were able to.
Allied bombings started later that same day to slow the flow of German reinforcements. Streets were soon blocked by rubble and homes were destroyed. In short order, the city’s Palais des Ducs, the church of Saint-Étienne and the railway station were all destroyed or severely damaged.
About 15,000 people took refuge for more than a month in medieval quarry tunnels south of the city, and another 3000 in the Abbaye aux Hommes (where Norman-turned-English-King William the Conqueror is also buried).
By the end of the battle, the population of Caen was reduced to a third (around 15,000), and most of the city was destroyed.
The Caen Memorial Museum takes you through individual stories and the overall impact of the D-day landings on the war effort. You can read more about visiting Caen here.
5. Pointe du Hoc
In between Omaha Beach and Utah beach, is the rather infamous cliff known as “Pointe du Hoc”. In fact, it is a stretch of high land, with a 100-foot (30 m) cliff overlooking the English Channel.
It was at Pointe du Hoc that the Germans constructed a series of bunkers and machine gun posts and heavily fortified the area with concrete casemates and gun pits.
Pointe du Hoc provided an elevated setting from which German troops could launch shells on both Omaha beach (4 miles or 7km to the east) and Utah beach (7 miles or 11 km to the west).
At the time in 1944, German troops were working on increasing the defenses of Pointe du Hoc, but had not yet completed it. On D-Day, U.S. Army Rangers were tasked to scale the 100-foot-high coastal cliffs and and hold the high ground.
Around 225 men scaled the cliffs. And then the deadliest counterattacks began. With other troops redirected to Omaha beach, the isolated Rangers did not have much support.
Those soldiers managed to hold Pointe du Hoc for 2 days, until support could arrive from Omaha Beach. By the end of the two days, the initial Ranger landing force of 225+ was reduced to about 90 men.
Pointe du Hoc is now a monument and one of very few places in Normandy where the intense shelling from bombing can be seen. There are bunkers that you can walk around, and a monument to those men who fought there. Note, the area is not fenced and there are dangerous drop-offs from the cliffs.
6. Juno Beach Centre
For Canadians, the Juno Beach Centre is a must. It is the only Canadian museum on the D-Day Beaches and is located immediately behind the beach codenamed Juno, where 21,000 Canadian and Allied troops landed on D-Day 6 June 1944.
The objective of the Canadian troops was to join up with the British who were landing either side of them at Sword and Gold beach. By the end of day, the British and Canadians were able to link up and continue to advance to Caen the following day.
After Omaha, the landings at Juno took the heaviest casualties by sea with over 340 killed. However, of the 5 landings, it is considered amongst the most strategically successful along with the landing at Utah Beach, as the initial estimate was supposed to be over 2000 dead.
Historians have noted that the Canadians ended that fateful ahead of the US or British divisions, despite “the fact that they landed last and that only the Americans at Omaha faced more difficulty winning a toehold on the sand”. It is suggested that the calibre of the training the Canadian troops had received beforehand explains their success.
The museum presents the civilian and military war effort in Canada and on various fronts during the Second World War. There is also a memorial to the French resistance, and an intact German bunker that was once an observation post.
There are interesting tidbits such as the fact that the code names for the beaches to be taken by British and Commonwealth forces were named after types of fish: Goldfish, Swordfish and Jellyfish. This was then abbreviated to Gold, Sword and Jelly. British PM Winston Churchill disapproved of the name Jelly for a beach on which so many might die, and so changed the name to the more dignified “Juno”.
|Poem ‘Normandy’ by Juno Veteran Cyril Crain|
|Come and stand in memory|
Of men who fought and died
They gave their lives in Normandy
Remember them with pride.
|Soldiers, Airman, sailors|
Airborne and marines
Who in civvy life were tailors
and men who worked machines.
|British and Canadian|
And men from USA
Forces from the Commonwealth
They all were there that day
|To Juno, Sword and Utah|
Beaches of renown
Also Gold and Omaha
That’s where the ramps went down.
|The battle raged in Normandy|
Many lives were lost
The war must end in victory
And this must be the cost
|When my life is over|
And I reach the other side
I’ll meet my friends from Normandy
And shake their hands with pride.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to get to the beaches?
The easiest way to get to the D-Day beaches is by car. Public transportation to the beaches, museums, and cemeteries is not very convenient or advisable.
If you do not wish to drive, I highly recommend taking a tour. There are tours leaving from Paris, which will take you to the main sights and bring you back in comfort.
How many days should you spend?
If you wish to go to more than one of the D-day beaches, I recommend staying overnight, to leave enough time to visit the museums and cemeteries.
Where should you stay?
If you enjoyed that article, you may wish to read more about traveling around Normandy here. A bientôt!