D-Day: in the steps of heroes

When you stand on Gold Beach here in Arromanches looking out to the sun glistening on the water and tourists walking on the sandy beach, it is hard to imagine that day in June 1944. You turn to walk back and realise thousands of young men would have been running past you from their landing crafts to begin liberating Europe and finally ending a war that had been raging for five years.

Troops and vehicles were coming ashore along the coast, while paratroopers were jumping out of planes and gliders were landing behind enemy lines. While the opening scenes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” give a more graphic account of D-Day, the old classic movie “The Longest Day” is still valuable in pulling it all together for you.

The D-Day landings were code-named “Operation Overlord” and you will find the tourist route along the coast well signposted with brown “Overlord Route” signs.

Arromanches les Bains – “Gold Beach”

landing-mapLa Pommetier is situated in the pretty village of Arromanches les Bains which is in the middle of the D-Day beaches. Arromanches is on Gold Beach with Sword and Juno beaches to the east and Omaha and Utah beaches to the west. It is also the site of the remaining Mulberry Harbour which was critical for the success of the Allied push into Germany.

Large sections of the Mulberry Harbour still remain and visitors are able to see where over 2.5 million troops, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tonnes of supplies came ashore in the months after D-Day.

The importance of the Mulberry Harbour was absolute for Winston Churchill and at his home in England, Chartwell, there is a diorama model of the harbour and the village of Arromanches in his library (and those with good eyesight can see our house on the model).

There are two excellent options to learn about the Mulberry Harbour in Arromanches. The Musée du Débarquement shows how the harbour operated and also shows an excellent short movie that explains how it was constructed. The museum also has the only British “Victoria Cross” awarded on D-Day and a US “Purple Heart”. A short walk up the hill to the headland is Arromanches 360 which is a circular cinema showing a short film on how D-Day unfolded.

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The museums in Arromanches are open from February to December each year (closed only in Januray) and the D-Day commemorations on 6 June each year attract thousands. Veterans return to honour their comrades and are treated like rock stars as people stop to shake their hands, hear their stories and take their photos. You can’t miss them with their chests full of medals and people keen to meet them. The commemorations at Arromanches range from international memorial services through to military vehicle displays, 40s swing bands on the stage by the harbour and fireworks displays.

Longues sur Mer

Longues sur Mer is under 10 minutes by car from La Pommetier or a scenic walk along the clifftops for those who like some exercise (5km). It was a German gun battery and four casemates with artillery remain plus an observation bunker closer to the cliff face.  You’re free to climb all over the guns and wander into the darkness of the casements.  You can test out your night vision by going down into the sleeping quarters which are behind the casements.

US Beaches

There are a number of key American D-Day landing sites only a short drive west of La Pommetier along the D514.

  • Omaha Beach (23km) 20 minutes
  • Pointe du Hoc (31km) 30 minutes
  • Utah Beach (67km) 55 minutes
  • Sainte-Mère-Église (65km) 50 minutes

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The Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach is a ‘must see’ for anyone interested in D-Day and has a museum, memorial and cemetery. The museum is different to others as it is more a collection of personal stories of those who landed that day mixed in with newsreel footage. From the museum there is a short walk to a viewing platform over Omaha Beach. There is a path that takes you onto the beach itself. Behind this viewing area are a set of stairs that take you to the memorial and cemetery with each white cross geometrically aligned with the other.  Two of the four brothers featured in the film “Saving Private Ryan” are laid to rest in the cemetery.  All in all, its a very moving place to visit.  If you’re there at sundown you’ll be able to see the short ceremony that marks taking down the flag each evening.

Pointe du Hoc was the scene of the US Rangers cliff climb to a gun battery. It was an amazing story of courage and strength under enemy fire. The area is still covered in bomb craters, some quite deep.

l1080072After Pointe du Hoc, you will need to come back to the motorway to Cherbourg to travel to Utah Beach. There is an excellent museum located there with even a hanger for an original B26.

Sainte-Mère-Église was the site of the US Airborne parachute landing. For those who have seen the movie “The Longest Day”, this is the town where the actor Red Buttons is left dangling from the church tower. The US Airborne Museum spans three buildings with interactive displays and various aircraft.  There are plenty of restaurants and cafes in Sainte-Mere-Eglise to keep you going.

Canadian Memorial at Juno Beach

The Canadian memorial at Juno Beach is east of us at Courseulles sur Mer, about 10 minutes by car (13km). This museum has an interesting focus on Canada during the war. You are also able to go on a guided tour of the bunkers and tunnels in the park.  The beach there is lovely and terrific for a good long walk and there are some terrific seafood restaurants in the town of Coursuelles (La Pecherie is our favourite!)

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Pegasus Bridge

Pegasus Bridge memorial is about 30 minutes from us. The memorial is now home to the original bridge and a full sized copy of the glider used by the British troops.

Caen

The Caen Memorial is an impressive D-Day museum. Possibly after you have visited the various individual locations, the Memorial will show you more about the battle for Normandy and the end of the war. The exhibitions are extensive, however there is a café for a break and as well as a large book shop/gift store.  It’s a great option for a rainy day and anyone wanting to see William the Conqueror’s castle in Caen.

Summary 

There are many museums and memorials dedicated to the D-Day landings and the battle for Normandy, as you would imagine, too many to mention here. We can assist you where possibly with details on specific sites that you would like to visit during your stay in Normandy. We can also recommend tour operators in the area. We hope this helps you in your planning and we look forward to welcoming you to Normandy.

Q&A

How long do I need to see the beaches?

We recommend between 1-3 days, although we’ve had guests here for over a week that have been busy sightseeing every day!  Generally, we’d recommend one day for the beaches and sites to the east of La Pommetier (Juno, Sword and Pegasus Bridge) and one day for the sites west of us (Omaha, Utah, Point du Hoc and St Mere Eglise).

Of course this does not factor in the other fantastic things to see in the area such as the Bayeux Tapestry, Mont St Michel, and the many chateaux and gardens.

Do I need a tour or a private guide?

It’s quite easy to drive to all the D-Day beaches and sites.  The Overlord Route tourist drive is well sign posted and the road runs along the coast so you can’t get too lost.  The roads are quite narrow and filled with holiday traffic in summer so its a gently paced drive between the beaches.  The museums all have excellent information and exhibits to give you a good understanding of D-Day and the following Battle for Normandy.

For those wanting to do a lot in a little time, there are several companies that run full and half day tours from nearby Bayeux.  These are charged per person but if you have a group of 6 or more then a private tour might be the way to go. The mini-vans generally seat 8-12 people so groups are generally smaller and everybody’s questions get answered.  We recommend Overlord Tours and Bayeux Shuttle based upon our guests feedback to us.

There is also the option of a private guide hired by the full or half day that will join you in your car.  This is particularly useful for people with specific sites to see such as where a relative served or the smaller Commonwealth cemeteries dotted throughout the region.

When is the best time of year to visit?

Summer in Normandy is beautiful… clear sunny days, warm temperatures, and lovely beaches to cool off at after sight seeing.  This means it is a very popular time to travel and things get busy.  There won’t be the queues of the famous sights in Paris, but things will take a little longer to get around and there may be some queuing at some museums.  June has the most daylight hours with the sun coming up before 6am and light lasting until after 10pm so you can pack a lot into your days.

At the other end of the scale, winter is chilly and days generally see temperatures in the 5-10 degrees centigrade range. The days are shorter and February is our coldest month. Some restaurants do close over the quieter winter time (from mid-November to February) and some museums close in January.  The upside is that there are a lot less visitors around, many attractions are inside, and Normandy food is warm and filling.  We have two open fires going here at La Pommetier (plus central heating) so from breakfast in the dining room through to relaxing in the living room at night you’ll be toasty warm.

D-Day is 6 June and La Pommetier books out almost immediately each year so we keep a waitlist for people in case cancellations happen.  With all the activities going on in Arromanches and things to see our guests generally book for 2-4 nights and don’t leave the village.