Visiting the Normandy Beaches

Day 5: Normandy Beaches Utah, Omaha, and Gold
Starting with stop 1 near Utah Beach: One of the most notable towns from WWII history:
 Sainte-Mère-Église
We slept in accidentally until about 10 but fortunately that turned out for the best as it was DUMPING rain as we started out but as we headed for Utah beach, the furthest from Caen, it slowed to a slight drizzle. It took a little over an hour to reach Sainte-Mère-Église which was by afternoon already pretty busy. But luck turned out again in the opening of a parking spot just as we got there so we swooped in and headed out to explore this quaint little town in the light drizzle. 
Note: Exploring the town is obviously free but all the parking was paid parking spots.

As you walk over from the larger parking lots, you will come across this sign which gives a bit of background information on the town and points you in the direction of other information signs which are mostly spread out around the main church square. 
The Sainte-Mère-Église or church that the town is called after. On the night of June 5, 1944, an American paratrooper named John Steele (one of many descending in an aerial attack on Sainte-Mère-Église) became caught on the church tower pinnacle and was suspended there for 2 hours before the Germans who still occupied the town took him prisoner. He later escaped and joined back with the Americans in liberating the town. There is now a cavern named after him and a paratrooper mannequin dedicated to him atop the church. 
Posing in the rain in front of the church. See the parachute? 😉
Inside the church
 Front of the church
The cafe across the street. Since we hadn’t had breakfast yet we went in here for some ham sandwiches and drinks. 
I loved all the stories that came from those 2 decisive days in liberating Normandy. A lot of the signs had photos of what it looked like on that day so for comparison, I took pictures of what those same places look like today. Compare above and below. 

A dedicated memorial to the American paratrooper divisions
Another memorial with both the American and French flags side by side. 

Compare above and below: 

A monument marking the “path of liberty” as this town was the first to be liberated
Fun window shops in the town! It didn’t matter how small the towns were in France, I almost always could pick out a hair dresser shop. lol We couldn’t even find markets half the time so while you may starve, at least you can have a great haircut. 
After exploring the main town square and reading all the plaques (which took maybe an hour) we left for our next Utah beach destination.

But first a quick overview of D-Day facts:
  1. Overall Allied Invasion of Normandy: Code named Operation Overlord. The actual Normandy landing missions were code named Operation Neptune.
  2. Planning for this invasion began in 1943 with several deception plots devised to confuse the Germs into thinking Normandy would be the “deception” and the actual landing site would be at Calais. This deception was code named Operation Bodyguard. (A lot of tactics like this were used during WWII, but a really interesting read about a similar tactic used for the invasion of Sicily and Italy, Operation Micemeat, is an excellent read.)
  3. The amphibious landings were preceded by several aerial bombings (most prevalent at Pointe Du Hoc) and the landing of 24,000 American, British, and Canadian paratroopers shortly after midnight. 
  4. The men landed under heavy fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches, and the shore was mined and covered with obstacles such as wooden stakes, metal tripods, and barbed wire, making the work of the beach-clearing teams difficult and dangerous. Casualties were heaviest at Omaha, with its high cliffs.
  5. Only two of the beaches (Juno and Gold) were linked on the first day, and all five beachheads were not connected until June 12. The other 3 beaches would take more than the first day to overtake.
  6. The parties responsible for the landings at each beach: Utah and Omaha Beaches: United States Military, Gold and Sword beaches: Great Britatin, Juno: Canada. All working with the French Resistance. 
  7. The 5 beaches make up a coastline of about 50 miles or 80 km!
  8. German casualties on D-Day have been estimated at 4,000 to 9,000 men. Allied casualties were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead.

It was VERY Surreal to walk in the places we did and understand what a huge part of history the land we walked had as well as the mass destruction and loss of lives during a turning point for WWII.
Next stop:

The Crisbecq battery museum
Out of all the D-Day sites we visited, the Crisbecq Battery museum was honestly my favorite. You learn a lot about what the military site would’ve looked like back in those days, see multiple large guns, walk through underground tunnels, and mostly have the place to yourself. 
Here’s a bit of background info on the Crisbecq battery. The Germans began construction of the battery mid 1941 as part of the “Atlantic Sea-Wall” using mostly Russian and Polish prisoners of war. The site had 3 Navy 210 mm guns (2 of which were held in large concrete casements like the one above)  and several 75 mm anti-aircraft machine guns, and 1 open 150 mm gun firing pit. On D-Day, the site fired upon Utah beach up to the Point Du Hoc (that separates Utah from Omaha Beach) and the US Navy battleships. The site successfully sunk the destroyer USS Corry. 
Above: The 210 mm gun casement (formally  a Type R 683 casement) has an impressive dimension of 21×16 meters and 8 meters tall. It is compared of 2000 m3 of concrete and 100 tons of steel. The casement would be covered with camouflage and nets to hide it from aerial view. Unfortunately an accidental explosion within the bunker, caused its collapse killing a dozen American soldiers. The 210 mm canon has a max range of 33 km. (The Utah beach landing site is appox 14 Km from this battery) 
As this site is considered a museum, it does dost to enter however the set up and information provided are excellent and I wouldn’t hesitate to pay to visit again. 
Above: Braden emerging from a Type 134 Storage room used to store Artillery shells. There was a little track and carts to haul the large shells from storage to the gun casements. 
Crisbecq Battery Museum Practical Information:
Hours: Everyday 10-6 PM
Cost: Adults are 8 euros
*Spend anywhere from an hour to 2 hours exploring the battery. At the ticket counter you get a map with detailed explanations of all the different bunkers and guns still at the site. 
The back of the first casement. 
Descending into one of the shelter bunkers. 
A type 622 shelter meant to house two combat squads (2 dozen men) 
See Braden? haha You could walk around each bunker going under ground or in some cases… climbing some stairs to the lookout post. 

The whole museum has a walking path that you follow in a trench that connects each of the shelters. This one is a type 502 shelter that was equipped with a water tank and ammunition storage.

Inside the ammunition storage room of the type 502 shelter. 
A hole in the storage room shelter caused by a 105 mm shell on June 8 (likely coming from the Azeville battery close by)
Inside a type 622 shelter, mannequins were set up to display the German command Ohmsen interrogating an American officer. (There are multiple displays in the room discussing the interrogation but long story short: the American officer was carrying plans for the Crisbecq battery that were actually more accurate than their own plans.) The 2nd room in this battery also has a scene displaying daily life in a shelter with men using a stove, beds, tables, and electricity. 
Braden exiting a 134 storage room that was used for a kitchen and food storage as well as storage for various non-artillery equipment. 
Date etched into the floor of one of the Artillery pits. 
Braden at the ready with an anti-aircraft gun. 
Posing with a 130 mm canon that was originally taken from a French destroyer that was sunk in 1940 (and outfitted by the Germans for land coastal defense) 
The museum next door for another battery. We just walked over to snap a photo of the entrance. lol Still had too many more sites to visit. 
Up next we headed 14 km down to Utah Beach. The site has free parking and access. There is a museum here also that looks good (we didn’t have time and I was hoping to make it to another museum that I read “was the best of the bunch”) but if you have time, it does look good. Here is a description: “Built at the very place where the American troops landed on June 6, 1944 in Normandy in the department of La Manche, the Utah Beach Museum tells in ten sequences the events of the D-Day , from its preparation until its completion and its success. Thanks to this complete chronological journey, immerse yourself in the History of D-Day and come to discover a collection rich in objects, vehicles, materials and testimonies.” Notable things in the museum are an authentic B26 bomber plane and the “Beach of Victory” film. 
Utah Beach Museum Practical Information:
Hours:From 1 October to 31 May: 10 am – 6 pm

From 1 June to 30 September: 9.30 am – 7 pm

Cost: 8 euros for adults, 4 euros children age 7-15

*For a guided tour of the site, rates are 12 euros adults, and 8 euros kids

As we didn’t go in the museum, here’s some photos from the various memorials on the beach. Photo above is of the Higgins Boat Monument which you are free to climb around on and explore the actual boat. There is a small plague nearby in resemblance of Andrew Higgins whose key boat design “won the war.” (-President Eisenhower in interview)
Taking a photo with the Utah Beach sign. 
So the Utah beach was HUGE. It seemed to go for miles in both directions and it actually blew our expectations for a beach out of the water. As far as recreation goes, this would be a stellar “vacation” beach so it was amazing to see how respected the site is by visitors. It was very melancholy as there was definitely a somber atmosphere and yet families were still out flying kites. It was definitely a memorable beach for us. 
The US Navy Monument at Utah Beach: “Built by the Naval Order, the US Navy Monument is the only monument dedicated to the US Navy outside the United States. It is comprised of three powerful symbols: leadership, sailors, and combat units. The names of the American ships that took part in Operation Overlord are inscribed on the base and are organized by the type of vessel.”
Another view of the Navy monument under both countries’ flags. 
The 1st Special Engineer Special Brigade Monument: “This monument was erected with the contributions of the men from the Brigade themselves. The monument reflects Caffey’s insistence that the Brigade must leave a permanent reminder of their work before departing Utah Beach.
The monument was initially inaugurated on November 11, 1944.”
At the beach there are a couple cafe’s and accessible toilets. There is also the remains of a bunker. (although it wasn’t as good as the Cristecq Battery as you could barely go in it.)
The last monument we saw at Utah beach: The milestone 00 marker for the Route de liberty. (Similar to the one that is further along the route de liberty in St. Mere Eglise.)
Next stop on our way to Omaha Beach was Pointe Du Hoc which is the highest point in the Atlantic Sea Wall defense. It was pretty heavily fortified by the Germans with 6 155 mm Gun casements, a large observation bunker, and several open anti-aircraft gun pits. The most distinguishable thing about visiting Pointe du Hoc is not the battery, but the landscape. Behind Braden is one of MANY large craters created by Allied bombing of the area pre D-Day. (This pre-bombing was actually key in the success of taking over this site as the Germans had previously moved the big guns out of position and tried to hide them on the actual day making them un-usable in the defense of the site) 
A map of all the D-day beaches at Pointe Du Hoc. 
The Pointe has a free museum and is free to visit. It was transferred to American control in 1979 so it is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. 
Looking out at all of the artillery craters. 
The other most notable landscape information: The battlement sits atop 100 foot cliffs which were scaled by the courageous US Army Ranger Assault Group in a ground attack. (about 250 men with 8 landing crafts) They ascended using grappling hooks, rope, and ladders (that weren’t quite tall enough) all while under enemy fire. There were 2 US Navy ships off the coast offering counter fire to aid. 
I apologize for the somewhat less exciting photo, but it is actually a photo of the USS TEXAS battleship which was there to offer fire power at the surrounding German battery defenses, as well as medical support for wounded rangers. This was especially cool to us because just last year both Braden and I had WALKED on the USS TEXAS battleship which is in Houston. It was pretty amazing to know we had stood in both places that were so important in the Normandy invasion. 
Looking down the coast of Pointe du Hoc. 
One of the 6 large gun casements at the site. 
Braden in front of the Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc
This monument is situated on top of the large observation bunker. It was cool that you could go insides this bunker and look around but it was PACKED with people so for the claustrophobic.. you may not want to venture down there on a busy day as we had to wait in queues to move about anywhere. 
Braden inside the observation bunker 
Going down the steps into the observation bunker main room
Looking about at some other old battery ruins at Pointe Du Hoc 
After that were made the error of stopping for lunch/dinner at 5:15 (but we were starving) so we had a nice lunch a creperie with cider to drink. Normandy is FAMOUS for its cider which is served in earthenware cups. (apparently because it is a peasants drink… but hey I still felt fancy lol) The cider was excellent so I definitely recommend stopping for lunch at a ciderie? (is that a word? lol) 
But it was an error as we were only 5 minutes away from the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach which closes at 6. We got there… at 5:50 but they stop letting people in at 5:45.. So that was a bit of bummer as you can’t see any of it from outside the grounds. So pro tip: If you’re cutting it close to 6, go to the cemetery FIRST, then eat. 
So we parked and just headed down to Omaha Beach instead. Parking in the area again was free and access was free. Above: The 1st Infantry Division monument at Omaha Beach
The 5th Engineer Special Brigade Monument at Omaha Beach
Looking down the West side of Omaha beach (with Pointe Du Hoc the point in the distance)
Above: Piece of the floating ROADWAY system used in the artificial Mulberry Harbor
Last stop of the day: Gold Beach or more specifically the Arromanche-les-bains which is about the halfway point of what is considered Gold Beach. This area is most famous for the artificial harbor that was constructed just off the beach, ruins of which are still clearly visible. 
“The artificial, temporary harbour was key to allow the unloading of heavy equipment without waiting for the conquest of deep water ports such as Le Havre or Cherbourg. The port was commissioned on 14 June 1944.

In order to achieve this incredible feat, the British built huge floating concrete caissons which, after being towed from England, then had to be assembled to form walls and piers forming and defining the artificial port called the Mulberry harbour. These comprised pontoons were linked to the land by floating roadways. During 100 days of operation of the port, 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of material were landed. Average that and it is about 9,000 Tons of material being disembarked per day. The best performance of the port was in the last week of July 1944: during those seven days the traffic through Arromanches exceeded 136,000 tons or 20,000 tons per day in that last week.”

Kids playing the surf next to the old concrete pontoons that were abandoned. I was a little disappointed to get there so late as during low tide, you can walk right out to these concrete pieces without even getting your feet wet. 
Out on the beach looking East. In the right side of the photo, those objects left on the horizon are some of the pontoons. 
Looking East with the pontoons that are sitting on the surf, but also several out on the horizon.  
Cool pieces of history left for us to appreciate!
Arromanches-les-bains Practical Information:
Cost:Beach access and public toilets are free. HOWEVER the car park is like Etretat and does cost a few coints. If you get there after 7 PM, parking is free! (We got there just before 7 so snagged a spot and then didn’t have to pay as we left!) 
*Note apparently people don’t need to use the toilet after 7 PM as they CLOSE them. lol We went to 2-3 different public WC’s in the town all of which were closed and couldn’t find another bathroom altenative within the town (without paying to eat at a restaurant) lol luckily there was a Mcdonald’s 15 minutes away! McD’s to the rescue! 
*There is also a small museum at this beach with the usual information of events of D-Day and also more details on the Artificial Harbor construction. It closes at 7 so we were unable to go.

Other notable stops that WERE on my list had we more hours in the day:
  • Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial – I recommend visiting this tranquil 172.5 acre memorial place. It overlooks Omaha Beach with graves of 9,387 American soldiers. As one of the 14 permanent American World War II military cemeteries on foreign soil, the government of France have granted this land as a perpetual and permanent burial ground (without charge nor taxation) to honor the American soldiers who died during the war.
  • Batterie de Longues at Longues-sur-Mer – situated between the landing beaches of Omaha and Gold. It housed 4 152-mm navy guns with a 20km range; today, it is the only battery in Normandy that has most of its original heavy guns still in place.
  • Musée des épaves sous-marines – (Underwater Wrecks Museum) showcases recovered wrecks and artifacts after 25 years of underwater exploration in the D-Day beaches
  • Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie – (Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum) shows a chronoligical presentation of the events during D-Day complete with exhibitions of equipment, weapons, arms, large artillery, and more. It is said to be one of the best D-Day museums.
  • And then of course making it down to pay our respects at Sword and Juno Beach. 

Day 5 Costs:
Airbnb B&B : $85
Rental car: $32
Parking in Sainte-Mère-Église: 2 euros (not timed)
Breakfast at cafe: 14 euros
Mussee de Crisbecq battery: 8 euros pp
Utah Beach: Free parking and access
Point du Hoc: Free parking and access
Lunch/dinner at a creperie: 20 euros
Gold Beach: Free parking after 7 PM
Gas first time fill up: 36 euros
3 bottles of cider and a souvenir ceramic cup: 15 euros
Day 5 total: $220 for 2 people

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