Remembering D-Day in Normandy
Arromanches looks like the perfect French coastal tourist town. From the cliffs above it, you can look down and see the houses with their angled roofs nestled in a slight valley. Walk down the hill to the promenade along the beach and you can look over the beach to the water that stretches out to the horizon. A small stall on the street is selling ice creams and the restaurants around the main square are busy serving afternoon coffees.
Arromanches is peaceful now but just seven decades ago it was at the centre of one of the most important military events of modern history. On D-Day in 1944, code-named GOLD, this was one of the places the Allies landed to begin the Battle of Normandy that would be the beginning of the end of the Second World War.
In some ways, I find it hard to imagine the fighting that ravaged this coastline - everything is so pleasant now. But, on the other hand, this part of history has not been swept away. It is memorialised all across the region and it’s easy to find the testaments of D-Day and the subsequent 100 days of the Battle of Normandy.
Arromanches, for instance, has an excellent 360 degree cinema experience on the cliffs that uses archival footage in a stirring 20 minute film that really gives you a sense of D-Day and the period through to the liberation of Paris. There is also the Museum of the Landings, which was the first museum to be opened (in 1954) after the conflict ended.
The most authentic connection with history in Arromanches, though, are the remnants of the Mulberry harbour – the temporary harbour in the water just off the beach. In the 100 days that it was in use, 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of material were brought through here. The metal and concrete blocks still visible, are a visual reminder of this.
There were so many nations caught up in the complex politics of D-Day – and each of them is remembered in some way at the 42 official sites across Normandy. The Pegasus Memorial is the only one dedicated just to the British. It tells the story of the British 6th Airborne Division, which landed from the air in the early morning of June 6, 1944, to secure a key bridge before the German forces could destroy it.
Outside, in the garden of the museum, is the original bridge that was captured (formerly called the Bénouville Bridge but renamed Pegasus Bridge after the logo of the British troops). There is also a model of the glider that some of the men arrived on, and other large items like a tank.
However, it’s the inside of the museum I enjoy the most because of the excellent work that has gone into collecting the personal stories of the people involved. Small details about their lives and the assortments of items they had with them during the war bring a private and individual perspective to a global conflict.
Many of the D-Day sites here in Normandy show the war through the eyes of the Allies. Most memorials are for Allied troops, for instance – although over time the stories of the Germans have been included in museums and exhibitions.
The gun batteries at Longues-ser-Mer are an important part of the German side of the D-Day. It was from this point that the Nazis used four huge guns to defend the coast from the incoming boats. Although the Allies tried to bomb the gun battery in the night before the D-Day landings, the weapons survived and the Germans were able to fire 170 shots at the approaching ships.
The site is still in relatively good condition, considering the amount of artillery that was shot at it. You can see the concrete structures housing the guns and even climb up on the weapons yourself.
My final stop on a day of exploring some of the sites here in Normandy was the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. It is one of the most visually spectacular of the sites, with rows of white leading towards a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach. Of course, the beauty of the cemetery is deceiving because the rows of white are actually made of thousands of graves of men and women who lost their lives during the Battle of Normandy.
When I see the small white crosses – almost 10,000 of them – stretching out so far, it reminds me of the awful losses that were suffered here by every country that was involved. D-Day may have been the beginning of the end of the Second World War and was a critical step in bringing peace to Europe. However, nobody truly ‘wins’ in war. The cemetery here at Colleville-sur-Mer is a good reminder of that.
More generally, a bit of time in Normandy seeing the battlefields and the monuments that have been erected since that June day in 1944 makes sure we never forget what happened here and hopefully means it will never happen again.