Several months have passed since my visit to Normandy, and yet I still had not managed to write the article about the landing places, the main reason that inspired me to visit this beautiful piece of French territory. There would be a thousand other reasons, such as visiting Mount Saint Michel or the Étretat cliffs, however the signs of what was a fundamental moment of the Second World War were the main purpose of this trip.
This part of history has been so hard and bloody, that it’s quite difficult to write a post that could actually matter, that could have a meaning.
I spent a whole day following in the footsteps of the D-day Normandy landing and it’s an experience that, as someone rightly claims, is almost a moral duty.
Grandmother’s memories of the Second World War
I am not a great historian, I do not like to delve too much into the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, I prefer the history of the last century. Maybe it’s because it’s the closest to the present day, or maybe it’s because my grandmother, since I was a child, told me about “pippo”, the plane that every night flew over my city (Brescia) and generated an aura of terror.
Can you guess how many times she told me about this “pippo”?! A lot, and every time her version changed. The bottom line is still the same, though: a challenging historical period.
Like me, I imagine that many of you had grandmothers, grandparents or maybe even dads or mothers who lived those difficult years. The landing on the Normandy beaches determined the beginning of the end of German hegemony in Europe which, gradually, crumbled before the advancing Allies.
With this article I would like to give you an overview of the D-day places to visit. You could include them in a sort of itinerary from east to west to be completed in 1 or 2 days if you want to reach Cherbourg.
The D-day landing sites in Normandy: must-see places
On June 6, 1944 the beaches of the northern coast of Lower Normandy were invaded by thousands of Allied soldiers. A massive operation, studied painstakingly, aimed at liberating Europe from the Nazi occupation.
The battle initially took place on the beaches and then continued over the following days and months in the French inland area.
The places related to the landing, however, are not only the beaches. There are many museums that show the stages of the d-day.
Here is a hypothetical itinerary from east to west (at the end of the article you will find the map with all the different stops).
Pegasus Bridge right before Caen
This bridge is mentioned only a few times regarding the D-day Normandy landing, yet it was one of the main post-disembarkation objectives. It was located in Bénouville on the river Orne. Replaced by a new bridge, the original Pégasus bridge is located inside the Mémorial Pégasus. It takes its name from the Pegasus symbol imprinted on the sleeve of the uniform of British soldiers of the British 6th Airborne Division who freed it on June 6, 1944. This bridge, along with that of Rainville, was strategically important as it would allow reinforcements to come by sea.
If you want to know more about it, I recommend a visit to the Memorial which is just a few dozen metres from the bridge.
Visit Caen Memorial
There are a lot of museums that are only related to the D-day Normandy landing. Among the many, I chose the Caén Memorial. It is only a few kilometres from the Pégasus bridge and is located in a very large building. It does not only retrace the phases of the landing but it reconstructs the whole political situation from 1918 until the present day with an important focus also on the Cold War.
Inside the Caén Memorial it is possible to follow a chronological path that gives an idea of how the situation evolved through a constant increase in political tension, which then led in an almost physiological way to the world war.
I find the memorial to be very important for understanding the phases of the D-day Normandy landing. In fact, apart from giving a broad overview of almost the entire 20th century, it focuses on the Second World War. It presents a section entirely dedicated to the phases of the landing.
Visiting the memorial
The tour ends with a couple of very touching and immersive clips. They’re displayed in a small cinema.
The memorial is so well designed that the time inside of it runs particularly fast. So consider spending at least 3 hours to visit it.
The entry cost for an adult is 19,80 euro (2020). I advise you to check it on site because in my case I took advantage of a deal that cost about 22 euro and which allowed me to visit the 360 degrees museum of Arromanches (not present on the website).
The opening hours vary, they can be from 9.00 to 19.00 or from 9.30 to 18.00, I suggest you to check them directly here: Caen Memorial official website
As far as logistical problems are concerned, the memorial has a huge free parking area. You won’t have any problem finding a parking space.
Normandy landing beaches
Let’s get to the key part, the beaches where the Allies landed on June 6.
There are 5 locations but there’s a point that we need to make. Most of the time the beaches are named with their code name used by the Allied forces during military operations. Those are not the real names. Just to give you an example, the famous Omaha beach is not located in “Omaha”. In fact, you can find it between Colleville-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer.
The code names of the landing points were (from east to west): Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and finally Utah, on the Normandy coast from Honfleur to the Cherbourg peninsula.
Here the beaches
- Sword-> near Courseulles-sur-Mer
- Juno-> Arromanches-les-Bains
- Gold-> Longues-sur-Mer
- Omaha-> Vierville-sur-Mer
- Utah-> on the coast near Sainte-Mère-Eglise
If you are short on time, the ideal is to choose the beaches you’d like to visit. I suggest you to focus on Arromanches and Omaha Beach.
If you have bought the ticket included with the Caen Memorial, you can visit the 360 degree museum. It is simply a 360 degree cinema in Arromanches. It is located on a hill and there are beautiful viewpoints in front of the museum.
In the sea in front of the beach, there are still the remains of the mobile bridges built by the Allies to facilitate military landing operations during the months after June 6, 1944.
A wonderful panorama that allows only two things: a photograph and a moment of reflection. Here, in 1944 (not so many years ago) people like us, with more ideals than us, landed, fought and died to free oppressed nations.
The second beach I would like to recommend is the most famous one, Omaha beach. It’s the most popular because it was also the bloodiest. Many allies died here and that’s why a monument to the American fallen soldiers was built near the beach.
Omaha beach is a simple beach per se, though walking on the sand knowing what happened in the past is thrilling.
D-day: visit the “Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial”
This is also a key place to better understand what the D-day Normandy landing was like.
A few hundred meters from the beach of Omaha, lies the cemetery dedicated to the fallen Americans. It’s an endless field of crosses or stars of David made of white marble from Lasa.
Each fallen, a cross with American name and state of origin. Truth is, however, not all of them have a name, some have not been identified.
The cemetery faces the side of the beach where many of these soldiers died. The sound of the waves breaks the silence of a touching and important place.
This cemetery is arranged and divided into 10 distinct sectors adorned with trees, bushes and roses. Each tombstone is manually cleaned by the workers.
The others things to see
- The visitor centre (note: you have to pass under the metal detector): it collects the details of the Normandy landing operations. Images, videos and artifacts of the time. As you leave the building you pass through a short tunnel where a recorded voice reads all the names of the fallen, one by one.
- The War Memorial: a semi-circular structure featuring the statue “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves”. On the walls, both to the right and left, you will find details of military operations. Maps on the marble illustrate both the movements of the various battalions and the change of military forces in the area.
The German cemetery in “La Cambe”
I will say that I did not visit it because I only discovered it afterwards, when I passed by it during my itinerary. The German cemetery is in “La Cambe” not far from the American cemetery. According to many people it is as interesting as the American cemetery. If you pass by it is a necessary stop, it is worth remembering that not only the Americans were the fallen ones…
Pointe du Hoc
Located on the west coast of Omaha Beach, this was one of the toughest places for Allied forces to conquer. Over 200 Canadian rangers climbed the 30 meters of the cliffs to reach and conquer the German barracks and neutralized the German cannons that targeted the beaches of Utah and Omaha. One third of them died in the effort.
The area still shows signs of Normandy landing. You can see the Pointe du Hoc Monument, a granite pillar above a bunker built on the cliff 30 meters above sea level.
Paratrooper statue in Sainte-Mère-Eglise
The D-day military operations in Normandy employed a large number of paratroopers (about 13,000). Their mission was to hit German artillery batteries behind the lines and block the roads between Caen and Cherbourg. This military strategy, for many reasons, was not the best. During the operation, a paratrooper got caught on the church spires. Now there is a statue in memory of that night.
Other places to discover the Normandy landing
On the night of June 6th the allied troops began their liberation from Nazi domination. The military operations first reached the coast of Normandy and then continued inland. There are many evidences related to that period that can be discovered in numerous museums.
As I had mentioned earlier, you have to visit Caen Memorial. The others are:
- The 360 degree circular cinema in Arromanches.
- Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy in Bayeux.
- Overlord Museum near Omaha Beach.
- The Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer.
- AirBorne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Eglise.
- The D-Day Experience just before reaching Sainte-Mère-Eglise.
- The Musèe du Dembarquement in Arromanches
Well, lots of museums. Some are interactive and engaging, others are more historical and structured.
Here’s the map of the whole itinerary for the discovery of the Normandy landing… what can we say: have a good trip, this time also inside history.