Kittie Howard

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Beaches of Normandy and the Invasion of Normandy: June 6, 1944

After we picked up our rental car in Caen, France, we explored Normandy for two weeks, driving about a thousand miles as we criss-crossed the province. We stayed in large towns like Bayeux and small seaside towns like Luc sur Mer, dipped down to Brittany to see Mont St. Michele, wound our way back through the countryside to Honfleur, not far from La Harve, then returned to Caen to turn in our rental car.

Without a doubt, Normandy has some of the most gorgeous scenery possible. The rolling terrain with broad vistas, apple orchards, dairy cows in quiet pastures, and golden hay fields are post cards forever in my mind's eye. Stone walls outlining roads leading into villages with stone buildings and narrow streets enchanted.

The food was amazing. We feasted on steamed mussels (moules) in a variety of sauces, had picnics with baguettes filled with fresh crab or one of the area's incredible cheeses, shopped for seasonal fruit (melons, especially) in markets, and sipped 17-year old cider in the evening that was a cross between a port and a champagne. For breakfast, we'd go to the local patisserie: chocolate croissants for hub and anything with apples for me -- and didn't gain an ounce as we walked, climbed and hiked until the muscles no longer ached and our tempo increased.

One kilo (2.2 pounds) of mussels per order, with a side bowl of frites. The mussels are tiny, very sweet, and plucked with the fingers. Ohhhh, yum!

The people of Normandy were even more amazing: friendly, kind-hearted, and compassionate -- really solid, down to earth people. And, yes, many spoke English, especially the younger ones (who study it in school and want to practice).

But our ultimate destination was Utah Beach, where my husband's uncle was during World War II. Code-named Operation Overlord, the Invasion of Normandy was the largest armada ever assembled: 1,213 warships; 4,126 transport vessels; 736 ancillary craft; 864 merchant vessels; 195,700 personnel. Purpose: to liberate German-occupied France and kick Hitler's butt to hell.

Major military units that participated in the Invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944:

British 6th Armoured Division; British 6th Airborne Division;
British I Corps; British 3rd Infantry Division;
British 27th Armoured Brigade

Canadian 3rd Infantry Division;
Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade
(Note: Because the Canada Act wasn't passed until 1982, there were Canadian units co-mingled with some British forces as Canada had a different standing within the Commonwealth at that time.)

U.S. V Corps; U.S. 1st Infantry Division;
U.S. 29th Infantry Division; U.S. VII Corps;
U.S. 4th Infantry Division; U.S. 101st Airborne Division;
U.S. 82nd Airborne Division

Casualties, June 6, 1944:

Germany: 240,000 killed or missing
Britain: 11,000 killed; 54,000 wounded/missing
Canada: 5,000 killed; 13,000 wounded/missing
United States: 29,000 killed; 106,000 wounded/missing
France: 12,000 civilians killed or missing
(Note: It's commonly agreed exact statistics aren't possible. This is an agreed upon estimate by the various countries. Also, after the initial invasion, soldiers and/or airmen from other countries participated in the liberation of Normandy. These include: Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, and Denmark. There were many individual monuments (including one to 800 Danish troops) to heroic achievements throughout Normandy,  but there was no overall casualty list that I saw.)

Planning for D-Day had begun in 1943. The English Channel's erratic weather caused much concern, as did the asymmetrical tides. The English Channel is the only place in the world where there are four tides, one every six hours. But when it's low tide on the French coast, it's high tide on the English coast.  Also, there were only 10 days a month when the tides were suitable for an amphibious landing. Originally planned for June 5, 1944, General Dwight David Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, changed the landing to the following day because of projected weather conditions. On June 9th, the worst storm in 40 years hit the English Channel.

Sword Beach. D-Day is much too complicated for my simple blog, so I'll share a few things I learned from each beach. The tide affected all of the five beaches: Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah. The tide above, at Sword Beach, will pull back to the yellow ball to the upper left of the black rock (center).

Same spot six hours later. The four yellow balls are under water. The fewest casualties, 127, occurred at Sword Beach. But the British had to slug their way toward the more fortified interior to take their objective, Caen, where William the Conqueror's massive fort controlled the high ground and town. There is a very large British cemetery in Caen.

Beyond the yellow ball were these metal monstrosities to snare boats. They were also hidden among the natural hedgerows that had to be navigated once one crossed the beach. The hedgerows will be highlighted more in an upcoming post.

Juno Beach. The Canadian objective was to provide a flank to the British at Sword Beach then capture a German airfield at Caen. Bunkers lined the terrain above all the beaches, part of Hitler's Atlantic Wall. This particular bunker at Juno Beach deceives because it's slanted. Since Juno Beach was the flattest beach, the angled bunker provided a wider killing range. Weapons could also rotate, thus enlarging the field. Juno Beach was also the second most heavily fortified beach.

Because of this canal that split part of the beach, my husband, the military man, spent considerable time at Juno Beach. (While in the military, he'd received a Navy League award for conducting 26 amphibious training exercise landings without incident so had a keen eye for beaches.) What this canal did was establish a brutal killing field. Hub was very reflective when we left as he'd been in combat and  understood why that cross stood exactly where it stood. There is a large Canadian cemetery south of Caen where those who died in the Invasion are buried.

Gold Beach. Arromaches is the town fronting a wide sweep of beach with this protruding rocking anchoring the far end. After the British established a beachhead, they headed towards Route 13 to reach Bayeux and cut off the road to Caen. Very crucially, the British installed a bridge that had taken a year to design and build in England. Called the Mulberry Bridge, a remaining part can be seen to the lower left. 
A better view thanks to Wikipedia. Parts of the bridge, called Mulberries, are in the water. The Allies had to get supplies ashore as quickly as possible in order to continue the attack. Historians say that these Mulberry bridges (more like heavy pontoons) and the cutting of German communication lines by the Free French Resistance prior to the Invasion were essential to Operation Overlord. Hub thinks the French Resistance hasn't been given enough credit for its participation in the War.

A slight diversion: When we left Normandy, we took the train to Paris from Caen and stayed at The Westin on the Right Bank. When we stepped outside in the morning, we were surprised to see this movie scene being filmed. That's an American tank from one of the museums. We were told the film involves free French Resistance fighters and American soldiers, all actors, of course. To the right are prisoners (actors) from France's Vichy government forces. Basically, the Vichy government didn't just capitulate to avoid being overrun by Hitler, it conspired with Hitler. The collaboration remains a shameful period in French history the people are still coming to grips with. The storefront behind the tank had a period 'drop' with some nasty anti-Jewish slogans.
A member of the film crew swung a 'smoke' canister after the tank sputtered to life. It was kinda bone-chilling to see the tank roll forward. We were told the name of the film is "Diplomat" and that Scarlett Johanssen is in it.
Omaha Beach. The objective of U.S. forces was to secure a beachhead and link up with British forces to the east at Gold Beach and U.S. forces to the west at Utah Beach. However, contrary to what planners had though, Omaha Beach, a 5-mile stretch, was the most heavily fortified. Difficulties with the tides caused many landing craft (Higgins boats) to miss their target and/or to offload troops too far out. Many drowned. Defended by the German 352nd Division, of the 12,000 soldiers, about 4,000 were teenagers, many conscripted from German-occupied countries such as the Baltics. (Conscripts were also at the other beaches. Of Hitler's generals, only Rommel believed the Allies could land at Normandy. His other generals, too steeped in World War I tactics, believed as Hitler did, that the landing would be at Calais. Hitler slept until 12:30 pm on D-Day. His advisors were afraid to awaken him with the news the Allies had invaded shortly after midnight. Although Rommel commanded the whole area, he couldn't move the Panzer divisions without Hitler's approval.)
One of the German bunkers above Omaha Beach. Although I took the same photo, this is from Wikipedia. My little camera couldn't handle the ever-changing skies as the clouds rolled in and out, depending upon the evolution of the tides. During our two weeks, we experienced only one really bright, sunny day.
View from inside one of the other bunkers.  By the end of June 6th, U.S. forces had secured two small areas, primarily by scaling the bluffs at Omaha Beach. They'd shoot hooks into the bluffs (Point du Hoc) and climb ladders. As Germans shot lead climbers, others moved up until those small areas had been secured. Because the interior wasn't as heavily fortified, once these footholds had been gained, forces could exploit the weakness in the German defense and secure more ground.
Reflecting pool at the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.
Over 9,000 markers, including 169 Stars of David. Seemingly endless and very, very reflective -- as are all of the Allied cemeteries -- and also very sad -- so young -- so brave -- but Hitler's boil had to be lanced -- and no one country could stop him -- I'm truly grateful to those who gave so much -- 

Utah Beach. Despite being somewhat off course, this landing went well and suffered the second fewest casualties (200). By the end of the day, over 25,000 soldiers and equipment were ashore. On July 16th, my husband's uncle Frank, who had been in training in England, landed here with other reinforcements, with his unit going with Patton's Third Army and the eventual Battle of the Bulge, which he survived. (However, Normandy wasn't considered secured until August 24th, so tough fighting remained.) During an earlier training exercise off the coast of England prior to D-Day, a German U-boat had torpedoed one of the landing craft, and 638 Americans had died. Still, Hitler didn't believe a landing was possible at Normandy.
A thatched cottage in Normandy. Home is where the heart is, wherever we live. But, by June 6,1944, Hitler's concentration camps had consumed close to 12 million people: six million Jews and almost six million Gypsies, Catholics, those with various handicaps and others not deemed worthy of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Master Race and Thousand Year Reich that Hitler envisioned. Hitler was neither blond-haired nor blue-eyed. Many historians think he was part Jewish. Still, his rhetoric prevailed.

To be continued . . . the aerial bombardment, parachutists and gliders . . .