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10 Top Normandy D-Day Beaches and Memorials

The allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 is not only one of the great epics of military - and human - history. D-Day was also the turning point that brought Europe out of the iron grip of the Nazis and all the bigotry, genocide, oppression, and inhumanity they stood for. Establishing a western land front was crucial to the allies, and in a few short hours, and in the face of overwhelming odds, it was accomplished by the massive and heroic efforts of Canadian, American, and British forces joined by smaller contingents of Polish, Danish, and Free French troops. The fact that the months of strategic and material planning and preparation for the code-named "Operation Overlord" was all carried out in secret, all the while feinting at an invasion elsewhere to divert German troops, is in itself nothing short of a miracle.

Omaha Beach
Omaha Beach
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The landing sites lie between Pegasus Bridge in the east and Sainte-Mère-Église in the west and are described below in that order, east to west. Today, this stretch of Normandy's English Channel coast has returned to sandy beaches filled with laughing children and sun-seekers, but everywhere you go are reminders of those terrible days and the horrific toll of lives they took. Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" is still evident in tank traps and massive bunkers, some askew where they slowly settled into the dunes in more peaceful decades since, others made into some of the many museums that tell the D-Day story.

At each of the landing sites and all along the shore are monuments and memorials to those who fought and died, and each museum illuminates a different piece of the story. These are more than tourist attractions. They are moving scenes that lead visitors to deeper thoughts on mankind, its past and its future. They deserve the attention of every generation, and the museums reflect this. Several have exhibits well-designed for young people, realistically replicating scenes and showing in videos or activated models how equipment worked. There are things to do as well as things to see: visitors can climb aboard historic landing craft, sit in a tank, step inside a replica glider, explore dark cavernous bunkers, and look for tank traps in the dunes. Or they can stand in silence at the Normandy D-Day beaches and memorials as they try to picture these scenes from history.

1 Caen Memorial Center

A good starting point for visiting the Normandy beaches is the excellent Caen Memorial Center, where you'll not only get an overview of the battle of Normandy, but a sense of the personal lives of the people who took part in it and were affected by it. The museum begins its exhibits with the 1920s and the beginning of World War II in the aftermath of the First World War, examining the origins of war and the rocky path to peace, and carries the story though the uneasy Cold War years, putting World War II into its historical context. War exhibits look at military personnel from both the allied and German armies, with intimate glimpses of their lives through letters and personal accounts. Special emphasis is on the Battle of Normandy. An excellent 19-minute film documents this battle with original historic footage.

Address: Le Mémorial de Caen, Esplanade Général Eisenhower, Caen

2 Pegasus Bridge

Replica of the original Pegasus Bridge
Replica of the original Pegasus Bridge
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At 10 minutes past midnight on June 6, the first parachutist landed just east of Ouistreham and at 12:20am, six gliders crash-landed beside the Caen Canal with 45 men. Subsequent landings dropped a total of 6,000 men of the British 6th Airborne Division with supplies and weapons. Their mission was to seize and hold the bridge over the canal to prevent German land reinforcements from reaching the assault target area, and at the same time keeping the bridge open and intact for allied forces to move eastward. The current bridge looks very much like the original, which you can see - and cross - at the Pegasus Bridge Museum, on the Bénouville side of the canal, where there is also a full-size replica of a Horsa Glider and a large section of one of the originals used in the landing. Café Gondrée, the first house in France to be liberated, on the Ouistreham side of the canal, is now a tearoom and shop.

A short drive east of Pegasus Bridge in Merville-Franceville and guarding the coast at the eastern flank of the D-Day invasion, the Merville Battery consisted of multiple bunkers that had withstood repeated allied air attacks. The position was finally taken by British paratroopers, but the structures remained intact. You can tour the bunkers and become immersed in the attack in a sound-and-light show that includes realistic details such as smoke.

Address: Avenue du Major Howard, Ranville

Official site: www.memorial-pegasus.org

3 Sword Beach and the Atlantic Wall Museum

Sword Beach and the Atlantic Wall Museum
Sword Beach and the Atlantic Wall Museum | Photo Copyright: Stillman Rogers Photography
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The easternmost D-Day landing beach is at Riva-Bella, part of Ouistreham and a short walk from the terminal where today ferries arrive from Portsmouth, England. Ouistreham has a small fishing harbor but is also home to the entrance of the Caen Canal, the outlet of the River Orne and the Port of Caen. The Atlantic Wall was especially strong here, with armed bunkers every 100 yards and beaches strewn with mines and tank traps. The British and a contingent of Free French landed at 7:30am on June 6, and by 9:30, the Casino, seat of the German command force, had been cleared by Free French commandos. Still in operation was the German fire control post, a 52-foot-high concrete bunker that was not taken until June 9. This bunker is now one of the most authentic museums of the entire coast, recreating in exact detail the appearance and work of each room in its six floors, including the observation post with its powerful range-finder and a 360-degree view over Sword Beach. Using actual equipment and furnishings, the bunker details the daily life of the soldiers stationed here, as they directed the fire from batteries covering the entrance of the Orne and the canal. Additional exhibits detail the building, extent, and camouflage of the Atlantic Wall.

On the beach, which is today a lively recreational beach with pony rides, go-carts, and rows of bright umbrellas, are monuments recalling D-Day, and near the rebuilt Casino, the No 4 Commando Museum tells the story of the only French forces that took part in the ground operations in D-Day landings.

Address: Avenue du 6 Juin, Ouistreham

4 Juno Beach

The coast of Courseulles-sur-Mer and its adjacent towns was unsuited to a solid frontal landing, so Canadian marine commandos landed first to attack and disable German positions. More Canadian forces landed with equipment and advanced inland to take an important German airfield. Sherman tanks came ashore at Courseulles-sur-Mer and by 5pm, the town was liberated. Of particular interest to Canadian visitors, the Centre Juno Beach is a family-friendly series of exhibits, hands-on presentations, and films looking at the Canadian preparations and contributions to the allied effort through personal stories and interactive experiences. This center offers a unique Canadian perspective and includes an exhibit on Canada today.

From April through October, guides lead tours of remains of the Atlantic Wall, exploring its bunkers and the tunnels leading to the underground command post. You can see damaged bunkers on the beach independently. At the western end of beach, look for the double-armed Cross of Lorraine, marking the site where Charles de Gaulle made a brief return to France on June 14, 1944, after his self-imposed exile in England upon the fall of France in 1940. At the other end of town, a Sherman Bold tank recovered in 1970 from more than a mile out at sea stands as a monument to the Canadian Hussars.

Address: Voie des Francais Libres, Courseulles-sur-Mer

Official site: www.junobeach.org

5 Arromanches

Arromanches
Arromanches
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The lack of large harbors along this stretch of the Normandy coast was both a plus and a minus to the allied forces. While it allowed them the element of surprise because the Germans thought they wouldn't try a massive landing here, it also created the problem of how to get men and heavy equipment ashore on soft sand beaches and marshes that were both open and heavily defended. The allied answer was to construct a massive artificial port. Huge concrete caissons were towed across the channel and sunk offshore to create a breakwater and a harbor inside its protection, where long floating roads were assembled to offload tanks and equipment. Remains of this Mulberry Harbor can be seen today at Arromanches, where British forces landed under brutal fire. Despite heavy casualties, by 4pm on June 6, British tanks began rolling ashore here. Although one of the two Mulberry Harbors was destroyed in a storm, by the time it was replaced by the liberation of the Port of Cherbourg, more than 500,000 tons of equipment and supplies had entered this artificial port.

The D-Day Museum not only pays homage to the British forces and the other allies in the Battle of Normandy, but it illustrates the operation of the Mulberry Harbor through working scale models, complete with animated details such as rising and falling tides. Just west of Arromanches, at Longues-sur-Mer, you can visit sections of the Atlantic Wall, including a battery with a German range-finding post and four casemates, each of which housed a 150-mm artillery piece.

Address: Place du 6 Juin, Arromanches

6 Omaha Beach: American Cemetery and Overlord Museum

American Cemetery, Omaha Beach
American Cemetery, Omaha Beach | Photo Copyright: Stillman Rogers Photography
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The landing at Omaha Beach went badly from the start and by the end of June 6, the Americans had lost 3,000 men, with as many more wounded or missing. But they had secured a narrow corridor to get supplies and equipment ashore. It is fitting that this scene of so many casualties should be the location of the American Cemetery, where 9,386 graves are marked with perfectly aligned white marble headstones. You can also visit the Memorial, the Garden of the Missing, and a viewing platform that overlooks Omaha Beach.

In the Overlord Museum, 10,000 artifacts including vehicles, tanks, and cannons are used to create realistic life-sized replicas of scenes from the D-Day landings and the subsequent operations culminating in the liberation of Paris. Giving it a human dimension are accounts, stories, impressions, and objects from those events. Sound and light effects add to the authentic equipment and artifacts, making the reconstructed scenes even more realistic. The museum is well-suited for younger visitors, with exhibits and programs that make history understandable.

Address: Rond-point d'accès du Cimetière Américain, Lotissement Omaha Center, Colleville-sur-Mer

Official site: www.overlordmuseum.com

7 Pointe du Hoc

Although the magnitude of the invasion, the difficulty of the highly defended terrain, and its tremendous cost in human lives will strike you again and again as you tour these beaches, one of the most gripping relics of D-Day is atop the soaring cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. The entire clifftop is pocked with bomb craters, and huge batteries lie askew where they were exploded off their foundations. Stand at the top of the rough 100-foot cliffs and imagine the US Rangers who scaled them after landing on the narrow beach below at 6:40am on June 6. The scene has been left as it was and is an official war grave for the men who still lie beneath the ruins. This point was important because it was the highest land between Omaha and Utah beaches and could thus fire upon both of them. In fact, its long-range guns had been moved elsewhere, but the allies had no way of knowing this.

8 Utah Beach and the Museum of the Landings

Utah Beach and the Museum of the Landings
Utah Beach and the Museum of the Landings | Photo Copyright: Stillman Rogers Photography
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All things are relative, and measured by the tremendous casualties elsewhere, Utah Beach was almost easy. By the time the 4th Infantry hit the beach at 6:30am, the tide was low, and bombers and artillery from ships offshore had already battered the German coastal defenses and disabled much of their firepower. This reduction in enemy fire secured their landing during low tide, creating conditions that made it possible to safely land all but two tanks by revealing the placements of "Czech Hedgehogs," "Rommel's Asparagus," and other landing obstacles, some of which you can still see in the dunes. By 1pm, the American 4th Infantry had joined up with the airborne units inland to secure the area.

A former bunker of the Atlantic Wall has been incorporated into the Museum of the Landings, where you can see one of only six remaining original B26 Marauder bombers and an LVT-2 Water Buffalo, the landing craft used to offload supplies from the cargo ships off the coast. The exhibits are especially well designed to illustrate not just the operations at Utah Beach, but the entire Operation Overlord, and some pieces of equipment are accompanied by videos demonstrating how they worked. Among the several monuments here is Milestone 00, marking the beginning of Liberty Road, and commemorating the route of Allied forces from the Normandy beaches to Bastogne, Belgium.

The nearby Crisbecq Battery Museum is a semi-open-air museum set in 21 German bunkers that were part of the Atlantic Wall guarding Utah Beach. They were (and are) linked by a network of trenches, and some of the bunkers contain dioramas showing life in the battery.

Address: Plage de la Madeleine, Sainte Marie du Mont

Official site: http://www.utah-beach.com

9 Sainte-Mère-Église and Airborne Museum

Sainte-Mère-Église
Sainte-Mère-Église
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Inland from Utah Beach, and crucial to the success of the entire operation, paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division began the invasion well before dawn in and around the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. Like their British counterparts at the eastern edge of the invasion target, their job was to establish a western line to protect the liberated territory from being retaken by German ground forces.

The dramatic story of their dangerous mission is well told in the Airborne Museum, which re-creates some of the experiences both of the landing assault and the townspeople, as Sainte-Mère-Église became the first town in Normandy to be liberated. It was 4:30am when the American flag was raised over Sainte-Mère-Église, 15 minutes before the capture of the Merville Battery securing both ends of the landing zone.

The town's church still re-creates the scene villagers awoke to, with paratrooper John Steele suspended from his parachute on the church roof. Steele's medals, memorabilia from several generals and others who took part in the operation, and a C-47 Dakota used in the drops add to the collection of original artifacts used to immerse visitors in the reality of this historic assault that set Operation Overlord in motion.

Address: 14 rue Eisenhower, Sainte-Mère-Église

Official site: www.airborne-museum.org

10 Falaise and the Memorial to Civilians in Wartime

Falaise and the Memorial to Civilians in Wartime
Falaise and the Memorial to Civilians in Wartime | Photo Copyright: Stillman Rogers Photography
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South of Caen and some distance from the landing beaches, Falaise had the misfortune of finding itself in the middle of a key Allied maneuver to trap retreating German troops in the weeks following D-Day. And it is the site of the newest museum of World War II, opened in 2016 to explore the experience of civilians during the German occupation, under the Vichy government, during the allied attacks, and after liberation. The modern museum uses video interviews with people who lived through these events, along with photographs and often touching artifacts showing such things as propaganda for school children and chronicling the fates of resistance fighters and Jewish families. All audio and signage is also in English. A sound theater recreates scenes from the bombing of Falaise, its glass floor hovering over wartime ruins uncovered during the renovation of the building.

The museum also details the significance of the "Falaise Pocket," where the last remaining German forces stood between the allied troops and Paris. Despite his armies being almost surrounded near Falaise and badly depleted, Hitler would not allow his commanders to withdraw through the slim corridor they still controlled. Instead, he ordered them to attempt a counter-offensive. It failed, and their escape route was closed. Two days later, allied troops liberated Paris. The Battle of the Falaise Pocket was the final and decisive conclusion of the Battle of Normandy.

Address: 12 Place Guillaume le Conquérant, Falaise

Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Normandy D-Day Beaches and Memorials

  • Tours of the D-Day Landing Beaches: On the 12-hour Normandy Landing Beaches Guided Tour from Paris, you will travel from Paris on an air-conditioned bus or mini-van with a well-informed guide, who will provide the historical background as you visit Omaha Beach, Colleville American Cemetery, Arromanches, and Pointe du Hoc.
  • Planning Your Trip: The main sites are between Pegasus Bridge, in Bénouville to the east, and Sainte-Mère-Église on the western end, and it makes sense to visit them in geographical order. The coastal road connects a whole series of beach towns, or if you are just visiting the main sights, you can reach them from a base in either Caen or Bayeux.
  • Timing Your Visit: How long you should stay depends on how much time you plan to spend in various museums. While some of the material in the museums repeats, each one focuses on a particular landing site, event, invasion force, or part of the strategy. Be aware that some of the smaller museums close in the winter, usually from November through April. Most of these sights are today lively beach towns, with plenty of other things to do, especially in the summer.

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