Our Guide to the D-Day Landing Beaches
The Landing Beaches can be reached comfortably in 70 minutes from La Merveille. If you plan to take in the Peace Memorial at Caen as well, you will probably need to plan for two days at least. From my own experience it is best not to try and see everything, but select the best sites and spend some quality time at each stopping place. So here are a few suggestions - working eastwards from Pointe du Hoc to Pegasus Bridge and then Caen itself. From La Merveille travel in the direction of Carentan (D999 and N174), and just before reaching that town follow the signs for Isigny-sur-Mer and then Grandcamp Maisy. From here, Pointe du Hoc and our other selected sites will be clearly signposted.
Stopping for Lunch - When the time comes, there are some reasonable cafés and restaurants about, particularly in the Arromanches area, but our tip is to try and reach Port-en-Bessin, a delightful little harbor with lock gates and a good selection of reasonably priced eating places.
Pointe du Hoc
Location: On D514 between the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach (Colleville-sur-Mer) to the east and Grandcamp-Maisy to the west.
General Info: A large car park and recently built information point with toilets is sign-posted from the main road. A level walk takes you to the well preserved site where you are totally free to wander.
Description: With a huge series of German gun emplacements and interconnecting bunkers situated on a prominent headland between Utah and Omaha beaches on the Normandy coast, Pointe du Hoc was considered by the allied invasion forces to be of crucial importance on D-Day. Today as you wander the picturesque headland with its beautiful far-reaching views, it is hard to imagine the scenes of over 60 years ago. It is still possible today to go inside the bunkers as well as viewing the former gun sites. The Pointe du Hoc gives the best idea of what battle on D-Day meant for the men on either side, because the scars of the battlefield have been allowed to remain as they were half a century ago, pitted by shell-holes, yawning craters, and upended bunkers.
Early on the morning of June 6th the Rangers landed to find that they faced high cliffs that had to be scaled using water soaked ropes. As they climbed these cliffs the enemy fire blanketed the area. This fire took its toll as over 90 of the Rangers were killed within the first 45 minutes of the assault. Through the first day of fighting the Rangers took this point, located the guns and destroyed them. They had orders to hold this point until the liberators from Omaha Beach relieved them. They were true to their orders and held the point through three days of fierce fighting. On the third day of battle, forces fighting inland from Omaha Beach relieved what remained of this fighting force. 225 men landed on this point on June 6th, but on June 8th, fewer than 90 were evacuated alive. Many of these 90 men were wounded. They held this point "at all costs". What a price they paid for this small piece of real estate.
Our Recommendations: A good place to begin the exploration of the landing sites. With bunkers, craters and shell holes, , the landscape bears all the frightening reminders and scars of war. Not difficult to understand the near impossibility of the task that the invaders faced and the almost inevitable slaughter that followed.
For the Children: There is lots of space to run around, although care needs to be taken with younger children as there are steep drops around as well as wartime debris. Also, one should remember that this is an historical site and needs treating with respect.
American Cemetery at Omaha Beach
Location: Near Colleville-sur-Mer on the D514 coast road, approx 19kms NW of Bayeux.
General Information: Open daily from 09.00-17.00 except Dec 25th and Jan 1st. There is no entrance charge. Info in many languages is available at the visitor centre.
Description: This is the largest Allied cemetery in Normandy with 9,387 graves on a 170acre site. It is surpassed in number size only by the German cemetery at La Cambe between Bayeux and Isigny with 21,300 graves, although this site is only 7 acres. The cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach where so many Americans lost their lives. It is beautifully maintained and a visit here is a very moving experience. A very impressive new Visitor Centre opened during 2007 with a fascinating museum packed full of facts and newsreel items.
You can spend many hours walking among the graves reading names and trying to come to grips with the sacrifice each had made. While walking along the rows there are many graves with no names. Here the inscription simply states "HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY A COMRADE IN ARMS KNOWN BUT TO GOD".
You may come across several headstones side by side with the same last name. You might be surprised to learn that 33 sets of brothers were buried or memorialized on the wall of the missing. Two of the brothers were Joseph and Manuel Arruda. They were in the first wave of Americans to land on Omaha Beach on June 6th. They were assigned to the same landing craft and they went ashore side by side. Both were killed when one brother stepped on a landmine. Both now lay side by side.
Another set is the Hobrack brothers. They also landed on Omaha Beach in the first wave on the morning of June 6th. Their company was wiped out in the first 10 minutes of the landing. Bradford was killed instantly as he left the landing craft, his body washed out to sea and was never recovered. All that was recovered was a Bible with his name inside. It had been carefully wrapped in a plastic bag. Raymond, his brother, was gravely wounded as he left the landing craft. He lay on the beach in the middle of the battle and died alone on June 6th. Bradford is memorialized on the wall of the missing among the names of 1,557 others whose remains were never found or identified. Raymond is laid to rest in the cemetery.
If you search carefully you may discover that two of the graves were those of the Niland brothers. The story of the Niland brothers was the basis for the movie "Saving Private Ryan". On June 6, 1944 Robert Niland had been air dropped behind enemy lines near the village of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. This was the first village in France to be liberated before dawn on June 6th. He was killed while fighting during the early morning hours on the first day of the liberation. The following day, June 7th, his brother Preston was killed in fighting at Utah Beach. During the same week a third brother, Edward, was shot down and presumed dead in the Pacific Theater. The Niland family was notified of all three losses on the same day. The fourth son, Francis (Fritz), participated in the June 6th landing at Omaha Beach and survived. By order from the Allied Command Headquarters, he was located by Father Simpson, a Chaplain, and sent home. It was pleasing to find out that at the end of the war, Edward was located in a Japanese POW camp and returned home. This was some consolation to a family that had given so much for their country.
Our Recommendations: The extremely large car park would indicate that this can be a very busy site so plan your visit carefully. Without doubt the new visitor centre is a splendid addition to a place that is surely one of the most moving and emotional reminders of the events of D-Day. A short film at the centre tells the story of just a few of the men who came to Omaha only to see their young lives cruelly shattered and prematurely ended. It prepares you so well for the unforgettable experience that is Omaha.
For the Children: It is possible to get down to the beach from the cemetery grounds. It is also possible to access the beach to the east of the new visitor centre by leaving the car park and heading down towards the sea.
In the bay of Arromanches-les-Bains lie the remains of one of the two Mulberry Harbours, the prefabricated floating harbours the Allies towed from England and sunk off the Normandy coast after their D-Day landings. The best time to view them (and to walk out to them) is at low tide. D-Day museums can be found in towns all along the coastline but this town's Musée du Débarquement is one of the better ones. The town now obviously thrives on the history of D-Day, nearly every shop, café, restaurant and hotel, totally geared for the D-Day tourist. The museum is the focal point on the sea front, there are tanks and artillery pieces on display all over the town. A huge picture window runs the length of the museum, enabling you to look straight out to where the bulky remains of the harbour, make a strange intrusion on the beach and shallow sea bed. The quaint main street has a lovely warm atmosphere with pavement cafés emitting the aromas of their cuisine and the sounds of the ongoing entertainment.
Open 1 February to 30 December - Winter: 9h30 to 12h30 and 13h30 to 17h30. Summer: 9h to 19h. Annual closure: 1 January - 31 January
Four-language reception, trilingual guided visit, visit aids
Duration of visit: 1h15
Prices - Adults: 6.00 euros / Children, students: 5.00 euros
Winston Churchill had the foresight to recognize the need for the creation of an artificial harbor in Normandy. He knew that the thousands of troops landing on the beaches of France could only carry enough supplies (food, bullets, fuel, etc.) for a few days. Since the Allies were not planning to invade any of the major existing ports on the northern coast of France, the troups would suffer without reinforcement of supplies. Therefore, engineers took Churchill's concept and built huge concrete blocks that would be used to create the docks needed for the port. Because of the secrecy required, workers in England built the giant blocks without even knowing what they were!
Arromanches was not the only artificial harbor built by the Allies. Two harbors were originally constructed and were named Mulberry A and Mulberry B. The harbor at Arromanches was Mulberry B, while Mulberry A was near Omaha Beach where the American forces landed. Unfortunately, just a few days after the harbors were built, a major storm struck. The harbor at Mulberry A was completely destroyed, and Mulberry B was severely damaged. After the storm, all of the Allies had to use the harbor at Arromanches. I found it interesting that the harbors were named "Mulberry" because the mulberry plant grows so fast.
Arromanches 360 is a circular theatre of 9 screens showing the poignant film 'The Price of Freedom'. This film mixes news-reel images and archive material from war correspondents with modern day pictures. There is no spoken commentary, simply the sounds and noises of the D-Day sections and music covering the modern sequences. Note: the show is standing only, there are no seats in the theatre. This theatre was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy Invasions. The show plays at 10 minutes and 40 minutes past the hour between 10AM and 5PM seven days a week, except during January when it is closed. It is free for children under ten and WW2 veterans.
Our Recommendations: The museum in the town itself is probably worth a visit. The circular theatre on the hilltop shows an interesting film (if this is the only D-Day museum that you visit) though possibly expensive. If you visit the Caen Memorial Museum you may see the film there and you may want to give this one a miss.
For the Children: Walk beyond the museum along the cliff towards the town of Arromanches and look at the tank on display.
The Juno Beach Centre is a museum and cultural centre, which opened at Courseulles-sur-Mer on June 6, 2003. The Centre presents the war effort made by all Canadians, civilian and military alike, both at home and on the various fronts during the Second World War, as well as the manifold faces of contemporary Canadian society.
The temporary exhibit room alternates between historic or cultural themes. Presented until September 30, 2011 the current temporary exhibit - entitled "Allies: Canadians and British During the Second World War" - was created by the Juno Beach Centre Association - Canada, under the scientific direction of Canadian historian Eric McGeer, Ph.D. It presents how Canadians and British fought side-by-side during major events of the Second World War: at sea during the Battle of the Atlantic, in the skies during the Battle of Britain, on D-Day and throughout the Battle of Normandy. With the use of passports/ID cards, visitors can discover the exhibit's contents through portraits of soldiers, sailors, aircraft teams as well as Canadian and British civilians and discover how the story unfolded for these brothers in arms.
The Permanent Exhibit consists of 7 exhibit rooms, and draws upon documents, photographs, maps, artefacts, audiovisual and audio accounts, which allow specific atmospheres to be created. The permanent exhibit alternates between areas of emotion, reflection, discovery and information, eliciting the visitor's participation.
Our Recommendations: If time permits, take one of the guided park tours (extra charges) which take place outside the museum on the beach itself and among local remains of the defensive Atlantic wall.
For the Children: This visit is particularly appropriate for children who can follow two fictional characters, Peter and Madeleine, in a discovery of Canada from 1930's to the present day.
Opening every day
- From April 1 to September 30 - 9:30am to 7pm
- March and October - 10am to 6pm
- February, November and December - 10am to 5pm
- Closed on December 25 and during the month of January
|2010-2011||Full rate||Reduced rate|
|Juno Beach Centre||6,50€||5€|
|Temporary Exhibit only||2,50€||2,50€|
|Juno Park only||5€||4€|
|Juno Beach Centre + Juno Park||10€||8€|
General Information: Website. Avenue du Major Howard, 14680 Ranville. Tel N°: 02.31.78.19.42. Entrance prices: adults €6, children over seven €4.50. Open February-November and without a lunchtime closure from April to September.
Description: A smallish museum which retells the full story behind the famous glider attack on Pegasus Bridge, one of the two bridges spanning the Orne River and canal. The museum is very informatibe and has a film show (available in English - do ask) that gives an excellent overview of the events. Outside in the grounds you can visit the original Pegasus Bridge (which has been replaced across the river with a new bridge) and an actual size model of a glider from the war period.
Despite the memory of the carnage that followed, what Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, pilot of the first glider to land, remembers most clearly from that night, just days before the 65th anniversary, was the near-total silence.
"It was a rather spectacular arrival into France to put the Germans back in their place. People were dropping out of aircraft with supplies for the Resistance, things like that, but we were the first to start the fight. The outstanding thing was how bloody good we were at night. With a slight bit of moon we could put a glider anywhere you wanted, simply because of practice. The men clambered out of the wrecked glider and dashed towards the bridge, firing as they ran. Coming under enemy fire from dozens of German soldiers dug in around the bridge was something they just accepted", said Mr Wallwork. "We were of that daft age where you believe that you are invincible and are going to live forever - that if a bloke's going to be shot it's going to be the one next to you", he said. "We had not the slightest doubt we were going to pull it off. If the Germans had been better prepared they'd have wiped us out very quickly but luck was on our side, we took them by surprise and it worked out rather well; let's put it that way."
The assault lasted barely 10 minutes, but cost the lives of two British soldiers, with 14 others injured. Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, who led the charge to clear enemy trenches and machine-gun posts defending the bridge, became the first allied soldier to die by enemy fire on D-Day when he was shot in the neck. One of his men, Private Wally Parr, remembered the shock at finding the popular officer on the ground. "His eyes were open and his lips were moving; I just looked at him. I put my hand behind his head to lift him up; his eyes rolled back - he just choked and lay back. I took my hand away; he had got one right in the back of the neck. My hand was covered in blood. 'My God', I thought, 'what a waste'". A small bar, Café Gondree, beside the bridge, became the first building in Normandy to be liberated.
Our Recommendations: For historians the museum at Pegasus Bridge is well worth visiting, but bear in mind that there are lots of D-Day museums that can be visited, so you may need to be choosy and pick only those of particular interest. If time permits, stop off at the equally famous Café Gondrée across the road for some refreshments - for aficionados this is full of memorabilia for sale.
Le Mémorial de Caen
General Information: Website - this is an excellent website in English and French and well worth consulting. The museum is open from 2nd Feb till the end of the year. Prices are €17 for adults and €15.50 for children over 10.
Description: This is a museum for Peace that gives an overall history of war from 1918 to the present day. It is split into many different sections starting with a journey into history in the aftermath of WW1 and then moving on to various aspects of WW2 including the French Resistance and D-Day. Sections on the world and the Cold War and the world for Peace can also be visited. The attention to detail in the exhibits and the layout of the museum is first class.
The focal point is the massive twin screened cinema, here shown simultaneously is 'D-Day'. On the right hand screen German soldiers in their blockhouses along the Atlantic wall. On the left hand screen the allies get ready to come ashore, the whole event opens up showing what it was like for both sides, literally hundreds of hours of work have been put into this production and in my opinion it is the ultimate historical film to be seen about D-Day. The Caen Memorial has to be visited, it is a fabulous tribute to everyone involved in the Battle for Normandy and the Liberation of Europe. It is dedicated to peace and the quest for peace throughout the world.
The Caen Memorial is a stark rectangular structure located 10 minutes from the Pegasus Bridge and 15 minutes from the D-Day beaches. The museum is entered through a small door in a long flat facade, which symbolizes the Allies' breach of the 'impregnable' Nazi Atlantic Wall. Inscribed in French across the facade are the verses:
From my wound sprang a river of freedom."
Inside, the main exhibits include: spectacular video presentations of D-Day or Jour J (showing the events from Allied and German perspectives on a split-screen); models of bunkers, battleships and battlefields; artifacts from the French Resistance; and a tribute to the Holocaust.
A new wing added in 2002 houses exhibits on the Cold War the fall of the Berlin Wall, the development of the atomic bomb and the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Caen Memorial was the first museum outside of the United States to display artifacts from 9/11.
The last section visitors encouter in the museum, added in 1991 and housed in an old bunker, is dedicated to the ongoing movement for peace. It includes a Gallery of Nobel Peace Prizes, celebrating such figures as Andrei Sakharov, Elie Wiesel and Desmond Tutu.
The museum includes extensive tranquil gardens, which commemorate the Allied forces and wordlessly illustrate the ideal of peace: the Garden of Canada, the American Garden, and recently the British Garden, donated by Prince Charles in 2004.
Overall, the Caen Memorial provides a thought-provoking meditation on the evils of war, the importance of learning from past failures and successes, and the difficulty but necessity of finding lasting peace. The museum also runs daily, eight-person minivan guided tours of the D-Day beaches, which begin at the museum or the Caen train station.
Our Recommendations: Admission prices are not cheap and to fully appreciate all that the museum has to offer ideally takes a whole day as not only are there the many different sections to visit , but there are also some excellent films to watch. If lots of head knowledge all gets too much take time out to stroll through the lovely gardens of Peace and let children run off a bit of stream.
For the Children: Children under 10 are free and there are special rates for families with older children. While museums are not always the number one choice for children, this one is very visual. It is also possible to buy several different guide books (in English) specially devised for children of varying ages. There is also a free creche for children under 11 years of age.