If you have ever been to the part of the Normandy Coast known as the ‘D-Day Beaches’, like us, you probably arrived there already tense with respect. France had taught us to expect an idyllic seaside scene. So you remind yourself - this is not meant to be fun. This doesn’t have to be pretty. You can’t complain when you stumble upon a tacky seaside town with its cement, pebble-dashed facades. This is a living, breathing, war memorial, cared for and curated by France and the countries who fought on these beaches. One that invites you to encounter a history that is nervously recent and distant at the same time.
We didn’t go to the museums. We simply crawled from Sword Beach, on to Juno, Gold and finally Omaha and Utah. We promised we would stop at as many places that offered something to see or read. Or as we would discover - to touch.
Near Courseulles-sur-Mer, we had been searching for a small plaque with a cross on it. What we found was a gigantic silver Croix de Lorraine. This was the spot where Charles de Gaulle set foot on French soil shortly after the Normandy Landings had begun. Hidden throughout the long grass and dunes, we had our first up-close experience with a defeated German artillery bunker. It was just sitting there. Covered in graffiti, and completely open for clambering. My Australian-born, British-honed instincts told me this should be roped off and people forbidden to touch it.
We met the ‘Mulberry Harbour’ at Arromanches. Tides permitting, this was our opportunity to stand side-by-side with these fascinating remnants of portable human ingenuity, one fuelled by a desperation to which I hope we never have to relate. It was because the Germans had occupied the viable ports along the west coast of Europe that the Allies decided to build their own. They built two of these makeshift harbours, one of which was destroyed during a freak summer storm and the other whose remains rest at Arromanches and Asnelles.
At Longues-sur-Mer, we stepped into the realm of the enemy; a virtually untouched war facility of Nazi Germany. Concrete and steel, preserved and imposing. This was a different level of ingenuity. With an eery view of Arromanches from the cliffs, this installation had a firing range of 20km. The forced surrender of the Nazi regiment housed within these bunkers was a critical enabler to the start of the Normandy Landings.
In one day, we had dotted down the D-Day beaches, exploring the landing points of British, Canadian and French Resistance troops. The towns appeared sad. Not necessarily because the people felt sad, but because the coast itself was in perpetual mourning, intent on preserving this history in a raw form.
Then we arrived at the American War Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. We were transported to a different level of memorial. We wandered by the graves of 9,387 victims of war; the symmetry of the graves both perfect and unnerving. At a glance, there is uniformity and anonymity. At closer inspection, every grave is marked with an inscription either of the victim’s name, or the absence of. Each grave is topped with a Christian Cross or a Jewish Star of David. I couldn’t see any other faith recognised, but I could be wrong. At 4:30pm that afternoon, the American flag was lowered. Every single American turned towards their flag, hands pressed on their heart. Some shed a tear, some cried. Most just listened.
You can view more images from this incredible day here.