Histourism: Experiencing D-Day in Normandy

A week ago I joined the two friends I’d been to Bastogne with at the place where it all began for the paratroopers of Band of Brothers: Normandy. I’d been dying to go there for ages and as I was planning a holiday in France anyway, we were happily able to meet up there just two days before the 6th of June.

We started off our trip in Normandy in true Easy Company style: seeing layers of fog drift over the swamps and getting slightly lost among the bocage, the famous hedges that were such an obstacle for the soldiers landing in Normandy. We first stopped in a town called Craignes, where paratroopers from the 82ndAirborne landed in the morning of June 6th. The town saw some heavy fighting and the execution of several GIs, as well as the local priest. From near the church we had a view over the swamps stretching all the way to the beach (obscured by fog, of course). Here we saw the first of several groups of bikers who were apparently on a similar D-Day tour as we were.

What I hadn’t quite expected was the mania around D-Day. There were actual festivities; it was called the D-Day Festival. Every site we visited had heaps of people who had dressed up, mostly as paratroopers. You could buy these outfits everywhere. Similar to what we had seen in Bastogne, the small towns that have become famous through Band of Brothers—Carentan, Ste Mère Eglise, Ste Marie du Mont—thrive on war tourism. Restaurants, streets, shops and square are named after Eisenhower, the 101st, D-Day or Roosevelt, and some smaller streets are named after certain heroic soldiers. The first thing we did was check out the re-enacted military camps in Carentan and Ste Mère Eglise. These were a bit disappointing, as I thought they would have mimicked the layout of an actual camp but smaller. Instead it was like a festival ground, full of brown, green and beige tents that people themselves had brought and sat lounging in front of, clad in their paratrooper gear. Some people had created trenches and foxholes and decorated them with fake weaponry and barbed wire. Women walked around in 1940s clothes or nurse outfits. It seemed rather fanatic to us but really, it’s only another kind of cosplay. There were loads of military vehicles too, including a couple of tanks and amtracs. It was rather funny to see men twice the age of the real paratroopers bulging out of their army fatigues; a uniform doesn’t make every man handsome, after all.

After walking around the camps for a while we decided to grab a bite in the centre of Ste Mère Eglise. It was incredibly crowded, and there were food stalls and a band playing 1940s music. So many Americans! Many of them were obviously on a pilgrimage to one of the few real battlegrounds they can lay claim to, being such a young nation. Famously, as also depicted in The Longest Day, paratrooper John Steele landed in the centre on D-Day and his parachute got caught on the church spire. Naturally there was a mannequin dangling from a chute on the church spire.

There were various parachute drops scheduled during the days running up to D-Day, and we tried to catch the nearest one. We parked near the memorial for Lt. Meehan, the Easy Company commander whose plane crashed on D-Day, and started to walk towards the drop zone. Sadly we were too late and we only saw the drops from afar—but it was quite something to hear the roar of genuine C-47s and to see them leave behind a string of paratroopers, who drifted slowly (as they were at the right altitude that day, unlike D-Day) towards the ground like dandelion seeds.

Next stop—as we were very near it—Utah Beach! We stopped some three kilometres from the “real” entrance of the beach and walked onto the beach where it was fairly quiet. There was a network of German bunkers there, most partly destroyed, and we spent some time exploring these concrete monoliths that seemed in discord with the softly waving grass, the sheep, the gulls, and the smell of drying seaweed. When we arrived at the signposted entry to Utah Beach, the fog had given way to a beautiful sunny late afternoon. There was some type of ceremony going on at the beach and there were lots of real servicemen and women from navies, armies and air forces around the world. A small restaurant there boasted to having seated Babe Heffron and Bill Guarnere from the real Easy Company, as well as many other veterans. There was a monument made up of three bronze soldiers running towards the hedgehogs from a Higgins boat which was the delight of small children. Standing on these golden, shell-strewn sands with the shouts of children around us and the tide winking at us from far off, I tried earnestly to picture that morning 72 years ago: bullets zipping in the sand, soldiers wading ashore, shouting, screaming, crying. It was impossible. The day was too beautiful, and the excitement to be there was too real. We ended up getting pictures with big smiles, as it was such a delight to be in a place of such historical import with all three of us.

Now it was time for the biggest highlight of the day. Between Utah Beach and Ste Marie du Mont is Brécourt Manor, where Easy Company famously disabled a nest of German guns that were aimed at Utah Beach, and where a statue of Major Dick Winters graces the side of the road. There were some Belgian tourists lounging next to the statue and shortly after we arrived a busload of cosplaying soldiers rather spoiled the mood by taking a group picture next to it with lots of bluster and jokes. Again, it felt surreal to know that it actually took place here, that this was the actual road liberated by Dick Winters and Easy so the soldiers from Utah could move forward. It was truly a very special moment, and I was greatly amused by the big sign that said “LEADERSHIP” right underneath his glorious butt. After this we drove on to the real Brécourt Manor, where there is an Easy Company memorial just like the one we saw in the Bois Jacques in the Ardennes, and a table with a map drawn by Winters himself that explained where in the beautiful summer field, among the buzzing of the insects, the German guns had been positioned.

The next day we started early to catch the scheduled parachute drops near Ste Mère Eglise. We had to park away from the centre and walk about four kilometres to the drop zone. It was the field near a paratrooper memorial, a statue they call “Iron Mike”, but it was closed off for some type of ceremony so we couldn’t go near it. The drops started a little after ten and the first load consisted of amateurs, dressed up in their WW II garb. The drops with actual professional paratroopers was to start at twelve, but we didn’t stick around for that. Hundreds of people had gathered to watch the drops, and it was very exciting to see the C-47s break through the cloud cover and drop the paratroopers.

Driving from one place to another on the narrow Norman roads took up more time than we thought, so after the first drops we left to go to Omaha Beach. On the way there we stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the famous cliff scaled by an American Ranger battalion on D-Day. 90 men from the original 250 Rangers survived this operation. The top of the cliff was pockmarked with craters from the aerial Allied bombings of the German stronghold there. There were two gun abandoned gun positions, one bunker still nearly intact from where you could peek through a slit at the end of the cliff where the soldiers would have clambered up, and a maze of trenches, piles of concrete and rusting metal: altogether a surreal landscape. We wandered around for a while, took pictures with the phallic memorial for the Rangers, and tried not to get annoyed by the crowds. In retrospect, I would rather not have gone around D-Day, but at a later time when there would have been fewer tourists. The crowds added to the sense of detachment we felt from the historical sites.

Next stop was the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. Here, for the first time, I felt a sense of reality kicking in. It was quiet and atmospheric, well-kept, and typically American with its neo-classicist temples and massive statues. We walked among the rows of crosses and stars of David and I found myself blinking back tears. Nearly ten thousand Americans are buried there. Reading the names on the tombstones suddenly made it that much more real.When I think back about it, I recall a poignant poem from English World War I veteran and poet A.E. Housman, “Here Dead We Lie”:

“Here dead we lie because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.

Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.”

The last sentence packs such a punch, and it is this loss of so many young lives–most of them were aged 19-22, younger than I am–that is made tangible by the rows of crosses stretching as far as the eye can see. Their adversaries were the same age, as we saw in the German cemetery on our Bastogne trip. Their sacrifice was an incredible one.

The waves lapped on foggy Omaha Beach in the distance. We drove down there next and found it dreary and busy. There are three big statues on the beach to commemorate the fallen. Omaha was taken with grave losses on the side of the Americans, so small wonder that this is one of the most popular places to visit for tourists. I had expected to see leftover bunkers, like we did on Utah, going by my recollection of the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, but there were none; there were only houses overlooking the beach. Here it was even more difficult to imagine the truly horrific scenes that must have taken place there.

Manon said goodbye to us here and Claire and I set up our tent at a camping not far from the Dick Winters memorial. In the evening we went to Ste Marie du Mont for supper and afterwards made a stop in Carentan, wandering around until we spotted some locations that had been used in the Band of Brothers film set. The towns are certainly very similar, and after taking the back roads through nearly every sleepy town in the region for three days they did start to look alike.

The next day we were off to the Dead Man’s Corner museum, which advertised its D-Day drop simulator with a photograph of a (slightly disgruntled-looking) Ross McCall, who plays Joe Liebgott, and Frank John Hughes, who plays Bill Guarnere, on its leaflets. There were loads of museums in the area but I think we picked the best one. The simulator had screens for windows that showed the plane lifting off, flying through the night and peeking at the fleet below, and eventually getting caught by flak and crashing to the ground. Exciting stuff! The psychology behind the large number of tourists flocking to a simulator that allows you to experience getting shot at and crashing is worthy of a whole new blog post. Before we stepped inside we were prepped by a hologram of a colonel, very cleverly done. The museum itself housed a great collection of real paratrooper uniforms, weapons, and personal stories. The highlight for me was seeing Dick Winters’ dress greens, complete with all the decorations, and his fatigues, locker, and notebook. He is surely the most famous American officer from WW II because of Band of Brothers, which is odd because it’s so contrary to his humble nature.

After we left the museum, we stopped for sandwiches and calvados (a very strong local brew made from apples which tastes like whiskey)—when in Normandy, right?—and we began our pilgrimage to see all five D-Day beaches. We started out back at Utah and couldn’t resist another visit to the Dick Winters statue. Then on we went back to Omaha, a good half hour drive away, and then on to Gold Beach, which was taken by the British. The traffic was quite mad; we really wanted to stop in Arromanches, a town overlooking Gold Beach where the most remains of the artificial Mulberry harbours can be found, but it was so busy that we decided to pass it by because of time constraints. We drove into a much quieter little town, and with our nerves rather frazzled from the busy traffic we enjoyed the peace and quiet of Gold Beach for a few moments, astonishingly different from Omaha Beach. We could still see the remains of the harbour in the sea in the distance, which was cool. Next was Juno, where a Canadian tank that had driven up the beach on D-Day was displayed. Again, there was no sign pointing us directly to it, and there were no crowds. We did see the occasional imitation 1944 US Army jeep whizz by, which were all over the Norman roads and could be rented for a sightseeing tour, but other than that we felt quite alone. As I am not one for mass tourism I found it immensely relieving to be able to contemplate these sites in peace at last. Our last stop was Sword Beach, which featured a large memorial for a Norwegian navy crew that had made a particularly large contribution to the success of the landing.

It was a fitting and solemn end of our tour in Normandy. There was so much more to see—memorials, cemeteries, museums, gun placements, the list goes on—that I will certainly return there some day. Not on D-Day, though. I have been contemplating the phenomenon of “war tourism” ever since I returned from Bastogne, and will certainly dedicate a blog post to it in the near future.

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