Normandy WW2 Trip Report, Episode 116

Normandy WW2 Trip Report

Normandy WW2 Paratrooper Veteran
Phil Meets a WW2 Paratrooper Veteran who jumped over Normandy 70+ years ago.


Normandy WW2 Trip Report with my guest, Phil Roberson, who  shares his great passion for WW2 history, how he has visited many battle landmarks in Normandy, and the appeal they had for him (and possibly you too!)  D-Day happened on June 6th, 1944 and there has been extraordinary interest and curiosity about Operation Overlord or the “débarquement” as the French call it. The American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer receives one million visitors per year. Would you like to be one of them?

Places Mentioned in this Episode: Omaha Beach, American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, Arromanches, Bayeux, Museum of WW2 in Massachusetts, Pointe du Hoc, Sainte-Mère-Église, Utah Beach.
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Normandy WW2 Trip Report Show Notes

Phil has always had an interest in WW2 and history in general, then he had a boss years ago who was a paratrooper and his first combat ever was jumping into France on D-Day. That sparked a life long interest in WW2, Skydiving and history in general.

Phil has visited Normandy five times, four times on a D-Day anniversary which is when major celebrations take place. He started going for the history but ended up returning time and time again because he fell in love with the area.

Old vs New in Saint-Malo
Old vs New in Saint-Malo, photo Phil Roberson.

A Brief Refresher on D-Day

This also underscores how large a military operation this was. It was the largest in history, and likely to be the largest ever, as it is inconceivable that anything this large could be kept “under wraps” in this day and age:

  • 156,000 ground troops landed
  • 7,000 ships
  • 15,500 U.S. paratroopers in over 800 aircraft (Plus 7,900 British Paratroopers)
  • 9,000 allied troops dead or injured in the first day
  • 4,400 allied dead (over half American)
  • Planners expected the need for 5,000 tons of gasoline A DAY for the first 20 days.
  • By the end of 11 June (D + 5), 326,547 troops, 54,186 vehicles and 104,428 tons of supplies had been landed on the beaches.

I will add that living in the U.S., we always referred to it as the D-Day “Invasion.” I am guessing the British call it the same. However, this term doesn’t seemed to be used in Normandy, and I think many French citizens find it peculiar, as they don’t see the allies as the “invaders,” but as the liberators. The invaders were from Nazi Germany four years earlier. It may be semantics, but I think it is worth noting. “Le Débarquement” is what French people call it (=Allied landing)

The Allied countries that participated in D-Day are: US, UK, Canada,  Poland, France, and Belgium. They landed on the northern coast of Normandy and the area covered a large amount of ground. There were 5 landing beaches (listed West to East): Utah,  Omaha (the two American beaches), Gold (UK beach), Juno (Canadian beach), Sword (UK). Those beaches are 45 miles apart as the crow flies. Airborne troopers were dropped on the west and east flanks of the area.

Soldier in front of a grave in Normandy
Soldier in front of a grave in Normandy, photo Phil Roberson.

Join an Organized Tour or DIY Visit?

First of all, the whole point of this site is to help you find what is great in France by yourself. Having said that, when you are short on time sometimes it’s easiest to join an organized tour, so no judgment here. If you’re worried about driving yourself around France, listen to this episode and then decide if it’s for you or not. The one thing that is very hard to do is use public transportation because these are rural areas that don’t offer many public transportation options (if any).

If you know a little bit about the history and you’re comfortable driving in another country, driving a great way to do it. If you don’t know the history that well or are intimidated by driving, then take a tour. You can read reviews on-line of the many tours that are offered, most are really good, it’s just a matter of choosing. More Driving Information

Omaha Beach today, horse and buggy on the beach
Omaha Beach today, photo Phil Roberson.

How Long Should You Plan on Staying?

At least two or three days. Some people try to do it as a day-trip from Paris, but that doesn’t work very well. You have to spend at least one night in Normandy and visit the sites (which are spread over a large area) over the bulk of two days.  If you only have one day, you could probably see Omaha beach and the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, and possibly one other thing nearby, but that would be it.

To go see Utah beach you need more time because it is so far west, and if you don’t go you’ll miss out on all the American Airborne history because that’s where they landed. There was no Airborne at Omaha beach.  From the American Cemetery in Colleville to Utah beach takes about 40 minutes by car.

If you wanted to see all the landing beaches and the various cemeteries, it would take several days. Phil has spent about a month in total in the area, but on every trip he goes to visit something outside of D-Day historical sites, such as Mont-Saint-Michel, which is still in Normandy, but a bit of a longer drive (1 hour 45).

The Mont Saint Michel is 45 minutes drive away from major WW2 sites.
Photo Phil Roberson

How Do You Prepare for a Trip To Normandy WW2 Sites?

Read at least one book about the history of the D-Day landings because you don’t want to find out later that you were a few blocks away from something wonderful and you missed it. Books by Steven Ambrose, especially the one called D-Day is wonderful, easy to read, mostly about the American operations. Another one is by Antony Beevor, also called D-Day and that one encompasses all sides, American, British, and German as well. The book The Longest Day is also wonderful, and there is also a great movie based on this book. Band of Brothers, the HBO series is also very good and there are a lot of people who go visit the Band of Brothers sites specifically. Pegasus Bridge is a wonderful book that details the heroic actions of English paratroopers to take this bridge and secure the eastern flank of the D-Day landings.

Expect to be surprised no matter how well-read you are about the history. When you happen to stumble upon a monument or marker, take the time to read it. The places where some major D-Day operations took place have now reverted to being somebody’s farmland.

Plates used to lay down roads and airways on sand and soft ground by the allies, re-used as fencing material.
Plates used to lay down roads and airways on sand and soft ground by the allies, re-used as fencing material, photo Phil Roberson.

D-Day Is Seen as a Day of Liberation In France

Living in the U.S., we always referred to it as the D-Day “Invasion.” I am guessing the British call it the same. However, this term doesn’t seemed to be used in Normandy, and I think many French citizens find it peculiar, as they don’t see the allies as the “invaders,” but as the liberators. The invaders were from Nazi Germany four years earlier. It may be semantics, but I think it is worth noting. Le Débarquement is what French people call it (=Allied landing).

The Mayor of Ste-Mère-Église at a ceremony honoring the English soldiers
The Mayor of Ste-Mère-Église at a ceremony honoring the English soldiers, photo Phil Roberson.

French Casualties or Collateral Damage

20,000 Normandy civilians died during the battle for Normandy in total, including 3,000 people in the first 24 hours (this is more than the U.S. deaths in this period). Most French deaths were the result of bombing by allied aircraft and artillery. Yet still they are very appreciative and have never expressed any resentment for these casualties.

Utah Beach sign with French and American flags
Photo Phil Roberson

French People are Still Grateful About D-Day

In Normandy there are French, U.S. and U.K. flags flying side-by-side everywhere—not just at the restaurant that wants your business, but in people’s yards, and kids bicycles. When veterans show up in Normandy for commemorations people love them and get very emotional seeing them. You get none of the stereotype of French people being rude or not liking Americans in Normandy. None at all. If you have the time, go visit one of the German cemeteries as well because it is sobering how many of them died in Normandy as well.

Stained glass window in church in Ste Mère Église show WW2 paratroopers
Section of a stained glass window from the church in Ste Mère Église, photo Phil Roberson.

Decide What WW2 Sites You Want to See in Normandy

If you are going to be your own tour guide on this trip, definitely spend some time reading and deciding what sites you want to see. Most first-time American visitors will want to go see Omaha beach and the American cemetery above it, but for the rest, plan out your days around the sites that matter the most to you. For example, you could go see the Canadian Military Cemetery in Bény-sur-Mer near Bayeux for something not everybody hits but worth a visit.

You should also be flexible on account of Normandy’s notoriously rainy weather. Many WW2 sites are outdoors, but thankfully there are also many worthwhile War Museums in Normandy!

Gun emplacement at the North end of Utah Beach
Gun emplacement at the North end of Utah Beach, photo Phil Roberson.

Logistics of Your Normandy Stay

A few possibilities:

  • Phil stayed one night at the Logis Hôtel du Casino in Colleville-sur-Mer, it overlooks Omaha beach and he chose it mostly for the view.
  • Phil likes to stay is at Sainte-Mère-Eglise because it’s a festive town (during the June Anniversary celebrations, possibly not the rest of the year) and is closer to the American paratrooper operations that he likes to learn about. Be warned that Sainte-Mère-Eglise is a really small place with few choices for restaurants, shops, etc.
  • Most people would enjoy staying in the city of Bayeux. It is bigger and a beautiful town in and of itself. Unlike most of the towns and cities in Normandy, it was not destroyed during WW2, so it retains a lot of charming half-timbered houses, etc. It is centrally located to most WW2 Normandy sites.
  • Caen is also a large city, but it was flatted during WW2, so it is not as charming and not as central as Bayeux.
  • If you decide to take the train to Normandy, you will take your train at Gare Saint Lazare in Paris which Phil doesn’t like to get to from CDG. He prefers to get his rental car at CDG and hit the road to Normandy right away. You could also spend the first night in Paris and head out the next day.
In Normandy you will see a lot of peaceful cows today.
In Normandy you will see a lot of peaceful cows today, it’s a great dairy area of France! Photo Phil Roberson.

Driving on Narrow French Roads

One major road in Normandy is the N13 that goes between Caen and Cherbourg. The N13 is a 2 to 4 lane highway. But between the highway and the beaches you will have to drive on Departmental roads which are sometimes quite narrow, but speed limit on those roads is 90km/h. Those are two way roads that are not wide enough for two cars to cross each other. When cars are faced with this situation, they both slow way down (to a crawl really) and go as far right or left as they can. Watch out there are ditches all over rural France! Narrow roads don’t mean that you should drive super slow, people coming behind you will expect you to go the speed limit until someone comes in the other direction and then everybody slows down. In the instance that one of the vehicles is much larger than the other and they can’t pull over to the side enough to both pass, the smaller vehicle will have to back up to a place where they can safely pull over. This situation will not present itself very often, these are  rural areas without a lot of traffic.

N13 between Caen and Cherbourg
N13 between Caen and Cherbourg where you can see more or less where the beaches are.

Visiting Normandy WW2 Sites with Elderly Visitors and Children

When visiting France with persons with limited mobility, remember that the first floor in France (le premier étage) means that you have to climb one full flight of stairs. Sandra Brown who gets around in a motorized wheelchair recommended in episode 109 that you email the hotel and explain what you need before booking so you can be sure that this place will work for you. It’s OK to email a hotel in English.

When visiting Normandy with children we recommend that you break things up with child-appropriate activities. For example take them to this kid’s adventure place near Bayeux, or rent some bicycles, go to the pool. And remember there is nothing that children like better than spending time on the beach! The water is cold (16-20 degrees C even in the summer), but playing in the sand is wonderful. You could find an equestrian club and go on a horseback outing. The local Office du Tourisme can help you find something near your hotel, or use this interactive map to search for what you want. There a lot of old gun encasements and leftover canons (what Annie calls “bunkers”) right on the beach at Longues-sur-Mer where kids can climb around and get a feel for what it was like. As far as museums are concerned, children would probably enjoy the Overlord Museum best because it has a lot of vehicles.

WWII 101st AIrborne vet being interviewed by Brian Williams
WWII 101st AIrborne vet being interviewed by Brian Williams, photo Phil Roberson.

Phil’s Favorite Normandy WW2 Sites

  • Sainte-Mère-Eglise and its Airborne Museum where they are always adding new exhibits. They show airplanes and gliders and it’s a great museum.
  • Pointe du Hoc which is a cliff where a group of American Rangers used grappling hooks, ladders and ropes to scale the cliff and go take out that gun emplacement. This is also where you can see a lot of craters left over from the bombs that landed there.
  • Arromanches (Gold Beach) and the remains of the artificial harbor. The Allied needed a harbor and didn’t have one, so they made two artificial harbors and towed them across the English Channel. You can see some of the wreckage of these floating harbors on the beach in Arromanches and a lovely museum where you can see movies about what happened.
  • Favorite Museum: the one at Utah Beach because it is very comprehensive and keeps getting better.
  • Bayeux also has a wonderful WW2 Museum called the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy
  • The Pegasus Bride Museum is also amazing and gives a UK perspective on these battles.
  • The Overlord Museum has a great collection of vehicles: tanks, trucks, motorcycles, horse carriages. It is fairly new and kids would probably enjoy it.
  • Juno Center on Juno beach: this one is dedicated to the service of Canadians in Normandy during WW2.
  • La Fière, a monument to the Airborne soldiers. This is where you can watch re-enactment of air drops. La Patrouille de France is the group that does airborne exhibitions.
German military band playing the US National Anthem
German military band playing the US National Anthem, photo Phil Roberson.

What About Normandy as a Tourist Destination?

Phil enjoys French rural life, farmer’s markets, Normandy has a lot of dairy products and apples. Calvados is the name of a Department in Normandy and it’s a strong alcohol. There is no wine production in Normandy. You can buy it everywhere, but they can’t produce it because of the type of soil they need. They do produce cider. Cidre doux is what you give to children and cidre brut is what the grown ups drink.

Crêpes are originally from Brittany, but Normandy is close enough and this is one area of France where you’ll get great crêpes.

You can also visit the Mont-Saint-Michel, Honfleur, the Bayeux Tapestry (from 1066!) Make sure you look for Haley’s Commet, it is there! The Bayeux Cathedral is also wonderful, and so is the War Museum in Caen.

Bunker and wheat field
Bunker and wheat field, photo Phil Roberson.

Skydiving over Normandy

Phil has done a lot of skydiving  in the US and he has seen a lot of it going on in France during D-Day celebrations, and on his last trip he was able to make his dream come true and skydive over Normandy with a re-enactment group called RCPT (Round Canope Parachute Team). They jump out of C-47 which are the same transport planes that were used on D-Day. They take off from the same airport as the military, and jump into the same La Fière causeway. If you can’t participate in the jump yourself, the best place to see this drop standing on the La Fière causeway. There is also an Iron Mike monument nearby where they do ceremonies.

The tourist offices of Sainte-Mère Eglise and Carentan have lists of events surrounding the yearly celebrations and there are events going on almost every hour of the day. You also get to see many Jeeps and war-era vehicles driving around that were left behind by the US Army and kept in good condition by the local people.

WWII nurse veteran attending D-Day commemorations.
WWII nurse veteran attending D-Day commemorations, photo Phil Roberson.

The Museum of WW2 in Massachusetts

Phil volunteers at a little-known museum in Massachusetts called the Museum of WW2 and it contains a phenomenal collection of uniforms, weapons, vehicles, like most other museums of this sort. What sets it apart is that it also displays rare items such as artefacts that belonged to major figures in the war. For example, at the Museum of WW2, you can see Neville Chamberlain’s notes from the Munich Agreement, personal artifacts and clothing. Also items that belonged to Churchill, hand-written things, and one of the few  hand-signed copy of the Treaty of Versailles which ended WW1 and also ushered in WW2. If you can’t get to Normandy, this museum is a great way to get your historical fix.

C-130 on jump run in Normandy
C-130 on jump run in Normandy, photo Phil Roberson.

Phil’s Itinerary on His Latest Visit to Normandy

Tues:
Arrive Paris 7:40am
Rain and bad traffic, blew off Honfleur
Radar Station musee
Juno Beach Center (Canadian Museum)
Drove through Arromanches (Gold Beach)
Check in Hôtel du Casino (Omaha Beach)
Dinner in Bayeux by Cathedral

Wed:
More rainy day…
5-mile run on Omaha Beach (alone)
Breakfast at hotel, checkout
New Overlord Museum inland from Omaha Beach
Drive to Port-en-Bessin for pictures
Visit Bayeux tapestry, walk around Bayeux
Grocery store, then drove to B&B in Ste.-Mère-Église
Drove to Quinèville museum North of Utah Beach
Dinner at Hôtel John Steele around corner from B&B.
It is a wonderful hotel in the center of town dating from 1730. Inside, a beautiful dining room with heavy timbers and stone walls.

Thurs.:
Breakfast at B&B, then to Utah Beach museum. Picnic lunch on Utah North of museum looking out at the ocean
6-mile guided walk in 101st landing area
Dinner in Ste.-Marie-du-Mont across from Church

Friday:
Breakfast at B&B, grocery for picnic supplies.
American cemetery, then picnic on Omaha beach. Flyby by C130, and 2 Apache helicopters.
Drove through country South of beaches through Trèvieres. Monument to lg. airfield (Churchill, Eisenhower, de Gaulle landed here, now nothing but a farm field)
Back to Ste.-Mère-Église, more flyovers.
Dinner in Ravenoville between Ste.-Mère and Utah beach.

Sat:
Dead Man’s Corner museum packed, decided to abandon
Drove down to causeway 1, up coast to Utah beach to coastal block houses. Walked along dunes finding old gun emplacements.
Ste.-Mère-Église for airborne museum and lunch on plaza. Big-wigs and PSDs. Bands, bbq, visited church w/ stained glass.
Evening on the square with vets, military, & families. Fireworks over the church.
Sun:
7:00am to RCPT camp. Briefing then bus to Cherbourg airport. US jets on tarmac.  2nd lift on C-47 to La Fière causeway. Jumped, opened, landed, & on way off LZ, was greeted by WWII Airborne vet & active duty Captain from last night. Clouds cleared and military mass drop on dz. Sunburn. Bus back to RCPT. Dinner in Ste. Marie du Mont.

Mon:
Ceremony on town square with French, U.S., & German military and dignitaries.grocery for picnic lunch, winding drive through countryside to Cherbourg airport. Weather wait, and pilot briefings. Military aircraft.
Took off in T-6, climbed through clouds then in formation with 2 C47s. Sun over drop zone, nice shots, headed back. Clouds over coast, but landed back at airport as 2–3 black hawks were taking off.
Ste.-Mère a little quieter, & some restaurants closed. So drove to up Utah Beach 15 min. to Quinèville to eat and ran into some RCPT jumpers. Last drink in downtown Ste.-Mère before turning in.

Tues:
Early breakfast, check-out, drive to Cherbourg and drop off car. Coffee in café by the port with pleasure craft in thick fog.
Despite strike, SNCF train left on time.
Arr. Gare St. Lazare, walked Blvd Hausmann to brasserie for lunch.
Check in to hotel (6–8 blocks from train), wash up then head to St. Chappelle for concert. Forgot tickets, half way there returned. Security line not long. Beautiful chapel. Concert a little disappointing. Showmanship, fast renditions, director/violinist tried to act like “made for TV” anointed virtuoso. Very capable playing though. Walked off stage during piece, “dramatic” re-entry, took music stands from players and led them off in different directions. People clapped between movements. Next time I’ll go to another concert less geared towards dramatically entertaining the tourists.
Walked to ND, then back to hotel via Palais Royale at twilight. Tripped and sprained wrist bad.

Wed:
Nice Weather (threat of thunderstorm never came). Breakfast at hotel, walked towards the river via two covered passages (Panoramas and Vivienne) and Palais Royale. Maybe trash is on strike? Over Pont des Arts to little roads in left bank. Back to ND for pics. Unfortunately, deportation memorial closed due to security.  Across to Isle St. Louis, and coffee at café. Walked through the Marais district and tried to find the oldest house (couldn’t). Walked back through to Place des Vosges. Picked up glacier en route and sat and enjoyed the park.
Long walk to Canal St. Martin, then back roads to café in 10th? Arrondissement for lunch. 2 blocks later many cafés at Rue René Boulanger (curvy pedestrian-only road roughly parallel to Blvd. Saint-Martin).
Dropped off camera bag at hotel and checked in to airline. Went back out to Passage Jouffroy & Verdeau. To café on Blvd. Montmartre near hôtel. Just people watching (& traffic), & soaking up the sighted and sounds on my last night in France. Several times saw small squads of fully equipped para-military. Larger units and better equipped (i. e. armed) than any you’d “see” in the states.
Dinner at active Café near my hotel. Watched sunset from small balcony off my room.

Thurs:
Early check-out, stopped for coffee and croissant en route. Walked to Opera to get Roissy Bus to CDG.

Grancamp-Maisy
Grancamp-Maisy , photo Phil Roberson.

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One thought on “Normandy WW2 Trip Report, Episode 116”

  1. I listened to most of this interview, and would have found it much more interesting if Phil’s part was not so loud. I could barely hear you, your questions or comments. I do listen to all of your podcast episodes and find them really interesting and informative.

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