Show Notes for Episode 116: Normandy WW2 Trip Report

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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.

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.

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).

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.

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).

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Normandy & Brittany