Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Bayeux and D-Day beaches

After two weeks in Paris I'm now venturing out on the roads and into smaller and smaller towns. The first stop from Paris was Bayeux in Normandy - about three hours from Paris. The main reason to come this direction was to see the D-day beaches and brush up on my history of the allied Normandy invasion. It turns out I didn't know squat about it so I had a very educational day! Not to mention that I've seen lots of stars and stripes flying :)

I'm working on getting all of the photos uploaded and organized. The start of them is here. Check back later for more.

I selected the town of Bayeux as my base for two nights so that I'd have a bit bigger of a town than the tiny seaside towns that sit on the various D-day beaches and there are a few things to see in Bayeux as well. A lot of Americans and Brits had the same idea also because there were loads of them around.

The most famous thing to do in Bayeux is the Bayeux Tapestry. I didn't know about this until a few days ago so I figured I'd head to see it when I arrived. After being in crowded Paris museums this tiny place was quite nice. The tapestry is about 60 meter long and they have it encased in glass curving around a room. You listen to an audio guide as you walk past the panels and the depictions on each are described. My European history is not all that good, honestly didn't really pay much attention to it in high school, so it was very interesting to see the needlework and be reminded about the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century. It's amazing that this piece was not damaged or destroyed over the years. Apparently it was in burning buildings, used to cover art work during WWII, and moved all around, and has not much other than natural aging damage to it.

The town also had a Cathedral and cute meandering streets and a little main section of shops and restaurants. I'd soon learn that it's a hopping place and two spots I'd scouted for dinner were full for the evening so I had to go with what I'd planned for for Sunday because I also knew that very few places would be open Sunday.

On Sunday the plan was to head out to some of the D-day beaches and see the American Cemetery. The sun was out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky but man was it windy! Jeez, I was almost blown over multiple times. After doing a bit of research I decided to start the day at Arromanches and then make my way to Omaha beach and the cemetery.

Arromanches is one of the places that the British landed and it's most critical relevance is that it was one of two temporary harbors that were set up. I went into the museum and happened upon an English tour that was starting just as I arrived so I joined in. As part of the D-day planning there were to be two harbors set up so that all of the supplies, men, and whatnot could be brought on land. This I never knew about, or perhaps forgot. For something like a year the British were building the pieces that would be used to set up the harbor. Then they sailed it all across the English Channel on June 5th and began setting it up on the 7th. It took 12 days before it was completed. They sunk old ships and massive concrete structures, had multiple roadways to allow them to drive vehicles from the ships onto land, and given the tides realized that it all needed to be floating and able to shift up and down every six hours. There's not much left out in the sea of it, but you can see some of the concrete sections. Apparently all of the steel portions were claimed back after the war because there was such a shortage in Europe. When I first arrived in the morning though the tide was so high and water so rough pretty much nothing was visible. I made a point to come back in the late afternoon in order to catch it. Luckily they have models in the museum of exactly what it looked like along with video footage showing it in action.

High tide in the morning - water lashing against the sea wall

Low tide, you can slightly make out the concrete forms in the background

From here I drove down the coast to Omaha beach. I'd read about all of the beaches that with their beauty and seaside town environments it's hard to believe what happened over the course of the D-day invasions and all of the lives that were lost in the first hours of the Americans attempting to come ashore here. It really is true. Omaha is just a massive stretch of beautiful beach with not much other than two monuments noting the invasion and a few eating places and houses.  There's a museum just up from the beach so I went inside to check out the life size dioramas, memorabilia, and a video - my third of the day, they're all similar but so interesting to see the old footage and this one had interviews with a number of Americans who'd fought or been a part of the days here.

The American Cemetery was the next stop. This is run by the US and it's beautiful. But the numbers are staggering. There's over 9000 men and women buried here and that includes 45 sets of brothers; many more were killed in the weeks and months following June 6th, 1944 but not all of them remain here. Each grave is marked with a Cross or Star of David; the rows of headstones seem endless. Even though there were a fair number of people it was still very peaceful. It's right on the cliffs over a stretch of Omaha beach so you hear the waves crashing and in my case the wind blowing across as well. At one point as I walked I heard Taps followed by the National Anthem being played. It is indeed a wonderful tribute to those who served and paid the ultimate sacrifice. If it hadn't been so windy I probably could have stayed there for hours.


But I moved on and the last stop was to check out Pointe du Hoc. This is where the Germans had artillery set up and the allied forces needed to win it over. A group of Rangers were given the task to scale the 100 foot cliffs and disable the Germans. They made it to the top - despite having their ropes cut and being fired at. Only 90 of the over 200 rangers survived two days of fighting. The French government gave this land to the US and it hasn't changed much since 1944. You can go into the ammunition bunkers that remain in tact and see the massive bomb holes in the ground. Given that there are lots of bunkers around San Francisco (which never saw any action) it was again hard to imagine that there was actually fierce fighting here.

The stretch of coastline where the invasions happened is truly beautiful and picturesque. Thinking about all of the young men and women who were part of the battles both here and all across the world as part of WWII, all of the fighting since, and those who continue to fight and protect us today makes it somber but at the same time a feeling of pride for the good old USofA.

The loss of life is indeed staggering and as I walked around I also thought of the recent losses most close to me. Though not in a war battle, battles of other sorts. The reminder that illness and cancer suck. My aunt fought against ovarian cancer for six years until Friday. Like so many she is gone way too soon despite a relentless desire to live and bring more happiness and laughter to others than I can imagine. For Kathy and so many others we must continue to fight in their honor and live on. Live on I shall and know that I've got another person looking out for me from upstairs.

Next up... Saint Malo and Mont Saint Michel.

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