Sometimes you just have to live history. I’ve been teaching about the D-Day battles for years in my history and political science classes, but last year when Stan and I planned to return to France, we wanted to work in the Normandy coast to our plans. With a decidedly Anglo feel, the Normandy coast offered a rich historical experience, beautiful drives along the coast, and delicious cuisine.
After spending the first few days recuperating in Honfleur from our trans-Atlantic travel, we drove along the coast to Bayeux. This northern coast of France is littered with heroic stories of the Allied invasion – from the paratrooper whose parachute got stuck in the clock tower, to the French resistance provided advanced logistics to the allies, to the troops who never made it ashore from drowning in the rough seas in their too-heavy gear, to the US Rangers who climbed the seemingly improbable Point Du Hoc to gain a strategic advantage over the Germans. It was in Bayeux, then, where we began our D-Day tour, courtesy of a local French guide with roots in the area. I like local tours. They give the intimate details of an area by a guide who is likely from the region and knows the people living in the community. We began with the Arromanches (see images – top picture is from our trip, bottom picture is in 1944), the site of the massive temporary harbor built by the Allies to bring men and supplies ashore. As we visited the English and US landing sites, we were confronted with the sheer improbability of it all: 156,000 troops from the US, the UK, Canada, Free France, and Norway. 5,000 ships/landing craft. 50,000 vehicles. 11,000 planes. Approximately 1% of the total number of troops that landed perished on D-Day, although exact numbers are difficult to determine.
We visited the American Cemetery – that beautiful piece of land sculpted out of the rocky Normandy coast – where so many are buried. Not all who perished during the invasion are buried here, of course. Many families brought their loved ones home for burial. According to our guide, the cemetery was a needed construction, as so many troopers were buried in local villages all over Normandy. Providing a central place for these burials gave a place for people to come to remember their sacrifice. There are nearly 10,000 graves at the American Cemetery, which is operated by the US Government. We wandered among the Crosses and Stars of David, looking at the names and the ages of those who, along with our Allies, helped to turn the tide against fascism during this dark era of European history. Standing in the cemetery only prompts more questions, however. Why didn’t we go in earlier? What forces had to exist in order to allow the rise of Hitler? Why didn’t the Allies bomb the train tracks that led to the concentration camps – if we could do such a massive operation as D-Day, why couldn’t we stop the Holocaust sooner? As a teacher, I understood the academic arguments of isolationism on the US side, and the fallout from the Treaty of Versailles leading to Hitler’s rise on the German side, but the academic arguments seem pale and dull when standing on Normandy’s shores.
The tour is long, but meaningful. Our guide explains that the plots with a Star of David are probably not the only plots that contain Jewish servicemen. In order to have a Star of David, these soldiers had to have claimed their Jewish background when they entered to fight in the war. Doing so meant an extra level of threat for these soldiers: They understood that if they were ever captured, they would likely be sent to concentration camps with Europe’s Jewish victims. Thus, many never claimed their heritage, a completely understandable choice.
At the end of our tour we visited Point Du Hoc, where Rudder’s Rangers made their 100-foot ascent onto France’s occupied soil, and captured key German gun batteries that establish a beachhead for Allied forces. The ground here was uneven, like a wave of earth and cement. Our guide explains that the area has been left as-is – with large slabs of concrete jutting from the ground and a pock-marked earth to create the sensation of a battle that had only happened weeks ago, rather than one that was nearly 70 years past.
We said good-bye to our guide and fellow travelers, and made our way to our Normandy B&B for the night – a farmhouse along the coast owned by an elderly English couple. The map room we read about online was the real attraction here – the husband of the husband and wife team was a Colonel in the English armed forces. He made it a hobby to convert part of their barn into a D-Day map room, historical resource, museum, and shrine. It was really quite something. Huge maps were on the wall, pictures of the invasion helped to explain the scale of the invasion, and books and documents on tables and counter tops around the room provided resources to travelers and historians alike. As it was on the second floor of an old barn, it seemed like something out of the 1940s. It seemed like a stolen room where members of the resistance could have met. My active imagination was on over drive.
The Colonel was a character. He was a wealth of knowledge, but quite domineering. Guests at dinner were graced with his knowledge but told where to sit. He wanted to be sure we understood that it was the English who had the smarter invasion plan, and that US tourists spend entirely too much time visiting the US landing sites.
I assured him we had visited the British landing sites as well. His wife was quite dutiful, especially when the Colonel retrieved a metal whistle and used it to call her as she was talking to one of the other guests. I felt like I was in the 1950s. Later that evening when I asked about the WiFi access so I could work on my online classes, the kind woman said, “Oh, everything’s out – the TV, the cable, the phone. Guess I have to find out about that tomorrow.” The MiFi would come in useful again – for the third night in a row – as expected WiFi turned out to be unavailable.
Eager to be free of the domineering – but knowledgeable! – Colonel, we made our way back into Bayeux the next day to visit its big attraction: the Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry is an embroidered cloth about 230 feet long that beautifully tells the story of William the Conquerer’s invasion of Britain and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Not such a beautiful invasion, but a glorious piece of artwork, to be sure. That it has withstood the ravages of time over the last 9 centuries is remarkable as well. We listen to the story unfold via our hand-held audio devices, and I’m really impressed that historians have been able to draw so much detail out of the tapestry’s story telling.