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During the past few years I have met many Americans who wish to explore Normandy. After the obligatory few days in Paris the majority head west in a rental car, stay at a B&B and then embark upon an excursion that takes them to Mont St. Michel, the Bayeux Tapestry, a chateau or two, and the D-Day beaches.
There is rarely more than a day or two set aside to tread the paths of their ancestral liberators, so it’s important to cover as many key sites as possible in the time available. For most, this will mean Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, the American Cemetery, and a museum. I always cover these in my tours but in addition I have managed to seek out a number of other places of significance that do not usually feature in the guidebooks. It is the purpose of this article to identify a few of these for visitors who would like to add something else to their itineraries.
For visitors who have stayed with us, I usually begin by highlighting what happened in our village during the war. There are bomb craters in the woods dating from when the USAF moved in and I once met an elderly lady who recalled seeing the GIs march down the main road and past the end of our drive. One English neighbor told me about the spent ammunition he found under his floorboards. I gather that our house suffered some damage, as there were two suspicious shell-sized holes in the back wall of the barn and signs of a fire. When we replaced the windows we discovered French coins dating from 1945 underneath the sills. It’s a custom to put new coins under the windows when you replace them so it sounds as if wartime activity led to them needing replacement.
I particularly like taking families around so that young minds can feed on the images, relics and anecdotes that they absorb, to be reinforced by their parents who also experience the same stimuli. I point out how the French, British and Americans all experienced war differently, and, where possible, illustrate how the war affected women as well as men. It is my aim to tell a story that is meaningful to women and families, as well as men and boys. I always visit the gravesite of Billie D. Harris when we visit the US Cemetery, which I feel represents a real woman’s account of war and is particularly poignant. Visit: link.
The sites that I would like to recommend as supplementary to those most frequently visited begin south of St. Lo, in the depths of the impenetrable Bocage or hedgerow country. I have listed them in the order that I normally visit them from our house but also included travel directions so that they can be accessed from the nearest major towns.
D-Day Tour in Normandy, France: Part one
Le Chêne Guérin Military Cemetery
This is located just over an hour’s drive south from Omaha Beach. In the summer of 1944, it took nearly two months to advance to this point. It’s something of a paradox: a military cemetery without any graves. Upon closer inspection, the roadside monument provides the answer. Over 1200 US and over 1600 German soldiers were laid to rest together here during August 1944 and they were then either repatriated or moved to one of the permanent cemeteries in Normandy in 1957. This links to the construction of the huge American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach: obviously many of the US casualties were interred there.
Anyone reading the inscription on the monument will soon realise that these American and German adversaries spent more time together in French soil than they spent with their comrades fighting each other.
I am often asked about the practicalities of interment by visitors that I take to the American Cemetery and a look at Le Chêne Guérin helps to provide an explanation. There are also a number of other temporary cemeteries in the region.
To find the village of Le Chêne Guérin, follow the D28 westwards out of the town of Tessy-sur-Vire. Drive through the village and turn right on the D208 and you will see the sign and monument by the roadside, just beyond the water tower.
This memorial is different to the previous one in that it is dedicated not to the liberators but to members of the local French Resistance. To find it, return to the town of Tessy-sur-Vire and at the first roundabout turn left on the D13. Follow it past the village of Beaucoudray and look for the monument sign on the right. The link below which contains a detailed account that was prepared for the 60th anniversary celebrations and it helps us to understand how the French responded to the messages that “The Americans are coming.” Hearing the news of the invasion, resistance cells sprang into action and began blowing up railway tracks, cutting telephone lines and generally making a nuisance of themselves. When news leaked out about who was responsible for local disruptions, eleven men were rounded up and shot. The memorial was constructed on the spot where it happened. Visit: link.
Visitors may wish to consider how the war affected the different participants. For people in America, it meant conscription, munitions work for women (remember Rosie the Riveter) and the fear of receiving a telegram one day to say that a loved one was not coming home. In Britain, it was all these plus the incessant bombing of civilian targets, as it was for the Germans. For the French it meant occupation by a foreign army as well as losing family members and having their homes destroyed.
Nicknamed “The City of Ruins,” St Lo suffered terribly during the liberation of Normandy and had to be completely rebuilt. This link from the Normandie Memoire site explains what happened and provides a heritage trail, which leads the visitor through the streets where the action took place. Visit link.
From Beaucoudray, take the road north to St Lo and you will arrive in a city where there are very few old buildings and those that do remain still bear the scars. On the walls of iconic church of Notre Dame it is possible to still trace bullet holes and the attached photograph shows a shell still embedded in the stone. Because of the determined resistance of the Germans, it took much longer to capture the city than was anticipated and they fought so hard that they had to be bombed and shelled into submission before men of the US 29th Division could gain a foothold in the town in mid-July. Most of the inhabitants fled but a few stayed back and took their chances.
In French a carrefour is a crossroads. This particular one is situated where the D113b meets the D202 just east of the small village of Lison just off the road that heads northwards out of St Lo. The monument on the photograph summarizes what took place there on the night of June 9th 1944. I found the story in Joe Balkoski’s magnificent book, “Beyond the Beachhead.” Troops of the 2nd Battalion, 115th Infantry regiment who landed at Omaha had been fighting their way south for three days after the trauma of the beach landing. After a 14-hour march they stopped by Le Carrefour and their officers ordered them to spend the night in fields by the roadside. As they were exhausted, they dispensed with the usual practice of digging foxholes for protection.
What they didn’t realize was that a German regiment, carrying some artillery pieces, was retreating south from the beach and caught sight of them from the other side of a lane in the hedgerows. They waited till they had started to bed down and opened fire. The result was a one-sided battle with an outcome somewhere between that of the Alamo and Little Big Horn. The Americans suffered 150 casualties and the ones who escaped were dispersed over a wide area. When reinforcements arrived the next day they found the locals putting flowers on the bodies of dead soldiers.
D-Day Tours in Normandy, France: Part two
The American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, Omaha Beach
Most visitors find their way to this magnificent cemetery and marvel at the care that has been lavished on the place. Head for the coast, follow the Omaha Beach signs and the cemetery actually overlooks the beach. Everything is spotlessly clean and the gravestones are aligned perfectly. Every headstone tells a story and I would suggest that in addition to taking a general walk around the site, which contains nearly 10,000 American graves, it can be particularly rewarding to concentrate on one or two that have a special significance:
The Niland Brothers (alias Ryan)
Saving Private Ryan is one of the best films ever made about WW2. It is based on a true story, but the brothers’ names were Niland, not Ryan. Two of them are buried here in Plot F, Row 15. When it was discovered that their mother was about to receive telegrams telling her that three of her four sons had been killed, the army launched a search for the fourth. A paratrooper with the 101st Airborne, he was eventually located when his regiment returned to England and he was taken out of combat.
Robert and Preston Niland were killed on 6th and 7th of June respectively and are buried side by side. The third brother was actually found alive after going missing and being taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Pacific.
Teddy Roosevelt Jr.
Under a tree at the end of Plot D lies a grave inscribed in gold, which signifies that the person had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour, the highest award for bravery. This particular grave belongs to Teddy Roosevelt Jr., son of one president, cousin of another, and at 56 the oldest soldier to land on D-Day. He was not killed in action, rather, after heroically leading his men ashore at Utah Beach, he served only another 6 weeks before having a fatal heart attack. Look to the left of his grave and you will find his brother, Quentin, a WW1 air ace, who was shot down in 1918. His body was exhumed and buried beside his brother when the new cemetery was opened.
Billie D. Harris
Billie’s grave is also located in Plot D, beside the main path and is the most decorated grave in the whole of the cemetery, which makes it easy to find. I first discovered the grave and the story behind it when I was taking Bill and Brenda Harris from Georgia on a tour. A guide was talking to a group beside the grave and when he mentioned Billie, the coincidence caused Bill to comment to the guide that he shared the name. We then heard the full account of what happened after he went missing.
Billie was shot down in July 1944 and it was not until 2005 that his widow discovered his whereabouts. Since then she has been a frequent visitor, sends regular floral tributes and her story is now known nationwide. CBS featured the story this summer and I personally feel that this is one of the most poignant stories about WW2 and its aftermath. Visit: link.
D-Day Tours in Normandy, France: Part three
When you leave the cemetery, turn left onto the road leading into Colleville village, which takes just two minutes. The large photograph beside the church shows it on D-Day with its tower demolished and the remainder of the church badly damaged.
This church was the scene of heavy fighting as troops of the 1st Division (“The Big Red One”) finally struggled ashore. There was a gun battle in the churchyard with casualties on both sides but more importantly it was the scene of the worst friendly fire incident on D-Day. Since few radios survived the landing and as radio operators were often targeted by snipers, the ships offshore had little idea of what was happening. Based on some misleading information, the USS Harding, a destroyer stationed offshore, fired over 100 shells into the village, aiming particularly at the church tower as it was believed that it was occupied by German soldiers, who were directing artillery fire on to the beach. There were many American casualties and it was some time before accurate information was relayed to the ship. Like so many of the places you will see on your tour, it has changed very little since 1944. The only real difference is the very necessary repair to the tower and other stonework.
St Marie du Mont Church
The visitor will find that this abbey church in the hinterland of Utah Beach is another place that holds a few secrets. The road from Omaha to Utah Beach is well-trodden and takes the driver less than half an hour. On approaching the beach it is necessary to drive through the village of Sainte Marie du Mont where the 101st Airborne first introduced themselves to the French population in the early hours of D-Day. Their task was to secure routes off the beach for troops who would land later.
The 11th century abbey church dominates the town and is a wonderful piece of medieval architecture. A plaque on the door indicates that, like Colleville, it witnessed some fierce duels. Turn right when you enter the church and you will find the curate’s confessional where, if the light is right, you will see a trail of bullet holes which can be traced on the wood and through to the other side. Walking around the building reveals some more forensic evidence including some suspicious red stains on the stone floor like those you see outside a bar after a bad Saturday night. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine the sound of a Thompson sub-machine gun and a German Mauser echoing around the nave.
As you leave the church you will notice a photograph in the porch showing GIs celebrating mass after D-Day and it is impossible to escape the thought that some of them may have been inside and locked in a life or death firefight with their adversaries. I always look for thought-provoking experiences to challenge visitors and this is one. Could you actually shoot someone in a church? In the Middle Ages in England, they were places of sanctuary, but not here on D-Day.
My final suggestion on this alternative trip is somewhere made famous in the series “Band of Brothers,” which, although off the beaten track is still easy to find. Follow the road to the beach and just outside Ste Marie turn left on to the D14. A few hundred yards on the left is a small monument. Stop here and you will find a tribute to Easy Company, 506th Parachute Regiment, the heroes of the series. Behind the hedgerow in the field behind the monument were four large 105mm guns that were trained on Utah Beach during the morning that troops embarked, with inevitable results. The field is part of Brécourt Manor and is privately owned so this is as far as you can go.
When Easy Company arrived, led by Lieutenant Dick Winters, their task was to silence these guns, which they did so effectively that their tactics were written up and used as a model case study for future generations of soldiers. For devotees of “Band of Brothers,” this is one of those can’t-believe-I’m-here-where-it-actually-happened moments.
Your trip would not be complete without a visit to the new Utah Beach museum which you will find when you return to the main road. What very few realise is that the museum was founded by the son of the owner of Brécourt Manor to celebrate the actions of that day. Unfortunately he nearly didn’t survive: an airborne soldier mistook him for the enemy and shot him in the leg! This didn’t affect him permanently, though, and after reaching adulthood and becoming the local mayor, one of his first actions was to build the museum.
This story illustrates the warmth of the French people towards their liberators, but it doesn’t stop there. I see many German number plates on my travels and I have met and talked with German soldiers on the beaches. There is undoubtedly willingness from all sides to consign the past to its rightful place in history and to look forward, not back. The value of visiting the places, however, cannot be underestimated. There are valuable lessons to be learned and when you can approach the history through individual anecdotes you can start to feel how it was for those people concerned, give them the enormous respect they deserve, and try in your own way to ensure that it never happens again.
For more information, contact: Alan Davidge at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian in Normandy, was born in London two years after the war ended. Now, after 40 years of working in education, Alan is living in Normandy and leading visitors in the footsteps of the soldiers who liberated the area in the summer of 1944.
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Text copyright ©2012 Alan Davidge. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.