D-Day and the Battle of Normandy
While exploring the serene natural beauty of the beaches of Normandy, it can be difficult to imagine the scenes of chaotic conflict which unfolded on its shores 70 years ago.
Seen by many to be the beginning of the end of World War Two, the Normandy landings were one of the most daring and important military operations ever executed.
Today, visitors can walk along the same sandy shores, which, on 6 June 1944, more than 160,000 allied troops landed and braved enemy fire in order to begin the liberation of France from Nazi occupation.
Many reminders of the conflict, from abandoned sea defences to memorials and war graves, where many come to pay their respects to the fallen, can be found tucked amongst the dunes, villages and towns.
This guide includes visiting tips for some of the key Normandy beaches which were involved in the D-Day landings and other recommended sights in the area, all of which are within a short drive from the Eurotunnel Le Shuttle terminal in Calais.
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The Allies selected five strategic points along the Normandy coast to land their invading forces, each with its own codename. The furthest east of these was codenamed Sword Beach, an 8km stretch of coast from Ouistreham to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer.
The initial landings, backed up by early morning air strikes, were some of the most successful in terms of minimising casualties, with very little resistance encountered on the beach itself. British troops took only 45 minutes to move inland, and by the end of the day nearly 29,000 men had been successfully landed at the beach.
Many of the German defences are still visible on these picturesque beaches and signs of the conflict can be found scattered around the charming villages which line this stretch of Normandy coast. In the port town of Ouistreham visitors can find the small but informative Musée du Débarquement no 4 Commando, which attempts to explore the human faces behind the invasion and the important legacy of the D-Day landings.
Today the town's beach is popular with tourists and locals alike as a spot for sun-bathing, relaxing or beach sports, including horse riding through the surf. But you are never far from a reminder of those who laid down their lives to make France the free country it is today.
Probably one of the most famous sectors of the D-Day operation, Omaha beach was the landing spot for more than 40,000 American troops who waded through the surf to face a barrage of German mortars, machine guns and artillery. Despite preliminary naval and aerial bombardment of the beach defences, very few gaps were opened up and the invading army quickly found itself incurring huge casualties. As many as 5,000 Allied soldiers are estimated to have been killed within hours of the landing.
The fighting on the beaches was recreated on screen in the dramatic and bloody opening scenes of Steven Spielberg war epic Saving Private Ryan, which won praise for its historical accuracy.
Today Omaha beach has become a pilgrimage spot for families and veterans remembering the conflict and those who were lost in the line of duty. Walking across the golden sands or exploring the cliff-tops swarming with natural beauty, it can be difficult to picture the scenes of chaos and bloodshed which unfolded there. However, there are reminders everywhere of the beach's historical significance and visitors can explore abandoned concrete bunkers and gun placements and even see the craters left by falling shells which scar this otherwise idyllic coastline.
Particularly striking is the Omaha Beach Memorial, marked by a conceptual statue of giant metallic sword shapes bursting up through the surf. Here you can find a museum featuring comprehensive details of the D-Day landings, with artefacts, timelines and personal items from those involved in the fighting, helping visitors understand the human side of the conflict.
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
On the cliff tops overlooking Omaha beach can be found the final resting place of thousands of American soldiers who lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing fighting. The rows of individual white headstones serve as a poignant reminder of the sheer number of casualties and regular tours around the cemetery give you some of the stories behind the graves.
Stretching between Le Hamel and Ver sur Mer, this landing spot saw some of the fiercest British beach fighting, with the invading troops facing heavy German resistance. The spot was also where Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis earned the only Victoria Cross of the D-Day landings after single-handedly storming two enemy pill boxes and later saving two of his comrades who had been pinned down by enemy fire.
Sea defences and even a gun placement can still be explored by visitors to the beach front by Ver sur Mer and a simple memorial plaque stands at the top of the beach paying respect to those who fought there.
Bayeux War Cemetery
A little inland can be found the Bayeux Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, which commemorates more than 4,500 Commonwealth troops, most of whom died in the Normandy landings. The graves include more than 1,800 unknown soldiers, a moving testament to the chaos of war.
The Normandy invasions were one of the most important and daring military operations in world history and a trip to the landing beaches can give a small glimpse into the events of D-Day and the bravery of all involved.
From the Eurotunnel Le Shuttle terminal at Calais drive west along the coast into Normandy.
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