A GHOSTLY mist enshrouds the distant ruins of one of the most extraordinary engineering feats in history in the seas surrounding Arromanches in Normandy.
They are the caissons – concrete block structures which, 72 years ago, were towed at walking pace across the channel from England where they’d been constructed in secret, to form the so-called Mulberry harbour from which millions of men, vehicles and supplies were unloaded following D-Day.
Arromanches, Caen, Sainte-Mére-Eglise – names of places made famous to whole new generations thanks to big budget productions like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers; names still swathed in smoke and blood and chaos in the memories of the veterans we meet – and all stops on our four-day tour with the Liberation Route Foundation.
Strolling down onto the beach and gingerly picking our way through tidal puddles to some of these giant seaweed-covered wrecks gives some idea of the scale of the allied landings. Out to sea, one of the concrete hulks still visible is, we’re told, six storeys high. It’s a truly amazing sight.
Inside the D-Day museum of Arromanches, intricate scale models tell the astounding story of how this sleepy, now quite jolly little Normandy town, became centre of operations for the supply of troops for the ensuing Battle of Normandy and thrust eastwards towards Germany.
But in front of the nearby glass cases filled with relics, it’s the silent reflection of a 92-year-old, wheelchair-bound veteran that speaks volumes. A thousand men died in securing Gold beach, just outside. “Do you still remember it?” says his companion. The man nods beneath a regimental cap festooned with badges. He goes to speak, but just wipes his eyes instead.
The next day is June 6 and we make our way from the Mercure Hotel in the centre of historic Caen, to Juno Beach for the Canadian Commemoration. It’s a sombre ceremony, with the laying of wreaths, a bugle sounding the Last Post and respects paid to the more than 1,000 Canadian casualties that happened within just a few short hours, just a few hundred meters behind us.
But afterwards, in the back garden of the very first home liberated that day, now known as Canada House, a party is in full swing and we toast les Canadiens and sing La Marseillaise, in the company of direct descendants of nearby townsfolk and Canadian landing force personnel who’ve kept in contact through two generations, and it’s as if liberation just happened today.
At Utah Beach, just 45 minutes away by road, the sense of place is almost overpowering. Flowers are planted in the sands by families of Americans who make a year-round pilgrimage to the place where 21,000 troops landed.
In the surrounding countryside, 14,000 airborne troops parachuted in at great cost and the legacy of what would become infamous as ‘The Longest Day’ is everywhere – at Sainte-Mére-Église, where a model of paratrooper John Steele still dangles from the church where he became entangled in the spire; at Angovill-Au-Plain where the blood of injured men can still be seen engrained in the pews.
It’s beautiful countryside, dotted with sleepy towns and small, hospitable cafés and restaurants where good food, local cider and the Normandy specialty Calvados – apple brandy – is in plentiful and affordable supply, yet always just a few yards away, another monument, museum or graveyard.
At Colleville-sur-Mer, perhaps the most impressive of all, is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, an awe-inspiring sea of white marble headstones, among them the graves of the Niland brothers, whose story would inspire Saving Private Ryan.
Normandy is still a living museum 72 years on, road by road, town by town, of the hard-fought miles slowly captured by the invasion forces of D Day and subsequent months. It’s everywhere, inescapable, and emotionally powerful to this day – as much to the movie buff or amateur war historian, as to anyone with an interest in how the course of the world was changed in a few weeks.
FIVE D-Day history must-sees
THE D-Day Landing beaches are profoundly affecting, but there are any number of other fascinating WWII sites you can easily experience on a trip as short as ours was.
1 POINT DU HOC
The bombed-out German clifftop fortifications here still present an extraordinary sight. Shuffle through one concrete bunker doorway after another and peer down the cliffs scaled by the US Army Rangers. In the bloody 2-day battle that followed, the elite landing force of 225 was reduced to 90 fighting men.
A dangling dummy immortalises the parachutist who famously got caught on the spire here. Far more interesting is the ancient and atmospheric church inside. Poster-boards around the town tell personal stories of D Day where they happened, and the adjacent Airborne Museum is simply spellbinding.
3 THE BLOODY CHURCH
The church at Angoville-au-Plain was a first-aid station used by two US Army medics to tend tens of wounded 101st Airborne paratroopers. Blood stains of the wounded are still clearly visible in the pews and wooden floors between. Stained glass windows now pay tribute to the medics and parachutists.
Giant, wrecked hulks offshore and on the beach give some idea of the mindboggling scale of the invasion and you can walk down to and inside some of them at low tide. A museum overlooking the beach tells the story of the Mulberry Harbours and there are military artefacts galore on display.
5 LA CAMBE GERMAN CEMETERY
21,222 German soldiers, all killed on or following D-Day, lay here near Bayeux, 7km from the Landing beaches. Many are beneath the mound at its centre, others beneath discreet, black plaques set in the ground, including Tiger tank ace Michael Wittman, who blew up 14 British tanks in 15 minutes.
THREE to invade for dinner
1 BOEUF AND COW, Caen
Beautiful views over 12th century Eglise-Saint-Pierre, partially destroyed on July 9, 1944, by a shell aimed at the 12th SS Panzer Division. Try tartare de veau (€7), a tender piece du Boucher (€14), then café douceurs – coffee surrounded by tiny desserts (€7.50), and a shot of Calvados. Medic!
2 L’ESTAMINET, Sainte-Marie-du-Mont
Lamb shanks, beef, scallops, shrimp – and local cider. Man, oh man. And all a stone’s throw away from Utah beach, in the town famous for an engagement between 101st Airborne and German Wehrmacht on D-Day June 6. A statue of Dick Winters, of Band of Brothers fame, stands nearby.
3 UN MONDE SANS FAIM, Sainte-Mère-Église
Priding itself on the provenance of his menu’s local ingredients, chef Mark, a former Royal Navy man, drums up everything from burgers to a legendary Pad Thai, local cider and beer, all toasting distance of the spire where parachutist John Steele dangled for hours, made famous in film The Longest Day.
HOW TO GET THERE
David flew direct from Dublin to Paris Charles de Gaulle (www.airfrance.ie) and stayed at the four-star Mércure Hotel in beautiful, central Caen, about 2.5 hours’ drive from Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris; and at the two-star Hotel Le Sainte Mére (www.hotel-sainte-mere.com) in Sainte Mére Église.
THE LIBERATION ROUTE
David was a guest of Liberation Route Europe, a foundation that works with government organisations, universities, museums, veteran societies, commemorative event organisers, travel agents and tour operators to bring together national perspectives on the liberation of Europe. For more, visit http://www.liberationroute.com