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April 18, 2002
Invading Normandie (Russell)

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Learning about "D-Day" at Le Mémorial de Caen

We had come to Normandie to see and learn more about World War II, and the area exceeded our best expectations.  In Caen, a half-hour drive from where we are staying, Le Mémorial de Caen is the best WWII museum anywhere in France.  Rick Steves says to allow 2-1/2 hours there; we stayed for more than 4-1/2.  The museum provides excellent and easy-to-understand exhibits on how the Second World War resulted from the consequences of the First, how the Fascists came to power, and how Europe fell to the Nazis country by country.  By now most of this was "review" for us, but it's always nice (especially for Cameron and Joss) to add context and see how things connect.

What we had not known much about before was the critical turning point for the War in Europe: the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, also known as "Operation Overlord," also known as "D-Day" (or in France, "Jour J" -- no kidding).  After more than a year of preparation, the combined Allied forces launched an incredible, coordinated attack of 50,000 troops in one night through the north coast of German-occupied France.   Five "beach" targets were identified between Cherbourg and Le Havre: Utah and Omaha (US forces), Gold (British), Juno (British and Canadian), and Sword (British and French).  Our minds reeled as we attempted to comprehend the incredible amount of logistics involved in planning such a massive operation in complete secrecy -- the intrigue, ploys, misdirection, communications, and sheer coordination of so many people.  The museum provided an excellent background for our visit to many of the actual locations.

Utah Beach, the westernmost and earliest-morning invasion site, is marked by steep and vertical cliffs.  Here at Pointe du Hoc, the US Rangers attempted to scale the cliffs using grappling hooks and ladders borrowed from London fire departments.  Of the 225, only 90 survived.  Today the site (donated by France to America) has been left exactly as it was after D-Day; the remains of the camouflaged German bunkers are still intact, and the area is littered with bomb craters (Cameron twisted an ankle in one of them).

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Utah Beach: the bomb craters of Pointe du Hoc

The town where we are staying, Arromanches, is the site of Gold Beach.   Here, the British established Port Winston (named after Churchill), a makeshift harbor created by hauling 18 old ships and 115 mulberries (football field-sized cement blocks) across the English Channel.  Incredibly, the 11-km harbor was used to land 54,000 vehicles and 500,000 troops over a period of only six days.  Today, you can still see a dozen of the mulberries laying on the beach and in the water (Joss tried climbing one and slipped on the seaweed and moss, almost destroying a pair of pants).

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Gold Beach: mulberries still dot the landscape at Arromanches

In between the cliffs of Utah and Gold, a 4-1/2-mile section of flat beach was identified as the best (and only) suitable landing site for the bulk of the invading troops.  Here at Omaha Beach, on a quarter-mile-wide strip of marshy sand, the American forces encountered the most brutal and deadly combat of the entire invasion.  The invaders had to penetrate the strongest point of Germany's "Atlantic Wall": 8 casement batteries, 35 forts, 85 machine gun nests, 18 anti-tank positions, booby-trapped beach obstacles, minefields, barbed wire, and deep defenses.  The casualty rate was so high that General Bradley almost gave up the Omaha assault as a failure.  Instead, progress was finally made after a full day and night of fighting... and the rest is history.

Today, Omaha Beach is the site of the American Military Cemetery at St. Laurent.  Here, on 172 acres (indefinitely "loaned" to America by France), 9,387 servicemen and women are buried beneath row upon row of white crosses and stars of David (a further 1,557 missing-in-action are identified on a memorial).  The immensity of a site such as this is almost impossible to grasp and comprehend, so we had Cameron and Joss personalize D-Day by focusing on the stories of the three men killed here who received the Medal of Honor:

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Omaha Beach: the American Military Cemetery

In stark contrast to the bright and airy American Cemetery is the nearby German Military Cemetery at La Cambe.  Here, in a much smaller, darker, and quieter place, 21,222 German soldiers (most of them 18-20 years old) are buried two-to-a-plot beneath rows of five black crosses.  The French inscription reflects the wisdom of time and retrospect: "It is a graveyard for soldiers, not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight.  They too have found rest in our soil of France."

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The German Military Cemetery

Did Cameron and Joss fully understand everything they saw?  Certainly not.  They absorbed as much history and background as they could at the museums, exhibits, and sites.  They also ran around and played in the bomb craters, and collected sea shells on the beaches.  And for this we grownups are extremely grateful.  We are grateful that our children have seen war only on a television set, have never known hunger or hardship, and have never been denied the happiness and innocence of childhood.  For us, this is the strongest legacy of the men and women who fought in Normandie.

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Sunset at "Gold Beach" -- very appropriately named


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