From the National Geographic Explorer in Europe
Sep 27, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer
Normandy Beaches, France
After preparing ourselves for our visit the D-Day beaches of Normandy by watching the film “The Longest Day” during the past two evenings, we set out to discover them for ourselves. Some of us began the day with a walking visit to the L’Orne river estuary. We had a variety of weather as we watched an interesting variety of birds in the wetlands. Of special interest were two Eurasian spoonbills, filtering their dinner out of the estuary alongside a number of egrets, gulls and Eurasian curlews. From the estuary we drove to Pegasus Bridge, a key transportation link which was taken just after midnight on June 6, 1944 by Major John Howard who, with 181 men, landed in gliders in a nearby field, thus becoming the first attack of the Normandy invasion.
We continued on to our lunch at the beautiful Chateau Chenevière in Port-en-Besson before visiting Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. We walked through the cemetery and were overwhelmingly moved by the sheer numbers of white crosses and stars of David marking the graves of the men, and a few women who served with the Red Cross, who gave their lives on D-Day and through the following weeks. One particularly emotional sight was the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and who died at Normandy on July 12, 1944. He is buried beside his brother Quentin who was shot down in Chamery, France, during World War I. The family had asked that his remains be moved to Normandy and interred beside those of his older brother.
After a long, quiet and contemplative visit to the cemetery, we walked down to Omaha Beach. The tide was quite low and it was thus possible to get a good idea of the distance of exposed beach that the Allies had to cross under the withering fire of German guns from emplacements along the hillside above the beach. The Allies made their landing at low tide at 0630 in the morning of June 6 because Field Marshall Rommel had covered the beach with thousands of barriers designed to rip the bottoms out of landing craft if they had come at high tide. Allied intelligence had shown these barriers and the commanders decided to attack at dawn, at low tide, so that the engineers could destroy the barriers as the tide rose. The tidal range in this part of the English channel is extremely large and on the day of the invasion it rose at one meter per hour. The tidal rise was only one of the conditions necessary for a successful invasion. There was also a need for a dark moonless night so that the paratroopers could land behind the German lines, as well as a late rising full moon so that the naval artillery could get the proper range as they started bombarding the German beach emplacements prior to the landings. Three days in June provided the desired combination of oceanographic and astronomical conditions: 5, 6, and 7. The 5th of June was extremely stormy in the channel and when the invasion did not come that day, the day that Rommel expected it, he went home to Germany to celebrate his wife’s birthday.
After our walk on Omaha Beach we drove to Sainte Mère Église, a town near the drop zone of the 82nd Airborne Division. We visited the famous church where Pvt. John Steele was stuck when his parachute hung up on the steeple and he was left hanging. There happened to be a fire in the town at the time of the drop, so many Germans and townspeople were in the town square fighting the fire when he dropped. He played dead for a while, was eventually taken prisoner but later escaped to rejoin his unit. We returned to the ship at Cherbourg, all mindful of the tremendous sacrifices which had been made to ensure our freedom and that of much of Europe by the Allied Forces which landed at Normandy in 1944.