To take a Normandy D-Day tour is a privilege. Normandy is a place which should be compulsory viewing for every American and I want to describe my D-Day tour which began in Paris.
I booked the Normandy D-Day tour and had a pickup at my Hotel Tronchet at 6:45 AM. There were 4 other travelers in the van already and my arrival made it 5. The maximum that the van can take is 8, so we weren't full. Words cannot do the day justice, but I'll try to describe the day to Normandy.
The drive to the D-Day sites took 2-3 hours through beautiful countryside. The highways in France have excellent signage, so it was interesting to see the signs to various landmarks along the way. We saw the exit to Giverny where Claude Monet lived and painted (I had booked a tour to Giverny for two days later, so I got to see how close it was to Paris.) The highway to Normandy crosses the Seine River many times as it works its way north to its destination in the English Channel in Le Havre.
Further north, I saw the exit to Rouen, the town famous for a beautiful Gothic Cathedral and for the fact that in that town, Joan of Arc burned at the stake. I learned that I could take a train from Paris to Rouen for the day and visit the old town of Rouen. Since there's so much history in the area, I planned to take a train trip for a day.
Our guide's name was Philippe and he was so responsive to our many questions along the way. Though he grew up in Paris, he obviously knew a lot about the area we were driving and certainly was informed about the Battle of Normandy. This was very apparent throughout the day.
The countryside felt very much like New England to me. The undulating hills, forests, and agricultural plains presented a very peaceful and quiet setting. I found it hard to imagine that once this had been the scene of intense fighting and bloodshed.
First stop was Pointe du Hoc. Pointe du Hoc is situated on a cliff, 131 feet (40 meters) above the English Channel, 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) west of Omaha Beach. It was here on June 6, 1944, D-Day morning where Lt. Colonel James Earl Rudder led an assault by elements of the American Second Ranger Battalion on a German gun battery that had five, 155 millimeter guns protecting Omaha and Utah beaches. The Rangers scaled the cliff only to find that the Germans had moved the guns because of the heavy allied bombings on this position. The Rangers later found the guns a short distance inland from Point du Hoc and disabled them. Today the site is still pocked with large craters left from the allied bombing runs that lead up to D-Day, and from the shelling from the 14 inch guns of the U.S. Battleship Texas on D-Day morning. Huge chunks of concrete litter the site because of the hits the German gun casements took from the allied bombing and shelling. Pointe du Hoc raised observation platform provides good views for visitors to the site. The Ranger Monument located at the edge of the cliff has been re-opened after the completion of the cliff-side restoration project completed in October 2010.
The next stop was the crowning touch in my opinion. It was my personal highlight since it was a place that I had heard about all my life. Colleville sur Mer is the location of the American Cemetery. It overlooks Omaha Beach and includes over 9,000 white crosses in the cemetery. The Visitors Center at the American Cemetery is beautifully done (very much the high caliber that we see when we visit any National Park in the United States). We all reluctantly left the American Cemetery, but I certainly want to return!
Arromanches was the next stop. This small town on the English Channel has the vestiges of the artificial harbor (Mulberry Bridge).The Mulberry Harbor was the inspiration of Sir Winston Churchill who knew that there needed to be a way for thousands of troops, supplies, and reinforcements to be delivered for the allied soldiers landing in Normandy. Winston Churchill had the foresight to recognize the need for the creation of an artificial harbor in Normandy. He knew that the thousands of troops landing on the beaches of France could only carry enough supplies (food, bullets, fuel, etc.) for a few days. Since the Allies were not planning to invade any of the major existing ports on the northern coast of France, the troops would suffer without reinforcement of supplies. We got to see some of what remains after more than 67 years.
Next stop was Longues-sur-Mer where a German artillery battery is located. We saw the horrid object which gave the allies a pounding on the morning of June 6, 1944. It is actually the only coastal battery to have kept its guns, giving an impressive picture of what an Atlantic Wall gun emplacement was really like.
To wrap up the day, we stopped at the Caen Memorial, a place for reflecting on war in general and on what WWII meant and today still means to the world. The films we saw at the Caen Memorial were emotionally charged, very moving, and certainly tied the day together.
The drive back to Paris included quiet time of reflection with some discussion about the amazing day. We had done the trip to and from Normandy in twelve hours. However, we realized that the Allies had landed on June 6, 1944 in Normandy and it took them until August 19th to liberate Paris. What an awesome thought. What an awe-inspiring day. I was awestruck and forever changed.
There are many Normandy D-Day tours which can be booked (group and private).