In our many adventures, my dad, my brother, and I made it to Caen for June 6th. The day began with beautiful weather, so we walked the grounds of the Caen Memorial for awhile before taking a coach out to the D-Day beaches. Fortunately, we managed to leave just before Mssr. Hollande arrived to cause traffic jams, passing him on our way out to Pointe du Hoc (we were less lucky on the return journey, which is a story for another time).
After heavy shelling and sixty-odd years of Normandy’s famous weather (“it only rains twice a week – once for 3 days and once for 4 days”) the shrubs are making a comeback to soften the outlines of Hitler’s coastal wall. However, a surprising amount of the once-formidable defense system remains intact.
For me, it was strange to note the duality of the coast. For a place of such intense fighting, there are many details which make it appear peaceful. Root systems gently tear apart bunkers like any other stone, and there are places where you have to step back in order to remember the whole story.
In this respect, honestly, the Normandy beaches resemble the other major battlefields in my experience. Gettysburg, Bull Run, and the Edo palace are among the most restful places I’ve encountered. I’m beginning to wonder if as humans really feel that we atone for the extreme violence of one event by giving the landscape silence for decades, if not centuries. I’m not sure how well that works, but it does seem to make us feel better. Then again, perhaps the silence is there to allow our imaginations to fill it.
In any case, it was pretty incredible to learn about the planning and execution of the D-Day invasions. Given how much could have gone south, it is incredible how much went right. Given how much went wrong, it astounds me that the operation was successful, and that the mistakes mounted up to become a tremendous asset for the Allies.
Not long after our arrival at the coast, the sunshine folded in favor of a more traditional Normandy climate, reminiscent of the nasty weather that hindered the soldiers in 1944. I have to say, if I had seen that coastline on a seasick stomach from an invasion boat and been told to scale it, I can only hope I’d have continued to follow orders. Not that there was much of an option, but still. There is a reason the Rangers have permanent loan of the land.
From the Rangers’ landing, we went on through the rain to Utah and Omaha. Despite the weather, these were jammed with tourists, reenactors in motley uniforms, various officials, and a few actual military personnel. Although historical reenactors generally don’t bother me – in fact, I usually like the perspective they offer on distant events – the reenactors here were off-putting. Like the fake soldiers at the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, they’d chosen a subject that is a bit too recent. It doesn’t help that many seemed to be in search of a quick euro, posing gallantly in front of the tourists and revving their jeep engines while someone quietly helps the few remaining veterans out of the rain. Of course, no one dressed as the losing side. It was unsettling.
That said, there were those genuine gestures of remembrance.
At the top of the cliffs overlooking the landing area is the larger of the United States’ two cemeteries. Again, it was one of the most peaceful places, even teeming with visitors. It was also deceptively large.
The memorial was built to the graveyard’s scale.
What made me smile was seeing a small group of German soldiers quietly bringing in a wreath to lay at one of the memorials. While they may not have had the glitz or cameras of the televised ceremonies, they certainly had my appreciation and respect.
As we circled back towards Caen, we stopped by the site of the remaining artificial harbor built or, more correctly, sunk by the Allies to supply the invasion of Europe. The tremendous scale of the concrete ships that they sank to form the breakwater is difficult to visualize, but perhaps you can get a sense from the scale of the cliffs. Bear in mind that the bulk of the breakwater is still submerged. During the invasion, this same view would have been crammed with several square miles of ships and boats.