This weekend past I was lucky enough to be in Arromanches-les-Bains on the Normandy coast, at the centre of Gold Beach during the D-Day Landings and the location of the Mulberry harbours, the remnants of which can still be seen today.
On the day itself, the 6th June, Arromanches was the host for a number of ceremonies featuring veterans with chests full of medals, reenactors, civic and military representatives and people from across Europe who all came to pay their respects and witness the spectacle.
Apart from a vast array of Jeeps, motorbikes and various armoured personal carriers we were also lucky enough to witness a Spitfire and Mustang fly by. There is something about hearing the growl of the aircraft engine and trying to spot the plane, only for it to howl overhead, that sends shivers down your spine.
The first museum of many was also at Arromanches. The museum there is mainly focussed on the Mulberry harbours with some excellent scale models as well as various pieces of kit from the time.
Walking up the hill from the museum gives you an excellent view of the harbour from the Sherman tank encased in concrete at the top. It also seemed to be a favoured spot for another gaggle of Jeeps.
We then drove the coastal roads of Normandy in brilliant sunshine, stopping every so often to sample the local food and drink and to examine the bocage, the source of so much misery for the Allied soldiers when they landed.
At Longues-sur-Mer we stopped to examine the gun batteries, part of the Atlantic Wall defences that sat between Gold and Omaha beaches. There is some evidence of the barrage of shell they endured but they were surprisingly well preserved and standing by the guns you could see far out to see where the invasion fleet would have been assembled.
Further along the picturesque coast we stopped at another tiny port nestling between cliffs Port-en-Bessin-Huppain and wandered around as music from the Forties was piped through the streets and flags snapped in the wind. Then it was on to Omaha beach and the Overlord museum at Colleville-sur-Mer where they have a good collection of armoured vehicles of the time, all presented in detailed dioramas with informative captions:
Day two and we hit Bayeux for a piece of Norman history with a visit to the tapestry. I’ve seen the images of William and Harold a thousand times but nothing prepares you for the original. Truly a magnificent document. Then it was a brief walk through the quiet streets of Bayeux, past the cathedral to another museum about the invasion where we saw more on the combatants, weapons and impact of the invasion.
In the afternoon we got to do something very special. We jumped back in the car and drove to Carentan where the 101st Airborne Division had fought their way into town. We had come to see the folks from Histoire & Collections, fine purveyors of military history and living history enthusiasts. Camp Arizona collected a fantastic area of vehicles, hardware and reenactors in two fields of kit.
After test driving a Jeep (terrible brakes and a tendency to roll over) and being pillion passenger on a Military Police Harley it was time for some dinner.
They did actually taste like chicken.
Sadly this was just a flying visit to Normandy with a brief stop at Juno beach and a duplex drive Sherman. In roughly three days of holiday we got to see a tremendous amount but missed so much more. You could take a trip to Normandy and comfortably fill a week with museums, invasion beaches, picturesque villages, calvados and monuments to the fallen of Operation Overlord. If you are going to do it get over there for the 6th June. The warmth of the locals and the ceremonies of respect are especially moving.
Essential reading for your trip:
Airborne: The Combat Story of Ed Shames of Easy Company
Campaign 268 - Operation Neptune 1944
Raid 1 - Rangers Lead the Way – Pointe-du-Hoc D-Day 1944
Raid 11 - Pegasus Bridge – Bénouville D-Day 1944
New Vanguard 115 - Landing Ship, Tank (LST) 1942–2002
New Vanguard 117 - Jeeps 1941–45
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