Saturday, March 12, 2011

A visit to the Débarquements de Normandie

Yesterday I visited Normandy and took a guided tour of many of the sites associated with World War II and the allied attacks on the Germans. Before I start, though, I would like to dedicate this post to my Papa, my mom's father, who arrived on Omaha Beach on Dday + 3. (According to our oral family history but I am trying to do some more investigation of that online.) I know it is cheesy to do that but I thought about him a lot yesterday and what his life must have been like for those four years he was in the army. He never really talked about it, according to my mom and her siblings, but he got to see it all again in 1978, which I can imagine was quite difficult.

James E. Handley
Technical Sergeant
U.S. Army July 1942- January 1946
820th Ordnance Base Depot Company

These pictures are not in order of our stops but I am still not proficient at using blogger after all this time to get the pics in an order I want. Anyway...sorry if you are reading this and think that I am over-explaining common knowledge- I didn't know a lot of this stuff and so if it is new to me, maybe it is to others as well.

The following three pictures are from Omaha Beach. I am by no means a historian but I feel like I should at least try to offer a little context for the pictures. So, if I have made any major faux-pas in my captions, please let me know so that I can correct them!
Hillside facing the beach with a German sniper hole.
The hills were quite steep just behind the beach.

Another sniper hole on the hillside.

Everything has been cleared off the beach and it just looks like a normal beach now.

Omaha Beach:
-Omaha was an allied code name. I guess I knew that somewhere in my brain since it is not a word in French, but all of the beaches in the area had code names in the planning. However, now, they are all referred to by their code names.
-There were around 3,000 American casualties from the attack launched on Dday- June 6, 1944. (This was the scene at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.)
-The tides go out very far at this beach and they had to come in at low tide because the Germans had placed many obstacles and mines on the beach that would have been covered at high tide. They, therefore, had to come in very far from the various landing crafts that dropped them off- sometimes in deep water and so they just drowned immediately with the weight of their gear.
-Many injured soldiers died when the tide came in after the initial attack from drowning.
-The German guns were supposed to have been knocked out by planes in advance of the attack but there was low cloud cover and they were unable to hit the correct targets- thus leaving the arriving soldiers in the position of "sitting ducks." The hillsides are very high next to the beach and because they had to come in so far because it was low tide, the American soldiers were easy targets from the hill.
-Once the allied forces took control of the beach a large amount of men unloaded here within a short time. As most people know, June 6, 1944 is considered Dday (which I didn't know until yesterday just means "Day Day" and it is just military speak for whatever day is the attack day- in French it is Jour J which literally just means "Jour Jour")
-I don't normally believe in this kind of stuff, but Omaha Beach really did have an eery kind of feel. As our guide pointed out, there are no shells on the beach, no seagulls, and apparently they get some weird, unexplained red sand that looks like blood. People don't use Omaha Beach as a beach. It has bad juju.

American Cemetery at Omaha Beach:
The next set of pictures are from the American Cemetery just above Omaha Beach. It contains only WWII dead and mostly just from the DDay battles and ensuing attacks. There are around 9,000 Americans buried here and it is closed to new burials. There are other allied and American cemeteries in the area but this is the main American one. If you've ever been to Arlington or any other national cemetery, it is similar in format, but the thing that is different is that it is from a short period of time. Also, it overlooks Omaha Beach and it is on foreign soil, which is technically American on the spot.

Our guide stated that approximately 60% of the visitors are French and in his words, "The French have not forgotten." It might have just been for the benefit of all of the tourists who visit the area, but if I went by what I saw in Normandy, the French indeed have not forgotten. American flags (as well as Canadian and English at the allied sites) flags were everywhere. When my parents took my grandparents to France in 1978, some old women came up to my Papa and hugged him when they found out he had been a US Army soldier.

This was a piece of a tile mosaic on the ceiling of the non-denominational (including Jewish) chapel.

As I walked around, I noticed that many of the graves had this date.
Graves included the soldier's name, rank, unit, death date, and state but no age or birth date.
I wonder if they left those off because it would have been too shocking to see that so many of them were kids.

American flag at the cemetery.

All of the information is given in English and in French.

Jewish soldiers had a Star of David on their grave instead of a cross.

Many soldiers' bodies were found without any identification.
There was also a whole wall of names for the men whose bodies were never found but whose names were known. It was a big wall.

This is the main monument with a reflection pond.
Within the monument are carved granite maps explaining the liberation of France by the allies.
Everything is, again, in both English and French.

From every angle these graves are in a straight line.
This statue is called "Spirit of American Youth" and is a man rising from waves/water.

We also visited the site of the allied "floating harbor." This was just down the coast from Omaha and Utah beaches.
-Arromanches was liberated on DDay +1 by the British but the town was very heavily bombed.
-The allied forces constructed a massive artificial harbor out of floating concrete blocks surrounded by a breakwater of old, sunken warships.
-As always in this area, tides were a huge issue and so they had to construct something that would work in both low and high tides.
-This floating harbor was only operational for a short time because after about 18 days in use, the worst storm in about 40 years hit the Normandy coast and so severely damaged it that it could no longer be used.

Parts of the floating harbor. These were called Mulberry A and Mulberry B.

Off in the distance, you can still see some of the concrete blocks.
They were about 200 X 50 feet so those don't just go away in 70 years.

The reason I wanted to take a guided tour was to hear the little stories that I wouldn't get to know about otherwise because I would have been too busy trying to find my way around. Sainte-Mère-Eglise is a town inland from the beaches where soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division landed when they pretty much all jumped and landed at wrong spots because of the weather. One of the soldiers landed on top of the church and was caught there for days. He apparently played dead but was eventually cut down by the Germans but then escaped. I haven't seen it, but the movie "The Longest Day" is about this.

Also in front of this church was a ROMAN ROAD SIGNPOST! WHAT? How cool!
Makes you remember that really, Europe has a long history and the Germans were just another in a series of invaders.

They put a dummy on top of the church to show how the parachuter was stuck.

The windows in the church show the Virgin Mary with American paratroopers.

Angoville au Plain:
This was another one of those cool things that you'd only know about from a guided tour and it was really cool. We visited a tiny church in the hamlet of Angoville au Plain which only has about 50 residents. During the war, two 19-year-old American medics used it as a field hospital for several days for American, allied forces, Germans, and local civilians. The medics did not discriminate and cared only that the people were injured.

After it had been used as a field hospital, the doors were shut and locked. They were not opened until more than 50 years later when an old American man who had been a patient came to see it and basically just broke in. So, because it was closed all those years, it had some pretty amazing features.
These stains are ACTUAL BLOOD from wounded soldiers on the church pews.

The town decided, upon the anniversary of DDay in 2004, to recreate their church windows to thank the two medics for their service to the people of the town.

The medics were from the 101st Airborne Division.

People haven't forgotten.

Pointe du Hoc:
If you have ever seen the movie "Holes," this is what this area looks like. However, instead of holes dug by kids, they are giant bomb craters. Pointe du Hoc was a site occupied by Germans and was considered virtually untouchable because it has giant limestone cliffs leading up to it and all around it. It is a "point" of land out into the English Channel. An elite squad of American paratroopers trained for months on scaling cliffs in preparation for taking this point. However, they were dropped in the wrong spot, and were basically slaughtered by the Germans because they'd been detected climbing the cliffs.

Also, when the survivors got to the top, the mission had been for naught as the Germans had moved all of the weapons that they'd thought had been stashed there. They eventually found the weapons just inland and were able to destroy them.

You can't forget a war occurred less than 70 years ago when you see giant craters surrounded by concrete gun holes and gun stands.
The craters were about 10-15 deep.

This was a picture our guide had from during the war when the Americans had taken Pointe du Hoc.
I took the same view as the picture from above.
This is what it looks like today. Part of the actual point was bombed out and so it is no longer connected to the land.

Utah Beach:
Utah Beach was further down the coastline from Omaha Beach but the terrain in the area is very different. There are no bluffs overlooking the beach, it is virtually flat so there were not as many sniper opportunities. And, during the attack, it wasn't like with Omaha Beach on DDay where just about everything that could go wrong, went wrong.

The planes who were sent to pre-bomb the area were able to hit their targets because they could fly lower due to the lack of bluffs. So, more of the German guns were knocked out. Also, the tides are slightly differently timed here so the naval support from the seaside could be stronger and closer here. Interestingly, a Danish naval ship provided some of the support so there is a Danish war memorial here too. Utah Beach had only about 400 dead. Though that is a high number, compared to Omaha Beach, it is a fraction.

The feeling here was very different from Omaha Beach. I can't explain it. Utah Beach had different juju.
Utah Beach. Again, like Omaha Beach, just looks like a regular beach.

Naval Monument recognizing the contributions of the American and Allied Navies in providing fire support for the invasion.

I'm really glad I took this side trip. It was well worth the cost of a guided tour as I learned a lot and had context for everything I was seeing. It was definitely weird to be in a van full of Americans (especially because a few of them were total rednecks who had only been in France for three days but were complaining about how much they missed American food and that they just wanted a Big Mac-THREE DAYS???? WAY TO BE THE STEREOTYPE!). The real reason it was weird is because my brain hasn't adjusted to speaking English full time and French words kept popping out of my mouth. I doubt this will happen once everything around me is in English again, but while everything else is still in French, it was weird to speak English for a whole day!

So, now I am doing a little research to see if I can find out more about what my Papa's regiment actually did and where they were during the war. From what I can see they were in England, France, Belgium, and Germany and so it will be interesting to see if I can find the whole record.

À la prochaine....

I leave France to go back to England on Thursday.


Paula said...

What a wonderful commentary, Liz. To know that you are where your grandfather was and to see what he saw at a horrific time was quite an experience. I learned so much from your "guided tour" that I didn't know -- Day Day. I thought it would be something like Death Day or Devastation Day. Just a simple Day Day hardly captures it.

Anonymous said...

I, too, am glad that you were able to go there. If you count the fact that you were in utero the first time in April, 1978, you were actually there with Papa. I think that your spending time in the area of France where he was is very special. It is almost certain that when I chose to take French in high school, there was a suble influence there from the fact that my dad was there. Then, you took French, and Derek. Nice post, my dear daughter. xxoo Mom

Chris Levy said...

Hi Liz
Very good report. I wonder have you seen my website Got lots of photos of the 820th when they were in Lockerley, Hampshire in 1944. I am in touch with Capt. Duane Hart's grandson who supplied the photos. There are also some taken in France.Hope this helps
Chris Levy

Jonathan Hart said...

Liz, great photos! As Chris Levy mentioned, I do have a lot of photos that were taken by my grandfather, Duane Hart, while he was stationed with the 820th Ordnance Base Depot Company in Southern England in 1943-44, and as the commanding officer of the 820th in Cherbourg, France. A lot of the photos can be seen at the attached Flickr link, but I'll be scouring the shoebox again for any photos that might include your Papa!

Pappa said...

Dont seem to be anyone managing this message board Jonathan, shame really

Chris Levy said...

Put my name as Pappa for some strange reason