France // Normandy //

The D-Day beaches

At dawn on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Allied troops landed at points along the Normandy coast from the mouth of the Orne to the eastern Cotentin Peninsula. For the most part, the shore consists of innocuous beaches backed by gentle dunes, and yet this foothold in Europe was won at the cost of 100,000 lives. The ensuing Battle of Normandy killed thousands of civilians and reduced nearly six hundred towns and villages to rubble, but within a week of its eventual conclusion, Paris was liberated.

The various D-Day beaches are still widely referred to by their wartime code names. The British and Commonwealth forces landed on Sword, Juno and Gold beaches between Ouistreham and Arromanches; the Americans, further west on Omaha and Utah beaches. Substantial traces of the fighting are rare, the most remarkable being the remains of the astounding Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, 10km northeast of Bayeux. Further west, at Pointe du Hoc on Omaha Beach, the cliff heights are deeply pitted with German bunkers and shell holes, while the church at Ste-Mère-Église, from whose steeple the US paratrooper dangled during heavy fighting throughout The Longest Day, still stands, and now has a model parachute permanently fastened to the roof.

World War II cemeteries dot the Normandy countryside. While most of the French dead were taken home for burial in the churchyards of their home towns, the remains of fallen foreigners were gathered into cemeteries devoted to the separate warring nations. In total, over 140,000 young men were disinterred; more than half of the 31,744 US casualties were repatriated. In addition, almost every coastal town has its own war museum, in which the wealth of incidental human detail can be overpowering.