Liberation at the D-Day Beaches

At first light on the morning of 6 June 1944, one of the largest fleets ever assembled appeared in the Baie de la Seine and approached the north coast of Normandy, an area that is now known as the D-Day beaches.

Four years after Nazi Germany’s crushing defeat of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, the Anglo-American Allies finally launched Operation Overlord – the Battle of Normandy. The campaign was kickstarted by Operation Neptune, a massed landing of troops and equipment on the occupied European continent. The invasion would force Germany to open another front, stretching their resources. In the east, German troops were already locked in battle with the Soviet Union; now they would have to confront an enemy approaching from the west.

France

Normandy

Paris

Provence

Northeastern France

Western, southwestern and central France

Alsace and Lorraine

Why Normandy?

Normandy was chosen because of its proximity to the British coast. Allied aircraft would be able to support troops, especially during the landings that would form the initial phase of the assault. Almost as importantly, Britain would be able to supply the Allied armies as they travelled east. German defences along this stretch of coast were also less formidable than on the beaches of Pas de Calais where the Channel was at its narrowest, and where the Germans expected the attack to come.

A fleet of more than 6900 vessels had been assembled to land more than 156,000 men on five Normandy beaches, which were given codenames (from west to east): Utah and Omaha (US), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian) and Sword (British). About 24,000 airborne troops were also deployed to take control of various strategic points and to prevent German attacks on the flanks of the assault forces on shore. D-Day was mostly an Anglo-American effort: British, American and Canadian troops made up most of the numbers, but no fewer than seventeen Allied countries participated on the ground, in the sea and in the air.

Mulberry harbour on Omaha Beach © Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Success of Operation Overlord

Despite unstable weather conditions and fierce resistance from German units, Overlord maintained its element of surprise until the last minute, and the operation was largely successful. On the evening of 6 June 1944, while not all objectives had been achieved, the Allies had gained a foothold on all five beaches: the invaders were established before the German troops could mount a counterattack.

Today, the shore of Calvados department is still called the D-Day coast, and the beaches have retained their codenames. For the most part, the shore consists of innocuous beaches backed by gentle dunes; it is hard to imagine that this small strip of Europe was won at the cost of 10,000 Allied casualties. There are a great number of memorials, monuments, museums and other sites connected to the events of 1944 that can be visited today.

US airborne landings

An essential preliminary to the D-Day landings was an airborne assault on the defences of Normandy during the night of 5–6 June 1944. The 82nd and 101st US airborne divisions were tasked with establishing a bridgehead on the western flank of the Allied assault area, behind Utah beach. Under the cover of darkness, 13,348 paratroopers jumped from 821 Douglas C-47 planes, while 4400 more soldiers were transported in gliders. Their mission was to support the American infantry troops when they landed at Utah Beach and to help take Cherbourg as fast as possible.

The 82nd Division, led by General Matthew B. Ridgway, was tasked with taking Sainte-Mère-Église, a village on the main road linking Caen to Cherbourg – the thoroughfare was deemed a likely route for a German counterattack. The paratroopers also blew up a number of bridges to prevent German reinforcements coming in from the south. Other strategically located bridges were protected for future Allied military operations.

The 101st Airborne Division, under General Maxwell D. Taylor, was to secure a safe exit for troops from the landing beaches. Units of this division also conducted raids against inland targets, including the German gun battery in Saint-Martin-de-Varreville and a number of bridges leading to Carentan.

As the transport aircraft closed in on the French coast, scouts marked out six drop zones with beacons and lights. This approach was successful in just one of these sectors: most paratroopers landed outside the designated areas, and chaos ensued as the different units tried to link up. Regardless, the two US airborne divisions accomplished most of their missions; most importantly, Sainte-Mère-Église was liberated in the early hours of 6 June. In the afternoon, the Germans staged a counterattack, but the lightly armed airborne troops held out until the next day when they were reinforced by tanks from nearby Utah Beach.

US airborne landings sites

Airborne Museum

This museum is essentially dedicated to the memory of American paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions who were dropped over the base of the Cotentin peninsula during the night of 5–6 June 1944. Its vast collection of uniforms, weaponry and other military memorabilia includes an example of the famous troop transportation plane, the Douglas C-47 (also known as “Skytrain”), as well as a Waco glider – the only such specimen surviving in France. A legendary American training and reconnaissance plane known as the Piper Cub has pride of place in the hall of the museum’s extension.

A Sherman tank outside the Airborne Museum © Michael R Evans/Shutterstock

D-Day Experience (Dead Man’s Corner Museum)

The D-Day Experience is located on a strategic crossroads (Dead Man’s Corner) that was fiercely contested on 6 and 7 June 1944. The “Dead Man” in question is Walter T. Anderson, a tank commander whose lifeless body was exposed for all to see while fighting continued around him.

The 101st Airborne Division landed behind German lines just after midnight on 6 June, making them the first Allied soldiers to step foot on French soil. These men would fight for 33 consecutive days of the coming battle. One of the division’s first missions was taking Carentan, an essential gain so that tanks would be able to move inland from Utah Beach. St-Côme-du-Mont, the last village before Carentan on the N-131 main road, was defended by an entrenched outfit of Luftwaffe paratroopers who had been ordered to hold their position at all cost. When the first American tank reached the St-Côme-du-Mont intersection and turned towards Carentan, it was hit in the turret by a German rocket. The tank was incapacitated, while its commander hung dead from its hatch; he remained like that for several days as the battle raged.

Today’s museum contains a large collection of German and American paratrooper memorabilia.

La Fière Bridge and Iron Mike Monument

One of the essential missions of the 82nd Airborne Division was to take the bridges spanning the Merderet river and those of Chef-du-Pont, all located west of Sainte-Mère-Église. Between 6 and 9 June 1944, the area around Merderet – swampy land purposely flooded by the Germans – was the setting of several brutal battles.

On 6 June, at daybreak, a company belonging to the US 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), along with soldiers from the 507th and 508th regiments, stormed the manor of La Fière and the bridge over the Merderet river. By the end of the afternoon, German forces, though backed up by tanks, had failed to recapture the bridge. Over the following two days German forces counterattacked repeatedly, but in spite of a lack of ammunition, the American soldiers stood their ground. On 9 June, General James Gavin led a bloody assault through the flooded areas to take control of the road and secure it. Supported by tanks from Utah Beach, American paratroopers managed, finally, to take the village of Cauquigny; the victory put an end to the battle of the Merderet river.

A statue was erected in 1961 to pay tribute to the American paratroopers and infantry men who lost their lives here, baptized “Iron Mike”. A similar statue can be seen in Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where the 82nd Airborne Division was – and still is – based.

Utah Beach

Utah Beach was the codename for D-Day’s westernmost landing beach, on the east coast of the Cotentin peninsula, which stretches from Sainte-Marie-du-Mont to Quinéville. Here, the US 4th Infantry Division came ashore with the task of establishing a bridgehead at the base of the peninsula, an important assignment in the Allied effort to seize the deep-water port of Cherbourg as quickly as possible. Airborne troops, dropped overnight, cleared the enemy positions that threatened the exits from the beach.

The German strongpoint on the beach at La Madeleine, composed of various shelters and bunkers, a grenade launcher and four cannons designed to withstand tanks, was damaged by the air and naval bombardments of D-Day to such an extent that it offered little resistance to the American assault forces. Although many units landed nearly 2km southeast of their designated areas, creating much confusion, the operation was declared a success by nightfall, with relatively few American casualties.

Utah Beach became especially important after D-Day as a place to land equipment and other supplies. From June to November 1944 an endless stream of men and materials arrived in France via Utah Beach. In total, forty percent of all American troops brought to northwest Europe (836,000 men) came ashore here, along with 223,000 vehicles of all sizes and 725,000 tons of supplies.

Utah Beach sites

Utah Beach D-Day Museum

The Utah Beach D-Day Museum stands on the site of the former German strongpoint that was eliminated by the US assault force on 6 June 1944. Today, it displays a wide range of German and American military items related to the landings. The 4th US Infantry Division and its 8th Infantry Regiment – the first men to touch down on the beach – are specially emphasized, but attention is also paid to the US Corps of Engineers that cleared the beach of dangerous obstacles and traps set by the German forces. Space is also reserved for the 101st US Airborne Division, which liberated the area of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont where the museum stands. A real highlight, and the central exhibit of the museum, is a rare Martin B26 G “Marauder”, an American twin-engined medium bomber of which no more than six survive today.

Crisbecq Battery Museum

During the occupation of France, the German Navy set up a huge battery of 210mm guns in Crisbecq, a small village located in the Saint-Marcouf district. The battery represented a real danger for the ships transporting American troops to the Utah Beach landing areas, and it was bombarded by Allied aircraft in the early days of spring 1944, as well as during the night of 5 June. Suffering little damage, the battery opened fire on the Allied naval forces on the morning of D-Day. In the ensuing artillery exchange the fleet succeeded in knocking out three of the German guns, but the gunners aimed their remaining cannon towards Utah Beach itself. Many American soldiers from the 22nd Infantry Regiment (4th Division) died in a vain attempt to take the German position. The four hundred German soldiers commanded by German Naval Lieutenant Walter Ohmsen stubbornly resisted the American ground troops and paratroopers over the coming days, before finally withdrawing on the night of 11 June.

The battery museum comprises a number of fortified buildings, typical of the structures of the Atlantic Wall, as well as anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and a kitchen for the use of German personnel. Although the large guns have been removed, visitors can probe a wealth of military paraphernalia, including weapons and uniforms. The battery also gives a good insight into the living conditions of German soldiers before the Allied landings.

Memorial to Freedom Regained

Everyday civilian life under German occupation is the main focus of this museum, which has a reconstructed street complete with shops, an Atlantic Wall bunker, a cinema and scenes populated by 75 life-sized wax figures.

Omaha Beach

D-Day is chiefly remembered for its success, but one beach stands out for its near catastrophic failure. American troops landing on this 6km strip of shore had to contend with German defences that were still virtually intact, and suffered by far the highest losses of D-Day: 4700 killed, wounded or missing. It didn’t take long for the survivors to dub this beach “Bloody Omaha”.

The two US infantry divisions that landed here from 6.30am onwards (the 1st Division on the eastern half of the beach and the 29th division on the western half) both came ashore under heavy fire; the first two assault waves were decimated within a few minutes. Engineer battalions responsible for clearing the beaches of obstacles also suffered heavy losses. Amidst the chaos, small groups were still able to infiltrate between the German fortifications and gain a foothold inland. On the evening of D-Day, however, the situation was still precarious.

Several factors help explain the heavy losses at Omaha. Preparatory bombardments had failed to clear the German defences, which in turn protected higher numbers of German troops than the Allies had anticipated. On D-Day itself, Allied landing craft unloaded their human cargoes too far out; soldiers had to wade unprotected for several hundred metres through water that came up to their waists, while the amphibious tanks that would have offered the infantry at least some protection in the early stages of the assault struggled to get ashore, some sinking completely in the rough seas. With little support and a taxing battle to reach the beach, the Allied invaders made easy targets for the German guns. Inhabiting fifteen strongpoints called Widerstandsnester, the Germans were perfectly placed to fire mercilessly on Omaha. Standing on the hillsides above the beach today, it is easy to understand why the Allied forces faced such devastating odds.

Omaha Beach sites

Pointe du Hoc

By late 1942, the Germans had installed an artillery battery at Pointe du Hoc, a prominent cliff overlooking the English Channel. Composed of six 155mm guns positioned in open concrete gun pits (later under casemates), this battery was able to cover the beaches that had been selected for the landing of American troops: Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east. Aware of the threat, the Allies bombed the battery many times before the landing. To ensure its complete destruction, they entrusted the task of scaling the cliff, seizing the fortifications and disabling the guns to the 2nd US Ranger battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Earl Rudder.

On the morning of D-Day, after a perilous ascent with rope ladders and grappling hooks, the US commandos clashed with German gunners; only when they had overcome the defenders did the rangers realize that the gun bunkers were empty and the guns missing. A short search revealed the guns hidden in a sunken road nearby.

Since 1979, the conservation of this site, threatened by coastal erosion, has been assigned to the American Battle Monuments Commission. Considerable work has been undertaken to allow the public to visit. Amid the lunar landscape created by bombs and large-calibre shells, one can distinguish several concrete buildings: shelters for staff, anti-aircraft artillery positions, bunkers and cannon and ammunition pits. Above the fortifications, at the cliff edge, an impressive memorial offers a splendid view of the coast.

Pointe du Hoc © Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock

La Cambe German Military Cemetery

Of the six German military cemeteries in Normandy, La Cambe, with 21,200 graves, is the largest and best known. The other German cemeteries are found at Champigny/Saint-André-de-l’Eure, Mont-de-Huines, Marigny, Orglandes and Saint-Désir-de-Lisieux. In total, the remains of 80,000 German soldiers are buried in Normandy; some died before the Battle of Normandy, others in captivity after it. La Cambe dates from the summer of 1944, when the US Army established two temporary cemeteries on the battlefield near the village of La Cambe, one reserved for US soldiers, the other for German troops. After the war, the American Battle Monuments Commission decided to move the remains of the US soldiers to the cemetery of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer.

In the 1950s, the administration of German cemeteries was entrusted to the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, a private humanitarian organization charged by the Federal Republic of Germany with taking care of the German war dead abroad, under the motto “Versöhnung über den Gräbern” or “reconciliation over the graves”. Like other German military cemeteries from World War I and II, La Cambe reflects the status of the defeated. The crosses and headstones are hewn of dark stone, in accordance with a convention that the Treaty of Versailles had already established in 1919 for World War I cemeteries. The bucolic character of the present cemetery urges visitors to remember to live in peace.

Overlord Museum

Tanks, guns, posters, signs, uniforms, documents, personal items and even a V1 flying bomb are all part of this extraordinary collection. It was gathered together by the late Michel Leloup, who was 15 at the time of D-Day and became fascinated by the history of the liberation of Normandy.

Normandy American Cemetery

Long lines of white marble Latin crosses and stars of David mark the graves of 9380 US soldiers who died in Normandy, particularly in the savage conflict on nearby Omaha Beach. There are no individual epitaphs, just gold lettering for a few exceptional warriors. A half circle of columns, elaborate statuary and a great reflecting pond combine to make a lasting impression, while a semi-circular wall on the east side of the memorial records the names of 1557 soldiers missing in action, whose bodies were not found, let alone identified. Large maps and commentaries in the loggias explain the Allied operations in Normandy and northwestern Europe; an orientation table shows the strategic movements of troops during the first days of the invasion; and a vantage point offers a sweeping panorama of Omaha Beach. A second American Cemetery in Normandy is situated just outside the town of Saint James.

Gold Beach

The central beach of the D-Day invasion, between La Rivière and Le Hamel, was nominated Gold Beach and assigned to the British XXX Corps. Because of differences in the tide, troops landed here nearly an hour after the Americans on the beaches to the west. Soldiers disembarking on Gold had a relatively easy time – certainly compared to Omaha – losing 413 (killed or wounded) of the 25,000 men that made it ashore, aided by tanks equipped with flails which were able to clear a path through the minefields. By evening, the XXX Corps had taken Arromanches and penetrated the suburbs of Bayeux. They were able to join up with the Canadians coming from Juno Beach, but not with the Americans from Omaha – that would take three more days. Gold was particularly important to the Allied invasion planners because it was here that they were to install a floating artificial port, or Mulberry Harbour, an innovation which would prove vital for supplying the armies moving inland.

Gold Beach sites

Longues-sur-Mer German battery

The German artillery battery at Longues-sur-Mer was perfectly located to oppose the landings of 6 June 1944. Installed slightly back from the edge of a sixty-metre-high cliff, it sat directly opposite the Allied fleet, and right between Omaha and Gold beaches. The battery consisted of four 150mm guns in concrete bunkers, plus one 120mm gun. Still under construction in May 1944, the battery was operational but the firing command post on the edge of the cliff did not yet have all the equipment necessary for calculating effective fire against naval targets.

On D-Day, the Longues-sur-Mer battery engaged in a protracted duel with the Allied fleet, forcing a number of its vessels to retreat. However, the five guns of the battery were gradually silenced, some destroyed by direct hits. Finally, British troops landing at Gold Beach took the battery on 7 June, capturing the survivors of the battery’s 180-strong garrison. Today, the German battery constitutes one of the best-preserved World War II military sites in the country, and is the only one where you can still see some of the original cannons, capable of firing shells weighing 45kg over a staggering 22km. The view from the firing command post, dug into the cliff, offers a vast panorama over the Bay of the Seine.

D-Day Museum

The first Normandy museum built to commemorate the events of 6 June 1944 (and onwards), the D-Day Museum was funded by the sale of the wrecks that once littered the coastline, and was inaugurated on 5 June 1954. It is located in front of the former artificial port – or Mulberry harbour – that facilitated the landings of two and a half million men and half a million vehicles. A model inside the museum explains how the port facilities were constructed and used, while a film retraces the stages of design, construction and assembly. Vivid photographs evoke the storm of 19–22 June that nearly destroyed the artificial port. Behind the museum and on the beach, visitors can see the metal remains of the harbour’s floating road.

Juno Beach

The stretch of beach from Graye-sur-Mer to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer (including the towns of Courseulles and Bernières) was assigned to the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, led by Major General Rod Keller. Success here was not guaranteed; several issues played out on D-Day morning and the Canadian troops were pitted against determined German opposition. Initial naval bombardment had not been effective, and stormy seas caused delays in landing craft reaching the shore, allowing the Germans, holed up in their bunkers, to organize serious resistance. Many landing craft were hit by gunfire or damaged by underwater obstacles. The Canadian assault units nevertheless succeeded – with tank support – destroying the German positions one by one.

Fighting was particularly heavy at Bernières, and even more so at Courseulles, a small but heavily defended port at the mouth of the Seulles. It was in Saint-Aubin, however, that combat was fiercest. It took a good part of D-Day to neutralize a 50mm gun overlooking the beach, protected by field-fortifications (felled trees) blocking the narrow streets of the village. Saint-Aubin was finally secured during the night of 6 June.

Dogged German resistance led to congestion at the few beach exits. Hampered by the build-up of vehicles, Canadian troops still managed to advance deep inland; they made remarkable progress on D-Day at the cost of 961 casualties (including 319 killed). The following day, their advance was cut short northwest of Caen by the arrival of German armoured reinforcements.

Several VIPs landed on the west beach of Courseulles in the days after D-Day: Winston Churchill on 12 June; General de Gaulle on 14 June, en route to Bayeux; and King George VI, who visited the British troops on 16 June.

Juno Beach sites

Juno Beach Centre

More than a museum dedicated to the landings on D-Day, the Juno Beach Centre remembers the sacrifice of a nation: it recalls Canada’s contribution to World War II and the Liberation. The modern museum stands opposite the beach in Courseulles-sur-Mer, on the site of a German strongpoint that protected the harbour entrance and which the 3rd Canadian Division successfully neutralized on 6 June 1944.

Canada entered the war alongside the United Kingdom in September 1939 and made a considerable effort to mobilize its economic and human resources. More than one million Canadians fought for the Allied cause and more than 45,000 lost their lives. At the end of World War II, Canada was transformed, but its national unity remained intact.

The Juno Beach Centre provides a comprehensive overview of Canada’s role in the war through six thematic showrooms. An emotive film, entitled “Dans leurs pas” (“They walk with you”), allows visitors to follow the story of an individual Canadian infantryman.

Juno Beach Centre © Pack-Shot/Shutterstock

Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery

The Canadian War Cemetery called Bény-sur-Mer (but actually located in the town area of Reviers) overlooks Juno Beach. It contains the remains of more than two thousand Canadian soldiers who fell during the first weeks of the Battle of Normandy, notably during the bloody confrontation with the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend before the liberation of Caen on 9 July.

A second Canadian cemetery in Normandy is located in Bretteville-sur-Laize, south of Caen. It is the final resting place of 2800 Canadian soldiers killed during the very laborious advancement of the 2nd Canadian Corps towards Falaise between July and August 1944.

1944 Radar Museum

The Radar Museum in Douvres was built on the grounds of a former bunker and – as its name suggests – tells the story of radar during World War II. A new and innovative technology, radar was used by both the Allies and the Axis, particularly by their air forces and navies. Exhibitions also detail life in Douvres during the Nazi occupation, the Liberation and local de-mining operations.

British airborne landings

In the early hours of D-Day, the British 6th Airborne Division, under Major General Richard Gale, was dropped behind the German coastal defences of Sword Beach. Its mission, known as Operation Tonga, was to protect the left flank of the landings by gaining control of the area between the Orne and Dives rivers. But that night, with thick clouds impairing the visibility of its pilots, a strong easterly wind scattered the paratroopers over an erroneously large area, causing widespread confusion.

The parachutists were to capture two strategic bridges crossing the Orne River and the Caen Canal; these were taken after just minutes of intensive fighting by five glider crews that had landed close by. The division destroyed several more bridges over the Dives river in a bid to prevent or delay a German counterattack, before attempting to neutralize the German artillery battery of Merville, which would threaten British troops landing on Sword Beach at dawn. The battery was disabled only after fierce combat – which witnessed a casualty rate of fifty percent.

Despite the chaos that surrounded the British airborne landings, all the objectives of Operation Tonga had been achieved when day broke on 6 June, but at a high price.

British airborne landings sites

Merville Battery Museum

Just after midnight on 6 June 1944, a battalion of the 6th British Airborne Division was deployed to destroy the four large guns of the German battery at Merville before they could be used against the landing forces on Sword Beach. Allied intelligence suspected the German battery could greatly hinder the advance of the landing troops as they made their way inland. British Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway and his 9th Parachute Battalion were tasked with carrying out the daring mission to storm the battery, surrounded by barbed wire, land mines and machine gun nests.

Of the 750 paratroopers who were dispersed in the air, only 150 managed to assemble on the ground. Despite lacking much of their equipment, they went ahead with the assault, and after a half-hour the battery was theirs. Nearly half of the British paratroopers were killed or wounded; of the 130 German soldiers defending the battery, just one quarter survived. Only when the site was taken did it become clear that the intelligence services had overestimated the calibre of the cannon.

A Franco-British partnership founded the Merville Battery Museum in 1983. One of the four emplacements has been fitted with a 100mm field howitzer, identical to the one deployed in 1944. Inside the museum area, visitors can also admire a Dakota plane used in the airborne assaults on 6 June.

A C-47 Dakota plane at the Merville Battery Museum © goalman74/Shutterstock

Memorial Pegasus

For the 6th British Airborne Division, the most important mission on 6 June 1944 was to capture the twin bridges that crossed over two parallel stretches of water – the Canal de Caen and the Orne river – intact. This would enable the troops on Sword Beach to proceed rapidly east of the Orne. D-Day preparations were shrouded in secrecy and the element of surprise was key; this mission marked the first Allied action in the British sector.

A company of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, commanded by Major Howard and reinforced by sappers, was deployed at 12.20am near the two bridges. One of the six gliders landed a dozen kilometres from the objective, but the other five accurately deployed their assault detachments. At the bridge over the Canal de Caen, the better guarded of the two crossings, Allied troops surprised the small garrison and emerged victorious after a brief but vicious engagement. The bridge over the Orne river, guarded by two German sentries, was taken without a shot being fired. Reinforced by further parachutists during the night, Howard’s men were joined in the early hours of the afternoon by the commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade, who had landed at dawn on Sword Beach.

Replaced in 1994 to accommodate river traffic, the original bridge (nicknamed Pegasus Bridge) is the focus of the Memorial Pegasus museum. Inside the vaguely glider-shaped building, informative boards explain the attack in detail, accompanied by the expected array of helmets, goggles and medals, as well as photographs and models used to plan the assault. A life-size replica of an Airspeed Horsa glider is also exhibited.

Sword Beach

Sword was the codename for the easternmost of the five landing beaches, from Langrune to Ouistreham. The objective at Sword was ambitious: troops coming ashore were to protect the left flank of the Allied bridgehead in Normandy – in liaison with the 6th Airborne Division which had landed overnight between the Orne and Dives rivers – and to seize the strategically important city of Caen, 15km inland.

The assault on Sword was led by the 3rd British Infantry Division, reinforced by the commandos of the 1st and 4th Special Service Brigades and supported by specially adapted tanks. The commandos neutralized the German strongpoints by attacking them from two sides. After clearing Ouistreham of hostile units, the 1st Special Service Brigade was able to join up with the paratroopers at Bénouville and take up position on the east bank of the Orne. In contrast, the commandos due to connect with the Canadians from Juno Beach failed to make their rendezvous; they were attacked by the 21st German Panzer Division, which lost fifty tanks in the resultant battle.

Congestion on Sword Beach, and determined resistance by several German strongpoints further inland, prevented the British from capturing Caen on 6 June as they had hoped. More than a month of fighting would ensue before the liberation of Caen, which finally fell to the Allies on 9 July 1944.

Sword Beach sites

Grand Bunker Atlantic Wall Museum

Housed in a lofty bunker, the Atlantic Wall Museum was headquarters to several German batteries, controlling the entrance to the Orne river and the canal connecting Caen to the sea. It fell to Allied forces on 9 June 1944. The 17-metre-high concrete tower has since been fully restored to its D-Day appearance.

The six floors of the Grand Bunker have been recreated to show what the living quarters would have been like, with newspapers, cutlery and cigarette packets adding a human touch to the explanations of the generators, gas filters and radio room. Other rooms to explore include the dormitory, medical store, sick bay, armoury and arsenal; there’s also an observation post equipped with a powerful range-finder. The top floor offers a fabulous 360-degree panorama across Sword Beach and the Bay of the Seine.

Atmospheric photographs, historic documents and weathered items explain the construction of the Atlantic Wall; its artillery and the beach defences are also covered, as are the tactics used by specially trained shock troops who had to find a way through the Wall.

Top image: Omaha Beach after D-Day © Everett Historical/Shutterstock

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Sarah Clark
6/11/2019
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