We were the heartiest two in our group of eight to make the three-hundred-mile road trip from Paris to the Normandy Beaches and back. That’s probably why the guide started us out in the last row of his van and kept us there during our twelve-hour odyssey. It was a “moving” day from having to climb in and out of the van a few dozen times, but also from standing in the place where history changed on June 6, 1944.
The tour began at Le Mémorial de Caen, which is a museum and war memorial, and ended at Utah Beach. (Actually our first stop was a gas station complete with amenities such as fresh croissants and pain au chocolat.)
Today, the sites near the five Normandy beaches where Allied soldiers landed in 1944 are sleepy tourist towns. But in 1944 they were the destination of more than a million troops — U.S., British, Canadian, Polish, and French — seeking an entry point to engage the Germans in France, which was under Hitler’s control.
What happened June 6? Allies stormed five beaches along the Normandy coast. Their goal was to move on to Paris and then to Germany.
Practically none of the first-day objectives were met. Rough seas, strong currents, cloudy skies, and an unexpected number of German machine gun placements interfered with plans to attack by air and sea and cost thousands of lives that day.
Omaha Beach, one of two assigned to U.S. troops, turned out to be the most difficult to cross, with many casualties occurring the first morning. Allied casualties on all five beaches that day totaled 10,000. Many civilians also died.
The story of the Normandy invasion is one of heroism, plans gone awry, perseverance and eventual success. Many of the soldiers were young (some as young as 17) and innocent. They expected the mission to go easy and end quickly. Instead, anything that could go wrong did. Yet, ultimately, the Allies liberated France. People in this part of France are still grateful for the help they and their ancestors received during that era.