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The Normandy beaches of D-Day

73 years ago today the beaches of Normandy saw the largest seaborne invasion in history - 6th June 1944 or D-Day marked the beginning of the Allied campaign to wrestle occupied Europe from Nazi control

D–Day in Numbers

  • 156,000 Allied troops landed on the 1st day
  • 62,000 British, 73,000 American and 21,400 Canadian
  • 11,950 aircraft
  • Over 6,900 naval vessels
  • 4,413 Allied troops died on the 1st day
  • German losses are estimated between 4,000 and 9,000 (no official record exists)
  • Within 5 days, over 326,000 Allied troops had landed with 105,000 tons of supplies

Operation Neptune

The beaches of Normandy’s Cotentin peninsula were chosen for their proximity to the UK, and the relative ease therefore of maintaining supply lines. There was also a much smaller concentration of German forces than further north in Picardy and the Pas de Calais.

Meticulous planning preceded the invasion, and included a number of decoy activities designed to draw focus away from the real invasion. These decoys proved successful to a large extent, notably Operation Bodyguard, which resulted in the reinforcement of German forces in the Pas de Calais region. The Normandy landings took the Germans largely by surprise.

D-Day was originally planned for 5th June but was dependent on favourable weather. The Allies had hoped for a full moon, a low tide and gentle winds. In the event, the weather on 5th June was very poor – stormy conditions at sea, and low cloud which would have severely restricted parachute activities. The invasion was therefore delayed until the following day, 6th June, to take advantage of a significant improvement in weather condition. Had this date been missed, then the next opportunity would not have arisen until 14 days later!

The landings were preceded by massive aerial and naval bombardment, including hundreds of paratroopers. Then, from midnight, the first of the troops began to land.

The target stretch of the Normandy coast was divided for operational purposes into 5 zones Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The names were simply chosen for their clarity and avoidance of any possible confusion, and are still largely in use today. The Allied troops landed under heavy fire; at its most intense at Omaha Beach, largely as a result of its high cliffs.

Little by little, the German forces were pushed back and, by the close of the first day, Juno and Gold beaches were linked, and Allied troops began to liberate Normandy’s towns and cities, and the painstaking route to Paris, culminating with the capital’s liberation on 25th August 1944.

Nowadays, numerous monuments and museums bear testimony to the momentous events which began on D-Day. Amongst the most poignant cemeteries are the British cemeteries at Bayeux and Ranville, the vast American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, and the German cemetery at La Cambe.

D-day snapshots

Caen Memorial

The Mémorial de Caen is a major, state-of-the-art museum, opened on 6h June 1988 (44th anniversary of D-Day) by President François Mitterand. The primary focus of the museum is the 2nd World War, but a series of magnificent peace gardens have been added, along with a special gallery devoted to the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. The Mémorial is now one of the most visited sites in Normandy with over 630,000 visitors annually.

Pegasus Bridge

Pegasus Bridge is a bascule bridge located on the Caen canal, between Caen and the port of Ouistreham. The bridge, along with its neighbour, Ranville Bridge, was the first site to be liberated in Normandy, in the opening minutes of D-Day. Known at the time as Bénouville Bridge, it was renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the liberating airborne British troops. Pegasus, the winged horse, was the emblem worn on their sleeves. The original bridge was replaced in 1994, and is still on display in the nearby museum.

Café Gondrée

To this day, Café Gondrée is a welcoming, old fashioned café, located adjacent to Pegasus Bridge. It has become renowned as one of the first houses to be liberated in the June 1944 campaign. British troops received a very warm welcome and legend has it that a good number of bottles of fine champagne, buried for safekeeping, were dug up and shared amongst the troops. The café’s current owner, Arlette Gondrée, was 4 years old at the time of the invasion but is still delighted to share reminiscences with any visitor. A particularly warm welcome is reserved for the many veterans of the invasion who have visited over the years.

Mulberry Harbour

Just 3 days after D-Day, British and American forces had assembled a vast temporary harbour at Arromanches, north-east of Bayeux. Named Mulberry Harbour, it was needed to unload much of the heaviest Allied cargo, and has become one of the most enduring symbols of the invasion.

Nowadays, Arromanches has reverted to its former status as a sleepy Norman village, but the remains of the vast concrete caissons are still present and bear witness to the vast scale of the invasion.

Bayeux British cemetery

The Bayeux war cemetery is the largest Second World War British cemetery in France with the graves of 4,648 fallen soldiers. Opposite the cemetery, the Bayeux Memorial acknowledges the 1,800 commonwealth soldiers with no known grave. The cemetery grounds have been given in perpetuity to the United Kingdom, and are beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Normandy – Off the Beaten Track

  • Le Bec Hellouin, located mid-way between Rouen and Lisieux, is officially one of the most beautiful villages of France. It is a typical, picture postcard Normandy village with crumbling half-timbered houses with flower bedecked balconies.
  • Etretat is best known for its vast chalk cliffs, memorably painted by Claude Monet. The cliffs dramatically dominate the pretty seaside town and erosion has created a number of vast arches and the 77m Aiguille rock. There are some world-class clifftop walks which can be reached by scaling steep paths (including the long distance GR21).
  • Jerusalem War Cemetery. This is Normandy’s smallest war cemetery, with just 48 graves, 47 of which are British (and one Czech) – a wonderfully tranquil spot.
  • The Château du Champ de Bataille. This marvellous baroque palace, located north of Evreux, was built by Alexandre de Crequi in the 17th century. Its 75 acre grounds include some fabulous formal gardens.

Take a look at campsites in Normandy that are the perfect base for exploring the historic beaches of D-Day.

Image 1: Original caption: “Into the Jaws of Death: Down the ramp of a Coast Guard landing barge Yankee soldiers storm toward the beach-sweeping fire of Nazi defenders in the D-Day invasion of the French coast. Troops ahead may be seen lying flat under the deadly machinegun resistance of the Germans. Soon the Nazis were driven back under the overwhelming invasion forces thrown in from Coast Guard and Navy amphibious craft.” U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Photographers Mate Robert F. Sargent

Image 2: U. S. Army troops crouch behind the bulwarks of a landing craft as it nears Omaha Beach on D-Day. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Photographers Mate Robert F. Sargent.

Image 3: A U.S. landing craft, crewed by Delba L. Nivens, John Schell and Leo Klebba, on fire off Omaha Beach. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Photographers Mate Robert F. Sargent.