Driving to D-Day
When my wife and I decided to visit France there was one non-negotiable mustdo on my Gallic bucket list. After attending a Remembrance Day ceremony at Ottawa’s National War Memorial, I’d promised myself I would one day walk the beaches of Normandy, reflecting and remembering, immersing myself in the lessons of D-Day, history’s biggest amphibious invasion, a June 6, 1944 assault by the Allies to take back Europe. First we’d explore Paris, imbibing history, culture and cuisine, then we’d pick up a rental car at Charles de Gaulle Airport and embark on our own pilgrimage of remembrance. We would drive to D-Day.
Strategies and Tactics
You can enlist a variety of strategies and options during your own campaign, depending on your time commitment and how deeply you want to experience the region and its seminal events. Our first choice (given my hesitation about driving in France) was to book a handful of train tickets, but research quickly proved this would be impractical. Sites are spread over a distance of roughly 80 kilometres. Some locations boasted limited rail service; some had no service at all. British writer Dixe Wills booked a selfguided e-bike tour lasting several days, a bespoke adventure wherein accommodations were pre-booked and luggage was waiting at each overnight stop. The website for Juno Beach Centre (Juno Beach was the location of the Canadian landing) offers links to a number of escorted tours. For example, LinkParis.com runs a Canadian-themed day trip from Paris once weekly, while GlobusJourneys offers five-day D-day tours, though they don’t focus on the significant Canadian sites. We chose to take the advice of “National Geographic” magazine, which suggested a self-driving quest as the most effective strategy. By driving to D-Day we had the option of choosing which sites to see and how much time to give to each one.
A Beach Called Juno
Our first stop would be on a beach called Juno. The Allied invasion, comprising primarily American, English and Canadian groups, consisted of simultaneous landings on five separate beaches, each with its own code name. Seventy-five years ago this past June, roughly 14,000 Canadian soldiers landed right here. More than 300 didn’t survive the day. It was a rainy, blustery morning when we arrived at the Juno Beach Centre, a building formed in the shape of a stylized maple leaf, designed by Canadian architect Brian K. Chamberlain. Waves from the English Channel, an expanse of whitecaps marbling gunmetal grey waters like veins of fat in butchered meat, assaulted the beach. They crashed into the shore like an artillery barrage. Winds howled, lashing the flags flapping beyond the dunes, turning grains of sand into projectiles that stabbed my face. Inside the centre itself visitors are introduced to the “big picture” of the First World War, but equally important, they’re introduced to Canada’s role in the invasion, as well as the human cost involved. One of the seven rooms here, built for reflection, is replete with an example of the wooden crosses that originally marked makeshift graves. The guided tour of the grounds includes a descent into period German fortifications and finishes on the sands of Juno Beach itself. A woman in our tour group, composed entirely of Canadians, wiped away a tear as she walked beside me toward the beach. “My grandfather was here,” she said, as if embarrassed by her emotion. “He died on this beach.”
Driving west along rain-slicked roads, fog obscuring much of the view of the sea, it seemed to me as if I could feel the very weight of history. That feeling continued as we stopped at a clifftop location just east of the town of Arromanches. Here a 360-degree theatre tells the story of the 100 days of the Battle of Normandy, featuring HD footage shown on nine screens, much of it archival material revealed for the first time. It is visually compelling, disturbing and instructive, perfect orientation for those whose grasp of this chapter in history may be less than exhaustive. A group of high school students waiting for entry to the theatre itself were rambunctious and rowdy. When they exited they were strangely quiet. When we exited, strolling outside, we noted that the fog had broken, revealing our location high above the seaside town of Arromanches. The waters off the shores were littered with monstrous hulks of steel, strangely incongruous, ominous and forbidding. Called Mulberry Harbours, these leviathans were both dramatic remnants of the invasion and fascinating feats of engineering, dominating the sea views from our vantage-point and guarding the shores of Arromanches itself. After the mistakes learned at Dieppe, Allies realized that necessary heavy equipment for the invasion couldn’t be off-loaded and any existing havens were still under German control, so they created these man-made “harbours,” consisting of floating breakwaters, great
concrete barges and roadways. For a more complete explanation of these engineering feats, check out the museum here in the town square. A piece of history in its own right, the D-Day Museum at Arromanches opened one day before D-Day’s 10th anniversary, the first such undertaking to commemorate what many call “The Longest Day.”
History Comes Alive
As we journeyed west on the D-Day roads, we noticed that the very vehicles sharing the road with us contributed to an unsettling illusory feeling, a sense that we were lost in the winds of time. Engines grumbling, tires hissing on the wet tarmac, army jeeps, ambulances in green, red crosses stark in the grey day, a troop transport, passed us by. Today was June 5, but one day before the anniversary of the invasion. Each year around this date re-enactors congregate across the region, men in period uniforms form crowds just outside that Arromanches museum. While the 75th anniversary this past June featured special events from air shows to period dances to a multitude of parades flooding the Normandy coast, these people come every year to pay tribute in their own way. “Twenty years I’ve have been coming here on the anniversary,” says French national Rene Felix. He drives a unique vehicle, just one in a historic convoy gathered here. His jeep sports Canadian insignia. “It landed at Dieppe and never got off the beach,” Felix explains. “I was able to get the rights to it and I brought it back to life.” He stops, gazes thoughtfully over the remnants of the Atlantic Wall. “Twenty years.” For a moment it seems to me, looking at them, G.I.’s and tank commanders, medics and even WACs, that history has come alive. Then a greater epiphany strikes: for them, history never died.
Setting up Camp
Should you choose to invade the D-day beaches for more than a day trip, one tactic in your grand strategy will be your decision on where to set up camp. The town of Bayeux is an excellent choice for many visitors. This medieval masterpiece, unlike many of the towns and villages close to the Normandy coast, survived the war relatively unscathed, so at day’s end you can regroup and partake of a much longer history – and even check out one of Bayeux’s chief claims to fame: a 70-metre long embroidered tapestry that tells the story of William the Conqueror and his own seminal invasion. Bayeux is also convenient – particularly to the more westerly Allied landing beaches. It’s located a mere 11 kilometres from the coast. We choose to set up camp a little further afield, but for us it is the perfect base for operations. Honfleur is a resort town at the mouth of the Seine River. It boasts narrow cobbled streets fronted by picturesque shops and homes that inspired painters like Monet, a nearby tourist beach and a harbour populated by fishing boats and pleasure craft, decorated every few metres by another shoreside bistro boasting a local must-do: mussels and fries. Having decided that we would need to debrief after daily experiences we were sure would be fraught with emotion, my wife and I opted for this charming village. History buff that I am, my decision was also partly influenced by this bit of trivia: Champlain began his voyages to Canada here in the harbour at Honfleur.
Their Name Liveth For Evermore
Surrounded by undulating farmers’ fields, some growing early crops, some populated by ruminating cattle, six towering maple trees dominate the landscape of the Canadian cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer. The grass here is green and well-tended. Twin limestone structures guard the entrance. Three thousand Canadians who died in the Battle of Normandy are interred at the other Canadian cemetery at Bretteville-surLaize near Caen. Here, at Beny-sur-Mer, not far from those former bloody beaches, lay 2,000 dead. I stop at one row of graves: every soldier buried there perished on D-day. Here is another row. I stop at one grave, harbouring the remains of a private in the medical corps. He was 19. I wonder about the lady I met back at Juno. I wonder if she has come here yet. I wonder if she has found her grandfather’s grave. I walk back to our car; I stand there gazing up at those maples standing silent sentinel over this Canadian bastion in the countryside of Normandy; I reflect on the words carved into the facade of a limestone plinth near the cemetery entrance. “Their Name Liveth For Evermore.” I am filled with sadness, but I am also warmed by a sudden tiny flush of pride. This place is part of my heritage; I have done my tiniest part in helping those names live on. I have remembered. And, together with my wife, I have driven to D-Day.
STRATEGY AND TACTICS
• For more information on planning your own pilgrimage to the site where the Canadians landed, click on www.junobeach.org • For other useful information go to http://en.normandie-tourisme.fr/