Remembering the D-Day Invasion
Along the shores of Normandy today
Bella Vista resident and world traveler Mark Kreymborg is also an amateur historian with an interest in World War II. He occasionally shares his travels with the “Vista,” including a visit — along with his wife, Ronda — to the beaches of Normandy.
By the time D-Day, June 6, 1944, arrived, World War II had been going on for almost five long years, with Germany controlling most of Europe for four years. The Germans started working on the Atlantic Wall shortly after they got to France, knowing someday the Allies would come back for Europe. Normandy in France was part of that massive Atlantic Wall defense project, a sleepy coastal area with farms, hedgerows, and cattle, along with some beautiful beaches. Early in 1944, Hitler sent his best general, Erwin Rommel, the hero of his North Africa triumphs early in the war, to France to help prepare the Atlantic wall to repel the Allied invasion he knew was coming. The good news was that the Allies, led by General Dwight Eisenhower, would choose where on the 1,000-plus-mile-long Atlantic Wall they would invade. Eisenhower chose a 50 mile stretch of beaches in Normandy.
On the day of the invasion, the Allies landed more than 160,000 troops, including more than 22,000 paratroopers who began landing after midnight on June 6. By the end of June, almost 900,000 troops had been put ashore at Normandy. This would be like moving the entire population of San Francisco 100 miles in three weeks! About 6,000 ships were involved in the invasion to move these troops. The combined air forces of the Allies used 13,000 planes on D-Day, in an area about the size of the state of Ohio from the bases in England to the beaches. Compare that with American Airlines, which schedules about 6,900 flights each day all over the world. The two years of planning that went into this were well used.
On D-Day, only one still photographer landed with the first wave, Robert Capa, a renowned war photographer. He took some of the most moving photos of what happened early in the invasion and on the most difficult beach, Omaha. Ironically, of the four rolls he shot and sent back to London to be developed, only five pictures survived, some of the most iconic D-Day images.
What is Normandy like today? Beautiful. Historic. The people of Normandy are nice, pleasant and helpful. This trip was planned with three objectives: 1) I could tour the Battle of the Bulge battlefield for a few days; 2) We would tour the Normandy D-Day sites and explore this historic territory — I thought Ronda would find it interesting; 3) spend some time in Paris that Ronda would enjoy in return for seeing battlefields. It turned out I was off base. Ronda would have traded the time in Paris for more time in Normandy in a heartbeat.
We stayed in a nice hotel on a sand dune on Omaha Beach, right over the hill from the eastern end of Omaha. Soldiers fought and died right here. The first thing we did was head to the cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. Before we got there, we saw the church at Colleville-sur-Mur, just up from the beaches, and fell in love with it. We stopped here every day, sometimes twice. The church was first attacked by Lt. Joe Dawson, who led his team off the beach early to clear the church. This church steeple had good observation of the beaches to direct artillery against the American ships and troops. Until Dawson got there.
On to the cemetery. Buried here are 9,387 Americans in the most beautiful setting you can imagine. Right above Omaha Beach, much more peaceful now than on June 6. Thick with heroes, four Medal of Honor winners are buried here, including Teddy Roosevelt Jr. This memorial is extremely well maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, has great information everywhere, folks available to help if you need it. A new visitor’s center has been added since our visit, so I guess we need to go back. The cemetery is right above the beach, with a path down, first made going up on June 6 by some of America’s Greatest Generation. It’s hard to believe how powerful a jar of sand can be, but pick up some on Omaha Beach, you will notice.
Now heading west to Utah Beach. First Point du Hoc, the sight of the toughest assignment of the invasion, given to the Rangers. They had to climb up a 200-foot cliff with German machine gunners everywhere and capture some big guns. The place was bombed around the clock, and the guns were not there when the Rangers got there, but the Rangers got there. Today, Point du Hoc has not been changed one bit since the invasion. Same bunkers, every shell hole still in place — eerie, spooky, and startling in its seeming impossibility to overcome. But it was overcome.
Utah Beach was the western end of the invasion. Just inland was St. Mere Elglise, an objective of the early landing paratroopers to prevent German reinforcements from getting to the beach. There is a famous church here that a paratrooper landed on and was hanging from the steeple for many hours, his parachute caught. Private Steele was made famous by Red Buttons in the great movie “The Longest Day.” There is a great museum next to the church, in a beautiful and small town square. As a matter of fact, there are museums all along the 50 miles of beaches, 30 or more.
We headed east to the British and Canadian beaches — Gold, Juno and Sword. There were some big guns the British had to capture. Pegasus Bridge was the key objective of the British paratroopers, who captured it and held it for two days until relieved. There is a beautiful museum there, the original bridge has been replaced, but sits right outside. We watched a British tour group being briefed by Jack Watson, a paratrooper who landed on D-Day near the bridge. We spoke to him for quite a while, he showed us his picture on the wall, receiving a medal from top British General Bernard Montgomery. We were talking to history. He even showed us on a 3-D map of the battlefield where he dug his foxhole.
Both Ronda and I loved Normandy — not just the history so dear to America but the sacrifice of the French people there. They are gracious hosts, there is much good food and many things to see. Not just the invasion, but some of the most beautiful churches you will ever see are there— every small town has one. One cannot come away with anything but awe for what these people went through, four years of German control, the largest invasion in the history of war, a major battle in the backyard.
Mark Kreymborg took this photo on a beach in Normandy to recreate one of the few surviving photos of the Invasion on D-Day.
The American cemetery at Omaha Beach where more than 9,000 soldiers were buried.
This is one of the photos taken by the only photographer who accompanied the first wave of troops on D-Day, Robert Capa. Only a few of his photos survived.