Background for Touring the Invasion Beaches
Although the Normandy region of France is blessed with a large number of historically important and interesting attractions, the majority of tourists come to see the World War II invasion beaches (Les Plages du Débarquement -The Invasion Beaches) that were memorialized with the invasion of Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944. D-Day signaled the beginning of the end of the Third Reich but during the early hours of the invasion, the outcome was not as clear as it is in hindsight.
The Normandy area is an open-air classroom focused on the opening of the European Front during World War II. There is much to see, do and think about. The once violent battlefields of Normandy are today, eerily quite and pastoral. It is hard to image the death and destruction that occurred across this now idyllic countryside.
If you are intent on visiting the invasion beaches and want to familiarize yourself with this important aspect of history, plan on spending three days wandering the many sites that commemorate D-Day. Visiting the invasion beaches is a hauntingly sad but vitally interesting trip.
Normandy, France offers a diverse blend of landscapes and attractions, but most travelers are drawn to the 400 miles of beautiful coastline that hugs the English Channel, or Le Manche as it is known in France. The coast of Normandy is equally attractive on calm, sunny days or when the weather turns stormy. The best time to visit is from late spring to early fall. Be prepared for rain in any season.
Normandy, France is defined by two administrative areas called Upper Normandy (Haute-Normandie) and Lower Normandy (Basse-Normandie). Haute-Normandy includes the départments (France’s main administrative units) of Eure and the Seine-Maritime. Basse-Normandy is comprised of the départments of Calvados, Manche and Orne. The Seine meanders through this area on its way to the Channel (Le Manche), hugging Rouen and entering the ocean near Le Harve.
France’s two “Normandys” extend from Le Tréport and Eu in the north to Mt. St. Michel and Alencon in the south. Paris is approximately 85 miles east of Rouen, which is approximately 160 miles northeast of Mont St. Michel (approximately 200 miles west-southwest of Paris).
Normandy’s major cities are: Rouen (the capital of upper Normandy, population 400,000), Le Harve (population 250,000), Caen (the capital of lower Normandy, population 200,000) and Cherbourg (population 90,000).
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Normandy’s coastal areas attracted the gentry. Many elegant, exclusive beach resorts and casinos sprung-up in response to this interest. Today, most of these areas are past their prime but remain attractive to some travelers.
Normandy is known for its cider and, of course, the apple-brandy Calvados, for which the départment Calvados is named. In addition, the liqueur Benedictine is made at the Palais Bénédictine, 110 rue Alexandre le Grand, BP 192, Fécamp. See their website for information about visiting.
Les Plages du Débarquement (The Invasion Beaches)
The D-Day landings in Normandy, France on June 6, 1944 were the central focus of the largest and most complicated invasion ever attempted. Most of the Allied Forces left the shores of Britain on June 5th in preparation of the landings in France. While the German Army and Luftwaffe (air force) were expecting the attack, uncertainty concerning the location and timing of the invasion left them unprepared to battle a force the size of the Allied armies. In addition, based on the distances between England and France, some in the German High Command felt the Allies would invade near Calais and had deployed several divisions in this area.
Although the invasion beaches were secured by the end of the first day, the Battle of Normandy raged until mid-August. After two and a half months of vicious fighting, the victory in Normandy marked the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe.
D-Day was part of Operation Overlord, the Allied Forces’ plan for the invasion of Northern Europe. The action involved approximately: 5,000 vessels (landing craft, support ships and war ships), 13,000 aircraft, and 150,000 soldiers. A complex infrastructure, including the supplies and equipment necessary to conduct war, was needed to support the invading forces before, during and after D-Day. Consequently, establishing a beachhead including makeshift harbors was a top priority for the Allied Forces. On the eve of the beach landings, other forces were parachuted into the Normandy area. In addition, the German coastal defenses were bombarded from air and sea in an attempt to tilt the table in favor of the Allies.
The invasion beaches (arranged from west to east) are named:
These beaches, located in the administrative départment of Calvados, are the focus of our “D-Day tour. American forces landed at Utah and Omaha beaches. British soldiers landed at Gold Beach and Sword Beach on each side of the Canadian force, which landed at Juno Beach. The most difficult and deadly invasion beach was Omaha, due in part to the fortified German defenses, the challenging topography of the area and confusion during the landing.
For our recommended tour, we have chosen to highlight several of the major D-Day sites, but there are numerous others that are worthy of your attention. The website of the Normandy Tourism Board provides an excellent overview of the museums and activities that can be visited during a Battle of Normandy tour. In addition, the site provides a downloadable PDF that describes the major locations involved in the Battle of Normandy, as well as generalized maps representing the 8 itineraries known as the “Normandie Terre – Liberté” that link the major battlefields in Normandy.
The Normandie Mémoire Website provides a great deal of information on the Normandy Invasion and several eye-witness accounts of the battles.
If you want to conduct and in-depth examination of the Normandy Invasion, you should purchase a copy of the Holt’s Invasion Battlefield Guide.
There are also numerous companies that provide excellent and highly detailed guided tours focused on Normandy, D-Day and World War II. References to a number of these companies can be found on the Normandy tourism sites mentioned above.