colleville-sur-mer

Continue west on D-514 until near Colleville-sur-Mer. Look for the signs indicating the American Military Cemetery.

A visit to the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer (featured at the start of the movie “Saving Private Ryan”) will evoke sadness in most who visit. The 172 acre setting is beautiful, even majestic. It is a precisely manicured site, located on a scenic plateau overlooking the eastern end of Omaha Beach and the Channel. The meticulously arranged upright, white marble tombstones mark the graves of 9,387 American soldiers. Seeing them helps one understand the enormity of the sacrifices made by the American soldiers determined to free Europe from Nazi Germany’s grasp. There is also a Memorial in the Gardens of the Missing engraved with the names of 1,557 soldiers who died in the invasion, but whose bodies were never recovered.

The Memorial and Reflecting Pool at the American Cemetery
The Memorial and Reflecting Pool at the American Cemetery

An overlook just north of the Memorial provides a comprehensive view of Omaha Beach, which lies below the cemetery. In addition, there is an orientation table at the overlook showing the location of the landing beaches. A trail follows the cliff down to a second orientation table and finally to Omaha Beach.

The length of Omaha Beach is marked by high, chalk cliffs fronted by wide, sloping, sand beaches.

Omaha Beach was the most heavily defended and fortified of the invasion beaches. The Germans had erected barriers designed to repel invaders and their landing craft both in the water and on the beach. The Germans had heavily fortified the cliffs and the wide beach was targeted by bunkers positioned to be able to produce deadly crossfire.

The invasion forces at Omaha faced many challenges. A number of the landing craft opened for landing too early and sank and many soldiers drowned before they had a chance to defend themselves. Other landing craft were disabled by enemy fire far from shore and the heavily burdened soldiers had to try to swim ashore during an intense firefight. The invading American forces who reached the beach were easy targets from the cliffs, and it is no wonder that casualties were higher here than on any of the other  invasion beaches. By the end of June 6th, the beachhead had been secured by a group of brave and determined soldiers.

You may want to spend some time walking along the beach and contemplating the enormity of the invasion effort. If you do, you will be struck by how peaceful it is now and how hellish it must have been on D-Day.

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer is open daily from 09:00 to 17:00, except December 25th and January 1st. The site is located near route D-514 in Colleville-sur-Mer, just east of St. Laurent-sur-Mer and northwest of Bayeux. Follow the signs from D-514 in Colleville-sur-Mer to reach the cemetery.

In May 2007, the Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Center was opened just to the east of the Cemetery’s Garden of the Missing. The Visitor Center has approximately 10,000 square feet of exhibit space using narrative, photos, films and mementos of the battles to tell the story of the sacrifices made in support of D-Day.  There is no fee to explore this interesting and poignant center.  See this website for details on visiting.

For more information about the cemetery, visit the American Battle Monuments Commission at http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries/no.php  . They provide a downloadable, illustrated booklet with detailed information.

The beauty of the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer is undeniable, as is the sadness that pervades it. Omaha Beach is down the cliff from the cemetery and to the right.

Pointe du Hoc

Point du Hoc
Memorial to Rudder’s Rangers who attacked Point du Hoc while under fire and scaling steep cliffs.

Further west on D-514 between Utah and Omaha Beach is Pointe du Hoc.  Pointe Du Hoc was a warren of  German gun emplacements connected by tunnels and underground rooms. In preparation for the invasion, Pont du Hoc was bombarded by the Allies with large naval guns and this pummeling resulted in significant damage, but not enough to reduce the threat this site held for Omaha Beach.

A team of 260 rangers led by Colonel Rudder, scaled the cliff to capture the German guns and nullify the threat posed by the German control of Pointe du Hoc.  The rangers finally achieved their goal on June 6th, but lost two-thirds of their team in the assault.

The story of the attack by the American rangers is heartbreaking, as everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.  Numerous operational difficulties slowed the progress of the attack and placed the rangers in the line of fire well before they landed.  Finally, unknown to the Allied Forces, the German forces had moved the six 155mm cannons from Pointe du Hoc before the invasion. The same rangers, however, found the guns hidden not far away and managed to destroy them before they could be used against the allies.

Exploring Pointe du Hoc is extremely interesting. There are a number of trenches and paths to follow and pill-boxes to explore. Take a flashlight since the interiors of many of the chambers are dark (as well as wet) but it is a fascinating place. Numerous explosion craters and hunks of concrete blasted from the casemates are scattered throughout the site.  When you look from the top to the bottom of Point du Hoc, it is hard to image anyone climbing the cliffs at Point du Hoc, especially soldiers carrying weapons and packs while under attack by enemy forces.

For a detailed account of the action at Point-du-Hoc, visit this site http://www.worldwar2history.info/D-Day/Pointe-Du-Hoc.html .

Pointe du Hoc is located off of D-514 east of Grandcamp-Maisy and west of Colleville-sur-Mer

From Pointe du Hoc you can see Utah Beach to the west. Utah  is a slowly sloping beach with a wide shelf that made for a less difficult landing than experienced at Omaha Beach. The forces landing here were charged with capturing the Cotentin peninsula and were also involved in the crucial battle for Cherbourg whose victory would provide the allies a large, working port to supply the invasion.