The year was 2010 and I was graduating from college with a degree in History (oblivious to the fact that "history jobs" don't exist in abundance). I was granted the opportunity to celebrate the occasion with a family trip to Britain and France. Intended by my father to be a ‘final family vacation’, I was lucky enough to bring my girlfriend Cindy with me (today, my wife Cindy). The tour was only the second time I had travelled abroad and I credit it with growing my appetite for travel.
Our time in Paris was spent much as it would be on our 2013 trip—bouncing around to all of the touristy places in the city center. Still, we had the sense to get out of the town for a day and explore the French countryside. Of all of the possible destinations, Normandy, located in the north of France along the English Channel, ended up winning out. We knew that the area was where, in World War II, Operation Overlord took place (also known as the Battle of Normandy). This battle represents the pivotal moment in 1944 where the Allied forces began to retake Europe from Nazi control. The first day of this battle, known as D-Day, has been popularized in Western culture through films like Saving Private Ryan and in video games like the original Call of Duty.
My fascination with this event was a major inspiration for my interest in history, so getting the opportunity to tour a foreign area that I had a somewhat personal connection to could not be missed. Better yet, the experience was made all the more personal by the way in which we toured: My father booked a private tour guide who had (allegedly) apprenticed under a veteran of the battle and who could show us an in depth look at the geography and the culture of this storied area.
And so, we took off from the center of Paris to the city of Bayeux in the north of France. With my father at the wheel, zipping around the little streets of Paris in a 7 passenger van (quite large for Europe), it was pretty hairy there for a bit. But once we got out onto the country highways, the three hour ride got more tolerable. We rolled into Bayeux around 10am and met our guide in a ride-share parking lot. He was a slender, tall man; Nice (and younger) than we imagined. With kindness he greeted us and commandeered the rental car from my father. He talked a bit about Bayeux and its large cathedral before heading us out to the west.
With our guide now at the wheel, we took off down the road towards the first stop of the day: the La Cambe German war cemetery.
The final place of rest for over 21,000 German soldiers, the majority of whom fell during the first month of the Allied invasion of Normandy, the cemetery is a exhibition of the great losses of war and how messy it can be to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. This one cemetery is nearly entirely populated by one age-group, of one people, from one short moment in time, of one small part of a greater war and illustrates how scarring the war was for an entire generation of humankind.
The cemetery features a large, central tumulus (a conical mound) and has statues and crosses of basalt lava among the flat grave markers.
The cemetery at La Cambe initially housed both American and German soldiers, but not long after the war, the American bodies were relocated to the American Cemetery at Normandy (or back to America altogether). Ever since the site became exclusively German, a group of volunteers has maintained the cemetery and they have continued to accept the hundreds of German bodies that continue to be found across the Norman landscape to this day.
I can’t remember why our guide started the tour at this German cemetery (likely because it made the most sense, geographically), but I appreciated it. It immediately dissolved some of World War II's “good verses evil” narrative. Make no mistake, Nazism is evil. But this cemetery was a reminder that losses were felt by all during the war, particularly by those who made no subscription to the ideology of the war but rather whom were conscripted into service. Thoughtfully, a sign outside the cemetery read:
Now, we may have been only one stop in to our tour but, with the long morning drive, we were already several hours into our day and were feeling hungry. Our guide was receptive and took us to Grandcamp-Maisy, a small town on the coast. Just one mile across and a quarter-mile deep, the little town was a charming outpost, complete with small, curving streets, open-shutter lined windows, and quaint flower boxes.
We stopped at Boulanger Patissier and ordered some fresh baguette sandwiches and a few eclairs for the road. Thirty steps further and we were at the beach where we set up shop on an old fishing pier. There, we sat and dined while watching the calm ocean gently toss about. Cindy and Danielle went to stroll along the beach while the rest of us marveled over how amazingly tasty real, fresh food could be.
It’s so funny that this lunch break was the most incidental part of our day and yet it’s what I remember most about our tour. I remember considering the irony that such a small, peaceful town was subject to the same bitter fight that the entire coast experienced. The town was the site of a German heavy artillery battery, experienced days of bombing, and was eventually liberated by American Rangers. But sitting there in the picturesque town, under perfect weather conditions, watching the mild surf with our delicious snack—it was hard to picture.
But I suppose what stands out most to me was the perception that I was enjoying a place off of the beaten path. This may or may not have been true, but I was relaxed, in good company, and in an amazing setting. I could have spent the whole day strolling up and down the streets but alas, the town wasn’t why we were in Normandy. We were soon back in the car and on our way to the next tour stop, quietly eating our eclairs as a final taste of the little town we were already missing.
As we weaved between the little coastal farms, our guide pointed out that many of the local fences were made with the recycled metal-mesh material that American forces used to line their quickly constructed air-strips. It was a neat little fact that we’d probably never know if not for our guide.
Ten minutes later, we were at our next stop, Pointe du Hoc.
With its cliffs jutting out into the English Channel, Pointe du Hoc is the highest land between the Utah and Omaha beaches. This important location, with difficult geography and massive German bunkers, artillery pieces, and fortifications, was the site of some of the most aggressive fighting seen over the first two days of the invasion. It is well known that of the 225+ members of the first American Army Ranger Assault Group who landed at Pointe du Hoc, only 75 men survived scaling the cliffs and taking the fortifications. The story of this battle is depicted in the classic war film The Longest Day—a film that none of us had seen but that our guide, a big fan, continually referred to.
Today, Point du Hoc is preserved in its wartime condition as a memorial to the men who fought and died here. The site has several concrete bunkers and is still riddled with the craters of bombs that were dropped here before the invasion.
Like many other sites of such historical significance, it can be weird to take your picture among the structures and features where so many lost their lives. But the desire to tie your story to that of history and show others that “I went there” always tends to prevail. It was a beautiful day, after all.
After exploring the monument for a while, it was back to the car and onwards to our next stop. Our guide pointed out the various artifacts and chateaus which lined the road, with the latter especially catching our fancy.
After 20 minutes of driving, we arrived at the American Cemetery at Normandy.
The final resting place for nearly 10,000 American soldiers, the cemetery overlooks the ocean where a sunken craft can still be seen rusting in the water. The grounds are neatly manicured and feature orderly rows of marble crosses (and many Stars of David), which each include a soldier’s name, his military unit, his home state, and the date of his passing. The men lay as equals, in no order of rank, though Medal of Honor recipients are identified with a gold star and golden lettering. Like the previous cemetery, this location paints the picture of how many men from a single generation died fighting.
For all intents and purposes, the land on which these men rest is America—France has granted the United States a perpetual concession to the land. The monument is paid for and maintained by the United States and the American flag flies over the property.
If it looks familiar, that may be because it was featured in the opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan.
From the edge of the cemetery, a great view was afforded of the calm English Channel and the sandbars of the Omaha beach landing sites.
Again, while looking upon the peaceful sea, it was impossible to picture how intense and aggressive the invasion-fighting must have been. But as we left the cemetery and drove down to the beach, artifacts of the war revealed themselves. On one side of the road was the remains of the temporary pier which was installed to load Allied equipment onto the beach. On the other, concrete fortifications for German guns where poured into a sea bluff.
Soon, we were parked and walking along the beach itself.
Many German bunkers and turrets remain along the beach to this day, awkward markers of the dark history that the charming local community has developed around. Unlike most popular portrayals of the German defenses, which depict imposing concrete bunkers looking out to sea, these fortifications were small, often hard to see turrets built into the terrain. They were often facing the length of the beach, perpendicular to the ocean, to allow a straight shot through the depth of the invading Allied troops.
You could also see the remains of the Allied presence, such as the rocky pillars on which the Allies built piers to load invasion equipment onto French soil.
Still, what caught my imagination most was exactly what I experienced in Grandcamp-Maisy—the revelation that life has flourished on these former battlefields. The long, rolling beach, once where thousands of dying men left the surf rolling in a shade of red, was now the site of picnicking families. And the German bunkers, once where German defenders made a vicious last stand, was now an impromptu stool for locals to enjoy a cigarette. The whole area was remarkably quiet.
We snapped another photo.
We finished up exploring the beach and made it back to the rental car. Passing the site of the original American cemetery location, we made our way back inland to a D-Day museum. We didn’t end up going inside, but took an up-close look at the tank that was out front. I cant remember or be certain, but based on a quick Google search, I believe it was a American M4 Sherman tank. Javaneh and Danielle even crawled under and poked their heads inside.
If I remember correctly, it was from this moment that our tour guide made his farewell and departed. We had directions back to the main road and would make our way back to Paris, satisfied with how informative and peaceful the day was.
WWII may have initiated my interest in history but military history isn’t as much my thing today. Most conflicts aren’t as black-and-white as World War II is retold and tend to be rather head-scratching, layered displays of humanity's worst tendencies. My final years of college were less about how wars were fought and more about what circumstances preceded and followed the major conflicts of humanity.
But D-Day will always capture my imagination. For me, it remains a day where an entire generation made the first step to resist fascism, many of whom sacrificed their lives for my freedoms. Like Matt Damon’s elderly character in Saving Private Ryan, I too often reflect on the sacrifices that have been made for me and I try to live a full life out of respect towards those who have died protecting my freedom. I like to think one way I do this is by not taking my time on this Earth for granted—this includes seeing as much of this world as possible and is one of the reasons I like to travel. I intend to keep doing that.
Thanks for reading about my time in Normandy, France. These seven-year-old photos look particularly old to me. As I worked on them, I kept reflecting on how much younger and thinner I was (and how full my head of hair used to be!) Realizing that I’ve become old enough to witness the passage of time in my own life was a saddening experience and has become one of the pillars of my current quarter-life crisis. But on the flip side, I remain grateful to have had these experiences and appreciate that, for the rest of my life, the travel photos here and across this blog continue to be evidence a happy life. So for more photos from our time in Normandy, check out the gallery below: