A Visit To Normandy, D-Day Remembered

It was a bitterly cold day last October when we visited the Normandy beaches. First we stopped at the museum in Caen and then our guide took us to the beaches, passing through the hedgerow country, a place where someone or something could be five feet from you and never be seen.

As a kid I was always interested in history and had read about the Normandy invasion, a massive assault on a French beach far away from where Hitler had parked most of his army, the result in large part of a ruse by the Americans and British who seemed ready to invade Calais, a more logical destination from England as the crow flies.

Normandy Beach, October 2013

It turns out that the Normandy beaches we saw were guarded by five massive bunkers and just a few hundred soldiers. That’s about all you needed because the beach, at least today, is not very wide and abuts a steep and stark palisades. Add in the barriers and traps built by the Nazis and it’s easy to see how even a massive invasion could be held off with relatively few troops.

It’s hard to imagine tens of thousands of men coming ashore in such a hostile place. The day we were there the sea boiled and churned while the air was frigid and the cliffs were imposing.

Could it be that erosion and high tides have melted away the beach or is it possible that what we see today is not much changed from D-Day? There wasn’t much beach the day we visited and certainly no protection from the commanding heights of the towering palisades. How could anyone climb such cliffs on a clear day much less in the middle of battle?

We went inside one of the imposing bunkers and then down to the beach. The bunker was massive, explaining how such a construction might survive an aerial attack or perhaps even a naval bombardment.

A Bunker at Normandy
There is something about Normandy which seems to transcend time. Physically it’s a place of waves and rocks, but more importantly it’s a place of honor, the shoreline where more than 125,000 troops from the United States, Britain, Canada and a host of other countries opened a second front against Germany. It’s also the place where some 4,500 allied troops died to gain a foothold in continental Europe.

We went to visit the nearby Normandy American Cemetery but of all things it was shuttered because the government of the United States had been closed over a budget dispute. We looked at our French guide, trying to explain how politics far away in Washington could close a place of honor in the French countryside. I’m not sure he really understood, but then I’m not sure I did either.

American Cemetery at Normandy
Normandy symbolizes an epic struggle, not for land or treasure but for the survival of a civilization on the verge of slipping back into a dark age. Make no mistake about it, the people who invaded Normandy did their part to save the world and they did well: In less than a year Hitler was dead, no doubt saving millions more from death.

If you get a chance to go to Normandy please do so.

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