those with dead grandparents, get off the bus. The rest of you wait here."
A hollow minute ensued, as we shuffled aside to allow a handful of our tearful
classmates to alight. The rest of us waited in silence. Until someone farted. Then
the sniggering began, paving the way to an intense period of blatant ignorance,
and sinewy teenage flirtations.
I’m English, so naturally I’ve visited
France more times than I have Scotland, and Ireland combined. I’ve partied in
Paris, flirted in Nice, bounced around Bordeaux, mulled around Monaco and trundled
through the sparse French countryside like a lost goat. However, the memories
of one particular visit to France will be forever with me. Memories, which
until recently, I never knew existed.
At twelve years old, going to see the
battlefields of Normandy was good for one reason: There were “well fit” girls
on the bus. It was 1994, the rise of the Channel Tunnel and Apple Computers,
and the fall of Commodore and Kurt Cobain: why would I want to hear about
someone else's war, when I was waging my own.
Sixteen years on, I’ve seen enough war
memorials, and read enough history to realise the impact of war on the lives of
every nation I’ve visited. War never leaves us. If I can be so bold, as to put
the death and destruction aside for a moment; and say that the residue of a destructive
war, can offer 21st Century travellers a poignant edge to their journey.
Wars may tear apart the flesh of a region,
but in doing so they allow the culture-rich blood of the subjected towns and
villages to seep into the land and enrich their appeal, which attracts us carnivorous
travellers for the century’s that follow.
D-Day in France
Shortly after midnight on June 6th,
1944 the greatest invasion in modern history began in Normandy, a region in
northwest France. The skies were alive with a 1,000 strong flock of dull aircraft,
screaming through the night sky to pepper the enemy lines with 24,000
paratroopers. At 06.30 the carefully chosen landing beaches felt the first
crunch of the 176,000 men, and 30,000 vehicles that poured from over 5,000
By nightfall, over 9,000 Allied soldiers
were dead or wounded, yet more than 100,000 had made it ashore to begin liberating
coastal France. Within weeks of the landings, up to 20,000 tons of supplies
were being delivered onto the Utah and Omaha beaches, and on August 25th
of that year, Paris was liberated by the Allies, paving the way to the fall of
Nazi Germany and the Axil Powers.
Before visiting any historic war site, it
is highly recommended you do some background research on the history of the
region. For this era of World War II consider the films: The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan and the TV
series: Band of Brothers,
and The War. The American historian,
Stephen Ambrose has written extensively (and often controversially) about events
of war, and his bestselling books come highly recommended.
Normandy is a pastoral region of north-western
France, fringed by Le Manche (the
English Channel) and famed for such non-war related delights as calvados (apple
brandy), camembert, cider and cows.
While it’s possible to utilise the
expansive rail network in France, it’s more enjoyable (and reliable) to rent a
vehicle. By doing so, you’ll open up some of the most affordable accommodation options
in the area: France's
charming gîtes (French holiday homes), come in various shapes and sizes for
any budget, and offer the promise of a playfully rustic escape in the
Normandy’s rolling landscapes are an easy day
trip from Paris, however it would be slightly foolish to stay less than a few
days. Meanwhile, for travellers coming from the UK, a return trip from
Portsmouth to Caen in Normandy costs as little as £52 return with Brittany
Close by to Caen, is the fertile heart of
the region, the affable town of Bayeux, which makes an ideal base for exploring
Normandy. Bayeux also served as the departure point for another famous invasion:
The Norman Conquest of 1066, which is detailed in the world famous, 230-foot
long Bayeux Tapestry.
The Enduring Sites of D-Day
If you’re limited for time, here's a run
down of the most incredible D-Day locations in Normandy:
Sainte-Mère-Église: This pleasant town in Lower Normandy is famous for being the first
town to be liberated during the invasions. Heavy casualties were incurred, as invading
Allied paratroopers became easy targets in the fire-lit skies. Today, a dummy
paratrooper hangs from the church spire in reference to the remarkable story of
John Steele, who dangled there for two hours after his parachute became snagged
on the steeple. He was captured, before escaping to rejoin his troops. It's
also home to the excellent Airborne Museum.
Pointe du Hoc: During the D-Day Invasions, the American 2nd Ranger Battalion
scaled the 150-foot (46m) high cliffs of Pointe du Hoc under constant gunfire,
to commandeer the advantageous point. In the two days following their ascent,
the soldiers fended off several German counterattacks. By the end of the
mission, this formidable force was reduced from 225 to just 90.
Omaha Beach: This 4-mile long beach, codenamed Omaha, was one of several key
landing beaches during the D-Day Landings. On June 6th, the strong German 352nd
Division came up against the battle hardy, 1st Infantry Division from America. A
combination of catastrophic misfortune resulted in 27 of the Allies 32
amphibious Sherman DD Tanks being squandered in the sea.
Their bad luck was compounded by
ineffective air strikes, and poor naval bombardments. This set up the Allied troops
against an almost unscathed German front, armed with machine guns capable of
1200 rounds per minute. The only chance of cover, was to run towards the enemy.
The event is serialised in the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan.
Cemetery and Memorial: This 172-acre cemetery is
maintained by the US Government, in memory of the 9,387 American men and women
buried beneath neat white Crosses, or Stars of David. Most of them were killed
during the Normandy invasions and following operations. The incorporated
memorial garden features a wall bearing the names of 1,557 soldiers who could
not be located, or identified.
Taking it all in
Unless you’re a self-proclaimed expert in
the Second World War, it is highly recommended that you book a tour in advance
with one of the operators in the region. You’ll find that many local (and
expat) guides are incredibly dedicated to sharing their personal passion of war
history (rather than the inverse of being paid to be passionate). The subject
deserves your full attention, and you’ll find it hard to take it all in from a
stream of silent information boards.
The legacy of the Normandy sites — and WWII
sites around the world — is becoming more and more poignant as the years pass
us by. The veterans of these awesome events are ageing, and dying. While the
subject of war is one of the most emotive journeys a traveller can adopt, it’s
also one of the most empowering. It can offer a sense of the everyday hero
within us, and open our eyes to the unity, and individual power of humankind.
As I look back at my own formative steps
into this forgiving corner of France, I find myself aching to discover all of
my unknowns. Perhaps it’s time I turned down Nirvana, switched off the Mac and
hurled myself through the Chunnel: "All
those with dead grandparents, get off the bus. The rest of you, follow behind.”
5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to France
Written by the footloose Englishman, Ant; World Nomads very own guest blogger and the solo scribe of the charismatic travel blog Trail of Ants.com.
Ant's currently drenching a thirst for travel during his third year of
dragging a smudged and odorous backpack around the world. You can occasionally track Ant down via his Twitter feed.
Have you been to the historical sites of Normandy? Share your story with us.