For a history nerd such as myself, there is nothing more exciting than visiting the World War II sites of Normandy, France. This is the heart of where the Allies began their charge to end the hold Nazi Germany had on Europe during this worldwide conflict.
I have been fortunate to visit Normandy a couple of times and each time is as satisfying as the last. There is always something different to see and I always feel immense gratitude for the Greatest Generation and what they were able to accomplish on the those beaches and cliffs.
Here are the “Not To Be Missed” locations in Normandy:
Omaha Beach was one of the American landing points on June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day. It was the area where the Americans saw great loss of life due to the fortifications the Germans had in place. The movie, Saving Private Ryan, has an intense depiction of the landings on this beach.
When you visit today, the scene is quite calm and serene. It is a beautiful beach. When I visited with a tour group, we drove RIGHT DOWN to the beach. And then we walked right out on it! There is a lot of vegetation that was not there on D-Day, but you can still get a really good sense of how far the guys had to go from the Higgins boats to the beach. There is also a large embankment they had to climb up, where the Germans had massive fortifications.
When you stand there and see it, you realize it was kind of a miracle the allies were successful. It was surreal being there. The beach was so quiet and peaceful and there weren’t many people there yet since we went first thing. I was overwhelmed and one shouldn’t be surprised if standing on the beach brings a tear to your eye.
Remains of German Guns
Another location to visit is the German Gun Battery at Longues-sur-Mer near Bayeux in Normandy. This is an incredibly well-preserved German coastal defense battery with four guns used on D-Day.. The German battery at Longues-sur-Mer was part of the Atlantic Wall and was in a perfect location to protect the Gold and Omaha landing beaches from an invasion from the Allies during 1944.
There are four guns still visible and visitors are free to walk right up to them. The remnants of these weapons are still in place and are definitely not to be missed for anyone interested in WWII.
The German Battery is about 10 km directly north of Bayeux, off the main coastal road, between Arromanches and the American Military Cemetery at Colleville. There are clear signposts to guide you to the right location. The Battery is always open and is best reached by car or bicycle. The Battery is also included on many tours offered in Normandy of the WWII sites.
Pointe du Hoc
Now this place is amazing. I cannot believe the Army Rangers literally climbed up these cliffs and took out the Germans. Out of about 250 who landed, only about 90 made it through. Unreal. Look at these cliffs!
When you stand on Pointe du Hoc, you cannot help but realize it was a miracle these Rangers were successful. The height of the cliff, the weapons in place and the Germans firing on them are just too much to even imagine. Yet, the Rangers persisted and succeeded, suffering great losses.
More views of the cliffs Looking toward the memorial Memorial
When approaching the cliff, you will pass many craters, which were created by the bombardment of allied artillery trying to take out the German guns prior to the Rangers landing. Some of fairly large and there are remnants of huge blocks of cement that were blown up on D-Day.
The monument is a granite pillar on top of a German bunker with tablets at its base. The area around the memorial has been left pretty much how the Rangers left it in 1944. Pointe du Hoc is open to the public daily. Hours of operation for the visitor center are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from April 1 to September 30, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. It is open on host country holidays.
I was fortunate to meet one of the actual Rangers who took Pointe du Hoc on one of my visits to Normandy. George Klein had returned for one of the anniversaries. What an incredible human being! I didn’t even know what to say in his presence and told him as much. He said “well then just say hello and take a picture with me!” What an incredible man with an incredible story. Since only about 90 men even survived D-Day on the Pointe? Wow – just WOW! I was in awe.
Utah Beach is much like visiting Omaha. When I was there, there were many more visitors actually using the beach like a beach – with chairs and towels and picnics. It was kind of interesting to see. On the one hand, this is a gorgeous beach and perfect for recreation. On the other, I think about what happened here.
You can go through to the beach in many locations and there is a museum as well. There is also a monument to the Navy here that overlooks the beach. A reminder of the number of servicemen that took part in D-Day, from all branches of the military.
The American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur–Mer
If there is only one World War II site you can visit in Normandy, it has to be the American Cemetery. It is peaceful, tranquil and a fitting place for these young servicepeople to be at rest. Seeing the rows upon rows of crosses person is SAD. What is also sad is that most of these guys were 18-19 years old. Lives cut down before they even had a chance to live.
Each cross or Star of David represents a family who lost a loved one. I cried and even as I write this, I’m tearing up thinking about it. I don’t think there are words to express the feelings you have in a place like this. The sacrifice these guys made so willingly is overwhelming. Some of them were cut down before they could even get out of their Higgins boat. It is sad.
The cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach and there is much symbolism all around. For instance: the crosses all face toward the United States- like the guys are going home. As you enter the site, there is the Garden of the Missing -which lists those who were never found after D-Day. If there is a bronze rosette next to the name, it means their remains have since been identified and buried.
There is a beautiful statue titled The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves. The statue also faces west, toward the United States. I was there when they did the flag retreat in the early evening. Everyone stood completely still and silent and the United States’ flag was lowered. It was a beautiful experience.
Visiting the WWII sites in Normandy was something I will never forget. It is also something every American who has the chance to do so, should. Truly unforgettable.