Today’s post is brought to you by train travel…how you may ask? Well train time means we have a chance to sit down and write before 11pm. Which means we can actually get our posts up the same day and not put them off cause we are just too sleepy.
The big news of the day would really be that we validated our Eurail Passes. We had read all of the literature that came with the passes and supplemented it with the info written on Rick Steves website, but we still couldn’t help feeling a little nervous about our first journey. It turns out they are very similar to our Britrail passes. Validation was easy. You just take them to any ticket counter so the attendant can stamp them and write in the dates it’s valid for. And using them isn’t much harder. The Austrian Rail website is a handy tool for looking up rail times for anywhere in Europe…Rick Steves pointed us in the direction of it, of course 🙂 Once you’ve planned out your journey you just hop on board the train. That’s it! Unless your train needs a reservation. This was the tricky part as a lot of trains have “Please Reserve” in the description area. Turns out that just means it is possible to make reservations, not that you need to make one. If a reservation is required it will say “Reservation Required.” From playing around with the rail website it looks like these trains are much more common here on the continent than they were in the UK (although thats not hard as they were pretty much non-existent there). When we arrive in Tours tomorrow we are going to go about looking into the rail lines used in the next leg of our trip and making the necessary reservations in advance.
Although the rail system is slightly different over here, the way we spend our train time hasn’t changed much. We used the 2 hours each way to finish up writing on our postcards, catch up on blog posts and update our important spreadsheets documenting our spending. Justine did find it much harder to sleep on this train, not the smoothest ride.
But lets get to the meat of this post…today’s destination was Bayeux. This is a town in the north-west of France in the Normandy area. From the Bayeux train station we crossed the road to a hotel where we caught our second bus tour of the trip! This one was a Normandy tour of the D-Day Beaches. We rode around in a minibus with an English speaking guide and 6 other tourists. There were two British men in the front seat, a couple from Detroit in the center row and a couple from New York in the back row. We were the last in so we ended up split up one in each of the middle & back rows. In other words, we had lots of time to bond with the American couples.
Here’s a quick recap of WWII up to the D-Day landings on June 6th 1944. France and Great Britain had declared was on Germany in September 1939 when Hitler invaded Germany’s neighbors to the east. German forces advanced west, sweeping through countries until they reached France. In May 1940, France and British troops fled to Great Britain via Dunkirk. Paris fell to German hands shortly after and remained occupied by the Germans for four years.
On June 6th 1944, the Allied counterattack landed on 5 different beaches along the Normandy coast. This location was chosen because it really seemed an unlikely place to attack. The Germans expected an attack further North where the channel was less wide. The Allies learned by the epic failure of the Dieppe landing that this location would not be easily taken and therefore decided on Normandy. The D-Day landing was the largest marine attack in the history of the world. Over 2 million soldiers arrived at the D-Day beaches. 5000 planes travelled the English Channel this day as 800 planes dropped men in parachutes and another 300 planes dropped bombs on the Germans on shore.
The Allies knew they needed a port to keep their forces supplied but they also knew the German’s defenses were strong at the existing French ports. On the idea of Churchill, a port was built at the first beach we visited. Gold Beach was the middle of the 5 beaches. British troops landed here. To one side were the two American beaches (Omaha and Utah) and on the other another British landing location (Sword) and the Canadian beach (Juno).
Our bus pulled up to Gold beach to find sunshine & sand. However it was hard to miss the large concrete blocks randomly dotted out off the coastline. We soon learned that Mulberry Harbor was created here. The port was constructed at various locations across the South of Britain before D-Day and all parts were brought to Gold Beach to be constructed only 48 hours after the land had been liberated. This harbor worked efficiently and effectively for the rest of the troops and supplies needed for the liberation of France and the march to Berlin. Today this beach is a popular tourist destination. The beach is gorgeous, but it’s importance is not overshadowed. There are large memorials and plaques and the flags of all the countries who lost soldiers on D-Day.
A model of Mulberry Harbor
At this beach there was also a little museum for us to explore. There were more models of the harbor, as well as small exhibits dedicated to each of the D-Day Allie forces. These featured military uniforms, medals and equipment. There was also a moving slideshow video telling of the battle from a fight pilots perspective.
Canadian Units involved in D-Day
The second stop of our tour was a mile away from the Gold beach shoreline on a grassy hill. It seemed a random place to stop until you spotted four concrete mounds half-hidden by dirt & bushes. These were the bunker houses made to hold the German anti-battleship guns for the Gold beach area. Three bunkers were still intact with the guns inside but the fourth had been directly hit by a bomber plane. The guns were absolutely huge! The had a range of up to 20 km, although the Allies managed to avoid being hit by pulling in very close to the nearby cliffs. The guns can fire up to 20 km, but can’t hit a target only 1 km away.
Our guide told us of how when the Allie troop came to fight the German soldiers who were manning these guns they found men who were deaf & some blind from the sound and smoke put off by firing the guns.
Next was an American Military Cemetary. There are 12 American cemeteries spread over France from the two world wars. (There are also 2 Canadian, 8 British and 11 Germany cemeteries throughout France.) This cemetery contains the graves of 9,387 Americans killed in the war, most of who lost their lives on the D-Day landings and later operations. The outer walls of the memorial feature the names of 1,557 lost souls who’s bodies were never recovered. It’s a somber thing to walk into a place filled with that many crosses (or stars of David in the case of a select number of Jewish soldiers) and to know that all of these people lost their lives in a space of only 4 years. The cemetery featured a wonderful memorial with a statue for the American youth rising out of the waves in the middle. This statue was built to commemorate the average age of Americans buried here being only 21.
It was the stories of the father/son pairs or the brothers who lay side by side in the cemetery that really started to get to us. It starts to feel personal and the emotion of the wartime experience becomes rather overwhelming. We have been so blessed to have grown up in a peaceful place, at a peaceful time and to have been sheltered and safe and loved. We can only feel eternally grateful to each of the names on those crosses for that blessing.
The other beach we visited was Omaha Beach. You may remember from our earlier blurb that this was one of the beaches where the Americans landed. Of all the D-Day landings, this is the one that suffered the most June 6th casualties. Of the first to wave come ashore 90% died before the second wave arrived. This beach featured two memorials honoring these individuals.
The Pointe du Hoc was the final stop. This is a cliff top located between the two American beaches. The plan was for 225 American rangers to land, scale the cliff and destroy the large German guns before the troops were to land on the D-Day beaches. This failed in many ways. First they overshot their location and arrived 40 minutes late. Second, there were no German guns to be found at the top as they had recently been removed and third, the troops at the top could not get back down to help their comrades on the beach. Remaining here today are destroyed and partially damaged German bunkers and shelters. These are huge and yet, knowing the number of soldiers that were living in them, very claustrophobic. In an additional effort to disable the cliff top guns, this cliff was heavily bombed before the D-Day landings. The remains of clearly visible. the ditches left by the bombing are at least 3 people deep and numerous. The ground looks like a series of holes and hills from all of the bomb craters & underground German bunkers.
Looking off the point was a beautifully scenic view, and we find our imaginations aren’t strong enough to be able to see what it would be like to have the water below full of military ships.
That’s kind of how we felt all day…like we can’t even imagine what it would be like to have been here almost 70 years ago.
The D-Day landings were a huge success! Paris was liberated only a few months later and the Allies began their march to Berlin. Hitler was fighting the two-front war (with the Russians in the east) he always feared and within a year he had committed suicide and victory went to the Allies.
Our lives haven’t given us a way to see what it would be like to be living through wartime & the hardships that came with it. We still marvel at the idea of bombings and trench combat actually happening. And the idea of France actually being captured still leaves us reeling. Today all we know is that we are thankful.
Love, Luck & Landing Sites,