Although we felt like we had barely gotten started in Paris, yesterday morning it was time for us to head west to Normandy. We were up early, and somehow got our big suitcases over to St. Lazare station to catch our train(s) out to Caen. We had stairways to deal with in a couple of places, but we worked out a system where Brett would carry one suitcase to the bottom of the stairs, then he would run back up for the second while I got down to the first suitcase as quickly as possible. Thankfully we didn’t have to do that more than a few times!
The train ride to Caen was fast and comfortable. We rode in second class, but it seemed closer to first in our opinion. We enjoyed watching the scenery change from city to countryside as we went along, and had a bit of excitement when a couple of security police climbed on our car at one station. They were very businesslike and quickly moved to the next car so we didn’t think too much about it until they got off a couple of stations later and we realized these guys had not come to play! There were actually four of them, and they were all fully weaponized and wearing bullet-proof gear. We have no idea what or who they were looking for but it was slightly scary to think what might have brought them on our train.
Picking up our car after we arrived in Caen was easy but getting out of town and on our way to Balleroy was less easy. Our VW Golf came equipped with GPS but it took us a few tries to get that figured out (everything is in French!) and a few wrong turns before we were finally on our way. Our apartment in Balleroy is very comfortable, and just the right size for a few days’ stay. Our hosts are warm and friendly, and they stocked the refrigerator for us with orange juice, milk and a bottle of homemade sparkling cider (delicious!). Balleroy has one market, one charcuterie and one boulangerie, so we headed out before the sun went down for provisions and coffee and croissants for our next morning’s breakfast.
Brett woke up around 6:30 to the sound of tractors rumbling down the street, but all my lack of sleep from jet lag must have finally caught up with me because I slept soundly until 10:00 a.m. – and I wasn’t wearing earplugs! We were on the road by noon though and although the temperature was nearly 20 degrees cooler than it was in Paris, the sun was shining so we headed out to visit the Normandy D-Day beaches.
We drove up through Carentan, where the Band of Brothers (Easy Company, 82nd Airborne Division) had fought so fiercely soon after landing in Normandy and headed to our first stop, Utah Beach. As I know more about the landings at Omaha Beach compared to Utah Beach, we decided to go through the museum there before walking down to the beach. We spent quite a bit of time in the museum as the displays were quite detailed and informative.
It was short walk over to the beach from the museum, and humbling for both of us to stand there and think of the men coming up on that long, wide beach on D-Day, being fired upon and yet not giving up. It is an aspect of war that I have never been able to grasp, how soldiers, sailors and airmen went forward into intense, life-threatening danger or dangerous situations and kept going, even when they were afraid or terrified. But they did, and seeing the immensity of the beach today and the distance the American troops had to go literally took my breath away. Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who was a general, came ashore on Utah Beach under heavy fire and led the assault (he was the highest ranking person to come ashore during the initial landings). Even though he was suffering from heart problems and crippling arthritis that caused him to walk with a cane, his presence on the beach motivated the soldiers to keep going. He died on July 12 in France, of a heart attack, and is buried in the American Cemetery in Normandy.
Leaving Utah Beach, we headed west to visit La Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. While the sun continued to shine, the wind had picked up and it was about all we could do to stay on our feet when we got to La Pointe du Hoc. The ground at the point is still heavily marked with craters created by shells primarily from the battleship USS Texas (those battleships had some HUGE guns) that were fired before the D-Day invasion. La Pointe du Hoc had been heavily fortified by the German army, and the remains of some of the bunkers and gun placements could be seen in and around the craters, but a couple of the bunkers survived intact. The shelling only took out one of the guns, but caused the German army to move and hide the guns about one kilometer back in from the beach. The U.S. Rangers that climbed the cliffs at Point du Hoc on D-Day suffered massive losses (255 set out; only 90 were able to complete the mission), but they found and destroyed the German guns and ammunition before heading on to Omaha Beach. The guns had been aimed at Utah Beach.
Leaving La Pointe du Hoc, we had a short but pleasant drive down to Omaha Beach (we hadn’t know before today that Pointe du Hoc is actually an official part of the Omaha Beach landing area). As we drove, it was not difficult to pick out buildings along the way that had been there before and during the war, and we wondered about the people who had lived there, or whether Americans or Germans had fought around those buildings or occupied them, or had marched or walked down the roads we were traveling on.
Omaha beach was much, much larger than we imagined, and looking up at the hills just off of the beach was again a very humbling experience for both Brett and I. Today the hills are covered with beautiful houses, hotels and restaurants, but the thought of the American soldiers coming off their landing boats, advancing up that beach in the open with the Germans firing down on them in order to climb and overtake those hills was almost too much for Brett and I to contemplate. Again I wondered, how did they do it? How could they do it, especially being out in the open with so many around them dead or dying in the attempt?
We had planned to finish the day with a visit to the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, but we arrived just as they were closing (5:00 p.m.) so we will go back tomorrow in the morning.
We had a lovely drive back to Balleroy – almost everything, whether a village or farmland, was beautiful beyond measure. I’m wondering though how anyone not from here ever figured out how to get around the area before GPS! Thanks to the system in the car along with my phone’s GPS talking us through the route, we were able to drive along some lovely back roads versus having to get on a less-attractive expressway. The leaves haven’t begun to change yet, but we could sure see and feel the change of seasons coming to the area.
We had wine, cheese, some paté and grapes when we got back to the apartment, and then got out our maps to plan tomorrow’s journey. We hope to visit the American cemetery first thing in the morning as it’s less than a half hour away (weather permitting – rain is possible tomorrow) and then will head over to visit Mont St. Michel.