The flags are going up, the mowers are out and the cafe owners are stocking up on beer and cider — as they always do ahead of June 6 every year.
The anniversary of D-Day stirs powerful mixed emotions here in Normandy. It is both a celebration of the liberation of Europe — which began that day — and a commemoration of those who fell here in the pivotal summer of 1944.
This year, though, will be particularly poignant because the 75th anniversary is likely to be the last occasion when the veterans return in significant numbers. And because royalty and world leaders will be joining them, anyone without a ticket will want to stay well clear of the French coast between Cherbourg and Ouistreham during the week of June 3.
The Daily Mail’s Robert Hardman devised a three-day itinerary to see all the main D-Day beaches and memorials
On any other day, this part of the world is not merely worth a visit. It is an enthralling, humbling experience which should be high on anyone’s ‘to do’ list. And you do not have to be a military history buff to enjoy it.
In the run-up to this year’s events, I took my family for a long weekend and the only problem was cramming it all in to a few days.
For the Battle of Normandy was not just about getting ashore. The ‘beaches’ were actually a 50-mile stretch of coast — and the battle itself lasted nearly three months. As a result, there are enough museums, ruins and landmarks to keep you occupied for weeks. I have been back here time and again over the years and there is always something new to see or do. So how best to get the full picture?
With three children aged between seven and 11, I wanted to make sure they all went home with a story to tell and a rough idea of what happened 75 years ago.
We based ourselves in the small city of Bayeux, with its charming streets and half-timbered cafes, and this is how we did it . . .
The British-Canadian Sector
HELP HONOUR OUR HEROES
There is still no memorial on French soil to the 22,442 British servicemen and women who died in the Battle of Normandy. Now, thanks to the efforts of the surviving veterans and Mail readers, this magnificent monument, above, and memorial park will open above Gold Beach next year. Donations to the Normandy Memorial Trust at 56 Warwick Square, London SW1V 2AJ or normandymemorialtrust.org.
The Normandy landings were divided into five zones which history has come to know as ‘the beaches’. To the west are the two vast stretches where the Americans landed — codenamed Utah and Omaha. To the east are the two British ones — Gold and Sword — either side of the Canadian landing zone, codenamed Juno. Since the Brittany Ferries service from Portsmouth sails in to Ouistreham, on the edge of Sword Beach, you might want to start here.
Start at: Pegasus Bridge
The first piece of France to be liberated from Nazi rule was not a beach at all. It was a crucial metal bridge over the Caen Ship Canal several miles inland from Sword Beach.
Shortly after midnight on June 6, three gliders carrying crack troops from the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry landed in precisely the right spot and captured the bridge intact. It has been known ever since as Pegasus Bridge (after the badge of the airborne forces) and here you will find the Pegasus Memorial. This first-rate museum tells the story of the army of liberators who came by air.
Donations from veterans and their families ensure there is a steady stream of fresh exhibits. An entire glider door had just turned up when we arrived. A new bridge spans the canal so the original — still sporting its battle scars — sits in the museum’s garden, along with a replica glider and a beautifully restored Cromwell tank.
Take a short trip up the road to the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Ranville, where more than 2,000 men lie buried next to a village church that’s still peppered with bullet holes.
Juno Beach Centre
Onwards to Canada’s museum at Juno Beach. On D-Day, no nation advanced further than the gallant Canadians yet their achievements are often overlooked. Not here, though. The full extent of the country’s war effort is captured in a series of well-planned exhibitions, along with a digital tour which kept my lot captivated for an hour and a half.
‘Best museum of them all,’ was the verdict of my eldest. It’s right on the beach, next to a German bunker complex. A good paddling opportunity.
Bringing history to life: Robert and his family enjoyed an educational holiday in Normandy
Grab some lunch nearby and head for Crépon, passing Ver-sur-Mer where the splendid new Normandy Memorial is taking shape with the help of the generosity of Daily Mail readers.
Five minutes away is the roadside monument telling the heroic tale of Sergeant Major Stan Hollis of the Green Howards, the only man to win the Victoria Cross on D-Day itself.
Gripping film footage
Another ten minutes down the road and you reach the clifftop cinema above the handsome old spa town of Arromanches-les-Bains. The view is superb. Ditto the 360-degree cinema experience which uses surround sound and news footage from the time to tell the whole story of Normandy in 20 minutes. Its powerful footage had even our seven-year-old glued.
Skirt round Arromanches and head for the gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer, still in remarkably good nick considering that it was bombarded comprehensively by the RAF before it was silenced by the Royal Navy.
You can climb inside the gun casemates and children will enjoy clambering over the original guns. Equally impressive is the forward observation bunker, still perched on the cliff edge. It is the one they used to film the epic Hollywood movie, The Longest Day, and has barely changed since 1944.
Double back to Arromanches for a drink as the sun sets beyond the remains of the Mulberry harbour. This was the mind-boggling artificial port which the Allies towed across the Channel at a sedate 1 mph. These mighty blocks of seaweed-encrusted concrete are now much-loved landmarks. The busy museum on the seafront tells the story.
The American Sector
Of the 156,000 troops who landed on D-Day, 73,000 were American, as was the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower. The U.S. forces were allocated the western half of the assault. Their initial aims included the capture of the vital port of Cherbourg.
Start at: St-Mere-Eglise
Like the British airborne forces who arrived to the east in the early hours of D-Day, thousands of Americans dropped in to the west.
Famously, one unit of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division landed in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise while a house was on fire, illuminating the night sky. Many paratroopers were picked off before touching the ground.
A wounded Private John Steele ended up dangling from the church by his parachute and feigned death until he was lowered down and taken prisoner (though not for long).
His story has entered Normandy folklore and, to this day, a dummy paratrooper still hangs from the church — much to the delight of my children. Across the square, the U.S. Airborne Museum is full of interactive displays and each visitor receives a tablet to follow the action.
Half an hour’s drive further on, the Utah Beach Museum is an excellent state-of-the-art visitor centre built into the sand on the site of a German bunker.
There is a wide selection of landing craft — including a replica Higgins Boat — and a B-26 Marauder bomber, all telling the story of a beach landing which went more or less according to plan.
It is also the perfect spot for some well-deserved bucket-and-spade activity. It is a short hop to Saint-Come-du-Mont where the D-Day Experience gives visitors a lively simulated ride in an American C47 aircraft as it flies U.S. paratroopers into the unknown.
The beach of Arromanches where you can also find a 360-degree cinema experience, which uses surround sound and news footage from the time to tell the whole story of Normandy in 20 minutes
While Utah was a success, the other American landing beach was a killing field. Forever known as ‘Bloody Omaha’, it was where thousands of men lost their lives.
Well-entrenched German positions survived aerial bombing and poured withering fire on the attackers. Today, Omaha Beach is a bracing strip of golden sand, popular with land yachts (sail-powered go-karts).
Above it is the main U.S. Cemetery, a panoramic resting place for nearly 10,000 men (and four women) which will be familiar to viewers of the Steven Spielberg epic Saving Private Ryan. The film was inspired by the story of one U.S. family, the Nilands, who lost two boys in Normandy. There are, in fact, 45 pairs of brothers resting here.
Arrive towards the end of the day and watch the sunset ceremony — known as ‘Taps’ — bring down the two main Stars and Stripes. I counted hundreds of visitors, many of them in tears. A new visitor centre opens this summer.
Britain’s fallen heroes are to be found in beautifully maintained plots across the region. Head back to Bayeux and visit the main British cemetery where more than 4,000 Commonwealth (and 466 German) soldiers lie, including a holder of the Victoria Cross, Sidney Bates of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.
Bayeux, Caen and Inland
Half an hour away from Bayeux the regional capital, Caen — which was bombed to smithereens in 1944 — has a huge museum telling the story of the war from the French side, a sombre reminder that there were even more civilian than military losses here.
German last stand
The battle for the beaches was relatively quick. Most of the fighting was inland, among pretty medieval hedgerows known as ‘bocage’. Small memorials pepper the landscape. Head an hour south of Caen to the bloodiest battlefield of all. At the end of the Normandy campaign, tens of thousands of German troops were squeezed in to a narrow strip of countryside known as the Falaise Pocket. Up to 10,000 were killed here.
The Memorial Montormel museum, run by a charismatic English-speaking curator, is the perfect spot to take in the magnitude of what happened in the now-peaceful valley below. Much is made of the role of horses in the German war machine. Their fate is not so easily explained to young pony-lovers.
My three children learned a lot and played a lot. But I made the mistake of buying them each a replica ‘cricket’, the metallic clicker used by airborne troops to identify friendly forces at night. They have not stopped clicking the blasted things ever since.
Robert Hardman and his family travelled overnight from Portsmouth to Caen/Ouistreham by cruise-ferry in an en-suite cabin. Fares from £85 one way for a car, plus two passengers, brittany-ferries.co.uk. The Hotel Luxembourg in Bayeux has family rooms from £137 (hotel-luxembourg-bayeux.com) For more information on commemorating D-Day 75, visit normandydday75.com