This post was most recently updated on September 12th, 2016
I have always wanted to walk the shores of the Normandy beaches…to see first-hand the land where so many men gave their lives in the defense of freedom. So when our travel plans took us in that direction I seized the opportunity and made sure to include it in our itinerary. It was difficult choosing what to see but finally I narrowed it down to four iconic battlefields: Sainte-Mere-Eglise, La Fière, Utah Beach, and Pointe du Hoc. There was an almost sacred feel to these places. I’m not sure I can fully put it into words but I will try and give a glimpse into what it was like to visit the battlefields of Normandy.
Sainte-Mère-Église was the very first town in occupied France liberated in the D-Day offensive, so it was only fitting that we started our day there. At the center of the town is a small church which looks like most any other church you might see in any other tiny French town; however as you approach the church you see something different – a parachute caught on the church steeple with a parachutist suspended from the eaves (OK, well it’s actually a dummy dressed up as a parachutist from the 82nd Airborne). The dummy and parachute are left as a lasting testimony to the memory of the brave men who gave their lives recapturing the town.
On the night of the invasion, the 82nd Airborne was dropped over the town of Sainte-Mère, with missions to capture the town and neighboring causeway, and interrupt enemy communication lines. The night of the drop, however, the sky was illuminated by burning buildings and the German soldiers were able to spot the in-coming paratroopers. Many were shot as they floated down on the town or caught in trees where enemy soldiers shot them before they could get free. The battle quickly turned to chaos as the men tried to regroup in the confusion, constant counter-attack, and heavy casualties. Private John M. Steele, was one who had the misfortune of getting his parachute caught — on the town’s church steeple. He was forced to play dead as he hung helpless from the church eaves and watched his fellow soldiers struggle through the night to capture the town. While he survived the battle, the dummy hanging from the church steeple commemorates those who were not as fortunate in this first skirmish of the invasion.
The next place we stopped was at a small field 2 miles away from Ste-Mere called La Fière. It was little more than a marshy field and small river with a one-lane road and tiny bridge. This was, however, a critical objective as control of the road would stop the movements of German reinforcements to the beaches.
Today there is a small memorial in honor of the men who fought there. What struck me as I stood there was how something so small and seemingly insignificant could have been so critical. The tiny bridge was hardly more than a couple car lengths long but the continued success of the offensive hinged largely on its capture. It gave me a moment to reflect on how so many times in history, dramatic and incredibly important scenes played themselves out on the tiniest of stages. It was incredible to stand in the middle of a now peaceful field knowing that it had once been one of those stages where a small group of heroic men faced down superior might to achieve a necessary and pivotal victory.
Pointe du Hoc
The story of Pointe du Hoc and the brave men that fought there was especially moving to me. This, above the other places we saw that day, struck me as a truly sacred and hallowed piece of land.
Pointe du Hoc is a plateau positioned on the edge of the coast with 300-ft cliffs on three sides. The Germans had established a defensive position on the plateau with large guns, with which they could fire on both Omaha and Utah beaches. For this reason, it was marked as a mission-critical objective in the D-Day offensive — however it came at a particularly high cost.
The day of the invasion, over 225 men set out to climb the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and capture the German bunkers and guns. Due to problems with the landing craft (one sinking, another swamping, etc.) over half of the initial force was lost reaching the cliffs. As the troops began to climb the cliffs, ships floating off-shore gave suppressing fire to keep the Germans from firing on the helpless climbers, but even still, many were lost to enemy fire or climbing equipment failure.
Once the troops reached the top they had to face an entrenched German force, and because of the delays incurred during the landing and climb, the reinforcements that were meant to help the battalion were diverted elsewhere. Without additional support the men captured the barracks — only to discover that the guns they had been sent to destroy were little more than pieces of timber to fool the recon planes. They split their forces to find and destroy the hidden guns. While that effort was a success, the remaining force of 90 men was left alone for a day and a half repelling continuous German counter-attack before finally being reinforced and having their position secured.
Today, as you walk out onto Pointe du Hoc, all you can see are the broken remains of German bunkers and a lunar-esque landscape of craters. While the harsh, broken-up, terrain has been somewhat smoothed over the years with pockets of yellow wildflowers and green grass growing around the shattered remains of the fortifications, it is not hard to find yourself imagining the brave men who beat incredible odds to capture this piece of land. The area is left open to visitors, allowing freedom to wander around craters and foxholes — even explore the remains of the bunkers and underground rooms built by the German forces. The juxtaposition of beautiful ocean views, imposing cliffs, and bright yellow wildflowers, with the broken concrete remains and pot-holed terrain left me feeling pensive as I reflected on the events of that long-past day and what it has meant for the world in the years since.
Omaha and Utah beaches were the two beach fronts assigned to the American forces in the invasion. Utah Beach is known today for its amazing museum outlining the events of the invasion and the days leading up to it, so we were sure to visit it. The museum is quite impressive and very interesting — well worth the 8 euro admission fee.
Most are familiar with the events of Utah beach, and standing in such a historic spot was a real treat. But above anything else there was a special feeling of walking along the now-peaceful beach. This feeling permeated all the Normandy battlefields we visited that day but was particularly palpable as I stood on the sandy beach watching the long beach grass swaying in the wind under the flag poles where the French and American flags waved side-by-side.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery (author of “The Little Prince” and WW2 fighter pilot) put the feeling of these places into words in a letter he wrote entitled: “Letter to an American”
“…Perhaps, someday, more or less serious disputes will arise between us. Every nation is selfish and every nation considers its selfishness sacred. Perhaps your feeling of power may, someday, lead you to seize advantages for yourselves that we consider unjust to us. Perhaps, sometime in the future, more or less violent disputes may occur between us. If it is true that wars are won by believers, it is also true that peace treaties are sometimes signed by businessmen. If therefore, at some future date, I were to inwardly reproach those American businessmen, I could never forget the high-minded war aims of your country. I shall always bear witness in the same way to your fundamental qualities. American mothers did not give their sons for the pursuit of material aims. Nor did these boys accept the idea of risking their lives for such material aims. I know – and will later tell my countrymen – that it was a spiritual crusade that led you into the war….
…And what were they told to justify the sacrifice of their lives in their own eyes? They were told of the hostages hanged in Poland, the hostages shot in France. They were told of a new form of slavery that threatened to stifle part of humanity. Propaganda spoke to them not about themselves, but about others. They were made to feel solidarity with all humanity.
…Friends in America, you see it seems that something new is emerging on our planet. It is true that technical progress in modern times has linked men together like a complex nervous system. The means of travel are numerous and communication is instantaneous – We are joined together materially like the cells of a single body…”
Normandy battlefield impressions
Above all else this is what I felt as I walked these battlefields. A sense of brotherhood. I was proud to learn the history of the brave Americans, impressed to walk in the places where they fought and died, but overall I felt companionship and solidarity with those men from many nations who descended on the beaches of a country that was not their own — willing to pay the ultimate price to free these people they did not know. As I left the Normandy battlefields that day, I felt in a very real way how the events of the invasion had forever tied our countries together. I left feeling a real love for this land that was not my own and the people who died there and who still live there today.
This guest post was written by my son, Eric Wilcox, who lived in France two years as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The time he spent researching the best sights for us to see was much appreciated. We shared 10 wonderful days with him and his wife in France. I am especially grateful for his heartfelt expressions about Normandy. It truly was a moving experience for all of us…
If you’d like to follow more of our France adventure, check out these posts: