Monday, 19 April 2010 12:00 AM
It was history’s greatest amphibious assault and replete with heroism and tragic loss. Travelbite.co.uk’s Natasha von Geldern discovers a receptacle of the world’s memory on Normandy’s D-Day Landing beaches but also an appropriate destination for a family holiday in France.
Port au Bessin Huppain is a lovely coastal French village with fishing boats in the harbour and a creperie on the quay. On the outskirts of the village, near the church, is Pierre & Vacances Green Beach, a French-style family holiday resort – a community of substantial cottages with elegant French architecture, all creamy stone and steep roofs surrounded by green fields. There are indoor and outdoor pools, a children’s play area and a bakery service in the morning.
But on the harbourfront is a Second World War memorial. Here commandos brought oil and supplies ashore vital to linking the beachheads of Omaha and Gold, and following the D-Day landings, to the advancing frontline. Port au Bessin was the linkup point between the American and British forces on June 7, 1944. The scenes of the 1962 film The Longest Day set at Ouistreham were actually were actually filmed here.
Over 175,000 troops landing on June 6th 1944 along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast divided into five sectors – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – names that have gone down in history.
You could spend weeks (and a small fortune in entrance fees) visiting every museum, memorial and World War II site on the Normandy coast. We just had one weekend and after an unscientific survey of reviews on the internet we chose one museum, one cemetery and a few sites. We drove nearly the entire length of the invasion beaches to gain an impression of the lie of the land.
The cliffs at Point du Hoc (photo: Natasha von Geldern)
Caen is famous for its William the Conqueror connections and it is now also the home of the Memorial. This museum is not just about the Normandy landings but a history of the war, telling the story of a Europe still traumatised by the Great War and sinking into the new conflagration. Of soldiers not yet recovered as the democracies they had fought for were exposed as fragile through economic and political crisis.
The exhibition expresses this as a physical spiral descent into the hell of war. There is an extremely poignant photograph of a London newspaper seller sitting beside his “war is declared” bill with a stunned face.
This is a brilliant museum, seeking a better understanding of our history and evoking the fragility of peace. A visit to the Caen Memorial is made even more attractive by having a beautiful free nursery where children under the age of 10 can play under the supervision of qualified staff. Just another example of how a family holiday in this part of France works so well.
The cemetery we chose to visit is the biggest: the 172.5 acres of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer. It was dedicated in 1956 and memorialises over 20,000 dead or missing-in-action soldiers.
As you would expect, the sheer number of crosses and headstones is overwhelming, and made even more so by the beautiful setting overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel. A tree-lined promenade follows the curve of the high ground above the beach where, as US 1st Army Commander General Omar Bradley described it, a “thin wet line of khaki dragged itself ashore on the channel coast of France”.
I hadn’t really thought much before about the enormous amount of infrastructure and logistical effort behind the invasion. This was quickly brought home to me looking out from the viewing platform above the beach at Arromanches (Gold Beach). Enormous concrete blocks both in the sand and sitting out to sea are remnants of the Mulberry harbours so necessary for bringing ashore supplies and linking the beachheads.
In Arromanches itself there are beach huts and cafes and shops with piles of plastic buckets and spades. And parked outside is
a tank. In the smooth gold-coloured sand there is a half-buried landing craft like the tip of an iceberg. The museums all along the Normandy coast are serious and emphatic but this is where French people come on holiday, eat fish and chips and buy tourist tat, just like us.
At Point du Hoc flowering gorse bursts like yellow flame. The cratered cliff top is scattered with lumps of blasted concrete that out of the corner of your eye look like fallen Neolithic monuments. This is where the 2nd Ranger Battalion made their incredible landing, scaling the cliffs to disable German guns threatening both Utah and Omaha beaches.
Driving east of here the narrow roads, crumbling walls and houses of the typical bocage seem locked in time. This is the farmland of tiny fields and woodland that provided the GIs “hedgerow hell” as they fought inland hand-to-hand.
Of course it wasn’t just D-Day and the landings but the days and months that followed that ultimately led to victory in Europe. It took another three months to free Normandy and open the way to advance towards Paris and ultimately Germany.
A sunny morning in Port au Bessin (photo: Natasha von Geldern)
And finally, just before we returned to Port au Bessin, the four huge gun emplacements at Longes-sur-Mer, with gun barrels still pointing out to sea, are a stark reminder of the hard reality faced by Allied shipping as the landings progressed.
The spires of Bayeux Abbey pierce the sky on the dead straight road from Port au Bessin. The soldiers must have been able to see it as they fought their way through the bombed fields.
At the fish market on the dockside there are piles of scallops and oysters and all types of fruit of the sea. That evening there were plenty of restaurants on the waterfront offering seafood but we went one street bank and found Le Bistro d’a Cote, where the scallops were as big as small fists and melted in the mouth after being flambeed in the local Pommeau aperitif.
Yes I will admit that as well as touring the war sites we enjoyed exploring the landscape and cuisine of Normandy, particularly tasting and buying the Cru de Cambremer cider in one of France’s 100 loveliest villages (Beuvron en Auge).
As the ferry pulled out of Ouistreham port and we were on our way back to Portsmouth, the beaches and the coastline stretched away into the distance in a long, gentle curve. It was difficult to imagine the beauty of this beach, the sea and the sand, transformed into one of the ugliest scenes known to history.
But that made me all the gladder that the world has gone to such an effort to remember. In fact there is a project underway to list Normandy’s landing beaches as a UNESCO patrimony. At the same time the Normandy beaches are today a place where families come on holiday and children play on the sands. That’s how it should be.
Natasha von Geldern
More information about holidays in Normandy:
One week at RÃ©sidence Pierre & Vacances Le Green Beach starts from ?294 (Â£260) per week for a one bedroom apartment sleeping up to four people. For further information please visit the Pierre & Vacances website or call 0870 026 7144.
For further information on ferry travel from Portsmouth to Caen please visit the Brittany Ferries website or call 0871 244 0744.