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The D-Day Landing Beaches in Normandy

Some of the most fascinating (and poignant) treasures of Normandy are the D-Day landing beaches. Here, the greatest armada the world has ever known assembled before the coast of occupied France, and launched a determined assault on Hitler's Fortress Europe. After months of planning and build-up, Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower set Operation Overlord for June 6, 1944: some 7000 ships in the British Isles set to sea and sailed across the English Channel, and, early in the morning, under the leadership of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, 135,000 mainly American, British, and Canadian troops stormed Feldmarschal Erwin Rommel's German positions along 80 km (50 miles) of the Normandy coast.

Caen and Pegasus Bridge

Driving from Paris into Normandy, the first battle site one comes to (some 230 km, or 146 miles, away) is Caen, a city almost entirely destroyed by bombardments in the six weeks following D-Day and which now boasts one of the most visited museums on World War II. Mémorial (A Museum for Peace) strives not just to be a museum, but to promote world peace as well. Built on the site of a German general's command bunker, it recounts not only the battle of Normandy (which continued for over two months after D-Day), but explores the war's causes, i.e. the years following Germany's defeat in World War I, the humiliating Treaty of Versailles, and the subsequent rise of Fascism. The museum may serve as a fitting introduction to a visit to the region subjected to the largest amphibious operation in military history.

Following route D515 north along the Orne river to the sea, you come across the site of the first engagement of D-Day: the twin bridges linking Ranville to Bénouville. Pegasus Bridge was the objective of the British 6th Airborne glider infantry, six of whose gliders landed noiselessly shortly after midnight on D-Day (i.e., six to seven hours before the actual seaborne landings started). Their mission was to sever a major artery between Caen and the sea, and thus prevent German reinforcements from hitting the left flank of the invasion area, all the while keeping the bridges intact for later expansion of the beachhead. The 150-odd men rapidly overwhelmed the sleeping German defenders and managed to hold off counterattacks for over 12 hours — until Lord Lovat's commandos arrived (to the tune, allegedly, of Bill Millin's bagpipes). The original bridge, the first part of France to be liberated from the Nazi yoke (along with the neighboring café Gondrée), was replaced in 1994 (a few weeks before the 50th anniversary celebrations of the landings, to the disgust of veterans) but can be viewed on the other side of the river, next to a museum, the Mémorial Pegasus, which opened in June 2000 and whose shape resembles a glider.

Following the road to the coast, the next logical part of a D-Day visit covers the beaches stormed by the Commonwealth soldiers: Sword, Juno, and Gold

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© Erik Svane