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Omaha Beach and Cemeteries

Few of General Omar Bradley's first soldiers to land at Omaha Beach would have believed that this was the end for Germany. The first waves of the U.S. 1st Army's 5th Corps were mowed down as they tried to land on the beaches of Colleville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, and Vierville-sur-Mer, and they huddled down under constant fire for the rest of the morning as they met with the stiffest and bloodiest resistance of any of the Allied beaches on D-Day.

One veteran told historian Stephen Ambrose that "Face downward, as far as eyes could see in either direction were the huddled bodies of men living, wounded, and dead, as tightly packed as cigars in a box… Everywhere, the frantic cry, 'Medics, hey, Medics,' could be heard above the horrible din." Indeed, for some the racket was worst of all: "The noise," said another, "always the noise, naval gunfire, small arms, artillery, and mortar fire, aircraft overhead, engine noises, the shouting and the cries of the wounded". But the sounds weren't what one soldier, who'd been wounded after coming ashore in one of the subsequent assault waves, remembered: "As I painfully walked back to the beach, thousands of parts of bodies lined it. They were floating, heads, arms, legs. I realized what being in the first wave was all about."

Little wonder that veterans remember the beach as "Bloody Omaha". Eventually there were 2400 casualties, and not til after midday did the Americans start to neutralize the defences and move inland. A monument to the 5th Engineer Special Brigade underlines the fact that fully one fourth of the men landing on D-Day were engineers, men whose job was to rid the beaches of concrete stakes, mines, and other anti-invasion obstacles.

Most visited of Normandy's World War II cemeteries is the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, because the Americans tried to bury all their dead in the Battle of Normandy in one place (one other American cemetery is near Mont Saint-Michel) and built there an impressive colonnaded memorial, a reflecting pond, and a chapel. But what is most touching here are the 9386 white crosses and Stars of David which line the immaculate lawn of this poignant cemetery, which the French government has declared American soil "à perpétuité". By contrast, the British buried their fallen, according to Commonwealth custom, close to where they fell, and thus there are some 15 to 20 British military cemeteries in Normandy, the largest of which is in Bayeux. Canadian dead are buried either in Bény-sur-mer or Cintheaux, while a Polish cemetery can be found at Urville-Langannerie. As for the Germans, their remains are scattered among five cemeteries, the largest of which is at La Cambe, between Bayeux and Isigny.

West of Omaha Beach is La Pointe du Hoc and, beyond the Veys bay, the Cotentin Peninsula, home to Sainte-Mère-Église and Utah Beach

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© Erik Svane