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Pointe du Hoc, Sainte-Mère-Église, and Utah Beach

The Pointe du Hoc gives the best idea of what battle on D-day meant for the men on either side, because the scars of the battlefield have been allowed to remain as they were half a century ago, pitted by shell-holes, yawning craters, and upended bunkers. It looked like the "craters of the moon", said one sergeant. It was here that 225 U.S. Rangers landed under withering fire and climbed 30-meter- (100-foot-) high cliffs to capture the massive coastal batteries that could have turned their guns on either of the American landing beaches.

At the same time (some seven hours before the seaborne landings) that British gliders were landing at Pegasus Bridge to defend the left flank (the eastern sector) of Operation Overlord, American paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne were being dropped over the western sector, to defend the right flank and to ensure the landing parties at Utah Beach would have exits towards the mainland. (There were somewhat more aircraft and troopers involved here, on the right flank: 882 planes and 13,000 men, making it the biggest airborne operation ever attempted.) The paratroopers' main target was Sainte-Mère-Église, which became the first town in France to be liberated by the Americans, but not before pitched battles had taken place around a burning building in the centre of town, in the light of which several parachutists were machine-gunned by Germans before they touched the ground.

The town can be reached from the beaches by taking the N13 road across the Vire and Douve rivers and continuing for some 30 km (19 miles) up the Cotentin peninsula. Inside the church, take a closer look at the stained glass windows. They now represent U.S. paratroopers floating down to earth. Often, a mannequin in an 82nd uniform can be seen hanging from the roof of the church. It represents Private John Steele (there is also an inn named after him), whose parachute was caught on the steeple and who spent over two hours hanging there and unable to get away.

The landing beach of which the exits the paratroopers were supposed to cover was Utah Beach. It proved to be the easiest conquest of the five landing beaches. The Americans met with virtually no opposition, and this was due, in part, to a lucky accident: the 4th Division had landed in the wrong place. Although there was talk among the brass about whether to send upcoming units to the proper landing sites, Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt (son and namesake of the president) finally came to the conclusion to push ahead: "We're going to start the war from here." And indeed, it was here that the French in later years established km marker 00 of what they call la Voie de la Liberté (Liberty Road) and which runs for hundreds of kilometers to Bastogne in the Ardennes, following the U.S. Army's path to the German border.

Within four days of D-Day, the combined Allied forces would control a coastal strip 100 km long by 10 km deep (62 miles by 6.2); by mid-July, after harrowing bombardments and tank battles, a battered Caen would fall to the Allies, allowing them to proceed with a massive breakout from the landing area; by mid-August, all effective German resistance in Normandy would come to an end with the destruction of the Falaise pocket; and American and British armies would be on their way across the Seine to Paris.

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© Erik Svane