Armed only with a map, a car and an over ambitious itinerary, Culture24's Richard Moss headed off to Normandy with his brother Andrew for a two-day tour of some of the museums, beaches and other locations that tell the story of the events of June 6, 1944.
Perhaps in some way mirroring the scale and complexity of the D-Day landings a visit to the Normandy beaches of today can be a peculiar and bewildering experience. With its dense hinterlands or 'bocage', the many cemeteries, beaches and bunkers – not to mention the scores of museums - it’s easy to become overwhelmed when exploring the events of June 1944.
But with a good map a reasonable sense of direction (and a little bit of planning) you can see a lot in just a few days and at least begin to take in something of the magnitude and atmosphere of the momentous battles that took place seventy years ago.
With only two days at our disposal - armed with a camera, a map and an itinerary we rumbled off the ferry at le Havre, drove over the spectacular arc of the Pont de Normandie and into the Normandy Bocage.
Enlivened by the spectacular view of the Seine stretching out beneath us we headed for the British flank of the invasion beaches to a site that marked one of the first engagements in the British sector on June 6 1944.
Photo: today the Merville Battery is a peaceful location. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Today the remains of the Merville Battery are preserved as a monument to the men who fought and died there. The story of the airborne troops who stormed and captured it is told in a museum residing in one of the German artillery casements.
Among the faded photographs, the weapons and the soldiers' maroon berets you can begin to piece together the story of the battle.
Photo: statue of Colonel T.B.H Otway. Pic Richard Moss © Culture24
In 1944 the guns of Merville were considered a strategic threat to the British flank of the beach invasion. The Germans, under General Rommel's direction, were alive to the possibilty of an attack and the surrounding fields were flooded and laced with mines and barbed wire.
Of the British paratroopers charged with its destruction in the early hours of June 6 many drowned under the sheer weight of their kit. Others were out of contact with their units as they landed miles from their drop zone.
None of the three gliders, carrying support troops and Royal Engineers with specialist equipment to breach the bunkers landed anywhere near the battery - or 'on top of it' - as planned.
Photo: many of the empty casements remain intact. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
His men scattered, killed, captured or drowned, Colonel T.B.H Otway, commanding the depleted remains of the 9th Parachute Brigade, took the decision to press on with his mission and storm the battery.
Photo: a red beret and 'Sam Brown' belt belonging to Lieutenant Mike Dowling, killed during the assault on the battery. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24.
At 2.30 am on June 6, backed by just 150 paras and only a fraction of their specialist equipment, an advance party of seven men approached the barbed wire and cleared a pathway through with their bare hands.
Otway, with his officers and men, stormed the German positions at 4.30am and by 5am the mission was accomplished. The guns had been silenced, 23 prisoners were taken but over half the paratroopers had been killed or wounded.
Photo: part of the extensive bunker system. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Today there are several memorials in the grounds at Merville and ceremonies involving the ever dwindling number of surviving veterans from the engagement take place every year or so. Otway’s commemorative statue looks out across the now peaceful fields.
Photo: the remains of the anti-aircraft pit reveal the name of the flak battalion as well as an unmistakeable wartime emblem. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Many of the casements and bomb shelters of the Merville battery remain. The recently uncovered remnants of an anti aircraft gun emplacement can be explored - its concrete base with the wartime scrawls still visible.
Elsewhere the flooded entrances to slit trench systems and smashed bunkers offer tantalizing glimpses into the battery’s once sophisticated complex of interlocking casements.
Photo: the Merville Battery Museum is now housed in 'Casemate number 1'. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
It’s a strangely peaceful place and the casements are mostly empty – save for the nesting sparrows and rubble of the intervening years.
A viewing platform with interpretation boards is perched on top of a German bunker affording good views of the distant beaches at Ouistreham as well as the surrounding farmland.
Photo: dotted around the grounds are the intriguing unexcavated remains of blockhouses and bunkers. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24.
Moving away from the peaceful remains of Merville it is a short drive south through the heart of the British and Canadian landing zones around Ranville towards the famous bridge over the River Orne codenamed Pegasus Bridge.
Picture: the memorial museum at Pegasus Bridge is a purpose-built modern structure based on the shape of the Parachute Regiment cap-badge. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
At around 12.20am on June 6, glider-borne troops of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (the 'Ox and Bucks') crashed onto the small strip of land between the River Orne and the Caen Canal.
They were amongst the first Allied troops to go into action on D-Day and within 15 minutes they had spread out and captured both the bridge over the River Orne and the bridge over the Caen Canal.
Photo: the bridge the Ox and Bucks captured in June 1944 now stands in the grounds of the museum. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
The Caen Bridge was subsequently named after the airborne forces emblem – the Pegasus.
Just a short distance from the site of this remarkable action a dedicated museum now stands. It is an impressive building packed with hundreds of artefacts recalling the first days of the invasion.
Photo: the interior of Pegasus Bridge museum. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Bi-lingual guides offer visitors insights into the importance of the attack by the 6th Airborne Division and the strategic importance of the two bridges - codenamed Pegasus and Horsa.
An interactive map in the centre of the museum helps the guides' explanations together with archive films shown at regular intervals.
Photo: the museum also houses a set of bagpipes that belonged Piper Bill Millin, who landed with Lord Lovatt's Commados on Sword Beach. The Commandos rendezvoused with the glider-borne troops holding Pegasus Bridge on the afternoon of June 6, 1944. Picture: Richard Moss © Culture24
It's a very spacious and well organised museum and, like many in Normandy, the contributions of former soldiers and veterans of the airborne campaign enliven the collection.
The bagpipes of Bill Millin, the piper of Lord Lovatt’s Number 3 Commando, can be viewed along with berets, helmets and other artefacts together with the stories of their former owners.
Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Millin’s story is particularly colourful. Having landed on Sword Beach on the morning of D-Day he piped No 3. Commando all the way to Pegasus Bridge for the famous rendezvous with the holding airborne troops.
However according to the guides at the museum and contrary to popular myth, rather than marching the commandos towards the bridge to the skirl of the pipes, in his own words he 'ran like bloody hell'.
Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Outside the museum are vehicles and artillery pieces including a Bofors 20mm anti aircraft gun, a half-track and a British 25-pounder field gun, but the real star of the show is the original Pegasus Bridge.
The original bridge (the first to be liberated in occupied France) was removed from the canal in 1993 and shortly after the opening of the museum it was lifted into its place in the grounds.
Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
The site also contains an original Bailey Bridge and a full sized replica of a Horsa Glider. A service of dedication with HRH Prince Charles took place on June 5 2014 together with veterans who took part in the Pegasus Bridge mission in June 1944.
With it's parachute shaped design and impressive collection the Pegasus Memorial Museum is an excellent introduction the British airborne assault during D-Day and a fitting memorial to the men who fought to capture the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal.
Photo: personal artefacts throughout the museum add to the importance of the collection. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Leaving the Pegasus Memorial behind we headed back north towards the coast and Port of Ouistreham.
Marking the eastern edge of the British sector, in 1944 the beaches west of the port of Ouistreham were codenamed Sword. The British division started landing at 7.30 AM.
Photo: the beach at Ouistreham. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
The Germans had fortified the area with relatively light defenses consisting of beach obstacles and fortified emplacements in the sand dunes.
For the most part, however, the defence of the beach at this far eastern sector was co-ordinated by a control bunker and flak tower. The tower is still clearly visible beyond the sand dunes that, 60 years later, are thronged with picnicking families and sunbathers.
Photo: the flak tower in the distance was the centre of German efforts to resist the British invasion at Sword Beach. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
The flak tower and control bunker at Ouistreham was just one of the thousands of redoubts and defensive positions that made up the Atlantic Wall – a series of coastal defences stretching from Norway to Spain.
This 52 feet high tower and German HQ controlled the defence of the Port of Ouistreham and the batteries covering the entrance to the River Orne and the Caen Canal.
The tower withheld repeated British attempts to silence it until June 9, when two sappers from the Royal Engineers finally managed to blow the iron doors and force the battery's surrender.
Photo: a good place to get a picture of the fierce fighting for Sword Beach is at the Atlantic Wall Museum. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Restored in 1987, it is now a museum with several floors and rooms crammed with artifacts from the period.
Visitors pass through the original iron doors through the generator room and up the stairs where you can find faithful recreations of life inside the tower.
Photo: the German flak tower gives a flavour of garrison life in an Atlantic Wall control tower. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
You can enter the observation post room with its range-finder, which still provides a panoramic 25-mile radius view over the channel - 60 years on.
For those with a good head for heights (and not too much of a girth) a climb up a narrow tunnel to the roof affords good views of Sword Beach and the port of Ouistreham.
Photo: the sea still reveals the occasional relic when the tide recedes – as testified by the barnacle encrusted helmets, rifles and other remains. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Sadly, having scaled the heady heights of 'Le Grand Bunker' at Ouistreham, the day's exertions caught up with us – forcing us to abandon our plans to explore further the beaches in the British and Canadian sector.
We decide to refuel and strike out tomorrow – beginning with the Western edge of the Normandy bridge head – at St Mere Eglise and the heart of American paratroop operations.
Photo: The view from the top of the tower at Ouistrenham offers a panorma of the British sector at Normandy. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
On the night of June 6, two American Divisions, the 82nd and the 101st, landed on the western flanks of the Normandy bridgehead. It was part of the largest airborne assault ever attempted and their immediate task was to secure the exits to Utah Beach.
Photo: the misadventures of Jon Steele are commemorated with an effigy slung by a parachute from the top of St Mere Eglise Church. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
The 82nd charged its 505st Regiment with the task of taking the town of St-Mere- Eglise. Strategically situated on the Cotentin Peninsula, 13 kilometres north-northwest of Carentan and 39 kilometres southeast of Cherbourg, St Mere Eglise became the first French town liberated by US forces in World War Two.
Photo: 'Madonna with Paratroopers.' Inside the church, stained glass windows commemorate the airborne operations of June 1944. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
On the evening of June 5th an allied air raid on the town caused a large house in a park opposite the square (now the site for the US Airborne Museum) to catch fire.
As the church bells tolled, the villagers, led by the town mayor, formed a human chain from the water pump in the square and passed buckets from hand-to-hand to throw onto the flames.
Photo: the famous town pump; as American paratroopers dropped from the sky and the church burned, villagers fought the flames with the aid of this water pump. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
As they toiled, American paratroopers began to drop amongst them 'like confetti'. The German defenders ran into the square to try and shoot them as they fell - the dramatic battle for St-Mere-Eglise had begun.
After vicious fighting and several counter attacks by German troops the American Paratroopers secured the town and by 4.30am it was firmly in Allied hands.
Photo: the museum at St Mere Eglise. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Today the town is a focus point for the remembrance of the American Airborne Operations during D-Day and houses an excellent museum, as well as several memorials. The square is lined with gift shops and numerous outlets selling memorabilia from the period.
Photo: St Mere Eglise enjoys a continuing and close relationship with some of the veterans who landed in their midst in 1944. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
On entering the town one of the first things you may notice is the effigy of Jon Steele hanging by a parachute from the church tower in the main square.
On D-Day Steele crashed onto the steeple, slid down the lead roof and luckily came to rest, dangling by his entwined parachute, on a buttress.
He spent the next few hours feigning death before being captured briefly by the Germans - he was relatively none the worse for wear but somewhat deafened by the tolling bells and a German machine gun nest that rattled away nearby.
Photo: the museum at St Mere Eglise features many artefacts donated by veterans. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Steele’s lucky escape is explored further in the museum situated in the park across the square. Here you can view his personal items (he died in Kentucky in 1969) including personal effects, contemporary photographs and pieces of his uniform.
His story is just one of many retold through archives and objects donated by former veterans - making the museum an excellent counterpart to the British Airborne Museum at Pegasus Bridge.
Photo: the museum boasts purpose built galleries that house a C47 Dakota and a Waco Glider. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Similarly purpose-built but with two hangars housing an original Waco Glider and a C-47 transport aircraft, there is also a cinema, interactives and an impressive display of uniformed mannequins, materiel, equipment and ordnance.
In the museum grounds you'll find the ubiquitous Sherman tank as well as a half-track. On a nearby tree there is a plaque dedicated to Private William H Tucker who landed in it on June 6 1944.
Tucker survived the war and like many of his comrades became a frequent visitor to St Mere Eglise, a town that seems genuinely proud of its continued close relationship with an ever dwindling band of survivors from the dramatic events of over seventy years ago.
Photo: the museum also boasts a Waco glider. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
We left St Mere Eglise, its church spire, its dangling paratrooper and other stories of individual and collective bravery and headed towards the American beach sector. But due to diversions in St Mere Eglise caused by roadwork preparations for the D-Day anniversary we became, for a short time, lost in the bocage.
Eventually getting our noses in the right direction we headed north towards Varaville and Utah Beach. At regular intervals along the road memorials mark the places where individual American soldiers fell as they battled their way inland.
Photo: as well as preserved bunkers and a museum there are several memorials to the men who fell at Utah Beach. This one commemorates the 4th Engineers Battalion. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Due in part to the murderous reputation of its sister beach Omaha, Utah Beach is thankfully less remembered as a killing ground.
The topography is also very different; instead of imposing cliffs with embedded bunkers the beach is wide and sandy with low-lying sand dunes at the top. Nevertheless it is fascinating area to explore.
Photo: a Buffalo tracked landing vehicle. Several recovered vehicles are parked in front of the museum at Utah Beach. Picture: Richard Moss © Culture24
On D-Day the plan was to land opposite Les-Dunes-de-Varaville, a well-fortified area of gun emplacements and machine gun nests, then cross the beach and seize control of the coast roads.
Led by the 8th Infantry Regiment and supported by 32 special amphibious tanks in the first wave, the GI’s would then link up with airborne troops holding key positions inland.
The Cotentin Peninsula would then be secured and the attack on the vital point of Cherbourg could begin.
Photo: the museum at Utah beach is partially built onto a German bunker complex. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
On the day a 2,000-yard error placed the landing force away from the heavily defended area of Les-Dunes-de-Varaville and into a less defended section of beach. It was a confusion that for once resulted in a spectacular success.
By the end of D-Day, twenty thousand troops and 1,700 motorized vehicles had landed at Utah with fewer than 300 casualties.
Photo: there are many remains of bunkers in the extensive sand dunes at Utah Beach. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Today Utah Beach boasts a purpose-built museum sited over 'German blockhouse W5' offering a panoramic view over the sea.
The blockhouse was captured in the first wave of American attacks and you can wander around the concrete remains and peer through an armoured turret gun. There is also a DUKW amphibious craft, a jeep and the recreation of an American Beach Command Post.
Photo: hedgehog tank traps are now submerged in the sand dunes at Utah Beach. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
The museum also has a cinema, dioramas, scale models and an impressive collection of ephemera, photographs and items donated by veterans. It’s a good place to start an investigation of this sector.
Photo: remarkably preserved guns and emplacements remain hidden in the sand dunes. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Outside the museum recovered vehicles - a landing craft, a 'Buffalo' amphibious vehicle and a Sherman tank can be inspected along with a howitzer artillery piece.
Photo: a Sherman tank. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
The World War II Utah Beach American Memorial, consisting of a huge red granite obelisk is sited on the top of the former German command post and is surrounded by a small park that overlooks the sand dunes.
On the beach there is still much to explore. Amidst the dunes, sunken into the sand, are the remains of the German bunkers and blockhouses. Tank traps and other beach obstacles have also been dragged onto the dunes and now form a defensive ring on the seaward side of the museum.
Photo: an anti-aircraft gun at the memorial to the 1st Engineer Special Service Brigade. Picture: Richard Moss © Culture24
Out towards the shoreline, the receding tide still reveals pieces of debris. Closer inspection shows how sixty years of salt and sand have yet to cause the pieces to decay and they remain as barnacle covered reminders of the invasion.
Photo: as the tide recedes relics of the invasion appear submerged in the sand. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
With the afternoon receding, we left the sand dunes of Utah and headed east towards Vierville-sur-Mer and the scene of the worst carnage on D-Day – Omaha Beach.
Photo: Omaha Beach, 'a ghostly place'. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Battlefields can be strange places for the first-time visitor – but armed with only the merest knowledge of what went before, Omaha is still a ghostly place.
In the late afternoon the tide recedes and, like many of the beaches in the 'Normandy sector', you can still discern the odd glimpse of wreckage in the surf – perhaps a piece of harbour bridge or rusting Pontoon poking through the waves.
Photo: the pier and breakwater. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Elsewhere tank traps and a concrete Mulberry have been pulled onto the beach to form a breakwater. A modest concrete pier affords a good view of the coastline and the cliffs above with their bunkers.
At the car park by the hotel a German gun emplacement of the 352nd Infantry Division has been assimilated into a memorial and car park, whilst at the foot of the hill a crazy golf pitch has been installed. There’s a sense of normality – of life going on, just as it should do.
Photo: The sea wall. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Yet as you look above the houses and restaurants that line the road above the sea wall you can see pillboxes rooted in the undergrowth.
Seemingly impenetrable they still command murderous lines of fire. Fusillades that in 1944 allowed the German 352nd Division to bring down a withering barrage on the US soldiers struggling ashore on the exposed beaches below.
Photo: a German bunker. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
The first wave of assault forces to clamber from their landing crafts at 6.30am took the full force of this German firepower. All but two of the floating DD tanks that were to back up the infantry and give some degree of cover sank beneath the waves.
Photo: tank traps on the promenade. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
So desperate was the situation that by 8 am the Allied High Command considered the withdrawal of troops from the Omaha sector. Eventually small groups led by determined NCOs and officers left the safety of the sea wall and infiltrated and destroyed the German bunkers – eventually allowing the troops trapped on the beach to advance.
Photo: the view from inside a German bunker. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
By the end of the day the Americans had lost 3,800 men. The dead are buried at the Normandy American National Cemetery and Memorial at St Laurent - a short drive inland from the beach.
One of the bunkers that dealt such a deadly blow to the GI’s desperately seeking cover on the beach below can be still be explored. A favourite of photo essayists, graffiti artists and judging by its contents, beer drinkers, a steep path leads through to its deadly vantage point - perched below the cliff tops.
Photo: slit trenches can still be explored along the cliff edge at Omaha Beach. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
It takes little to imagine the firepower and range it would have commanded on June 6 and again, it’s an eerie experience to stand in such a place and peer out onto the now quiet and deserted beaches below.
Photo Richard Moss © Culture24
A further short climb - beneath a holiday caravan sitting on a fenced-off lawn are the remains of German slit trenches. Overgrown, their concrete bulwarks crushed and broken, they command a panorama of the beach below. It's a beautiful view - only tainted when one imagines the terrible carnage of June 6 1944.
With the day closing in we left the eerie emptiness of Omaha beach.
Photo Richard Moss © Culture24
Taking the winding road away from the coast, we found the Omaha Beach Museum and American cemetery to be closed for the evening so we raced along the coast road to try and get a last glimpse of the Mullberry harbours at Arromanche.
Arromanche Mullberries at Gold Beach
As we drove, we realised our tour of Normandy was coming to a close and perhaps predictably, we had only just scratched the surface.
We hadn't even visited any of the major cemeteries where the bodies of thousands of men lie buried and where many of the many anniversary remembrance service still take place.
Yet in spite these shortcomings our thoughts were filled with a growing sense of the scale and meaning of D-Day. Hugging the coastline we passed several more museums and caught tantalizing moonlit glimpses of the beaches in the British and Canadian sector.
Photo: Mullberies at night. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Pulling into the town of Arromanches we headed straight for the beach.
Photo: Mullberies. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
Vast, hulking objects - the remains of a Mulberry harbour, lined the bay - framing the horizon. A group of tourists, drawn like us to these relics, made their way through the gloom to one of them - stranded like a beached whale on the shore.
Photo: Mullberries. Picture Richard Moss © Culture24
It was a strange but somehow fitting way to end our trip - in this quiet place, looking out at these huge and broken objects still anchored out at sea – contemplating the events of June 1944.
Read Gavin Greenwood’s feature about the training, logistics, build up and deception involved in the D-day landings