On June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops and more than 5,000 naval vessels launched Operation Overlord on the northern coast of France at Normandy to retake Europe from Nazi forces. It was the greatest amphibious assault ever assembled. The Allies sustained an estimated 10,000 casualties on that day as they strove to gain a foothold on the beaches of Normandy. The landings took place on five beaches, which have ever since been known by the names assigned to them in World War 2: Omaha, Juno, Gold, Sword and Utah.
Some 11 months after this operation, the Allies prevailed, and WW2, the most destructive and bloodiest war in history, was over.
The day of the Normandy landings, known as D-Day, will live on forever in history and legend.
The countryside out of Paris gave way to the bucolic idyll of an Impressionist painting: pastel shades of pastoral fields, blossoming wildflowers, rows of poplar trees lining country roads and farmhouses. Other than the highway, it must have been little changed from 100 years ago as we traversed the French countryside to the town of Rouen.
Rouen was a town happily bypassed by the sterility of modern development and town planning. It had its centuries-old, narrow cobblestone streets hemmed in by tall, half-timbered buildings. Its glory was the 16th-century Gothic cathedral, a fairy-tale edifice of soaring spires and lacy stone tracery with a cavernous interior of stony, sombre saints and light from stained-glass windows.
Rouen is best known in connection with the legendary Joan of Arc, an unlikely peasant maiden warrior, The Maid of Orléans, who claimed to be divinely inspired to lead the French army to several military successes against English forces in the Hundred Years’ War. Captured and tried by the English, she was just 19 years old when she was burned at the stake in 1431 at Rouen.
She was canonised in the 20th century by the Roman Catholic Church and has become an enduring icon of the culture and history of France. A small plaque in a garden marks the place where she was burned at the stake. The modern church of St Joan of Arc, with its sweeping roofline built to symbolise a flame, stands nearby.
From Rouen, the road swept up north, towards the coastal town of Honfleur, worthy of a stop for its quaint beauty and historical significance. There is a memorial to the explorer and colonist, Samuel de Champlain, who left Honfleur in 1603 on his voyage to found Quebec and New France in the New World.
Honfleur escaped damage during WW2. Tourism has long since replaced fishing as its main economic activity. Central to the town is the sheltered harbour with anchored boats, a favourite subject of local artists. A row of mediaeval-era buildings, famous for their slate-covered frontages, now occupied by cafés and restaurants, fronts the harbour.
Honfleur also boasts the largest wooden church in France, with its unusual, vaulted double nave construction reminiscent of the overturned keel of a boat.
The road swept west towards the beaches of Normandy, past small quiet villages basking in the French countryside, defying the belief that this was a raging battlefield in WW2, with many towns such as Caen sustaining heavy damage in the fighting between the Allied and Nazi forces.
Grassy fields gave way to a shimmering sea under the late afternoon sun, the country as empty and peaceful as the vast sky above. This part of the country has been preserved as it was in WW2, undeveloped, as a memorial to the events of that historic day decades ago.
We passed by some of the landing beaches, pausing to look out to sea and walk along the beach. The relics of war were now memorials: a hardened bunker with machine gun slits, an old WW2 Churchill tank and the spot where Charles de Gaulle splashed ashore after the beaches were secured.
Far out to sea, an irregular, dark broken line marked the remains of the Mulberry artificial harbour, one of two built by the Allies after they had successfully taken the beach to land 2.5 million men, half a million vehicles and millions of tonnes of material needed for the push into Europe.
Of the landing beaches, the most storied is Omaha Beach, where Allied casualties were highest. This was the most difficult of the beaches to assault because of its terrain — a crescent beach with high bluffs and cliffs. It remains relatively undeveloped with a restriction on any development that changes this historic stretch from how it was in 1944.
The beach was peaceful and quiet that day, beneath a clear sky, but it was mayhem on D-Day.
The German strategy was to stop the attack at the beach, so it was heavily defended — one giant killing zone with wicked defences on land and in the water, including booby traps and a variety of barriers mounted with mines. An Allied barrage from ships and bombing by aircraft the day before and on the morning of the invasion failed to significantly degrade the defences.
The invasion, headed by the Americans at Omaha Beach, occurred early in the morning and ran into difficulties almost immediately. Navigation difficulties, currents and faulty intelligence caused many landing craft to go astray, become beached on sandbanks or become impaled on the defences. Some of the heaviest casualties were sustained in the first landings by soldiers who had to wade ashore, burdened by heavy loads in the surf or from intense German defensive fire from pillboxes.
The 1988 war epic Saving Private Ryan and the 1962 movie The Longest Day, both shot in black and white, recreate the Normandy landings. The death toll that day among the US Army divisions assigned to Omaha Beach was about 2,500 soldiers.
It was difficult to picture the horror and confusion on the quiet beach, with a broad sidewalk leading towards a row of flags of the countries that participated in the landings that day.
On the beach itself was a shining monument — a series of upright metal structures resembling steel scimitars slicing through the air. Called Les Braves, it was commissioned in 2004 by the French government to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the beach landings. It comprises three elements to capture the spirit of the day: The Wings of Hope, Rise, Freedom! and The Wings of Fraternity.
A little further on, on the bluff, there was a natural exit point, called a draw, with a fortified German bunker with a rusted cannon, a reminder of the formidable defences that had to be overcome.
On a bluff overlooking the beach were the cemeteries. The American cemetery is the largest and best known, although there are cemeteries for other nationalities that fought and died here. The land for it was granted in perpetuity by France as an enduring gesture of thanks to those who died fighting for its liberation.
The Visitors Centre was a long, low building with most of the displays on an underground level with pamphlets, information boards, relics from the landing, photographs and maps, video and audio displays, narratives of the events leading to and on D-Day, as well as accounts of how the day unfolded for the French villagers in Normandy. The individual stories were the most poignant, one being that of the Niland brothers, who were the inspiration for Saving Private Ryan.
At the other end of the Visitors Centre, the exit opened out onto a path with a viewpoint overlooking Omaha Beach below and continued onto the memorial and the cemetery. The memorial was starkly simple: an open colonnaded building with the names of those who were never found inscribed on the Walls of the Missing.
It opened onto a patio with a bronze statue with outstretched arms, The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves. Beyond it was a flower bed, blooming with red flowers, drawing the eye to the reflecting pool, the US flag fluttering above it and the cemetery beyond.
The view of those serried ranks of neat, white crosses set into a grassy, manicured lawn was overwhelming. The personal sacrifice, tragedy and loss were magnified by the memory of the stories and displays in the Visitors Centre, and the military precision and neatness of those white crosses, standing in perfectly straight, spaced rows from whichever angle you looked. Each bore a name, rank, date and place of origin. In total, there were more than 9,000 crosses marking those who died during D-Day and in ensuing operations.
The world has moved on, some eight decades later, but in a corner of France by the beach, there is the silence of remembrance, of the toll of war, sacrifice, honour and horror, a reminder of hope and the strength of the human spirit in times of despair.
This article first appeared on June 5, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.