Normandy At Peace

PrintPrintEmailEmail TO PLAN A TRIP

Like my maternal grandfather, I’ll probably always picture Normandy through a veil of cold gray rain. For me the damp climate meant looking at the landscape through a drizzly windshield and scrunching my shoulders up into my denim jacket—the only coat I had brought for the late-May trip—so that the sleeves covered my ringers. For him it meant tramping through miles of mud, crawling into a wet sleeping bag after being on his feet for twenty hours, and operating on pale, wounded bodies that didn’t stop shivering throughout their surgery under flapping canvas tents. In his letters home from the Second World War, Granddad complained about the weather even more than he complained about the Germans. But then most of the Germans he encountered were no longer much of a threat.

My mother’s father, Maj. Donald C. Somers, served as a surgeon in the U.S. 4th Auxiliary Army from 1942 to 1945. His unit landed at Utah Beach two weeks after D-day and was part of the first Allied field hospital in France (previously the wounded had been sent back to England). Eventually the unit followed Gen. George Patton’s 3d Army as it pounded its way through the Battle of Normandy, then progressed east toward Luxembourg and up into Germany. For years my mother and I had talked about taking a trip to see the invasion beaches and then to retrace Granddad’s steps. We couldn’t manage to schedule it until last spring, when we enlisted my father and sister to join us, picked a date in the last week of May, and headed off to France.

We landed in Paris late on a Tuesday morning, and by noon we were in our rental car a half-hour out of the city, heading toward the Cotentin Peninsula on Route N13. As we got into Normandy, we saw the infamous hedgerows that had so impeded the Allies’ progress, and Mom remembered her father’s referring to them in his letters. “All the fields around here are surrounded by hedgerows & trees with ditches encircling the entire field,” he wrote on July 1, soon after he had arrived in France. “You can walk along any ditch and see all sorts of equipment they have discarded—gas masks, life belts, & what not. . . . Also a lot of helmets both German & American—too many of them with holes thru them.”

In the late afternoon we pulled into Bayeux, a lovely town a few miles from the coast, which was the first to be liberated by the Allies. We checked into our hotel and retired to take hot baths and read up on the region.

Normandy has been associated with military exploits since the beginning of the millennium. In the tenth century the Normans, descendants of Vikings, developed cavalry warfare here. William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, displayed a similar ingenuity when he invaded the British Isles in 1066, became king, and claimed his duchy across the Channel as part of England. When the province was back in French hands, in the fourteenth century, the English turned the tables by invading Normandy twice in the course of the bloody Hundred Years’ War. In the centuries that followed, this place was considered a prize in many a battle. The area was coveted in part for its wealth of resources—from its iron ore deposits to the apple orchards that are responsible for the area’s Calvados.

We heard about the orchards the next morning when we were on our way to the city of Caen, listening to a superb auto tape, D-Day— On the Normandy Beaches , narrated by the British historian Brian Morton. The tape combines tips on the region’s hotels, restaurants, and museums with a first-rate description of the events leading up to and during D-day. Its itinerary begins at Caen.

On the city’s northwest side is the monumental Memorial Museum for Peace, which was built in 1986 on the site of a former German command post. We made it our first stop of the day. As we had heard, the place is an excellent preparation for a tour of the beaches, and we spent two full hours there. We were particularly moved by the section called simply D-day.

In this small auditorium, with an extra-wide screen, a film shows simultaneous views of the invasion effort from both sides, of the English Channel. The twenty-minute presentation is almost entirely vintage footage—much of it from German newsreels—and it’s shown with sound effects but no commentary. It truly is a tour de force—a powerful reminder of what a harrowing, extraordinary achievement the Normandy landings were.

Back in the car, heading north to the beaches, my sister and I took turns playing the Morton tape or reading out loud from a couple of World War II books, while in the front seat my mom contributed excerpts from Granddad’s letters and Dad navigated the rainy roads. These became our roles for the rest of our trip.

Because our time in Normandy was limited, we decided to bypass the British and Canadian beaches and go straight to the town of Arromanchesles-Bains, a picturesque little seaport that spills into the Atlantic from a shallow valley between Gold and Omaha beaches. In June of 1944 it was home to one of the Allies’ two Mulberries, prefabricated harbors that were towed across the Channel in hundreds of pieces and assembled on the beaches. From our perch on a bluff, we could see the remains of the Mulberry still poking out into the Atlantic on the west end of the beach, beyond the wet slate roofs of the town’s tidy houses. Arromanches also has an excellent museum, with another stirring film. We toured it quickly so we could continue on to Omaha.