Normandy At Peace

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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.

I approached “Bloody Omaha” with some trepidation, given the ghosts that must hover over the place. It was here that the German 352d Infantry Division, unbeknownst to the Allies, had been engaged in anti-invasion exercises at the time of the landing. They went after the landing Americans from their thirty-five pillboxes, eighty-five machine-gun posts, and eighteen antitank positions, all of which were in good working order after the bombers that had been sent to destroy them dropped their loads too far inland. Gen. Omar Bradley watched the scene from the cruiser Augusta , far offshore. “As the morning lengthened, my worries deepened . . . ,” he wrote later. From radio messages, he added, “we could piece together only an incoherent account of sinkings, swampings, heavy enemy fire and chaos on the beaches. Though we could see it dimly through the haze and hear the echo of its guns, the battle belonged that morning to the thin, wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore on the Channel coast of France.”

When we arrived at the beach, it had a strange serenity. The only sounds now came from the rhythmic waves of the surf and a line of Allied flags flapping loudly in the wind. Just a few other people were walking along the flat stretch of sand and gently sloping bluffs, now lit with a hint of late-afternoon sun.

The landscape was much more rugged—and much more animated—at the nearby Pointe du Hoc, a rocky point of land that was once the site of powerful German gun emplacements, which had clear shots at both Omaha and Utah beaches. On D-day the 2d and 5th U.S. Ranger battalions landed just below the point and heroically scaled the cliffs to secure what was left of the guns (the largest of them had been moved to a nearby apple orchard, it turned out). The American 9th Air Force bombers had pounded the location in the months before the invasion, and the place still has the quality of a lunar landscape, with craters big enough for school kids to roll into them, as they did when we were there. It also has some well-preserved bunkers, which we were able to explore.

The next day the weather had improved a bit—at least it wasn’t actively raining—and we started the day at Utah Beach, where hundreds of thousands of men came ashore in the first month after the invasion. We saw Utah at low tide, and it was easy to imagine how effective this beach might be for a landing spot: a broad, flat sweep of sand that was firm enough for a harness racehorse to be training across it when we were there. Again, we didn’t have much other company on the beach, though the large parking lot adjacent to it suggests that it probably gets a crowd at the height of the tourism season.

About ten miles southwest of Utah is the city of Carentan, the site of one of the first Allied field hospitals, where my grandfather worked. In 1944 the city was taken on June 13 by segments of the American 101st Airborne and 2d Armored divisions, which had been frustrated by their slow progress across the swamps and flooded fields that spotted the route inland from Utah. When they finally broke through, Carentan was secured, and the two American beachheads were connected within forty-eight hours. The armored division’s exhilarated major general L. T. Gerow quickly announced that his men had achieved all their objectives. “Gee,” his commanding officer responded, “the objective is Berlin.”

Our objective in Carentan was to find the location of the field hospital, and it proved more difficult than we had anticipated. The place wasn’t indicated on any of our detailed invasion maps, and our inquiries—in faltering French—at the city’s tourism office were met mostly by shrugs. Eventually one woman had a flash of recognition, and she directed us down a back road to a meadow just outside town. A misty rain had begun again, and when we found the appropriate scene, the only activity there was a group of cows grazing lazily in the drizzle. Like the beaches, this scene was distinguished by a sense of melancholy calm.

As we huddled under umbrellas and took pictures, we envisioned with difficulty the commotion that had taken place here fifty-two years earlier. “I had no idea I could do as much work as I have,” Granddad had written on July 8. “I simply cannot keep track of time. It seems as though I do long stretches of night duty & fall in bed exhausted only to be awakened in an hour or so . . . & put to work again. I believe they save the most pitiful case for you to look at about 15 mins. before you are scheduled to quit. Of course there is only one thing to do & that is to go ahead with it.”

Indeed, as Max Hastings writes in his book Overlord , few people appreciate how severe the fighting was in the first weeks following the invasion. It was all but impossible, he says, for an infantryman who had landed on D-day not to have sustained an injury by the end of July. And by the end of August, almost 10 percent of all British soldiers in Normandy had been sent to some hospital as a result of enemy action; by mid-autumn, the figure had dropped to 2.6 percent.

German casualties remained high throughout, and beginning in August, Granddad reported that he was operating on more of the enemy’s men than ours. This was particularly true after the closing of the Falaise Pocket, when fifty-thousand Germans were taken prisoner, and tens of thousands more were killed. On August 30 he voiced the prevailing view both of his colleagues and of the German POWs when he predicted that the war would be over by Christmas. He was wrong, of course.

Before leaving Normandy to swing south of Paris, through Orléans, and east toward the city of Nancy—as Patton’s army had—we made a stop at the American cemetery just west of Omaha, in the town of Colleville-sur-Mer. Unlike the beaches, this place had plenty of visitors. We saw groups of British, French, Canadian, and even Italian tourists, as well as Americans, strolling quietly over the somber, immaculately kept grounds, observing the signs requesting “Silence and Respect.” It is an extraordinarily moving spot, with its perfect rows of clean white crosses and Stars of David expanding out in perfect formation, over the bright green grass toward the stormy gray Atlantic in the distance. On the walls of the memorial are huge ceramic and concrete maps that describe the Allies’ progress from June 1944 through the following May, and below them are the names of the men and women buried here, with the unidentified referred to as “comrades in arms, known but to God.”

We are fortunate that my grandfather isn’t there (though many of the men he tried to save surely are); he died twenty years after the war had ended, when I was still too young to know him. Corny as it sounds, I felt that I did get to know him—and even feel proud of him—during our stay in France. As we sped over the Normandy countryside, touring the sites of some of the century’s most decisive battles while my mom read her father’s words in the front seat of the car, it was clear what a significant role this place played in my own history. It was good to be there.

—Catherine Calhoun