Helen Moat gets off her bike and explores the iconic beaches that changed the course of the Second World War
They had to wait for the spring tides, a full moon and calm weather. For days, it looked like they had missed the window of opportunity and they’d have to wait another full month. That would have been disastrous. How could the soldiers be sent back to the British embarkation camps when the next wave of soldiers was already underway?
The fifth of June was the date that had been selected for D-day, but the weather was appalling and had been since the beginning of June. So confident were the Germans that the Allies wouldn't invade, they’d scaled down their defending troops along the Normandy coast, and senior officers were on leave. Rommel himself had taken time off to celebrate his wife’s birthday.
The fifth of June came and went. It was clear an invasion wouldn't be possible. On the fourth of June the troop convoys, already underway, had to take shelter in bays and inlets on the south coast of Britain. It didn't look good.
But by the 6 June, the weather had stabilised and all hell let loose. An airborne assault took place just after midnight, followed by an assault by sea and land before dawn. The Germans had been caught on the hop, not just because of the weather, but also because the Allies had convinced Hitler an invasion would take place at Pas-de-Calais. Operation Overlord was a success – but at a price: 9,000 troops and civilians died that day.
We drove along the coast past the landing beaches: Utah, Omaha (American), Juno (Canadian) and Sword (British), places still referred to by their code names. It wasn't a beautiful coastline, but it was one that demanded an emotional response. It felt like I was driving through history. No other location had made me feel as close to the Second World War as here in Normandy.
We stopped off at Arromanches, part of the British Gold Beach. Children played on the strand, dogs frolicked on the water’s edge and couples strolled along the seafront. It was such an ordinary seaside scene, a holiday resort like so many across Northern Europe. But there was something different about Arromanches. Curving the bay were massive black lumps, rising from the ocean like great whales. These were the remains of one of the two Mulberry Harbours, a portable harbour that had been built in Britain and shipped across the Channel to France. It was a scheme that arose from desperation. The existing French harbours were heavily defended by the Germans, the only parts of the coast deep enough for large warships.
The Mulberry harbour had floating roads, jetties and bridges, strong and stable enough to off-load vehicles, troops and supplies. It was towed across the Channel and put into position just three days after D-day. As a result of Operation Overlord and the building of the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, the Allies were able to quickly push through France, helping to bring the war to a finish the following year.
At the museum in Arromanches, I stared out of the window at the wide sands, the concrete roadway submerged in the sand and the broken caissons on the edge of the bay. Above the window, a long screen, echoing the beach outside, recreated the building of the harbour and the off-loading of the troops, their vehicles and ammunitions. It was difficult to imagine this peaceful beach in front of me being ripped up by tanks and concrete, the skies blackened with aircraft and the seas packed with warships. It was hard to picture the soldiers stepping ashore, fear surging through their bodies, where children and parents now pottered on the sand below me.
Leaving the Arromanches and the Landing Beaches behind, we turned inland. We drove past row upon row of white crosses, the memorial cemeteries of Canadian, American and British soldiers, and on through the darkening skies of Normandy towards the Seine. And as night descended on the quiet of rural France, I knew I would never take peace for granted again.
Where to go to experience the Normandy landing beaches and cemeteries:
"Le Grand Bunker," German Atlantic Wall Defence Post at Ouistreham
Canadian Juno Beach Centre, Bernières-sur-Mer
Cinema and the Mulberry Harbour Museum at Arromanches
German Gun Batteries at Longues-sur-Mer and Pointe du Hoc
Utah Beach Museum, Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Utah Beach and the US Airborne Museum at Ste Mère Eglise
Canadian Cemetery, Cintheaux, Bretteville-sur-Laize
British Cemetery and Battle of Normandy Museum, Bayeux (Don’t miss the opportunity to see the Bayeux tapestry when there)
Caen Memorial (Take time to explore the rest of this handsome city)