The 70th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy will introduce a new generation of Canadians to events that have long stirred the imaginations and collective memories of veterans and their children.
There will no doubt be extensive television coverage on June 6, centered on major Canadian commemorative events at the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer, but there will be much else to see and do in Normandy during June, July and August.
Here are some suggestions from someone who has led several group study tours to Northwest Europe.
First, if you have not found a place to stay in Normandy, you will need to get on with that right away. As noted in the November/December issue (In The Footsteps Of War) more and more people are travelling to Europe to explore the sites of war and memory. A lot of bookings began last fall for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
You may want to consider renting an apartment through the Gites de France website, http://www.gites-de-france.com. Gites are located in villages and on farm properties across Normandy and provide inexpensive, attractive accommodation. They are rated by ears of corn instead of stars. If you prefer a hotel, consider Bayeux as your base. The town was liberated on June 9 and was neither bombed nor shelled. The pedestrianized main street, Saturday market, Cathedral, and the famous Bayeux Tapestry enhance any stay in Normandy. There are a number of hotels, excellent restaurants, and easy access to the battlefields. Mont St. Michel, one of the top tourist destinations in Europe, is 90 minutes away.
Whether you are arriving from the English Channel port of Dieppe or directly from Paris, a first stop might be at the memorial to 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. As you approach the city of Caen on the Autoroute de Normandie, exit at Troarn and take the D37 north, driving by the Bois de Bavent, the southern end of the ridge separating the Dives and Orne river valleys.
In the summer of 1944, this vital high ground was held by the airborne troops, preventing the enemy from targeting the landing beaches. The Canadian memorial is at the junction of the D37 and D513. The small park, rededicated as Place James Hill to honour the brigadier who commanded 3rd Parachute Brigade, 6th British Airborne Division, is in the centre of the Canadian battlefield.
I recommend you turn left on the D513 and then pause at the brickworks that were used as the regimental aid post. The D37 branches off to the right and you can follow it to Ranville, where the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery for the airborne is located.
From there, I suggest heading east to the Orne River and the Pegasus Bridge Museum. This not-to-be-missed museum includes the original bridge, a replica Horsa Glider, and the best organized collection of artifacts and memorabilia on the Normandy coast. Full attention is paid at the museum to the Canadian parachute battalion. You will also want to visit the park across the road, where the troop-carrying gliders landed on the morning of June 6, and the Café Gondrée, the first building liberated on D-Day. It is still in business and full of souvenirs.
Next on the list of must-see places are the remains of Port Winston, one of two Mulberry harbours built on the Normandy coast at Arromanches immediately after D-Day. I recommend you park on the eastern edge of town (for 10 euros) where the cliffs afford a view of the remaining caissons as well as Gold Beach where 50th British Division landed. There is a 360-degree cinema nearby that presents a dramatic set of images contrasting past and present, but if time is short, walk down the stairs into Arromanches and visit the Museé du Débarquement which contains an outstanding collection and a detailed model of the Mulberry as it was in 1944.
The German coastal battery at Longues-sur-Mer, which fired on the Allied ships until His Majesty’s Ship Ajax silenced the guns with 114 six-inch shells, is a short distance west. The battery still has three of the original guns in place. The view of the coast from here is outstanding.
At the Juno Beach Centre, where the Royal Winnipeg Rifles landed, the beach and a number of the German bunkers have been restored. Visitors can gain a sense of the challenges facing the men who came ashore that morning to find the enemy defences intact, untouched by the elaborate air and naval bombardment.
Inside the centre, a number of displays present information about Canada’s role in the Second World War. For 2014 a special exhibit, “Grandma, what was it like during the War? Life for Normans and Canadians from occupation to Liberation” will be featured.
Across the River Seulles, where the Regina Rifles landed, Bold, a swimming Duplex-Drive tank of the First Hussars, is adorned with the regimental crests of the D-Day units. The tank was recovered from the floor of the Channel.
At Bernières-sur-Mer, La Maison Queen’s Own Rifles and the small railway station—featured in many photographs—help situate the visitor as does the intact gun position at St. Aubin-sur-Mer where the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment landed.
For most of us the Canadian military cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer/Reviers, where those who lost their lives in the first phase of Normandy’s liberation are buried, is an important place of pilgrimage. There are 2,049 headstones in a setting that overlooks the sea and the landing beaches. The CWGC website provides information, including names and locations of graves.
A visit to Omaha Beach and the American cemetery above it illustrates a number of important differences between the experience and memory of Canadians and their neighbours. It is good to begin at the western end of Omaha and walk the beach to the path leading up to the cemetery and the recently constructed interpretation centre. The cliffs at Omaha have to be seen to be believed and if you have been to Dieppe it is difficult to understand how this equally forbidding site could have been chosen. The answer, that it was the only possible landing area between the British-Canadian beaches and Utah, may help you to understand the problems facing the planners. The cemetery itself, with rows of white marble crosses, presents a very different approach to memorialization.
You should also consider stopping at the German military cemetery at La Cambe. The heavily-treed grounds, tomb-like entrance, and dark gothic atmosphere suggests yet another way of remembering. The interpretation centre tells the story of the war as experienced by ordinary soldiers and outlines the efforts of postwar German governments to inoculate a new generation against the virus of militarism by bringing young people to France to build the cemetery and disinter the scattered graves for reburial at La Cambe. The cemetery contains more than 21,000 German military personnel from the war.
Many battlefield tourists who recall the film The Longest Day will want to travel further west to Ste. Mère-Eglise and Utah Beach, but Canadians with limited time may prefer to focus on locations directly related to the experience of our soldiers.
The Abbaye d’Ardenne, which served as Kurt Meyer’s headquarters during the bridgehead battle between the 12th SS and the Canadians, is now a literary archive and study centre. A memorial in the garden, which can be visited independently, reminds visitors of the 20 Canadian soldiers who were captured and later executed by the Germans.
Approaching the Abbaye from the village of Authie takes you across the open ground where on July 8, 1944, the Regina Rifles and Canadian Scottish fought a day-long battle to secure Cussy and the Abbaye. A second memorial to some of the other Canadian prisoners executed by the 12th SS is located in the village of Audrieu.
The largest war-related exhibition complex in Normandy, Le Mémorial, is a short drive from the Abbaye d’Ardenne. Described as a museum for peace, the displays tell the story of the origins and course of the Second World War and the efforts to control conflict during the Cold War. For Canadians the main attraction is the Canadian Memorial Garden, a project of the Canadian Battlefields Foundation. Opened in 1995, the garden was designed by a team of students from Carleton University in Ottawa and the University of Montréal who, after visiting the site, developed a modernist landscape memorial that has attracted international interest.
A British academic, Paul Gough, who regards Canada’s Vimy and Green Park, London, memorials as outstanding achievements, described the garden as a “controversial piece of landscape theatre…a subtle mime show in which the pilgrim-visitor acts out the grim progress of the combatant…it sets a benchmark for future designs of memorial landscapes.” The journey begins at a rectangular pool with 16 black slabs washed by the flow of water. The Latin text translates as, “No day will erase your generation from our memory.”
A low wall surrounding the pool records the names of the villages and towns in Normandy liberated by Canadian troops. The visitor then crosses 38 metres of flat terrain, approaching what appears to be a sheer stone wall blocking further progress. A zig-zag path offers access to a narrow gap in the wall where the words, “Liberation comes from the sea” are inscribed. On the summit, a simple flat platform, Canada’s flag, and a series of glass panels with the names of the Canadian military units who fought in Normandy complete the story.
Much of the original city of Caen was destroyed by Allied bombers as they sought to disrupt enemy movement and assist the army’s advances. The Chateau of Caen, a fortress built by William the Conqueror, survived and the ramparts have been restored. The two great abbayés, St. Etienne and St. Trinité, escaped serious damage. St. Etienne, the Abbaye des Hommes, which served as a place of refuge for civilians during the battle for the city, is especially interesting. Across from the Abbaye, a plaque commemorates the arrival of Canadian troops on July 9, 1944. In the next issue, I will introduce the key sites south of Caen, where the Canadians fought throughout July and August.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on January 21, 2014.