Friday, May 2, 2014

Exploring Normandy and Ypres: Battle Plan Day 2 {Part 2}

Actual Date of Event: March 11, 2014

Last Friday we left off having just visited the Crisbecq and Azeville batteries and now we were on the short drive to Utah Beach and the museum that has been built at this beach.

The US Navy Monument which is the only monument dedicated to the US Navy outside of the US

Utah Beach

Utah Beach was the code name for the westernmost of the Allied landing beaches during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, as part of Operation Overlord. The US 4th Infantry Division landed on this beach, a little off course, but with relatively little resistance as compared to Omaha Beach that suffered with fierce fighting.

The landing was a success due to several military divisions who played a part in the D-Day landings.

It started at 11:00 PM the night before with the first Allied bombs falling near the planned landing beach. Then at 1:15 AM, 13,000 paratroopers dropped behind the enemy lines with a mission to neutralize German defenses, secure the landing area, and prevent the arrival of German reinforcements.

Naval Forces 

At 5:36 AM the Allied fleet of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers launched an uninterrupted barrage of fire at the German defenses along the coast and even further inland to the Crisbecq and Azeville batteries. One German soldier noted upon seeing the armada as the sun rose that "The sea was black with ships."

Air Forces 

From 6:10 to 6:25 AM all along the coastline was pounded with the bombs from B26 bombers. The timing of this operation was critical because with only five minutes to spare the first landing craft were due to arrive at 6:30 AM and going off schedule at all would put those troops in danger of friendly fire.

One of the men, Major Dwight Dewhurst, led the final bombing run over Utah Beach. In the museum an original B-26 is painted in the colours of his plane called the "Dinah Might". Major Dewhurst was born in San Antonio, TX and enlisted in the Air Force six months before the attack on Pearl Harbour. Over the course of WWII he accomplished 85 combat missions against the Germans but sadly, shortly after returning home to Texas after the war he was killed in a car accident and left behind his wife and two young sons.

B26 Marauder in the hangar of the Utah Beach Museum

Land Forces

After spending a night at sea crammed into the landing barges the troops start landing on the beach at 6:30 AM. When they landed they needed to wade through 220 yards in the water, carrying 70 lbs of equipment, and then run another 550 yards under fire from the Germans. Fortunately due to the actions of the Naval and Air Forces the enemy lines were greatly weakened and they were able to reach the anti-tank wall in just 30 minutes.

By nightfall of June 6th, 23,000 men had landed on Utah Beach.

Examples of obstacles on the beaches that the troops had to contend with

View of Utah Beach Museum - photo by L

Utah Beach Museum

The museum stands on the actual site where the American troops landed and tells the story of the war through different sections set up in chronological order.

The story starts with the German defenses and Rommel's part in the building of the Atlantic Wall. It continues by telling visitors what life was like for the local people living under the German Occupation. And finally, visitors learn about D-Day through the preparation of the landings to the final outcome and success.

There were lots of artifacts, photos, letters, and machinery- the ones below are some that made me stop and linger on them.

From Left to Right- 1) Bulky, heavy boots (weighing up to three lbs each) worn by German soldiers. Sadly the felt often contained human hair from prisoners in concentration camps;  2) Documents, cards, money etc. found in the wreckage of the USS Rich; 3) Respect for the fallen- American soldiers often witnessed French civilians covering the bodies of fallen soldiers, praying for them, and placing flowers on their bodies.

This museum, and certainly the beach, are well worth the visit for everyone- not just Americans. I think it's important for us to learn about the contributions of all the Allied countries that took part and not to limit ourselves to only our own country. We should learn the whole story.

German Military Cemetery at La Cambe

After visiting Utah Beach we then made our way to the German military cemetery and Peace Garden. Even though the soldiers lying here are the "enemy" they are, still, fellow human beings. Many of them were very young, did not ask to go to war, and were someone's father, husband, brother, or son.

In the centre of the cemetery is a large mound of earth that covers the common grave of 207 unknown and 89 identified German soldiers. At the very top is a large dark cross with a statue on either side made of basalt lava. This is then surrounded by 49 rectangular grave fields with up to 400 graves each, identified with flat grave markers. All total there are 21,139 fallen German soldiers laid to rest in this cemetery.

The sign in front of the cemetery reads as follows:

The German Cemetery at La Cambe: In the Same Soil of France

Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21,000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.

The German War Graves Commission cares for their cemeteries as well as the Commonwealth War Graves Commissions do and this cemetery was a somber and peaceful place of rest.

After our visit we decided it was time to think about some lunch and make our way to the Maisy Battery. We opted for a quick picnic in the car and ended up eating outside the battery as it was closed when we arrived. Turned out that was OK as Pointe due Hoc was next on the itinerary and it had so much more to see than anticipated and ran well over the 15 minutes we had allotted for it on the Battle Plan.

In my next post we'll visit Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the American Military Cemertery to finish off our second day of the trip.

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