Key to Western Europe’s liberation
Fought between the iconic landings on 6 June 1944 and the liberation of Paris on 25 August, the Battle of Normandy is often overlooked. Yet this campaign decided the course of the war in Northwestern Europe. The losses were huge: more than 100.000 people were killed during the 80 days, 20.000 of them civilians.
On the evening of 6 June 1944, the Allied forces had established a foothold on all five landing beaches. There was still a long way to go, but the day’s operations, that took the German command by surprise, were successful. The next Allied goals were to join the bridgeheads into a continuous front and to bring in reinforcements faster than the Germans could.
In this deadly race, logistics played an essential role. Therefore the planned construction of a huge artificial harbour at Arromanches was vital, as was the capture of the deep-water port of Cherbourg.
After establishing land and air superiority, the Allies managed to break through the German lines west of Saint-Lô. This happened on 25 July, after long and dangerous treks across the hedgerow fields. The Battle of Normandy ended with the encirclement of the German forces in the so-called Falaise-Argentan pocket between 19 and 22 August, and the hasty retreat across the Seine river by the remnants of the German army during the following days, paving the way for the rapid liberation of the rest of France and Belgium.
The military cemeteries dotting the landscape of Normandy remind us of the heavy price that was paid for Europe to regain its freedom. A total of 80.000 soldiers died in Normandy. The country itself was devastated after the battle that also claimed the lives of around 20.000 civilians.
The Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy in Bayeux relates how the Allies fought the Germans during the first ten weeks after D-Day. A wide range of vehicles, uniforms and military equipment gives visitors an impression of the everyday life of soldiers and civilians during that crucial period.
The impressive American Military Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer contains the remains of 9.387 American soldiers who fell during the Battle of Normandy. The cemetery reflects and honors the sacrifices that the USA made for the liberation of Europe. From this point one can overlook Omaha Beach, the deadliest landing beach of Operation Overlord.
The Landing Museum (D-Day Museum) of Arromanches, Normandy explains the technical prowess used in the (pre)fabrication – in Britain – of the artificial port of Arromanches. A model and a film complement the educational presentation, allowing a better understanding of the visible remains that can be seen through a large window overlooking the bay.
One of its kind in France, the Mémorial de Caen Museum gives the public the keys to understanding the Second World War, from its origins after the First World War to its latest consequences in 1989. It prompts the visitor to ask himself questions about this rapidly fading episode that changed the face of Europe and the world.
With nearly 4.000 British soldiers buried here, the Bayeux War Cemetery is the largest British military cemetery of the Second World War in France. The adjacent memorial commemorates the unidentified Commonwealth soldiers who fell during the Battle of Normandy and recalls the close links between Normandy and Britain.
The cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer, located a few miles from Juno Beach, is one of two Canadian military cemeteries in Normandy. In total they harbour 4.800 graves of soldiers killed during the fighting in the summer of 1944. The tombstones demonstrate the importance of Canadian participation in the liberation of France and Northwestern Europe.
As part of the planning for Operation Overlord, it was decided that artificial harbours would be needed in order to offload the heavy and bulky cargo needed to mount a successful invasion of Normandy. These harbours were built in Britain, towed across the channel and then assembled by the army once in the waters surrounding France.
The National Memorial Arboretum is the centre of remembrance in the U.K. Here you find the Normandy Campaign Memorial, a permanent site of remembrance for the 156,000 troops who landed in northern France in 1944. The memorial was funded by The Spirit of Normandy Trust in conjunction with the Normandy Veterans’ Association.
While preparing for Operation Overlord, the Allied strategists decided they to build two artificial, pre-fabricated ports in Normandy. These were considered essential for bringing reinforcements and equipment to the Continent. The remains of the port of Arromanches are still visible today as silent witnesses to this bold gamble and stunning technical achievement.
In the early hours of D-Day, the British 6th Airborne Division was dropped behind the German coastal defences. Its mission was to gain control of the area between the Orne and Dives rivers and to prevent German counter attacks against the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy. Despite difficult conditions, its objectives were already achieved at dawn.
On 14 June 1944, the 15th Scottish Infantry Division landed in Normandy on Sword Beach. On 26 June they fought on the front line, engaged in Operation Epsom to seize the city of Caen. Despite heavy losses, the men successfully participated in major Anglo-Canadian offensives in Normandy before fighting in Belgium and the Netherlands.
On 6 June 1944 the 51st Highland Division landed in Normandy on Gold Beach. The men were at the front line in the city of Douvres-la-Délivrande in Normandy and later on the east of the Orne River in a sector held by the 6th British Airborne. The Division took part in the operations Goodwood and Totalize. They also fought for the liberation of Le Havre.
Shortly after midnight on 6 June 1944, D-Day began with the landing of American and British airborne troops on French soil. Two U.S. Airborne Divisions were tasked to establish a bridgehead in the sector of Sainte-Mère-Église, to back up the landing of the U.S. infantry on Utah Beach.
The German artillery battery at Longues-sur-Mer was perfectly located to oppose the landings of 6 June 1944. Its guns were positioned right between Omaha and Gold Beaches. On D-Day, this battery fought a duel with the Allied fleet before it was silenced at sunset.
On D-Day Caen was an important Allied objective as it was an essential road hub, strategically astride the Orne River and Caen Canal. The Germans defended this stronghold with all their power. It took six weeks of fighting and heavy shelling to capture the capital of Normandy. 30,000 Anglo-Canadian soldiers and 3,000 civilians lost their lives.
On D-Day, Gold was the code name for the beach where the 50th British Infantry Division was to land. It was located between Ver-sur-Mer and Asnelles on the Normandy coast. Despite fierce resistance from some German strongholds, the 50th Division accomplished the farthest breakthrough inland of all Allied seaborne forces, as it came close to Bayeux that same day.
Sword was the code-name for the easternmost of the five landing beaches in Normandy. Reinforced by commandos and supported by specially adapted tanks, the 3rd British Infantry Division landed here. The men were to gather up with the 6th Airborne Division and capture Caen. This last objective was finally achieved a month later on 9 July.
The Belgian 1st Infantry Brigade led by Colonel Piron landed in Arromanches on 8 August 1944. Operating under the command of the 6th British Airborne Division and later under the 49th Infantry Division. The Brigade was engaged in the Sallenelles area on 16 August and freed the towns of Cabourg, Trouville, Deauville and Honfleur. It entered Brussels on 4 September 1944.
The Royal Netherlands Princess Irene Brigade landed in Arromanches on 8 August 1944. Attached to the 6th British Airborne Division, the Brigade took part in Operation Paddle for the liberation of the Pays d’Auge area starting on 17 August. The Princess Irene Brigade was thus the first Allied unit to liberate Pont-Audemer on 26 August 1944.
Two important bridges across the Canal de Caen and the Orne river were the first objectives taken by airborne troops in the Normandy campaign. Just after midnight on 6 June 1944 a small detachment of the 6th British Airborne Division surprised the German garrison guarding the bridges. The Pegasus Memorial recalls their bold action and the commitment of the Division in Normandy.
The Sainte-Mère-Église museum was inaugurated in 1964 right where American paratroopers were involved in fierce battles during the night of 5 to 6 June and the following days. The museum holds an important collection of uniforms, weaponry and other war memorabilia. Two additional buildings opened in June 2014.
The last major battle of the Normandy campaign was fought in August 1944 in the so called Falaise-Argentan pocket, where the Allies encircled and destroyed a substantial part of the German forces. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of German soldiers managed to escape. A memorial on the spot traces the various stages of this bloody confrontation.
The Memorial Museum of Civilians in War in Falaise opened in 2016 and covers over 1,000 m² of exhibition. Each of the three floors focuses on a different theme: Occupation, Liberation and Reconstruction. The museum is dedicated to both the life and survival of civilians during WWII. Testimonies of survivors and a collection of objects and archives are presented.
The Overlord Museum can be found in Colleville-sur-mer just a short distance from Omaha beach. The museum retraces the period of the Allied landings in Normandy until the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944. The museum’s collection displays personal items from individual soldiers and armoured fighting vehicles from the six armies in Normandy.
This temporary exhibit follows the heroic path of French soldiers during the Second World War, from France’s entry into the war in 1939 until the armistice was signed in May 1945.
By joining the D-Day Cycle Ride the cycling soldiers, who played a part on 6 June 1944, will be commemorated, just as the following Battle of Normandy. The Ride includes all the beaches that were used for the landings and head inland to the key locations that were first to liberated.