Our new series of day trips for Normandy fans begins with an emotional visit to the D-Day landing beaches.
This is a long day, but one that will stay with you forever. Best to plan ahead and have drinks, snacks and a packed lunch with you. Useful museum and memorial links at the end of the article.
Early morning – Bénouville
Start as D-Day started, at Bénouville Bridge over the river Orne. Doesn’t sound familiar? Its post-war name is Pegasus, taken from the flying horse emblem of the British Airborne Forces. A little later than the Airborne arrived on that historic day, aim to be here for 9.30am.
Two bridges, gateways to Normandy
Through the quiet of the inky black night 5 June 1944, 181 men in 6 Horsa gliders were towed from Dorset to capture two key bridges in Normandy near the coast.
If the Germans kept control of the Bénouville and Ranville bridges they could reach the Allies landing on nearby Sword beach. Under Allied control, the bridges were an essential gateway to Normandy and liberation.
Led by Major John Howard the force was made up of D Company, bolstered with two B Company platoons, of the 2nd Battalion Oxford and Bucks light Infantry. With them 20 sappers of the Royal Engineers of 249 Field Company (Airborne) plus men from the Glider Pilot Regiment.
Gliders had been chosen for their silence – planes dropping parachutes would be quickly heard and attacked. With brilliant accuracy five of the gliders landed as close as 47 yards from their targets from 12.16am on June 6. It took just 10 minutes to take the bridges from shocked and sleepy Germans.
Two men lost their lives. Lieutenant Den Brotheridge (the first Allied soldier killed by enemy fire in D-Day) as he was crossing the bridge, and Lance-Corporal Fred Greenhalgh, who drowned in water near his landing site. One glider landed seven miles away and its soldiers had to move through German lines towards the village of Ranville where they eventually re-joined their regiment.
The taking of Pegasus and Ranville (now Horsa) bridge is considered one of the most successful operations of D-Day.
As you walk the bridge don’t be surprised to see members of the current Airborne Divisions vising to pay their respects.
Across the river, away from the (rather good) gift shop, is the Pegasus memorial museum. Brilliantly designed to reflect the shape of the gliders, this is a must-see for military historians. Here you can learn in detail about the role of Pegasus on D-Day, see the original bridge (sold to the museum by the local council for 1 euro) a replica Horsa glider and hundreds of pieces of memorabilia. Their collection is growing daily. We suggest just an hour at the museum as there is so much more to see today.
After Pegasus, a 40 minute drive to Arromanches-les-Bains arriving around 12pm. Arromanches was in the centre of the British ‘Gold Beach’ zone, but once the Brits landed they fought hard to clear the area while keeping the beach undamaged and communications lines open. They were about to build one of the most remarkable pieces of engineering in WW2.
Floating just out to sea on D-Day were huge pieces of steel enforced concrete, a giant lego set that would create a temporary harbour. Despite poor weather this phenomenal structure was up and running by 9 June and it helped win a war.
Some stats from wiki: By 12 June 1944 more than 300,000 men, 54,000 vehicles, 104,000 tons of supplies had been landed. During 100 days of operation of the port 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of material were landed. The best performance of the port was in the last week of July 1944: during those seven days the traffic through Arromanches exceeded 136,000 tons or 20,000 tons per day.
Start with a view of D-Day
Start your visit up on the hill above the town by the Arromanches360 circular cinema on Chemin du Calvair. The clifftop view here clearly reveals the remaining pieces of Mulberry harbour out in the bay. The cinema show will tell you about the role of the Mulberry harbours and a lot about events on D-Day.
Next go down into the town, we suggest a couple of hours to explore and munch your lunch. At the top of the beach is the informative D-Day Musée du Débarquement and when the tide is out you will be able to walk right up to some of the Mulberry harbour remains.
The moment you first step onto a D-Day beach can be incredibly moving. It is impossible not to be aware of those lads so many years ago who fought their way across the sand, who saw friends fall but kept on and would have to keep on for many more months of fighting.
Before you leave walk towards town and look for Rue Colonel René Michel on your left. Just a few yards up is a fascinating if less official ‘Liberators museum’ and militaria shop. We have yet to come away without a chat and a treasure. Aim to leave Arromanches by 3pm.
Pointe du Hoc
The final part of our journey, a 40 minute drive to Ponte du Hoc, arriving just before 4pm.
New moments of history
On our first visit we parked next to a hired people carrier that arrived just as we did. An American family clambered out. Small children hooked colourful backpacks over their shoulders as mothers of all ages fussed. Dad’s and uncles stood patiently as a young man took the arm of an elderly gentleman as he slowly got out of the vehicle. The old man was wearing full military dress uniform. A heavy line of shining medals seemed more substantial than him as they shone in the sunlight. Bent and fragile he took small shaky steps.
In no rush ourselves on that hot summer day we followed the family towards Pointe du Hoc.
As the green clifftop came into view the family became quiet. They were watching the old man; their father grandfather great-grandfather, intently. We looked at him again.
So we saw the moment he first caught site of that terrible hilltop. We watched as he straighten, forced his shoulders back, lifted a determined chin, pushed his cap firmly down. And took a long deep breath.
Then an old solder marched. Marched back to Pointe du Hoc.
It was an honour to witness his return. We cannot comprehend his memories but are grateful for his valour.
A murderous cliff
Pointe du Hoc is the highest point between Omaha and Utah beaches, landing points for American forces on D-Day 6 June 1944. The clifftop gave the Germans a dangerous view of both. Around 7.30 on the morning of 6 June American Army Rangers scaled the 100ft cliff and fought the Germans back away from Ponte du Hoc. They were under constant fire for two days before reinforcements could get to them. Many lives were lost defending Ponte du Hoc but hundreds more saved on the beaches below because of the Ranger’s bravery.
The clifftop at Ponte du Hoc is open all year around and is free. Grass now covers the shell holes but a lot has been left as it was at the end of the war. You can explore the many bunkers that reveal how well the Germans defended Normandy’s coast. And of course you can have a look over that terrible cliff.
There is free parking and an excellent visitor centre open until 6pm in the summer 5pm in the winter, but be warned last entry is around 30-45mins before that.
With an hour at this museum and an hour exploring the clifftop our D-Day in one day finishes here at 6pm, traffic permitting.
More time please!
This is by no means a comprehensive tour of D-Day Normandy and will only highlight the need for a lot more time! History and stories here are as vivid as the day they were first told. The tales of bravery you will learn are unforgettable. If you have more time let us know, we have many more recommendations for your D-Day tour.
- Pegasus memorial museum
- Arromanches360 website
- Musée du Débarquement
- Soldiers at Arromanches, a surprising postcard match
- Ponte du Hoc visitor centre