Normandy – August 14-15, 2014
Written by Roxanne
We wanted it all, Paris, Belgium and Normandy. For days we tossed around different itineraries of how best to use our second week. In the end we felt that if we didn’t visit Normandy and the D-day beaches, we would regret it. Seventy years ago Canadians were among the allied forces that confronted the Nazi “Atlantic Wall”, which until D-day had been an immense and seemingly unpenetratable barrier separating the free world from a powerful world threat. On June 6, 1944 and each subsequent day following, the sheer raw bravery and actions of every allied soldier who participated in the D-day Invasion altered the course of world history in a way that we wanted our children to see, touch, feel, hear, understand, appreciate and never forget. This history was just too important not to see, and such a good education lesson for Noah and Aurora. This would be an experience, a history/social studies field trip lesson they could never get back home in a classroom.
So we rented a car for two days, found a hotel (not easy to find in the summer), packed a small travel bag, bought a road map and we were off. The D-day beaches were approximately three hours out of Paris. We should have gotten there earlier in the day, but by the time Len returned with the rental and by the time we stopped for bathroom breaks and food, on top of a few mishaps, we got there close to 6 pm.
Our first stop was at Omaha Beach. This was one of the beaches that the United States forces stormed on June 6th, 1944. Unfortunately, the Overlord Museum was already closed. We took a look around outside at the tanks that were on display, one of which was a Canadian Tank. The one, Noah is posing with was the Canadian one. After looking around the grounds we headed to the beach. We were greeted by many American (we assume) tourists viewing and camping at the beach, along with a beautiful rainbow over the beach and the Atlantic.
The next day we drove to Juno Beach, but first stopped at the Beny-Sur-Mer-Reviers, Canadian Military Cemetery. This is one of two Canadian military cemeteries in France. 2,049 soldiers lie in the Beny-Sur-Mer-Reviers. The other, Cintheaux, has 2,958 graves. I cannot truly put into words what is was like to walk into the cemetery and see the rows and rows and rows of white tombstones with a maple leaf embossed in the centre, lined up perfectly with flowers growing around them. For such a sad and humbling place, it was also so very beautiful and so very moving. We walked around and read many of the tombstones. Some tombstones showed signs of family visits with fresh flowers, handmade poppies, Canadian lapel pins and rocks with sweet sentiments written on them.
From the cemetery we drove to Juno Beach, a 6 mile stretch of beach. Throughout the drive we saw so many Canadian flags. It was moving to be in France and to see our flag flying proudly sometimes on it’s own and sometimes alongside the allies flags. A French police officer, who we spoke to briefly, was wearing a Canadian lapel pin. He remembered that it was the Canadians that liberated the city of Caen, and thus his Canadian pin. The effects of the war are still for prominent in the communities surrounding the D-day beaches. Even McDonald’s had their windows painted in remembrance of D-day.
Juno Beach is the beach the Canadian’s stormed the early hours of June 6, 1944. By the evening of June 6, 1944, 359 Canadian soldiers had lost their lives and another 650 were injured.
The Juno Beach Centre is located on the beach where the Canadians landed 70 years ago. The museum is filled with remnants of the war and many displays. One of the first things you see when you walk up to the centre are the 359 wooden memorials with three maple leaves painted on them. These memorials were for those men that lost their lives on June 6, 1944. It is such a simple gesture, but yet so humbling and so important.
We spent about two hours walking through the museum and still did not see and listen to everything. The beginning of the museum tour, was surreal and moving. We were standing in a steel replica of the inside of an amphibious landing craft, and on the walls all around us, films projected images and film of D-day, soldiers memories of that day, images of what a young Canadian soldier may have been thinking as the craft floated and bobbed towards shore, when the steel door finally opened up for them to rush out into the water, hoping to make it to shore. Sadly the museum shows that 70 years later, remnants of the war are still being washed ashore and found in the countryside. On display was a rifle, an army helmet, and a large cannon shell, that had been found a few years ago. Unfortunately, we did not take many pictures inside the museum. I don’t think it crossed anyone’s mind to do so, as we busy just trying to absorb it all. There was just so much to see.
Outside the Juno Beach Centre doors are 16 pillars with names of soldiers that not only fought in WWII but those that fought in WWI and other Canadian Conflicts and wars. However all of the name plates that were facing the Atlantic Ocean were reserved for soldiers that participated in the Normandy Invasion, Operation OverLord. We were standing there discussing where to go next and Noah spotted a plaque on the pillar we were standing next to. He asked me if this plaque was for an Uncle of mine. I looked at it in shock. What were the chances of finding such a treasure? Yes, it was the plaque of with my great uncle’s name on it. This find made our trip even more special and real.
Another one of the highlights of our visit was touring the German bunkers. The one bunker, which over the years filled with sand had been located and cleared out was first opened to the public in April 2014. Historians believe it was one of the first bunkers to be built in the area, because it was hastily built, and not built very well, with a large open window giving access to any invading force. They also strongly suspect that it was built with slave labour of French citizens. The second bunker was built much better and stronger. It was built to house five soldiers, had two beds, a periscope for looking out at the beach, telecommunication system, was airtight and had a booby trap system for allied soldiers who may have throw a grenade. The concrete on the walls and ceilings was two metres thick, so it was built to sustain shelling. The concrete bunkers were very small and scattered along the coast time. Today most are covered with sand and dirt and you can find children are climbing on them. They are reminders of the past.
The men that fought to liberate France were so young. I can’t believe they truly knew what they were walking into. I don’t believe anything could prepare one so young for war. I kept remembering what I was doing when I was 18 or 19. I thought about what it was like to be alive 70 years ago. Would Len be fighting in the war? Would Noah? What was life really like? Then I thought about what life would be like if these young men did not go to war 70 years ago. What would the world be like? How does one really give thanks to the men and women who gave up so much, including their lives? I know I will wear my poppy with pride on Remembrance Day.
Today the beaches are filled with sunbathers, families playing on the beach, and those that came to remember the events of 1944. We ended our day by walking along the beach and exploring other bunkers and memorials. It was moving to be on the very spot, walking in the very beach sand that those soldiers braved their ways thorough. It would be easy to spend a month exploring the area of the D-day beaches, my only regret is that we didn’t have more time there.