We all know Normandy as the point of impact for WWII. June 6, 1944, D-Day, shifted the history of our world forever. Traveling around the Normandy region of France, the evidence of that fatal day still remains a powerful image for all to see.
I had the privilege of getting to learn about WWII history and the incredible events leading up to D-Day, and explore these vital locations all around Normandy during a university group trip. Our professor truly gave us a well-rounded experience and enlightened us so much to the horrors and realities of that day. Here are the locations in Normandy we visited and why they are so important in the history of WWII.
Honfleur is where the Seine River meets the English Channel and has long been an crucial trading port. It also is home to the largest wooden church, now a historical monument, Sainte-Catherine. With a charming and old world atmosphere, the city has inspired the likes of Claude Monet and Gustave Corbet. Once a major fishing port, stepping foot in Honfleur will allow a quick understanding of why creative minds and travelers alike are still drawn to this picturesque port village. Honfleur is one of those towns I still daydream about years later.
During the Battle of Normandy, the German navy wanted to transport and execute explosives across Normandy during WWII. They were in search of a port from which to accomplish this, as well as house troops, then flee. Surrounded by Belgian forces to the East and British forces to the West, the two ports of Le Havre and Honfleur presented a window of opportunity to escape to Paris. Honfleur was used to hide and house German forces, but was mainly left in tact following the destruction of the war. Honfleur and Le Havre would be liberated to ultimately end the Battle of Normandy.
Bayeux will steal your heart! Along with the history, the setting is beautiful and so is the town. The town is famous for it’s medieval tapestry portraying the 1066 Norman invasion, which you can see in the Bayeux Cathedral (I highly recommend it).
During the war, Bayeux was the first town to be liberated by the Battle of Normandy. France also officially sided with the Allies in a speech made by General Charles de Gaulle in Bayeux.
The Battle of Merville Gun Battery was part of the D-Day invasions. Gun batteries located in Merville were a threat to the British landings at nearby Sword Beach, resulting in unintended casualties on their own Allied troops. This fear came to fruition with swampy and dark landings taking place on D-Day, resulting in confusion and 50 casualties of the Ninth Battalion at Merville Battery.
Merville Battery remains largely in tact with a Nazi bomb shelter and is home to an open-air museum, dedicated to the Ninth Battalion, that will teach you about these fatal Allied landings.
The Battle of Caen was fought from June 6-July 20, 1944. Caen was a target early on to be invaded because of its easy access from the canals and rivers. The open land in Caen would offer an easy line of advance and be accessible for a roadway as well. Operation Overlord called for the Allied leaders to take control of Caen and block the enemy attempting to come from the east. Airborne forces were able to capture artillery and bridges on D-Day to begin this process in nearby Merville.
Today, there is a major WWII museum in Caen, and it is frankly the best interactive museum I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The museum takes you through the time periods leading up to and through D-Day and does so in extravagant and excellent detail. This museum will bring to life everything you have learned about D-Day.
The American beaches are of course a highlight if you are visiting from the States. I’ll be discussing these beaches in particular because they are the ones I have personally visited. Each of these beaches have significant meaning from D-Day on June 6, 1944. I recommend seeing all of them if you can, if only to be reverent and pay respects to the Allied fighters who risked everything for the sake of freedom.
The battle on Utah Beach is known as the greatest amphibian invasion in history. It was not one of the original landing beaches until General Dwight D. Eisenhower added it to secure capture of nearby Cherbourg. Upon landing, Allied forces quickly realized they had missed their planned invasion point by about 2 kilometers south. They were able to recover by utilizing a beaten-back road to transport goods and men to their set locations.
At the end of D-Day, 1,700 vehicles and 23,000 American soldiers had landed via Utah Beach. The Germans were taken by surprise at the success of the operation at Utah Beach, and all in all, it was the most successful landing of the beaches that day.
“Bloody Omaha”, as this beach is called, was witnessed to be the bloodiest battle on D-Day. The first wave of assaults on Omaha were violently cut down at every measure, leaving the next wave to make up for the losses. Many soldiers drowned before hitting sand due to the massive weight of their equipment. German field marshal, Erwin Rommel, had ensured heavily guarded bunkers and defenses along the beach; it seemed near impossible for Allies to gain any ground upon landing. At the end of the fighting at Omaha, the beach would be completely red with blood.
Still dotted with German bunkers, you can visit this beach, along with the Overlord WWII Museum nearby to get a unique look at artillery, weapons, and battle tanks at Omaha.
The American Cemetery is the final resting place for thousands of fallen Americans that perished in Europe during WWII. It faces west to the U.S.A., a thoughtful homage by the French, and contains over 9,000 graves. This is a serene and reverent place that I’d encourage all Americans to visit. Walking through the American Cemetery, I recall just crying. I was so overwhelmed with emotions of gratefulness, patriotism, and sadness for the soldiers who risked everything.
Arromanches is where you can still see remnants of the artificial harbor that Churchill ordered to be constructed during the war. This incredible engineering feat became a vital port of supply for the Allies. Churchill saw a need to transport additional supplies, machinery, food, and more to the Allied troops in Normandy, but he faced the challenges of German occupation in many of the harbors best to do so. Churchill masterminded the plans for an artificial “floating” harbor to be built in England, and funneled across the English Channel to Arromanches in Normandy.
Some of these concrete pieces of the harbor can still be seen in the water, floating and out of use today. Churchill’s ingenious solution and skillful plan of engineering made a significant, if not vital, difference in the supply line of the Allies in Normandy. In Arrromanches, overlooking the former floating harbor, is a museum that gives further background knowledge and insight into this extraordinary task.
Pointe du Hoc
Among the staggering cliffs and beautiful ocean atmosphere of Pointe du Hoc, it is chilling to take in the dramatic bomb craters that entrench the hillside. U.S. Army Rangers climbed the sides of these 100-foot cliffs when left with no other viable entry point; a dangerous task that was successful and led to Americans overtaking German artillery. Today, Pointe du Hoc is a memorial to the Rangers who successfully achieved this dire task.
Mont Saint-Michel played an interesting role in the German occupation of France during WWII. Germans were more interested in sightseeing and shopping at Mont Saint-Michel than using the location for strategic reasons. Although, they did install an observation post, and some retreating Germans hid and took refuge in Mont Saint-Michel, it didn’t really play a significant role in the war. More or less, it does provide some interesting tidbits!
These magnificent and historical locations in Normandy bring WWII to life in haunting ways. Take your time and be silent in some of these places as you remember the horror that took place right where you may be standing. It is truly an honor that we get to visit places like this that remind us of where we’ve come from and to never forget or allow it to happen again. Normandy is a place of beauty, history, and remembrance for me that shook me to my core in ways I will never forget.
Are there other towns or locations in Normandy you’ve visited with WWII history? I’d love to hear about them!
Travel far, travel often. Bon weekend!