The D-Day Beaches - a little background goes a long way
The thing I like about cycling generally is that you can observe so much more from the saddle than through a car window. The thing I like, specifically, when riding to and from the ‘beaches’ is the complete reverence with which the locals treat the D Day Memorial events. If I were given €1 for every house I passed that that flew the US/UK/Canadian flags I would not be able to ride far due to the weight of the coinage. It is also very gratifying to see the local population here recognising the huge sacrifice that our young men made so many years ago. It happens in many different ways and there are countless events held in many different formats throughout the region. At the height of “Memorial Season’, around June, you will pass plenty of US WW2 ‘jeeps’ filled with GI uniforms (mostly worn by Frenchmen), commemoration events and just lots of Allied flags. In these cynical times, it does the heart good to see such a momentous event properly marked. There are several places that have a special resonance for me and I always make a point of taking riders to and from them so they can appreciate the beaches and their surrounds to the fullest.
We cycle from Ouistreham (where the 6th Airborne landed before pushing on to Caen) and ride a few miles inland to our first landmark. Our first stop is Pegasus
Bridge where the first action of the campaign took place. At 12:20am on 6th June 1944, six gliders crash-landed beside the Caen Canal with 45 men. The pilots, mostly in their early 20s, landed on a postage stamp-sized piece of land before releasing their cargos of men and materiel to their fate. Their mission was to seize and hold the bridge over the canal to prevent German land reinforcements from reaching the assault target area and at the same time keeping the bridge open and intact for allied forces to move eastward. The gliders were made of wood and their pilots were flying in the pitch black of the night making their story even more remarkable. There is a very comprehensive museum here which is well worth the entry if we have time on our side.
Sword Beach is the first and most easterly beach of the ‘big five’ landing areas. It’s a beautiful beach which has a few low key but never-the-less poignant reminders of the battle - Bill the Piper, the Kieffer Commandos. It was
assaulted on June 6, 1944 (D-Day of the invasion), by units of the British 3rd Division, with French and British commandos attached. If you are going on the tour of the beaches without a guide it is as well that you read up on the beaches (particularly Sword) or you will miss a good deal of its significance.
Our peloton moves on to Juno Beach where the Canadian forces spearheaded the landings here. The coast of Courseulles-sur-mer and its seaside towns were not best suited to a solid frontal landing, so Canadian commandos landed first - attacking and disabling German positions. More of their countrymen followed with equipment and advancing inland they took an important German airfield.
If you have time the Centre Juno Beach is a family-friendly series of exhibits, films and presentations looking at the allied contributions. Both Sword and Juno are spectacular beaches in true Norman fashion – beautiful, sandy and long – but put them within the context of the landings and they are memorable in so many more different ways.
The next stop along the coast is Gold Beach the destination of the famous floating Mulberry harbour. Cycling along the beach road with the breakers on one side and the rolling Norman hills on the other is a real treat. Three quarters of a century ago the Germans believed that the Allies would not land on this piece of the coast because of its lack of harbours. While this gave them the element of surprise it also gave them the problem of how to get all the equipment ashore. The answer was to construct a huge artificial port. Massive concrete caissons were towed across the channel and sunk offshore to create a breakwater and harbour within. Then, long floating roads were assembled to offload tanks, vehicles and equipment. When you cycle up the coastal road toward Arromanches you can see the remains of the Mulberry Harbour from the cliff tops. If you are in fine and sunny weather it is quite a sight.
We cycle down and then up through Arromanches (there is an impressive museum there too) and onto Omaha beach.
A detour down to the shoreline will tell you something of the difficulties faced by the men of the 1st US Division and the struggle they faced getting ashore. Readers may remember that the opening scene of the film Saving Private Ryan was set here and it must have been truly horrific. Today the peace and calm of the American Cemetery lying within the peaceful boundaries of its pine trees belies the violence of the frenetic action on the beaches below, some 75 years ago.
My highlight from last year’s tour was a stay on the ML Medusa in picturesque Grandcamp-Massy. The motor launch, one of the last of her kind and one of the first on the D Day beaches all those years ago is a harbour defence motor launch (HDML). Her job on the landing beaches was to mark out the clear paths to the beach ie where there were no mines. She was commissioned in 1942 as a sub-killer but as many of the U-boats were dead by then she had to find a new role and ended up in the heart of the action
in Normandy in 1944. We sleep in the bunks of the same matelots who had manned them during the campaign. The vessel is positively awash with history from the beautifully restored bridge to the very comfortable skipper's cabin. We are privileged to spend the night aboard the Medusa and when the time came to leave there is literally a queue of thousands of local people waiting to come on board. Come the summer we will know of her movements and hopefully, she will be in a similar location so we can repeat the experience.
We cycle inland and around the bay toward the last of the beaches – Utah Beach, where the 4th US Divison struggled ashore before making its way inland. By the time the 4th Infantry hit the beach at 6:30am, the tide was low, and bombers and artillery from allied ships had already trashed the German coastal defences knocking out much of their firepower.
Turning inland once again we go through the famous town of St. Maire Eglise where once John Steel of the 505th parachute regiment dangle from the church roof for many hours before being cut free by his colleagues. Cycling through this area there is much to take and absorb. When you see the monuments and memorials that take place each and every year, and in quite some profusion all over the Normandy Peninsula, you get a sense of the magnitude of the campaign and the incredible bravery of the combatants. There is often so much that we sometimes do the whole trip again all the way back to Ouistreham.