The Normandy region in northern France on the English Channel has been inhabited for thousands of years. It's a region with industry, agriculture - producing cider and calvados, horse breeding, and fishing. Despite all that, I'd venture a guess that the region is best known as the site of the D Day landings on its beaches and the Battle of Normandy, a significant turning point during World War II. Visiting the beaches, villages, other locales, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is moving and often astonishing. Having family members who were soldiers in the invasion that began June 6, 1944 makes the connection even more meaningful.
We toured D Day sites one day during the photography workshop I attended in Normandy. Other than what I learned in my high school history classes, I didn't know a lot about the Battle of Normandy or much else about the World War II battles in Europe. My only other points of reference were people. My uncle and father-in-law were in their early 20's when they traveled to Normandy. I didn't speak with either of them about it, and know from others that they didn't really like talking about their experiences.
As we toured the sites, I continually tried to imagine the experiences they might have had. I found it astonishing that although most landing sites were beaches, the beaches themselves are fairly confined. They are definitely beaches - expanses of sand adjacent to bodies of water. But rather than receding gently to coastal plains, the beaches end abruptly and rise as rocky edifices, topped by the plains of Normandy. Landing sites were protected by mulberry harbors - temporary harbors made with floating steel breakwaters and concrete caissons - built on Omaha Beach (U. S. landing location) and Gold Beach (British landing location). The breakwater at Omaha Beach was destroyed in a storm later in 1944, however much of the breakwater still exists and is visible at Gold Beach.
I also wondered where their deployment may have taken them once they landed. Germany occupied villages and sites along the coastline. At German-occupied Longues-sur-Mer, three of the four casements with their 152-mm guns, as well as shelters still exist. Our visit to Longues-sur-Mer was pastoral early in the morning, making it difficult to imagine it as a battlefield. At Pointe du Hoc, also a German-occupied site and the highest point on the coast between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, several other casements, gun pits, and shelters are accessible. Did either of them pass through the places we visited?
Port-en-Bessin-Huppain is a picturesque fishing village located between Gold Beach and Omaha Beach. The site was captured by the British during the June 6-7 battles, linking Gold and Omaha Beaches. I had difficulty imagining it as a battle site, as well.
I was impacted most significantly by the visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Granted a perpetual concession by France, the land for the cemetery is a U. S. territory, operated by the U. S. government. Our visit was a bad news / good news story. Because of the government shutdown in the fall of 2013, the cemetery was closed to visitors. I was outraged at our government when passing by the main entrance and seeing people, who appeared to be of the age to have been alive during World War II, walk away from the closed gate. Our experience was a little different. With our French tour guides, we walked west on Omaha Beach to a point at which one provided valuable information. She told us there was an entrance to the cemetery on the other side of a sand dune. She and the other guide would not be able to accompany us, but she said if we happened to disappear for a period of time, there would be nothing that they could do. We left our guides, walked over the dune to the closed beach entrance, and hiked up a trail to another closed entrance and a wall about four feet / just over one meter. We were able to climb the wall and explore the cemetery, the only visitors when we arrived. We expected to be asked to leave, but stayed for a time without encountering guards. It was very still, mostly silent, and tremendously moving. My gratitude to the French guides is great, as it was an experience I would have regretted missing.