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July 25, 2011

A Day in Normandy, France

by Anne Paddock

In 1977 I went on a high school trip to France, Belgium and Holland – a whirlwind trip over 10 days that included a visit to the west coast of France although and I was unable to see Normandy because I was sick and left at the hotel to convalesce that day.  I always regretted not being able to go so when my husband and I decided to explore the west side of France, Normandy was on our schedule.

I always thought Normandy or “The Invasion of Normandy” as one brutal fight made famous by the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”  But when I started reading about this event, I learned the invasion was something quite different. Generally speaking, the invasion of Normandy occurred when 153,000 soldiers:  predominately American, British, and Canadians stormed the beaches of Normandy to rid the country of the occupying Germans. The invasion was along five beaches in central western France:  Sword, Gold, Juno, Omaha, and Utah.  The Americans were assigned the southern beaches: Omaha and Utah. Omaha Beach (pictured below) is the beach that most Americans think of when they remember D-Day:  June 6, 1944.

canstockphoto6500974There are numerous museums dedicated to World War II throughout the Normandy region but they vary greatly in quality.  Most of the small ones seem to be the result of collectors interested in preserving equipment, machines, furniture, uniforms, and maps from the time period.  After a few days they start to look and sound the same. For that reason and if your time is limited, your journey should start in Caen (see map at right – northwest France) at the Museum of Caen – “Memorial de Caen Musee Normandie” which is also referred to as the “Peace Museum”:  a major museum dedicated to remembering the causes and consequences of World War II and the Cold War.  Just two hours west of Paris, this museum in Caen provides a comprehensive overview of the Normandy invasion.

Le Memorial De Caen
Esplanade General Eisenhower
BP 55026
14050 Caen Cedex 4
33 (0) 2 31 06 06 45

The museum is open from Tuesday-Sunday from 9:00-6:00 and is closed most Mondays but call or check the website before going.

Approximately 50 kilometers away (a 40 minute drive) is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  Built on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach (also known as “Bloody Omaha”), this 172 acre site contains three areas:  the memorial, the cemetery, and the beach. Start your visit at the 30,000 square foot memorial (opened in 2007) which provides a good overview of the invasion along with several short films of the men who sacrificed their lives.  Once you exit the memorial buildings, a bronze statue called “Spirit of American Youth” is at the center, aptly named because the majority of those who died were very young.

canstockphoto3753798The most amazing site is the actual cemetery which contains 9,387 Crosses and Stars of David in marble perfectly lined up vertically, horizontally, and diagonally, engraved with the name of the soldier, rank, origin, and the day of death (if known).  Most of the soldiers that died were under 25 years of age and so the depth of sadness is profound. Despite large numbers of visitors, there is silence punctuated only by quiet sobs.

There are several walkways down to Omaha Beach which provide the visitor a visual understanding of what happened on the beach nearly 70 years ago.

canstockphoto11024898The Cemetery and Memorial are open seven days a week from 9:00-5:00 (9/16-4/14) and 9:00-6:00 (4/15-9/15) except December 25 and January 1.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial 
14710 Colleville-Sur Mer

Travel Note:  The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is known locally as the “Cimetiere Militaire American” (on road signs, as illustrated below) or “Cemeterie USA Saint Laurent” (on Michelin road instructions). Excellent directions can be obtained by going to and plugging in your origin and “Cemeterie USA Saint Laurent” address and “14710 Colleville-Sur Mer” as the destination city.

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