Monday, May 28, 2007

Visiting Normandy - Post 2

Readers’ Note: Many of you have asked questions concerning the Normandy invasion beaches as well as inland battlefields, monuments, museums and military cemeteries.

In this “Visiting Normandy” series, I’ll offer some responses with the usual “no guarantees.”


Since most of you reading the series will be Americans, I’ll write from an American perspective. But I welcome queries and comments from citizens of every country.

Post 1 is here. Post 2 today is special bacause JinC Regular AMac has just returned from Normandy and was good enough to share some information. It follows. I’ve included some comments of my own in italics.


By coincidence, I am back from visiting France last week. I made it to many of the spots that John recommends, and can concur with his advice.

A few things that struck me during my three days in Normandy

-- I went unsure about anti-American sentiments. I found none. Politically, the papers were full of the aftermath of Pres. Sarkozy's election and choice of P.M.--French politics.

I invited conversation among acquaintances and family (I speak some French), but none led to the broad-brush caricatures that I half-expected. It was a reminder that people (and peoples) can disagree at times, without becoming adversarial.

( Almost all the people in Normandy are extremely nice and go out of their way to help you, especially if you are in a group they learn has a returning D-Day or Battle of Normandy veteran.

But really they are very nice to all veterans. More than most people I’ve encountered, the Normans have an appreciation for military service. and the risks and sacrifices it entails.

-- The invasion sites are a paradox: it was illuminating to see the actual sites I'd read about, especially the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc and the Mulberry remnants at Arromanches. At the same time, the landscape is enormously changed from 60 years ago. The demands of agriculture have eliminated bocages from the fields. A modern road network girds the area. Time and human endeavor have masked the destruction of June 1944, so that a visit to that past requires an overlay from the mind's eye, derived from reading accounts of that time.

-- The Peace Museum at Caen offers a great account of the circumstances of origin of the war, the war itself, and the invasion. That said, I found the overall point of view to be a case-study of cognitive dissonance. "The suffering that the Liberation caused was worth it" superseded by "All war is the same, and it's all bad". One can't hold both views at once... but that seems to be the stance of the museums' curators. Be that as it may, the museum is excellent, and well worth a half-day's or day's visit.

( Yes to everything AMac says about the museum. The way I put it is: “It’s a museum with a split personality.”

Something not to miss at the museum is a film containing actual footage of events surrounding and on D-Day from both German and Allied perspectives. Footage includes Germans guarding the beaches, in their defensive positions, sighting the invasion ships, loading cannons while on the Allied side you see the ships crossing the channel, the off-loading of troops into landing crafts, the run in under fire to the beaches, etc. The film’s extraordinarily well done. It’s repeated often every day. Check for times when you first enter the museum.

-- Along with "The Longest Day", I profited from reading "Overlord" by Max Hastings (1984) and "Decision in Normandy" by Carlo d'Este (1994).

-- If you go by car: Europcar threw in a GPS system, unasked. It was immensely helpful. Still, it was near-essential to have Michelin regional map #513, Normandie (or a competitor's equivalent).

( Great advice on the Michelin #513 map. Many Barnes & Nobles and Borders carry it or will order it for you. It’s good to study the map before you start your trip.

Michelin maps are often the most expensive, but they’re invariably the best.

There are plenty of less expensive maps, even free ones with some commercial advertising. But my experience has been that when traveling in a foreign country, cheap maps can be mighty costly.

I rarely drive in Paris and then only on a Saturday or Sunday morning. If you’re traveling to Normandy from Paris, you can take a train to Caen and rent your car there. Most of the rental companies are right across from the train station. That makes for an easy return, too.

-- It is well worth the effort to strike up conversations with the older men one is likely to encounter as fellow hotel guests. Many are returning veterans (I met Americans and Brits) with first-hand stories they are willing to share.

( Wise advice that may lead to some of your best memories of your Normandy trip . Don’t forget to inquire of the Normans concerning their D-Day experiences or those they’ve heard from family members.

But approach them carefully. While the Normans appreciate their land was liberated at great cost to Americans and others, it was also liberated at great cost to them, sometimes including the deaths of parents, spouses and other loved ones as well as the destruction of their homes, farms and villages.

That caution observed, you’ll almost always find the Normans eager to talk to you and with much to share.

I’ll post tomorrow on Bayeux as a place to stay during your Normandy visit.

Thanks, AMac, for some great travel tips and commentary.


09parent said...

John: May I leave you with a newly released book by a local friend, and one of the main founders of the Bedford, Virginia D-Day museum...the most honorable, dearly loved Bob Slaughter has finally published his own story.
Omaha Beach and Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter (Hardcover)
by John Robert Slaughter (Author), Alex Kershaw (Foreword)

The long march of Sergeant Bob Slaughter as told in Omaha Beach and Beyond gives the reader the memories that Bob has lived with every day for the past sixty-three years. After reading this, his memories will live with you too, forever!
—Major Richard D. Winters, Distinguished Service Cross, E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne (“Band of Brothers”), U.S. Army, World War II
All leads up to D-Day and Normandy on June 6, 1944, when Sergeant Bob Slaughter came across Omaha Beach with Company D of the 116th Infantry.
This was the beginning of his long march to final victory in Europe, a march that would take him and his fellow soldiers of Company D, at least those who survived, to Holland, the Bulge, and on into Germany itself.

recommended reading from a Duke 2009 Mom who is grateful for your valiant work on exposing the Duke lacrosse Hoax in Durham, NC

Our son was in Baltimore for the last three days cheering on the magnificent effort from Duke in the National Championship games. Today was Hopkin's day but the Cornell game was a great moment in Duke lacrosse excellence, too.

all best regards and thanks.

Anonymous said...

John - On this Memorial Day - Remembering Jimmy Regan and his family.