Bayeux, France (1944 AD)
The Battle of Normandy was the beginning of the Allies’ counter-offensive in Western Europe and the largest seaborne invasion landing in history. While the campaign lasted for more than month, the definitive day of the battle, June 6, is the one that is best remembered and for which the term D-Day is best associated. Thousands of ships and planes supported the landing of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in what is arguably World War IIs most storied battle. The success of the amphibious assault was followed up by the liberation of northern France and ultimately the collapse of the Third Reich in the west. Of the many places along the Normandy coast associated with the battle, perhaps the most famous and visited is Omaha Beach, site of the bloodiest fighting and home to the American military cemetery.
After the German conquest of France in 1940, the Allies in western Europe were limited to peripheral engagements against the Nazis for the better part of four years. With the exception of the campaigns in Africa and the Mediterranean theater, the British, Americans and other allied nations were not in a realistic position to open up a new front in France. By 1943 the situation had changed dramatically, notably due to the vast Soviet offensives in the east which had drawn away so much of Germany’s forces.
Planning for the invasion had actually begun as early as 1942, and by May 1944 the Allies had assembled the largest amphibious invasion force in history in the southern ports of England. Over a million soldiers from more than a dozen countries were assembled under the command of Dwight Eisenhower, along with over a hundred thousand vehicles, nearly seven thousand warships and landing craft, and countless aircraft. Opposing them along the northern coast of France were hundreds of thousands of heavily armed, well entrenched German soldiers led by veteran commanders Gerd Von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel.
The ultimate goal of the Normandy campaign was to put sufficient forces in northern France to resist any Germany counteroffensive, and to seize and secure a deep water port. Normandy was chosen as the site of the landings, with Cherbourg as the strategic prize. The battle began late the night of June 5, spearheaded by airborne units with the mission to quickly secure vital rear areas and open the door for the subsequent amphibious landings. The landings followed just after dawn, with tens of thousands of men landed in wave after wave of attack against Hitler’s vaunted Atlantic Wall, a series of defenses which stretched from the border of Spain to Denmark.
Five beachheads were established, Sword, Juno and Gold by the British and Canadians; and Omaha and Utah by the Americans. The most famous and bloodiest action by far was that at Omaha Beach, where the Germans put up the stiffest resistance. Despite fierce fighting Omaha was eventually taken, along with the rest of the beaches, and most of the Allied gains were linked up and consolidated within a couple of days. Much of Northern France was in Allied hands by the time the campaign was technically ended in July.
Virtually the entire length of beach in Normandy witnessed fighting on June 6, 1944, and there are a number of sites worth visiting, including surviving sections of the Atlantic Wall, commemorative monuments and cemeteries. The most popular site for most visitors is the American cemetery at Omaha beach, where the most fiercest fighting of the battle took place. Just a few miles inland from the beaches is the D-Day Museum in Bayeux, which houses artifacts of the battle and serves as an important hub for the region.
The Normandy beaches are located just north of the city of Bayeux, approximately twenty miles northwest of Caen and 130 miles northwest of Paris. Bayeux is the primary hub for visitors to the battle sites, and is home to the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. The American Cemetery and Omaha Beach are located at the nearby village of Colleville-sur-Mer. No admission information was available as of the time of this writing. Web: www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/no (official website).