Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 07.13.15
Just Outside Washington

All photos by author and Kathy Cavanaugh

And on to Normandy

Day five of our trip was the highlight for many of our fellow passengers; it was a full day excursion to the D-Day beaches of Normandy.When many Americans think of Normandy, D-Day is what comes to mind.

Normandy is an area of France divided into two administrative regions, Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy) and Basse-Normandie (Lower Normandy); each is comprised of several administrative "departments". Next year the two regions will be consolidated as part of a nationwide effort to simplify administration. France currently has 22 regions, 96 departments, 342 arrondissements, and 3,883 cantons; the latter two are not legal entities.

Was anyone listening when Charles De Gaulle remarked in 1962: "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?"

Right after breakfast we boarded our coach and headed for the first assault beaches - Juno and Gold. The 80-mile drive was through rolling farm land with small villages. Many of the hedgerows that divided farmland into small fields and impeded the Allies advance had been removed to improve farming efficiency.

On our way we passed through Caen, home to William the Conqueror. Our guide covered the city's history from the Vikings/Normans through the Hundred Years War and WWII. During the Battle of Normandy in 1944, much of the city was destroyed by Allied bombing. The British and Canadian forces were scheduled to capture Caen on Day 1 but were held up for a month because the German army, including the II SS Panzer Corps, had concentrated its forces in Caen's defense.


After Caen we drove the remaining 20 miles to tour Juno and Gold Beaches; these were assaulted by the British and Canadian forces. We stopped first at Juno Beach, which provided the Canadians in our group a chance to walk on the beach, which was taken by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.

The pictures show the difficulty of the terrain with cliffs and high sand dunes. These were heavily fortified with concrete bunkers housing machine guns and artillery; part of the Germans' Atlantic Wall. Also, the beaches were filled with physical obstacles to impede boats and personnel and minefields.

In addition to being a tourist attraction because of D-Day, this area is a beach resort; note the sails of the boats in the first picture. The large Cross of Lorraine was erected to honor the Free French who came ashore on June 6, 1944, on the adjacent Sword Beach; hence the multiple Tricolors.



After stretching our legs, we re-boarded the coach for the six mile trip to Arromanches to visit the Museum of the Debarkation. They showed us a film of the invasion with a very interesting section on the construction of the artificial harbor that had been constructed in pieces in England, towed across and sunk in place. Remains of the harbor can be seen in the photos. In addition to the four pieces shown, I counted 20 more. Also, Arromanches is the location of Gold beach where the British army came ashore. The view in the photos is looking west toward Omaha Beach and the bluffs that the American army had to climb.



After our stroll on Gold Beach, we walked through the town to the Au 6 Juin Restaurant for lunch. The town was totally destroyed during the invasion; the rebuild resulted in a small seaside resort town serving French, American and other tourists. After lunch we walked back to the museum to meet our coach for the trip to Omaha Beach.



Omaha Beach is a big attraction; it has been provided with a parking area for coaches like ours and paved footpaths. We heard from our guides and others that the French still honor Americans for the D-Day invasion and the freeing of France. To put the point on this, we saw several groups of French children touring the beach on school excursions. The picture shows several adults going over the invasion information; the kids doing what kids everywhere do.

Across the road, French farm life goes on uninterrupted. The yellow flowers are rape seed, which is used to make canola oil. The small bunker (the brown mound) in the picture provided access to the underground ammunition storage connected to a bunker to the right of the picture and shown below.



We had been provided with the history of the landing during our coach ride and at the museum in Arromanches, now we could explore on our own. We wandered around the fortifications, massive concrete structures with the big guns on top of the bluff overlooking the sea. These guns were for defense against ships including landing craft. Many smaller fortifications closer to the beach were armed with machine guns.

The top of the steep bluff is 100 to 170 feet above the beach and cliff leading up was scaled by the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions. Nothing on D-Day went according to plan; by the end of the day, two small footholds on the bluff had been won. These were subsequently expanded over several days to achieve the original D-Day objectives. Capturing this area took caused an estimated 3000 casualties. We did not have enough time to climb down to the beach because we were due back on our coach.



Our next stop was the American Military Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. Many of the Americans killed in WWII are buried in 20 American Military Cemeteries throughout Western Europe. Colleville-sur-Mer has 9,386 American dead. The cemeteries are operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which is funded by our tax money; they are exquisitely maintained. Some local people volunteer their time to maintain individual graves.

We disembarked and walked through the arboretum, which overlooks the sea (almost visible in the picture at the end of the path). A right turn led to the monument with the statue, The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves. The names of 1,557 Americans who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign but could not be located and/or identified are inscribed on the walls memorial.

The cemetery staff conducted a ceremony, in which we participated, at this memorial. At the end of the ceremony, we were each given a rose to place on a grave.  We then had free time to visit graves, the museum or just wander. The maintenance staff was repairing the sod in several sections and had erected orange plastic fencing, which can be seen in the picture and detracted from the visual impact.



I am not a sentimentalist, but these cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery where my parents are buried, have meaning for me. They are fitting tributes.


We boarded the coaches, traveled a circuitous route through several villages to reach Omaha Beach below the cliff. We had some time to walk on the beach and view the monuments. The brown stone monument has an inscription in French and in English: "THE ALLIED FORCES LANDING ON THIS SHORE THEY CALL OMAHA LIBERATE EUROPE JUNE 6TH 1944"; it is flanked by the national flags of the countries of the invading forces. Some people picked up handfuls of sand to take home.


Our excursion was complete except for the hour and a half ride back to Rouen and the ship. We were ready for some wine and a good dinner. We were not disappointed.

The Final Day