The Normandy landings commenced at 6 a.m. Tuesday, June 6, 1944. There were two landings: an airborne assault landing of 24,000 British, American, Canadian and Free French airborne troops shortly after midnight, and an amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armored divisions on the coast of France starting at 6:30 a.m.
Fast forward to late 2011. Tioga County’s Joe Hall was working in Havant, United Kingdom, and was residing for a period at that location. Nearby is Portsmouth, a port city on the English Channel coast of Hampshire, England. Southern Beach and Portsmouth Harbour were military embarkation points for the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.
Southwick House, just to the north of Portsmouth, had been chosen as the headquarters for the Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, during D-Day.
Hall wanted to learn about that time in history while in England, so he took a tour in September. To offer a personal look back in time, Hall wrote an account of his journey through Portsmouth, Normandy beaches (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword), the American Cemetery, Caen, Bayeux and Lisieux.
This is his account:
I found out that the D-Day invasions left from where I am in Portsmouth. So I decided to learn about that time in history. I decided to see some sites on the UK side leading up to the invasion, and then cross the channel to the Normandy side and see where it happened.
Although Uncle Terry, Pat, and Mike were not in the D-Day invasions, but fought later on the continent, I figure they must have taken a very similar path, if not the same one.
On the UK side, I went to two museums: the Imperial War Museum in London, and the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth. It was cool to see V2 rockets, US and UK tanks and aircraft.
But just as impressive were the personal stories told. Some of these I tried to capture by taking pictures of the stories including a leaflet dropped by Germany to convince the UK they were losing, a German belt buckle with the words Gott mit uns.
The Crimes of War section was also very moving.
Another side of the war I wasn’t aware of was the sending of many children inland away from London for fear of an invasion. One area of the museum was showing a clip from the Wizard of Oz which came out around that time. I imagine the line “there’s no place like home” must have struck a chord with many. Although not all children left. The priest in my parish remembers the doodlebugs (V1s) coming in over London. And a colleague at work said his dad remembered seeing a V2 just before it hit.
The imperial war museum also had some exhibits on World War I. They had signs from the trenches in both English and German and a life-size exhibit of the trenches.
I took the Ferry from Portsmouth to Normandy. I traveled the same path that the D-Day invasion took, although my trip wasn’t delayed a day by a stormy sea.
As I was leaving Portsmouth, I realized that was the last town that a lot of the men saw. The ferry was an overnight trip leaving about 10 p.m. and arriving about 6 a.m. I had a cabin with a small bed. The whole floor shook so it was kind of hard to sleep, but since I was tired didn’t have too much trouble. I was worried about sea sickness so I was popping Bonamine like crazy.
The Normandy area was very impressive. There were many monuments to soldiers of the war and cemeteries. It gave the whole place the feeling of a shrine. It reminded me somewhat of Gettysburg, Pa., which had a similar feel to me, having monuments to different areas of the battle.
There were five beaches for the Normandy invasion. From west to east were Utah (U.S.), Omaha (U.S. and nicknamed Bloody Omaha), Gold (UK) Juno (Canada/UK), and Sword (UK/Free French). I had the opportunity to go to Omaha beach.
Even now, 70 years later, areas in Normandy are still named Omaha. An interesting chain of events that gave a French area a name from a native American language.
As I went around, some other ironies occurred to me. The obvious one is the UK and U.S. fighting a common enemy, side by side, when 200 years earlier they were fighting each other. But also the UK coming to the aid of Normandy after the UK had been invaded by Normandy 900 years earlier by William the Conqueror. In the 11th century the Normans invaded England from Normandy.
Now the invasion was going the other direction. History weaves some weird tapestries. William the Conqueror was actually the last successful invasion of UK. Hitler did try, but the Royal Air force stopped the Luftwaffe from getting air superiority.
The Battle of Britain, their finest hour, according to Churchill, put the brakes on a little. Seeing the D-Day invasion left from Portsmouth, the Battle of Britain was of extreme importance.
The American Cemetery overlooks Omaha beach. It is very scenic and peaceful. The look of the place reminded me very strongly of Arlington Cemetery.
The tour guide told us stories of some of the soldiers buried there. The families had the choice of whether to bring back the soldiers or have them buried near Omaha. One of the famous soldiers buried there is Teddy Roosevelt’s son. He was in his 50s when he fought.
The beach is accessible via a stairway from the cemetery. Being on the beach gave you some feel of the difficulty in surviving: the hills in the distance, how long the beach was before you were under cover, the softness of the sand causing difficulty with running, especially with a pack. Things you don’t easily pick up in a book.
Also moving was the British Cemetery in Bayeux. I also captured some pictures of that area.
Another part of the trip was also enjoyable for me was visiting another saint friend. I have enjoyed reading poetry of a St. Therese of Lisieux. It turns out that Bayeux, where my B&B was, is close to Lisieux.
When touring the Cathedral in Bayeux I came across a chapel which said, during a trip, she had prayed there before visiting the bishop. It seemed strange to me to just happen to come across a chapel where she was and it seemed she was inviting me to go to Lisieux.
So instead of touring Caen on Sunday as I had planned, I took the train to Lisieux. I missed mass in the basilica on the hill, but there was mass in the carmel below where she was cloistered. It turned out that her feast day was the next weekend and the community was celebrating her feast for the week starting the weekend I was there.
So I marveled at the interesting sequence of events that brought me across the English channel to Lisieux, just in time for St Therese’s feast.
The only snag in the trip was missing the bus from Caen to Ouistrem for the Ferry. Kind of stressful, but I was able to find a taxi to take me.
Ouistrem is right next to Sword beach, so as I was leaving I got one last look at the D-Day beaches, this time in daylight. This view from the water toward the beaches must have been very scary 70 years ago.
Sometimes I wonder the impression my uncles had of that time. A couple of brothers from a small farm town in the plains of Colorado. Another from Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The place must have seemed so different from their normal simple surroundings.
It’s amazing to think of such simple guys taking part in such momentous events. But that is a story probably shared by millions in that generation.