Beaches steeped in world history

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Pointing menacingly out to sea, the gun emplacements of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall still cast a shadow on the otherwise picturesque Normandy coastline.

They are a reminder of just what a difficult job Allied forces faced when invading to drive out the Nazis.

In the 70th anniversary month of the D Day landings, many people are making a trip to see the five beaches – Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah.

There’s plenty to see on the coast and further inland to inspire awe at the task which was achieved.

As well as the rich military history, Normandy has more delights ranging from pretty towns such as Bayeux, with its famous tapestry, to sampling its home-grown cider.

Just like in 1944, the best way to get there is by crossing the Channel by sea.

Brittany Ferries operates several times a day on routes convenient for the Normandy coastine – from Portsmouth to Le Havre, Ouistreham (near Caen) and Cherbourg.

The first stop on my schedule: Ranville, the home of Pegasus Bridge, a crossing over a major canal which the allies had to take to prevent the Nazis sending reinforcements to defend the beaches.

With amazing precision after practising at sites including Hardwick Hall, British paratroopers landed in flimsy gliders yards from their target which they found defended by just a small number of inexperienced Germans.

The Pegasus Memorial museum features the original bridge, which has been replaced on the canal by a modern version, a replica of one of the Horsa gliders, plus one of the Bailey bridges which could be swiftly put together to cross waterways.

There are displays of military equipment, weaponry and memorabilia, plus photographs showing the bridge shortly after it was seized and stories from the troops who captured it.

Defending the bridge was not easy, with the nearby church still scarred from fierce fighting. Its walls and gates are pockmarked from bullets and shells, while the main churchyard and adjoining war cemetery show the cost in human lives.

Sword, Juno then Gold beaches lie along the coast heading immediately west from Ranville. On Gold beach is the village of Arromanches, where another example of Allied brilliance can still be seen.

Faced with no deep water port after the initial landings, two floating ‘Mulberry harbours’ were created from pre-cast sections which were towed across the Channel.

One of harbours, built close to Juno beach, was destroyed by a storm but the Arromanches harbour survived and was vital for incoming men and supplies.

Sections of the old harbour still encircle the beach.

The drama of the invasion can be re-lived in a 360-degree cinema on the clifftops above the village.

Be warned, some of the battle footage leaves little to the imagination but it’s very moving to watch on screens all around you, narrated by the voices of world leaders from the time.

Down in the village, the landings museum contains a scale model of the harbour as well as more stories about the men who fought.

To see the German defences, head a couple of miles west to Longues Su Mer.

Here, gun emplacements still sit, their huge weapons rusting in the sea air.

It’s quite eerie to see the ugly concrete structures amid the fields above the cliffs as birds sing.

Further fortifications continue on Omaha beach, where the American GIs landed into a hail of fire from German positions along the seafront.

This month the whole area is crawling with re-enactors in vintage armoured vehicles. It’s reminiscent of how the south of England may have looked before D Day and adds to the atmosphere.

The most breathtaking US offensive was seizing Pointe Du Hoc, a rocky outcrop at the end of Omaha Beach.

The attack involved soldiers climbing 90ft cliffs on ladders while under fire.

As with elsewhere, the cliff tops can be explored, including the shattered Nazi defences which were pounded from the air by the RAF.

The last beach, Utah, is lower-lying and defences were spread along the sand dunes.

One preserved bunker has formed the basis of the Utah beach museum, since expanded significantly.

The Utah Beach museum is dedicated to the 23,000 American infantry, air force and navy personnel involved in the landings, and offers guided tours.

Alongside the military displays, there is also an exhibition by the Aces High gallery with prints of scenes from battles from both world wars.

Among the art I found on sale were pictures of the 101st Airborne’s Easy Company – as featured in the Band of Brothers – signed by Major Dick Winters and Damian Lewis, who played him in the series.The company was among units parachuted in ahead of the invasion.

The Airborne museum is at Sainte Mere Eglise, where the church bears a constant reminder of the paratroopers in the form of a dummy soldier hanging from its tower – in honour of one of the Americans whose parachute became caught on a gargoyle 70 years ago. He survived by initially playing dead.

Inside the museum there is a C47 plane, the same type used by paratroopers, another troop-carrying glider, more memorabilia – plus a rather interesting new extension.

If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to jump from a plane without doing it, here you go...

Entry involves stepping into a C47, then passing through the side, on to a walkway above model ‘villages’ and towns in semi-darkness below.

Back at Bayeux, there’s the largest Commonwealth military cemetery, with more than 4,000 graves set in neatly-tended gardens.

Down the road, however, is the smallest, Jerusalem, at Chouain, created on land given by local villages and which has just 47 soldiers buried.

At Tilly-sur-Suellles, a museum has been created in the 12th century chapel whose walls were the only structure to survive as battle raged.

One display is in homage to the ‘butcher bears’ of the York and Lancaster Regiment’s Hallamshire Battalion, so named because of the battalion’s polar bear emblem and the amount of losses inflicted on the Germans.

Among memorabilia are items still being dug up by farmers working land in the area.

A trip to Normandy brings this important part of World War Two to life – and is a gripping experience.

We stayed at: Le Pressoir, a very comfortable gite, or French guest house, on a farm at Vaucelles, just west of Bayeux, with spacious en suite rooms and plentiful breakfast. Visit the Gites De France website- Gites de France- for information or email gite.lepressoir@orange.fr.

For ferry bookings: Visit Brittany Ferries for bookings, times and prices. Sailing to Ouistreham is ideal if you are staying for several days because the port is right next to Sword beach, so cuts down on driving time, however the crossing takes almost six hours. A quicker option is to sail to Le Havre, which is a faster ferry and takes three hours, and then drive for an hour or so to reach the landings area.

To plan your stay: For details of commemorative events taking place through the summer, the tourist board’s websites Normandy Tourism and 70th Normandy are useful.

Three things to do:

1. Tour the coastline. There are almost 40 museums and sites of interest in relation to the landings.

2. If you have time after exploring the beaches, head to Caen, where the Memorial centre gives a detailed overview of World War Two, with many more displays and videos from people who experienced the conflict in different ways.

3. As well as the Commonwealth sites, it’s worth visiting the US cemetery at Colleville, with its grand memorial and row upon row of 9,000 white crosses and stars of David overlooking Omaha beach.

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