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D-Day beaches
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D-Day Beaches
Map of D-Day Beaches

D-Day Beach in Normandy : Click to enlarge picture
D-Day Beach
Despite the best efforts of Steven Spielberg, it's all but impossible now to picture the scene at dawn on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when Allied troops landed along the Norman coast between the mouth of the Orne and Les Dunes de Varneville on the Cotentin Peninsula. For the most part, these are innocuous beaches backed by gentle dunes, and yet this foothold in Europe was won at the cost of 100,000 soldiers' lives. That the invasion happened here and not nearer to Germany, was partly due to the failure of the Canadian raid on Dieppe in 1942. The ensuing Battle of Normandy killed thousands of civilians and reduced nearly six hundred towns and villages to rubble but, within a week of its eventual conclusion, Paris was liberated.

The beaches are still often referred to by their wartime code names: from east to west, Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. Substantial traces of the fighting are rare, the most remarkable being the remains of the astounding Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, 10km northeast of Bayeux. Further west, at Pointe du Hoc on Omaha Beach, the cliff heights are still deeply pitted with German bunkers and shell holes, while the church at Ste-Mère-Église, from which the US paratrooper who became entangled in the steeple dangled during heavy fighting throughout The Longest Day, still stands, and now has a model parachute permanently fastened to the roof. Note that Utah Beach, the westernmost of the Invasion Beaches, is on the Cotentin Peninsula.

Just about every coastal town has its war museum. These tend as a rule to shy away from the unbearable reality of war in favour of Boy's Own-style heroics, but the wealth of incidental human detail can nonetheless be overpowering. Veterans and their descendants apart, visitors these days come to this stretch of coast for its seaside: sand and seafood (the best Oysters are at Courseulles), plenty of campsites and no Deauville chic.

Bus Verts (tel, run all along this coast. From Bayeux, bus #75 goes to Arromanches, Courseulles, and Ouistreham, and bus #70 to the pointe du Hoc, the US cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer, and Port-en-Bessin. From Caen, bus #30 runs inland to Isigny via Bayeux, express bus #1 to Ouistreham, and express bus #3 to Courseulles. On weekends in June, and daily in July and August, Bus Verts' special D-Day Line departs daily from Caen's gare routière and place Courtonne at 9.30am, calls at Courseulles, and stops at Arromanches, the German gun emplacements at Longues-sur-mer, the US cemetery and the Pointe du Hoc, before returning to Caen around 6pm (€17 flat fare).

In addition, the Caen Memorial organizes expensive bilingual guided tours of the beaches, with four hours on the road and a visit to the Memorial at your own pace (April–Sept daily 9am & 2pm; Oct–Dec & mid-Jan to March daily 1pm; no tours first half of Jan; €64.80).

Pages in section ‘D-Day beaches’: The War Cemeteries, Ouistreham, Pegasus Bridge, Arromanches.

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