The D-Day Landing Beaches
An amazing armada of Allied troops, British, American, Canadian and more, landed on Normandy’s beaches on 6th June 1944 to begin the liberation of Europe from years of Nazi occupation. The planners of this crucial event for European freedom codenamed it D-Day. Follow the Normandy coast, going from above Caen in the east to close to Sainte-Mère-Eglise in the west, to learn all about this most daring and world-changing of naval operations.
The D-Day Landing Beaches, Arromanches © Th. Houyel
The D-Day Landings were the most vital part of the greater Operation Overlord to liberate Europe from years of German military occupation. Allied planning for a massive invasion of German-held France had got underway as early as 1943. The Normandy coast west from the Orne River Estuary to the Cotentin Peninsula was chosen for its flat, firm beaches, and to take the German military off guard – German intelligence thought an Allied invasion would occur much closer to Britain, on France’s most northerly beaches. As plans developed, the Allied commanders, Eisenhower and Montgomery, decided to extend the landing sectors to east and west.
Preparations on a vast scale went on for months in southern England. Through superior air power and a campaign of misinformation, the Allies managed to keep the German military from learning about the build-up to the invasion. However, the Germans had fortified the Normandy coast, particularly after Hitler had put the extremely competent Rommel in charge of coastal defences along the French coast in 1943.
Allied aerial bombardments in advance of the D-Day Landings were targeted to break up German lines and to bomb strategic spots, notably gun batteries, although these advance raids were not always successful. The invasion of France began in the night of 5th to 6th June, a few days later than planned, due to bad weather. Gliders delivered specialist airborne troops to the two bridge-ends of the operation, above Caen in the east, and close to Sainte-Mère-Eglise in the west. The British troops who landed in the east successfully took the bridges over the Orne River and its canal. The American forces dropped in the west encountered many more difficulties, including, most famously, one paratrooper getting his parachute caught on the church tower of Sainte-Mère-Eglise.
Then the major D-Day Landings began in the early morning of 6 June. The Allies had divided the 60-mile coastal stretch chosen for the invasion into five sectors, codenamed Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. On the eastern side, British forces were predominant at Sword and Gold, while Canadians led at Juno. Out west at Omaha and Utah, it was American forces who landed. D-Day has come to be seen as a great triumph, but that didn’t mean the Allies who landed here didn’t encounter tough German resistance and suffer some terrible tragedies from the start.
The circumstances encountered at different points along this coast were highly contrasting. Some beaches were taken without too much fighting, others were bitterly fought over, the waters and sands littered with burning craft and dead bodies.
The whole operation, those who fought on D-Day and those who sacrificied their lives on that crucial day in history, are recalled in extremely moving museums, memorials, cemeteries and sites set along the D-Day Landing Beaches.
Here follow details on each of the five beach sectors where the Allies landed on D-Day.
The most easterly of the D-Day beaches stretches west of the Orne River Estuary, from Caen’s ferry port of Ouistreham. In the original D-Day plan, the invasion front was not intended to extend this far east, instead ending at Courseulles-sur-Mer. However, the British and American military commanders, Montgomery and Eisenhower, insisted on the front going east as far as the Orne Estuary. There were major obstacles in this most easterly sector, natural at Lion-sur-Mer and Luc-sur-Mer, in the form of reefs, while strong German defences had been erected around the port of Ouistreham.
The bulk of the forces who landed on Sword Beach were British. Some French naval forces also took part, under Philippe Kieffer. Ouistreham was taken relatively easily on D-Day. Hermanville-sur-Mer, where many of the troops landed, proved more difficult, and the fighting there slowed the mission of racing on to the city of Caen. At Lion-sur-Mer, the marines also encountered stiff resistance. Although this stretch of coast was secured fairly rapidly, the mission to take Caen quickly proved a failure and the Germans dug in for many weeks in that city.
-Musée du Mur de l’Atlantique Le Bunker: at this bunker left standing in Ouistreham, you can get an impression of what life was like for the German soldiers manning such a Nazi defence. While the bunker looks substantial, conditions were very cramped within.
-Musée du No.4 Commando: also in Ouistreham, opposite the casino, this museum recalls, via contemporary film footage and a large-scale model, that French commandoes also played a part in the D-Day Landings.
-Merville Battery: this was the most easterly spot where Allied airborne forces landed on the first night of invasion, on the eastern side of the Orne Estuary. The troops were scattered as they came down. However, as recalled in the museum in the battery itself, they still managed to secure the spot on D-Day itself, albeit after a bloody battle.
Under Canadian leadership, Canadian and British forces took on a stretch of coast from Courseulles-sur-Mer west. Although there were no major defensive batteries along this stretch, the mines and vicious obstacles set up by the Germans along the beaches, along with guns placed on the jetties in the ports, caused many fatalities. Of 14,000 Canadian troops who landed here, 340 were killed and 600 wounded. The fighting was particularly intense around Courseulles, Bernières and Saint-Aubin, although Graye-sur-Mer proved easier to take. Through gritty determination, the Allied troops along this stretch managed to make important inroads on D-Day, reaching 16km inland, further than any other Allied forces that day. At the end of the day, however, some German troops still defended a strip between Sword and Juno Beaches.
-The Juno Beach Centre: standing out at Courseulles-sur-Mer, this contemporary museum was built in the shape of a maple leaf. This reference to one of Canada’s national emblems indicates clearly how this place is largely dedicated to Canadian efforts on D-Day. Note, however, that coverage extends beyond D-Day, to Canadian involvement throughout World War II.
The Gold Beach sector stretched east of the port of Arromanches (where action was deliberately avoided on D-Day, to keep it clear for the floating pre-fabricated Mulberry Harbour to be put in place after the invasion). Aerial and naval bombardments before the troops landed had successfully knocked out some of the strongest German defences around here. In this sector, east around Ver-sur-Mer, advances were generally rapid. West at Asnelles, German resistance was stronger. By the end of the day, the Allied forces here had practically met the objectives set for them, closing in on the town of Bayeux.
-Ver-sur-Mer, Musée America-Gold Beach: one part of this museum is dedicated to the D-Day Landings here, plus the intelligence gathering on this coast prior to the invasion and the setting up, by British engineers, of an aerodrome. Another part of the museum commemorates an event in 1927, when the first mail-carrying flight from the USA to Europe crash-landed in the sea off Ver-sur-Mer. The aircraft was named America.
See the separate entry on Arromanches for details on the museums recalling the massive operations that occurred at that port from D-Day +1 day.
Notoriously, the American troops who landed at Omaha Beach suffered the worst on D-Day. The bombardments before the Landings proved ineffective in wiping out the many German positions dotted along the slopes above the beaches beyond Colleville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer. On top of that, the Allied amphibious tanks were launched too far out from the shore and failed. The infantry coming ashore were decimated by German fire across the long beaches. Despite heavy losses, small groups of Americans made it up the slopes and took German positions from behind, so some gains were made, if at heavy human cost. At the end of the day, the forces that landed here suffered 3,000 casualties, of whom c.1,000 died.
Out on a limb to the west, the capturing of the Pointe du Hoc, a steep, heavily fortified headland surrounded by cliffs, was given to the Rangers. Not surprisingly, given the extreme challenges, they suffered the worst losses of all. However, their mission began well, with the rapid scaling of the cliffs. Up top, though, they found that the German canons had been removed and that they were practically encircled by German fighters. The Rangers dug in, having to wait until around midday on 8 June for reinforcements to help them out. Of the 225 men who had landed, only 90 were fit for battle by the end of the assault, and 80 of their number had died.
-The Normandy American Cemetery, Memorial and Visitor Centre at Colleville-sur-Mer: every year, more than a million visitors come to pay homage at this beautifully sited, extremely poignant war cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach and the sea. There are 9,387 individual crosses dedicated to American soldiers who lost their lives on D-Day and in the ensuing Battle of Normandy and race to liberate Europe. The names of 1,557 men missing in action are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing. At either end of the Memorial colonnade are large maps and explanations of the main military operations. In the centre of the memorial, the striking bronze statue is entitled ‘Spirit of American Youth Risin from the Waves’. In 2007, the Normandy Visitors Centre was opened on the east side of the cemetery, its museum telling the story of the D-Day Landings and Battle of Normandy, as well as focusing on the American soldiers who gave their lives during the campaign.
-Overlord Museum at Colleville-sur-Mer: this substantial World War II museum was opened in 2014 and covers the conflict from its origins in the 1930s through to its conclusion in 1945. A mass of objects and documents help to give visitors a detailed picture of the war.
-Omaha Memorial Museum at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer: set just a little back from Omaha Beach itself, this museum displays a wide collection of uniforms, weapons, personal objects and vehicles. Numerous scenes, vivid archive photos, maps and a film commented by American veterans, explain the landings on Omaha Beach and the Pointe du Hoc.
-Statue les Braves: on the sand of Omaha Beach, at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, stands the Statue Les Braves. This steel sculpture pays homage to the soldiers who landed here on 6th June 1944.
-The Pointe du Hoc at Cricqueville-en-Bessin: this famous point was one of the strong points of the German fortifications. A museum set back from the headland covers the campaign here in detail. Follow the trail right around the point and you learn the moving stories of many of the individual American soldiers who took part in the attack here. The ground is still littered with German concrete defences. From the tip of the headland, with its memorial, you can appreciate just what a strategic position this was, with views stretching far to east and west.
The most westerly landing sector on D-Day, Utah Beach lies on the Cotentin Peninsula, also known as the Cherbourg Peninsula, and it was in fact in order to help take the vital port of Cherbourg rapidly that the Allied commanders of Operation Overlord, Eisenhower and Montgomery, decided that this further Landing Beach was required. It was extensive, going from the beach beyond the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont north to that by Quinéville.
Extensive marshes separate Utah Beach from the other D-Day beaches. These wetlands caused havoc as American airborne troops parachuted down into the area behind the coast in the night of 5th to 6th June to try and eliminate German defences there. Most memorably, John Steele’s parachute got stuck on the tower at Sainte-Mère-Eglise as fighting took place around the church.
The landings from the ships also went awry in these parts, the bulk of the American forces coming ashore a couple of miles south of the designated zone. This error turned out to be a blessing, as the soldiers setting foot on French soil here met with relatively little resistance.
-Musée du Débarquement. Utah Beach (La Madeleine): located right beside the beach where so many American forces came ashore on 6th June, this museum retraces chronologically and clearly how D-Day was planned and executed. Among the telling objects on display, none is more impressive than the B-26 Marauder bomber. There’s a moving documentary film to watch, ‘Victory in the Sand’, plus oral testimonies.
-Musée Airborne at Sainte-Mère-Eglise: this major museum dedicated to American paratroopers on D-Day was expanded for the 2014 commemorations. Along with the classic presentation of the airborne operations, a new wing of the museum plunges visitors into an intense sensory experience of the war.