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Learning about the Battle of Normandy in Caen and the American Cemetery

victory

Our main reason for visiting the town of Caen in Normandy was to go to the Memorial for Peace –  an enormous World War II museum that took me over 5 hours to get through. Dave had to get back to do some work after a couple hours so without him rushing me along, I took my time and walked around slowly, absorbing all the information in the exhibits.

Memorial for Peace

The museum starts with World War I, followed by exhibits titled Total War, The Second World War, The D Day Landings and the Battle of Normandy, The Cold War and Opinion Spots.

There are various maps throughout the rooms to give you a better understanding of the change face of Europe during those years.

map of Europe 1914

map of Europe 1914

Map of Europe after World War I

Map of Europe after World War I

The museum does an incredibly thorough job of presenting all the information and leading you through this point in history.

One part I found to be surprising was the French collaboration with Hitler. I never learned about the Vichy government and how quickly they gave up French power and yielded to Hitler and the Nazi’s, arguing that they were a better alternative than the Soviets.

invasion of France

 

invasion of France

Not everyone in France was so willing to give into the Nazis though. Charles De Gaulle emerged with his broadcasts to resist the continue the fight.

invasion of France

 

invasion of France

With Hitler advancing into the Soviet Union the tide of the war started to turn. He was hoping for quick victories everywhere but conquering the Soviet Union proved to be a major obstacle for him and his armies suffered huge losses. At this time Churchill and Roosevelt were planning their attack from the west.

Battle of Normandy

Realizing that he was lacking in men to protect the west, Hitler address this by building the Atlantic Wall – a concrete wall around the Northern Coast of Europe to protect himself from an Allied attack.

Battle of Normandy

 D-Day 

D Day

The date of the battle was set for June 6, 1944 (D-Day). This would be the largest invasion by sea in history, involving almost 3 million troops crossing the English Channel from England to Normandy. The main Allied forces came from the US, the UK and Canada, but other allied countries join the effort as well.

The invasion was organized to take place over five different beaches, code named Omaha (American), Sword (British), Juno (Canadian), Gold (British) and Utah (American).

Planning the operation started months earlier and the allied conducted a deceptive operation to mislead Hitler about the date and location of the attack.  The attack had to occur on a day near the full moon, both for illumination purposes and a spring tide. The full moon occurred on June 6 but on June 4 conditions were unsuitable for a landing due to wind and high seas. The mission might have to be delayed a full month. The pressure lay on General Eisenhower to make the final call.

In the end Eisenhower decided the troops should proceed.

D Day

The invasion began with overnight and parachute glider landings and in the morning on June 6 the landings on the five beaches began.

All five landings were successful though Omaha beach suffered the most casualties. The bombardment before the assault was successful on all beaches except Omaha so German bunkers and artillery still remained when the landings began. Almost 2,500 Americans died with 2,300 more wounded.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

Though the landings were successful the battle for taking back Western Europe was not over. The Allies needed to slow down the arrival of German reinforcements and slowly advance forward, while pushing the Nazi’s back. The Battle of Normandy lasted 100 days and was only over with the taking of Le Havre on September 12, 1944. During the month of July the American infantry suffered 50,000 casualties for less than a dozen kilometers – five soldier fell for every meter.

It was not only the armed forces that suffered casualties. During the Allied bombing raids many Normandy towns suffered losses as well and several were almost completely destroyed. This is still a sensitive subject with the locals in the area and they still resent the British for the bombings.

suffering of local population

suffering of local population

The battle of Normandy was a turning point for the Allied forces and allowed them to free occupied France and close in on the Nazis. By the 25th of August Paris had been liberated and in the fall the rest of France as well. Unfortunately the effect of the battle was strongly felt by the civilian in the Normandy region and as they see it it was ‘Normandy that paid the price for the liberation of France.’

suffering of local population

As you can see the excerpts from the museum are incredibly informative and educational. After the Battle of Normandy exhibit the museum goes on to tell the story of the US – Soviet relations during the cold war and the numerous other conflicts that developed in result. The Caen Memorial museum is highly worth a visit if you are interested in learning more about World War II history. Set aside a full day to see the museum. The original footage of the D Day landings, shown in the museum cinema, is truly incredibly and really gives you a better idea of the atmosphere and conditions during the Battle of Normandy.

For an even closer look at the D Day landings heading to one of the 5 beaches is a must. We chose to visit Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery there.

Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

From Caen there are direct buses that you right to the American Cemetery where there is a small museum and free guided tours of the cemetery.

The museum gives a detailed account of the D Day Omaha Beach landings with individual stories of courage and bravery. It is hard to imagine exactly what the forces were up against. Many of the videos displayed were out of this world – the type of stuff I’ve never seen before. You can actually see people, real people not actors, getting shot and falling to the sand.

As the beach is overlooked by bluffs which rise up 150 feet and there was no cover this strand of beach became a killing field. What these troops were able to achieve is truly incredible. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be the first to step onto that beach – your odds must have been slim to nil.

The Atlantic Wall

And today almost 70 years later, as you stand on this tranquil stretch of beach looking out to the sea it is hard to imagine the battle that was fought and the lives that were lost.

Omaha Beach

The cemetery itself feels very tranquil and peaceful, with the well groomed grounds and the perfectly lined white crosses. As you walk around and look at the tombstones themselves you start to notice a pattern.

American cemetery

 

The majority of the soldiers were all young men. Young as in 18, 19, 20 years old. Barely adults. They were barely old enough to be in the army and yet the gave up their lives.

The fought for hours on Omaha Beach, completely out in the open and vulnerable to the Germans. Many of them died or were badly wounded.

It really is disturbing to think about the casualties not just in this battle but in the whole of the war.

As you walk through a military cemetery and see all the white crosses you really start to feel the impact of war and the losses that are incurred on both sides.

American Cemetery

A great way to receive a more personal account of the stories of the various soldiers is through the free tours of the cemetery. We joined one of these and had a great time learning some of the more personal stories and accounts of the war.

I highly recommend a visit both the the Memorial Museum in Caen and the Omaha Beach Memorial and Cemetery.

Though painful this is an important part of our history, one that needs to be remembered.

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4 Responses to Learning about the Battle of Normandy in Caen and the American Cemetery

  1. We made a very similar visit to Caen last year. The Memorial was fantastic and visiting the beaches (we also visited Gold) and the cemetery really left a huge impact on us. I have a picture of one of the “Comrade in Arms” crosses and it never fails to bring back the emotions I felt that day.

    Tyler August 25, 2013 at 4:42 PM Reply
    • The memorial really is amazing and I spent hours there. Would have been interesting to visit a few of the beaches but with limited time we just chose one and the Omaha Beach cemetery and memorial was very interesting as well.

      Vicky September 2, 2013 at 4:30 PM Reply
  2. Completely fascinating, and thank you for taking the time to take the photos, post them and add your thoughts.
    No matter what I read or what I watch, I always find myself stopped short by the sheer magnitude of what occurred at Normandy. Regardless of the advantages the Allies had, it’s success is still amazing. But each and every one of us in a free Western society has a debt of gratitude for those brave young men.

    Jon Patrick August 26, 2013 at 9:07 AM Reply
    • Well said indeed. The museum and memorial in Caen really is amazing and provides so much information about the war and the Battle of Normandy in particular. It doesn’t even compare to what you learn in schools.

      Vicky September 2, 2013 at 4:28 PM Reply

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