During the early hours of June 6, 1944, the Normandy Invasion, also referred to as D-Day, launched with the simultaneous landing of British, Canadian and US forces on the beaches of Normandy, France. The invasion (which saw 156,000 troops storm the German-defended beaches) was one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history and proved to be a critical turning point in World War II.
By August 25, 1944, the Allies had liberated France in what was later called ‘the beginning of the end of the war in Europe’. From west to east, these are 7 of the most rewarding Normandy WWII sites to visit.
D-Day Landing Beaches
The stretch of beaches where the Allied forces landed was broken up into five sections:
Omaha and Utah
Both Omaha and Utah Beaches were taken by the American Forces, where the greatest and least amount of casualties occurred respectively.
Gold and Sword
The British Forces commanded both Gold and Sword Beaches.
Juno Beach was where British Forces joined with Canada.
All five beaches can be visited. Some highlights include the interactive open-air museum at Utah Beach, the Utah Beach Museum, Juno Beach Museum and the art installations of Omaha Beach.
Pointe du Hoc Monument
Overlooking the English channel on the north-western coast of Normandy, La Pointe du Hoc is a promontory atop a 30-metre cliff. During World War II it was the highest point between the American landings at Utah and Omaha Beach to the west and east respectively. On June 6, 1944, Army Rangers scaled the cliff and seized the German artillery pieces that could have been used on the troops landing at the surrounding beaches.
Pointe du Hoc now features a monument, consisting of a simple granite pylon atop a German concrete bunker. There is also a museum on-site, commemorating the battle.
Normandy American Cemetery
Located on the site of the former temporary battlefield cemetery of Saint Laurent, the Normandy American Cemetery holds 9387 American graves. Most of the soldiers buried here were involved in the D-Day Landings and the battles that followed. The first American cemetery to be established in Europe, walking amongst the rows of white headstones is a poignant reminder of the human loss following the Normandy landings.
Bayeux War Cemetery
The Bayeux War Cemetery is the largest WWII cemetery of Commonwealth soldiers in France. Located in Bayeux, the cemetery contains 4144 Commonwealth burials, including 338 unidentified and an additional 500 graves for other nationalities (mostly German).
Opposite the cemetery is the Bayeux Memorial, which bears the names of more than 1800 casualties of Commonwealth forces.
Located in Ranville, Memorial Pegasus commemorates the British 6th Airborne Division, which consisted of more than 12,000 troops including a battalion of 600 volunteer Canadian troops, 177 French Commandos, and Belgian unit and a Dutch brigade.
The Pegasus Bridge that once spanned the Caen Canal has been preserved as a memorial, and the nearby visitor centre tells its story. There is also a replica of a Horsa glider, the aircraft used to drop the British paratroopers behind enemy lines on D-Day.
Located on the Arromanches clifftops, the Arromanches 360 circular cinema utilises the remnants of one of the two artificial Mulberry harbours set up by the Allies to showcase “Normandy’s 100 Days”, a 19-minute film about the Battle of Normandy. Opened on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the film tells the story of the 100 days of the Battle of Normandy to liberate the region before the Allies moved on to free the rest of Europe from Nazi occupation.
Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery
Located in Reviers, a village lying 18km east of Bayeux, 15km northwest of Caen and 4km south of Courseulles-sur-Mer, is the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. Designed by PD Hepworth, the cemetery contains the burials of 2048 (including 19 unidentified) Canadian Soldiers who died either on June 6, 1944 or during the early days of the advance towards Caen.
If you’re interested in visiting Normandy’s WWII commemorative sites, Avalon Waterways hosts a WWII History Themed cruise from Paris to Normandy. You can find out more information on the cruise and available dates here.