We arrived in Bayeux from Paris after about a two hour train ride. From here we planned to make our day trips to the Normandy Beaches, as well as see the 900 year old Bayeux Tapestry which depicts the conquest of England by William the Conqueror.
We immediately sought out a hotel to drop off our very large backpacks filled with two weeks worth of clothes, etc. Our search was short, as a hotel was immediately outside of the train station. Named the Hotel Gare, it had a price that was well within our means. A four person, two bedroom suit cost 140 Franks, or about $25 a night. There was no bathroom in the room, though, and we had to descend 3 stories to get to the community bathroom on the ground floor.
Soon after arriving a man asked us if we would like to go on the tour of the Normandy Beaches as well as the American cemetary. It cost 300 Franks a piece, or $50. We thought this price a bit high, so we declined.
Instead we sought out the Family Hostel, a place that was advertised to rent out bicycles. For a small deposit and about $20 apiece, we were able to rent some beaten up bicycles and see the land ourselves. Since the coast was only 10 miles away, we thought that it would be a good trip.
Within a few minutes of setting out we had left the cobblestone streets of Bayeux and were on the shoulderless highway to the coast. At first I was petrified, scanning over my shoulder constantly on the look out for approaching cars. Soon, however, I realized that French drivers were used to seeing bicycles on their highways, and we were given ample room as the approaching cars passed us.
The terrain was very flat, the road very straight. We drove by farms with low, green grass and white and tan spotted cows. As we approached the coast, the land began to descend at a steeper and steeper rate. Immediately next to the coast there was a small town where the road began to zigzag and decend rapidly, forcing us to use the brakes to keep our questionable bicycles under control.
Our first stop was Gold Beach, a British landing zone. At the beach we could see a large number of mullberrys circling the shore. Mullberrys were used by the Allies to create artificial harbors to aid in the landing of supplies. They were basically large barges of steel and cement that were sunk near the coast. Two mullberrys harbors were built during the war. One was destroyed by a storm a few weeks after being deployed, the other remains today.
One mullberry was even washed up on the beach, and several similar yet smaller objects were further inland as well.
The beach itself is sandy with a smattering of small pebbles scattered across it. Immediately behind the beach is a retaining wall that protects the town from any runaway waves. Because this wall is in such good shape I am certain it was built after the war. Had it existed during the war it would have been pounded unrecognizable from naval bombardment.
We then began to travel west along the coast. Soon the coast changed from sandy beach to cliff and jagged rocks, and a steep road climbed up the cliff. We followed this, and were immediately greeted by a machine gun bunker. A small slit for spotting was on the left face of the bunker, and a ball and socket mount for a machine gun dominated the center. I doubt that the gunner could aim with any accuracy, since he would have no view of what he was shooting at and would need to get instructions from the person watching through the slit. Still, this arrangement would be very effective at suppressing any landing troops.
We continued climbing the cliff along the road, and saw a path break off towards the steep face of the cliff. We followed this, and found many large craters from either naval or aerial bombardment. There was another pillbox, but this one was mostly destroyed. There was a large, perfect circle on the top that I assume held a steel turret with a large caliber gun. There were no viewing slits or machine guns present, and the whole thing was recessed deeply into the ground.
We continued to follow the cliff, now mostly on level ground. It was like a very large plateu, with endless farming fields to the south of us and a 300 foot drop and then the sea to the north of us. After half an hour or more of walking I spotted some barbed wire that was along the corner of the cliff just as the cliff fell away. Only inches above the ground, it was obvious that this barbed wire was to prevent people from climbing up instead of preventing animals from going off. Happy that I had actually found a living war momento, I bent a piece of the wire back and forth until it snapped off and took it home with me.
After another several hours of hiking we arrived at one of the most interesting sites I saw in all of Europe. There were 4 large guns (approximately 155 mm) in a row built into cement casemates. Their guns pointed out towards the sea, but the sea was not visible to the guns from the angle and distance that they were from the cliff. They were reinforced to the left, right, and top with mounds of dirt that helped them to not be knocked over in case of a near miss.
Perhaps half a mile away, immediately behind the cliff face, a sixth structure stood. It was a sighting post for the Four guns, and it had no weapons of its own built in. Instead, small slits were found in the front to aim small arms out of. On top, a large slab of concrete was held off of the rest of the structure with 4 thick steel posts. Through the gap between the slab and the structure soldiers could watch for approaching ships and radio targeting instructions to the 4 guns further back from the coast.
An interesting story was written on a plaque in both French and English. Apparently over 10,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the casemates immediately before Operation Overlord began, all to no effect. Later, as the landing ships began to arrive, the guns began to shoot at the approaching ships. A duel ensued between several destroyers and the guns. Several times the guns were put out of action as their crews were killed, but each time the guns were re-manned and they began to shoot again within half an hour. The guns remained serviceable up until Allied soldiers physically captured them. In fact, of the five guns, only one seems to have suffered any damage. The metal shield that protects that crew and the delicate parts of the gun is damaged, with small viewing shutters askew.
We continued from here away from the cliff and along parralel roads, deciding that walking our bicycles along the rugged trails was taking too long. After a few more hours my little sister began to get very tired, and I very frustrated, so we decided to split up. I was to continue on my own until 5:00, then return to a small park for my wife and sister.
I drove and drove, searching for Omaha beach. Quickly I became tired and dehydrated, but I continued to push myself. I had come over 3000 miles to see where the Americans had landed, and I wasn't going to lose out now.
Finally I had made it. Looking at my watch, I saw that I had about 15 minutes to enjoy it before heading back to meet my wife and sister. This was going to be a fast moment of satisfaction.
The first thing that struck me was how deep the beach was. I'm not sure what phase of the tide I was at, but from the edge of the water to the first tuft of grass was a good 70 yards. Following the beach was a low plateu that continued without cover for another 30 yards or so. Finally, after a full 100 yards completely lacking cover, a steep hill rose to the larger plateu above. This hill had plenty of cover in the form of shrubs, deep grass, and small trees. A machine gun pillbox was built into the hill, and had an excellent field of fire onto the beach.
I stood in awe thinking of the bravery it must have taken to go this far under fire and without cover. The men who stormed this beach had to accept that they were likely to die in the process.
As I watched, I saw many sail-buggies traveling along the beach. It was so smooth and flat, without even the pebbles of Sword Beach, and so long and deep, that it made for a perfect place to do so. I only hope the people on those sail-buggies recognize the sacrifice that men had to make back on June 6, 1944 for them to have the freedom to do so.
I wrapped up quickly, looking at a small obelisk dedicated to the combat engineers that helped to make the beach passable for further troops. Then I was off, leaving behind me one of the world's greatest battlefields.
I didn't have time to see the American Cemetary. It was only a kilometer away, but I had to leave it in order to make good on my promise to be back by 5:00.