Dating to Roman times the town of Bayeux included the residence of an early Roman Catholic bishop in the 4th century, and was captured by the Vikings in 880. While a Norman stronghold for many years, it was eventually taken by various other forces, including the English. Bayeux survived these invasions as well as the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion, finally returning to the French in the 13th century.
In 1940, the German army occupied Bayeux. Four years later, it would become the first town liberated by the allies after D-Day. Miraculously, it was spared any major damage during the war.
Bayeux is home to a magnificent tapestry of the same name. It is displayed in Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. The fact that it is in such good condition after nine centuries defies logic. It is really more an embroidery than a tapestry as can be seen in the photo. (No picture taking allowed in the museum, so this is a stock photo). It depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England involving William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.
Bayeux also boasts a beautiful cathedral named, wait for it…..Cathedral Notre Dame de Bayeux. The French are so enamored of the Blessed Mother. The Romanesque architecture of the original 1077 structure can still be seen in the core of the church, but after a damaging fire in 1160, the exterior Gothic style was added. Construction and additions would continue for a few hundred years.
Bayeux oozes with the charm of quaint old buildings and cobbled streets. It straddles the Aure River, which provides tranquil photo ops, centuries old water wheels, and during my June visit was bursting with blooms and color.
To visit the D-Day sites, I chose a tour with Bayeux Shuttles. I could have easily driven myself, but all recommendations suggested hiring a guide. And I’m glad I did. Lloyd, Bayeux Shuttles’ tour guide extraordinaire, is a young World War II enthusiast who hails from Wales, where he spent years as a re-enactor, all the while studying everything he could about the war.
In fact, he is so obsessed that he turned his hobby into a career and moved to Normandy a few years ago to conduct tours of the D-Day sites. Without his commentary, a visit to the beaches would not have come alive as it did with Lloyd. Bayeux Shuttles also offers short films in their vans on the way to the sites. The films are a nice complement to the guide’s information and add a very human touch as they incorporate interviews with actual D-Day soldiers. Bring tissues.
Our first stop was Pointe du Hoc, where the 2nd Ranger Battalion landed on June 6, 1944. The landing and climbing scene is depicted in the film, The Longest Day. Naval bombardment at Pointe du Hoc began at 5:50 AM, and the craters are still there, interspersed with the destroyed/damaged German army’s concrete bunkers.
Lt. Col. James Rudder and his ranger battalion were tasked with scaling the cliff and dismantling the German positions. Lt. Col. Max Schneider’s 5th Ranger Batalion would later join the 2nd. The Germans had previously moved their guns southward from their original positions. Despite fierce resistance, the rangers found and destroyed the guns….but at a terrible cost. After two days of fighting, only 90 of the original 225 rangers were still able to bear arms.
The French government transferred the area to the American Battle Monuments Commission in 1979 and Pointe du Hoc is well maintained. It includes a visitor center where the story of individual courage and sacrifice is on display. An array of interpretive exhibits and multimedia puts the battle of Pointe du Hoc and the D-Day landings in perspective as one of the greatest military achievements of all time. A short film documents interviews with surviving soldiers. Again, bring tissues.
Omaha Beach is a short drive from Pointe du Hoc, but a very different experience. It is not managed as an historic site so to speak. There are several memorials to be seen, but this is also a beach community. Built into the hill behind the beach road are summer vacation homes, restaurants, and shops. Still, while standing on this wide expanse of beach, looking out to the English Channel, one can feel the spirit of the brave soldiers storming the beach and running into a ferocious enemy.
Les Braves is a war memorial located on the shores of Omaha Beach in the village of St. Laurent-sur-Mer and was installed to honor the fallen American soldiers. It was commissioned by the French government to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion Of Normandy. Intended only as a temporary art piece, the sculpture still stands on the shores of Omaha Beach, primarily due to local public interest and petition.
Our final stop of the day was the American Cemetery, which overlooks Omaha Beach from a bluff. I had purposely avoided looking at pictures of the cemetery before my visit. I wanted to experience it fully, in the moment. I was unprepared for the stunning beauty and grandeur of the site. My first surprise was the semi circular colonnade that greets visitors. It’s pillars flank the soaring statue representing The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves – a reminder of the relative youth of those who died here. The grounds are park like, with walking paths under the shade of trees and sculpted shrubs.
Then there is the spectacular view of the water below, waves cresting on Omaha Beach. A stone structure in the center of the cemetery provides a place for a prayer or reflection. And yet, the rows of simple white crosses are what I found most moving. Each one is stamped with the name of the deceased, their rank, branch of service, hometown, and date of death. Each one is someone’s child, brother, parent, husband, sister, from a small town or a big city in America.
There are 9,387 Americans, including four women, buried here. Carved into the graves of the unknown is the epitaph: Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.
There are some well know soldiers interred at the cemetery…Theodore Roosevelt, Jr, Preston and Robert Niland (of Saving Private Ryan fame). First Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith from Low Moor, Va, while not well known to most of us, showed enormous courage before he died on June 6, 1944. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Here is a brief synopsis of his actions on D-Day from the First Division Museum:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, near Colleville-sur-Mer, France. 1st Lt. Monteith landed with the initial assault waves on the coast of France under heavy enemy fire. Without regard to his own personal safety he continually moved up and down the beach reorganizing men for further assault. He then led the assault over a narrow protective ledge and across the flat, exposed terrain to the comparative safety of a cliff. Retracing his steps across the field to the beach, he moved over to where 2 tanks were buttoned up and blind under violent enemy artillery and machinegun fire. Completely exposed to the intense fire, 1st Lt. Monteith led the tanks on foot through a minefield and into firing positions. Under his direction several enemy positions were destroyed. He then rejoined his company and under his leadership his men captured an advantageous position on the hill. Supervising the defense of his newly won position against repeated vicious counterattacks, he continued to ignore his own personal safety, repeatedly crossing the 200 or 300 yards of open terrain under heavy fire to strengthen links in his defensive chain. When the enemy succeeded in completely surrounding 1st Lt. Monteith and his unit and while leading the fight out of the situation, 1st Lt. Monteith was killed by enemy fire. The courage, gallantry, and intrepid leadership displayed by 1st Lt. Monteith is worthy of emulation”.
There is a subtle feeling of gratitude in the towns and villages near the D-Day sites. American flags can frequently be seen flying from random homes and gardens. An American visitor can expect a warm welcome and a solemn nod of respect.