Ypres or Iepers, or, as the British soldiers called it, “Wipers”, is one of a few Belgian villages that defines the utter devastation of World War I. Even today, nearly 100 years later, you can feel the war’s impact on the village by simply roaming its charming rebuilt streets.
Iepers laid on the Germans’ path to conquer France (it’s just 45 minutes driving from the French city of Lille), and so they surrounded it and shelled it continually from 1914-18. By war’s end, it was a pile of rubble. (Ieper’s sister city is Hiroshima.) It was completely rebuilt in the 1920′s, and fortunately wasn’t again destroyed during World War II!
A trip to Europe to learn more about World War I wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Iepers. The battlefields around the village saw the death of hundreds of thousands of soldiers - German, English, French, Belgian and Canadian and fewer Americans than other parts of Belgium and France. The Menin Gate is a memorial – an evening ceremony held every night at 8pm – to the 50,000 missing English soldiers – a testament to the large number of casualties experienced by all nations involved in the Great War.
The purpose of the midnight airborne operations (Operation Neptune) which preceded the early morning amphibious landings of D-Day (Operation Overlord) was to capture key towns, access roads and bridges, so that infantry forces could progress further inland with minimal German resistance or counterattack. The 82nd and 101st American Airborne Divisions were tasked with securing and protecting the right flank of the allied landing forces of Utah Beach. Heavy cloud cover and intense German anti-aircraft fire caused the majority of the paratroopers to miss their intended drop zones, many not able to locate their units until days later. Sainte-Mère-Eglise was one of a number of towns strategically targeted for capture that morning, because it was on a major route that the Germans would have used for a counterattack. In fact, it was the first town liberated on D-Day, at approximately 5am.
A dramatic situation occurred in the center of the town, as 82nd Airborne paratroopers who missed their dropped zone just west of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, landed around the town’s main square and church. A bucket brigade of French locals was putting out a house fire on the east side of the church, the fire itself illuminating the area sufficiently for German and Austrian ground troops to shoot at and bayonet landing paratroopers. One soldier, John Steele of the 505th PIR, caught his parachute on the spire of the church and dangled for a couple of hours pretending to be dead. The Germans took him prisoner after which he escaped to rejoin his division. The event was recreated in The Longest Day.
Sainte-Marie-du-Mont is a quintessential Normandy village just a couple of kilometers south of Utah Beach. A beautiful, centuries old church is at the center of town and it was a key landmark for both sides in the conflict for control of the village.
It was quite unremarkable in terms of major D-Day events, but that is probably what makes it so appealing; it’s like so many other French hamlets, villages and towns in this region.
That’s not to say Sainte-Marie-du-Mont isn’t full of stories and experiences of the fighting forces on D-Day. You have to go there to experience what it was like to be a paratrooper of the 101st Airborne Division roaming the village in the early hours of the invasion. Going from street to street, house to house in search of the enemy. The village walls around the centre ville are full of historical markers and plaques telling these individual stories of D-Day.
Upon your first visit to any stretch of Omaha Beach, but especially at Colleville and St. Laurent-Sur-Mer (site of the American Cemetery), if you do not, as an American, at least have your eyes well up with tears, then you are truly made of stone.
It’s more an experience than something you read or watch a movie about, although Saving Private Ryan comes the closest to visually depicting 6:30AM on D-Day. I’ve been there twice and still cannot get my head completely around what happened here. American combat soldiers typically don’t share much, except long after it happened, and only in small doses, and usually just the good times. Omaha Beach was so awful that it was rarely shared by those who lived through the experience. It was such a mess that they still don’t have accurate casualty statistics, but the latest research puts the estimate at approximately 3,000 dead, wounded and missing after a single day of combat along a 5 mile stretch of shoreline.
St. Laurent-Sur-Mer is a small village at an area called “Les Moulins” – an apocalypse depicted in the The Longest Day. The main Omaha Beach Memorial, Les Braves, is on the oceanfront, a beautiful stainless steel structure fanning toward the sea and sky. So, with that, watch all the movies and read the books (including D-Day by Stephen Ambrose), and then go there. If you have a teenage son, bring him too.
Saint-Côme-du-Mont is more sigificant for events that took place on its periphery rather than in the central part of the town. Just south of the centre ville is an intersection called Dead Man’s Corner, with a building at its intersection, significant because it was the command post of the elite German paratroopers led by Major Friedrich Von Der Heydte. A tank column arriving from Utah Beach (from the road on the right in the above photograph) was attacked by the German defenders at this intersection. One of the tanks was immobolized by a Panzerfaust and the commander lay dead, hanging partially out of the hatch, for days as Allied troops passed by on their way inland.
Also, the causeway leading south towards Carentan, the old N13, is known as “Purple Heart Lane” after the heavy casualties experienced by the 101st Airborne in attacking German positions along the road. It was the site of the first bayonet attack of WWII led by Lt. Col. Robert Cole, which earned him a Medal of Honor.
Port-en-Bessin – classic Normandy coastal village. Gorgeous at sunrise and sunset. Even cloudy or rainy days have their charm. Climb the cliffs on both the East and the West sides of the centre ville port for spectacular views of the coastline.
Now to the WWII history of this seaside hamlet:
Part of the Atlantic Wall, Port-en-Bessin was heavily fortified by the occupying German military. Those cliffs flanking the village were ready for attack from sea and air with concrete artillery emplacements, bunkers, trenches and a few hundred Germans. Part of the Gold invasion beach just to the east of Omaha, British marine commandos lost about 40 men taking the position high on the bluff right of the pier in the photo. You can see clear remnants of these fortifications, even trench lines along the very edge of the cliff. Photo above was taken in 1948; below, May, 2012 from the bluff where the British commandos perished.
Imagine. It’s 6:30am, June 6, 1944, and you’re one of 225 well-trained Rangers arriving via Higgins landing craft to the base of a 100 foot high cliff with about 25 yards of beach in front of you before you start climbing ropes to the top of the cliff. Oh and there are more than a few dozen Germans at the top shooting at you with rifles, machine guns, lobbing potato mashers and cutting your ropes and pushing your small frame ladders back towards the sea. That’s what happened here that morning, at almost the same time GIs were landing at Omaha just a few miles east along the coast. Intelligence had placed a bunch of large artillery guns here in fixed positions bombing Omaha. However, the Rangers only found tree trunks posing as gun barrels. The mission was for naught until they located large field artillery guns a mile back. We had to go with the action painting here along with an aerial photo of the previous bombing raids that left Pointe du Hoc a moonscape field of craters – some ship-to-land as evidenced by a shallow, oblong crater, and deep 10-15 foot round craters from aerial bombardment.
The serenity of this little fishing port belies its significant history in the Battle of Normandy. For starters, General Omar Bradley established his headquarters here after the village was seized on June 9, 1944.
However, the really big story surrounding the D-Day history of Grandcamp-Maisy is still unfolding.
Until 2004, the Maisy Battery, located on the southwest side of the village in an area called Les Perruques, was forgotten by historians and even locals, almost completely buried under a yard of topsoil. Gary Sterne, a British World War II enthusiast had first learned of the site from an old Allied map that described this location as an “area of high resistance.” After an intial exploration revealed the tops of concrete fortifications, he determined that this was a sizable German battery, and set about acquiring the land in order to excavate it to reveal the buried fortifications.
Here’s what he found: a nearly undamaged major artillery gun complex the size of Point du Hoc, outfitted for (3) fixed and (1) field 105mm cannons, among other large artillery weapons. There are an officers quarters, extensive trenches, and large bunkers. Stern theorizes – and he may be right – that this battery was the culprit behind the devastation of Omaha Beach. It certainly wasn’t Point du Hoc, because after 225 Rangers attacked it amphibiously at 6:30AM on D-Day, they found telephone poles in the gun positions. The Maisy Battery is an amazing modern archaeological site that will keep historians debating its role on D-Day for years to come.
Carentan, a city of about 4,000 people in 1944, was viewed as so important by Erwin Rommel that he ordered Major Heydte, who had retreated his paratroopers from the causeway against the advancing 101st Airborne, to defend it to the last man. From the Allied perspective, capturing Carentan was critical to Eisenhower’s invasion plans in order to join Utah and Omaha forces into one cohesive defensive line.
From June 10-15, the 101st Division engaged the German Wehrmacht at various points in and around the city, culminating in the “Battle of Bloody Gulch” to the southwest of Carentan. A must see is Band of Brothers – Episode 3, Carentan.
Caen figures prominently in the Battle of Normandy. Originally, British and Canadian forces expected to take Caen on D-Day. However, the 21st Panzer Division stopped them short of the city by only a few miles. Subsequent allied ground offensive operations from June until early July failed in their objective to capture Caen from the Germans. It wasn’t taken until July 9, a full month later than planned, and only after extensive allied bombing which destroyed much of the city. Despite allied leaflet droppings warning French civilians of pending attacks, the majority of Caen’s 60,000 inhabitants remained, and, as a consequence, hundreds died from the bombing raids.