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Published: September 29th 2013
View from the hill above Omaha Beach. The German Soldiers defending the beach had this view when they were firing at the allied soldiers
WWII and Normandy
During the World War II Normandy in France saw a lot of action and many important battles took place there. The main reason for me to go on this journey was to visit some of the places that I read about in the history lessons in school a long time ago or in novels, biographies and short stories in later years. I have ever since I was a child held a fascination for these places and I will try to share some of this fascination with you.
In 1939, after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, United Kingdom sent over half a million soldiers
to France to help the French army prevent an invasion in case Germany decided to invade France too. As most of you who are reading this already know Nazi Germany in 1940 turned their interest towards the west and did indeed invade France. The British and the French forces never stood a chance against the German war machine. The defenders of France had to retreat and in only a matter of a few weeks entire France was taken by German forces. The British and the French armies were then pushed back all the way
Fortifikation at Omaha Beach
Along Omaha Beach there were several bunkers like this and many more smaller ones
to the coast and were trapped in the city Dunkerque in northern Normandy.
The German invasion of France was so rapid and the defeat came so abruptly that on May 25, 1940 when the British commanders reported to mainland Britain that they were in Dunkerque surrounded by the German army, the British had no evacuation plan. Over 200,000 young men, the core of the British army and the bulk of a whole generation of British men, were squeezed together on a small patch of land waiting to either be captured by the Germans or, more likely, get killed in a gigantic massacre. The British were desperate and decided that at least they had to try to save as many lives as possible. They promptly started an evacuation of soldiers from Dunkerque, an episode that is sometimes referred to as the Miracle of Dunkerque
While the British Air Force did their best to prevent the German forces from advancing towards Dunkerque by dropping bombs on top of them an operation to bring the boys back home to the mainland was set into action. To make this possible they used any boat they could find in the British
This is what Omaha Beach look like today
Isles that could sail across the English Channel. A total of 933 boats including fishing boats, lifeboats, merchant ships, pleasure boats and even hospital carriers, participated in the evacuation. During a period of only nine days this hastily assembled flotilla managed to evacuate close to 340,000 British and French soldiers. The conditions under which they worked were extremely difficult. The German Luftwaffe tried to bomb the boats before they could reach Dunkerque and they managed to sink quite a few. Another difficulty the British had to tackle was the limited size of Dunkerque's harbour. Only very few boats could enter the harbour simultaneously and consequently the soldiers could only be evacuated at a very slow pace. To increase the speed they decided to use also the beaches for the evacuation. The soldiers then had to walk out in the water from the Dunkerque beach until the water was up to their necks. There they stood and waited until a boat pulled up and hauled them in, a wait that could be very long. At a few places they hastily built piers from the beach out in the water by driving cars and trucks out as far as possible into the
Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer
American war cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. Over 9,300 American Soldiers are buried here
The evacuation of Dunkerque is a very important event during World War II. The bulk of the British army would have been wiped out if it had failed and that in turn most likely would have delayed D-Day at least a year maybe more. That is part of the reason why I went to visit Dunkerque. A much bigger reason for me to go there is that it is a wonderful piece of history and a beautiful story to read. I just wish I could retell it better than I have.
From 1940 to 1944 much of Europe was occupied by Nazi Germany. Mainland Britain was saved from this thanks to being separated from the rest of Europe by the English Channel. Germany badly wanted to destroy the morals in UK, since UK and Russia were the biggest threats against total German domination in Europe. Most likely Germany hoped to later on conquer Britain too but first they had to break their moral to eliminate them as enemies.
First Germany fought UK by aerial bombings of British towns and cities night after night. But later on Germany developed
Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer
If you read the names on the two gravestones in the foreground you can see that they are father and son
various specially designed weapons that they put in use for bombing British cities. These weapons included the V-1 Flying Bomb
, the V-2 Rocket
, which was the first ballistic missile in the world, and the V-3 cannon
, a supersized air gun that could shoot bombs in rapid succession and hit targets a large distance away. The Germans set up many of these weapons in Normandy in France. For a while the German strategy was to build large bunkers and there these weapons were to be stored and fired from a launch site. The Germans thought that if only the bunkers were strong enough they could withstand air attacks. But that strategy turned out to be a mistake. These bunkers were easily detected both by surveillance planes and by the French resistance who happily reported to the British whenever the Germans built anything of importance. Huge bunkers make wonderful targets and were easily spotted by the pilots of the British Lancaster Bombers. When the British engineers had perfected the Tallboy bomb, a bomb large enough to cause damage to even the most strongly built German bunkers, the strategy of the large and fortified bunkers was doomed and replaced by mobile units.
There were at least four
Pointe du Hoc
Pointe du Hoc was a heavily armed stronghold positioned high up on a cliff and it was of great strategic importance
bunkers built for the purpose of being launch sites for the various bombs and rockets and three of them are today open for visitors. The ones that can be visited are Blockhaus d'Éperlecques
, La Coupole
and Fortress of Mimoyecques
and they are all located in northern Normandy.
The Blockhaus d'Éperlecque and La Coupole were built for launch sites for the V-2 Rockets. The V-2 Rockets were difficult to launch because one of the fuels they used was liquid oxygen. Liquid oxygen was difficult to transport safely so it had to be produced near the launch site and the production unit was large and bulky and needed a lot of space. That was one of the reasons the bunkers had to be large.
Fortress of Mimoyecques was built to house the V-3 Cannon, an experimental weapon system using air under high pressure to launch projectiles long distances. I have written about the V-3 Cannon before when I visited a site in Międzyzdroje in Poland
, a place used as a test site for the weapon system and where fundaments of the cannon can still be seen. I don't think the V-3 Cannon at Fortress of Mimoyecques ever fired a single shot against
Cliffs at Pointe du Hoc
To reach the stronghold the soldiers had to scale the 30 meter high cliff using rope ladders while fearing that they might get shot
Britain. The British air force bombed it before the Germans were able to complete the construction work. But even if the Germans had finished it and made it work it would not have caused any real destruction because the grenades the cannon was able to launch were much too small to be able to cause any damage worth mentioning.
All three of these bunkers are open for public and they house a museum each. The three museums tell the story of the sites and also its place in the history of World War II. Even though the three sites are very similar the three museums are quite different in character. It didn't feel repetitive to see three different museums covering the same topic.
On June 6, 1944 British, American and Canadian soldiers landed on five different locations in southern Normandy beginning the invasion of Normandy
. This day is also known as the D-Day. The actual invasion did not come as a surprise for the Germans. They had known for a long time that it was coming. What the Germans didn't know was when and where. By various tactical moves
the allies let the Germans believe
Bomb crater at Pointe du Hoc
The allies tried to destroy the bunkers by aerial bombardment before the invasion started but failed
that the invasion was coming further north. The German forces were therefore positioned 300 km away from the actual landing sites and that was crucial for the success of the D-Day. The allied forces had to get a foothold on French soil at first try to be able to launch an effective offensive against the Germans and change the tide of the war. But even though the mobile units had been lured away to another place the landings in Normandy was still not an easy task. The entire French coast was heavily fortified and the soldiers who were positioned at the beaches chosen for the invasion were armed and ready to fight off an attack.
The invasion took place at five beaches codenamed Omaha Beach
, Utah Beach
, Sword Beach
, Gold Beach
and Juno Beach
. At all beaches the allied forces had to pass over underwater obstacles designed to prevent boats from coming near the shore, mines in the water and cross over land where landmines had been buried and where there were barbed wire fences. At two of the five landing sites, Juno Beach where Canadian soldiers landed, and Omaha Beach, which was taken by US soldiers, the allied forces met very
Monument at Pointe du Hoc
There are hundreds of monuments at various places in Normandy in honour of the Soldiers who fought for the liberation of France. What I would like to know is what they were thinking when they... er ... um ... erected this particular monument
strong opposition. At Omaha Beach the commanders for a while where contemplating to abort the operation all together because too many soldiers lost their lives in the attempt to take the beach.
In between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach is a place called Pointe du Hoc. It was a stronghold positioned high up on a cliff and it was of great strategic importance. The allies tried to destroy the bunkers there by aerial bombardment before the invasion started but failed. So Pointe de Hoc eventually had to be taken from the ground. To reach the stronghold the soldiers who were assigned to that task had to scale the 30 meter high cliff using rope ladders while fearing that they might get shot at any second. When they came to the top they had to fight the soldiers defending the site.
After the initial phase of the invasion had succeeded the allies desperately needed a harbour to be able to ship reinforcements, equipment and supplies to France to enable the troops to go on fighting the Germans. The part of Normandy where the invasion started had no harbours so they had
Utah Beach was one of the two beaches where American soldiers landed on D-Day. The other being Omaha Beach
to build harbours that they could use until they managed to get control over a town that had its own harbour. The harbours they built were known as Mulberry harbours and consisted of large caissons, concrete pontoons that would float when empty of water but could easily be sunk and anchored to the seabed. Two such harbours were built, one at Omaha Beach and one at the town Arromanches-les-Bains.
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