OMAHA BEACH, France--When you study the liberation of France in school, you get a basic primer in D-Day history. You hear about the famous beaches: Omaha and Utah. But you don't learn much more.
As part of Road Trip 2011, I had a chance to come to Normandy this week and visit some of the most important sites of the Allied invasion of 1944 that freed the French people and helped lead eventually to the defeat of the German army.
What I didn't know prior to coming here was just how many important sites there were--and how many of them are still in good shape. Or how many small museums dot the countryside on and near the coast, each with their own collection of World War II military hardware, pictures of American soldiers kissing French girls, packs of rationed cigarettes and meals ready to eat, and so on. Though it's been 67 years since the invasion, it is now a permanent part of the fabric of the area, long after most of the surviving participants have passed on.
The list of sites one can visit when trying to get a good picture of D-Day history is impressive. In one area guide, there are 20 listed, including the American, British, Canadian, and German military cemeteries, a museum focused on military hardware recovered from beneath the sea, a museum on the Battle of Normandy, and many more.
Another guide lists 25 different locations to visit, only some of which overlap with the ones in the other brochure.
There's little point in trying to explain what happened on D-Day. You already know: The Americans, British, and Canadians invaded France on June 6, 1944, and over the course of the next few weeks, finally forced the Germans out of Northern France, freeing a people occupied for years and helping set the stage for the Allies' eventual full-scale victory over the Nazis.
But there are pieces of the story that I've only just learned that will stay with me long after my visit, and they're ones I suspect many other people never knew about either. It took, for example, ingenious artificial harbors known as Mulberries, in which giant barges were lined up on top of rocks on the bottom of the seabed to form a sea wall. Once that was complete, supply ships were brought in, bridges were built to shore, and reinforcements of all kinds were able to be brought in from the sea. Without these resupplies, the Allies likely wouldn't have been able to rout the Germans and win the war. Perhaps I wasn't paying attention in school, but I don't recall learning about that.
Or about Pointe-du-Hoc, a point midway between Omaha and Utah Beaches that was considered by Allied command to be essential to a successful invasion because of its location and the ability of the Germans based there to fire artillery at both beaches. The Germans thought the site was unassailable because of the sheer cliffs that led to the top from the beaches below, and the fact that the point offered such great coverage of any invading force. Yet, 225 men from the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion climbed the cliffs--after first getting lost and having to make their way up three miles of beach under heavy fire from above--and succeeded in destroying the German guns.
If you visit Normandy, you can learn a lot as well. But be sure to give yourself several days if you really want to understand everything that happened. D-Day may sound like a pretty straightforward event, but the complexities behind it, and the battles that followed, give an entire region something to share with the rest of the world.