Road Trip 2011: In June, 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces invaded France. CNET takes in the incredible history.
Barge with a charge
OMAHA BEACH, France--In the pages of modern history, there are few days as significant as June 6, 1944. On that day, tens of thousands of American, British, and Canadian forces invaded the Normandy region of Northern France, a mission that finally freed France from the grip of the Nazis, and hastened the slow, but firm defeat of the German army.
Of course, the invasion, known as D-Day, didn't come without a price. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers from all sides were killed in one of the most violent days of World War II, and the blood spilled that day is still remembered--with cemeteries for each nation's dead, including Germany's, spread around Normandy.
And the battle for Normandy didn't last just a day. Throughout June, 1944, battles raged in the area as the Allies fought fiercely to evict the occupiers and free the French.
But it all began on a group of beaches that will forever be known by their code names: Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword, and Gold. The Americans fought for Omaha and Utah; the British for Gold and Juno, and the Canadians for Sword.
It has now been 67 years since D-Day, but in Normandy, remembrances of the battles fought that day and in the weeks that followed are everywhere. From small museums in many towns to memorials spread far and wide to hotels filled with pictures of American soldiers posing with local girls.
This is a landing craft, known as a Weasel--or "Barge with a Charge"--that is said to have been one of the very first types of vehicles that was driven onto Omaha Beach on D-Day. This model of a Weasel is housed at the Omaha Beach Memorial Museum.
One of the reasons for the success of the entire Normandy campaign was the construction and use of what were known as Mulberries. These were giant artificial ports built by the British and the Americans to bring in huge amounts of provisions and supplies after D-Day.
In order to build a Mulberry, large numbers of artificial barges were towed into harbors at Arromanches-les-Bains and at Omaha Beach and used to protect long artificial bridges that connected supply ships with the land. Once the ships were connected to the land, all manner of vehicles could simply be driven off of them and onto shore.
Though the artificial harbors were constructed at both places, a furious storm destroyed the one at Omaha Beach, leaving Arromanches-les-Bains as the main artery for supply for the Allies.
Here, in Arromanches, we see a restored section of one of the bridges. Many of these would be linked together in order to drive supplies off the ships and onto the beach.
The barges used in the construction of the artificial harbor were known as Phoenixes. At Arromanches, there are still about a dozen Phoenixes visible above the water line, and some are now on the shore. Here, we see one of them on the beach, where it is a popular structure for beachgoers to climb on.
In this photograph, we see a model of the artificial harbor constructed at Arromanches-les-Bains. At the top of the photo, we can see the long line of barges used as a seawall to protect the harbor, and below that, we can see several long lines of bridge sections connecting supply ships with the shore.
Before the artificial harbor could work as a way to bring in supply ships--and therefore supply the troops fighting the Germans inland in Normandy--a problem had to be solved: How could you anchor the Phoenixes to each other in such a way that they would not sink, split apart, or otherwise be made useless by heavy waves or bad weather?
The problem was first raised by Winston Churchill in 1942. But the solution came from British Maj. Allan Beckett, who, according to a plaque in Arromanches, designed "the floating roadways, their piers, and the 'Kite' anchors, which enabled the harbor to survive the storm of June 13 to 18, 1944, and to become the key to victory in Normandy.
This is one of the 'Kite' anchors designed by Beckett.
According to information in the museum in Arromanches, "On June 6th, Col. Talley was the 5th Army Corps observer surveying Omaha Beach from a landing craft. After some very anxious moments, he could finally send a positive message to his commanding officer, Gen. Gerow. The message read, "I join you thanking God for our Navy," and it subsequently became a famous D-Day quote implying the decisive role the warships played in dealing with the German defenses.
This is one of the four 155mm guns the Germans placed at Longues-sur-Mer, each with a range of 12 miles, enough to threaten the landing fleets at Gold and Omaha beaches.
According to a sign at the site, the batteries were made of "layers of earth, on an inclined plan, [which] rested on the...sidewalls. They were designed to cushion against bomb impacts, to prevent it from tipping over in the event of a near miss, and to conceal the blockhouses."
This is the range-finding post for the Longues-sur-Mer batteries. It was located 300 yards in front of the batteries, on the edge of the cliff, and it was protected by machine-gun nests, as well as "Tobruks"--concrete niches mounted with a weapon or tank turret, according to the sign--mines, and barbed wire. The post was outfitted with a telemetric aiming device to help the crew reach their targets accurately.
According to the sign at the Longues-sur-Mer site, overnight on June 5 and into June 6, the Allies fired a thousand tons of bombs at the Longues-sur-Mer batteries, but made little ground there.
Early on June 6, the battery became engaged in a duel with the American cruiser Arkansas and two French ships. The battery "stopped firing, then trained its guns on the...headquarters of the 3rd Infantry, which was forced to [back off]. The cruiser Ajax replied. Again the battery fell silent, until the afternoon, when it resumed firing on the beaches at Colleville [Omaha Beach] and Asnelles.
"Late in the evening, the Arkansas and [the French ships] knocked out the battery once and for all."
This site, west of Omaha Beach, and east of Utah Beach, is Pointe-du-Hoc. The site was thought by the Germans to be safe from attack from the beach due to the cliffs atop which it sat, which had perfect views of both Omaha and Utah beaches. The Germans maintained long-range artillery here, and could reach both invasion beaches. Knocking out the guns at Pointe-du-Hoc was assumed by Allied command to be key to a successful invasion.
Three companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion were chosen to attack Pointe-du-Hoc. Led by Lt. Col. James Rudder, 225 Rangers were assigned the task of landing on the beach, climbing the cliffs, and taking out the guns.
A navigation error led the Rangers to land three miles away, delaying them and costing them the element of surprise. And "despite rigorous Allied aerial and naval bombardments, the [Germans] remained and desperately attempted to ward off the the attackers with grenades and small arms fire," reads a sign at Pointe-du-Hoc. Eventually, however, the Rangers, using specially designed climbing equipment, reached the top.
"Upon reaching the top they found only empty gun emplacements among the craters of the preinvasion bombardments. The force then gradually advanced inland where two Rangers spotted the well-camouflaged 155mm gun battery, now positioned south of the point and sitting mysteriously silent. With the enemy gun crews close by, the two men employed thermite grenades and destroyed the guns. At the end of the day, [Col.] Rudder sent a message to V Corps saying, 'Located Pointe-du-Hoc--mission accomplished--need ammunition and reinforcement--many casualties.'"
Indeed, of the original 225-man attack force, just 90 combat-effective men remained after the attack.
This photograph, which is included in the archives of the Omaha Beach memorial museum, shows German Gen. Erwin Rommel inspecting the fortifications and defenses of Omaha Beach not long before the invasion.
This is a restored bridge used at Omaha Beach to bring supplies and reinforcements in from ships. The bridges were protected by the artificial seawall, like the one used at Arromanches-sur-Mer. This is found at Omaha Beach.
Close to the town of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain in Normandy, there is the Musee des Epaves Sous Marines. This is a fantastic collection of D-Day- and World War II-related military equipment recovered from underwater in and around the area in the years after the war.
This is a "DD" Tank that was sunk four miles from Omaha Beach. According to a sign at the museum, "On [the] morning of June 6...32 amphibious 'DD' tanks...are launched four miles from Omaha Beach. Twenty-seven of them sink, unable to fight against the heavy seas. Two reach the beaches due to the skill of their drivers."
This is an M4-A3 "Sherman Dozer," which weighed 40 tons, and carried five men. It had a 75mm cannon, and a .30 caliber machine gun. It was also found submerged in the seas off Normandy, having been lost at some point during or after the invasion.
This is a model of a landing craft, at the Omaha Beach memorial museum. It could carry 36 men, or 3 tons of freight or vehicles, such as the Jeep seen here. It had two 7.62mm machine guns, and was powered by a gasoline or diesel engine.
This is the canteen belonging to Pvt. First Class Allan Lawyer of the First Infantry Division, otherwise known as the Big Red One. The canteen has "Lawyer" inscribed on its bottom, and is on display at the Big Red One Assault museum in Colleville-sur-Mer.