WWII Cemeteries and Normandy Beaches

On June 6, 1944, there was a massive operation from American, British, French and Canadian forces on the Northern France coast. The events of that day are forever burned into the memories of the soldiers who fought and the inhabitants of the small towns along the Normandy Beaches.

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A lone artist on the sands of Sword Beach.

Prior to WWII, the northern coast was a vacation spot for the French, much like the town we stayed in, Villers-sur-Mer. But after WWII, the beaches were immortalized and memorialized. While we only had a few hours to drive around and see as much as we could see of the beaches and monuments, it was beautiful, moving, and unexpected.

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The small fishing village of Ouistreham. Just to the west of this lighthouse is Sword Beach.

From where we stayed in Villers-sur-Mer, the invasion beaches all lie to the west starting with Sword Beach. We hopped in the car and drove about 45 minutes to Ouistreham. In earlier posts, I mentioned that small towns like Giverny or Villers-sur-Mer are mostly closed in the winter. Unfortunately, it was a similar story in Ouistreham. The tourist offices weren’t open and nor were public restrooms (if you’re looking for a rest-stop), but on the upside, parking was free.

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A small memorial at the pier in Ouistreham.

We arrived in Ouistreham to a local fish market and a working port. But, we quickly realized this was not the place to be to see Sword Beach, so we got back in the car, and followed the road west. Without knowing where we were going, we drove another five minutes down the Boulevard Winston Churchill to Boulevard Kieffer and turned onto Boulevard Aristide Briand to “La Flamme” Memorial of Kieffer Monument dedicated to the French commandos who fought and died on this beach on June 6. The massive flame sculpture actually sits on top of a former German bunker and is overseen by a statue of Brigadier Lord Lovat who ordered the Highland Laddie to be played as he led the British Commandos ashore.

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For scale, Jeff standing next to La Flamme.

We stared up at the massive, eternal flame, and then walked down to the beach itself to see where the British forces landed and fought. Today, the beach is quite tranquil and beautiful with tall beach grass and picturesque beach shacks for summer tourists. As we stood at the water’s edge, we realized how flat and difficult it would have been to hide or cover yourself as you ran for your life those decades ago.

Sword or Sword Beach was the code name for the British offensive during the D-Day invasion. The first landings on this beach had relatively low casualties, but the advance from the beach was slow because the Germans had tight control of the coastline. The British began the beach invasion at 725am with engineers first going to clear landmines and make easy paths for the soldiers to follow.
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The tall hills and massive bunches of sand grass hiding bunkers but giving the Germans a good vantage point.
By 930am, the invasion began with eight pathways ready for the troops, and by 1pm, the British were able to take the bridges on the River Orne and Caen Canal linking up with the paratroopers who had taken the Pegasus Bridge in the twilight hours. By the end of the day, nearly 29,000 men landed on Sword Beach and only 683 men were lost.
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Sword Beach today with beach huts and people out for a mid-day stroll.
The beach directly to the west of Sword Beach is Juno Beach where the Canadians focused their invasion. In the car, we got a little turned around as we found ourselves down country roads and driving through small villages, so we didn’t get to see Juno Beach itself. I would highly recommend mapping out your route along the five beaches way ahead of time, and not relying on GPS.
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A marker for the Canadian Cemetery in Normandy, France. The Canadian Flag is painted on the parking lot.
So, instead of making the 20km trek to Juno Beach, Jeff and I decided to head to the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, which is about 3km directly south of Courseulles-sur-Mer and about 17km west of La Flamme Memorial at Sword Beach. This small cemetery was a little difficult to find since it is tucked between farmland, small French villages, and country roads. There is little to no signage pointing the way, but when we finally arrived after pouring over paper maps and cross-referencing our multiple GPS devices, we realized why.
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Beautiful and tucked away, the Canadian Cemetery is to be seen.
The Canadian War Cemetery is simple, pristine, and beautiful. We were the only people in the memorial, so we were able to roam around and take in all 2,000 names in solitude. As we peacefully reflected on the names, I understood why they would build a cemetery in such a remote spot. We were in alone in our reflection and could take in the full measure of the space without heavy traffic or distractions.
Placed on top of each headstone was a Canadian penny. Someone had taken the time to leave a personal memento on each soldier’s grave, and we thought this was so touching and incredibly poignant.
A penny on each headstone.
A penny on each headstone.
In this cemetery, given by France to Canada in perpetuity, soldiers from the 3rd Canadian Division and 15 airmen killed during the Battle of Normandy are buried. There are also three British graves and one French soldier totaling 2,048 graves.
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From the tower, the cemetery of over 2,000 soldiers was beautiful to see.
We did notice a sole headstone off to the side and wondered what set this man apart. Later, we learned that due to some confusion, this soldier was misplaced during the setting up of permanent cemeteries from the temporary placements, but his body now lies here, where it should be, among his comrades. Within the cemetery, there are also nine sets of brothers, giving a devastating record for all of the WWII cemeteries.
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Rifleman J. Stewart was misplaced in the cemetery, but nonetheless remembered and memorialized.
After we left Bény-sur-Mer, we made our way to the Normandy American Cemetery on Omaha Beach. Every day, at the lowering of the flags at 430pm, we were told they play Taps. This was our target, and we got to the cemetery just in time to hear America the Beautiful at 4pm.
We took our time walking around the thousands upon thousands of names and walked with the large groups to watch the flag lowering ceremony. But we were disappointed to not hear Taps. We stood with our cameras rolling, with the dozens of other silent spectators, waiting for the song that never came. Watching the flag being lowered was still beautiful and moving while standing among the fallen soldiers, but we wished we could have heard the song.
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Lowering the first flag at the Normandy American Cemetery.
The park closes at 5pm, so we did not have time to go inside the Visitor’s Center and Museum. From descriptions and the brochure we grabbed, it does look worth a visit if you schedule enough time to go inside. Our priority, in our time constraints, was to take in the grounds.
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The Visitor’s Center at the Normandy American Cemetery.
In the center of the cemetery is a dome chapel with resting flags and beautiful inscriptions and mosaics on the ceiling, but as you enter the cemetery, the colonnade is what first grabs your eye. The wall has all the names of the 1,557 Americans who died in Normandy and were never found. At the center of the semi-circle is a massive bronze statue called The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves. This striking image looks much more beautiful from a distance than up close where it looks a little odd being so large in a white and calculated space.
There are 9,387 graves in the cemetery over 172.5 acres of pristine and manicured greens. The precision of the headstones was so beautiful giving the grounds an almost magical look. There are some notable names buried in the cemetery including Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and Quentin Roosevelt, both who are sons of President Theodore Roosevelt, but Quentin was killed in WWI. He was exhumed and moved to be buried next to his brother some years later. Also, two of the four Niland brothers, who the film Saving Private Ryan was based on, are buried in this cemetery.
From the cemetery, it is very easy to walk down to Omaha Beach. Jeff and I climbed down the steep hill side, which was much easier than climbing back up. Down at the water, we looked back at the 1st Infantry Division Memorial at the highest point on the hill and saw just how intimidating it would be to scared and frantic soldiers. In calm conditions, we were struggling up the grassy mounds, so on the day, it is a wonder anyone survived the offense.
Remains of German bunkers sit encased with sand and grass as reminders of the battle. We walked through the dank tunnels and tried to peek where the Germans had the advantage. It was truly incredible to see.
Jeff walking through the old bunkers.
Jeff walking through the old bunkers.
We walked along the beach for a little while, kicking up sea foam and sponges. As we were about to turn back to the car, we saw a massive military cargo aircraft fly just overhead. We couldn’t hear Taps, but we got a show of military equipment on the beaches of Normandy.
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A cargo plane flying directly over us on Omaha Beach.
If you have the time, and you’re in Normandy, I would highly recommend breaking the trip over two days in order to see all five beaches. We just ran out of time to see everything along the war-torn beaches, but if you only have one day, make a good plan ahead of time so you don’t get lost in the back country roads of France.
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Omaha Beach
Note: at the Normandy American Cemetery, the flag lowering ceremony changes time depending on the time of year. It is either 4pm, 430pm, or 5pm, so check ahead of time so you can plan on seeing it. When I called that morning, the woman assured me Taps would play at 430pm, so take their word with a grain of salt.
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This is the second to last entry on our Northern France trip. To end the wonderful holiday, we had one more day in Paris. Stay tuned next week for one major landmark that Jeff and I missed when we first went to Paris in 2014.
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