Having spent eight days in the northern tier of France, staying in a friend of a friend’s cottage in the tiny town of Gatteville-le-Phare, a half a mile from the English Channel and 12 miles or so from Utah Beach and the western edge of the D-Day invasion front, I am sorting out the takeaways: What will I tell people back home when they ask me what strikes me as most different from home?
No handrails, I think, in one blush of triviality. No guardrails to keep your car from going over the pier and into the bay below.
And no synthetic latex gloves worn by food workers, I think next. My mind wanders to the boulangerie in tiny Gatteville, the only commercial establishment in this town of 600 people or so. Ask Giselle, the personable young woman who tends the store most days, for a loaf of sliced bread and she will pick it up with her bare hands, push it through the slicing machine, and then carefully deposit the carved loaf into a paper bag. Want a piece of pastry? You point it out, Giselle shoos away the fly that is roaming through the case of tempting sweets, and puts our choice on a plate. Her hands look clean to us.
No one we know gets sick or falls during our trip to Normandy. In fact, if you live in France, served by synthetic latex-clad food workers or not, you do pretty well. World Health Organization data show that France ranked No. 9 worldwide in life expectancy in 2015. The U.S. ranked No. 31. The life expectancy of a man in France was almost three years better than for a man in the United States. Vive la France.
But the French — and particularly the Normans who lived in the path of the invading Allied armies on June 6, 1944 — didn’t do so well during D-Day and its aftermath. And that’s another takeaway, not so trivial.
We have come to Normandy to take advantage of the friend’s cottage, of course, but also to sample another culture, visit the towns that date back to the middle ages, and to see Mont Saint-Michel, the military stronghold and religious shrine, and the Bayeux Tapestry, the 230-foot long embroidery that documents the Norman invasion of Britain and Battle of Hastings in 1066.
But a neighbor in Gatteville warns that Mont Saint-Michel is the second most visited site in France, just behind the Eiffel Tower. Better to plan ahead, reserve a room at a hotel in the town of Mont Saint-Michel, and visit the historic abbey in the evening, after all the tourists have left for the day.
So we reconsider and think about the many sites related to the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Several German bunkers, which housed anti-aircraft guns during World War II, are still standing, just a few hundred yards from the center of the town where we are staying. During the war Allied bombing missions neutralized the bunkers but took out part of the nearby town as well. Consider that collateral damage. We need to drive only 20 kilometers — 12 miles — to reach Utah Beach, the western most edge of the real deal. OK, let’s “do” D-Day.
Before I begin my rhetorical D-Day slide show here, let me ask you what your impressions of D-Day are. Maybe you have seen “The Longest Day” or “Saving Private Ryan,” and you have a rough idea of the dimensions of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France, and you know that it was the largest water-based invasion in history. So how wide do you think the beach front was? My guess was six miles — quite a swath. A military man I know guesses five miles. Someone else says 20 miles.
In fact it’s about 55 miles, with the designated landing beaches covering 45 miles. The Allied troops — all 156,000 of them — came ashore in what were hoped to be coordinated attacks spread over 55 miles of the French coastlines. As we drive from Pointe du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers scaled a 100-foot cliff to take out several German gun emplacements, to Omaha Beach, where the Allied forces suffered their greatest casualties on D-Day, to the American cemetery on a bluff above Omaha Beach, with its more than 9,387 gravestone markers, we grumble — grumble! — at how long it takes us to get around. And we’re driving on 21st century roads in an air-conditioned 2017 rental car, and we are barely covering one-third of the terrain that the Allied troops had to cover.
As we drive through the small towns that now seem millions of miles removed from any war, I carry with me a copy of “D-Day: The Battle for Normandy” by British historian Antony Beevor. As we approach any town I look in Beevor’s index and trace down any references in the book.
The details are not pretty.
The stone-walled manor houses were designed and constructed when rival lords vied for land. Even the charming little 18th-century cottage in Gatteville where we stayed was built to last: its stone walls are two feet thick, its windows small. During the battle for Normandy that countryside proved to be a killing ground. The Allied forces “found the hedgerows thick with bramble and thorn, and small German detachments ensconced in Norman farms whose solid stone walls provided natural defensive positions.”
As Beevor writes, “in almost every infantry platoon in most conscript armies there were seldom more than a handful of men prepared to take risks and attack. At the other end of the scale there were usually a similar number who would do everything possible to avoid danger. The majority in the middle just followed the brave ones, but, faced with sudden disaster, they could equally run with the shirkers.”
Even the medical corps suffered from the emotional duress of battle and its aftermath. “In field hospitals well behind the lines,” Beevor writes, “the chief danger was stress. Inevitably some surgeons broke down under the physical and psychological pressure. The screams, the stench of gangrene, the blood, the severed limbs, the terrible burns of armored troops were bound to have a cumulative effect. What is astonishingly impressive is how the vast majority stayed the course.”
If the word “snafu” really originated with the acronym for a slang phrase used by the American military during World War II, then the D-Day invasion was the perfect chance to put it to use. During its prolonged and highly detailed planning phases, the invasion was known as Operation Overlord. Skeptical Canadian forces reportedly referred to it as “Operation Overboard.”
In fact, almost nothing unfolded exactly as planned. The Allied pilots were hampered by bad weather and missed many of the German targets they were supposed to neutralize. Paratroopers landed miles from their intended landing zones. Some of the soldiers coming off the landing vehicles and onto the beaches were so weighted down by their gear that they drowned before reaching shore.
The number of French civilians in Normandy killed during the prolonged fighting that followed has been estimated at 35,000 — compared to about 54,000 Allied ground forces and airborne troops killed in action.
At first glance the visitor center at the American Cemetery seems like a sanitized description of the Normandy invasion, stressing the noble values of competence, courage, and sacrifice. As the reading material for the center states, “the steel structures in the Competence Gallery are rigidly arranged within the gallery’s architecture, suggesting the meticulous planning and preparation for Operation Overlord. But the architecture changes tone in the Courage Gallery. The steel structures are askew, referring to the changes — and even chaos — that occur when planning meets actual battlefield conditions. When plans fall short, courage and sacrifice restore balance.”
After the tour through the visitor center we enter the cemetery itself. Just as advertised, the rows upon rows of stark white grave markers are a moving sight. It is July 4 when we visit and several markers have flowers placed beside them. We notice one that has a card from a flower shop in Caen, which suggests to me that a family back in the states had ordered the flowers to mark the day. I take a photo that shows the flowers and the inscription: Isaac W. Brantley, Oklahoma, July 3, 1944. Back home I spend a half hour on Google hoping to find a family member to whom I could send the photo. No luck.
I am struck by how much information played a role in the prolonged battle. The German soldiers were said to be more hardened than their Allied counterparts, in part because of the many years of propaganda they had been fed. Beevor describes the following exchange between a German prisoner and an American soldier.
“There isn’t much left of New York anymore, is there?”
The American replies: “What do you mean?”
“Well, you know that it’s been bombed by the Luftwaffe.”
As Beevor writes: “Americans were to find that many German soldiers had swallowed the most outrageous lies of Nazi propaganda without question. . . Every time an assurance of the propaganda ministry proved false, another one quickly took its place. The Atlantic Wall was impregnable. . . New jet fighters would sweep the Allied aircraft from the sky. . . Normandy would prove the culmination of many private doubts for regular German soldiers.”
The Allied troops, while not stoked with false propaganda claims, were certainly influenced by information, and lack thereof. Commenting on the “combat fatigue” suffered by many Allied soldiers, Beevor writes that “another contributing factor to the sense of helplessness and disorientation was the lack of information. In the words of one soldier, they suffered from ignorance, stupefying, brutalizing ignorance. ‘You never knew where you were or where the enemy was, or what you were supposed to be attempting to achieve.’”
There’s no shortage of information now. For D-Day you have hundreds of books, documentary and dramatic films, and first hand accounts and reminiscences of soldiers and commanders. Antony Beevor’s “selected bibliography” lists 111 titles. At this point, what more can be said about D-Day?
Stay in Normandy, but turn the clock back 900 years or so. That’s when the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, launched the invasion of England that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and to the beginning of Norman rule in England and the continued evolution of the English language — an amalgam of Anglo-Saxon and French.
Think of it as D-Day in reverse. Much of what we know about it is captured in a 230-foot-long tapestry probably created within a century of the battle itself — close to a contemporaneous account by the standards of the Middle Ages. It survived hundreds of years and many wars and eventually ended up in the possession of the Cathedral of Bayeux in a town that was in the heart of the Normandy battlefield but which was bypassed by the armies from both sides. We spend as much time at the Bayeux tapestry as we did at the American Cemetery.
The tapestry is one of the definitive records for studying the Norman conquest. Look hard and you will see that the details are not pretty, even in the 11th century.
A one-of-a-kind document, I think. Back home I do some Googling and am surprised to learn that the Bayeux Tapestry inspired the Overlord Tapestry, commissioned in 1968 to commemorate D-Day and the battles of Normandy. The Overlord Tapestry was created over a period of four years by English painter Sandra Lawrence and embroidered by 20 artisans at the Royal School of Needlework. It is now on the display at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, England, which served as headquarters for the invasion.
The Bayeux Tapestry, as impressive as it is, doesn’t quite measure up to the 272-foot Overlord Tapestry. When it comes to war, it seems, we can surpass our forebears in every possible way.