Well as promised in my last post, we have bid Scotland goodbye and are now off to explore a few stops in France. With a rich history reaching back well over a thousand years, in various regions you can encounter Greek, Gallic, and Roman ruins, where in still others you can see the scars of the Franco-Prussian War, the Great War, and World War Two. France has literally seen it all, from invading Northmen to the Blitzkrieg, and as a result offers something for a wide range of history buffs to explore and experience.
My last exploration there took me across northern France, from the Normandy Region east through Paris, and then finally to Metz on the German border. Even a casual glance at a map with place names will reveal the hundreds of significant historical stops one could make on that journey, which has made winnowing down to a handful to share with you all here difficult. After much ado, I’ve decided to begin our journey with some quality time in the Normandy Region or more specifically, Omaha Beach and the German Battery at Longues-sur-Mer.
I will not attempt here to explain the entire Operation Overlord, which of course was the codename for the Allied invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during World War Two. Suffice to say for our purposes here that Operation Overlord began on June 6th, 1944, with Operation Neptune- which is often simply referred to as D-Day- that took place in a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast. This stretch of coast was broken up into sectors for the purpose of organizing the assault, Omaha beach being one of those sectors. Omaha Beach was nearly entirely the responsibility of the United States military and as such, given that I am an American I felt that I would like to spend a good bulk of my time there during my visit. That, and at the top of the bluff overlooking Omaha near Colleville is the American Cemetery, of which I of course wanted to pay my respects at.
I won’t dwell long here on the American Cemetery- not for lack of interest, but out of respect. It is over 170 acres in size and contains the graves of over 9,300 American servicemen, and is very sobering to walk through. Endless rows upon rows of white stone crosses (and Stars of David) stretch out in every direction in perfect symmetry and almost make you feel as if you are being watched by the lost as you try to comprehend what you are looking at. There are several beautiful memorials stationed within the cemetery as well and taken all together, the experience is extremely moving. I recommend strongly that if you intend to visit Omaha Beach, or really any of the invasion beaches, that you first take some time to quietly walk through the American Cemetery before setting off to explore. You will not only be given a stark reminder of the terrible cost of war, but on a lighter note, will also be rewarded with a beautiful and sweeping view of Omaha Beach from the bluffs that the cemetery is situated on, which is where we are headed to next.
As you head down to the beach itself, it is very important to understand that the great majority of the remnants of both the landing battle and the German defenses have been removed from the coastline. In fact, if you are to walk out onto the beach to the waterline and then glance up and down the coastline you won’t see much of anything other than the natural features of the land and the modern structures that dot the landscape. But looks can be deceiving. The German military spent years building up the defenses of this region once France had been invaded and defeated in 1940. It didn’t take a military strategist to know that if and when an allied invasion was attempted it would land here in this region, given that the English Channel is narrow here and besides, it had been done before the other way around (William the Conqueror anyone?). Employing hundreds of thousands of the French male population (read, enslaving) the German military built an incredibly complex coastal defense system that eventually stretched the entire length of the coast of Continental Europe and Scandinavia and came to be known to the allies as simply “The Atlantic Wall”. It was particularly strong here in Normandy because of the aforementioned reasons. But where did it all go?
Taken by time, destroyed during the landings and subsequent battle, dismantled by the local population after the war, and most substantially, removed by the United States’ Seabees as an effort to clean up and make safe the landing zone. The goodly majority of those extensive defense systems that the German military put here to stop the invasion are now gone and a mostly open battlefield is all that remains. But again, looks can be deceiving.
When you set out to walk up and down the beach keep your eyes peeled for any suspicious variations in the topography- the surface may be mostly cleaned of defensive structures but subterranean structures still abound. It is possible to find and enter various portions of the underground reinforced concrete bunkers that used to line the hillsides adjacent to the beach. In fact, just north of the American Cemetery along the hillside above the beach there is an opening into a bunker system that runs on for quite some distance and offers views through port holes that were once used to mow down advancing infantrymen- a chilling feeling to comprehend and one that shouldn’t be taken in lightly. There are also empty gun embrasures that once housed giant pieces of coastal artillery as well as small ordinance designed to slow and eliminate soft targets. While many of these superstructures are heavily damaged from the landing and then further by removal of the weapons systems, they are safe to explore and offer a glimpse of the actual scars from incoming Allied ordinance. Also, pay close attention to some of the structures that remain around the beach head- that crepe shop or windjammer rental may actually be occupying a repurposed German strongpoint! I will admit I was taken aback by this at first, as in, I felt it disrespectful to the soldiers who fell here to have a German pill-box that likely facilitated the killing and maiming of scores of men to now be serving soft-serve ice cream to American tourists. But upon reflection I realized my error. This land belongs to France, belonged to her before the German invasion of her territory and before it was forced to be converted into a defensive zone by forced French labor. She is free to do with it what she pleases and what’s more, by distributing ice creams and cool drinks instead of heavy machine gun fire the conversion of some of the remaining structures serves to heal wounds instead of inflicting them.
I strongly recommend to keep an open and curious mind when exploring the length of Omaha Beach since many a second glance will reveal a piece of history waiting to be explored. I could easily go on but I’m going to leave the rest of the exploration up to you and move on now to exploring the German Battery at Longues-sur-Mer.
The German Battery at Longues-sur-Mer is a preserved section of heavy German coastal defenses that is roughly 18 Kilometers east of the Normandy Beach landing zone, and roughly 8 Kilometers north from the City of Bayeux (an absolutely amazing place to explore, I may add, and a wonderful place to stay if you’re planning to explore the region. I highly recommend visiting Bayeux for a dozen reasons but I digress…).
What remains of the German heavy seacoast battery here consists of four large concrete gun emplacements and the remnants of the superstructures once used to house men and ammunition for the artillery pieces. What is unique about this particular battery is that the artillery pieces remain in situ, not having been removed from their casements after the war but left exactly in the positions they occupied upon surrender. The artillery pieces themselves are enormous, too, being 150mm TbtsK C/36 Naval guns with barrels over 20 feet long and weighing in excess of 15,000 lbs. apiece. These monstrous artillery pieces and the structures they are housed in were used to attempt to repel the Allied invasion on June 6th, 1944, and three of the four emplacements were heavily damaged by incoming Allied ordinance during the landings.
Exploring them is really an incredible opportunity to sit inside an actual piece of the Atlantic Wall next to an actual weapon that was used against the invading Allied armies during the D-Day landings. The superstructures and guns themselves are variously damaged from Allied naval ordinance and Casemate Number 4 is actually fairly destroyed, which demonstrates the awesome power of the weapons that were in use in this particular part of the battlefield. The structures themselves are made from tons of reinforced concrete and steel plating and so to see one torn to pieces conjures up images of sheer terror.
If you’ve already spent the day exploring Omaha Beach than understandably you are more than likely feeling a bit wiped, but it is worth every ounce of energy you can muster to push on to visit the German Battery at Longues-sur-Mer. Just one more hour of your time and you can put yourself in the German defender’s shoes and feel the heady mix of emotions as the long-awaited invasion unfolds. On the one hand, you have at your command an awesome array of enormous artillery pieces housed in seemingly invincible superstructures. On the other hand, you know that you have to stand your post and take return fire, hoping against hope that the superstructures will withstand the pounding and that you can hold on and ultimately be successful in repelling the invader. History tells us the outcome of this internal struggle, while the scarred remains of the Battery starkly demonstrate what awaiting the results must have felt like.
R. E. Weston