Normandy D-Day Tour, Part 1: Utah Beach and Ste-Marie-du-Mont

A Normandy D-Day tour is a great way to commemorate the Allied invasion’s 70th Anniversary

Robert Capa, Normandy D-Day, Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944

Robert Capa, Normandy, Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944 (Photo credit: dr jk)

A visit to the beaches of Normandy is on many a bucket list. With the upcoming D-Day 70th Anniversary on June 6, 2014, a Normandy D-Day tour is a great way to pay your respects to the Greatest Generation, who brought forth a pivotal moment in WWII with their sacrifice and courage.

Where is Normandy, France and where are the U.S.-relevant sites of the Normandy invasion?

This first map of Normandy (click images twice to enlarge) gives you an idea of the distances Allied troops were transported by sea from the coast of England to the Normandy beaches, as well as the distance from Normandy to Paris. The second map zooms into the beaches of Normandy. The Allied invasion plan called for a landing zone that was approximately 45 miles long, with the U.S.-relevant Utah Beach zone covering approximately 8 miles, and the Omaha Beach zone directly east, covering about 12 miles of hilly terrain.

Along the Cotentin peninsula just beyond Carentan, the Normandy shoreline is roughly bracketed by Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east where the U.S. D-Day landings occurred. Two famous U.S. Airborne divisions – the 82nd and 101st –  secured the villages of Ste-Mere-Eglise and Ste-Marie-du-Mont. Our plan also included stops at Angoville Au Plain, Pointe du Hoc, and the American cemetery.

We quickly realized that even though it was going to be a very full day, our limited time allowed for only a partial glimpse of D-Day’s magnitude. Also, there’s a lot more to Normandy, obviously, than D-Day. If you wish to visit Cherbourg, Mont St Michel, the Bayeux tapestry, and other points of interest in addition to your D-Day tours, make sure your stay encompasses several days.

Should You Hire a Guide?

We took an early train from Paris to Carentan to meet our Normandy D-Day tour guide, Colin McGarry. Our full day’s plan with Colin was focused on U.S.-relevant sites from roughly Sainte-Mere-Eglise in the west to Bayeux in the east.

Colin proved to be a superb guide to the Normandy D-Day sites we wanted to see, as well as a nimble educator. (Good for those of us whose knowledge of history needs attention, as well as knowledgable WWII buffs). He has been doing Normandy tours for over 25 years with top ratings on TripAdvisor. We liked that we’d be passengers in his vehicle, and because this was the off-season, we were his only companions for the day.

Be aware that private guides don’t come inexpensive. But hiring one is emphatically worth the price: Colin McGarry is the perfect guide. We found him to be quietly passionate on the region and its history, and an engaging, humorous storyteller.

Can You Get a Good Perspective Nowadays of What Happened Back Then?

Our World War II timeline with Colin took us chronologically through the pre-landing, the Normandy landings themselves, followed through with boots-on-the-ground progress, and finished up with stops at the American and German cemeteries.

The picturesque little village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, just inland from Utah Beach, was our first major stop. One of the most exciting aspects throughout our tour was standing at the very spots where iconic WWII photographs were taken. The main intersection and town square of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont was the first of those for us. It was a day-long thrill to recognize buildings and landmarks, including the painted road sign on the side of the building from the 1944 photo confirmed by today’s road markers.

The town hall then and now.

The village church changed hands several times during the process of taking Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. This sort of thing was to happen over and over again throughout Normandy during the week following June 6, 1944. Colin conveyed several stories which contained similar elements of serendipity, coincidence, unforced errors and assistance from the locals at various locations from our tour.

We next moved on to Utah Beach itself, stopping at the memorial to Lt. Dick Winters of the 101st Airborne, immortalized by Stephen Ambrose in Band of Brothers, and the HBO series based upon the book. It was then that I realized this was going to be an emotional day.

Utah Beach is a broad sandy expanse. You can’t help but liken it to a shooting gallery; our men were sitting ducks. The peaceful lapping of the waves at the edge of the tidal zone masks the residual energy the sands must contain from that day.

The monument to our Naval heroes.

Normandy D-Day Tour Series to be continued . . .



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