For anyone interested in military history, a visit to Normandy provides an excuse to visit some of the World War II sites in the area. I have been visiting the area on and off since 1973 and think I have seen most of what is available to see (like St Marie-du-Mont, but there’s always something to be found.
Last year, we stayed at the Casino hotel at the western end of Omaha Beach (in Vierville-sur-Mer, the end closest to Pointe du Hoc) and enjoyed wandering the beach there. This is the part of Omaha captured in the film “Saving Private Ryan”, which forms the basis of many opinions about the battle. The film was actually made using Curracloe Strand in County Wexford, Ireland as a substitute for Omaha Beach.
This week I was passing and decided to explore the other end of Omaha Beach and so found my way to Colleville-sur-Mer, the location of the American Military Cemetery and the site of some of the fiercest fighting on D-Day.
In part, I was motivated by reading “Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944” by Joseph Balkoski (a great overview from the American side) and “The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach” by John C. McManus, which provides detailed accounts of the fighting around the positions close to where the American cemetery is now.
The best German account I have read of these actions is “WN 62: A German Soldier’s Memories of the Defence of Omaha Beach, Normandy, June 6, 1944” by Hein Severloh, who manned one of the MG42 machine guns in a foxhole in the Widerstandsnest “literally, resistance nest” 62 (WN62) fortified position directly opposite the Easy Red and Fox Green sectors. Omaha was protected by a set of these nests from WN60 in the east to WN74 in the west. WN62 was perhaps the largest and most effective of the positions in terms of the damage inflicted on the invaders. Together with WN61, WN62 protected the “E-3″ (Colleville) draw or gap, one of the few ways off the beach that could be navigated by wheeled vehicles (after the engineers had created the necessary roads).
Severloh claimed to have fired over 13,500 MG42 rounds and 400 rifle rounds at the attacking forces to great effect. He was eventually forced from WN62 and was captured in Colleville-sur-Mer on June 7. No one can be certain as to exactly how many casualties were caused by his fire, but given the elevated position of WN62 and the command it had over the beach, it’s likely that he killed and wounded many of those who landed in the Easy Red and Fox Green sectors on D-Day.
Lots of people go to visit the American Military Cemetery, which occupies a fine position overlooking Omaha Beach and has a nice visitor center. All of the areas can be crowded on sunny days, especially when a few tour buses arrive together, but that’s no reason to miss seeing the impressive layout and serenity found at the cemetery.
Following a tour of the cemetery, it seems like relatively few of the visitors go on to visit the site of WN62, which is now dominated by a memorial to the U.S. 1st Division (the “Big Red One”). If you do visit, it is well worth your while to stroll down the hill towards the beach to view what remains of the German installations. Two H669-class casemates are still there. These originally were the base of 75mm guns, but only one was present on D-Day. Both casemates show evidence of being hit by many U.S. missiles, most probably a combination of offshore shelling by destroyers, the guns of the Sherman tanks (only two of the Duplex Drive tanks were able to swim ashore to support the first wave of the 1st division, but several other Shermans were landed later) that were operating in the sector, and mortars.
Various other installations can be explored including a bunker where the troops rested and some observation posts, potentially used to fire upon the attacking forces. A number of Tobruks are present (small fortified positions to hold a machine gun or mortar) and concrete platforms where guns were positioned before the casemates were completed. The lines of trenches that connected the various positions are also visible.
Although cramped at times, it’s relatively easy to get into the casemates and observation posts. The bottom casemate is flooded with a couple of inches of water, a fact that is all too easy to miss until you plonk your feet down into the pool. Apart from some swallows nesting in gaps in the corroding steel reinforcing girders, there’s not much to be seen inside the casemates, but the views that they have demonstrate just how dangerous these guns were to the D-Day invaders. Notice that the casemates do not face onto the beach. They are positioned to provide flanking fire along the beach and their openings are not exposed to direct fire from the sea.
You can also walk down to Omaha Beach from WN62 (and walk back up again) to gain a view of the ground that the attacking forces had to cover to get to grips with the defenses. The weak spot was to the west of WN62 where the Americans found it possible to exploit some narrow trails through minefields to get around WN62 and reach the top of the bluff where the military cemetery is now located. It is also possible to walk up to the cemetery from the beach and arrive at the platform viewing area. This path essentially follows the original track taken by the first American forces (under the command of Lt. John Spalding) to penetrate the German defenses and get behind WN62.
Of course, the area around WN62 is quite different to the way it looked on D-Day as the vegetation has been allowed grow to cover the gullies and bluffs. Paths are cut through to allow people to walk but it’s nothing like the clearance made by the Germans to open fields of fire, not to mention the effect of the bombardment before and during D-Day.
Apart from its historical resonance, Omaha Beach is a pleasant spot to spend some time. It is sandy and peaceful now and a good place for a picnic, meaning that those in the party who have no interest in military history can be left alone to enjoy other pursuits while you explore the surroundings. All-in-all, a good place to visit.
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