A FOUR DAY D-DAY TOUR OF NORMANDY

NORMANDY, FRANCE

[Caen, France] — The cold morning wind was biting our faces as we walked up to the big bronze plaque. Our incredible guide Mathias Leclère, whom we just met ten minutes ago, pulled us over to chat in the protection of a wall dug into the hill.

“Over along that ridge, German troops lined the tree lines, all the way to that bell tower in that village over there. Below us, all of these fields had been flooded by the Germans in anticipation of an invasion.” Mathias calmly shouted amidst the blowing winter wind, a little sleet stinging our faces.

“Just behind us, 13,000 U.S. paratroopers had just landed in the middle of the night. It was pitch black, no moon. The ack-ack anti-aircraft fire and low cloud cover had scattered them miles beyond the jump zone. Some landing hard with their heavy equipment in these flooded marshes and muck, many others landing in the middle of a German squadron behind us in Sainte-Mère-Église — just like you saw in The Longest Day.

Many soldiers landing in the village were shot on sight, often before they hit the ground. Others got hung up in trees and a few were famously caught by their chutes on the side of the church steeple.  Coincidentally, a building in town was on fire, the townspeople were in the middle of a bucket brigade when all the troops started landing from the dark sky. One soldier landed directly into the burning building.”

The Fiere bridge in front of us, the river no more than a creek in width, was one of only two bridges crossing the river able to strong enough for armor to cross.  The paratroopers’ mission was to take that little bridge right there…” he said, pointing to a small stone bridge crossing the creek, no more than a car and a half wide. “…and prevent German reinforcements from racing back to attack the landing troops, then hold it so that troops could exit Utah Beach.”

That narrow road was the only thing elevated above the flooded marshes, making it critical to get troops off of Utah Beach. There was no other way out. But the road was totally vulnerable to German machine gun fire from the woods. Tanks, trucks and troops had only one way to go. It was a shooting gallery. The first man killed in World War II died right there trying to take that bridge, hours before the real invasion started.

One legendary American soldier jumped in front of the on-coming German tanks on the left side of the bridge right there, fired his bazooka and took out the first tank, just feet away, then another, then another. It took four days of attack and counter-attack before the bridge was secured. Over three hundred men on both sides would die trying to take that tiny bridge and road.

So many men died, such a small bridge.”

Le Merderet bridge

It’s hard to think that such a small river and tiny bridge could be such an important battle goal. I’ve always read about all the important rivers like Le Merderet, but when you see it in person, you realize they are just tiny canals.

“So many men died, such a small bridge.”

Read more about this important battle here.

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It was cold, windy and rainy and early December when we did a four day tour of Normandy, not the most hospitable weather to be touring beaches. But my cousin and I had been wanting to take a D-Day tour for years and we didn’t want to put it off any longer. Also, we wanted to avoid the summer crowds.

At first, we thought we’d just rent a car and drive around Normandie, look at the beaches and visit some towns to see where D-Day happened, but instead we hired an amazing historian: Mathias Leclère of D-Day Guided Tours. Oh man, what a great move. Mathias is from a small town outside of Bayeux, his grandparents owned a farm and had two German soldiers billeted inside their house for 2 years before Canadians liberated their family. Since then he has made it his vocation to keep the stories alive, to learn more and to teach what happened here.

Not just a guide that points and says “this is where this happened,” Mathias knows every field, every battle and skirmish, every army company and commander.

Not just a guide who points and says “this is where that happened,” Mathias knows every field, every battle and skirmish. We walked the bocage hedgerows where the worst fighting happened and pulled over along the backroads as he told stories of street-to-street fighting that happened in this beautiful land. And he choreographed our two days perfectly and dramatically. In logical and dramatic succession, laying the whole scene out chronologically, from pre-invasion to invasion, to days after. I spent years trying to piece it all together and in two days Mathias imprinted in my mind the whole scenario. I walked away stunned…amazed … mind-blown..emotionally drained.

And what really blew me away was his insight on the planning, the infinite planning, that went into not just the invasion, but every single square kilometer behind the lines — choreographed down to the minute, months in advance. Endless things I never knew about. I always thought it was just “throw a bunch of men at a couple of beaches and have at it.”  But there were millions of man hours spent in the many month build-up in England, each division commander given a plot of land and and a very specific objective, all rolling up into one overall plan. Just mind-blowing.

Mathias, laying out all the landing zones at Omaha Beach; explaining every group’s mission, in the same place it happened. 

Mathias has dense knowledge of all the equipment, all of the bunkers and defenses, the troop companies and their origins, even the commanders and their individual personalities and personally knows all the local French townspeople and all they went through.

Most importantly, Mathias has a knack for story-telling, not just spewing facts, but unrolling the events in a cinematic way; keeping everyone engaged, whether you’re into WWII or not. Starting with the opening beach battles, then visiting the towns impacted, then beginning the final day with a frost-covered morning at the solemn German cemetery and ending at a climatic emotional sunset at the American cemetery. My god, just gives me chills writing this.

Highly recommend hiring  Mathias. My cousin’s girlfriend wasn’t keen on D-Day like we were, so stayed behind in Paris an extra day. But when she joined us the second day, all she could say was “WOW!” “WOW” “Wow.”

You can spend a week or a day visiting the D-Day sites in Normandie, often on a long day trip from Paris, no matter what you choose, all will be rewarding. But you’d be cheating yourself to only do one day. Definitely hire a real guide like Mathias to maximize the experience.

Our trip was four days, the first driving from Paris (you can take a train to Caen or Bayeux and then rent a car) on a self tour of Rommel’s German headquarters at La Roche-Guyon, the lovely port town of Honfleur, then an overnight in Caen. Two days of intensive touring sites with Mathias and then a last morning visiting the remarkable Caen Memorial Museum and the Bayeux Tapestries, before returning to Paris in a snowstorm.

Here follows is a rundown of my favorite recommended sites to visit D-Day sites in Normandie. 

These were some of the most memorable days of my life.

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: I interchangeably use the English and French spelling of Normandie throughout this post so don’t think it’s a typo. I don’t know why I choose each use randomly, I just wish we all used the same place names] 

Pegasus Bridge Memorial — The First Shots of World War II

The critically important Pegasus Bridge was the site of the first opening shots of D-Day. There is a small museum and memorial setup by the British and Canadian forces who fought to take this famous bridge. I wasn’t expecting much when we pulled up, but it was a really amazing little museum. One of my favorite stops on the trip.

The British Commandos were highly trained troops and the first to arrive behind the lines before D-Day invasion began. Hundreds and hundreds of wood and plywood gliders were tailed behind planes, then silently let go to swoop in to surprise the Germans holding this crucial bridge crossing a canal. Preserving this bridge was critical to moving incoming troops off the beaches and speedily crossing the interior.

Their only job: “Hold until relieved.”

Pegasus Memorial glider map model

At first I thought this was fake, so many gliders plotted around in such a small area, but then I saw the real WWII photos of the same place. So many huge wooden gliders carrying troops, jeeps and canons, crash-landed in the fields surrounding this critical drawbridge.

So many awkward wooden glides, landing so close. The precision landing of the main assault glider just feet from the bridge was the key to the surprise attack. One general called it the most important feat of flying of the entire war.

This is the “real version” of what the 3D model above depicted. Hundreds of gliders landing in fields — in the middle of the night! — so close together. I couldn’t believe anyone could survive this.

Pegasus Bridge vintage photo

Here is a bootleg clip from The Longest Day, one of my favorite sections of the movie, that described this incredible battle.

There was a famous scene in The Longest Day when Peter Lawford in a turtleneck arrives to reinforce the British soldiers who took this bridge.  (BTW: Here’s a behind the scenes newsreel about shooting that scene of the movie. You can see Peter Lawford in his white turtleneck.  Who where’s a white turtleneck to battle?)

The Quiet Solitude of Utah Beach

It was such an idyllic spot, waves gently washing over the wide flat sand beach, gorgeous golden waves of grass fluttering together with the gusts of wind, the sunny skies blue and clear. Then you see unnatural shapes poking up through the grass…

The barbed wire was like a remaining scar after stitches. Faded, but still there.

It all looks so pretty, until you realize these bunkers were slaughtering landing troops all up and down the beach.

And Then the Hidden Horror

Mathias Leclere tour guideMathias, ready to unwind another incredible story about the German gun batteries firing down Utah Beach.

The Terrifying Story of Pointe du Hoc

Our most harrowing stop was visiting Pointe du Hoc and its entrenched German bunkers and cannons. For those who don’t know, this section of the DDay liberation was one of the hardest fought. The greatest, hardest, most badass task assigned on D-Day.

Other than those other ones…

Pointe du Hoc bunker

Undermanned, sea-sick, young soaking wet Army Rangers had to climb straight up 150ft cliffs, pounded by machine gun and mortar fire from above, using their teeth to hang onto ropes, while firing with their other hands, sticking daggers into the walls to inch up this horror. They had a half hour to do it.

Pointe du Hoc barbed wire fence

I can’t imagine the fear raging through the Rangers’ brains as their landing craft approaching this beast. Obviously, the hardest task assigned in WWII. Arrive on a narrow beach, shoot ropes and grappling hooks over the barbed wire edge, then climb up 150ft on ropes, firing UP, whilst Germans were firing DOWN at you.

You can really see the crazy height of these steep cliffs, men having to scale them to silence the powerful gun batteries that can take out ships miles at sea. You can see all the bomb craters, most doing to silence the hell build below.

Pointe du Hoc

The pointe in Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc bunker cliff

It’s amazing that after thousands of tons of bombs being dropped on this hilltop, some of the bunkers remained unscathed. They bounced right off.

Pointe du Hoc bunker view

This view was really terrifying to me. You can just imagine how scared both sides were. One looking out, through the barbed wire, not knowing what was coming over the top. Or, outside facing in, seeing a violent wall of machine gun blasts coming from the invisible soldiers inside.

These guys were badass. You had to have good teeth to become an Army Ranger. Seriously. In training, they were taught to hang by their teeth climbing the thick ropes so they could hold on with one hand and fire with their other.   

The Allied air force had bombed this place for weeks, hence all the giant bomb craters, but they did little damage to the thick concrete bunkers and tunnels and the Rangers overcame amazing obstacles to get the job done. I feel so small.

It’s amazing what man can build to destroy. And what man can do to eliminate it.

Pointe du Hoc bomb craters

Pointe du Hoc large bomb crater

After weeks of pummeling, the bunkers were still intact. I couldn’t believe the size of the bomb craters. (Cousin Joe used for scale).

Here’s the official account of the battle from the Battle Monuments web page.  And from the Army history website. And on the D-Day Overlord website. And TripAdvisor’s comments on how to get there.

The Calm After the Storm at Omaha Beach

The remnant of the war are everywhere and have not been forgotten. Even in this pretty seaside town, with lovely houses on the cliffs, they not only look over the gentle surf, but the German bunkers pointing straight down the length of the beach. People run about their errands, stop for lunch, jog along the beach, right alongside dozens of memorials and plaques remembering those who have fallen.

My Mind Print of Omaha Beach was skewed by the beaches they showed in The Longest Day. In the movie, this was a vast gnarly beach with troops rushing across great sand beaches. What I wasn’t expecting is what a beautiful beach town it was. The beach shallower at high tide — the Allies chose the exact die based upon the tide being out, exposing more of the beach to give them room to unload.

Amazing that so many died crossing such a short stretch of land. If it weren’t for the bunkers and memorials, you’d never know such carnage was in such an idyllic place.

Mathias LECLERE WWII guide Omaha Beach

The photos and stories Mathias brought along really brought to life what otherwise would be “just another bunker”. So glad we got a guide. (Photo courtesy of @foginchicago)

Inland Towns & Churches in Normandy

Part of the tour was crisscrossing the backroads behind the beaches, visiting small towns, pulling off the side of the road in the middle of nowhere to see where an important skirmish happened or a Medal of Honor was deserved. Mathias the whole time, working his magic book showing a THEN and NOW comparison that makes everything so real.  Especially the Allied destruction of all the French villages, sometimes needlessly. There were more French people killed on D-Day than Allied and German soldiers, combined.

Mathias LECLERE World War II guide Corentin

Can’t repeat enough how great Mathias’ photos brought everything to life. Or back from life. Showing AFTER and BEFORE shots to help us comprehend how massive the suffering was. On both sides. (Photo courtesy of @foginchicago)

“You can tell just by the tone of the cemeteries, who won and who lost the war. One a tribute to youth, valor and courage. The other, dreary statues, brooding tombstones and melancholy words of sorrow and sadness.”

A Cold, Solemn Morning at the Germany Cemetery

When I heard we were going to the German cemetery, I was like “meh, don’t need to see that.” But when we arrived on a frosty December morning to this wretchedly solemn place, with brooding, epic tombstones protruding in the morning sun, my heart stopped. We were one of he few people there, the silence and the sun making everything more dramatic and impactful. Mathias’ timing of being there at sunrise was brilliant, look at pictures on the web of any other time of day and it looks completely different.

My god, I’ve never experienced architecture that was so moving, so solemn, so emotional. Anywhere.

Flag Lowering and Sunset at the American Cemetery

So many incredible stories, so much heartbreak and valor. Starting at The German War Cemetery on a frosty cold morning and ending at sunset at the flag lowering ceremony at the American Cemetery. What a horror it was for everyone involved.

After the early morning sunrise German cemetery visit, driving the backgrounds and then seeing Omaha Beach, the timing to hit the American Cemetery at Colleville was equally stunning. More perfect Mathias stagecraft and story telling. We arrived just as the sun painted the outlines on the endless crosses, then stopped silently to watch the daily flag lowering ceremony, with the plaintive wail of Taps echoing across the silent green fields. I could not help but cry. (Crying right now, writing this.)

Normandy American Cemetery lone tree

Normandy American Cemetery crosses at sunset

Caen D-Day Museum

Caen Memorial bombed restaurant

The Caen Memorial Museum is an incredible museum. At first, I said “Naw, we don’t need to see a museum full of uniforms and posters.” but man, was I wrong. My friend’s father said it was a must, so we made sure to tour before we left Normandie. Wish I had more pictures, but just go.

So well designed, what this museum does so well is piece everything together for your, particularly the lead-up to the War, what was happening, why it was a problem, what events triggered this massive world war. Totally fascinating, incredible treasures inside.

Rommel’s Headquarters at La Roche-Guyon

La Roche-Guyon is famous for being Rommel’s command post for the duration of the European War. About an hour from Paris and a stop along the way, it’s worth a short visit — although the day we were there, they happened to be closed.  Located on a strategic (and beautiful) bend in the Seine, this place has been a critical military outpost since the Vikings (The Norse Man part of the name Normandy) when they first rowed their longboats up the river.

From this strategic vantage point, you can stop invaders from roaring up the river, in either direction. Ancient caves are dug into the chalky hillside, then an 18th century palace was added on. Understandable why Rommel picked this as his headquarters.  Cute little town to stop for lunch, too. It’s also right next to Giverny if you want to stop and see where Monet painted his water lilies.

Here is some more info on La Roche-Guyon. And here.

More Information on D-Day Tours in Normandy

Mathias Leclère’s business card is below. Here is his awesome website. Make sure you click on his cool interactive map that calls out all the important sites.

To give you the lay of the land, here is where all the towns are that I described above.

Here is a link to an interactive Google map I made of the above sites that you can zoom in for more detail, or save to your phone and use on your own tour.memo

Here’s a Normandie Guide website. Here is chipper Rick Steve’s Normandy Guide. And TripAdvisor’s Guide to Normandy D-Day sites. And a guide from the 60th D-Day Anniversary from The Independent. Here’s a great D-Day Guide I should have read beforehand from Conde Nast Traveler.

And for general Normandy info. Here’s a guide from Vogue. And a Normandy guide from The Independent. And a Normandy Guide from Conde Nast Traveler.

— Last Visited December 2019 — 

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