D-Day and Bayeux

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D-Day and Bayeux

This is generally one of the most fascinating day trips and the one which elicits most response from the group. You need to do it justice. Facts and figures must be correct as far as possible. An annotated map of the Battle of Normandy is an indispensable tool. A lot of commentary does not go amiss. There is an enormous amount to say. The following is an appropriate minimum. Maybe even a video the evening before of Saving Private Ryan, with slight reservations about its graphic violence, might serve to enhance this field trip.

The Background  The Allies decided at the Quebec Conference in 1943 to attempt a large-scale invasion, code-named Operation Overlord, from England against the European continent the following year. The Germans were expecting something like this so they strengthened with very heavy fortifications the most likely area for invasion, the Pas de Calais region in northeast France. From Dover the British sent out decoy messages strengthening the Germans in their false intelligence. Instead of landing in the Pas de Calais, however, the Allies gained the advantage of surprise by basing the invasion further west on the Calvados coast of Normandy at a less heavily fortified point in the Atlantic Wall. There was no major port here for unloading the military equipment so the Allies had to construct their own. They built two: one at Arromanches, Mulberry B, in the British and Canadian sector, the other, Mulberry A, near Omaha Beach in the American sector. The Allied air force was ready to bombard the Atlantic Wall and disrupt the enemy defences. Armoured vehicles were to support the assault troops during the attack. Supreme Commander in charge of strategic planning was Dwight D. Eisenhower; Field Marshal Montgomery was responsible for tactical coordination. (Rommel was Commander-in-Chief of the German forces. At the beginning of the Battle of Normandy he was not there.)

D-Day  Operation Overlord was delayed by a day due to the worst Channel weather in 25 years. It began on the morning of 6th June 1944, 'the longest day.' First, three Para divisions were dropped at the western and eastern flank of the front. Between 6.30am and 7.30am 135,000 men and 20,000 vehicles, crossing over by sea from Portsmouth on the English south coast, landed as planned on the 5 assault beaches covering a 50-mile stretch of shore: American forces at Utah and Omaha, British and Canadians at Sword, Juno and Gold. Not all the objectives set for the first day were achieved but overall it was a success. With the exception of Omaha Beach,'bloody Omaha,' where the Americans encountered very heavy resistance, casualties were fairly low. It now remained to link up the five beaches and head south in the face of the German counter-attack.

The Battle of Normandy (June-August 1944)  Once the five beaches were joined, the Allies put their plans into action: British and Canadian Commando Units towards Caen, the US 82nd and 101st airborne divisions towards the Cotentin Peninsula. In late June the port of Cherbourg was captured and the Americans attempted to break through the German defences southwards. By mid-July Caen was liberated and St. Lô captured. The British and Canadians drove south. The Germans attempted to cut off Patton's army at Mortain but were forced to retreat towards the Seine. In mid-August they were caught, trapped in a two-pronged attack in the Falaise pocket, the so-called "Corridor of Death" at Montormel. To the north the British, Canadians and Poles, to the south the Americans and French under Général Leclerc. The Germans had nowhere to run. At Tournai-sur-Dives on 21 August 1944 the Battle of Normandy was over. Three days later General Patton crossed the Seine and marched into Paris.

In total 156,000 troops came ashore on D-Day. 83,000 were British and Canadian, 73,000 were US. 132,000 came by sea, 23,000 by air. 1,200 fighting ships were used, 10,000 planes, 4,126 landing craft and 804 transport ships. These were followed over the course of the next week by another 180,000 men. Over the three months until late August and the liberation of Paris 2,500,000 reinforcements and 500,000 armoured vehicles entered France through Mulberry B Harbour. This was, and still is, the largest military operation in the history of the world. It is not known exactly how many people were killed in the Battle of Normandy. Perhaps about 50,00 Allied lives were lost and 200,000 Germans. 20,000 soldiers are buried in Normandy.

The Tour  Everywhere you go in this region you will come across memories of the Battle of Normandy. They are too many to enumerate here. Your tour should focus on two sites: Arromanches and the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer (20 kms from Arromanches by slow roads or 30 kms via Bayeux and the main road).

In the town of Arromanches the D-Day Museum is very informative but rather uninspired in its displays. It is not really necessary, unless the group insists, to go down into the town itself. Above the town on the windswept Chemin du Calvaire you have an excellent view on to the bay and the remains of the artificial Mulberry B Harbour, towed from England in 146 pieces weighing a total of a half a million tonnes and capable of supporting the largest military operation ever seen. (Mulberry A near Omaha Beach was rendered useless by bad weather.) Up here you visit the 'Arromanches 360' cinema to see a 20-minute film entitled "The Price of Freedom." This is a superb film in the round, mixing archive and contemporary images of Normandy. (There are dramatic sound effects but no words.) It is a brilliantly effective, sometimes harrowing, presentation illuminating all aspects of the Normandy landings. There are also loos and a shop here.

Your second stop is at the American Cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer. This is the first US military cemetery in France and is beautifully maintained. It lies on American soil. There are 9,385 American dead from all Europe's battlefields buried here beneath simple crosses (or Stars of David) made of Carrara marble. 307 graves belong to unknown soldiers. There is a chapel and a moving memorial to the dead. It was visited by Bill Clinton, Francois Mitterand and Queen Elizabeth II on 6 June 1994, the fiftieth anniversary of the landings. The cemetery extends right up to Omaha Beach, still known by that name in memory of the casualties of this bloody engagement. If you walk to the viewpoint over the sea, straight ahead of you is where the first marines came ashore. The heaviest casualties took place at the western edge of the beach where most of the 116th Regiment were killed. (Incidentally, this is the cemetery that features in the Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan. All the other scenes in the movie were filmed on location in Ireland.) General Omar Bradley said: "Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero."

(If you have time on this day you can continue 15 minutes from here to the limestone cliffs of the Pointe du Hoc on the western side of Omaha Beach. This was the site of one the most daring and difficult tasks on D-Day. US Rangers were sent to destroy a group of pillboxes and bunkers at the cliftops. The Germans fired at them as they scaled the rocks. There were many casualties. The scars of war are still visible here: you can clearly see the bullet holes in the cliffs. The panorama from here is superb. Once you have reached the parking you should leave about 20 or 30 minutes for people to wander around.)


From the parking or your hotel follow the signs to the Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde. After buying the tickets you should go straight to the tapestry. Unless you have a group that is fascinated by French and English medieval history the exhibition upstairs tends only to bore. It is difficult to explain what is going on once you are actually at the tapestry so you should try to explain as much as possible on the bus or before going in. (The group may also want to use the headphones which explain everything they need to know about the history, design and making of the Bayeux Tapestry. These are not included in the entrance fee and so are at the discretion of the group leaders. If the group wants to pay for them you can forgo much of your own explanation.) At the tapestry itself you should encourage people to look closely, take their time and try to follow the story, but they are still unlikely to spend much more than 15 or 20 minutes. The shop afterwards is very good and you will need to leave another 15 minutes or so there as well. The loos are at the very end after the shop.

The Story  The story told by the Bayeux Tapestry is that of the last successful invasion of England, in 1066 by William of Normandy or William the Conqueror. Historical details are not necessary but you need to explain something of the background so that the work makes sense. In a nutshell it goes like this.

In 1051 King Edward the Confessor of England dedicated William, Duke of Normandy, as his successor. However, when Edward died on 5 January 1066 the throne was siezed by Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. He crowned himself king in July. William had to respond and claim his right by force. In August he began to prepare an army of about 5,000 men. In early October he landed on the English south coast at Pevensey near Hastings. Harold was in the north, just recently victorious over a Viking army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. He rushed south to meet the Norman invaders, his Saxon army exhausted and in spite of reinforcements still not at full strength. They set up camp where the village of Battle now lies. William, whose camp was a few miles away at Hastings, took his opportunity well and marched immediately against Harold's army, engaging them in battle on 14 October 1066. The battle lasted about 10 hours before Harold was killed and the Saxons were forced to surrender. William marched on London and on Christmas Day 1066 was duly crowned King of England.

The Tapestry  The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the great treasures of France. It is a band of linen, 231 ft. long by 20 inches high. It is traditionally ascribed to William's wife Mathilda but was in fact executed by Saxon embroiderers, probably in Winchester. It is estimated to have taken a team of 36 workers about 2 years to finish. Technically it is not actually a tapestry but an embroidery on linen. It uses 4 different wools dyed into 8 shades. It was commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William the Conqueror's half-brother. Originally it served to decorate the nave of Bayeux Cathedral in commemoration of the invasion.

For what it's worth the Bayeux Tapestry contains 72 scenes with 626 people, 202 horses, 55 dogs, 505 other animals, 37 buildings, 41 boats and 49 trees. There is at least one sex scene. The headings are in shockingly bad medieval Latin. Many of the animals in the decorative borders illustrate stories from Aesop's Fables. The ships are Viking longships (remember the Normans were descendants of the Vikings). There is generally no differentiation made between Saxon and Norman soldiers in dress but the Saxons tend to have moustaches while the Normans are clean-shaven. You can easily recognise Westminster Abbey (with King Edward the Confessor) and Mont St. Michel. The tapestry is not complete, missing the last section describing the aftermath of battle. You should look out for certain famous scenes: the appearance of Halley's Comet, judged a propitious omen by the Norman forces; William of Normandy raising his helmet in a heroic gesture to show his flagging troops that he is still alive, and the death of Harold, shot by an arrow in the eye.

Three great dates in English history:
1066 The Battle of Hastings
1666 The Great Fire of London
1966 England won the World Cup

Incidentally, Bayeux was the first town to be liberated in the Battle of Normandy, on 7 June 1944. For that reason it escaped bomb damage in WW II and remains one of the prettiest towns in Normandy. The romanesque cathedral is one of the best in northern France and worth a look inside if you have the time.


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