I neglected to mention that our first actual touring day in Normandy was spent at the excellent WWII museum in Caen. We had only planned to spend a couple hours there but Ryan and I are finding that we take our time which is longer than most. The best thing about this museum? Fabulous and free child care! The kids didn't even want to leave when I went to get them! Ryan and I really could have spent an entire day there soaking up the different exhibits.
Ryan and I are eager fans of the Band of Brothers series that made the men of the 101st Airborne Division, "Easy Company" popular. Sainte-Mère-Église was made famous on D-Day because it was the first town liberated by the U.S. paratroopers and popularized by many D-Day movies and books.
Over 13,000 paratroopers were dropped over Normandy in the first hours of June 6. As we approached Sainte-Mère-Église, once again Ambrose's D-Day collection of stories and the visuals in The Longest Day really bring this battle over a town to life. It is here that a building skirting the main town square where the church is caught fire. The whole town was roused by the mayor and church bell to help put out the fire and the Germans billeted in the town came out to enforce the curfew. The fire lit up the sky and all those descending parachutes unfortunately. As the fire was being attended to, at least two "sticks" of paratroopers (36 men) came down right into the town square amid all the chaos and made easy targets.
A handful of men landed on the church and one's chute got caught on the steeple. He was shot in the foot and witnessed the horrible scenes around and below him play out while acting dead. He was captured by the Germans from the steeple but escaped and joined up with the Airborne who liberated the city at 6am. The church's bells did a number on his hearing if you can imagine! When the movie was made, the mayor of the town insisted the dumbie paratrooper and chute on the steeple be left there as part of the memorial.
Sainte-Mère-Église was an important D-Day objective and one of the few successfully completed objectives of the day. This town stood at an important crossroads needed by the Germans to mount any counterattacks of the D-Day invasion. Their movement of troops, supplies, and communication lines were greatly hindered in losing this town and they fought for days to regain it. Thankfully, the paratroopers got quick relief from the successful Utah Beach landing nearby.
It was market day when we arrived so we grabbed a few pics of the church, stepped inside and then went to explore the Airborne Museum across from the church. The museum stands on the site of that fateful burning building on D-Day. It was a great little museum. There's an excellent 20 minute movie always playing in French and English from the French perspective. All sorts of exhibits show memorabilia that has been donated and collected over the years. I got a kick out of the fishing kit.
The main building had a C-47 which flew paratroopers that night and was donated after the war. Life-size exhibits are pretty popular we've found at WWII museums.
The boys got a kick out of climbing all over one of the guns after we took a look at a crashed glider (I think) in a cow field next door. Morgan had to do what the boys did although she couldn't reach anything.
The reason I liked this museum so much was the face it put on the local French villagers who had to endure the occupation and liberation operations. I can't even imagine what that must have been like. The face of this woman below and the price she paid continues to stay with me.
The tag says she and her daughter are coming back to the house two days after they'd left on D-Day. Her husband was killed by one of the first shells. Her grief is palpable.
We drove down along the various Utah Beach sites. It was remarkable to see and hear how different this battle was on D-Day. Utah beach doesn't have the high bluffs that the rest of the landing beaches did. Effective bombing before the invasion greatly eased the landing in comparison to Omaha's heavy causaulties. Monuments are smaller or still under construction at Utah and we just enjoyed getting out and walking among the fortifications a little. It was so peaceful and not crowded which was nice.
As we were trying to leave one of the beach exits, we stumbled across this Brecourt Manor monument below by the 101st Airborne. In a classic scene of the Band of Brothers series, 1st Lt. Richard Winters exemplified leadership and small unit tactics when he led his thirteen men here to take out four big guns of a German battery that had about 60 men. He didn't know what he was up against, only his objective and that he was likely outmanned and outgunned in unfamiliar territory.
Brecourt Manor is a private home and the monument asks visitors to mind the resident's privacy although there are special guided tours if you're with the right crew. Before the trip, I'd looked up Ambrose's Normandy tour itineraries and noticed his crew can get ya in here but we just thought it was fun to stumble on this site while lost with our GPS.
We honestly didn't know much about this town, only that it's name rang a bell. The kids were tired but we did get out and look around. We parked right next to this memorial honoring soldiers from the town for centuries.
The 101st Airborne also liberated this city after some tough house to house fighting between June 10-12. Carentan was a major objective because it linked the two American landing beaches which are separated by the Douve River. It also cleared the way for invading the big German fort at Cherbourg, the largest port in the area that was desperately needed by the Allies to continue beyond the beaches on inland all the way to Berlin. The Germans fought real hard over this city and mounted major battles here.
Some popular photos in the Hotel d'Ville or town hall.
We promised the kids we'd let them ride the carousel on our way out. Morgan wanted on at first and loved her little sports car.
And it wasn't so fun anymore. She wanted off NOW!
There's also a very pretty cathedral with Airborne parachutes featured on one of the windows, a tribute to the liberators.
It's interesting to see these places. It's hard to imagine what it was like then for everyone. Life has moved on. Monuments don't seem to adequately measure up to the sacrifices made. I was so grateful for so many museums, monuments, and media to help us remember, to catch a glimpse and not forget.