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Sword, Juno, and Gold Beaches

Starting from Ouistreham at the mouth of the Orne and heading west (for 35 km/22 miles on route D514) to Arromanches, one comes across the three British and Canadian D-Day beaches. It is on this vast stretch of sandy beaches, irregularly intersperced with coastal towns, that on June 6, 1944, Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey's British 21 Army Group — which comprised Canadians along with Commonwealth, Free French, and Polish units, and a smattering of troops from other occupied countries — started landing in Higgins boats at H-Hour (between 7.30 and 7.45am, an hour later than the Americans) on D-Day.

Sword Beach was the target for the 3rd Infantry Division (including a unit of French-British commandos under Commandant Philippe Kieffer). Although it was supposed to be the most heavily defended and although the initial fighting was costly, it was mercifully brief — lasting only a matter of minutes — and the assault afterwards moved forward speedily. In honour of the commander of Operation Overlord, the citizens of Colleville-sur-Orne renamed their town Colleville-Montgomery.

Of the three easternmost beaches, Juno Beach in the centre was the roughest. At Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, Bernières-sur-Mer, and Courseulles-sur-Mer, Lieutenant General H.D.G. Crerar's Canadian 3rd Division (part of the British I Corps like the division that landed at Sword) came under heavy gunfire and concentrated artillery fire. Still, the Canadians got off the beach in under 30 minutes and headed inland.

Meanwhile, the 50th Infantry Division (part of Britain's XXX Corps) landed on Gold Beach at Ver-sur-Mer, more shaken by obstacles and mines than by any fire from Feldmarschal Erwin Rommel's men, and within a quarter of an hour, had cleared the beach.

Following the road Westward, one comes upon Arromanches and Longues-sur-Mer, where the remnants of Rommel's Atlantic Wall and Churchill's Mulberry Harbors can be seen…


Before we continue, a word on the books, films, and CDs you may wish to consult beforehand or take with you on your trip: among the best books are Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day, Stephen Ambrose's D-Day, June 6, 1944, John Keegan's Six Armies in Normandy, and Osprey's Normandy 1944 and D-Day 1944. Featuring eight alternative historical routes of the battle of Normandy (as well as the main cemeteries), the official guide of Normandie Terre-Liberté's "Espace Historique de la Bataille de Normandie" is Gallimard's The Battle of Normandy. Hollywood films one might want to watch prior to one's trip include The Longest Day (based on Ryan's book) and Steven Spielberg's Ambrose-inspired Saving Private Ryan. (The latter movie — especially the first 25 minutes — will give you a better idea of what combat is really like, but the former illustrates better than any Hollywood picture how war is an organizational effort, won — or lost — not by a handful of superheroes but by a combination of armies, units, and individuals, along with healthy doses of planning, determination, and luck.) Tapes or CDs to bring on your trip might include the soundtracks of the aforementioned movies, "Le Jour J: Hymn to the Fallen", the audio versions of the above books, and any World War II-era music you can get your hands on.

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© Erik Svane