Code-named ‘Operation Overlord’, the D-Day landings were the largest seaborne invasion in history. Early on the morning of 6 June 1944, swarms of landing craft – part of an armada of more than 6000 ships and boats – hit the beaches of northern Normandy and tens of thousands of soldiers from the US, the UK, Canada and elsewhere began pouring onto French soil.
The majority of the 135,000 Allied troops who arrived in France that day stormed ashore along 80km of beaches north of Bayeux code-named (from west to east) Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The landings on D-Day – known as ‘Jour J’ in French – were followed by the 76-day Battle of Normandy, during which the Allies suffered 210,000 casualties, including 37,000 troops killed. German casualties are believed to have been around 200,000; another 200,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner. About 14,000 French civilians also died.
Caen’s Le Mémorial – Un Musée pour la Paix and Bayeux’ Musée Mémorial provide a comprehensive overview of the events of D-Day. Dozens of villages near the landing beaches have museums focusing on local events; all but a few are privately owned.
If you’ve got wheels, you can follow the D514 along the D-Day coast or several signposted circuits around the battle sites – look for signs reading ‘D-Day–Le Choc’ in the American sectors and ‘Overlord-L’Assaut’ in the British and Canadian sectors. The area is also sometimes called the Côte de Nacre (Mother-of-Pearl Coast). A free booklet called The D-Day Landings and the Battle of Normandy, available from tourist offices, has details on the eight major visitors’ routes.
Maps of the D-Day beaches are available at tabacs (tobacconists), newsagents and bookshops in Bayeux and elsewhere. All the towns along the coast have plenty of small hotels. When visiting the D-Day sites, do not leave valuables in your car as theft is not unknown here.
Quite a few excellent websites have details on D-Day and its context, including www.normandiememoire.com, www.6juin1944.com and www.normandie44lamemoire.com.