Cycling the Normandy D-Day beaches

Almost 75 years ago marked the beginning of the end of the most terrible global conflict. World War II showed the depths of depravity humankind is capable of, the cruelty, and wickedness that happened is some what inexplicable even today, but D-Day gave rise to incredible acts of self sacrifice, and bravery to begin the defeat of the most evil tyranny of the 20th century. Normandy was to be the invasion region, and with great craftiness the British fed the Germans massive misinformation, leading them to believe the invasion was elsewhere. The Germans were completely surprised by the Allied assault, but they had a few deceptions up their sleeve too. A fifty mile stretch of the Normandy coastline was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. It is these I will ride along, exploring as much as I can of the remnants of the D-Day invasion, the Axis powers fortifications, paying my respects to the sacrifices made on all sides of the conflict. Normandy promises to be a rollercoaster of fascinating facts and emotions.

Day 1- Portsmouth to Caen (ferry)

It’s a two and a half hour journey by car from Newport to Portsmouth and a Sunday is easily the quietest time to do it. Leaving the car at Portsmouth, I opted for the slowest overnight ferry crossing which takes eight hours, but it wasn’t cheap. The cost was £35 for the crossing (and bike) and £45 for the essential cabin to sleep. Seventy five years ago on the 5th of June, Ports along the south coast of England and parts of South Wales began embarkation of over 132,000 troops, but a freak storm erupted and the invasion was held back until the next day, conversely the decision was taken to keep the troops on the ships ready. In the early hours of the 6th 23,000 airborne troops landed inland of the D-Day beaches and the soldiers on the big ships transfered to landing crafts to begin moving to the coast. The men now knew this was no exercise or drill- this was it, they might not see another day! We left Portsmouth dock at 2245 in the dark, and I can’t imagine the torment and sick to the stomach distress those troops must have endured leaving this very port mid-summer of 1944.

Day 2- Ouistreham (Caen) to Cabourg (38 miles)

We were due to dock at 0645 not too early I thought, however they started playing piped harp music into the cabin around 0530. Then came announcement after announcement, obviously they were trying to wake people up ready to disembark. I put my earplugs in, rolled over and went back to sleep, they must have been too good as the next thing that happened was a cleaning lady opening my door at 0800. The car deck was completely deserted when I wheeled the bike down the ramp into a warm sunny day. Straight away I passed the ‘Monument to those who Perished at Sea’, then it’s on the towpath of the ‘Canal de Caen à la Mer’ to the famous bascule bridge renamed the ‘Pegasus Bridge’ in honour of the ‘6th British Airborne Division’ who took and held the bridge until relieved by British Infantry. I left the towpath to visit ‘the Château de Bénouville’ an eighteenth century stately home, a maternity hospital in 1935 but became a hearth of resistance for the region during the war, allegedly giving downed fugitive allied pilots a safe haven. Back on the towpath I headed for Abbaye aux Dames, an 11th-century abbey with a beautiful arcaded courtyard overlooking well tended flowered gardens.

I went past a big cemetery and stopped, wondering if it was a WW2 burial ground. It wasn’t, and I had to remind myself that people died around here naturally too. After about two miles heading north, I was excited to arrive at the Mémorial de Caen, my first WW2 museum. When I asked for somewhere to put the bike, I was extremely disappointed when I was categorically (and rudely) told to leave it in the car park (some two hundred yards away, with no security at all), I did plead, but to no avail. There was nowhere safe to leave the bike so I couldn’t go in. I was a bit cheesed off (to say the least) and rode back through the streets of Caen barely paying attention to anything debating with myself about the pros and cons of leaving the bike unsupervised- I concluded it just wasn’t worth it, if I lost the bike or contents on the first day, it would spoil the whole trip.

image It’s a short diversion to Abbaye d'Ardenne (Click the image for more) where Canadian prisoners-of-war were brutality executed by their SS captors. In the days and weeks following D-Day, captured Allied prisoners were held in the church ready for interrogation. Young Nazi soldiers under the command of SS Commandant Kurt Meyer, ensured that the name of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) lived up to their reputation and demanded no prisoners kept alive. There’s a touching memorial to the murdered soldiers at the rear of the church. I passed the magnificent medieval Caen Castle (Le Château de Caen), there is so much history here; one could spend months exploring the place, with time limited my mission was to concentrate only on WW2. I stopped at a café on the ‘Quai Vendeure' and had a nice coffee before riding along the river Orne. The road was pleasant and car free, too good to be true as after two miles the road was closed off and blocked by a barricade. Retracing my steps I ended up on a perpetual industrial estate until I rejoined the Orne near the lesser known ‘Horsa Bridge’ (compared to Pegasus).

My target now was the ‘Musée et site de la Batterie de Merville’ a restored Nazi fortification with bunkers. The 6th British Airborne Division were given the task of disabling the battery and at 0016, six ‘Horsa gliders’ dropped above Cabourg, two were meant to drop right into the centre of the Battery, the landings didn't go well and they lost 75% of their equipment and men. The depleted task force managed to take Merville, disabling the large guns that could fire on Sword beach. The Germans recaptured it two days later, but the damage was done and even though it remained under German control for another two months after D-Day, it couldn't hamper the progress of the allied forces, who just went around it.

To the east of Ouistreham lies the beach front of ‘Le Home Merville’, and as far as I can establish Merville wasn’t part of the initial ‘Overlord’ plans as the beach was just in range of the 155-mm guns located some twenty miles farther east at Le Havre. Approaching Cabourg, a town most famous for its ‘Grand Hotel’ right on the beach front. The hotel was used by the Germans as a command post and right next door is the casino. I rode along the Cabourg promenade against a 'blow your wig off' energizing headwind. I’m afraid my hotel for the night isn’t as majestic as the Grand, but the Ibis © hotel is a third of the price and right on the banks of the ‘River Dives’.

Day 3- Cabourg to Arromanches-les-Bains (40 miles)

It was sunny when I left the hotel and retraced my route along the River Orne, crossing the ‘Horsa bridge to ride north along the Canal de Caen à la Mer. It’s impossible to give all the places of interest a fair shot of time as I’m only here a week, so straight away I had to miss the ‘Site Hillman’ (Colleville-Montgomery) battery and headed for the Le Grand Bunker- 'Musée du Mur de l'Atlantique', the first museum on ‘Sword’ beach. This old German bunker was restored with private money and opened to the public a few years ago. Internally it has been recreated to appear as it was in June 1944 with each of the six floors returned to the original function. ‘Musée du Commando N°4’ is a smaller museum dedicated to the 177 free French commandos. Next, it’s the ‘Kieffer Commandos Monument’ a steel sail placed on a German 644 bunker, devoted to Capitaine Philippe Kieffer who commanded the French unit. Through ‘Lion Ser Mer’ and past a ‘Churchill Tank’, we’re right in the Centre of Sword beach.

Most of the promenades are no cycling but theres hardly anyone around and the sea breeze was cooling so I chanced it, I arrived at Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer and observed a 50mm Blockhaus et Canon with its gun disabled. It was now well past lunchtime and decades ago by 1300 the British had achieved the majority of its goals linking up with the Airborne divisions taking the Orne River bridges, but they were unable to unite with Canadian forces from Juno Beach. It’s surprising how close Sword and Juno beaches are to each other as I ride past another bunker housing ‘The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada Memorial’, and then onto Juno Beach Canadian Memorial. It’s coffee time and I had to ride a few streets inland to get to a café, I had allowed two hours for each high ranking museum, but after 27 miles since the start this morning, it’s now late afternoon. Around this very area at 1600 a serious German counterattack began from the 21st Panzer Division and mechanized infantry unit, holding back the Canadians from advancing from Juno beach. The Ninety eight panzers were pounded by Canadian anti-tank weapons, giving as best as they could. Allied tanks then attacked the German forces with a pincer movement supplemented by Allied air strikes, together they halted the counterattack. To the left of the Juno Beach Memorial is Canada house (click the image for more), the first building to be liberated by the Canadian forces, the building became a landmark for wave after wave of Canadian troops flooding into France and was a hub for operations immediately following the invasion. The road ends and now I’m riding across a well walked sand dune to the next road and Courseulles-sur-Mer. Crossing ‘La Seulles’ marina, and river I arrived at the ‘Juno Beach Centre’. The Centre was conceived in the 1990s by a group of Canadian veterans who felt that the contributions and sacrifices of Canadian soldiers during the liberation of Europe were not properly commemorated and represented in the Normandy region. The Centre was inaugurated on 6 June 2003 with over one thousand Canadian veterans attending.

The ‘Musée America Gold Beach’ closes at 1815 and like most of the museums; they are privately owned, this one costs €4.5. The museum covers two topics - firstly the 'America' museum documents aviation pioneers of the North Atlantic route (which I’m not particularly interested in to be honest) and secondly of course; how America won the war. It’s a twenty minute ride now to Arromanches and as you can probably tell; I’m all ‘museumed out’. The Musée America Gold Beach was boring, but the view back on the main road was invigorating. Waves of deep royal blue water cannoned into the remnants of the Mulberry Harbour sea wall sending spray vertical into the air, until the water couldn't hold its own weight and came crashing down to rejoin the cold Atlantic sea. With my head crooked towards the view, I had a howeling tailwind and didn't even have to pedal. Climbing through 'La Fontaine Saint-Côme' and past a church the Germans used as a spotting tower for Gold beach, I arrived at the top of Arromanches-les-Bains. Here a bunker made me chuckle, this imposing fortified gun emplacement was converted into a toilet, I wonder what the ghosts of the German hierarchy would make of that. Next was Arromanches 360° Circular Cinema, it was what it said on the tin, but it didn't quite hit spot for me and I found the waiting room film better. Downhill on a steep path and past a few tanks, led me to the town where I checked into the 'Hôtel de Normandie', a very famous WW2 hotel. After dinner I sat with a glass of wine and looked out at the remains of Port Winston, the man made sea wall is some ½ mile out to sea, the wall now segmented, reminded me of whales shooting spouts of spray from their blow holes. Imagine the sights soldiers must have seen from this very window 75 years ago (click the image for more).

Day 4- Arromanches-les-Bains to Bayuex (21 miles)

Today the mileage is much shorter, just the way it is as I wanted to include Bayuex on the tour. I was unable to visit the ‘Musée du Débarquement’ last night so it's first on the list this morning. The ‘Musée du Débarquement’ was the first museum to be built in commemoration of D-Day in Normandy. The Museum overlooks the very spot where one of the Mulberry Harbours were constructed, the remains of the harbour wall and some of the ramps can still be seen today sticking out in the water. I tagged onto a guided tour, the woman told a fascinating story about how the allies built ‘Port Winston’. Now leaving Arromanches, there was a single bunker on the hill overlooking the beach with commanding views, I climbed the gravel coastal footpath and through Manvieus, here turning onto a farm track to ‘Batterie de Longues-sur-Mer’. The battery was originally built by the Kriegsmarine (the German Navy), but transferred to the German army in April 1944. The site consists of four 152-mm navy guns, each protected by a large concrete casemate, a command post, shelters for personnel and ammunition, and several defensive machine-gun emplacements.

I headed for the Musée de la Bataille de Normandie, a lady came out of the museum and ticked me off for locking the bike up near the entrance, she suggested I lock it around the exit of the museum and said she would keep an eye on it. On my egress the lady was still there and so was my bike. The Allied forces decreed Bayeux must be under control by June 6, in order to secure road links that connected Caen with Cherbourg. The next morning English soldiers entered the city, it had been deserted by the Germans, they had retreated to a new line of defence further south. The inhabitants, in jubilation, welcomed their liberators. I moved on to the Bayeux War Cemetery where the majority of the graves are image British, with some allies and 466 German soldiers’ graves. Set in lush velvet grassland, the symmetry of the graves is astounding, well tended with rose bushes and other pretty flowers nestle between all the graves, it was so peaceful. Some of the inscriptions on the headstones are written by the families of the soldiers, some were so young. I sat on a bench under the shade of a tree and cried, I challenge anyone not to leave here without a tear.

After a shower, it’s out on foot to explore, I headed towards the Aure river, and walked along the sides. Situated in the heart of the medieval city, the Bayeux cathedral is a gem of Norman architecture, remarkably well preserved. Dedicated in the presence of William the Conqueror in 1077. Beside the cathedral in the Romanesque and Gothic styles, Bayeux retains beautifully preserved timer-framed houses, mansions flanked with towers, vast town houses and elegant private residences.

Please click here to read the second half of the 'Operation Overlord' trip to Normandy.

  • Operation Overlord- DDay

    In June 1944, The Normandy coast was bombarded by aircraft and the largest multi-National Naval fleet ever assembled. Operation 'Overlord' had begun. They landed in huge numbers on the beaches of Normandy on five different sectors, sustaining heavy losses on the first day, but gained a tenuous foothold that began the end of the war (Click image for larger view).

  • Gallery (Day 2)

    gallery page Why not have a look at the gallery relating to this ride. Click the image or the title.

  • The Pegasus Bridge

    Operation Deadstick was the codename to capture intact two road bridges in Normandy across the River Orne and the Caen Canal, providing the only exit eastwards for British forces from their landing on Sword Beach. Clik the image.

  • The Battle of Caen

    The city of Caen was a key road and rail hub in the region and needed for the invasion to progress. The struggle to take Caen became a bloody, grinding affair that lasted for seven weeks due to intense German resistance. Click the image above to see the 1947 Tour de France leaving Caen.

  • Abbaye d'Ardenne memorial

    The memorial marks a series of killings that would, by the time they stopped at the end of June 1944, have claimed the lives of at least 139 Canadian and British POW's in SS captivity.

  • Caen castle

    The eleventh century castle was used as a barracks during World War II, and was bombed in 1944 seriously damaging the top of one of the towers.

  • La Batterie de Merville

    In one bunker two Germans sat behind a field gun, the sound and visual show is not for the faint hearted, it can take some people by surprise (hover over image).

  • Taking Cabourg

    D-Day + two month's the Allies took Cabourg, they were slowed down by the sabotaged Dives river bridges and by thousands of mines laid by the Germans along the Dives valley. Once the Brits reached Cabourg it was soon realised the Germans had set hundreds of booby traps seriously hampering progress and costing more British soldiers lives.

  • Gallery (Day 3)

    gallery page Why not have a look at the gallery relating to this ride. Click the image or the title.

  • Le Grand Bunker

    On the June 6th, intrigued by this unforeseen obstacle, the Franco British Commandos attempted to approach the tower, but were repulsed by machine-gun fire and stick- grenades being thrown from the top. They were content to skirt the bunker, which remained a permanent threat during the following days until they surrendered.

  • Queen's Own Rifles- A soldiers own words.

    The tanks were supposed to 'swim' in ahead of the infantry to diminish German resistance but were forced by high waves to land after them. The moment the ramp came down, heavy machine-gun fire broke out from somewhere back of the seawall. Mortars were dropping all over the beach. The men rose, starboard line turning right, port turning left.

  • Canada house

    Canada house The Germans levelled hundreds of houses on the coast to construct the concrete defences of the Atlantic Wall. This particular house was a family home owned by Hervé Hoffer and was one of the few left intact, perhaps because it was the favoured home of an occupying German officer. The bullet holes, have been repaired and the house still stands alone, but paradoxically it has become an annual pilgrimage to pay respects to the soldiers who lost their lives liberating it.

  • The Mulbery Harbours. Click images.

    There had to a land invasion to liberate France, air supremacy alone could not achieve it. The success of that invasion could only be maintained if the advancing troops were replenished with fuel, food, vehicles and of course more men. Taking an existing harbour was committing Harakiri, they were too heavily fortified. Click image for more.

    The only way was to create a harbour, making the Mulberry Harbours one of the greatest engineering feats of World War Two. There would be two harbours, each comprising two breakwaters, offshore and flanking, made from hollow ferro-concrete caissons. They departed Lee-on-Solent on June 4th, but were held in mid channel when D-Day was delayed by a day. By the time of the initial assault landings, most caissons were positioned about 5 miles off the French coast. A week after D-Day the floating harbours were complete (click image).

  • Gallery (Day 4)

    gallery page Why not have a look at the gallery relating to this ride. Click the image or the title.

  • Batterie de Longues-sur-Mer

    image The D-Day attack on the Batterie de Longues-sur-Mer was conducted by battle cruisers out at sea and was at best ‘clumsy’, with most of their ordinance landing on the Longues-sur-Mer village a mile south of the German battery. The crew of the battery (184 men, half of them over 40 years old) surrendered to the 231st Infantry Brigade the following day.

  • The Bayeux Memorial

    image In the graveyard was the 'Bayeux Memorial' made of white stone with names of the 1,808 men of the Commonwealth who died in the Battle of Normandy and who have no known grave. Anchored off the coast off Sword Beach, on the night of 23 July 1944 at 2000, the 'MV Derrycunihy' troop ship remained there with a whole British regiment waiting to disembark, the ship’s engines detonated a submerged German mine, ripping the hull apart, causing the single biggest loss of British lives in one instance. The 189 missing men’s names are engraved on the wall in Bayeux.

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