Buchenwald Concentration Camp

We took a break from our drive back to Berlin to visit the site of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Weimar – a powerful experience. Thumbnails below, see the gallery here for full size images and captions.

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Normandy: Utah Beach, St. Mere Eglise and Bayeax

Church at St Mere Eglise

With Omaha Beach fully explored but the kids still yearning for some beach time, we decided to make a stop at Utah Beach, just North and West of Omaha.  Utah gets fewer visitors, probably because it doesn’t have the notoriety of Omaha – only 200 American casualties on the morning of the invasion.  But it was still an important step in establishing a beach head, and  with the sun shining it was the perfect opportunity for the kids to find sea shells and capture some photos of Utah.

Just behind Omaha Beach lies St. Mere Eglise, a sleepy little town with a lot of Lore.  St. Mere Eglise was featured in the  movie “The Longest Day”. The story featured there is of paratrooper John Steele who got hung up on the church spire where he remained for hours until finally being taken prisoner.   The church remains at the center of St. Mere Eglise, and in an odd commemoration an effigy of Steele hangs from a prachute from the spire today.

Next to the church is a museum dedicated to the 82nd at 101st Airborne. It wasn’t big or impressive but it was kid friendly, and we’ll take that over big and impressive any time. (Photos of St. Mere Eglise and the Airborne Museum).

Our last stop on our tour of France turned out to be Bayeax.  It wasn’t planned that way,

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Bayeax.

but citizens of France had other plans (more on that later).  And we like to go where the people aren’t…so that worked out well for us, because Bayeax was basically completely closed for business on Mondays.  Nonetheless, we explored the town and the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Bayeax,

Normandy: Round tripping through Pointe du Hoc, Arromanches and Longues sur Mer

Scarred Pointe du Hoc Landscape

THE KIDS DIDN’T want to go to Pointe du Hoc. After seeing the beach for the first time it was hard to get them to think of something else…but in the end for all of us – even the kids – this ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. Gave Dad some cred again.

In 1944 large guns protected by concrete casemates had been placed at the top of the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.  The guns – capable of reaching both Utah and Omaha beaches – were taken out by the storied  2nd Ranger Battalion. Army rangers  scaled the cliffs  and suffered heavy casualties, only to find the guns had already been moved inland and wooden planks stood in their place as a disguise. The  Pointe du Hoc  landscape  is forever scarred with craters,  evidence of the massive naval and arial bombardment it endured in preparation for D-Day…shown in a few of our photos.  It also provides people (kids) a chance to observe (climb down into) craters and through some of the casemates to get a better idea of the combat conditions (play). Fun for the whole family.

On the other side of Omaha beach is Arromanches, a costal town on Gold Beach where the British navy installed a temporary harbor (Mulberries). The remains of the harbor are still visible from the coasts (photos), and Arromanches, a town of 500, now thrives on the visitors that come annually to see the remnants of D-Day.  On a warm summer day this would be a fantastic place to spend a day exploring shops or enjoying the beach.  On a cold blustery fall day,  I recommend sitting huddled in one of the pedestrian restaurants trying to keep warm by holding a piece of pizza and then moving back to the van as quickly as possible.  We elected to do the latter.

The last stop of the day was to Longues sur Mer, where a gun battery (photos) remains.  Unlike Pointe du Hoc the casements avoided destructions and the original guns are still in place.

Normandy: Omaha Beach & The American Military Cemetary

WE THOUGHT THAT on our first day in Normandy we would avoid the history and museums.  We figured we would be too tired from the drive to pay much attention, so we decided to just take the kids to the closest stretch of sand beach for their first real-life chance to dip their toes in the ocean.  We hopped in the van, picked a close town, and set off the see the waves.

View of the western sector of Omaha beach from the position of a concrete bunker.

In retrospect that was a little naive.  We picked the town of Vierville sur Mer as our landing spot, which turned out to not just be an inconspicuous stretch of sand but rather the western edge of Omaha Beach (lesson learned, there is no such thing as an inconspicuous stretch of sand in Normandy).    We walked out onto the beach to explore, and while the kids collected seashells I snapped a few photos of the beach and bluffs.  

Unfortunately for us, we picked a time when the tide was coming in. We were getting ready to  trek down to explore the rock-cliffs of Pointe et Raz de la Percèe – the Western edge of Omaha –  when we realized that there was some sea water sneaking up behind us on the beach and was about to cut us off from the shore, so we scampered back up to the parking lot to The-Stupidly-Expensive-Van. From the comfort of the van entertained ourselves by watching some other tourists  oblivious to the tide get stuck on a sand bar and have to wade in in their loafers.  Ah, that’s good entertainment.

As a side note, this was our kids first exposure to the concept of a “tide”, and the idea that water could come surging from the ocean unexpectedly, then trap and swallow you whole. That was enough to freak out safety-conscious Camden for the duration of the trip.  More on that later.

From there we took a drive through Vierville sur Mer and Colleville, ending up at the American Military Cemetery in Colleville.   There are no words to describe this place, and I wont even bother trying here…we’ll just share our photos and say that it was an incredible experience.  

American Military Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer

Later in the week we returned back to Omaha Beach, to sunny skies and low tides.   There has been too much already said and written about Omaha Beach and there are others who are far better experts than us.  My only comment, I’ve read time and time again how far the beach was, and how high the bluffs were. Standing there in person, it just seems impossible.  It seems like there is a mile of beach between the ocean and the bluffs, and the bluffs seem impossibly high, and the firing positions in the bunkers of the beach seem far too superior…it is simply hard to imagine the task at hand for the American GI’s that morning.  I’m not a good enough camera man to capture this completely, but nonetheless have uploaded a few perspectives of Omaha Beach.   The last photo in the bunch is a comparative between the church in Colleville-sur-Mer today as compared to June 6, 1944 as members of the Big Red 1 walk by.