Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah, Omaha — it’s hard to separate these five names, even after nearly three-quarters of a century has passed linking them to the beaches in the northwestern French region of Normandy. D-Day is the historical connection, and June 6, 1944, is the precise date when the combined troops of America, Canada, England and other Allied countries crashed against Nazi Germany’s formidable Atlantic Wall. The result was a crack hammered into Germany’s Fortress Europe that led to the Third Reich’s downfall less than a year later.
The guns have long been silenced, but the memories remain — memories that certainly will be rekindled in 2019, which will be the 75th anniversary of the landings at Normandy. Knowing this important tick in time was approaching drew me to the English Channel of France in search of the age-worn whispers that remained from those distant days of desperate rage.
After considering many options, I settled on an eight-day Viking River Cruises itinerary billed as “Paris & the Heart of Normandy.” It turned out to be a good choice, not only because of the tour’s Normandy beach experience, but also for the unexpected extras tied to the historic event that I discovered along the way on a slow, pleasant trip west from Paris down the winding Seine River.
What I did expect, of course, was a quality trip, and the Viking Kadlin with her able crew of 50 delivered. Being a river cruiser, Kadlin is a four-decker just over a football field and a challenging field goal long — 443 feet — with 95 cabins for a maximum of 190 passengers.
After a two-day stay in Paris for passengers to enjoy the city, Kadlin’s first stop down the scenic Seine was, for me, the beginning of what was. We docked in the small city of Vernon, and just after stepping off the ship, I spotted a modest limestone plaque that commemorated a battle fought by the British 43rd (Wessex) Division two months after D-Day. To continue chasing the retreating Germans towards Belgium, the British constructed three floating bridges across the Seine. The battle to drive out the Germans and the bridges’ construction lasted three days at a cost of 550 British casualties.
Our next port of call was Rouen, the storied medieval town, founded by the Gauls and home to the iconic Rouen Cathedral. I explored the many cozy streets lined with half-timbered houses built in the Middle Ages. I noticed that there were very few of these structures and many more modern buildings between the Rouen Cathedral and the Seine River. Our guide informed me of another World War II connection: Rouen was taken over by the Germans in the spring of 1940. When a fire broke in the old part of the city, firemen were blocked from fighting the blaze for two days, resulting in a charred landscape replacing centuries of history from the river to the cathedral.
From Rouen, we took a two-hour bus ride to the Normandy beaches, stopping first in the small coastal town of Arromanches, which was an important disembarkation point for the Allies after the initial landings. Dotting the shallow waters beyond the town are many massive pieces of a puzzle famously known as a Mulberry harbor that, although meant to be temporary, stand like timeless sentinels, still resisting being claimed by the Atlantic.
A World War II museum in Arromanches helps visitors connect the beach landings’ history to the humanity that spilled upon them during the invasion. In the same area, scattered outdoor displays of military hardware add to the educational experience. Located across a parking lot from the museum stood a formerly formidable German 88 artillery piece reduced to “guarding” a small outdoor park for board games, while “camouflaged” by a basket of petunias. Proof that time can tame even the deadliest things.
More heavy metal was on display at our next destination just outside the French village of Longues-sur-Mer where a cluster of four massive German 152-mm coastal guns, each housed in heavily reinforced bunkers, still point out to sea. Located between the Gold and Omaha landing areas, they poured shells onto Allied ships approaching the beaches. Three were put out of action on June 6th, and the last was captured the following day.
Visitors less attached to the historical importance of the D-Day landings might think of this part of the Viking cruise as just a rust-and-dust excursion. However, for many, such a notion will be quickly dispelled at the tour’s next stop, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. On a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, this 172-acre hallowed site cradles the remains of 9,387 Americans who were killed during the landings and follow-up operations — their lives replaced by simple white markers, all lined in precision rows, each a quiet testament to the toll taken.
As a nice addition, the Kadlin’s program director arranged a small ceremony for our group in the embrace of the memorial’s semicircle colonnade. After a short speech, the “Star Spangled Banner” was softly played, followed by “Taps,” with its final note hanging long in the clear blue sky. Very simple, very powerful.
Finally, it was on to Omaha Beach itself, where some of the worst fighting of the invasion took place. On June 6, 1944, it was a death lair of mine fields, barbed wire, tank traps and crossfires, but all of that is now gone. Today, the beach is a popular sun-n-surf spot for locals and tourists. Guns have been replaced by skim boards, Frisbees and ice cream cones. In the middle of this recreational mecca stands a large commemorative stone monolith flanked by an equally impressive sculpture of stainless steel wings entitled Les Braves, both marking the point where world history forever changed. Occasionally they are noticed, but often they are just passed by.
This nonchalance sometimes cast on those Omaha Beach monuments stayed in my mind on the Kadlin’s two-day return journey to Paris. But then it occurred to me that, even though they, like the landing site, have now become part of a holiday beach, maybe, in simple terms, that’s what D-Day was all about — a fight to return to normal. And, with that slight observation, a singular, satisfying conclusion came to mind: Victory.
Next year is the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion. Call your AAA Travel Agent at 800-398-0379 to book a historic 2019 Viking River Cruises trip.
(Jan/Feb 2018 Go Magazine)