France: A General's Tour of the D-Day Sites in Normandy
Alike Yet So Different: German, American and British Cemeteries at Normandy
By Mari S. Gold
Retired Major General Graham Hollands is in his mid-70s, handsome and an imposing 6’6”tall.
He looks every inch the warrior he was, having served for 32 years with the British Royal Artillery, and loves imparting the knowledge gleaned from studying the battles of Normandy of 1944 since 1975 when he first came to the area.
He stayed on and with his wife, now lives near the battlefields, guiding visitors with enthusiasm and great stories sparked with a dry British wit.
Begin at 9 am Sharp
My day with the General began at 9 am sharp, finishing at six-thirty with a very brief stop for lunch as the General, or Graham, as he prefers to be called, doesn’t care to waste time eating when he’s in the field.
It was a slightly nippy day in mid-September with winds coming off the water but a light jacket did the trick as warm clambering around the sites kept me warm.
The first stop was Omaha Beach, where Graham told us how the name was selected.
“Two carpenters arrived to build out General Bradley’s office,” he said, referring to General Omar Bradley, commander of the First United States Army during the Invasion of Normandy, France.
“Bradley asked the men where they came from. One’s hometown was Omaha, Nebraska; the other hailed from Juno, Georgia.
Bradley liked the names and applied them to the beaches.” (I’d heard that the original name for Juno Beach was supposed to be Jelly but Winston Churchill didn’t think that sufficiently dignified for a place where many would lose their lives, hence the change to Juno. This naming is Graham’s interpretation.)
We moved on to Pointe de Hoc, the highest point between Utah and Omaha beaches, where the U.S. Army Ranger Assault Group used ropes to scale the cliffs and capture them during the battles of Normandy.
Per Graham, the first ropes used were made of a too-stretchy material so they didn’t work; after switching the Plan B with shorter ropes attached to grappling irons, the operation was a success. Seeing how high the cliffs are, it’s amazing that the operation worked.
Le Liberty for Lunch
We ate a quick lunch at Le Liberty, a simple restaurant in St. Honorine des Pertes where I had a galette (savory crepe) with ham and cheese.
After a stop at False Harbor to see what is left of the pieces of floating concrete used to create a harbor where supplies and vehicles could be unloaded after the D-Day invasion, we went to the German, American and a British cemetery.
All wrenching, these cemeteries reflect the cultures of their countries and the way the fallen were thought about after the end of the war.
In all cases, the dead are buried near where they fell, which adds enormously to the sense of history. I was on the verge of tears throughout, especially watching visitors leave flowers on graves and linger, probably thinking of those lost.
The German cemetery is austere with dark, squat cross-shaped markers set flat into the ground. The crosses are inscribed with the name of the dead and the soldier’s rank and date of death when known.
For the unknowns, the stone is simply inscribed in block letters “Ein Deutscher Soldat” (a German soldier). There is a small mound marking a mass grave for 89 known and 207 unknown soldiers. Scattered around the site are a few rows of roughly carved crosses seemingly placed at random.
No Glorification of War
The overall effect is sober, ascetic and somewhat cold. There is no glorification of war or of the dead although a Peace Garden nearby is meant for walking and contemplation.
In contrast, the American cemetery is very grand, probably because it was begun in 1944 and completed in the 1950s when the U.S. was busy flexing its national muscle. The 172 acres set on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach with the Atlantic Ocean behind, hold the remains of 9,387 American military dead.
White marble crosses stand against conically-pruned trees; the crosses bear the name, rank, company, home state, and date of death of the buried soldier.
Mixed among the crosses are some stars of David marking Jewish graves but, according to Graham, there are probably fewer than there should be as Jewish military was permitted to Anglicize their names in an effort to protect themselves in the event of capture by Germans.
Four women—one nurse and three postal service workers-- are buried here as are two sons of Theodore Roosevelt, one killed during World War I.
Names of unknown military dead are inscribed on the big Walls of the Missing with rosettes showing which bodies have since been recovered and identified.
There is a reflecting pool, colonnade and large visitors’ center showing films. Near the ocean is a larger than the life-sized bronze statue of a GI hauling away his fallen buddy where visitors lay wreaths and flowers.
I found the statue, and frankly, the whole cemetery, a little brash, and show-offy but imagine many families—military or not—would disagree. Regardless, gazing at the fields of crosses was an emotional zinger.
My favorite of the three was the British Cemetery. At the entrance to the site, there is a metal door containing a box with a book that identifies the location of each grave.
The cemetery reflects the English love of gardens with roses planted among the headstones, the flowers carefully situated so that a floral shadow crosses each stone every day.
“Notice the cap flashing on each headstone,” Graham said, explaining that members of British regiments wore distinctive badges on their hats, sort of a modern form of heraldry.
For instance, there’s a badge for the Sharpshooters of London, one for the 56th West Essex Regiment of Foot and so on.
Besides the badges, each headstone is inscribed with the soldier's name, rank, and date of death, as well as a personal inscription chosen by the next of kin.
One says “we meet each day at memory’s garden”; another reads “He believed in England, didn’t talk about it much but died to keep her free.” Reading these gave me a big lump in my throat.
On a wall carved with the names of missing persons, small metal rosettes indicate that the remains were identified after burial.
When a soldier was identified, if the next of kin wished to repatriate the body, it could be taken home for burial in England.
Recent advances in DNA testing have already matched one solder with his family and it is anticipated there will be more.
At one point someone remarked, “I’m a bit uncomfortable walking right over these graves.” “Think about it differently,” said General Hollands. “The way I look at it, the dead are glad we are visiting.” Wiping my eyes, I had to agree.
Normandy Tour Info:
Full day tour with Major General Graham Hollands: He is limiting the number of tours he gives but his son-in-law also gives tours. For specifics visit this website.
Restaurants for lunch: There are many, ranging from creperies to seafood shacks to more upscale dining. Check out Le Liberty, 27 Route d Omaha Beach, 14520 Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes, France but don’t expect to be wowed.
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