To learn more about the Battle of Normandy, Loong Wai Ting heads for the northern coast of France
IN the early hours of June 4, 1944, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops launched one of the biggest assault of the Second World War on the beaches of Normandy in Northern France.
With the help of bombers and airborne forces, the first phase of the assault known as Operation Overlord took place with the aim of liberating Europe from Nazi occupation.
Known as D-Day Landings, the The Allied troops — comprising British, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and more — went through years of careful planning under brilliant Allied commanders General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder.
Despite countless Hollywood movies made about D-Day such as Band Of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, the actual war was not predominantly an American effort. Of the 1,213 warships deployed, 200 were American and 892 were British. According to an article by CNN, of the 4,126 landing craft involved in the war effort, 805 were American and 3,261 were British.
NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY
Serene, peaceful and well-kept — these words describe the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, located on the Normandy coast between Arromanches and Grandcamp Maisy.
With its beautifully-kept garden and well-trimmed grass, this haven of peace is perched on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach. In fact, within this 70 hectares of land, 10,000 fallen American soldiers eternally rest.
Outside of Omaha Beach, the other landing beaches including Sword Beach, Gold Beach and Utah Beach, played pivotal roles during the D-Day landings and remain the main area for the largest airborne military operation in history.
The land where Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial sits was given by the French to America as a way to express their gratitude for their war effort. At present, it is managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Here, visitors from around the world as well as families and immediate relatives of the soldiers who fought bravely 73 years ago, come to offer prayers and leave fresh flowers. Most visitors, including myself, find our way through this cemetery and marvel at the utmost care given to keep the place spotlessly clean. Trees are trimmed to the fashion of parachutes to honour the paratroopers who landed on the beach.
Every perfectly-lined white cross tells a story but there are two that hold special significance in history: The Niland Brothers grave (Plot F, Row 15). The patches of grass in front of these two graves are worn out, evidence of visitors who have come to pay their respects here.
As the story goes, the Niland Brothers’ mother received a telegram informing that three of her four sons had been killed in action. The army then launched a search for the fourth (Frederick “Fritz” Niland), a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. Fritz was eventually located and taken out of combat.
Robert J. Niland and Preston T. Niland were both killed on June 6 and 7, respectively and were buried side by side at the cemetery. Their other brother Edward, who was missing and presumed dead, was actually captive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Burma. After being liberated in May 1945, Edward lived in Tonawanda in New York until his passing in 1984 at the age of 71.
Steven Spielberg’s 1998 box office hit Saving Private Ryan is based loosely on the brothers’ story.
Just a stone’s throw from the white crosses is a chapel and an orientation table that point towards the beaches the Allied forces landed in 1944. At the centre of it all is a bronze statue with the title The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.
In keeping with the solemn mood within the area, there is no gift shop selling memorabillia, so those wanting to buy souvenirs will have to go to the nearest town, which isn’t too far from the cemetery.
There is a Visitor Centre nearby for those who want to know more about the D-Day Landings operation, through extensive display of relics from the war such as uniforms, maps, radios and wartime film footage.
D-DAY MUSEUM ARROMANCHES
To learn more about the invasion, I head over to the D-Day Museum or Musee Du Debarquement in Arromanches.
Located about 30 minutes drive from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, the scale of the D-Day Museum is fairly smaller. However, it is packed with concise information and appropriate relics from the war, which are on full display.
The museum overlooks the very spot where one of the Mulberry Harbours — a temporary portable harbour developed by the British during World War II for the purpose of offloading cargo onto the beaches during the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 — was first constructed. Remnants of the harbour, though covered in rust, can still be seen on the beaches. From afar, they resemble shipwrecks, abandoned and exposed to the elements. The rusty surface of the harbour is a testimony to the war that once took place here.
My favourite section of the museum is the Hall of the Allied Nations. Here I get to see uniforms, personal documents, diaries as well as multiple paraphernalia that a soldier carries with him to the war. There’s a personal touch to each item on display such as handwritten letters from home and family photos. It’s almost as if you’re being transported back in time.
And if you have some time to spare, visit the museum’s cinema. I enjoy the exceptional archive footage (about 15 minutes long), a film produced by the British Admiralty that traces the design, transport, construction and operation of Mulberry Harbour B. Best of all, the narration is available in nine languages, including Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Japanese and Spanish.
THE OTHER SIDE OF ARROMANCHES
If you’re not a World War II history buff, the role of the Normandy beaches may not be familiar to you. Looking back, it is perhaps the most important place for the Allied troops that eventually help to secure victory against Adolf Hitler.
I am in love with this peaceful town, an incredible place rich in history and natural beauty.
The weather is great on the day of my visit, beautiful blue skies with wispy clouds scattered across it. As I stray away from my group and walk on the beach, I can’t help but think about the men who stormed the same beach at the crack of dawn some 70 years ago.
But since my group is only staying for a few hours, I don’t have enough time to explore the town further. With a little over an hour left before we have to head back to the meeting point, a couple of friends and I decide to grab a quick bite.
In between strolling and deciding what to eat, we come across a little no-fuss cafe selling galettes or savoury crepes. The Creperie Le Recto-Verso along Rue du Marechal Joffre sells really good crepes, both the sweet and savoury kind.
I feel at home at the family-run cafe and even had a lovely chat with the owner, who speaks little English.
I order the Galette Pays d’Auge which has a fried egg, huge slabs of camembert cheese (a specialty of Normandy), ham and a side of fresh greens. It is one of the best galettes I have ever had, hands down. The cheese blends perfectly with the salty ham and the fresh greens add a nutty flavour to the otherwise plain base.
If you have time, you can walk along the beach and visit the local cafes and restaurants or just soak up the environment. Or watch the world go by while enjoying a cup of espresso.
Pictures by LOONG WAI TING
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