I toured the D-Day beaches with Spearhead Tours, one of the few tour guides still operating in winter time. I could only find a handful. One operator I contacted agreed to take me on a winter tour at the hefty sum of 400E. What I notice is that the price is based on how many people on the tour. If I could just find 8 other people to split the cost than it would have been reasonable.
Luckily Spearhead didn’t cost the earth and he didn’t seem to mind that I was the only person on the tour. At first I had misgivings because I thought it would be boring. I thought I was going to get stuck with some droning old man. Turns out, the tour guide is a youngish, attractive Romanian guy named Florin. He too thought the tour would be horrible. He said he thought I would be bored and not really interested in the details of a military campaign.
I let him know that I’m actually in the military and a member of the 29th Division. He was excited about that, and I was excited that he was excited.
He picked me up at my hotel around 9 and we headed straight out to Longues sur Mer. This is located between Gold and Omaha beaches. There are four 152-mm navy guns, and some of the positions are still intact but one has been blown to bits. Florin proved himself to be extraordinarily well-informed, and not the type of tour guide who simply recites some information he read somewhere on Wikipedia.
I asked him if all the mines had been removed. The Germans mined the area pretty heavily. He told me the mines are all gone but occasionally someone finds UXO.
We went the American Cemetery next. There is a little museum, of sorts, containing photographs, artefacts and videos of some of the events. You can go online to see all the videos. I read all the vignettes about 29th members and then we went out to a point overlooking Omaha Beach.
Florin was full of stories about the Soldiers who died there. He told me about the four brothers upon which the movie Saving Private Ryan is based. Two of the brothers, Robert and Preston Niland, are buried here. He talked about a few of the women that were killed in action. Also, he had stories about Teddy Roosevelt’s sons. Since it was just me, he really could have gone on forever. He had photographs of the people he talked about, which I thought was cool. It puts a face to a name and makes it more realistic. There are 9387 Americans buried here, including three women. Most of them were killed during the Invasion or events directly afterward.
Florin even went into a discussion on the actual cemetery itself, noting the direction of the headstones and the positions of the plots. Everything was symbolic. The headstones face west, which is the direction of home since there are American Soldiers buried there. The headstones are crosses or Stars of David and everything is dress-right-dress. The sections are aligned neatly to create a Latin cross. Everything was done quite precisely and purposely.
There is a lot to see at the American Cemetery but what moved me the most was the wall of the missing. There are 1557 names inscribed in the wall, all names of the missing. Every time they find someone they put a little bronze flower next to the name. Florin told me they just recently found a guy back in 2011. Some farmer found the man’s bones. They were able to identify him based on the dog tags found with the body and his dental records. I think that’s awesome.
Florin and I were able to talk about different things. I told him it was interesting that Americans were buried on foreign soil. These days that would never happen. I told him I had deployed to Iraq, and if I had died there I certainly would not want my body left there. I would want to go home, and I’m sure my family would want it that way as well.
I think the difference is that so many Soldiers and Airmen lost their lives during World War II. I can’t see how it would have been feasible to make sure everyone returned home. The families did have the option of bringing their Soldier back, so it was not denied them, but still, there were over 400,000 US military deaths during World War II (in both theaters) compared to approximately 4500 US military deaths in the Iraq Campaign.
I think World War II is the last war we buried our Soldiers elsewhere. I’m not sure. I’d have to look it up.
After the American Cemetery we went on to Omaha Beach. Florin was really great about breaking down exactly what happened. He painted an excellent picture of beach obstacles, German gun positions and the rough situation Allied Forces faced coming onto that beach. He talked about the weather, the terrain and just everything that affected Allied Forces. I appreciated the detail. I didn’t just want to stand on the beach, looking at some sand with a tour guide saying, “Yeah, so here’s Omaha Beach.” That’s not what I came here for.
Florin was good enough to stop at a monument dedicated to the 29th Division. He said he doesn’t normally stop there but since it was significant to me he did not mind. That’s the good thing about being on a tour by yourself. The operator can adjust fire when he feels like it. There was also a monument to all the National Guard Soldiers who deployed to Normandy. I thought that was cool. We National Guardsmen get so much heat these days. We’re treated like red-headed step-children, so it’s nice to know that back then someone really appreciated National Guard service. It’s also important to understand that we are not the same as Active Duty Soldiers. Maybe I’m biased, but I think being in the National Guard/Reserves is harder than being a careerist. We have to live two lives.
We moved on to Pointe du Hoc. Now this is where it gets really crazy. It’s a cliff that formed part of the Atlantic Wall, and the Allied Forces had to climb the cliff in order to take the position. After bombing the fuck out of the German gun positions, men actually climbed with their bare hands up this wall. Not a game! Imagine, you’ve been on a boat a long time. Maybe you got seasick. The food is horrible. The weather is rough and you land on this beach with people trying their damnedest to kill you. Guns blazing. Bombs going off. The guy next to you drops dead, and so does the guy on the other side of you but you keep your eye on the objective. You hit that wall and now you have to climb with what little strength you have left. You’re just running on pure adrenaline. You don’t even realise your hands are bleeding from the rocks. And then when you make it to the top you have to lay out German motherfuckers and avoid being bombed by your own people. I mean, I can’t fathom it.
And being German wasn’t no better. I got to climb down into some of the positions. They stuck those poor saps into little concrete rooms with two ton guns and a fuckload of ammunition. I guess nobody gave a shit about their welfare. I cannot imagine what kind of hearing protection they had back then. I bet a whole bunch of them went home deaf as shit—if they survived and weren’t captured as POWs. The whole business of war is just sad, sad, sad.
We went to other significant locations, including Utah Beach and Saint Mere Eglise. Saint Mere Eglise is considered to be the first French town liberated by Allied Forces. It is also the scene of significant air drops. Airborne rangers dropped in an attempt to take back the town. Many were killed, shot straight out of the sky. I think the point was to land somewhere just outside the town and then rush in, but navigation was fucked up so they ended up landing right in the middle of everything. One guy got his parachute stuck on the steeple of the church. He survived by pretending he was dead. The Germans eventually figured out he wasn’t, but they captured him as a POW instead of killing him.
The church itself is pretty cool. There are stained glass windows depicting the 82nd Airborne. The town even changed its coat of arms to reflect the US troops that came to liberate them. That’s really awesome.
Because we finished up the tour a little earlier than the usual time, Florin took me to the German cemetery. Most people think of all the German Soldiers as evil Nazis but I don’t think this is the case. War is a very tricky thing to understand. I think you have your Nazis and then you just have German guys who just want to feed their families. I don’t think those guys were evil, just horribly unlucky to be on the losing side. I also think a lot of them got sucked up into something maybe they did not quite understand. I think we can correlate it to the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars. Most American Soldiers probably don’t understand the far-reaching implications. We just want to serve our country.
Upon seeing the German cemetery I felt really bad for the German Soldiers. It’s like no one gave a shit about them. A low estimate puts the number of German casualties at 4.3 million. That’s like the entire population of Philadelphia. Florin told me there are about a million unknown German Soldiers. At the cemetery here, some Soldiers are buried five to a grave. There is a mass grave in the centre with 200 Soldiers in it.
This disgusts me and I think it’s a shame on the German government at that time. It seems like they did not even care about their Soldiers at all. I know back then it was hard to identify the dead, especially since there was no DNA testing available. Still, I think of German mothers and wives wondering where their husbands and sons are. The government is in the shitter. The country is in shambles. There is famine. Everyone has lost everything and you don’t even know where your loved one died. How many of them held out the hope that maybe their Soldier was a POW and at some point he would come home? How many of them had no hope at all?
I thought it was an excellent tour. Florin impressed me with his knowledge. I appreciated the additional information he brought along: photographs, maps and such. It put things in perspective. I’m glad I went on the tour in winter because I had it all to myself and did not have to bother with crowds of people. I would recommend his tours to anyone. If I come back I would like to do the tour of Mont Saint-Michel and maybe visit the British or Canadian beaches.