World War 2 – D-Day

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Today’s photo shows Pegasus Bridge near Ouistreham which was the first bridge captured by Allied forces during the D-Day landings in 1944. The capture of the bridge was crucial to protect the troops landing on the Normandy Beaches from a German counter-attack. It was captured by about 150 British paratroopers who landed in 5 gliders beside the bridge just after midnight on June 6th 1944. They were able to hold the bridge until reinforced by troops from the Normandy landings the next morning. Whilst many mistakes were made elsewhere during the D-Day landings, the operation to secure Pegasus Bridge more or less went to plan and there are many memorials and monuments in the vicinity of the bridge commemorating it’s capture.

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Pegasus bridge. Up until 1944, Pegasus bridge was known as the Benouville bridge. It’s name was changed soon after WW2 in hour of the British 6th Airborne Division, whose symbol is Pegasus, the mythical winged horse. The original bridge from 1944 was replaced by a similar but slightly bigger and wider bridge in 1994.

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Museum dedicated to the capture of Pegasus bridge during D-Day. Right beside Pegasus bridge is a museum dedicated to the capture of the bridge on June 6th 1944. The Memorial museum was opened in 2000 by Prince Charles and it replaced a smaller museum in Benoiville whose lease had run out in 1997. On 6th June 1944, 5 Horsa gliders landed beside Pegasus bridge and there is a replica  Horsa glider in the grounds of the museum. The grounds also contain the original bridge from 1944 which was bought by the museum for a symbolic franc in 1999.

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Pegasus bridge. Pegasus bridge was the first bridge captured by Allied forces during Operation Deadstick overnight on D-Day.It was captured by 181 men in 6 Horsa gliders though only 5 gliders landed beside the bridge. The sixth glider landed 10 km away at a different bridge and it took a day for those troops to make their way to Pegasus bridge. The bridge was only lightly guarded by the Germans and the 2nd Airborne Division only suffered 2 casualties capturing the bridge.

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Height limit on Pegasus bridge. There is a height limit of 4.7m on the Pegasus bridge and some loads inched across the bridge at a very slow pace including this boat which was being transported on a low loader.

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Pegasus bridge in 1944. Notice the gliders in the background of this photo from 1944. The nearest glider landed less than 50m from the bridge.The attack on Pegasus Bridge featured in the 1962 Hollywood film “The Longest Day” and another film is due for release in the summer of 2017 called “Pegasus Bridge“. Filming was taking place in the summer of 2016 in England and France for that film but apparently, no scenes were due to be filmed at Pegasus bridge itself as it has changed so much since 1944.

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Memorial to General Montgomery at Collevillette. The beach at Collevillette was part of Sword Beach during the D-Day Landings and the town was one of the first liberated in France during World War 2. Almost 30.000 men were landed on Sword Beach on June the 6th and the British forces suffered roughly 700 casualties. The main objective for the troops landing on Sword Beach on June 6th was to capture Caen, 15 km away but the British forces only managed to advance about 3 km during the first week of Operation Overlord. It would be another 6 weeks before Caen was finally captured.

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Location of Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah beaches during the D-Day Landings. The British and Canadian beaches were named after fish. Gold was short for Goldfish and Sword for Swordfish. Juno Beach was originally called Jelly Beach after Jellyfish but Churchill changed the name to Juno as he didn’t want British troops to die on Jelly Beach. Mystery has always surrounded the code names for the American beaches but they may have been named after 2 carpenters who worked for General Omar Bradley. One of the carpenters, Gayle Eyler was from Omaha, Nebraska and his mate “Sam” was from Provo, Utah. The 2 carpenters were working on the US Army headquarters in London when one morning in March 1944 they had coffee with General Bradley, Eisenhower and some other American officers planning the D-Day invasion. General Bradley asked the carpenters where they were from and may then have used the men’s hometowns of Omaha and Utah as code-names for the beaches. The story only came to light when Eyler died in 2003 and because General Bradley died in 1981, it could not be corroborated. But most US Army historians accept Eyler’s story as plausible as code names were often chosen at random and as nether location has any beaches, the names were ideal for confusing the Germans if they intercepted any messages referring to Omaha or Utah. The code names Omaha and Utah were first referred to in a memo issued by General Bradley on March 3rd 1944 so it is quite possible that Bradley’s innocuous chat with his 2 carpenters resulted in their hometown’s being used to name the beaches.

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Luc-sur-Mer yacht club. They are big into sailing in France and here at Luc-sur-Mer, you can sign up for sailing lessons at the local yacht club. Light tractors and trailers are used to transport boats and they are a common sight in this part of Normandy.This beach was part of the Sword Beach during D-Day and as it was only lightly defended, the British forces who landed here suffered relatively few casualties. The tide was mostly out when I took this photo so the beach looked like it would have on the morning of D-Day but as the day went on, the tide came in more and more so by the time I got to Omaha Beach, it was more or less high tide and you could only see a small part of  the beach.

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Star Trek style binoculars overlooking the beach at Saint Aubin-sur-Mer.  The beach here at Saint Ambin-sur-Mer was officially part of Sword Beach and the town was supposed to be captured by British forces. But most of the British forces landed much further east near Hermanville and the town of Saint Aubin was actually captured by Canadian troops who had landed at the nearby Juno Beach.

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World War 2 remnants and memorials in Saint Aubin-sur-Mer. The town of Saint Ambin-sur-Mer was liberated by Canadian and British troops on June the 6th. The plaque says that on the 6th June 1944 at 7.30, a beachhead was established here by the North Shore Canadian Regiment along with the 48th Division of the British Royal Marines.

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Juno Beach memorial at Courselles-sur-Mer.  Compared to some other beaches,  the 8 km long stretch of coastline known as Juno Beach was captured by Canadian, British and Free French forces with relatively few casualties.  The main target for the troops on Juno Beach was Carpiquet airfield, near Caen , which was 18 km inland.  However, the Allied forces only managed to advance about 3 km inland on D-Day before being pushed back by a German counter-attack.

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Tank memorial at Juno Beach. This Churchill Mk IV AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) tank was a obstacle-clearance tank, which landed on the morning of D-Day on Juno Beach. It sank into a 4 m deep bomb crater and four members of its 6 man crew were killed by German gun fire as they tried to escape. The other two were seriously injured and had to be evacuated later in the day.  It remained buried for 32 years but in 1976, a team of British Army soldiers extracted the Churchill AVRE tank from its wartime grave. The two surviving members of the tank crew were present when it was lifted back onto the beach and once it had been restored, it was erected on a concrete plinth. It is situated only a few yards from the flooded bomb crater where it had been buried for 32 years.

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Plaque commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings. The plaque says ” On this spot, a 900m long floating harbour was built and it was used to land 220,000 men and 40,000 vehicles in 4 months following D-Day.” The floating harbours were known as Mulberry harbours and were mostly constructed in a huge dry dock in Southampton from pre-cast concrete. Each section of the Mulberry harbour was brought across the Channel on the days after D-Day and the harbour here at Arromanches was operational by mid-June. Another Mulberry harbour was constructed at Omaha Beach by American forces but a severe storm on 19 June destroyed the Omaha harbour. The Mulberry harbour at Arromanches was also damaged by the same storm but was repaired soon afterwards.

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How the Mulberry harbour in Arromanches looked like in 1944. The Mulberry harbour in Arromanches was christened Port Winston and remained in use for the next ten months, with a maximum capacity of 7,000 tons of supplies per day. Of the British supplies landed in Normandy by the end of August, 35% arrived via the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches. Most shipments were actually brought in over the beaches until the port of Cherbourg was cleared of mines and obstructions on 16 July.  After Antwerp harbour in Belgium was captured in late 1944, most supplies to the British Army came through there and the Mulberry harbour in Arromanches was abandoned in April 1945.

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Viewing platform and memorials at the Arromanches 360 museum. The Arromanches 360 museum is a circular cinema which shows footage from the D-Day landings on 9 huge screens. Unlike a normal cinema, the 9 screens form a circle around you as you stand in the middle of the auditorium. The effect gives you a panoramic view of the battlefield but visitors have commented that it can be difficult to know where to look as the action unfolds all around you. Outside the cinema, there is a viewing platform which was crowded with tourists when I passed by.

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Musee du Debarquement at Arromanches-les-Bains. The morning of June 6th 1944 was dull and overcast a bit like the weather today in Normandy. While the town of Arromanches itself was thronged with people, the beaches were mostly deserted. Debarquement is the French word for “landing” and there is a huge museum called the Musee du Debarquement dedicated to the D-Day landings in the town. The museum opened in 1954 and averages 300,000 visitors a year. It was the first D-Day museum to open in Normandy after World War 2 and it remains one of the most popular museums in the region to this day.

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Old photographs from World War 2. Between Arromanches-les-Bains and Colleville-sur-Mer, there are numerous old photos displayed on billboards along the road. This is a lovely initiative as these large posters really bring the war to life. Instead of being hidden away in museums or on websites, the photos have been printed onto huge billboards and put on display along this stretch of road.

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Church in Colleville-sur-Mer. This is the Notre-Dame de l’Assomption de Colleville church, which dates from the 13th Century. The church was badly destroyed during the D-Day landings and there is a huge poster outside the church showing how it looked during World War 2.

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How the church looked like in June 1944. The church was probably targeted by Allied bombers in case it would be used by German troops as a lookout post. But like many damaged structures, it was rebuilt after the war though if you look closely you can make out that on some sections of the church, the stone is not as weathered as in other places.

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Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville sur Mer. This cemetery has over 9,000 graves and was the first American cemetery created in Europe in World War 2. Two sons of former American president, Teddy Roosevelt are buried here as are the 2 Niland brothers, whose story was adapted by Steven Ambrose for his book “Saving Private Ryan”. This cemetery featured in the Steven Spielberg movie of the same name at the start and end of the film. However, most of that movie was filmed in Ireland and the UK and the only scenes shot in France were here at the American cemetery in Colleville sur Mer. Interestingly, this grave has only 300 unknown soldiers. A similar sized cemetery in the Somme from World War 1 would have maybe as many as 6,000 unknown soldiers.

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Numerous museums near Vierville-sur-Mer. The first museum (top left) is the Big Red One Assault museum. Big Red One is the nickname of the US 1st Infantry Division who led the assault on Omaha Beach. The museum features over 2,000 items of memorabilia from the Normandy landings. The 2nd museum (top right) is the Overlord museum. This huge museum opened in 2013 and has a M4 Sherman tank and a M10 tank destroyer on display outside. The founder of the Overlord’s museum collection was Michel Leloup, who was just 15 when D-Day occurred in 1944. After the war, he started a logging business and purchased a number of WW2 Canadian lorries and German half track vehicles to haul the heavy logs. This started a 40 year obsession with collecting memorabilia associated with the Normandy landings all of which are on display inside the Overlord museum. Sadly, Michel died in 2011, 2 years before the museum opened but most visitors agree it is one of the best museums in Normandy to visit. The third museum above is the Memorial Museum which is the closest museum to Omaha Beach.

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Photo of the Day. Today’s photo shows the Les Braves D-Day memorial sculpture at Omaha Beach in Vierville-sur-Mer. The metal sculpture was created by the French artist Anilore Banon in 2004 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings.The sculpture was only intended to be temporary but it has remained here ever since. Nowhere else during D-Day did the Allied forces suffer as many casualties than as happened here on Omaha Beach. In the first 3 hours of the landing, there were an estimated 3,000 injured and dead American soldiers lying scattered all over this beach and by the end of the day, over 4,000 American troops had been killed or injured. Some units lost over 90% of their men and such was the German resistance, that it would take a whole week to fully secure the area around the beach. It must have been difficult for Anilore Banon to capture the horror of what happened to the American troops here on Omaha Beach on June 6th 1944. This stainless steel sculpture with its sharp edges and chaotic layout certainly hints at the terror that unfolded that day. There are a lot of memorials in Normandy to D-Day but this sculpture is by far the most poignant.

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Omaha Beach with Pointe du Hoc in the distance. The fiercest fighting and the most casualties anywhere on D- Day occoured here at Omaha beach near Vierville sur Mer. Very little went as planned during the landing at Omaha. Difficulties in navigation caused the majority of landing craft to miss their targets throughout the day. Also German resistance was unexpectedly strong and inflicted heavy casualties on the U.S. troops as they landed on the beach.

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Flotilla of boats that set out from England on D-day. The D-Day landings involved about 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes, and 150,000 soldiers. At least 1,000 ships and 30,000 men were involved in landing at Omaha Beach. The landings were scheduled to start at 06:30, “H-Hour”, after a 40-minute naval and aerial bombardment of the beach defenses. The plan was for about 30 amphibious DD tanks to land on the beach first and these would act as cover for the infantry that would follow.

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DD amphibious tank. DD tanks were amphibious tanks that had a flotation device fitted around them and also had a propeller powered by the tank’s engine to navigate in the water. DD stood for Duplex Drive but they were nicknamed “Donald Duck” tanks by infantry soldiers. However, due to rough sea, 27 of the 29 amphibious DD tanks were swamped by water and did not make it to the shore. However, during the initial assault on Omaha Beach, at least 20 standard Sherman tanks were landed using low hulled naval landing craft (LCVP’s) though many of these tanks were destroyed by anti-tank guns.

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Photos from the the first wave of D-Day landings. During the initial assault on Omaha Beach, many of the landing craft (known as LCVP’s) got stuck  on sandbars. This meant to reach the beach the soldiers had to wade through water sometimes neck deep, and they still had 200 m or more to go when they did reach shore. Where the naval bombardment set grass fires burning,the smoke obscured the landing troops and fortunately, this prevented effective fire from being laid down by the Germans. You can clearly see the smoke in the photos above from the first hour of D-Day on Omaha Beach. Due to this smoke cover, the engineers succeeded in clearing six small gaps through the anti-tank obstacles, despite some units suffering casualties of over 90%.

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D-Day landing as shown in Saving Private Ryan. There were numerous anti-tank obstacles on the beach and these are clearly shown in the above screenshot from Steven Spielberg’s movie. There were 4 different types of anti-tank obstacles on Omaha Beach butt the most common were called Czech hedgehogs. A Czech hedgehog was an anti-tank obstacle made of three pieces of iron, with notches for barbed wire. Typically, they weighed about 200 kg, but lighter makeshift hedgehogs were made out of anything that could withstand a head-on collision with a tank. However, their main purpose wasn’t to block tanks – it was to get stuck underneath them, preventing the tank from moving anywhere at all. They were also designed to ensnare landing craft but as the D-Day landings coincided with low tide , no landing craft were damaged by the Czech hedgehogs during the initial assault.

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Another screenshot from Saving Private Ryan. Casualties on Omaha Beach among the infantry troops during the first landing averaged 25% though one American unit suffered 92% casualties.The worst casualties were on a section of Omaha Beach known as Dog Green which was overlooked by a number of what the Germans called Widerstandnetz. Widerstand is the German word for resistance and a Widerstandnetz (WN) was a reinforced concrete bunker with gun emplacements or casemates. There were 15 German Widerstandnetz (No’s 60 -74) along Omaha Beach which were built as part of the Atlantic Wall.  The Widerstandnetz closest to the beach in the Dog Green section had 2 German casemates and was code-named WN-72.

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View from the sea  of the WN-72 casements overlooking Omaha Beach. You can clearly see the two German casemates at each end of this concrete bunker, which was dubbed WN-72, in the above photo.  Most of the Widerstandnetz here were located in the hills overlooking Omaha Beach and WN-72 was the only one built on the beach. The WN-72 casemate on the left has been topped by a National Monument but the one on the right is more or less as it was in 1944. The tide in this photo is in whereas on D-Day the same view would have been off a sandy beach with very little cover from the German troops in the casemates and in the hills behind them. At least 16 tanks were landed on this section of beach but nearly all were knocked out by the anti-tank guns in both these casements and elsewhere. The photo above also shows the main road to Vierville-sur-Mer behind WN-72. On D-Day, this road was known as Dog One exit and it was the main target for the first wave of troops landing on Dog Green.

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Western WN-72 casemate as depicted in Saving Private Ryan (left) and how it looks in real life (right). In the movie, the casemate is open on 3 sides but in reality, it is only open on one side as this makes for a much stronger fortification. As the casemate didn’t have any naval guns, it was closed on the side facing the sea and it was only open on the side facing the beach. There was definitely anti-tank guns in each of these casemates but as to whether there were also machine guns in it as depicted in the movie is disputed. Machine guns were located elsewhere along Omaha Beach in what were called Tobruk’s and these caused numerous casualties. However, almost certainly, there would have been German troops with rifles in each WN-72 casemate and any troops landing nearby would have been an easy target.

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The Omaha Beach National Guard monument is located above the eastern WN-72 casemate . This photo from behind WN-72 gives you a good idea of the German perspective on D-Day. The German soldiers in this Widerstandnetz must have been terrified as they watched as thousands of American landing craft slowly make their way towards them on the morning of D-Day.  The tide is in in this photo whereas on the morning of D-Day the sea would have been at least 100 m and maybe 200 m from the casemate. Some years after the war was over, a National Guard monument was placed on top of the eastern casemate and there is a statue of an American soldier dragging his comrade off the beach beside it. A plaque beside the statue states “In commemoration of the determined efforts by the soldiers of the 29th Division’s 116th Infantry Regimental Combat Team who landed the morning  of June 6, 1944 on this section of Omaha Beach, known as Exit D-1, to open the Vierville road behind you to begin the liberation of Europe.”

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Another screenshot from Saving Private Ryan. Half an hour after the first landing, the second and larger wave of landings started at 07:00 only to face the same difficulties as the earlier assault. Failure to clear enough paths through the beach obstacles meant that in places, the fresh landing troops suffered casualty rates as high as those of the first wave. In addition, the incoming tide was beginning to hide the remaining obstacles, causing high attrition among the landing craft before they had reached the shore. The situation was so critical that around 08:30, Allied commanders suspended all such landings and this caused a jam of landing craft out at sea. General Bradley, on the destroyer USS Augusta in the middle of the English Channel, considered abandoning Omaha Beach and transferring all his remaining troops to Utah. However, around mid-day the battle on Omaha Beach began to turn the Allies way as some of the troops managed to make their way off the beaches and they were then able to attack the German defenses from the rear.

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Scene on Omaha Beach on the evening of D-Day as depicted in Saving Private Ryan.  An accurate figure for casualties incurred by American troops at Omaha on 6 June is not known; sources vary between 2,000 and 4,700 killed, wounded, and missing.The German defenders suffered 1,200 killed, wounded and missing; about 20% of their strength. I still don’t understand why a landing on Omaha Beach wasn’t attempted an hour earlier when it would have been dark. Also why no paratroopers were landed near to the beach to attack the Germans from behind. Thousands of paratroopers were landed that night elsewhere in Normandy to attack targets further inland. Why no paratroopers were dispatched to attack the beaches after the naval bombardment, I have no idea.

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Extent of territory captured by midnight on D-Day. You can see from the above map that a lot less territory was captured at Omaha Beach on D-Day than at the other beaches . Despite landing over a hundred thousand men on D-Day, the Allies controlled only a small sliver of the coastline by midnight on the first day of Operation Overlord. It would be almost another 2 months before the Allied troops conquered all the territory in northern Normandy shown in the above map.  But once Allied forces broke out from Normandy, within another 2 months, they would make it all the way across France to the German border.

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World Peace Statue at Grandcamp-Maisy. This statue was a gift from the Chinese sculptor  Yao Yuan to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Normandy Landings. It was unveiled on June the 3rd 2004 and is a bigger version of a similar statue he has on display in Beijing. He has also donated World Peace statues to Korea and Russia but the one here in Normandy is by far his biggest.

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Route de la Voie de la Liberte or the Liberty Road near Carentan. The Liberty Road is a 1,200 km route from Cherbourg in France to Bastonge in Belgium which mirrors the route of General Patton’s Third Army in World War 2. Every kilometer, there is a milestone called a Borne in French along the route. The first milestone I came across on the Liberty Road was here at Carentan.

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Route of the Liberty Road. The idea for a route to mark the liberation of French towns by the US Third Army was first proposed in 1946 by Guy de la Vaisselle, who had been General Patton’s French liason officer. The Liberty Road route was officially inaugurated in September 1947 and passes through the small town of Saint Symphorien near Chartres where Guy had been elected mayor. The route originally started in Sainte Mere Eglise and ended in Bastogne in Belgium but over the years other towns and landmarks such as Utah Beach have been added to it.

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Dead Man’s Corner Museum near Saint Come du Mont. This museum overlooks the main road to Carentan as well as 2 other roads to the north and was heavily reinforced by German troops after D-Day. The first American tank to approach this house was destroyed by a direct hit. The body of the tank commander, Lt Anderson, remained sitting in the tank’s turret for a number of hours afterwards and the sight of his dead body gave rise to the nickname “Dead Man’s Corner”. The house was eventually captured on June 7th after German troops suffered heavy losses from aerial bombardment. Over 100 Germans were killed at this strategic location before the German paratrooper battalion defending it surrendered to the Americans. After the war, the house was re-built and turned into a museum with German memorabilia on the first floor and American memorabilia on the 2nd floor. Recently, a bigger museum has been constructed beside the original Dead Man’s Corner museum and there were a lot of tourists about as I cycled past.

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Start of the Liberty Road at Utah Beach. The “Voie de la Liberte” goes all the way from here to Bastogne in Belgium for a total distance of 1,145 km. Officially, the “Voie de la Liberte” starts 10 km away in the town of Sainte Mere Eglise where American paratroopers landed around midnight on D-Day. However, a spur has been added to the Liberty Road which starts here at Utah Beach. Between Carentan and Utah Beach, I had passed one of these milestone markers called “Borne” every kilometer eventhough this stretch is not on the official route. This borne is officially Borne 00 whereas the Borne in Sainte Mere Eglise is officially Borne 0. Where Jason Borne is located, I have no idea and I don’t think the CIA know either.

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Utah Beach memorial near Saint Martin de Varreville. This memorial is located about 2 km from the main American memorial for Utah Beach. Despite the American flag, this is predominately a French memorial and commemorates the French 2nd Division who were transferred from Africa to Normandy a month after D-Day and who landed here on the 1st August 1944. This division commanded by General Leclerc would go onto liberate Paris on August the 25th. I think this memorial was installed in time for the 70th anniversary of the French 2nd Division landing in 2014, which was attended by hundreds of veterans from WW2.

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World War 2 gun emplacement near Quineville. This casemate is about 10 km from Utah Beach so I doubt if it was targeted during D-Day. It was obviously part of Nazi Germany’s Atlantic Wall but it’s crumbling state is probably more due to the weather and the numerous storms the last 70 years than anything that happened it in World War 2. It has been painted with a peace mural but that too has succumbed to erosion as the concrete under it crumbles. After cycling 120 km today, I felt a bit like how this gun emplacement looked. Fortunately, my campsite for the night  was only about 1 km away from this casemate at the municipal campsite in Quineville.