SSNS Home > Senior Years > Curricula 9-12 > Grade 11 > Canadian History > Battlefields Tour > 19 July 2010


19 July 2010, Monday
La Cambe German Military Cemetery, Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery, and the Musée du Débarquement
by Raymond Shirritt-Beaumont


This was another interesting day. I was up early and went on a walk of discovery to the ancient church at Vaucelles before I had breakfast and made my lunch. The graveyard has many interesting old grave markers as well as a plaque on one of the church walls commemorating the local soldiers and civilians who gave their lives in WWI and WWII. These memorials are everywhere, not just in France, but also in England, as my family and I found out in August.

We began our tour at the La Cambe German Military Cemetery. It is located about 25 km west of Bayeux, in the opposite direction from the route we took yesterday. It was a lovely drive there through beautiful pastoral scenery. When we arrived, I realised that I had forgotten my camera, which was disappointing as there was much to record. This cemetery was a bit of a puzzle. I liked its stark simplicity, which has a beauty of its own, but there was something disturbing about it, too. Maybe it was those stone crosses – rough-cut, crudely shaped, and black. Maybe it was the large tumulus at the centre of the cemetery with its dark cross and equally dark statues. What message did it convey? Was it grief at losing the war, or was it repentance for having started it in the first place? I couldn’t be sure. The sign at the entrance uses “melancholy rigour” to describe the feel of the place, and calls it “a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight.” Nowhere did I see any assumption of responsibility for the war itself. Perhaps it would have muted the uneasy feeling I had when I saw the flowers some worshipper had laid at the grave of the notorious Michael Witmann.

Our next stop was north about 13 km to St. Laurent-sur-Mer and Omaha Beach, where the American forces came ashore. We drove down into the town and walked to a pill box above the beach area. It had a big gun that could blow up a Sherman tank at the other end of the beach, which looked to be a number of kilometres away. It did not fire out to sea, but was positioned to guard the beach. There were machine gun positions on the bluff above the beach as well. There had been a big storm the day before that cancelled the operation, and the seas were still so rough that only two of forty tanks made it to the shore without sinking. They did a little damage, but were soon disabled. Without tank support, the first waves of soldiers were annihilated, but eventually enough got ashore to make a bridgehead. About 75% of the landing forces were casualties, with 2000 killed and 6000 wounded.

The Normandy American Cemetery outside of St. Laurant-sur-Mer is very different from the German cemetery at La Cambe. The interpretive centre tells the story of Omaha Beach in film and displays, and I particularly liked the focus on individual Americans who lost their lives in Normandy. It made the visit more personal. In an effort to make a similar connection at La Cambe, I had looked for soldiers with the same German surname as my brother-in-law. I found a couple; however, there was nothing more about them. They seemed lost in the shadows of that lonely place. By contrast, the American soldiers highlighted at the interpretive centre had faces and histories that connected me to all. This connection was reinforced when I finally left the centre and headed for the cemetery itself. There was only time to see the entrance, but it reminded me of the Mall in Washington, D.C. I have walked the entire length of that Mall, an awesome place, and the Lincoln Memorial epitomises all that is good in our neighbour to the south. The cemetery mall reflects those ideals that sent soldiers to Normandy to fight for liberty. It proudly honours them, and even though I did not have time to visit the white crosses beyond the entrance, I felt a sense of peace.

After visiting the American Cemetery, we travelled east about 13 km to visit the Longues-sur-Mer German Battery, which is hidden behind a cliff overlooking the English Channel. Four guns encased in cement bunkers pointed out to sea, but on D-Day, they were silenced by British and French cruisers and captured the following day. One of the bunkers and its 150 mm gun was virtually destroyed by a direct hit, so little of it remains today, but the other three are still relatively intact. In spite of their intimidating size, they were sitting ducks that did not long survive the continuous bombardment from destroyers on the channel. It must have been a grave disappointment to the military planners who designed them.

From here, we travelled a further 6 km east to Arromanches where the Musée du Débarquement [Video in French] is located. It provided a wonderful overview of D-Day. I watched a film and saw models of the Mulberry harbour and a temporary installation that was created in Britain, then brought over by boat and assembled in a matter of days, so that supplies and reinforcements could be landed for the invasion. It was amazing. There were all kinds of tourists at the museum, and I met an English couple, one of whose father had landed there with the British forces. Many people make the pilgrimage to this place.

It had been a hot day, so after leaving the museum, most of us sampled the menu at the ice-cream parlour across the parking lot. Since we were only ten km from Bayeux, it did not take long to return. A trip to LeClairs for groceries, a fine supper, and a walk ended the day. The walk was particularly interesting. Karen and I went up to the church, accompanied by Debbie W. and Diane L. After I showed them what I had discovered that morning, Debbie and Diane went off in another direction. Karen and I went across the road to investigate a very old set of buildings that caught our eye. It turned out to be farm buildings surrounding a central courtyard. The gate to this enclosure was open, and our attention was immediately drawn to a round three story tower that looked like it might be defensive in nature. Although curious, we did not feel comfortable about going inside. Fortunately, the owner, a retired chemical engineer, appeared and gave us a tour. The defensive tower turned out to be a pigeon loft, which was in service when these birds were raised for food. We managed to communicate badly in broken French, but enough to find out that the gentleman had a cousin who owned a château up the road. This was exciting, as Debbie had been trying all day to get a picture of one. We found it in a matter of minutes, and it was all we had hoped for. After taking a few pictures, we returned home, quite delighted that we could direct Debbie to her prize!

The ancient parish church of Vaucelles
A view inside the courtyard of the farm Karen and I visited in Vaucelles
A view of the buildings to the left of the front gate
The chateau up the road
Another view of the chateau from across a field