Reflecting on D-Day

Today we hopped on our bikes again to head towards the Normandy coast. The morning was clear and still and mild, so much so that I actually started the ride in a t-shirt, which is a first for me, since I feel the cold so much. That just shows what a lovely morning it was. We headed off and the ride began with several of my favourite road features…roundabouts! All those supplies we had stocked up on from the supermarket were also in my front panniers, making the handlebars just that extra bit wobblier because of the added weight. As I was indicating with my arm on the roundabouts, I did veer towards the gutter a couple of times and had to do a swift two-handed save, abandoning my signalling in favour of self-preservation and remaining upright! Despite the odd swervy  bit here and there, I got round them all OK though.

We eventually made it onto a nice path beside the river and that was great. In fact, it was the start of what was an absolutely perfect ride on absolutely perfect day. The weather stayed warm and sunny and the path stayed flat and we had a sensational, relaxed ride through history. We rode into Ouistreham, one of the towns that was liberated on D-Day. It was also at Ouistreham where the only French soldiers landed on D-Day. There were only a handful of them and they were part of a British battalion and we stopped at a memorial recognising their contribution. The monument is a big flame, with the names of the French soldiers engraved on the side and marker stones for each of them too.

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We rode onto the next small town of Hermanville-sur-Mer, where we stopped for elevenses, sitting looking out over the beach. This was Sword Beach on D-Day and there were monuments here recognising the different battalions that had landed. One of them was a statue of a Scottish piper, Bill Millin, who was the personal piper of the Chief of the First Special Service Brigade and he was ordered to “pipe his commandos ashore.” Imagine that. In the chaos and fear of that landing, there was Bill Millin, playing his bagpipes and leading the way for the soldiers to follow. Courage.

Elevenses with Sword Beach behind us
Elevenses with Sword Beach behind us

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Something that I found quite touching as we saw various monuments during the day, was the number of them that simply ended with ‘Thank You’. The monuments may have said ‘in recognition of…’ ‘to acknowledge the…’ and so on, but so many of them also ended with those two simple words “Thank You” which I found quite poignant in their simplicity. It just showed how significant these events were to France and the people of Normandy in particular and how thankful and grateful they are for the role the Allies played in their liberation.

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We continued on, either riding right next to the beaches, or at times the route took us along roads through farmland. The farmland was just beautiful, with all the varied shades of green, the ploughed fields and yellow of what I think was rapeseed (canola). It was all so flat too and it didn’t take too much imagination to picture the troops storming across those fields and into the towns and villages.

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We stopped again when we reached the beginnings of what was Juno Beach on D-Day. Canadian troops landed here and there was a monument in recognition of that. One of the plaques said, “Stand for a moment and imagine what it must have been like when 800 men of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada stormed ashore at this very spot on 6th of June, 1944.” It wasn’t hard to imagine. There was also the remains of a German artillery bunker there, creating an even more real image of what occurred on that beach.

At one of the memorials at Juno Beach
At one of the memorials at Juno Beach

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A German bunker
A German bunker

From there we took a ride through the village of Bernieres-sur-Mer, which was liberated by the Canadian troops on D-Day. We rode up to the church, where there were also plaques showing photos of the tanks that had rolled into the Church Square after the landings. Some of the houses and shops were still flying American and Canadian flags from their outside walls.

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Houses still flying the American and Canadian flags
Houses still flying the American and Canadian flags

We continued riding along Juno Beach and stopped for lunch in Courseulles-sur Mer, outside the Centre Juno, which is a museum and series of memorials all for the Canadian troops who landed on D-Day. There was another German bunker here and plaques showing the names of all the Canadian soldiers who had landed on D-Day.

Another German bunker
Another German bunker
Inside the bunker
Inside the bunker

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The final beach from the D-Day landings that we visited today was Gold Beach at Arromanches, which was a British landing. We rode on into Arromanches, which became our pitstop campsite for the day after about 53km of leisurely riding through some amazing sites from history. It’s at Arromanches where there are remains of the floating harbour that was installed after the D-Day landings, to create a harbour for the supply and troop ships to land. It was called the Mulberry B and was inspired by none other than Winston Churchill himself. It was marshalled in the middle of the English Channel and then towed to the Normandy beach, where it was installed as a floating harbour. One of the plaques here says, “Without the Mulberry B, the liberation of Europe would not have been possible. The deeds of those who created, launched and planted Mulberry B remain unsurpassed in the annals of British Military Engineering.” 

Gold Beach with remains of the floating harbour in the background
Gold Beach with remains of the floating harbour in the background

After pitching the tent at our campsite and having a quick cuppa, we strolled down to the village and then walked along the beach to have a close-up look at some of the remains of the Mulberry B harbour. It was somewhat difficult to comprehend at times. I kept saying to Steve, “We’re walking on a Normandy beach! We’re walking on history. We’re looking at history. We’re here on a Normandy beach. A D-Day beach.” I couldn’t quite believe it. Who’d have thought, after all those documentaries I’ve seen and the dozens of times I’ve watched movies like Saving Private Ryan, that I would we walking on the spot that holds the stories behind those films and footage.

On the side of a building in Arromanches
On the side of a building in Arromanches
I'm not sure what Bill Price did but he's being thanked for being here as a 30 year old in 1944 and again when he returned as a 100 year old
I’m not sure what Bill Price did but he’s being thanked for being here as a 30 year old in 1944 and again when he returned as a 100 year old
On Gold Beach
On Gold Beach
Beside part of the Mulberry B floating harbour
Beside part of the Mulberry B floating harbour
I'm walking on a Normandy beach!
I’m walking on a Normandy beach!

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We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day to do what we did today. The weather was beautiful and the ride was leisurely, so we could stop and read and take in what we were seeing. It was also nice that the places we saw were not just turned on for tourists, although that was still around, but there was a genuine recognition and gratitude in the monuments and plaques and signs we saw, for what went on along this coast and the bravery and heroism of the Allied forces and what it has meant to the people of this region. So today, all I can say is I feel lucky and blessed to have been able to do this, to have been able to see and walk in such important and significant places and to just stand and reflect and visualise the events of seventy years ago. It’s been very special.

We’ve decided to stay another night at our campsite here and use it as a base. Tomorrow we will leave the tent and our gear behind and ride on to Omaha Beach and continue exploring the Normandy coast and its towns and villages, then return to Arromanches before we make our way back and continue heading East towards Peronne, over the next week.

So today was a day of learning, reflection and simply pausing to think. There was a lot to think about. It’s been an amazing day. Today I walked on a Normandy beach. Today I saw places from D-Day. Today I learnt about some amazing acts of courage and bravery. I’m very lucky. I’m very grateful. A memorable day. A perfect day.

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