D-Day 75th Anniversary sponsored by University of Maryland University College Europe

What to see and do during your trip for the 75th anniversary of D-Day: Part I

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

So you’ve managed to put those tricky lodging and transportation pieces together and it’s official — you’ll be making your way to Normandy for the blowout celebrations commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings! While the high points of the official celebration are slated for June 5 and 6 (Daks over Normandy paratroopers jump; international ceremony to be attended by Allied Heads of State), hopefully you’ve padded your schedule by several days on either end to take advantage of all the region has to offer, from sites awash in WWII military history to sampling gourmet specialties. Here are a few things to do while visiting beautiful Normandy for this spectacular event.

Visit U.S. military camp reconstructions, parachute drops and more

U.S. military camps will be temporarily set up at a number of locations including Sainte Marie du Mont (June 4-9), Carentan (June 1-10), Sainte Mère Eglise (June 1-9), Liesville sur Douve (June 4-9), Ecausseville (June 2-11) and Méautis (May 31-June 12). Utah Beach hosts Memory Field, a gathering presenting the U.S. and French armies of yesterday and today (June 4-9). Hiesville’s Colombière Castle is the site of the recreation of a U.S. Army field hospital (June 5-9). Watch parachute jumping by U.S. forces and civilians on June 5, 7 and 8. Around 1,000 American, British and German paratroopers jump and demonstration flights by the “Patrouille de France” and the Breitling Jet Team take place over Sainte Mère Eglise on June 9. A free concert featuring actors from the Band of Brothers takes place June 5 and award-winning films from the World War II International Film Festival shown are screened June 7; both events are free and take place in Carentan.

Visit the village of Sainte-Mère-Église

This village mentioned in records dating as far back as the 11th century A.D. played a poignant role in the D-Day invasions. At about 1:40 a.m. June 6, paratroopers descended into this town as many of its buildings were burning. The bright flames illuminating the sky made the paratroopers easy targets. Many got caught up in trees or utility poles and were shot before they could cut loose. The story of paratrooper John Steele, whose parachute got caught on the spire of the town’s church, hung there for hours pretending to be dead before he was taken prisoner, an incident made famous in the film The Longest Day.

Pay your respects at The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

This monument in Colleville-sur-Mer stands on the site of the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II and contains the graves of 9,380 U.S. military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. On the Walls of the Missing, 1,557 names are inscribed, with rosettes marking the names of those since recovered and identified. The Normandy Visitors Center houses exhibitions and shows three films. With about one million visitors each year, Normandy is the most visited cemetery of the American Battle Monuments Commission. World War II veterans of family members of those buried here wishing to attend the official commemoration ceremony on June 6 should keep an eye on this ABMC web page.

Learn about the fate of U.S. paratroopers in Graignes

A war memorial in Graignes commemorates the civilians and soldiers who perished following the invasion. Around 2 a.m. on June 6, 1944, 170 paratroopers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division parachuted into the flooded marshland around Graignes. After managing to regroup in darkness, guided by the distinctive sound of their metal clickers known as “crickets,” they headed towards the town, and with the help of the citizens, they treated their wounded and gathered provisions for the impending battle. Fighting began on June 10 when an American paratrooper shot two Germans approaching the town on motorcycle. On the following day, known as “Bloody Sunday,” the Germans launched an attack as the paratroopers were attending Mass with the local citizens, and before nightfall, they had seized control of the town. Several soldiers were captured or killed, while others went into hiding and later escaped through the marshlands. Prisoners were executed. Graignes was liberated on July 12, but not without heavy losses. About 30 Americans died in the fighting; every structure in town was damaged and a third of all buildings were completely destroyed.

Day trip to Mont-Saint-Michel

This island just a half mile off the coast has served as a fortress since times untold and was settled by a community of Benedictine monks in 966 A.D. In the 11th century, a Romanesque abbey church was founded atop some crypts and the first monastery buildings erected. A jumble of medieval structures stands to date, including an abbey on top and storehouses and living quarters for the community below. At high tide, the island would become inaccessible to friend or foe, lending it a natural defense system. The UNESCO-listed site is one of France's most recognizable landmarks and attracts in excess of 3 million visitors each year. From Utah Beach, the 100-mile drive to Mont-Saint-Michel is just over an hour and a half without traffic.

Discover the culinary delights of Calvados

Calvados is a “department” in the region of Normandy boasting of some 70 miles of coastline east of the D-Day landing beaches. The pretty area is known for its rural landscapes, charming towns and gourmet produce. Regional specialties include Calvados apple brandy and Camembert cheese, both of which can be discovered along tourist routes. To the east of Caen, the “Cider Trail” is a circuit along which some 20 cider producers and distillers of the “Cambremer Vintage” open their cellars and presses to tourists, encouraging them to try and buy their products.

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