72 years ago as I write the largest airborne force in history was getting ready for J-day (or night). The plan was to secure the flanks of the invasion beaches while seizing and holding key objectives. The troops of the American and British airborne, were a highly trained and aggressive elite well suited to the task. In both the American and British sectors the Germans had flooded the countryside and had moved their own elite formations, 21st Panzer and 6th Fallschirmjager into the respective areas.
This caused concern among the allies that the planned invasion may well have been compromised, however the Germans were as it turned out wrong footed by the invasion, This coupled with the skill and determination of the attacking forces meant that on both flanks the objectives were met and the beach assaults secured.
The events of the 5th and 6th of June 1944 are well enough covered in many books for all three armies, from the German side “Lions of Carentan” and “Panzer Commander” give vivid insight into the chaos , ferocity and confusion of the fighting while the Allied view of events in recounted in multiple books, and the HBO TV series “Band of Brothers” (which makes it all look rather easy).
The modern visitor will be rewarded with excellent museums and a range of historical sites all within fairly easy walking or driving distance. Normandy was, and still is, a fairly poor area of France but even though the coastal areas have developed over the decades, the area around the airborne landings have retained enough of their character to give a good impression of the situation in 1944.
The area on the American right flank (from the U.K.) is an area of marais or marsh with scattered villages with house made from stone. Ste Mere Eglise has changed a great deal and is dominated by a large airborne museum with massive car park with the very rare French parking meter. In the village square traces of the fighting are still present including bullet and shrapnel strikes on the church and railings.
Many of the local villages have an airborne theme and the entire area seems very well set up for tourists. Carentan itself features a tour of the main battle sites and the excellent “Deadman’s corner museum“.
The Airborne museum is a large and expanding site, it features an area dedicated to the events in St Mere Eglise, including contemporary photos and local finds, it also has a more general “airborne”
section about American Airborne forces. There are a series of excellent dioramas and a selection of vehicles.
German equipment including some very poor quality uniforms is also given a fair bit of space. The museum and area is very busy and feels a bit like a big WW2 theme park. The wild Utah beach is a short drive away and has a great many bunkers, barbed wire and Tobruk turrets.
Deadman’s corner has had an extensive renovation, the original house is now used for the excellent gift shop and for the small German collection.
The museum is a very intimate and personal collection focusing largely on the famous “Easy Company”, uniforms and effects of named and photographed soldiers give the collection a very intense air, especially as many of the men died in the operation. The museum also has a full sized aeroplane simulation of the drop. This is surprisingly intense and even veterans of the drops have remarked on how realistic it is. The museum can be visited as part of a tour of the battlefield and there are monuments scattered around Carentan. Though the town has grown it is still very possible to get a good sense of what it was like in 1944.
The countryside around this sector is little developed and flat and marshy is criss crossed with narrow roads, I suspect, judging by the car parks, that it gets very busy in the summer. The Normandy Tank museum is close by which has a Panzer IV and a superb collection of American vehicles.
Then as now the Allied left flank is a more populated and industrial area. Pegasus bridge is very close to the Ouistream ferry terminal but is a major museum so should not be done “on the way”.
The Bridge has been changed though the modern bridge is very similar to the original and the sites of the glider landings are marked with monuments. It is truly incredible how close the gliders landed to the bridge and needs to experienced rather than told. There is a shop and original cafe on the west bank. The museum features a large collection of British and some German equipment. There are many original artefacts from the intense fighting here, including a rather sobering grave marker.
The museum also features a really inspiring (I’m quite an unpatriotic sort but even my stony heart was
moved) film and diorama. Outside is a remade Horsa glider, parts of the originals, British armour and guns and the original bridge complete with battle damage. The surrounding area is much as it was featuring low lying, deadly marshy fields.
Full of patriotic fire the boy and I went onto Merville battery. This is a superbly preserved German battery about 15 or so minutes from Pegasus though you will need to pay attention to the road signs! The gun positions are preserved as closely as possible, several are set up as small museums. Though the gun used to illustrate one of the positions is British enough has been preserved so you can make sense of what things were used for, it helped me interpret other local sites too.
The signs are largely in French but there is a good explanation of the (truly incredible) battle that took place there. Not for the first time at a WW2 battle sites have I wondered how anyone survived.
Modern housing in now very close to the battery but does not interfere with appreciation of the site and battle.
There is a very well preserved gun silo which has a ferocious AV representation of the battle, I was warned (most sternly) not to go in with my son. Even from the outside it was heart thumpingly intense. It’s is a real education to see a German position retained a close a possible to how it was in 1944, there is also a great deal of personal information about the Germans who lived worked and died at the battery including personal photos and effects.
I knew far less about the British sector, but was actually amazed at the professionalism of the drop and the incredibly audacious capture of the German battery at Merville.
The American side is very much easier to imagine as it was, the countryside is beautiful the museums large and well presented. The British sector is somewhat less beautiful being (as it was) an industrial area though is pleasantly well ordered French suburbs, with easier driving.
The museums are fantastic though clearly deal with fewer visitors. By a long way the gift shop at Deadman’s corner is the best, featuring uniforms and de-activated firearms the other gift shops feature the standard D-day fare.
To get the most out of one’s visit I would give both sectors a full day, discount museum tickets are available and the museums overlap somewhat but do maintain enough variation to make visiting a few worthwhile. For example,Utah museum features remade beach defences and a fair bit of information on the resistance, the airborne museum gives a broad overview of the American forces with some truly sinister German artefacts, plus an excellent section on propaganda,
while Deadman’s corner is a detailed and evocative view at one part of the overall battle. . Unlike many of the Normandy battlefields the airborne areas remain somewhat similar to how they were, the battle were small enough to comfortably travel around and to comprehend. The scale of the loss at places like StLo or Caen is numbing but given the size of the fighting forces on the flanks it is personal enough to be emotionally affected by the heroism and loss of the men who fought and died in these now peaceful towns and fields.
Embedded links will take you to the web pages of the relevant museums.