Highlights of France | Normandy Beaches

Highlights of France | Normandy Beaches

The Normandy beaches in northwestern France were the location of D-Day during World War II, the historic simultaneous landings of Allied troops that liberated Western Europe and eventually put an end to the Nazi Reich.

History of Normandy

Even prior to the D-Day landings, the Normandy coast was the site of incredible human drama and history, battered by the raids of successive foreign rulers. Conquered by Julius Caesar in 52 BC, Normandy became a Roman province. During the 4th century AD, the raiding Germanic tribes from the north-east eventually overcame the Roman legions, and in the 5th century it passed to the Frankish kingdom of Neustria. Clovis, King of the Franks, came to power, introducing Christianity to the region.

From the 8th century onwards, the Norsemen (Vikings) led annual raids into Normandy. In 911 one of their leaders, Rollo, signed a treaty with the King of West Francia and Lotharingia (Lorraine), Charles the Simple. Charles belonged to the Carolingian dynasty and ceded parts of what is now northern France to Rollo. The Norsemen settled in the region, adapting the French language and customs. This area would become known as “Normandy”, and the Viking settlers “Normans”.

Harold swearing an oath to William of Normandy
A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Harold swearing an oath to William of Normandy. Harold later accepted the English crown as Harold II, and William readied his forces for invasion. Photo source.

After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror (Duke William of Normandy) became King of England, and Normandy became part of a larger Norman/English domain. It reverted to France in 1204 when it was re-taken by Philippe Auguste.

The Hundred Years’ War gave the English brief possession at various times. The Hundred Years’ War was a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Plantagenet, rulers of the Kingdom of England, against the French House of Valois. There were two points of conflict: one, the duchy of Guyenne (or Aquitaine) belonged to the kings of England but remained a fiefdom of the French crown, and the English kings wanted exclusive ownership; two, as the closest relatives of the last direct king of the House of Capet (Charles IV, who died in 1328), the kings of England from 1337 claimed the crown of France.

In 1450, Normandy finally returned to France and the duchy ceased in 1469, with the French crown ruling it as a province. The 17th century saw much of the exploration to the New World depart from the ports of Normandy.

Normandy Invasion and the D-Day Landings

Although it escaped the ravages of the First World War, Normandy did not fare well during the Second. As the Germans advanced to the coast in 1940, much of the region was bombed or burnt to the ground.

Normandy features steep, 100-metre high cliffs (falaises) of the Pays de Caux (the “land of chalk”) extending to the coast of the English Channel.

The cliffs of Pays de Caux, Normandy, France
The cliffs of Pays de Caux, Normandy, France

Normandy can be divided into upper and lower regions, each with distinctive landscapes and topography. The coastline of north-west Normandy is much indented with rocky inlets; in the east it is flat and sandy with the world-famous tides experienced at places like Mont St Michel.

Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France
Panoramic view of famous Le Mont Saint-Michel tidal island on a sunny day with blue sky and clouds, Normandy, northern France.

The chain of beaches where the landings occurred were known as the Côte du Calvados. At the time of the Allied landings dubbed “Operation Overlord”, very few towns in Lower Normandy were left intact. On June 6, 1944, thousands of US, British, and Canadian paratroopers and infantry on landing craft and various air, water, and land vessels landed on five separate Normandy beaches, code-named:

  • Utah Beach
  • Omaha Beach
  • Gold Beach
  • Juno Beach
  • Sword Beach

The American troops who landed at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula unfortunately suffered early casualties through drowning. The Allied forces suffered more casualties against German attack as the troops moved further inland from the Normandy beaches to Paris.

Arromanches les Bains, Normandy, France.
Arromanches les Bains, seafront beach and remains of the artificial harbour, used on D-Day in World War II. Normandy, France.

By the end of August 1944, all of northern France was liberated, and the invading forces re-organised for the drive into Germany, where they would eventually meet with Soviet forces advancing from the east to bring an end to the Nazi Reich.

Remembering the D-Day Landings

Today, remnants of the “longest day” remain on the Normandy beaches, from the military cemetery, the final resting place of the fallen soldiers, to the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy.

The year 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and in Normandy it was commemorated with several events, including a silent vigil and a re-enactment of the paratroopers’ descent to northern France, jumping from transport planes wearing World War II uniforms.

Articles about the Normandy Beaches and France published by Odyssey Traveller.

The following list of articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of France when visiting:

External articles to assist you on your visit to the Normandy Beaches and France.

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