The shores of Arromanches
It’s not long after dawn yet I’m not the only one on the beach. Others had the same idea and together we gather in a respectful silence at the exact time – 7.25am on June 6 – that British troops first set foot in Normandy in 1944.
Known as Operation Overlord, D-Day was the biggest invasion ever planned with the goal of liberating northwestern Europe from Nazi occupation.
It’s a chapter of history revealed in the new movie Churchill, starring Brian Cox, which follows the hours leading up to the moment when 156,115 troops bravely bounded ashore.
Brian Cox as Winston Churchill
And just like that fateful day 73 years ago, a storm has just passed. The wind howls and the sky is as grey as the sea but there’s still beauty within the bleakness of Arromanches beach. Once a busy fishing port, there’s a long stretch of sand that delights visiting families and a seafront lined with romantic Belle Époque mansions.
I ponder the past and stretch my legs along a walking trail that leads to a cliff-top lookout from which I get a bird’s-eye view.
Looking down towards the sweeping bay below, I can see the remains of Mulberry Harbour, an ambitious and artificial structure specially constructed to bring troops and supplies ashore once the beach was taken.
Today, parts sit on the shore collecting seaweed and barnacles.
Chateau la Cheneviere in Port-en-Bessin
Almost everywhere here, even the unlikeliest of places, has a story to tell.
At lunch at Château la Chenevière, a peaceful country house hotel in Port-en-Bessin, we heard how it had been taken over by the Germans, who no doubt enjoyed its 18th century surroundings and gardens of sequoia and ginkgo bilobas.
Another important location of the D-Day landings was Juno Beach, where losses were heavy. At the Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer a proud fi lm explains the events and considerable achievements of the young Canadian army who fought here.
Outside, guided tours also reveal the remains of a German observation bunker, command post and tunnels.
Step back in time at the white cliffs and sweeping bay of Etretat
Courseulles-sur-Mer itself is considerably bigger than it was in 1944 with lots of holiday apartments, two marinas and rows of pretty beach huts.
As the weather improves, the welcome appearance of the sun means the sea is suddenly busy with pleasure boats.
Other areas of the coast, including Utah and Omaha beaches, had been assigned to the Americans.
At Utah, the tides that night had swept the men slightly south of their original target, which turned out to be more lightly defended so losses were less than they might have been.
A bunker they captured in just 45 minutes is now part of the Utah Beach D-Day Museum at Plage de la Madeleine.
Normandy American cemetery
The latter, meanwhile, became known as Bloody Omaha due to the bombardments and full-scale carnage that ensued. The losses were so great it would be years before locals used the beach again but this beautiful patch of golden sand is now well-used.
Venturing away from the coast I follow a path to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer where many of those lost now lie.
In all, there are 9,387 graves: row upon row of neat white crosses that made for the most sobering of sights. But it’s perhaps at Pointe du Hoc that the most visible scars can be seen. Here, goats graze on a landscape that remains pitted with bomb craters and shell holes.
The mission facing 225 elite US Rangers that day was one of the most dangerous, as they were to scale sheer cliffs in order to attack.
At the Rangers’ Monument I peer down at a vertical drop to a rocky beach and can’t imagine how anyone could climb up, under withering fire, in just 20 minutes. But somehow they did.
Normandy still bears many scars of that day and while it is indeed its dramatic and significant history that brings people here, it is also a place that has reinvented itself.
I take one final stroll along the beach, watching families build sandcastles and paddle in the shallows. The sound of laugher now plays out where once only the cries of battles could be heard. It’s a place to be enjoyed once again, a feat made possible by some very brave souls.
Brittany Ferries (0330 159 4500/ brittany-ferries.co.uk) offers three nights from £230 (two sharing), B&B. Price includes ferry crossing with a car from Portsmouth. Normandy Tourist Board: en.normandy-tourism.fr