The Longest Day: A Tour of the Most Famous D-Day Sights

In this destination guide, we will tour around the most famous D-Day sights in Normandy, France.

D-Day

June 6th will always be remembered as D-Day. On this day in 1944, the Allied forces landed in Normandy to open up a new European front to push Hitler’s armies back.

Codenamed Operation Neptune, the Normandy landings were the largest seaborne assault in history. After some bloody fighting on the beaches the success of the invasion hung in the balance.

Fortunately, due to the bravery and perseverance of the Allied soldiers, the Nazis were ultimately unable to drive the Allies back into the sea.

Operation Neptune and the D-Day landings were the initial phase of Operation Overlord, which had the objective to establish secure, large-scale lodgement on French soil.

The US, British, Canadian and Free French Forces were eventually able to establish a foothold in Normandy and slowly began to push back the Nazis towards the German frontier, with Paris being liberated just 2.5 months after D-Day.

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American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach. ©Robert F. Sargent/US Coast Guard

A trip to Normandy

It being the 6th of June 2021 today, I thought it would be a good idea to recall a trip I made to Normandy in 2019, exactly 75 years after the D-Day landings.

I always had a deep interest in D-Day, which was probably sparked by the excellent 1962 film The Longest Day, starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda and a young Sean Connery among others.

On my trip, I would retrace some of the most famous D-Day locations where some of the most famous scenes from the ‘The Longest Day’ – and thus World War II history – took place.

In total, I spent five days in Normandy, which has a lot more to offer than just World War II history. Even when it comes to D-Day and the Second World War, there are so many sights, museums and other points of interest that you can easily spend a week in Normandy touring everything.

As all the D-Day sights are spread out across Normandy, it’s easiest if you pick a town as your base and make day trips from there. Having a car is an absolute must in order to get most out of the trip, as public transport is non-existent in smaller towns and villages.

Omaha Beach

Of the five Normandy landing beaches (from west to east Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword), fighting was heaviest at Omaha Beach.

The US 4th Infantry Division was tasked to take this beach, but stiff German defences and an unfavourable terrain with large rocky cliffs made a break-out from the beach a Herculean task.

The American landing forces were not helped by the fact that many landing craft missed their targets due to difficulties in navigation, which resulted in their forces being spread out over different sectors and a lack of tanks and other heavy weapons to dislodge the Nazis from their bunkers.

At one moment during the battle, it seemed that the American forces were unable to get off the beach as all attempts to storm the German defences had failed.

Partly thanks to the use of Bangalore torpedoes, the American engineers finally managed to blow up a hole in the German defence lines, which lead to a breakthrough in the fight.

If you want to visit Omaha Beach, you are well-advised to stop both at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer as well as in Vierville-sur-Mer.

Vierville has the easiest and best access to the actual beach, while Colleville is home to one of Normandy’s most famous sights and a couple of bunkers.

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Omaha Beach as seen from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan
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Omaha Beach. ©Paliparan
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A bunker at Omaha Beach. ©Paliparan
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The defence line at Omaha Beach – part of the Nazi Atlantic Wall which stretched from Norway to south-eastern France – consisted of bunkers, pillboxes, barbed wire, mine fields, machine gun nests and artillery positions. ©Paliparan
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Omaha Beach. ©Paliparan
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Omaha Beach. ©Paliparan
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Omaha Beach at the town of Vierville-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan
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Monument in Vierville-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan
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Omaha beach at Vierville-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan

American cemetery

Overlooking Omaha Beach down the cliffs, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer is perhaps the most famous of all D-Day sights.

This cemetery is perhaps the greatest reminder of the sacrifices made by the Allied soldiers. The rows of white gravestones are nearly endless.

Many of the tombstones have the names of fallen soldiers on them, while others just have the text ‘known but to God’ on them, marking a grave with unidentified remains.

The cemetery is painstakingly maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) and sees over one million visitors a year, making it their most visited cemetery.

Local French families have even adopted graves here and regularly lay flowers when the American families of fallen soldiers are not able to do this themselves.

There is a visitor’s centre and museum at the cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer which tells the entire story of the Omaha Beach landings.

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The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer overlooks Omaha Beach. ©Paliparan
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The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan
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In total, 9,388 fallen soldiers are buried at the American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan
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Endless rows of white crosses at the American cemetery. ©Paliparan
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The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan
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It’s an impressive sight to walk through the endless rows of tombstones. ©Paliparan
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Small French and American flags put at one of the tombstones. Many locals have adopted one or even multiple graves to take care after. ©Paliparan
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The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan
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The cemetery is a sobering sight. ©Paliparan
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Some headstones feature the Star of David to commemorate a fallen Jewish soldier. ©Paliparan
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The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy. ©Paliparan
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The Omaha Beach visitor’s centre at the American Cemetery. ©Paliparan

German cemetery

Close to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery you can find the La Cambe German War Cemetery.

Located just off the main N13 motorway, La Cambe is the largest of the German cemeteries in Normandy, with 21,222 people being buried here.

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La Cambe German War Cemetery. ©Paliparan
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La Cambe German War Cemetery. ©Paliparan

Overlord Museum

One of the finest of all D-Day museums is the Overlord Museum located in the small village of Le Bray.

The Overlord Museum is the kind of museum which both adults as well as children will appreciate as it mixes tanks, weapons and visual exhibits with a lot of information and personal accounts of soldiers involved in the landings.

There are plenty more similar D-Day sights and museums across Normandy. When driving around, you will encounter both single objects such as tanks beside the road, as well as some small museums, some of them not larger than a single room.

Many of these museums are lovingly taken care after by local enthusiasts and are often dedicated to a certain stage of the D-Day landings.

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An American Sherman tank in front of the Overlord Museum. ©Paliparan
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Flak anti-aircraft gun. ©Paliparan
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Tanks and armoured vehicles outside the Overlord Museum. ©Paliparan
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Exhibits at the Overlord Museum. ©Paliparan
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Overlord Museum. ©Paliparan
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The Overlord Museum also tells the tales of individual soldiers, such as here in this case about Bill Millin. ©Paliparan

Hold until relieve

D-Day was not only fought at the beaches but also inland. Before the landings, paratroopers were dropped to secure key points such as crossroads and bridges.

The British also used silent glider planes to drop soldiers in Normandy in the night before the landings. Such gliders were for example used to capture Pegasus Bridge, a strategic objective located just outside the village of Bénouville.

This bridge over the Caen Canal was captured by the airborne forces led by Major John Howard. They caught the Germans by surprise with a daring night-time crash-landing in a field next to the bridge, preventing the enemy forces from blowing up the vital transport link.

At first light, the commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade were among the forces who landed on Sword Beach. They were tasked to go inland to relieve Howard’s airborne forces.

This brigade was led by Brigadier Simon Fraser, better known as the 15th Lord Lovat of the Clan Fraser of Lovat.

The Scottish commander was famously accompanied by his personal piper Bill Millin, who played the bagpipes not only during marches but even when landing at their Normandy beach under fire.

When the situation at the bridge seemed to become desperate with the Germans preparing to launch another counterattack, Lovat’s forces finally arrived to relieve the British airborne soldiers.

This episode of D-Day was immortalised in the film ‘The Longest Day’, with Major Howard repeating the orders he received (“hold until relieve”) just after the arrival of Lord Lovat.

The scene is so quintessentially British, with Lord Lovat (amicably called ‘Shimi’ by Howard) saying “sorry I’m late old boy” as he arrives under fire while Millin plays ‘Black Bear’ on his bagpipes. Lovat was supposed to have arrived at noon according to the invasion plans, but only managed to arrive shortly after 1pm.

It’s my favourite scene from the film and I certainly enjoyed seeing the location in real. At Sword Beach you can even find a statue of Bill Millin playing his bagpipes.

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Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal. ©Paliparan
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Pegasus Bridge. ©Paliparan
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A statue of Major John Howard at Pegasus Bridge. ©Paliparan
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Bill Millin statue at Sword Beach. ©Paliparan
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Sword Beach. ©Paliparan

Arromanches

After visiting the Pegasus Bridge and Sword Beach, it was time to drive onward to the cute seaside town of Arromanches-les-Bains where I would visit another D-Day sight.

One of the main objectives of Operation Overlord was to secure a deep sea port, which was vital for logistics. The nearest port was Cherbourg, which the Allies only managed to capture after a month of hard fighting in Normandy.

Unfortunately, the Germans had mined and wrecked the port, making it unusable for the Allies for another two months.

Because of this, the Allies constructed an artificial port (better known as a Mulberry Harbour) at Arromanches. A Mulberry Harbour basically consists out of huge floating concrete caissons, which were towed by ships from England and assembled on location in Normandy.

Some sections of the Mulberry Harbour can still be seen on the beach as well as further out in the sea.

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Driving to Arromanches across the Normandy coast. ©Paliparan
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Arromanches-les-Bains. ©Paliparan
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Arromanches-les-Bains. ©Paliparan
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Anti-aircraft gun in Arromanches-les-Bains. ©Paliparan
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Remains of the Mulberry Harbour on the beach of Arromanches-les-Bains. ©Paliparan
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A M4 Sherman tank in Arromanches-les-Bains. ©Paliparan
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A picturesque view over Arromanches-les-Bains. ©Paliparan

Coastal batteries

Halfway between Arromanches-les-Bains and Omaha Beach you can find the coastal batteries of Longues-sur-Mer. These are some of the best-preserved German defence works and give you an impression how fortified some stretches of the Atlantic Wall were.

The battery at Longues-sur-Mer battery was able to shell both the beaches of Omaha and Gold. The guns could fire around 6 to 8 shells a minute, which were able to hit targets up to 20 kilometres (12 miles) away.

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The coastal battery of Longues-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan
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The coastal battery of Longues-sur-Mer. ©Paliparan

Sainte-Mère-Église

Those who have watched ‘The Longest Day’ will surely be familiar with the town name of Sainte-Mère-Église.

American paratroopers were supposed to capture the town the night before D-Day, but many troopers overshot their landing zone and were accidentally dropped right into the heart of town.

That night, some buildings in the town centre were on fire, illuminating the skies above. It made the paratroopers sitting ducks for the German garrison in town and dozens of American soldiers were slaughtered.

One paratrooper named John Steele had his parachute entangled with a church tower spire. Steele tried to cut himself loose, but when he saw that everyone was getting slaughtered by the Germans he knew it would be suicidal for him to do, so he just pretended to be dead while hanging down from the church tower.

Later in the morning, the Germans found out that the man hanging from the steel tower was actually alive and Steele was taken prisoner.

He then managed to escape, rejoining the other paratroopers of his regiment which managed to land at their designated dropping zones outside of town. They then successfully managed to capture Sainte-Mère-Église.

The failed paradrop is also immortalised in ‘The Longest Day’. In the film, Steele is also pictured at a later stage during the battle, being temporarily deafened from the sound of the church bells which kept ringing the entire night.

Steele, who died in 1969, is still commemorated in Sainte-Mère-Église. A dummy depicting him can still be seen hanging with a parachute from the church tower and also the local café has been named after Steele.

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The church of Sainte-Mère-Église. ©Paliparan
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A dummy depicting John Steele can still be seen hanging from the church tower of Sainte-Mère-Église. ©Paliparan
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Inside the church of Sainte-Mère-Église. ©Paliparan
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Sainte-Mère-Église. ©Paliparan

Utah Beach

As there are so many D-Day sights in Normandy, you have to be selective which ones you want to see. The last D-Day sight I went to on my trip was Utah Beach, a short distance to the north-east from Sainte-Mère-Église.

When driving across Normandy you are at all times reminded of the events on the 6th June 1944. Even the smallest of villages have some monuments dedicated to the American, British, Canadian and Free French forces which liberated them from Nazi rule.

With so many monuments, even some relatively unknown unsung heroes get their rightful place of honour in Normandy.

One great example is the statue of Andrew Jackson Higgins at Utah Beach. He was the designer and manufacturer of the landing crafts used at D-Day – which were called ‘Higgins Boats’.

Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces (and later US President) Dwight D. Eisenhower even said that Higgins was “the man who won the war for us”.

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A war monument in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. ©Paliparan
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Utah Beach. ©Paliparan
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Utah Beach. ©Paliparan
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Utah Beach. ©Paliparan
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Statue of Andrew Jackson Higgins at Utah Beach. ©Paliparan
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Utah Beach memorial. ©Paliparan
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Another statue at Utah Beach. ©Paliparan
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Utah Beach. ©Paliparan
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Utah Beach. ©Paliparan

Conclusion

There are so many great D-Day sights spread out across Normandy, that you can easily make a multiple-day tour along all these beaches, monuments, museums and other places of interest.

In fact, there are so many D-Day sights in Normandy that you may want to limit yourself to a handful of them which are of the biggest personal interest to you.

This way you don’t have have rush from place to place, have more time to absorb the sights, and perhaps most important of all prevent your mind getting overloaded with World War II information and sights.

Although there are lots of great museums and memorials along the Normandy coast, many of them tell more or less the same story and show similar artefacts, which is another reason to be selective.

Whatever you choose to visit, it is a must to put some of the D-Day beaches as well as the large American cemetery at Omaha Beach on your Normandy itinerary. At these places, you really get a lasting impression what kind of sacrifices were made by the Allied soldiers to liberate us in Europe from the Nazis.

Simply put, you are not only paying your respect to all those people who lost their lives and who gave their service to the cause of liberty, it’s also a sobering moment to make you realise that freedom is not a given and must be cherished and protected.

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Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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