A D-Day Travel Experience
A D-Day Travel Experience
The year 2009 marked the 65th anniversary of D-Day. No matter how much
you read, see and hear about this moment in history, only a visit to
Normandy can allow you to really appreciate the enormity of the task
performed by our brave men to keep the world free. And if you want to get
the best feel for the whole operation, you need to start where they did,
in England. As most flights from the US head to London in England,
that's where we will start.
Fly to London and plan on staying there for at least 2 or 3 days. This
will also help you to get over the jet lag. If you have never been to
London before, take the double decker sightseeing bus around London to
get a good view of all of the highlights of the city. A good part of
London to stay for the World War II places of interest is the South Bank
or near the river in the heart of London. The London Marriott County
Hall (see Marriot search box to the right) is a great choice, located on the river near the Westminster Bridge
with a stunning view of the Houses of Parliament out the front windows.
There are other hotels as well with varying price points.
There are 4 must sees on your D-Day itinerary: the Imperial War Museum,
the Cabinet War rooms, the HMS Belfast and the Britain at War
experience. These are included in the London Pass. If you are staying at the Marriott, it's a relatively short walk to the Imperial War Museum. This is the most comprehensive war museum including artillery, tanks, and a multitude of exhibits highlighting the different war arenas and types of battles, air, sea and land. During
2004 they have a special D-Day highlighted exhibit. The museum is free but spring for the audio headsets to get the most out of all the exhibits. Plan at least 2 hours or more for this museum.
The next place to visit would be the Cabinet War Rooms. This is Winston Churchill's World War II headquarters. You will enjoy seeing it as
it was then, with audio of the great man himself as you walk through
strategic parts of the museum. This museum is in the Whitehall complex
where much of the government buildings are today. It is across the
bridge from the Marriott and a short walk from there. As you head up
Parliament Street toward Whitehall your will see the Cenotaph--which is the
war memorial by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It is here that the Queen places the
wreath for the war dead each year on Veterans Day. Then go back a half
block to King Charles Street to proceed to the Cabinet War Rooms. Plan
at least an hour for this experience.
If you can see those two museums on one day, it will leave you the
Belfast and the Britain at War experience for the next day. The HMS
Belfast is by the famous London landmark Tower Bridge. It is also on the
South bank for entry to this historic ship. The Belfast participated in
D-Day, built in 1939 it was a World War II Cruiser and opened as a naval
museum in 1971. From here it is a short walk to the Britain at War
Experience which recreates the London Blitz and renders a deep insight
into the times that led up to D-Day.
Depending on your time allotted for your D-Day vacation, I would
recommend one more all day trip from your London base and that is Duxford, home of the Duxford Aviation Museum. The
museum is just outside of Cambridge and a mere 1 hour
train trip from London's King's Cross Station. The trains leave almost
every hour. When you arrive at Cambridge you can either take the C7
bus to the museum, or, on Sunday catch a complimentary bus outside the
train station. The C7 leaves from Emmanuel Street, just ask directions
at the station. These buses run every 20 minutes or so until 18:00. You
will find the effort well worth the trip. Duxford is one of the best
aviation museum complexes in the world. It includes an American aviation
building as well as a terrific tank museum. The tank museum is like
walking through a diorama. Get there early as there's a great deal to
see. When we visited we even got a chance to ride a vintage airplane over
historic Cambridge, what a thrill!!!
While you are in London you may want to see a play, an opera or a
concert or some of the other non-military museums, like the British Museum,
all of which are in easy reach of a centrally located hotel like the
Marriott. This should be day 3 (or 4 with Duxford) of your trip. Now that
you've gotten the background covered, time to head down to Portsmouth
on the English coast to see the beginning of the invasion. This journey
will begin at Waterloo station where you will catch the train to
Portsmouth. This trip is about and hour and a half, a good chance to view
the English countryside.
If you have a general interest in ships and naval history, you will
enjoy the Portsmouth Royal Navy Museum. Here you can become immersed in the rich history of the Royal Navy and view historic ships, including the Mary Rose and Nelson's HMS Victory. But if time is of the essence head
for the D-Day Museum. The centerpiece of the museum is a 272 ft.
tapestry depicting stirring scenes of Operation Overlord as the D-Day
endeavor was called. As you look at this masterpiece there is a "SoundAlive"
commentary to take you back to that day. The museum also has a unique
and dramatic film show that includes original, historic footage and
archive film to round out your experience. I would recommend staying the
night in Portsmouth, as you can leave your luggage at the hotel while you
visit the city. You can then head to Normandy the next morning. However, this
is decision time.
Your next decision is whether you want a day or night crossing of the
channel. This is not the shortest distance between the UK and France
which is why the Allies chose to land on the Normandy coast rather than
Dunkirk, the most likely spot. They believed that this provided the
best element of surprise. That said, a channel crossing is between 5 and
half and 8 and a half hours. The longer being overnight. You can use
it as your floating hotel, book a cabin and when you get up in the
morning you will be in Le Harve or Caen. If you are not a seaworthy
person, may I suggest you do a day trip to Portsmouth, keep your London
hotel, go back there for the night and take the Eurostar to Calais from
Waterloo Station the next day and rent a car from here to get you to the
Normandy area. You can also opt to go on to Paris and do day trips from
Paris to Normandy but it will severely limit your time as it requires
much daily travel time.
If you want the best D-Day experience you should definitely stay in
Normandy and take the Ferry over. The ferries put you right in the heart
of where you want to be. I personally would go into Le Harve, rent a
car there and drive to Honfleur as my base of operation. Honfleur is
one of the prettiest town's in France and it's on the waterfront. It's a
great place to come back to after a day of touring to have a relaxing
dinner and drink by the water. A truly charming hotel with a lot of
atmosphere in which to stay there is the La Ferme St-Simeon but there are
others in various price ranges. Caen is another nice alternative should
you decide to ferry there. It is even more conveniently located to the
D-Day attractions and has some reasonably priced hotels like the
Mercure and Le Relais des Gourmets. Caen is also steeped in history going
back to William the Conqueror. And despite the destruction of
three-quarters of the city in WW II, much of the creations of their ancient kings
So, whichever route you take, getting to Normandy will take a day, just
like it took the Allies! A car is essential for this journey as the
places are a bit spread out. It will also give you the most flexibility
to spend the amount of time you want to spend.There are 3 major
museums, the beaches and the cemetery which you will all want to see.
Depending on your depth of experience this can take 2 or 3 days.
There are over 20 museums on the Normandy Battlefield, the primary
museums are at St-Mere-Eglise, Caen and Bayeux with the additional, Musee
de la Liberation in Cherbourg. I would start at St-Mere-Eglise,
because this is how D-Day began, with the paratroopers. When you purchase
your ticket here ask for the flyer which gives you a reduced price entry
to the other Normandy battlefield museums. In St-Mere-Eglise there is
still a model of the paratrooper, John Steele, hanging from the church
tower just as he did on D-Day. The Musee Airborne is housed here. It is
made up of personal objects and touching testimonies of the American
liberators of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Paratrooper Divisions,and there
are examples of a WACO Glider and the C47 Transport. There is film
footage of that day as well. It will help you get a sense of the people
involved in this endeavor from the American paratroopers to the French
citizens of St-Mere-Eglise.
Next head to the beaches, Utah and Omaha were the site of the American
landing, while the British and Canadian troops landed on Juno, Gold and
Sword. You will view the German bunkers and gun emplacements, the Utach
Beach Federal Mounument, and Pointe du Hoc Federal Monument,
commemorating, LTC James E. Rudder's 2nd ranger Battalions scaling of the 100
foot cliffs. When you are driving all of these areas are well marked.
Continue on to Colleville-sur-mer where you will find the American
cemetery "Omaha Beach". And what an impressive place. The memorial consists
of a semi-circular colonnade with a loggia housing battle maps at each
end and a large bronze sculpture in the open are formed by its arc.
Centered in the open arc facing the graves is a 22 foot bronze statue, "The
Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves",looking out to a
reflecting pond and the graves. There is a visitor's building, tablets of
the missing, a chapel, the Unknown Soldier area and the simple marked
graves. The plantings and total landscape of the cemetery is beautiful
and meticulously maintained. It is truly an emotional experience with the
cemeteries on the hill looking out to the beaches where they fell.
The next day head to Bayeux and the Museum of the Battle of Normandy.
This museum tells the story of the Battle of Normandy - what fighting
took place beyond the well known events of D Day. Gathering together an
unprecedented collection of uniforms and equipment, the museum is
arguably the best in Normandy. Aside from the militaria, weapons and
vehicles, there are hundreds of photographs, maps and illustrations helping to
explain the events that took place in the summer of 1944. In addition
there is a film show, a good shop and a permanent exhibition about the
air war in Normandy. From Bayeux you can proceed to the beaches of Juno,
Gold and Sword. Your will see Pegasus Bridge, where the first French
house was liberated and pass the evocative ruins of the artificial
harbor towed across from England at Arromanche-les-Bains. Continuing to Caen
visit the Memorial of Caen. It is a museum dedicated to Peace. It
will take you through the events leading up to WW II and D-Day itself. A
fitting end to your D-Day experience.
Depending on your time and level of interest, you can spend many days
in the various museums and sites in Normandy. But 2 or 3 days should
enable you to see the highlights in good depth. From here I would
suggest you turn in your car and train it to Paris to ending your trip in the
uplifting City of Light. A fitting end to your D-Day experience, for
it was when Paris was liberated that everyone saw the end of the war in
sight. Trains leave from Caen and Le Harve to Paris,it is about an
hour and a half to 2 hour trip. After a few days in Paris, you can then
return to the USA from Paris or catch the Eurostar or a plane back to
London. (Driving in Paris can be a harrowing experience even for the
adventurous, I would not recommend it. Parking is also difficult to find)
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