Editor’s note: Sweet Briar associate professor of history John Ashbrook is teaching a course on war and genocide this summer, “Industrialized Killing — The World Wars, the Holocaust, and Memory,” by taking participants to the places where history happened. This is the first in a series of reports from the battlefields and war memorials of Europe, where the group is traveling until July 3.
On June 6, my colleague from the history department, Professor Kate Chavigny, and I flew into Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris and drove by car to meet our course participants in Saint-Aubin-su-Mer on Juno Beach in Normandy. Over the next four days we toured each of the D-Day beaches (from west to east: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword) and a number of museums associated with the landing.
We visited the Merville Battery Museum, where during D-Day, British commandoes neutralized German guns targeting both Sword Beach and inland approaches to the German fortifications. From there we toured the Pegasus Bridge area, where British glider commandos secured a strategic bridge across the Caen Canal, protecting the easternmost beachheads during the invasion. Then we traveled to the Atlantic Wall Museum, which is a preserved German command post fairly typical of the haphazard defense line the Germans erected from Norway to the French border of Spain to protect against an Allied invasion of Western Europe.
One of our days in Normandy was focused on the Airborne experience of American paratroopers. Most U.S. paratrooper involvement focused on securing areas behind the Utah beaches and cutting off the German contingent stationed on the Contentin Peninsula. We visited the Crisbecq Battery, which the Germans wanted to use against the Utah Beach area. The battery looks much as it did when it was neutralized by American forces in early June 1944. We also visited the very well done Airborne Museum that detailed the experiences of the paratroopers and glider units of the American Army on D-Day.
We ended our Normandy experience with a half-day guided tour with Geert van den Bogaert, a professional D-Day tour guide. We explored one of the bloodiest sections of Omaha, where the Bedford Boys landed. We also walked the bluffs around the Pointe du Hoc, where the 2nd Battalion Rangers captured and held a strategic point separating Utah and Omaha beaches. We finished our Normandy trip with a moving tour of the American Cemetery and Memorial behind Omaha Beach. At this site, more than 9,300 American dead are buried. We were lucky enough to see an official wreathe-laying while there.
During our time there, we met a few surviving veterans of the Normandy campaign, including British veterans of the Pegasus Bridge attack. It was an honor to meet the men who so bravely aided in the liberation of Europe from Nazi and collaborator totalitarianism.
From Normandy, we loaded the vans and drove to a village near the town of Peronne, France. This area was contested by the Allies and the Germans throughout World War I. The region is mostly gentle, rolling hills and heavily agricultural. In 1916, the British-led attempt to draw the Germans from their bloody assault on Verdun to the south was successful in keeping France in the war and forced the Germans to retreat to more defensible lines. These lines became the Hindenburg and Siegfried lines, a line of trenches and concrete fortifications and strongholds. These lines were breached by American and Australian soldiers in September 1918, forcing the Germans to request the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.
In the Somme region, we toured a section of the Hindenburg Line, which included a still-operational canal tunnel over 3 miles long. The canal itself stymied Allied advances until late in the war when American soldiers captured a bridge that allowed for Allied forces to pour into the area. Most of the sites visited of the actual line are now overgrown and neglected, a result of a willful attempt to forget much of the violence of the war, and reclaim the land for farming. With the same knowledgeable guide, Robert Hewer, we will be exploring the major sites of the Somme Offensive of 1916, almost 100 years to the day the British kicked off the attack in July.