The D-Day Coast Page 2
The D-Day Coast
Part 2: Port Winston is a truly astounding feat that took the labor of 45,000 men to build.
By Alan Harper — June 2004
Continuing east, past the jutting headland of Pointe du Hoc—capped by a haunted moonscape of bomb craters and shattered concrete bunkers after the American 2nd Rangers’ heroic action there on D-Day—lies Omaha Beach. It is enormous, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen for the landing of the largest body of troops on June 6. All is peaceful now, and unspoiled. From the sea it takes an almost impossible leap of imagination to picture the chaos of 60 years ago, and it also takes a sharp eye to spot the German gun emplacements that wrought such havoc in the first hours of the landings. But they are still there, embedded for all time in the untouched, grassy slopes. On the hill at Colleville a tall, proud flagstaff marks the location of the American cemetery.
Today Port-en-Bessin is a busy fishing harbor, which within a week of its liberation by British marines on June 8 was a vital military supply port, bringing in vehicles and supplies at the rate of 1,000 tons a day. It also became the first part of the PLUTO (PipeLine Under The Ocean) fuel-delivery system, bringing in gasoline for the armies from tankers offshore before the direct pipe link was completed between England and the French port of Cherbourg.
No trace of that extraordinary project remains, but there is plenty of evidence left of the other great feat of invasion engineering. Just along the coast at Arromanches lie the massive remnants of the giant concrete “Mulberry” harbor known as Port Winston, a truly astounding feat that took the labor of 45,000 men to build in sections that were towed across the Channel after D-Day and assembled. There was a twin harbor on Omaha Beach, but it was carried away in a gale just three weeks after the landings. The remains of Port Winston—with many of its concrete caissons still in position, providing a clearly visible, mile-long outline of the vast man-made harbor—can serve as a particularly evocative anchorage on a calm day. By June 20, 1944, this improvised port was handling more than 6,000 tons of military supplies a day.
The British and Canadian sectors of the invasion coast, Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches, stretch from here to Ouistreham. Their beachfront towns, popular and affluent resorts before the war, were badly damaged but quickly recovered and are today charming and busy vacation spots. Courseulles, which saw some of the heaviest fighting of D-Day, is now a packed yachting harbor with two marinas and a museum dedicated to the huge Canadian contribution to the invasion, the futuristic Juno Beach Center, which opened last year.
A few miles inland is Bayeux, and however you choose to get there, whether by bike, bus, or taxi, this beautiful city is a must see for anyone visiting Normandy: a medieval jewel miraculously left untouched by the battles of 60 years ago, as British troops from Gold Beach took it without a fight the day after the landings. The city is straight out of central casting: narrow, winding streets, timber-framed houses with overhanging eaves, and an imposing cathedral in the Gothic style that dates from the 11th century. There are plenty of French shops where you can search out vintage Calvados, the excellent local cider brandy, and there’s a good choice of restaurants. Indeed, this is a good place to indulge in Norman specialties like ficelle Normande (narrow French bread filled with ham, cheese, and mushrooms), escalope Vallée d’Auge (veal sautéed and flambéed in Calvados with cream and apples), and even marmite dieppoise (rich seafood stew served in an iron pot), although it’s not strictly local (Dieppe being a bit farther up the coast).
Bayeux also boasts an excellent D-Day museum, the principal British military cemetery in Normandy, and the famous Bayeux tapestry. This is a pictorial narrative of another invasion, that of William, Duke of Normandy, who sailed his army across the Channel in 1066 and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry depicts the proceedings like a primitive cartoon strip 20 inches high, and it sounds a little ho-hum until you learn that it’s 230 feet long. It is also astonishingly well preserved, and it is hard to believe that it’s more than 900 years old, but hey—welcome to Europe.
Studying the tapestry, with its lively figures and busy scenes crowding one another, it is possible, just briefly, to forget about D-Day. But then you come to the part where William is loading his fleet with soldiers and horses. You see the ships at sea, the horses comically poking their heads above the gunwales, soldiers keeping watch fore and aft. Then they land on the foreign shore. Soldiers leap out, and horses charge up the beach. A battle develops, swings dangerously either way, but the invaders triumph, and history is made.
It seems awfully familiar.
This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.