I forget who actually said this, but our tour guide quoted one of the Allied commanders with saying that 'Utah Beach was a cakewalk, while Omaha was a nightmare'. Granted, Omaha was a nightmare, but after our guide prepped us with this opener he proceeded to prove that commander wrong on just about every count. Sure, the amphibious landing on Utah Beach was comparatively quiet, but the fighting inland (particularly among the hedgerows, as described later) was very intense. The airborne operations that preceded them, while ultimately successful, were anything but smooth.
This travelogue covers sites along Utah Beach landed by the VII US Corps, along with the 101st Airborne landing site of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, the hedgerows near Vierville and Pouppeville, and the Merderet, a floodplain and site of the famous "Iron Mike" monument.
This day began with an introduction by our tour guide concerning some of the Germans' general defense plan, which including the damming of some of the Contentin Peninsula's streams and rivers. This would turn some of the region's farmland into marsh. The idea was to channel any potential invading forces, miring tanks into the mud and slowing infantry. This was done with great success. With this as a backdrop, let us move on to Utah...
Compared with Omaha Beach, Utah's terrain was flatter, so the towns and cities did not encroach on the shores for fear of the severe tide. In fact, the terrain where the Utah Memorial sat (just outside the well-marked Musée du Débarquement), was practically below sea level. This Memorial was joined by separate ones for the 4th US Infantry Division and the 1st Engineer Special Brigade (shown in the first photograph). The museum itself, compared with others we encountered on the trip, was OK, but not great.
This Memorial site was far down the east side of Utah -- because the wind and tides blew the 4th Division's landing craft further down the coast than planned. The mission for the 4th was to secure four Exits -- four roadways/pathways connecting the beachhead to the main northwest-southeast roadways leading from Pouppeville to St. Germain-de-Varreville. But they had to change their plans slightly based on their actual landing site, and the Museum and landmarks do well to explain how the 22d Infantry Regiment fought their way northward to get back on track.
The beach itself was not very interesting... it's just a barren beach, bereft of the usual touristic accoutrements. So, if it wasn't for having a tour guide explaining the history, there wouldn't have been much else to attract my attention.
Sainte-Mere-Eglise was another story. This was a very interesting place. Sainte Mere Eglise was the first French town liberated by the Americans on D-Day. The famous "Screaming Eagles" of the 101st Airborne Division landed there under conditions that no modern airborne unit would dare jump into except in the most extreme situations. Consequently, the jump was a fiasco. Because of the intense air defense barrage that the Germans unleashed as the airborne flew overhead, many of the Airborne were released too early or off course. Thus, most of the units landed well apart from each other, creating mass confusion as units struggled to reconstitute or reorganize. The TV series "Band of Brothers" did a good job of realistically portraying the resulting confusing. Yet, the airborne got their act together very quickly. Making matters worse, the downtown of Sainte-Mère-Eglise was in the midst of dealing with a massive fire that brought out the whole town and awoke the occupying German battalion while the planes with the airborne soldiers were overhead. The planes were forced to drop their soldiers all over the place, most of them several kilometers away from their designated drop zones.
The third photograph shows the town's main church, but with something extra. Looking closely at the church, one will notice that the white area on the roof was a parachute and there was a mannequin hanging on the front side of it below, next to the two windows on the front facade. (I know it is tough to see in the photo -- look closely at the front face of the tower, the one without the clock, and look just to the left of the windows) The presence of the parachute and mannequin was in commemoration of a famous airborne soldier (Sergeant John Steele) who actually landed in that very position, hanging above the ground while the Germans and French below him were trying to put out the fire. Once he realized what a terribly predicament he was in, he faked like he was dead, waited for the Germans to drag him up the tower, then he came 'alive' and eventually managed to escape! The mounting of the mannequin was a comparatively recent event. Pictures of the church dating as late as the 1970s did not have it, so I wondered what spurred the idea to mount it as a memorial.
Directly across from the church was the entrance to the Airborne Museum (part of which is shown in the fourth picture). The Airborne Museum commemorated the efforts of both the 82d and 101st Divisions (whose logos were recreated in flowers in front of this building). It had models of the gliders and parachute equipment used in the second World War. (As I present in the British-Canadian Sector travelogue, it was incomprehensible nowadays to think that gliders such as those on display were actually used -- they were wooden boxes with wings that crash-landed at high speed in the drop zone).
Sainte-Mère-Eglise had a well-marked footpath that took visitors to seventeen key sites concerning the town's liberation. This footpath took about thirty minutes to complete, plenty enough time to work up an appetite for a French beef sausage with dijon mustard, available almost everywhere in town!
Much of the rest of the sights were tough to visit without a guide, because the fighting was done in plain ordinary countryside with few distinguishable landmarks. The towns in this region were quaint and picturesque -- Pouppeville, St Marie-du-Mont, and Vierville were three such dots-on-the-map that look unchanged from two centuries ago.
On the other hand, a trained guide will be able to describe to you the battles that took place in this seemingly innocent terrain. For example, take the fifth photo. Non-descript to most, perhaps, but to an infantryman who knew that the enemy was hiding in the bushes lined across the front, this was a hellish sight. That row of bushes was more than mere vegetation. They hid roadways that ran three to five meters below ground level -- plenty deep enough to hide enemy tanks. These were the infamous 'hedgerows' of World War II lore, one of the tougher sets of obstacles that the Americans had to breach -- one hedgerow at a time -- as they advanced inland. This produced some seriously difficult fighting, with an ambush waiting at each hedgerow, and one whale of an open space in between.
Nowadays, the hedgerows make for great riding country -- and as we walked along, we encountered about twenty teens riding horseback. This was also beef country, and we saw several herds of quality steak dinners milling about.
The Merderet, just a short distance from Sainte-Mère-Eglise, was the scene of another hard-fought battle in tough terrain. Remember the flooded marshes I described earlier in this chapter? The Merderet was one example. It was a several mile-long and half-mile wide artificial marsh where the 507th and 508th Parachute Infantry of the 82d Airborne landed. Several days of fighting ensued as the Airborne organized itself within the marshland while the Germans formed defensive strongholds among the nearby towns. This battle site was now marked with the famous memorial shown in the final photo, marked with only the words "Iron Mike".
The Utah Beach sector had the least 'eye candy' of the three sectors. For those without a great understanding of the events of D-Day, it probably was the one most requiring assistance from a qualified tour guide. But, it was absolutely worth the visit. Some tough battles and great American examples of courage there beg for their stories to be told and preserved.
Trip Taken 2 June 2002 -- Last Updated 18 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin