To celebrate the release of The Sea Before Us, I’m conducting a photo tour of locations from the novel that I saw on my research trip to England and Normandy in September.
D-Day on the Ground – Omaha Beach
D-day, Operation Overlord, is one of the most pivotal events of World War II and modern history. For four years, Hitler’s Nazi Germany had occupied most of Europe. During that time period, the Allies slowly regained strength and weaponry. On June 6, 1944, 156,000 British, Canadian, American, Free French, and other Allied troops invaded northern France in Normandy, supported by almost 200,000 Allied naval personnel, while 11,000 aircraft flew overhead.
The troops landed on five landing beaches. From east to west—Sword (British), Juno (Canadian), Gold (British), Omaha (US), and Utah (US). The generals knew the landings at Omaha would be the toughest due to the steep bluffs and the crescent shape of the beach. Making it worse, the crack German 352nd Infantry Division had recently arrived in the area, unknown to Allied intelligence.
On D-day about 34,000 troops of the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed on Omaha. Casualties were high, about 3600 killed or wounded, with the highest casualties among the troops landing in the first wave. Units were mixed up, officers were lost, and the situation remained dire through most of the morning. However, bold, flexible, and ingenious leadership arose, and the men charged up the bluffs, supported by naval fire from the courageous men of US Destroyer Squadron 18. By the end of the day, the US had a solid foothold on Omaha Beach, although far from the initial objectives.
In The Sea Before Us, American naval officer Lt. Wyatt Paxton serves on a destroyer bombarding Omaha Beach. I was honored to visit Omaha in September 2017. Here are pictures of Vierville-sur-Mer on Omaha Beach, including the “draw” (the route off the beach), and the German batteries defending that draw. These pictures were taken at high tide, while the troops landed a little after low tide.
Here are homes in Vierville-sur-Mer along Dog Beach, much like the summer home fondly remembered by the heroine of the novel, Dorothy Fairfax. Many of the homes had been demolished by the Germans to open fields of fire, while others had been turned into strongpoints. You can see the steep terrain behind the homes that the soldiers had to climb. Also, a former German gun battery, now a memorial for the US National Guard.
Farther east, we come to the Easy Red/Fox Green sector of Omaha Beach, below the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer. These pictures were taken close to low tide and show the vast expanse of beach the American soldiers had to cross. Laden with heavy equipment, waterlogged, and seasick. Taking heavy fire. And watching their buddies fall. Standing on Omaha Beach is an incredibly moving experience.
This is a sample of the defenses the men on Omaha Beach faced. Widerstandsnest 62 lies along the path from Colleville-sur-Mer and overlooks Omaha with an interconnected cluster of machine-gun nests and gun positions. As you can see, the big gun positions were sighted to fire down the length of the beach. Therefore, the ships at sea had a difficult time spotting the guns—and targeting them.
Looking down on Omaha Beach from near Colleville-sur-Mer.
Visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is an unforgettable experience. The sheer scope of the sacrifice and loss is overwhelming. The brave men—and some women—buried there gave up their lives so that freedom could triumph over tyranny. We must never forget what they did for us.
Thank you for joining me in England and Normandy. I hope you’ve enjoyed the photographs, the history behind them, and the connection to The Sea Before Us. When The Sky Above Us and The Land Beneath Us release in 2019 and 2020, I’ll share the photos from England and Normandy related to those stories.