We arrived at the beach early in the morning when the tide was out. A long way out. A warm breeze was coming in as we walked out to the water’s edge. “Don’t look back until you get out to the water.” When we got out there, and turned around . . .
. . . and stared at the bluffs overlooking Plage de Colleville-sur-Mer. On this day 77 years ago, the scene on Omaha Beach was far different from the quiet, sunny morning we experienced while there. It was, however, a powerful moment to try and imagine the landings made by the American V Corps.
On that quiet beach you could almost grasp the horror that American forces met on the morning of June 6th, 1944. German forces occupied the high ground all along the full length of Omaha Beach. As soon as American forces began spilling out of the landing craft, the Germans opened fire.
We had come to Omaha precisely at this time to experience how much beach the soldiers had to cross under heavy fire to secure the exit road from the beach to Vierville-sur-Mer. Although the sand was somewhat packed, it was still an effort for us to walk across the beach.
It was only a couple hundred yards. But there was nowhere to hide; and the German attack was relentless.
Then and Now
All along the 50-mile Normandy coast there are places and moments for remembering the sacrifice made by the allied forces. As a photographer I was struck by the contrast between the modern beaches, and the horrific battles that occurred in 1944. Most days the beaches were near empty or filled with groups of tourists, much like they might have been before the war. But an image of Omaha beach from the surf line, is much like any other beach in the world. A photo doesn’t always convey a sense of what is the history of the place; its story. I wanted my images to convey that contrast. So I “ghosted” in historic black and white images from the 1940s, with my own images made in 2016, and 2018.
Pointe du Hoc is four miles to the west of Omaha. You can stand between the bombed out remains of German gun emplacements and the cliffs. Here the Second Ranger Battalion scaled the cliffs under heavy fire from above. Their mission was to capture a German defensive position that had large guns aimed at Utah Beach.
Farther to the west, the American VII Corps was making their seaborne landing. After coming ashore their mission was to take and secure the town of Ste. Mere Eglise, linking up with paratroops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions.
Twelve miles along the coast to the east of Omaha, the British 50th Infantry Division landed at Gold beach; between the villages of Arromanches and Ver-sur-Mer. Following D-Day a massive artificial “Mulberry” port would be constructed for allied supplies to be landed.
Juno Beach, two miles farther east, the 3rd Canadian Division was landing between the seaside villages of Courselles-sur Mer and Saint-Aubin.
The British 3rd Infantry Division landed at Sword Beach, on the Eastern end of the Normandy beaches, near the coastal town of Ouisterham. Their mission was to drive inland and take the city of Caen.
All along this 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast, Americans and their allies landed and attacked Hitler’s vaunted Atlantic Wall defense. Over 57,000 Americans landed at Utah and Omaha beaches; and over 75,000 British and Canadian troops landed at Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches on D-Day.
The cost of freedom that day was staggering. Over 10,000 allied troops were killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner. It was the beginning of the end for the Nazi occupation of Europe. So many vestiges of D-Day remain as reminders for us 77 years later. None so much as the national cemeteries that occupy parcels of land that were won at so high a cost.
June 6th, 1944, the “Day of Days” changed the world. And the generation that fought so hard for the freedom we know today, should never be forgotten.