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On a summer day, it’s impossible to imagine the bloody mayhem that erupted along the tranquil Normandy coast early on June 6, 1944. But reminders of D-Day—Operation Overlord—are everywhere, from the crumbling concrete bunkers and gun emplacements of the Third Reich’s vaunted Atlantic Wall to the graveyards of so many Allied soldiers.
Most of the invasion force–three US divisions, two British, and one Canadian–sailed from Portsmouth in England to land at a chain of beaches in France, now known as the Côte du Calvados, between Cherbourg and Le Havre. From these beachheads, designated Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, they were to fight their way inland through Normandy to Paris. (See vintage photos that honour the resting place of D-Day's fallen heroes.)
An elite battalion of U.S. Army Rangers bravely scaled the 30-metre promontory here at Pointe du Hoc, overlooking the English Channel.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FELIPE RODRIGUEZ, REDUX
Start halfway along the Côte du Calvados in the small town of Arromanches, which saw some of the fiercest fighting and is now home to two museums that give insight into the battle. The D-Day Museum in Arromanche stands next to the site of one of the floating Mulberry harbours that were key to the Allied breakout from the beachheads. Nearby, visitors get a glimpse into the infantryman’s hell through the high-tech presentation at Arromanches 360, which uses archive film shot by cinematographers who went ashore with the first waves of Allied troops.
Travel ten kilometres south to Ranville, where the Pegasus Memorial commemorates the British 6th Airborne Division, which made a daring predawn assault. The most successful operation on D-Day, the action gained the Allies crucial control of Pegasus Bridge and its sister bridge. Then continue 48 km northeast to Bayeux, home to the famous Bayeux Tapestry and the first large town to be liberated by the Allies. It survived the war virtually unscathed.
But to gain a true sense of the meaning of D-Day, visit the US military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. Almost all the soldiers who lie here were young men; very many were teenagers. None of them lived to drink champagne in a free Paris.
When to go
Each year, between late May and mid-June, the D-Day landing beaches host many events to remember the Allied soldiers who liberated France. See parachute drops in period attire, historical reenactments, and parades of bagpipers and military vehicles.
How to go
Renting a car is best to see the region. Several ferries also leave daily from Portsmouth to Cherbourg or Le Havre. Plan to sail to one French port and leave from the other. Many tours with well-informed guides are available, for days and half-days, in groups or for individuals.
A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic book Destinations of a Lifetime.
Lead Image: A World War II reenactor plants a flower in the sands of Normandy's Utah Beach, one of the five landing areas of the D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944.
PHOTOGRAPH BY WARRICK PAGE, REDUX