My father would always take a deep breath and say that Americans do things with style – a conviction born of his childhood encounters with American servicemen and the infusion of colour, chewing gum and big band music that they brought to gloomy wartime Britain.
Moving away from the three British and Canadian beaches on the Normandy beachhead and those words come back with a vengeance when a positively lavish permanent commemoration awaits the visitor.
Clearly the French authorities have done their homework. The American sector draws 85% of visitors to the Normandy beaches – be they coach parties of florid Floridians, US servicemen and women in Europe or schools that have used Saving Private Ryan as a study aid. The result is a very well-funded and pristine piece of coastline with a much less ramshackle group of museums dedicated to the memory of the American liberators.
The cemetery at Omaha Beach is something else. There is not a weed to be seen, the grass is verdant and immaculate and the gravestones have a spotless, shimmering quality. The scrubby growth that covers the dunes further east are, at Omaha Beach, replaced with lush rolling foliage which does little to conceal what a daunting place this was to arrive at in June 1944 – with the Germans having an unbroken field of fire from high and distant vantage points.
Leaving the cemetery and its accompanying granite-hewn museum, it is possible to head down onto the sand itself – which presented an inadvertently touching moment. Only days before the 250 American D-Day veterans who travelled here, President Obama and the whole US entourage had held their memorial and out on the sand had been little American flags to mark every man lost. Most of them had gone – taken by the tide, by souvenir hunters or perhaps friends and relatives – leaving just a handful of names in isolation standing guard over the beach.
Moving further down the beach, life begins to resemble that outside the American sector once again – just the expanse of deep, soft sand and a hint of how far a soldier carrying at the very least 75lbs of equipment would have to go, negotiating every kind of obstacle under a relentless hail of fire.
Just around the corner from this tranquil spot lies a campsite at the mouth of which is a well-preserved German emplacement – gun included. It is a graphic reminder of what weaponry confronted the men on the beaches and the flotilla offshore – and the sort of fortification that had to be tackled. The American sector is unique in having preserved such emplacements complete with their guns still facing out towards the landing ground.
After Omaha Beach it is time to abandon the D514 and head inland around the hollow that divides the north-facing coast with the headland where the fifth and final invasion zone is to be found: Utah Beach. Of which, more will be found in Part 5.