At ten past midnight on the night of 6 June 1944, Lieutenant Norman Poole became the first allied soldier to set foot on French soil, just inland from Utah Beach. And so began Operation Overlord – the code name for the Battle of Normandy. Poole and his crew had parachuted in to confuse the Germans before the Normandy landings boats started to approach the coast. 2014 saw the 70th anniversary of the battle, when this part of the northern French coast saw an influx of veterans and their descendants, coming to see where history was made, both for their families and for the world.
The three-mile-long strip of sand at Utah Beach was the most westerly of the five Normandy landing beaches. Things here didn’t go entirely to plan – on the night of the invasion strong currents meant that the boats were swept two kilometres south of their target when they tried to land. This intervention by nature ended up working in the Allies’ favour though as German defences were much weaker on this stretch of the coast. After landing, the troops easily fought their way inland and met up with the air troops. By the end of the first day over 23,000 men had come ashore at Utah Beach – one of which was the son of US president Teddy Roosevelt – with less than 250 casualties.
Today the beach has reverted back to its peaceful, windswept beauty and it’s hard to imagine it overrun with soldiers and violent fighting. Built among the dunes behind the beach is the Utah Beach Museum. The museum stands on the site where American troops landed and tells the story of the invasions – from the planning and build up through the events of the day and what came next. There are stories from people who were there, photographs and films, as well as artefacts ranging from medals to one of only six remaining B26 bombers. Seeing it all just feet away from where the events took place really brings the conflict to life, and helps make sure the sacrifices made are never forgotten.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
– Laurence Binyon, For the Fallen
The easiest way to visit Utah and the other Normandy landing beaches is by car. Utah Beach is around an hour’s drive from the ferry ports at Caen or Cherbourg where you can hire a car. You can also get the train as far as Cherbourg or Bayeaux and take a local bus to the main beaches, with extra services in summer. There are also several tour companies offering guided trips around the beaches and memorials along the coast. The Utah Beach Museum is open 9.30am–7pm from June to September and 10am–6pm for the rest of the year. Entry costs €8 for adults, €3,50 for children under 15 and free for under 7s or WWII veterans.