A visit to Utah Beach in Normandy can include the beach itself, an iconic cafe, a large museum, and a drive through the farmlands where paratroopers landed in preparation for the assault on the beach. There’s a haunted farm, countless memorials, and buildings still pockmarked with bullet holes. I recently was able to spend two days in the Utah Beach area, and it was a dream come true for me. Here are some of my favorite experiences.
Utah Beach was added to the D-Day plan shortly before June 6, 1944. The idea was that the Allies would be closer to the prized port of Cherbourg. Both the paratroopers dropped in the night and the troops arriving by way of the English Channel in the early hours of daylight landed largely off target. On the beach, U.S. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, realized his men were more than a mile away from the planned destination. His decision: “We’ll start the war from here!” By noon, he and his men had linked up with some of the paratroopers. By the end of this longest day, the Utah Beach men had advanced four miles inland, taking far less of a beating than those landing at Omaha Beach.
Most of the Americans coming across the English Channel and landing on Utah Beach on D-Day came in the Higgins boat, officially known as the American Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP). A replica of this style of landing craft sits on Utah Beach as a memorial.
The memorial to the 90th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army sat in disrepair for years and is now cleaned up and standing proud. This one is personal to me because my dad later served in the 90th (357th Regiment). He was at Flossenburg in Germany, and the granite of this monument comes from the quarry there. Even though my dad landed in France months after D-Day, I felt a connection here.
The Roosevelt Cafe
This historic restaurant and shop on Utah beach once was a fisherman’s cabin. The Germans used it during World War II as a center for designing the defenses known as the Atlantic Wall. They added a concrete bunker in the back that you can see today. Until June 6, 1944, they used this for communications. The Allies took over on D-Day and used the bunker for naval communications for the next several months. It was soon renamed to honor one of the heroes of Utah Beach.
Vets from World War II and the years after sign the walls. I was thrilled to happen on the signature of a vet I’ve “met” through emails, Vern Schmidt, who was in the 90th Infantry. When he learned my dad was later in the 90th too, we struck up a friendship. I was so happy to report to him when I got home that I found him in the Roosevelt Cafe!
Utah Beach Landing Museum
This museum offers an outstanding collection of World War II items, large and small. In one section you can look through windows onto the beach. There’s also a hangar to display aircraft.
The Normandy Countryside behind Utah Beach
American paratroopers landed behind Utah beach in the early morning hours before the assaults on the beaches began. British paratroopers landed at the east end of the beaches, about 60 miles away. The idea was to box in the Germans on either end. The paratroopers near Utah Beach were to disable guns pointing at the beach and link up with the troops coming by boat.
Problems arose at once, partly due to weather, partly due to more German strength than anticipated, and a myriad of other factors. Paratroopers were dropped far from their targets. Some fell into flooded fields that Allied intelligence failed to report. And in a fluke of history, a fire broke out that night in one of the main landing towns, Sainte Mere Eglise. The mayor had to ask the Germans occupying his town for permission to break curfew and fight the fire. The Germans gave the okay but of course had to guard the bucket brigade. In the middle of this, paratroopers fell from the sky into the midst of armed Germans who should have been asleep. One American got caught on the church building, was shot, but somehow survived the night and lived. A memorial hangs on the church 75 years later.
We decided to spend a day with a tour guide for this area, as we could get very lost trying to navigate the country roads. Allan was so knowledgeable about the D-Day events in the small towns. We learned so much from him! Here are a few of the highlights.
This is said to be haunted and sits empty, though a neighbor uses the land. The story is that the woman who lived here hanged herself. Her husband then hanged himself out of grief. When the Germans came, a soldier hanged himself. The Allies pushed the Germans out and took photos and film here, which were sent to the U.S. and were the first the public saw of D-Day.
In Angoville au Plain we went in the church that served as a field hospital. Battles raged through this town, and it changed from German to American to German to American control. Two American medics treated all wounded through days of fighting. This church is really a memorial to the liberating troops and these medics. The windows were blown out and later replaced with stained glass to honor the 101st Airborne. The pews still show the bloodstains.
The small towns near Utah Beach suffered from being in the line of battle. The people here remember their hard-fought liberation 75 years later. This is lovely, peaceful farmland now, but the reminders of those dark days are everywhere. It’s humbling to visit here and try to imagine what took place. Seeing the houses, the churches, the bullet holes still showing in the stone buildings, is an experience I will always remember.
Guides to Help You Plan Your Trip
Learn More About D-Day
I can personally recommend these books! (Except for the Normandy Travel Diary for Kids — I haven’t read this one, but it looks like a winner if you are traveling with kids!)
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