During the preceding few years I had become interested in warfare, or to be more precise the major wars of the first half of the 20th Century and, in particular, the people and major figures at that time. Naturally this mainly covered WW1, WWII, Hitler, Stalin and of course Churchill, amongst others. My interest drew me towards some of the specific major events and inevitably D-Day, 6th June 1944. As they say, one thing led to another and in 2009 I decided to undertake a bike tour of the D-Day Normandy war theatre the following year, if possible to coincide with the D-Day commemorations in June.
I spent the winter of 2009 / 2010 planning, as well as reading and watching relevant films about the events of June 1944. By visiting the area my aim was to try and understand better the events that took place by understanding the context, in particular the geography and places. The trip I eventually undertook was all the more poignant as it coincided with the 66th anniversary of the landings and, as a result, the whole area was full of soldiers and people dressed as soldiers riding around in 1944 army vehicles and most importantly of all, the veterans, back to remember and honour the events of 6th June 1944 and most of all their friends and those killed in action. It created an exciting and sometimes very moving experience.
Whilst visiting all the beaches and many battle sites, museums and cemeteries was fascinating, meeting some of the veterans was the highlight and frankly an honour for me. First, on the evening of June 5th whilst in the Arromanche Musée du Débarquement, about 40 vets turned up for a medal ceremony, after which stepping outside there was a 1944 retro concert, starting with the Dad’s Army theme of “who do you think you are kidding Mt Hitler…” priceless, and much appreciated by the vets.
On D-Day itself I cycled along all the British and Canadian beaches, finishing and camping at the iconic Pegasus Bridge location. Along the way many remembrance ceremonies were taking place, which were fully supported and still appreciated by the local French population. But I was particularly honoured to meet Jim Baker at Bernieres-sur-Mer. Jim was 90 years old and president of Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Royal Marines Association. As a Royal Marine he had landed with the Canadians early on the morning of June 6th 1944 and undertook many subsequent actions along the beaches. I had done much preparation for this ride over the past year – cycling, camping and history – but nothing can replace hearing from someone who was there; I found it very moving. Thanks Jim and to all the others from that time.
Although his is something of a popular ride and, despite help from the CTC Forum, I still found it difficult to get adequate information for a cycling /camping tour. Below therefore summarizes my day-by-day trip in detail and some of the things I learnt. Prior historical reading and watching some of the classic D-Day films on was very helpful in understanding what took place during that fateful day, as it played out in my mind as I cycled along the Normandy coast.
Having undertaken a preliminary shakedown tour of Kent in April, this was my first significant cycle / camping tour and I learned a lot. Obviously the cycling was really secondary to the events that unfolded on 6th June but, as so often, cycling proved a wonderful way to engage with the general environment and provided fascinating geographical context that in this case often proved so crucial to the outcome of the D-Day battles.
Day-1 Redhill to Portsmouth to Cherbourg: 6.5 miles
In order to maximize the time in France I took the train direct from home in Redhill (pre-booked online return ticket £27) and the fast ferry to Cherbourg (approx £48 single). As it got in late I camped at the Camping Collignon site (€10.71) just east of Cherbourg, about 10 minutes from the ferry. The French do lots of things well: road surfaces, cycling facilities, driving respect for cyclists. However, as I have found on many subsequent occasions, they don’t do signs well and as a result the site was a bit tricky to find but worth the effort: a small, quiet municipal campsite with separate, hedged pitches demarcated, situated just by the beach with a café nearby for a late supper. It was a great place to begin the tour.
Day-2 Cherbourg to Ste Mere Eglise: 54.5 miles
The route east on the D116 along the north coast and then down to St Vaast on the back roads is really nice riding, I particularly liked Barfleur, which is less touristy than St Vaast. Then down through Quineville and on to Utah Beach on the D421 before turning inland through Ste Marie du Mont and on to St Mere Eglise. The municipal campsite there (€6.70) is just off the church square, behind the Airborne Museum – or about 5 minutes walk for dinner and a beer in the evening. This was also a very nice campsite but very, very busy with D-Day soldiers and tourists – no problem with a small tent though and it added to the atmosphere!
Day-3 Ste Mere Eglise to Grandcamp-Maisy: 28.7 miles
From Ste Mere-Eglise I took the back roads south to Carentan through Chef du Pont, Carquebut, Le Port, Liesville-s-Dove, which was exquisite cycling and scenery, providing a glimpse of the Merderet and Douvre rivers, which were very relevant to the USA airbourne events on D-Day. Joining the D913 into Carentan is located the famous Dead Man’s Corner Museum, which proved a fascinating stop. Leaving Carentan I turned left just out of town onto the back roads through Catz and on to Isigny-s-Mer; if you don’t make this apparent diversion you’ll end up on the N13 motorway!
Thereafter I took the smaller back roads all the way to Gefosse Fontenay and on to Grandcamp-Maisy. By chance I ventured into the cemetery of a beautiful Norman church in the hamlet of St Clement, which is also a Commonwealth War Grave with just one person, a British flight engineer shot down on 6th June 1966 and was worth the stop.
That night I stopped at the Fort Sampson campsite (€5) just west of the town at Grandcamp-Maisy, which is located just by the beach. It was very basic – a large field + basic but clean facilities – which I had practically to myself and was just 5 minutes cycle from the town centre. There’s another site a bit closer to town but it looked more touristy with a lot of static holiday homes.
The Ranger’s Museum at Grandcamp, tells the story of Pont du Hoc (see later). There are not a lot of shops but enough to purchase basic goods and if you want a meal and beer.
Day – 4 Grandcamp-Maisy to Arromanche: 27.4 miles
After Grandcamp-Maisy I basically followed the D514 eastwards all the way to Ouistreham, making detours for various sites and places. The first stop had to be Pont du Hoc, a +100ft cliff scaled whilst under heavy gunfire by the American Rangers in order to take the German’s gun emplacement there; a mind boggling venture made all the more incredible by seeing it for yourself.
There are lots of memorials and museums to the Omaha Beach landing all the way along this stretch, which proved to be the most catastrophic of all the D-Day landings; when you see it you understand why – of all the beaches it has the hardest topography behind the beaches to conquer. For me this was the whole point of seeing and understanding what actually occurred on the ground, something even the best books can’t fully convey. Afterwards it was essential to stop at the American cemetery just east of Vierville overlooking Omaha Beach, where nearly 10,000 troops lay buried. Personally I find the smaller cemeteries the most interesting and moving but there’s no getting away from the fact this place is both awesome in scale, frightening and strangely beautiful overlooking the English Channel on this warm sunny day.
Onwards many divert inland to Bayeux, I did not, choosing to stick to the coast and on to Arromanche, where the municipal camping is situated right in the centre of the town; after going downhill into the town and turning sharp right still on the D514 the campsite is 500m on the left (€7.90). Being today the day before D-Day this site was heaving with people but again there was still room for my small tent. Arromanche was the centre of the famous Mulberry harbours and marks the start of the British and Canadian beaches; as such it was very busy.
I visited the Arromanche D-Day Museum located on the front that evening but I did not go to the more modern 360 Museum located just out of town on the hill to the east, which is supposed to have good D-Day film footage. That evening the museum was full of vets – at the time there was a medal ceremony being held and a feeling of camaraderie pervaded the venue, which was quite special.
Day-5 Arromanche to Pegasus Bridge (6th June D-Day): 27.5 miles
Still mainly staying on the D514, the route passed first along Gold Beach (British), Juno Beach (Canadian) and then Sword Beach (British). There are numerous museums – usually one at each beach – and lots of memorials all the way along, and today on June 6th itself, there were many services of remembrance taking place attended by the vets, locals and serving soldiers; I was particularly pleased to see many French children attending these services.
I had intended to return to the UK from the Ouistreham to Portsmouth ferry but for various logistical reasons did not; given the subsequent difficulties of getting from Honfleur to Le Havre (see later) I’d have to say this really is the best place to return to the UK from.
At Ouistreham there is an excellent, well paved path along the west bank of the Caen canal which runs all the way into the centre of Caen. There is a municipal campsite just on the outskirts of Ouistreham which would be convenient for anyone catching the ferry. However, I chose not to stay there as I had read reports that people have been known to enter the site from the canal path (it is not fenced) and cause problems + steal things; I have since stayed there a few times and found it to be OK. But this time I also wanted to camp by Pegasus Bridge at Benouville, just 3 or 4 miles further on. The site there is also just by the canal path but has a security fence and gate. The Les Haut Couture campsite is private and consequently quite a bit more expensive (€19) than municipal sites – much of it is static camper homes but there is a very nice grassed strip down by the canal just for tents and overnight campervans, with tables and a small shower + toilet + wash block, home from home and right next to Pegasus bridge too.
Day-6 Caen: 22.4 miles
I remained at Pegasus campsite for two nights and the next day rode along the canal path right into the centre of Caen, itself the focus of terrible fighting and destruction in 1944. The objective was to spend the day at the Caen Memorial Museum, which is actually on the outskirts of Caen but can be accessed by local roads and a nice track from the centre across the motorway, if you know how. This is really a museum of war, with a focus on WWII but also the Cold War etc. The main section covers the period from WWI to the end of WWII dealing with how the world went to war again and how countries like Germany, Japan and France are subsequently reconciling their roles in WWII, which I found particularly interesting. It was exceptionally well done and I can’t recommend this place enough, coming towards the end of my D-Day ride it provided an excellent reflection and insight into the broader issues as well as more detail on D-Day itself. There is also some very good D-Day / Normandy film footage to see.
Returning cross-country from the museum back to the camp site, I also visited the Cambes-en-Plaine British cemetery. Like so many of these the beautifully kept Commonwealth War Graves, the setting and well-tended site belies the horror from which it arose.
Day-7 Pegasus to Honfleur: 43.7 miles
Heading east once more, just across the Caen canal and River Orne is the eastern high-ground flank of the British D-Day landings, that was taken very early on the morning of 6th June 1944. Probably the two most significant places to see here are the large British cemetery at Ranville and the German gun batteries at Merville – taken in a daring British commando raid just after midnight on 6th June, so as to ensure they were unable to fire at the British and Canadian landing beaches later that morning.
After Merville it is really the end of D-Day locations and straight on along the coast on the D514 to Honfleur. I intended staying at a campsite at Hennequeville, just past Trouville. Situated on the cliff-tops the views there were great but on arrival I found the facilities and the overall condition of the site to be poor. I therefore moved on to Camping la Briquerie (€15), located about 4km south of Honfleur, inevitably up a hill at the junction of the D62 and D579. The campsite is large but very well looked after, with excellent pitches and a super Marché next door made it a great stop before heading for Le Havre the next day.
Day-8 Honfleur to Le Havre and home: 27.7 miles
Honfleur is well known and a very pretty fishing town but for that reason is also overrun by tourists. So, before heading into Honfleur, I stayed on top of the high ground and cycled around the D62 and back roads, coming across a really charming and apparently quite famous 16th century chapel – Chapelle Notre-Dame de Grâce. It was well worth the detour and provided a quite stunning view over Honfleur town below and beyond over to the Pont de Normandie.
The ride out to and across the Pont de Normandie was quite complicated, looking out for Pietons et Cyclists signs along the way was essential. Once over the bridge, using a narrow cycle lane alongside heavy traffic, it was a complicated route through the docks to the ferry terminal. Frankly I found riding on much of this route terrifying as well as complicated. Though some parts did have a dedicated cycle track, you are then plunged back onto the road closely alongside literally hundreds of container lorries rushing around the docks; personally I’d rather ride on the M25 and will never take this route again. It’s a pity as Honfleur is a nice place to visit but the danger of riding from the bridge to the ferry is completely unacceptable to me. On the map the routes into Le Havre from the east and north look better, though from other’s comments I’m still not sure they would be enjoyable and Le Havre itself did not look very interesting. Best avoid Le Havre and use Ouistreham or Dieppe, which are infinitely better for cyclists.
I cannot recommend this ride enough, though of course it is not really about the cycling but the unprecedented history that took place there within recent living memory. I am sure it would be a good tour at any time but at or around each year’s anniversary it adds considerable interest and gravitas. As most of the vets are +85 years old they will not be around much longer, so I was pleased to do this ride sooner rather than later, it was a truly an honour and humbling experience to meet and talk to these people.
STATS – MAPS – STUFF
Tour: 2nd to 9th June 2010, 8-days
Total Mileage: 238 miles
• I used the Michelin Map 303, Calvados / Manche for the ride which I found to be quite adequate. The topography is not severe at any point and really in my opinion doesn’t require anything more than this type of map. Michelin do special D-Day maps but briefly looking at them in the shops I would not rate them, in fact I would say they would not be helpful for a cyclist.
• I did a total of about 160 miles on the trip, which included a few minor detours. Day-2 and Day-7 were 55 and 45 miles respectively, the rest were each about 30 miles. You could do it quicker and / or cut out the end section but this tour is not about speed and you need to ensure there is sufficient time to visit and take in the events and places.
• The camping prices indicated are for one small tent + one person. There would be an additional charge for each extra person of about 50% of the price shown. I did not book anywhere, though Ste Mere Eglise and Arromanche were very full – I would think it inevitably gets very busy in high season and pre-booking might help.
• There are many very good museums along the route and it is well worth getting a Normandie Pass at the first one visited, which will thereafter save you on average €1 off each subsequent museum you go to.
• Somewhat late in the day I picked up a booklet for free from a tourist office called The D-Day Landings and Battle of Normandy, Exploration & Emotion, which provides some very useful information on all the museums and places to visit and their opening times and costs, as well as general background information.
• There are of course many books on the subject which I highly recommend reading and watching films before going, it makes the ride so much more interesting. I read and watched:
– D-Day The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor – for me the best account of D-day and subsequent events in the region.
– The D-Day companion Editor, Jane Penrose – a series of essays by leading historians.
– Normandy Landing Beaches by Major & Mrs Holt – worth taking with you to provide day-to-day detailed information of each site, memorial and events. There is now a smaller abridged edition to save weight – always important for a cyclist!
– The Longest Day , the definitive film of events on 6th June, even if it is dated.
– Saving Private Ryan, the initial scenes on the landing are rated as the closest reproduction of events on the beaches.
– Band of Brothers, the first couple of episodes deal with the American parachute drops at St Mere Eglise and related D-Day events.