Visiting The D-Day Beaches in Normandy

Visiting The D-Day Beaches in Normandy

Did you know that when the Allied Troops landed on the D-Day beaches, they were accompanied by a bagpipe player? Private Bill Millin, also known as Piper Bill, was ordered by the British commander, Brigadier Lord Lovat,  to play the bagpipes to keep the soldiers’ spirits up.

Piper Bill

Traditionally, Irish and Scottish troops had been lead into battle by bagpipes.  The War Office though had stopped the custom because so many pipers had been slaughtered during World War I.  Lord Lovat ignored the orders though for his own battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the only Scottish battalion on D-Day.  Lovat ordered Piper Bill to play because as far as he was considered the English War Office orders didn’t apply to the Scottish.  Piper Bill was the only piper on D-Day.

Piper Bill, only 21 years old, landed on Sword Beach, dressed in the kilt his father had worn in World War I, armed only with his bagpipes and his traditional black knife tucked into his kilt-hose.  He later admitted he was really cold because he wasn’t wearing underpants as was the usual custom of kilt-wearers.

While soldiers were falling under gunfire all around him, he kept playing and marching up and down the beach.  Later he was told the Germans didn’t fire at him because they thought he was crazy and felt sorry for him.


Piper Bill played his pipes for another 4 days before eventually his bagpipes got destroyed by shrapnel.  Piper Bill survived the war and lived until 2010.  There is a statue of Piper Bill on Sword Beach.

Piper Bill Statue

The story of Piper Bill was one of the many stories we heard last year in June when we went with my son’s Boy Scout troop to visit the D-Day beaches in Normandy.  On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, many commemorative events were scheduled for the summer of 2014.  The Trans-Atlantic Council of the Boy Scouts joined in these events to ensure a future generation duly remembered the sacrifices of their grandfathers.

The D-Day Beaches

On D-Day (June 6, 1944) 156,000 Alied troops battled their way onto the French mainland onto 5 separate beaches.   The British and Canadians invaded at Sword, Juno and Gold beaches.  The Americans invaded at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.

The D-Day plan of attack

The D-Day plan of attack

Piper Bill landed with the British troops at Sword Beach which was chosen because of its nearness to the city of Caen.  This city would be important for the Allies to capture because all the main roads in the area ran through Caen.

The Canadians landed at Juno Beach in order to establish a link between the two British landing spots of Sword and Gold. The Juno Beach Centre is Canada’s museum for the 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives fighting in World War II.

Visiting the D-Day Beaches of Normandy
The British also landed at Gold Beach to establish a Mulberry Harbour off its coast. The Allied forces needed to unload supplies for the landing troops but the Germans held all the ports.  A Mulberry Harbour was a feat of engineering whereby prefabricated concrete sections were towed to Normandy and assembled on-site to create a port the size of Dover in England.  Today you can see the portions of the pre-fabricated sections still left off-shore Gold Beach in the picture below.

Gold Beach

Gold Beach today

The wide, sandy D-Day beaches are beautiful today.  You can see, however, how easy it would be for the Germans to pick off the Allied troops as they landed.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

Thousands of soldiers were indeed shot dead by the German troops.  The statue, Les Braves by French sculptor, Anilore Banon, commemorates the more than 9000 soldiers who fell on Omaha Beach.  The stainless steel arms rise up to the sky symbolising hope, freedom and brotherhood. The American cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer overlooks Omaha Beach.

Les Braves Memorial

Why Visit the D-Day Beaches?

The 70th commemoration of D-Day in 2014 probably marked the last time that a significant number of World War II veterans would be able to attend such an event.  With the passage of time, the events of World War II are receding into the mist of history.

Until we visited the beaches, we had not fully comprehended how difficult the landings would have been or the courage it took to march into near-certain death.  Our children definitely gained a better understanding of World War II and the horror of war by visiting the battle sites of Normandy.


There are some excellent memorials, museums and monuments on the Battle of Normandy being maintained by a dedicated team.  It is good for everyone to remember that freedom comes with a price tag.


Most Surprising Destination:  World War II Sites in Normandy

Most Surprising Destination: World War II Sites in Normandy

This year is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 which started the invasion by the Allied forces of Nazi-occupied France during World War II.  The Battle of Normandy (code named Operation Overlord) started with an airborne assault of 1200+ planes and 160,000 troops deposited off the beaches of Normandy.  The Canadians landed at Juno Beach, the Americans at Utah and Omaha beaches and the British at Sword and Gold beaches.  On that first day alone, over 4000 Allied forces and 1000 Germans were killed, with many more injured.


We recently visited the D-Day beaches and the sites of the Battle of Normandy in France as part of a trans-atlantic camporee organised by the Boy Scouts of America to kick off 70th anniversary commemorative events lasting through August 2014.  I found these historic World War II sites surprising for a few reasons:

The weather is dismal.

I don’t know why I thought all of France generally had pretty good weather.  The joke was on me.  Apparently, Normandy’s weather is famous for being unlike the rest of the country.  When the Normans took over England in 1066, they probably were thrilled to be somewhere it rained less. I have even more respect for the Allied forces who battled their way through awful weather and shelling and retook France little by little over a gruelling 3 month period in 1944.

rain in normandy

The beaches, cliffs and countryside are beautiful.

I confess I’ve never been to a battlefield.  I assumed, however, that a place where so many people had died would be sombre.  Nope.  No left-over psychic anguish or doom hangs around these places.  In fact, people have built beautiful modern beach houses overlooking the main landing grounds of Omaha beach.

Omaha beach

My son playing at Omaha beach.

This photo shows Pointe du Hoc where 200 US rangers scaled 98 foot cliffs to disable a German battery. After the dust cleared only 90 men were left alive. The lumpy landscape is the aftereffect of shelling by warships.

pointe du Hoc

The cliffs at Pointe du Hoc

The remnants of war can be surprisingly pretty.

The bunkers that the Nazis created as part of the Atlantic Wall defence against invasion were rounded shapes into the earth. Some of them now have fields of wildflowers growing over them. Children love running up and down these hills.

wildflower bunker

wildflowers cover a bunker

Some of the bunkers above ground had been decorated by the Germans to look like ruined farmhouses so that spy planes overhead could not tell the difference.

painted bunker

painted bunker

The deep holes in the earth created by mortar shells create an alien landscape made pretty with flowers and shrubs.  Children love to clamber in and around these fields such as this landscape in Pointe du Hoc.

shelled landscape

alien landscape after shelling

The war cemeteries are so different yet the same.

We visited both the British Commonwealth and the American war cemeteries.  I was surprised to learn that the British did not start repatriating bodies of fallen soldiers until the first Gulf War.  After World War II, American families were given a choice of repatriating the bodies of their loved ones or burial in the nearest European cemetery.  The American cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer overlooks Omaha beach and contains approximately 10,000 of the war dead.

There are some seriously wacky memorial statues as well as dodgy mannequins.

The Chinese gave Normandy this statue entitled World Peace.  They were grateful because they believe the Allied invasion hastened the downfall of the Japanese in the Eastern hemisphere of the war.  The statue looms over the fields of the village of Grandcamp-Maisy and locals call it “the tin lady with tits”.

world peace statue

This statue is at the American cemetery and is entitled the Spirit of American Youth Rising From The Waves.

rising youth

The steel memorial on Omaha Beach itself is called Les Braves.  Clearly, very modern.

les braves

As shown below, some of the mannequins in the museums and battle sites are better than others.

crazy man

Someone’s been in the bunker too long!

Our trip to the Normandy World War II battle sites was really interesting for the whole family.  We really like history but our children (to our horror) are less enamoured.  This trip made them curious about  World War II in general.