As the 75th anniversary of D-Day approaches the beaches of Normandy are preparing for another onslaught - this one the commemorative type. This year is especially poignant because it could be the last big gathering for Greatest Generation soldiers, many of whom are in their mid-90s.
The England-based D-Day Center has compiled an online list (dday-anniversary.com) of many of the events in England and France commemorating June 6, 1944, when Allied forces landed on Normandy beaches to force the end of Adolf Hitler's dominance. In France, where the date is called "le Débarquement," events include hundreds of paratroopers wearing World War II-style uniforms jumping into Normandy from C-47 Skytrains or Dakotas, parades, helicopter rides, historical walks, concerts, films, conferences, art exhibits, memorial ceremonies, fireworks, battle reenactments, bagpipe performances, ship landings, receptions for veterans, wreath-laying, a 75-mile run and more.
Although almost all hotels in the French town closest to the beaches, Bayeux, and nearby destinations are already booked for the occasion, it's still possible to find Airbnb or apartment rentals. For those who want to visit some of the most powerful spots connected to D-Day, here are some highlights.
D day at the beach
The landing - and dying - place of thousands of American soldiers on D-Day is a vast, wide beach dotted with sunbathers watching windsurfers gliding over the hard-packed sand. Look out over the English Channel's rough ocean and imagine the soldiers fighting their way through that choppy surf under heavy fire.
One of the five sectors for the Allied invasion, five-mile-long Omaha Beach was the responsibility of U.S. Army troops, which is why many Americans pay their respects on this sandy hallowed ground.
At the midpoint of the beach closest to the town of Vierville-sur-Mer is the monument called "Les Braves," a dramatic steel-winged structure in three parts: the wings of hope, freedom and fraternity, commissioned in 2004 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the invasion.
The memorial museum about midway on the sandy stretch near Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer hosts a small collection of vehicles, uniforms, weapons and memorabilia.
Details: Avenue de la Liberation, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, 011-33- 2-31-21-97-44
Spitfire Aces and flying Kiwi
Known today as the "Grace Spitfire", ML407 was built at Castle Bromwich in early 1944 as a seat fighter. She flew a total of 176 operation combat sorties with six different squadrons, totalling almost 320 combat hours.
On D-Day she was piloted by Flying Officer Johnnie Houlton DFC of 485 New Zealand Squadron. He is credited with the first enemy aircraft shot down over the Normandy beachhead on 6th June.
While no New Zealanders are recorded to have been on the ground during the landings – more than 10,000 Kiwis were thought to have taken part at sea and over the skies of France.
Grace still flies sorties for paying passengers out of Sywell Aerodrome, near Coventry.
A foreign field in Tilly-sur-Seulles
Hottot-les-Bagues War Cemetery is located South of Bayeux, between Hottot-les-Bagues and Juvigny.
Most of the casualties buried in the Cemetery were killed in the latter half of June in the fighting around Tilly-sur-Suelles. Those buried here include Canadian and New Zealand officers attached to British units. Notably it is the resting place of Brigadier James Hargest of the New Zealand Infantry, who had been MP for Invercargill.
The cemetery contains 1,005 Commonwealth burials, 56 of them unidentified, and 132 German graves.
Details: Tilly-sur-Seulles, France
American war cemetery
The vast American cemetery sits on a bluff looking over Omaha Beach, and is the resting place for 9,388 Americans.
These 172 acres are dotted with white marble crosses and Stars of David, the bronze statue of the "American youth rising from the waves" and a semicircular memorial wall that lists the names of 1,557 missing in action.
The site, maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, is kept in pristine condition, planted with pines, oak trees, maple trees and heath. At the center of the cemetery is a small circular chapel that includes a Latin cross and a Star of David.
A newly renovated visitors center and an overlook of Omaha Beach is expected to open in time for a commemorative visit from President Trump.
Details: 14170 Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, 011-33-2-31-51-62-00
Pointe du Hoc:
One of the most strategic places on D-Day was Pointe du Hoc, the 100-foot-high promontory overlooking Omaha Beach. At dawn on D-Day, U.S. Army Rangers used rocket-fired ropes to scale this cliff. The goal was to seize German artillery, although no one had realized that the Germans had moved their guns out. German troops in other spots picked off the men as they scaled the highest point in Normandy. Only 90 of the original 225 Rangers survived the assault.
The site, on a windy bluff eight miles west of the American Cemetery, has hardly changed since 1944. The concrete and steel German bunkers look as sturdy today as they did when the Rangers seized them. Craters left by Allied bombings remain dotted around the site.
At the 40th anniversary commemoration of D-Day in 1984, President Ronald Reagan stood in front of a tall stone blade representing a Ranger's dagger and described the "lonely windswept point," in one of his most moving speeches, "The Boys of Pointe du Hoc."
Details: 14450 Cricqueville-en-Bessin, 011-33-2-31-51-62-00
For more than 50 years, few people outside this small town knew that the 12th-century Eglise Saint-Come-et-Saint-Damien had been turned into an impromptu battlefield hospital for American and German soldiers. "The locals wanted to rebuild their lives and the village, so they had no commemorations and said nothing about Angoville or about what happened right here," says Thierry Bidault, a guide with Overlord Tours, a Normandy-based company that specialises in D-Day tours.
That changed when on a visit with other U.S. veterans in 1999, former medic Robert Wright of the 101st Airborne asked to visit the 700-year-old church. Wright, along with fellow "Screaming Eagle" medic Kenneth Moore, had set up an aide station during the invasion and treated the wounded as Americans and Germans battled for control just outside the town. At one point, the Americans in the fields were forced to retreat, but the medics remained.
Wright and Moore insisted that soldiers leave their weapons outside. As they retrieved men from the battlefield and treated them, one mortar shell fell through the roof and landed on the floor, cracking a tile but injuring no one. That tile, plus bloodstains on the pews from wounded soldiers, are still visible today.
In 2004, colorful stained-glass window depicting the Screaming Eagles parachutists who liberated France were installed. When Wright died in 2013, some of his ashes were buried in the adjacent church cemetery.
Details: Eglise Saint-Come-et-Saint-Damien d'Angoville-au-Plain, 1 Rue de l'Eglise
This now bucolic town, about eight miles inland from Utah Beach, was an important crossroads on D-Day. When the paratroopers descended on Normandy, fires raging in the village illuminated many of the paratroopers; they were then shot either midair or as they were caught in trees.
One man, John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was snagged on the belfry of the church, where he hung for hours, pretending to be dead. That memorable scene is reenacted in the 1962 movie, "The Longest Day," with Red Buttons playing Steele. To this day, a mannequin and parachute hang from the belfry. Inside the church is another stained-glass window showing paratroopers landing to liberate the town.
Sainte-Mere-Eglise is also home to the fascinating Airborne Museum, where three buildings offer immersive exhibits. Visitors can experience what it must have been like to be inside a C-47 Skytrain, and see gliders, battle-scene dioramas and thousands of pieces of memorabilia from the war.
The 75th anniversary celebrations in the town will include choirs, photo exhibitions and the reconstruction of the U.S. paratrooper camp, Camp Geronimo.
Details: Sainte-Mere-Eglise and Carentan Regional Tourism Office, 011-02-33-21-00-33
Airborne Museum 14 Rue Eisenhower, Sainte-Mere-Eglise, 011-33-2-33-41-41-35
Bayeux: Topiary horses topped by metal soldiers stand on the outskirts of this charming town. They represent Bayeux's namesake tapestry, which depicts the medieval Norman Conquest of England. Thus, Bayeux draws visitors interested in both the 1066 Battle of Hastings as well as D-Day. While Bayeux was spared from bombs in the war, it has multiple D-Day reminders, including signs propped in restaurant windows that say, "Welcome to our Liberators," and hotels, such as the Churchill, displaying collections of war photographs and memorabilia.
The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the world's treasures, so it's a good way to remember that coastal France sometimes sent the invasions the other way. The tapestry, unlike the somber room-sized tapestries found in many castles, is more like a 230-foot comic strip portraying the Battle of Hastings in embroidered pictures so vivid it looks as though it could have been drawn up as a comic strip. Notably also on display is The New Yorker magazine cover for July 15, 1944, depicting D-Day as if it had been memorialised in the Bayeux tapestry.
Bayeux is the starting point for many D-Day tours and is also home to the British and Commonwealth cemetery with nearly 5,000 burials and a small museum. Among which are the graves of eight New Zealand servicemen. The Norman Romanesque and Gothic cathedral in the center of town will hold memorial services, and the town's Liberation Parade on June 9 will include bagpipes and vintage military vehicles.
Bayeux-Bressin Tourism Office, 011-33-2-31-51-28-28
Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux,13B Rue de Nesmond, 011-33-2-31-51-25-50
14-16 Rue Saint-Jean, 011-33-2-31-21-31-80
With additional reporting