Sixty years later, the D-Day landing of Allied troops in Normandy on June 6, 1944 is ever-present. The area has become an important tourist destination for visitors and veterans from throughout the world.
D-Day remnants dot the Normandy beaches where Allied troops landed.
Cafés in Normandy are called "Libération" and "Six Juin." Museums are devoted to the heroism of the Allies. Shops sell tourists toy fighter planes, tanks, flags and t-shirts as souvenirs. Memorials and statues honoring the Allied dead decorate the area. But it's still difficult to imagine D-Day, June 6, 1944, on the long, broad Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches that still carry the names given to them by the Allies as they prepared their missions.
"When the Allies landed it was an hour after low tide. So they had about 300 meters, about 1,000 feet, of open beach to cover before they got to the sand dunes," Irish guide Edward Robinson explained.
"The beach was covered with anti-landing craft and anti-tank obstacles. The German defenders had a very good defensive position to fight from. They had quite high, sandy cliffs, easy to dig into, easy to set up machine gun positions."
A U.S. Sherman tank perches outside the war memorial in Bayeux, northwestern France.
Scars of war
Huge, ugly cement blocks -- the remains of the artificial port the British improvised to allow supplies in -- stand just before the beach in Arromanches, where the official commemoration ceremony will take place on June 6. Arromanches is now a lively beach town with cafés and souvenir shops and a pretty promenade. French, British, American, Danish and Swedish visitors of all ages flock to see the D-Day documentation in the numerous museums.
Low tide attracts people riding horses and swimmers. Visitors examine the scars: bunkers, military vehicles, bomb craters. Veterans come too, exchanging memories. For the most part, they've gotten over the old definitions of who was friend, and who was foe. They survived, and that's what counts. After the war, many devoted themselves to the reconciliation effort.
"We had a good relationship to the French people. And it still shows today," German veteran Alexander Uhlig said. Uhlig and others from his parachute regiment travel to Normandy every few years, where they visit the places they remember from the war.
"There we're invited for a glass of Calvados or cider by some old people who know us from back then -- very friendly. And the French also say -- well, they were liberated -- but they say: 'As long as the Germans were here, everything was in order,'" Uhlig recounted.
The war left graves, memorials and cemeteries in Normandy. Over 9,000 soldiers are buried at the U.S. military cemetery near Colleville, above Omaha Beach. White crosses bedeck the graves laid out in geometrically precise rows on closely cut lawns befitting the armed forces. The nearby cemetery for British soldiers is reminiscent of an English park with its benches and flower beds.
The German cemetery in La Cambe, in contrast, is a cramped, bleak areal. More than 20,000 German troops are buried in the dark, shadowy graveyard dominated by a memorial to the unknown soldier.
Home of the paratroopers
Members of an American landing unit help their exhausted comrades ashore during the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. The men reached the zone code-named Utah Beach, near Sainte-Mère-Eglise, on a life raft, after their landing craft was hit and sunk by German coastal defenses.
The village Sainte-Mère-Eglise, which claims to have been the first place liberated by the Americans, is just a few kilometers away. The town's only hotel, "Auberge John Steele," is just one indication of how this village commemorates the Allied paratroopers. John Steele was an Allied soldier who got caught on a church spire while parachuting into Sainte-Mère-Eglise in 1944. For fear of the German occupiers, he played dead for hours until he was helped down.
Raymond Paris was a young eyewitness to the arrival of the paratroopers. "You could see it well, it was broad daylight," he remembers. "The doors of the airplanes were open, and out of all these airplanes came the paratroopers -- everywhere, Americans were falling from the sky."
Many of the former liberators kept in touch with Sainte-Mère-Eglise, visiting over the years. Veterans' clubs and the league of paratroopers donated the church organ. The late John Steele became the village hero -- a puppet now hangs from the church spire commemorating his spectacular jump.
On June 6, Normandy will be celebrating. There'll be much flag-waving, pomp, and ceremony. The French Air Force will put on a show of trick manoeuvres. Along with tens of thousands of veterans, leaders from throughout the world will commemorate the liberation.
But there'll be one important difference to all the previous celebrations. For the first time, a sitting German chancellor will be included. Gerhard Schröder will join Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and 5,800 other guests to look up in the skies over Normandy.