D-Day Ride, Done It

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D-Day Ride, Done It

Postby groberts » 13 Jun 2010, 3:04pm

Having just returned from riding the Normandy D-Day beaches, I foremost would like to thank those on this Forum that previously provided their help and guidance in planning my tour. The trip was all the more poignant as it coincided with the 66th anniversary of the landings, 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 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 is now 90 years old and president of Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Royal Marines Association. As a Royal Marine Jim 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.

As this is something of a popular ride and, despite help from the Forum, I still found it difficult to get adequate information for a cycling /camping tour, so I have therefore tried below to summarize my trip and some of the things I learnt which I hope others will find helpful. I did a lot of historical reading beforehand and also watched and re-watched some of the classic films on D-Day, which was very helpful in understanding what went on during that fateful day as I cycled along the coast. Having undertaken a preliminary shakedown tour of Kent in April, this was also my first significant cycle / camping tour and I have learned a lot; can’t wait to go again. 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 Home (Redhill, Surrey) to Portsmouth to Cherbourg

To maximize the time in France I took the train direct from my home in Redhill, Surrey (pre-booked online return ticket £27) and the fast ferry to Cherbourg (approx £48 single). As it gets in late I camped at the Camping Collignon site (€10.71) just east of Cherbourg, about10 minutes from the ferry. The French do lots of things well: road surfaces, cycling facilities, driving respect for cyclists. However, as I found on many subsequent occasions, what they don’t do well is signs, as a result the site is a bit tricky to find but worth the effort (take a look on Google Earth before and take a printout with you). Small, very quiet municipal site just on the beach with a café nearby if you want a late supper, it was a great place to start the tour.

Day-2 Cherbourg to Ste Mere Eglise

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 – about 5 mins walk for a beer in the evening. A very nice site but very, very busy with D-Day soldiers and tourists – no problem with a small tent though!

Day-3 Ste Mere Eglise to Grandcamp-Maisy

Took the back roads south to Carentan through Chef du Pont, Carquebut, Le Port, Liesville-s-Dove, which was exquisite cycling and scenery and gives you a glimpse of the Merderet and Douvre rivers, which were very relevant to the USA airbourne events on D-Day. As you join the D913 into Carentan is located the Dead Mans Corner museum. On leaving Carentan take care to turn left just out of town onto the back roads through Catz and on to Isigny-s-Mer; if you don’t you’ll end up on the N13. Thereafter I took the smaller back roads towards Gefosse Fontenay and on to Grandcamp, rather than the D514. 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 – worth the stop.

I stopped at the Fort Sampson campsite (€5) just west of the town at Grandcamp, which is located just by the beach. It is basic – a large field + basic but clean facilities – which I had practically to myself + just 5 minutes cycle from the town centre. There’s another site a bit closer to town but it looked more touristy with lots of static holiday homes.

The Ranger’s Museum is at Grandcamp, telling the story of Pont du Hoc (see later). Not a lot of shops but enough to get basic goods there and if you want a meal.

Day – 4 Grandcamp-Maisy to Arromanche

Basically follow the D514 east all the way to Ouistreham thereafter, making detours for various sites and places as you wish; this section covers the American Omaha Beach. First stop has to be Pont du Hoc, a +100ft cliff scaled by the American Rangers under fire to take the German’s gun emplacement there; a mind boggling venture made all the more incredible by seeing it for yourself. Lot’s of memorials and museums to the Omaha Beach landing all the way, which proved to be the most catastrophic of all the 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, which even the best books can’t convey. Afterwards it is 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 small 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.

Onwards you could (and many do) make a tour inland to Bayeux, I did not, choosing to stick to the coast and on to Arromanche, where the municipal camping is right in the centre of the town; after going downhill into the town turn sharp right staying on the D514 and the campsite is 500m on your left (€7.90). Being the day before D-Day this site was heaving with people but there was still room for a 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. The Museum located on the front here is worth a stop, 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.

Day-5 Arromanche to Benouville (Pegasus Bridge) 6th June D-Day

Still mainly staying on the D514, this route passes through Gold Beach (British), Juno Beach (Canadian) and then Sword Beach (British). There are various museums – usually one at each beach – and lots of memorials all the way along, and today on June 6th there were lots of remembrance services 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) 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 camp site (municipal I think) just outside of Ouistreham which would be convenient for anyone catching the ferry. However, I chose not to stay there (a) 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? (b) I wanted to camp by Pegasus Bridge just 3 or 4miles further on. The site there is also just by the canal path but has a security fence and gate. The Les Haut Couture camp site 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

I remained at Pegasus camp site and rode on the canal path right into the centre of Caen. The main objective was to spend the day at the Caen Memorial, 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 reconciling their roles in WWII. 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. Returning cross country from the museum back to the camp site, I visited the Cambes-en-Plaine British cemetery. Like so many of these the beautiful well kept Commonwealth War Graves, the setting and well tended site belies the horror from which it arose.

Day-7 Benouville to Honfleur

Heading east once more, just across the Caen canal and River Orne is the eastern high-ground flank of the British landings, that was taken very early on the morning of 6th June 1944. Probably the two most significant places to see here is 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 was going to stay at a campsite at Hennequeville, just past Trouville. Located on the cliff tops the views there are great but on arrival I found the facilities and the overall condition of the site was poor. I therefore moved on to Camping la Briquerie (€15), located about 4km south of Honfleur up a hill at the junction of the D62 and D579. A large but very well looked after site, with great pitches and a supermarche next door makes it a great stop before heading for Le Havre.

Day-8 Honfleur to Le Havre and home

Honfleur is a well known and very pretty fishing town but for that reason is 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 – well worth the detour + it provides a quite stunning view over Honfleur town below and over to the Pont de Normandie.

The ride out to and across Pont de Normandie is quite complicated, look out for Pietons et Cyclists signs once you get there. Other postings on the forum provide good information on the route - viewtopic.php?p=80759#80759

Once over the bridge, using a narrow cycle lane alongside the traffic, it is a complicated route through the docks to the ferry terminal. Frankly I found the riding on much of this route terrifying as well as complicated. Though some parts do 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 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 much better.

Tips, tricks and thoughts

• I used the Michelin Map 303, Calvados / Manche for the ride which I found to be very adequate. The topography is not severe at any point and really IMO doesn’t require anything more than this. 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 250 miles, 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. They all have websites.
• There are many very good museums along the route and it is well worth getting a Normandie Pass at the first one you visit, 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 very useful information on all the museums and places to visit and their opening times and costs, as well as general background information. Get a copy if you can asap.
• There are of course many books on the subject and I highly recommend some reading and films before you go, it makes the ride so much more interesting. I read:
• 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 of you want to save weight
• The Longest Day , the definitive film of events on 6th June even if it is dated, you can get it cheap on Amazon
• 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.

I can not 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 must be +85 years old they will not be around much longer, so do this ride sooner rather than later, it is a truly humbling experience to meet and talk to these people.

I hope these notes will prove useful to anyone thinking of going to the Normandy beaches and may even inspire others to do so. I have refrained from too much history, you can read that elsewhere but would be happy to provide more detailed tour and camping information if wanted – just pm me.
Last edited by groberts on 5 Feb 2015, 9:51am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: D-Day Ride, Done It

Postby irc » 14 Jun 2010, 7:26pm

Thanks for the write up. I'm thinking of doiing this tour some time. I found this very informative.
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Re: D-Day Ride, Done It

Postby hondated » 15 Jun 2010, 12:56pm

Well done and thanks for the write up. Inspirational. Just like you I feel it is a great privilege when you get to meet some of the Veterans., I met a couple a couple of years ago in London and as they said if you say you were not scared you were not there.
Surely its about time those involved that are still living should automatically be given honours given so called celebrities get given them.

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Re: D-Day Ride, Done It

Postby aquilegia » 19 Jun 2010, 3:37am

Very nice write up.

I was there at the same time, and I wonder if the touring bike I saw in the rack when leaving the American cemetery on the morning of June 5 was yours? Mine was the folding bike.

It was an amazing experience to be in Normandy during the anniversary. I, too, had an opportunity to speak with several British & American veterans at cemeteries and museums. Very humble men.

Did you notice that in areas which were liberated by American forces, there were many more allied flags or American & French flags on display in the towns and in shop windows than in areas further east liberated by British and Canadian forces? Many more private homes were displaying flags in the areas liberated by Americans, too. I don't have any explanation for this, however. Near Utah Beach, every km or so had a small memorial naming that stretch of road in memory of an American soldier who died during the invasion. Also, the road was dubbed "la voie de la liberte" and had special km markers.

About 2 km before I arrived at Utah Beach on D913, I came across a memorial to the 800 Danish soldiers who participated in the liberation of Normandy. I had no idea. Similarly, in the pretty resort town of Cabourg there is a memorial to the Belgian & Luxembourg soldiers who liberated that town. Once again, I had no idea.

At Colleville-sur-mer near the American cemetery, the village had large vintage photographs of their half-destroyed cathedral next to the actual fully-restored cathedral. A brilliant and effective reminder. The American cemetery was particularly moving with its immense size, the perfectly manicured appearance, and the magnificent setting on a bluff above the water.

On a tiny road, D126, between Bayeux & Caen near the hamlet of Secqueville-en-Bessin, I came across a small British cemetery literally surrounded by farm fields. 99 British or Commonwealth soldiers and 18 German soldiers are buried there. On June 6, I arrived in Ranville (near Pegasus bridge) near the end of a noontime ceremony at the British cemetery. A large convoy of vintage US military jeeps was getting ready to leave. I saw these vehicles everywhere and wonder if they're just brought out around D-Day anniversaries? Nearly every time I heard any drivers and passengers talking, they were speaking French. I had to laugh in Ste-Mere-Eglise when I saw a bunch of young men dressed in vintage American military uniforms next to one of these jeeps. The young men were all speaking German amongst themselves. By the way, 2 stained glass windows in the church in Ste-Mere-Eglise have interesting references to the liberation.

There were many events I missed because of timing, such as the parachute drop at Ste-Mere-Eglise, fireworks in Bayeux, and the parade in Carentan. But others I was fortunate to come across, such as a child laying a wreath at Utah Beach while bagpipes were played.

I had biked in Normandy previously but not in the D-Day beach areas. I'm glad I waited until I was able to be there during the anniversary.

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Re: D-Day Ride, Done It

Postby groberts » 19 Jun 2010, 12:22pm

Aquilegia, thank you and others for your kind comments, sounds like we had very similar experiences; like you it was the small things, individual people and less well known events that caught my attention and had an impact on my thoughts and emotions. It was a truly enlightening and humbling experience to tour the D-Day beaches at this time.

Yes I did notice more flags in the American sectors and a lot more dressing up and vintage D-Day vehicles in the American Utah and Omaha beach area. I put it down to their greater exuberance and our more reserved way of doing things. Personally I like our way but it’s clear we owe a great debt to the Americans and it was good fun to see all their people there to remember and ‘playing’ at D-Day.

It is clearly not possible to be everywhere on 6th June and I reckon events at St Mere Eglise would have been outstanding. Even when I was there three days earlier the place (and campsite) were heaving with soldiers, people dressed as soldiers, veterans and D-Day vehicles – already producing a very exciting atmosphere. I saw whole families dressed in 1944 army gear, including the children! Notwithstanding, as we’ve both said, it is often the smaller events and people you come across on D-Day that leave their mark.

How strange, I think we might well have crossed paths at the Omaha Beach USA Cemetery: I attach a photo of my bike and what I suspect is yours? I took a photo as I had not come across a Friday Bike before and was intrigued to see such a small bike, fully loaded for touring. Surprisingly half an hour eastwards down the road from the cemetery I came across another Friday Bike, ridden by American Laura Roberts on a 3 month tour, see her blog on http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/solo2010 - I get a mention on day-22! I was actually very surprised to see so few touring cyclists during my trip, just a Canadian Couple at the Pegasus campsite and a couple near Honfleur; don’t know what they’re missing.
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Re: D-Day Ride, Done It

Postby aquilegia » 19 Jun 2010, 2:27pm

How extraordinary! That is indeed my bike. It's a shame we didn't meet in person. The previous day while riding to Grandcamp, I passed many cyclists heading westward. When I arrived in Grandcamp, I shared a beer with 4 stragglers from what turned out to be a British group. They told me hadn't seen any other touring cyclists going east like the two of us. I saw several other touring cyclists in Normandy.

By the way, when I toured in Laos on my Bike Friday 2 years ago, the first 2 touring cyclists I saw were a couple on a Bike Friday tandem. The next day I met 2 others on individual Bike Fridays. They're superb bikes. Earlier on this year's ride in France, I rode it up Mont Ventoux, panniers and all.

If I figure out how to reduce the file size of my photos, I'll try and post a few.

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Re: D-Day Ride, Done It

Postby Pouletplage » 25 May 2015, 10:15pm

Hi groberts,

I thoroughly enjoyed your account of your D-Day Ride that you made a number of years ago now. I am also considering the same ride but I will take the ferry back to Portsmouth from Caen and not Le Harve - based on your recommendation!

I have never undertaken an overseas tour but I'm desperate to try. The only worry I have is security. I envisage - rightly or wrongly - that I'll go into a museum leaving my bike outside and when I return everything is gone! Naturally, I can lock the bike up to a post or something similar but it's things like panniers etc that might be a target for a quick fingered Frenchman or woman!

How did you handle this issue? Did you take your panniers into every museum / restaurant / toilet stop?

I'm sure that there are security measures in place at the front of these museums but it doesn't take much to whip off Altura panniers and be gone!

Any advice would be welcome.