For the oblivious, Omaha beach looks like any other. No traces of casualties, of human endurance, of failing machines, of an impossible job against an invincible enemy. But Normandy landings were all that and more. What isn’t obvious is the honorable mention of engineering support, an incredible feat, that most stories about the D-Day fail to cover. One such is the Mulberry harbour. The allied forces constructed two artificial ports, Mulberry “A” and Mulberry “B”, in just three days. The remains of “B” near Arromanches can still be seen in the shallow waters off the coast of Normandy.

Arromanches: Mulberry harbour

Aside from moving the troops through mine-infested and obstacled beaches, engineers not only had to make way for artillery, but also provide structural support to ensure continuous supply of equipment and men. The Normandy Landing (pdf), a paper by Barry W. Fowle, provides a flavor of the horror that faced Corps of Engineers.

Of the 16 M4 tank dozers scheduled to land with the assault gapping teams, only 6 got ashore. With the beach so crowded, the engineers defused the mines on obstacles instead of blowing them. They then used the tank dozers to shove the barriers aside. Eventually the Germans knocked out all but 1 of the dozers.

Despite the doubts and fears of the early hours on OMAHA, the invasion was successful. That success was, in great part, because of the efforts of engineers. They contributed to the victory in their dual role as engineers and infantry. Without their effort in clearing minefields on the beach, removing obstacles, constructing exit roads off the beach, and fighting in the line as infantrymen, the invading force might not have held the beach head and established the critical toe-hold in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Visiting these WWII sites around Bayeux has been educational — learning about the war in scattered musea around Normandy. We also saw families of former soldiers, now old folks, visiting for memorial services. The three nice and quiet days in Bayeux, combined with great weather, turned out to be quite an experience.

Mont Saint Michel, FR. We then turned southwest, leaving Bayeux on April 5th, taking A84 towards The Mont Saint-Michel.

Mont Saint Michel

Rising above the flatlands of Manche, as you near the silted mouth of the Couesnon, Mont Saint-Michel is a sight for sore eyes. Perched on a granite islet of 900m oval circumferential base, it lies exposed to powerful tides, with link to the shore by a 19th century dry causeway. This Gothic-style fortified Benedictine abbey underwent major restructuring between 11th and 16th centuries, with credits to Robert de Thorigny for reinforcing the structure of the buildings and the church’s main façade, Philip Augustus for the Gothic style architectural set including the refectory and cloister, and to Charles VI for the major fortifications. The end result is an artistic and technical tour de force.

The real deal is in actually seeing, feeling the air inside, mingle with the buzzing crowds that come to see and photograph it in awe, feel its stone cold walls, watch the expanse of the Atlantic from one of its towers, bathe in sun standing on the abbey’s top portico, and spending a night inside its fortified walls. A little after 6pm in the evening, when all the day tourists returned, we found ourselves seeing it in its pristine formation. The near deserted narrow streets inside, overshadowed by towering walls — eerie and exciting at the same time.