By Alan Davidge

#7 Path up the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach 638x969(Part Two) We can all be forgiven for thinking that history is all about dates and facts, although it is true that a day spent exploring the Normandy beaches will certainly add many of these to our memory banks. The real memories that we take away from Normandy, however, are the kind that go much deeper and touch parts of our soul, ensuring that we are never quite the same again. When I began training as a teacher many years ago, I was introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy which distinguishes between cognitive learning (facts) and affective learning (feelings and emotions), and while accompanying visitors around the D-Day beaches I have found myself increasingly emphasising the latter over the former in order to get the message across. Before taking visitors to these sites, I used to begin with a brief history lesson and check how familiar they were with the factual material, but I now take a different approach. I tell them to prepare for a day when they will feel proud, sad and angry, and probably a few other emotions as well.

Photo: Path up the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach

To illustrate what I mean I provide three links beforehand: These include the speech delivered by President Reagan on top of the Pointe du Hoc cliffs in 1984, the story of fighter pilot Billie D Harris and a link to a war forum with details of a German soldier who became known as “The Beast of Omaha”:

This process helps me to set the scene and hopefully provides reassurance that their day will not consist of a bombardment of facts and military history. By the time we have parted company at the end of the day, I usually find myself providing follow-up material and I frequently receive emails for material that allows further research, thereby allowing plenty of cognitive learning to eventually take place.

When I first started taking visitors around Normandy, I did my best to ensure that I was historically well informed. I worked though Joe Balkoski’s excellent accounts of the landing beaches and beyond, delved into Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, then checked out The Longest Day and any other DVDs I could lay my hands on and kept up to date with anything new that appeared in the shops of cross-channel ferries whenever I travelled back to the UK. Increasingly however, I found I was trying a bit too hard to get the facts right. It didn’t really matter if the guns at the Merville Battery were 105mm or 155mm and whether a particular regiment landed in LCA or LCVP landing craft. What really caught people’s imaginations were the individual stories with which they could personally identify, and much to my surprise, they started to flow out of the sand and hedgerows whenever I set foot in the area.

Like any other visitor to the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, my first impression was one of total awe. I then got down to a more detailed level and became familiar with particular graves, such as the Niland brothers (alias Ryan from the Tom Hanks film) and Teddy Roosevelt Junior, for example. But my most powerful experience and lasting memory derives from the day I was walking along the main path with Bill and Brenda Harris from Georgia. We heard a guide mention Bill’s name, which startled him as he was pointing to a gravestone. Shocked a little by the coincidence, we were invited across to hear the full and poignant story of Billie D Harris, a pilot who was shot down almost as soon as he had returned to France after his wedding back in Oklahoma. Incredibly, his whereabouts were not known to his wife and surviving family members until 2005, due to a series of communication errors and the mistaken belief that he was a Canadian airman. His is now the most frequently decorated grave in the whole of the cemetery and his wife, Peggy, who never re-married, continues to pay him regular visits. Whenever I take visitors to the cemetery, I take them to see Billie D and tell the story. It’s something with which absolutely everyone can empathise and that nobody forgets.

Then there was the day that I visited the beautiful, ancient church of Sainte Marie du Mont, just inland of Utah Beach where the 101st Airborne broke through the skies in the early hours of D-Day in order to secure the town in advance of the troops who were due to land on the beach a few hours later. I was accompanied by a family whose junior members discovered several bullet holes that traced a line through one of the confessionals. I’d been in the church several times before, but on this occasion the sun was shining through the stained glass in just the right position to highlight the damage. I remembered an account that I had read on a plaque outside of a confrontation with German soldiers who had been sheltering there and everything fell into place. This provoked a memorable discussion about whether it was morally right to engage in a firefight on church premises. In the Middle Ages in Britain, a church was supposed to provide sanctuary (although it didn’t do much for Thomas Becket!). The discovery afterwards on the church notice board of a photograph of US soldiers celebrating mass in the same church the following day made us wonder whether any of them had been involved and if so, how did they feel about it then? A further search of the floors showed a number of bloodstains, which had indelibly penetrated into the stone and provided a permanent testimony of events. I regularly visit the church, especially when I have a group of young people with whom I can explore some provocative issues. Pointe du Hoc is another favourite destination for visitors of all ages. It is the best-preserved WWII landscape that I know of in Normandy. Its claim to posterity is that it was the site of an incredibly heroic mission that involved a battalion of Rangers climbing the almost vertical cliffs on D-Day to silence the huge guns that could have been trained on the landing beaches. This was Target Number One in Eisenhower’s plan and the fact that the troops found that the guns had been removed after they had risked everything in scaling the cliffs in no way diminishes their entitlement to heroic status. Children, in particular, enjoy exploring this cratered landscape and nobody of any political persuasion or nationality can ignore the suffering of the German troops who suffered the blast and concussion of enormous amounts of ordinance bursting around them as they shook in their shelters as the air force “softened them up” prior to the actual invasion.

Acknowledgements: Alyssa Noel, student of French and Italian, and Journalism at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities and English editor for A Woman’s Paris.

Alan Davidge was born in London two years after World War Two ended. Now after forty years of working in education, he lives with his wife, Carol in a part of Normandy that was liberated by US troops who landed on D-Day. They have recently moved out of the Norman farmhouse that took five years to renovate and are now taking on the bigger challenge of restoring an old cottage that carries a 1785 datestone above the door and sits in an acre of land. Since 2009, Alan has been using his knowledge and experience as a historian to accompany visitors around the Normandy beaches and battlefields. His email contact is:

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post D-Day Travel Guide: For American visitors to Normandy, France, by Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian, Normandy. Alan has managed to seek out a number of places of significance that do not usually feature in guidebooks. Guides included.

Stars, Stripes and Seine: Americans in occupied Paris 1940-1944, by Alan Davidge. 5,000 Americans refused to leave Paris after war broke out in September 1939. Who were they? Read the stories of how Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach, Arthur Briggs, Drue Leyton, and others lived and breathed Paris during the war. (A Woman’s Paris interview with Alan Davidge)

Tilar J. Mazzeo’s “The Hotel on Place Vendôme” – Hôtel Ritz in Paris: June 1940 (excerpt). Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of the New York Times bestseller The Widow Clicquot, and The Secret of Chanel No. 5. This riveting account uncovers the remarkable experiences of those who lived in the hotel during the German occupation of Paris, revealing how what happened in the Ritz’s corridors, palatial suites, and basement kitchens shaped the fate of those who met there by chance or assignation, the future of France, and the course of history. (A Woman’s Paris interview with Tilar J. Mazzeo)

John Baxter’s “Paris at the End of the World” – Patriotism transforming fashion (excerpt). Preeminent writer on Paris, John Baxter brilliantly brings to life one of the most dramatic and fascinating periods in the city’s history. Uncovering a thrilling chapter in Paris’ history, John Baxter’s revelatory new book, Paris at the End of the World: The City of Light During the Great War, 1914-1918, shows how this extraordinary period was essential in forging the spirit of the city we love today. (A Woman’s Paris interview with John Baxter)

Text copyright ©2014 Alan Davidge. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2014Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.