Americans in Bayeux — Normandy, France

Story and photos by David Greitzer

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Everyone who visits France goes to Paris. Everyone ticks off the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame. But only a few travel-savvy die-hards manage to visit Bayeux, a sleepy little hamlet of about 13,000 in the French region of Normandy. This is the closest city to the D-Day Invasion of June 6, 1944, where the allied forces stormed the beaches to liberate France from the Germans in World War II.

We arrived on the 5:30 p.m. train from Paris on a Thursday, but Bayeux offers little in the way night life—or day life for that matter. So we decided to settle for food and refreshments.  We managed to disturb a local middle-eastern restaurant owner into firing up the gyro machine to make us a few tasty treats. We enjoyed a few beers while watching the locals zip in and out of the neighboring mini-marché, each patron carrying a pack of cigarettes and lottery tickets.  Imagine a French version of 7-Eleven, but not quite as seedy and with no Slurpees.

On foot, Bayeux can be traversed in 15 minutes. However, this medieval town’s stunning architecture and botanical gardens demand a lengthier stroll. The main attraction of the city proper is the Bayeux Tapestry. This is a 1.6 by 224.3 foot-long embroidered cloth depicting the events leading up to and the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066. It is exhibited in a special museum called Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. 

Our last day in Bayeux we planned to take in the D-Day experience. Our hotel staff recommended a personal guide, and for 30 Euros each Monsieur Kraus picked us up from the Hotel D’Or and showed us around. His nearly perfect American English made the anecdotes come alive.

Monsieur Kraus told us about his friend who was about seven years old during the invasion. Some years after the war, still a boy, his friend had found a German soldier’s helmet while playing in the nearby fields. It took some doing pulling the helmet from the earth as it was stuck in the mud. After prying it loose his friend discovered a human skull still attached inside of it. His friend kept the skull as a souvenir and displayed it on his mantle at home well into his adulthood.

During the 50th-year anniversary of the D-Day invasion, a group of German veterans were visiting the sights including the German Cemetery, La Cambe. A local overheard the group discussing the mystery of a headless soldier. He put two and two together and mentioned he knew of someone who had found a helmet with a skull in it as a boy. DNA testing later revealed that the skull belonged to the headless body buried years earlier in the cemetery. The skull was later reunited with the body, reburied, and the mystery was solved, according to Kraus.

I don’t know whether I believe the story, but having it told to me while wandering through the seemingly endless rows of crosses and Stars of David at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, atop a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, I was moved to silence.

Standing on Omaha Beach, a long smooth sandy beachfront that extends over a hundred yards towards the surf, one can easily channel the spirits of that day with just a little imagination.

There’s a museum exhibiting weapons, uniforms, military vehicles, a 155mm gun, a landing barge, and a Sherman tank. This will be interesting to any history buff since it displays a slice of time down to the cigarettes, chewing gum, and other 1940s memorabilia.

Probably the most startling and interesting sight are the German arromanches, the remnants of the German bunkers, guns and emplacements overlooking the sea.  In one defensive remnant you can still see the boot imprint of a German soldier in the cement.  This is testament to the urgency of the soldiers who built them, according to Kraus.

The guns are still there, rusting. Perhaps thousands of years from now people will view them as mysterious curiosities as we now view Stonehenge or the Pyramids.