What to Read Before You Tour the D-Day Beaches in Normandy

Literary Travel Isn’t Just for Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways–a guest post from Scott Smith, Edina, MN.

First things first:  I’m a guy.  I work hard during the week, bleed Maize and Blue sports, track the Wild and Vikes with interest, fire up the grill on weekends and tip back a beer or three in the process.  Give me ESPN, a fishing rod, a deck of cards and some Blanton’s, and I’m happy as a clam.  I’m not a complete Neanderthal – I do enjoy a good novel now and then, and I love to travel – but I’ve assiduously avoided this “lit trip” phenomenon up to now, largely out of fear of getting my man card revoked.

I’m also a huge WWII history buff, particularly with regard to the D-Day invasion and its

"Les Braves," a  nine-meter tall stainless steel sculpture by Anilore Ban rises from the sand at Omaha Beach near St. Laurent-sur-Mer, France. It honors all those men who landed here to liberate France. The sculpture has 3 elements: 1) Wings of Hope, 2) Rise, Freedom!, and 3) Wings of Fraternity.
“Les Braves,” a nine-meter tall stainless steel sculpture by Anilore Ban rises from the sand at Omaha Beach near St. Laurent-sur-Mer, France. It honors all those men who landed there to liberate France. The sculpture has 3 elements: 1) Wings of Hope, 2) Rise, Freedom!, and 3) Wings of Fraternity.

aftermath, and I’ve read just about everything I can muster on the topic.  Among my favorites, I’ve nearly broken the spine on Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day; my copy of Anthony Cave Brown’s A Bodyguard of Lies is lovingly dog-eared; and, Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross holds the current place of honor on the dresser next to my side of the bed.  From my readings, I can name every landing sector in Normandy, the combat units that landed in each, and when.  I know that “Hobart’s Funnies” is not an Australian comedy club and that the Falaise Gap is not a dental imperfection.

Go to Omaha Beach today, as Terri and I did a few weeks ago, and for the uninformed tourist it’s almost impossible to visualize what happened there nearly 70 years ago.  Sure, the ruins of a few German gun emplacements are still there, and a couple of memorials (the one on the beach outside of St. Laurent is particularly striking) remind you of the historical importance of where you stand.  Otherwise, the eyes see a gorgeous stretch of white sand, turquoise water just beyond it, children splashing in the surf, and lush green bluffs overlooking the seashore, like some Impressionist painting.

But I saw, and experienced, something entirely different.  I saw exactly where the 116th

The American Cemetery, Normandy, France
The American Cemetery, Normandy, France

Regiment’s Company A, National Guarders from Bedford, Virginia, came ashore at 6:30 am on D-Day morning – just a couple hundred yards below the gun emplacement at Vierville that’s now a National Guard memorial – and instantly comprehended why that unit suffered over 90 percent casualties in the space of 10 minutes.  I looked on the bluffs and the draws above Omaha and witnessed vicariously the extraordinary leadership of young infantrymen who understood that the original assault plan was doomed and improvised their way to success.  I visualized the beach obstacles, the barbed wire, the shingle – all gone today – and marveled at the bravery of those who swam and crawled ashore that day.  And standing in the American cemetery in the bluffs outside of Colleville, amid row after row of crosses and Stars of David, I saw the selflessness of and the sacrifices made by the “Greatest Generation” in a whole new light.

And so I’m forced to confess.  The umbilical between reading and travel isn’t necessarily reserved for book clubs and gals on getaways – it’s there for us XY types too.  Maybe it’s a jaunt to Key West, to take in a little fishing with Hemingway’s Santiago.  Perhaps it’s that trip to a Wyoming dude ranch with Larry McMurtry in hand.  Or it’s a Dodgers game after reading The Boys of Summer. Your call.  Like I experienced in Normandy, what you read may give special meaning to what you see.  That’s a good thing.  And I promise you won’t lose your man card in the process.

From Terri:  In addition to Scott’s list of books, I’d add Jeff Shaara’s The Steel Wave, about the D-Day Invasion, which is part his World War II trilogy.  It’s a good read, easy to digest.

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2 thoughts on “What to Read Before You Tour the D-Day Beaches in Normandy”

  1. I visited those amazing beaches and the American cemetery, and saw so much of it through the eyes of my 10-year-old son, who would read and watch everything he could about WWII. Sadly, I’ve lost so much of the knowledge he shared (we’re talking over a decade ago), but the emotions I felt standing at each of these spots I will forever remember. If I am ever fortunate to return, I will make sure to choose a book from your selected reading list!

    1. There are some great tours, but I believe you get so much more out of a trip like this to read ahead. Otherwise it’s difficult to appreciate all that went on here because now it all looks calm and lovely, except for the gun emplacements. The beaches and the cemetery are very stirring and emotional places.

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