Sail with Brittany Ferries to the D-Day beaches in Normandy

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D Day memorial sculpture Normandy

If you’re planning to explore the D-Day sites, a Brittany Ferries crossing to Caen will not only get you to Normandy, it berths right alongside Sword Beach. But what to see when you get there? Alastair McKenzie, co-author of Bradt’s D-Day Landings, offers his thoughts

At the eastern end of Omaha Beach, near the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, the tide regularly washes over a large chunk of concrete. It doesn’t look much from a distance, but on it there’s a memorial plaque to the combat medics of the 116th Infantry Regiment, which reads: “At this rock SSgt Arnold ‘Ray’ Lambert set up the first casualty collection point at Omaha Beach.”

It’s not hard to imagine drenched, terrified young men clustered behind it, tending the wounded while under fire from German bunkers 100 metres away.

Normandy: from wartime peril to a peaceful retreat

If it wasn’t for D-Day, we’d all think of Normandy simply as a fabulous holiday destination – a big, fertile landscape of rolling hills, rural villages, sweetly scented orchards, ancient hedgerows, superlative gastronomy and magnificent beaches.

But 80 years ago, on 6 June 1944, that’s not what an 18-year-old stepping into the night from a C-47 transport aircraft, or struggling through the surf from a landing craft, the air thick with shells and bullets, would have been thinking. 

Our fascination with D-Day and the Battle of Normandy (Operation Overlord), and our respect for those involved, remains strong. Two million people come to Normandy each year on D-Day-related visits (more during the D-Day anniversary year) and interest continues, especially from new generations coming to see where their family members fought.

Sites to remember: Cafe Gondrée, Moissy ford

I’ve visited, and researched, the sites on many occasions, and have found that the fascination with D-Day Normandy often comes from encountering famous locations and the juxtaposition between the ‘then and now’.

At Bénouville, just a few minutes inland from Ouistreham, Café Gondrée – probably the first building to be liberated in France - is still a café and Madame Gondrée, a toddler on D-Day, still serves tea. Next door, Pegasus Bridge, captured by British glider troops in the first moments of D-Day, has been replaced with an almost identical bridge – but the original bridge can be seen, and walked on, a few metres away in the grounds of the Pegasus Memorial Museum.

For me, the most poignant site is the ford at Moissy, outside Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives. This was practically the last river crossing open to German Seventh Army soldiers desperate to avoid being trapped by the encircling Allies in the closing days of Overlord. Then, it was a scene of devastation as Germans fought to cross this small ford while being shelled by artillery and strafed by aircraft. Historic photos show trees stripped bare from the blasts, and the lane either side of the ford littered with abandoned vehicles, equipment, dead horses and dead men. But today? Moissy Ford is a tranquil, shaded spot with a picnic table.

How to explore the D Day sites

Person walking in D Day memorial cemetery

Operation Overlord wasn’t confined to the beaches, so it’s worth getting away from the coast if you can to explore the battlefields, cemeteries and memorials inland. 

Normandy is perfect for touring by car and there are plenty of sites to explore, all concentrated in an area just over half the size of Wales. Technically, you could drive from Cherbourg at one end, past all the beaches to Caen at the other end, in 90 minutes – but taking a week to explore at leisure would be worthwhile.

There’s so much to see, from the endless bunkers and gun batteries around the coast, to the dozens of moving Allied and German cemeteries; from the many museums, large and small, and the hundreds of markers and memorials in the region. 

Practically every village has a liberation memorial, often just a simple plaque. But some memorials, like the ‘Tough Ombres’ statues at Périers, the ‘Filthy Thirteen’ memorial outside Carentan-les-Marais, the Piper Bill Millin statue behind Sword Beach, or the huge new British Normandy Memorial overlooking Gold Beach, can be dramatic and tragic, and often trigger a desire to find out more about these brave young men. Which is why so many visitors are drawn back to Normandy again and again.

Cross to Normandy with Brittany Ferries

If you’re planning to explore the D-Day sites – or any other part of Normandy – Brittany Ferries can take you there. In fact, the crossing from Portsmouth to Caen berths alongside Sword Beach in Ouistreham, which was one of the main landing sites – you get a great perspective of the beach from the sea upon arrival. And with other routes from Portsmouth or Poole to Cherbourg, too, there are plenty of crossings to choose from.

Brittany Ferries also offers breaks and accommodation aligned to D-Day, such as the three-night ‘A Glimpse of D-Day’ driving tour, which covers about 25 miles. This tour includes three nights’ B&B accommodation and return sailings for a standard car or motorcycle.

Save on Brittany Ferries fares and holidays with Boundless

 Brittany Ferry Portsmouth

Boundless members save 5%* on Brittany Ferries crossings to France and Spain all year round, and save 7%* on Brittany Ferries’ holiday packages, from gites to road tours.

Find out more about the Brittany Ferries discounts for Boundless members – there, you’ll also find a link to more details about Brittany Ferries’ Normandy crossings and holidays.

Do more with Boundless

These Brittany Ferries savings are one example of the deals and discounts available from Boundless. If you're working in or retired from the public sector or civil service, Boundless has two great membership options to choose from: Boundless and Boundless Plus.

With Boundless, you get unlimited access or discounted entry to many of the UK’s top attractions including Kew Gardens and Wakehurst and WWT centres across the UK, as well as year-round deals on restaurants, holidays, shopping and much more. With Boundless Plus, you can enjoy additional benefits including unlimited access to Historic Royal Palaces sites, National Trust for Scotland places, access to the Ramblers' extensive group walks and routes, and peace of mind with roadside assistance and local recovery by LV= Britannia Rescue

*Terms and conditions apply – click here for more details.

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