The air is tinged with sea spray, carrying the roar of the surf mixed with children’s laughter. I stroll along the streets of touristy little Arromanches-les-Bains, the sun warming my face, while discordant scenes vie for attention: an antitank gun and a field artillery gun flank a carousel, a tan-and-black-striped German 88 levels its gaze at a restaurant marked “Fast Food,” and lovers hold hands while looking out to sea at the hulking remains of one of the world’s great engineering feats—inescapable reminders of the town’s role in one of the most dramatic episodes in human history.
This small town in Normandy changed forever when Allied planners chose the waters off its stretch of picturesque beach—east of Omaha Beach in the American sector and just west of the British Gold Beach—as one of two sites at which to create an artificial harbor immediately after D-Day. The prefabricated ports known as “Mulberry Harbors” were designed to move millions of pounds of men, vehicles, and supplies from ship to shore. When Mulberry “A,” located at Omaha Beach, was disabled by vicious weather just after completion, Mulberry “B” at tiny Arromanches was left to carry the entire burden.
It was Winston Churchill himself who demanded that Operation Overlord planners devise a means of unloading tons of supplies onto the beaches in the absence of a true port during the early stages of the invasion. “Piers for use on beaches,” Churchill jotted in a note in May 1942. “They must float up and down with the tide….Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.”
Military engineers conceived a daring plan to construct artificial harbors, with pieces built in England, towed across the Channel to Normandy, and assembled on site. Sections were en route even before the D-Day landings began, and construction commenced shortly after. The two harbors had been operational only a brief while when a violent storm struck on June 19, destroying the port at Omaha Beach. For the next 10 months the Mulberry Harbor at Arromanches, affectionately called Port Winston in honor of its mastermind, poured more than two-and-a-half million men, half a million vehicles, and several million tons of supplies onto French soil. The Nazi war machine was demolished less than a year later.
Relics of war surround the town’s small central square, which overlooks the wide beach, including the 88mm German piece and a British six-pounder antitank gun near an American M3 half-track.
Just across from the carousel is the Arromanches D-Day museum, Musée du Débarquement. Along with displays of uniforms, weapons, and vehicles from the Normandy campaign—including a dummy in full U.S. Airborne combat kit dangling from the ceiling, and a bulbous old sea mine sitting heavily in a corner—its most striking exhibit is an intricately detailed model that runs the length of a room, illustrating the construction and components of Port Winston: three large piers, connected to land by roughly seven miles of flexible steel roadways floated on steel or concrete pontoons, and protected by a four-mile long breakwater of sunken concrete caissons and scuttled ships forming a rough “U” shape about a mile and a half offshore. The amount of planning and work put into this monstrosity—assembled under the most physically and mentally stressful of conditions—staggers the mind.
I raise my eyes to the long windows in front of me. The sea is straight ahead, and so is a battered old caisson being slapped by the waves. The size of the blocks varied, ranging in size from 170 feet by 25 feet to 200 feet by 60 feet, weighing from 2,000 tons to over 6,000 tons. The closest one to the museum—so close it seems you can almost reach out to touch its cold concrete carcass—is one of the smaller ones. The bigger ones reside farther from shore.
Leaving the museum, I pass monuments to the Royal Navy, Royal Logistics Corps, and the Royal Engineers clustered near a small pack howitzer as I walk up the road to the Arromanches 360 Theatre. With the town to my back, the beach resort’s sounds and smells recede. Time to trade them in for another sensory journey entirely. The theater’s feature film, The Price of Freedom, plays on nine screens in a circular room, and you experience it more than view it. A noisy montage of scenes includes artillery firing, bombs exploding, soldiers storming the shore, and mechanized armor thundering over the countryside, assaulting the senses.
I feel battered and slightly disoriented on leaving, my mind focused on the sweep of the Normandy invasion as I walk back down to the square. Heading along the main street, I navigate rowdy groups of school kids and pay way too much for an under-filled baguette. I pass one of the countless shops selling a mix of sunglasses and war memorabilia, suntan lotion, and D-Day souvenirs. Staples like postcards and shiny booklets illustrating the town’s World War II history jam every rack, but it’s the realistic-looking bullets dangling from gaudy gold key chains that catch my eye. Some shops sell replicas of bayonets, Lugers, and American M1 carbines, along with camera batteries and bottles of Evian. I spend a few moments wondering how I’d get one of those souvenirs through airport security, and then give up.
I head down a small cobbled alley toward the shore. Finally, a moment of quiet and solitude. It’s almost dusk. The heat of the afternoon has passed. Turning around and looking up toward the inland hill, I see the imposing Sherman tank used by Major General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd French Armored Division, which landed at Utah Beach on August 1, 1944, and later participated in the liberation of Paris. Behind me, Port Winston’s remains are hunkering down for another lonely night in the waves.
At first, I was irritated by this town. I’d wished the children and sun-worshipping day-trippers had more respect for the gravity of what took place here. But the intermingling of frivolity and D-Day relics begins to make sense. I realize that it’s good for visitors—especially children—to know that their beachfront retreat was once the scene of a life-and-death struggle: that this place was, before the ice cream and carousels, drenched with the blood, sweat, and tears of a generation grimly determined to liberate Europe from the grip of fascism. For this beautiful and carefree place, we have them to thank.
James Ullrich is a Seattle-based freelance writer and history buff. When not writing, he enjoys backpacking in Europe—especially Germany and France. Before he became a professional writer, Ullrich interned at the U.S. Embassy in London and the White House.
When You Go
Arromanches-les-Bains is on the coast of northern France, about 140 miles northwest of Paris, and about 20 miles northwest of Caen. The town’s D-Day museum, the Musée du Débarquement, is located at Place du 6 Juin. You won’t need the address, though; it’s impossible to miss. Just look for the blocky building labeled “6 Juin D-Day Museum” near the carousel and antitank guns on the town square. Entry fee: € 7 per adult, € 5 per child and student.
Where to Stay and Eat
Arromanches is a resort town; rooms and restaurants can be pricey in the summertime. Keep in mind the town caters more to vacationers than historians. Hôtel de la Marine boasts great views of the harbor (hotel-de-la-marine.fr). Hôtel d’Arromanches is next door, without the great views but a good value (hotel-arromanches.fr). For a cheaper stay, Mountbatten Hôtel is further up from the water but quite adequate (hotelmountbatten.com). No gourmet dining of the Parisian standard here, but Hôtel de la Marine has a fine restaurant capable of satisfying most appetites. The restaurant of Hôtel d’Arromanches specializes in seafood (particularly mussels); they also have a full menu if seafood is not to your liking. For those on a tighter budget, the main street is bursting with crêperies, sandwich stands, cafés, and family-run venues serving salads, pizza, and other mainstream fare.