Shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944, the sky above the Normandy market town of Sainte-Mère-Église quietly grew thick with billowing silk as American paratroopers dropped into the night ahead of the long-expected Allied invasion of Europe; by 4:30 a.m., an American flag was flying above Sainte-Mère’s town hall. Two hours later, as dawn broke over the coast at nearby Sainte-Marie-du-Mont—code-named Utah Beach by D-Day planners—GIs poured out of wave-battered landing craft and slogged ashore to face German defenders. Elsewhere on the Normandy coast, at landing beaches dubbed Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, similar scenes played out as additional thousands of American, British, and Canadian troops began arriving hourly from the south of England. The campaign by air, sea, and land had begun.
Even decades later, as I’ve noticed on repeated visits to the region, the locals guard their communities’ particular place in this watershed. The war may have ended 68 years ago, but for those who want to proclaim “we were first,” the Battle of Normandy is still being waged.
Sainte-Mère-Église got a jump on the competition. Within months of the war’s end, the town’s savvy mayor, Alexandre Renaud, rushed a book into print: Sainte-Mère-Église, First American Bridgehead in France. Shortly after, he was named to a blue-ribbon national committee charged with planning the Voie de la Liberté, or Liberty Road, to memorialize the cross-country route taken inland by General George S. Patton’s relentless Third Army. Roadside kilometer markers of rose-colored concrete were designed and ordered; the committee honored Sainte-Mère by placing the first marker, Km 0, in front of its town hall—a natural camera magnet. It wasn’t long before Sainte-Mère’s promoters traded First American Bridgehead for a more attractive moniker: First Town Liberated. They’ve used it ever since.
But Sainte-Mère-Église did not truly come to international fame until the 1962 release of the film The Longest Day, based on Cornelius Ryan’s D-Day account of the same name. In one memorable scene, paratrooper John Steele of the 82nd Airborne Division plays dead for two hours as he dangles over the church square, his chute snagged on the steeple, while German troops swarm below. Today the square swarms with a multinational crowd of tourists, below a mannequin paratrooper suspended from the 12th- century steeple—another camera magnet and, you have to admit, a pretty smooth piece of promotion for the town.
Down the road in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, the attention paid to their neighbor has ticked people off for decades. Sainte-Mère-Église’s starring role began when the Stars and Stripes went up over its town hall, but it was at Sainte-Marie’s Utah Beach that seaborne American troops began the march to free Europe. A couple of hours later, yes, but since the paratroopers who landed at Sainte-Mère were just an advance support force, shouldn’t Utah Beach instead be honored as the true starting line for the Battle of Normandy?
Deputy Mayor Charles de Vallavieille pauses to chat with me as a parade of cows files home from pasture on his family farm, just outside Sainte-Marie’s small village center, where a slightly tattered American flag flutters from a stone outbuilding. He is blunt about Mayor Renaud and the Liberty Road committee. “He wanted to keep the history for himself,” he says. “They forgot Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.”
The towns share an old rivalry, so in the 1940s Sainte-Marie’s townspeople didn’t take the snub lightly. An ad hoc Liberty Road milestone went up at the edge of the sand at Utah Beach, a proud—if sneaky—Km 00; it’s still there, and I smile every time I see it. Not that the marker put the issue to rest in Sainte-Marie. The window of a military collectibles shop on the central square displays a postwar photo of a banner strung across the square boasting: “Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, 1st Commune Liberated.” A commune, the shopkeeper explains, is a governmental unit different from a town. If Sainte Mère was the first town freed, Sainte Marie was the first commune. So there!
Local author Gilles Perrault, whose books on the war include Secrets of D-Day, recalls the fierce animosity that used to flare whenever the towns went head-to-head on the soccer field. “There were always players taken to the clinic,” he tells me. “Broken arms and legs weren’t uncommon.” Recently, Perrault reports, matches are more civilized, though resentment lingers. “Our problem is that people know the names Sainte-Mère-Église and Utah Beach, not Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.”
Sainte-Mère’s longtime mayor, Marc Lefèvre, is unsurprisingly diplomatic. “Of course we understand they’re bothered by the attention we get,” he says. “But Liberty Road is a symbolic thing, not really important. Today, on anniversaries of the landings, we do things cooperatively.”
During the rest of the year, jockeying for tourists’ attention still goes on, and not just between these two towns. According to residents of Ranville, where British gliders touched down to secure the eastern flank of Sword Beach while Yank paratroopers were making their jump over Sainte-Mère, theirs was the first town liberated. A plaque in Ranville fixes the time of its liberation at 2:30 a.m., a good two hours before Americans took Sainte-Mère. Across the river from Ranville, the little village of Bénouville claims an even earlier first: a marble plaque at its town hall notes that British paratroopers secured the building at 11:45 on the night of June 5, making it the first town hall liberated. Most towns in the area today have a street, a square, a hotel, or a bar named 6 Juin. In Bénouville, a bold display of one-upmanship runs next to town hall: Avenue du 5 Juin. Throughout the British and Canadian landing sectors, signs and brochures advertise the liberation’s first city (Bayeux, inland from Gold Beach), first port (Courseulles-sur-Mer at Juno Beach), first bridge (Pegasus, near Ranville) and nearby first house (now the Café Gondrée). The local paper, La Presse de la Manche, started publishing on July 3, 1944; its front-page logo banner declares, “First Daily in Free France.” I still have trouble sorting through all the claims.
Even so, the hubbub plays a part in bringing visitors to this stretch of coast —a world away from the region closer to Paris, a popular playground of casinos and racetracks that draws the international city-dwelling elite. Out here, the draw is history. And increasingly, I’ve noticed, visitors aren’t nostalgic veterans, but their children and grandchildren, and devoted fans of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. They are seldom disappointed with what they see. Along Utah Beach, as it’s still called, rough concrete remnants of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall peek out from between the dunes and dot the orchards and pastures across the road. Along the coast are a few groups of cottages, the official Landing Museum, a campground, a small seafood company, and a single restaurant and bar. There is astonishingly little development and commercialism: the English Channel and dunes give way to apple trees and endless clusters of cows and horses, the agricultural lifeblood of the region. Fields are separated by blacktop lanes, bordered by the same tall hedgerows that concealed the enemy in 1944. As I drive or cycle these beach roads, the landscape often makes me think that this is what the war was fought to protect: not hotels, not high-rise condos, but the way life was before the German occupation.