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Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: Mont Saint-Michel to Utah Beach

Mont Saint-Michel 

Mont Saint-Michel by Lex Kravetski, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

A guide to Stage 1 of the Tour de France 2016. The 2016 Tour opens with the spectacular Mont Saint-Michel as the backdrop. The riders head north along the Channel coast, to finish at Utah Beach (Sainte Marie du Mont). (Utah Beach was the site of some of the American D-Day landings in 1944, towards the end of the Second World War). The stage is 188km, a lot of it by the Channel coast, so it could be affected by crosswinds. It is classified as flat, with just two Category 4 climbs. The intermediate sprint is at la-Haye-du-Puits. The stage and the yellow jersey are likely to be claimed by one of the sprinters. Read about Stage 1 of the Tour de France 2016 here.

Read the Stage 1 race report.

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: facts, figures, and map

Stage 1 of the Tour de France 2016 is 188km from Mont St Michel to Utah Beach (Sainte Marie du Mont).

Stage classification Flat
Distance 188km
Intermediate sprints La-Haye-du-Puits (after 118.5km)
Climbs Côte d'Avranches (Category 4)
Côte des falaises de Champeaux (Category 4)

Here's a PDF map of Stage 1 of the Tour de France 2016. There's also a more recent official Tour de France map of Stage 1, and the Stage 1 route is shown on Google maps.

This is the official Tour de France stage profile for Stage 1:

Profile of Stage 1, Tour de France 2016

Stage 1 profile, © A.S.O. Tour de France organisers

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: timings

The Manche-Grand Départ website has timings for Stage 1. These are a few of the timings, based on the medium average speed of 42kmh:

Km Place Time
Départ fictif in Mont Saint-Michel 1220
0 Départ réel  east of Mont Saint-Michel on the D275 1250
20 Avranches 1318
20.5 Côte d'Avranches (Category 4) 1319
39 Côte des falaises de Champeaux (Category 4) 1345
51.5 Granville 1403
55.5 Donville-les-Bains 1409
69.5 Bricqueville-sur-Mer 1429
78.5 Montmartin-sur-Mer 1442
90.5 Blainville-sur-Mer 1459
106.5 Créances 1522
110.5 Lessay 1527
118.5 La Haye (sprint) 1539
129.5 St-Sauveur-le-Vicomte 1554
146.5 Montebourg 1619
169.5 Sainte-Mère-Eglise 1652
188 Finish at Utah Beach 1718

The official Tour de France website has the full timings, based on average speeds of 44, 42, and 40kmh.

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: the start at Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel, entrance through fortified walls 

Mont Saint-Michel, Olivier Letourneux, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Mont Saint-Michel is one of France's most striking and popular tourist attractions, and will form a spectacular backdrop to the start of the 2016 Tour de France. The riders will start at the foot of the mount, by the gate through the outer defensive wall. This is the départ fictif. They cross the pont passerelle to the mainland to reach the D976; once past the parkings, they turn left on the D275; 1km before the turn to Huisnes-sur-Mer (D75), the flag will go down, and the race for the yellow jersey of the Tour de France 2016 will begin.

24th March 2016 was 100 days before the Grand Départ, and to mark the occasion, 100 sheep on the Prés-Salés de la Baie de Mont Saint-Michel were painted in the colours of the Tour de France jerseys, using biodegradable paint made from vegetable oils. The white jersey for the best young rider didn't require a lot of effort. This video shows the sheep:

On the day of the Grand Départ, la Patrouille de France will fly over the riders at Mont Saint-Michel. (La Patrouille de France is the French army's aeronautical display team, equivalent to the British Red Arrows). The planes will then head straight from Mont Saint-Michel to Utah Beach for a reconnaissance, and to rest and refuel at Maupertus airport. There'll then be a full display from the eight Alphajets of la Patrouille de France at the finish at Utah Beach, with 20 minutes of aerobatics, immediately after a commemorative ceremony at the US cemetery at Utah Beach.

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: Mont Saint-Michel via Avranches to Granville

Cathedral Saint-André, Avranches

Normandie 0903 Avranches, Allie_Caulfield, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

After the départ réel, the riders continue on the D275 away from Mont Saint-Michel, skirting the Baie du Mont Saint-Michel. They fork right on the D43 to Courtils, then take the D113 through Céaux, and on to Pontaubault; from Pontaubault, they're on the D43, then they branch off to the left to go via la Basse Guette to the centre of le Val-St-Père. They cross the autoroute (A84) on the D556, and head into Avranches on the D456. Avranches was last visited by the Tour de France on Stage 11 of the 2013 edition, a time trial in which Tony Martin beat Chris Froome to the stage win.

Chris Froome on Stage 11, TDF 2013

Chris Froome - 2013 Tour de France, Brian Townsley, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Côte d'Avranches (Category 4)

The first of the day's categorised climbs is in Avranches. It's over a distance of 1.2km, and takes the riders from a height of 30m to a height of 98m - a gain of 68m, and an average gradient of 5.7%. It won't cause any difficulty, but any rider hoping to wear the King of the Mountains jersey at the end of Stage 1 will want to be first to the line.

Mont Saint-Michel can still be see across the bay.

View from Vains, Baie du Mont Saint-Michel

View across the Baie du Mont Saint-Michel from Vains, by ikmo-ned, Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Leaving Avranches after the top of the climb, the race turns left on the D911 rue de la Côte, and goes past the Manoir de Vains, a mainly C16th manor house, to Genêts. Genêts is not connected to the plant of the same French name (broom), rather its name derives from a Celtic word meaning 'mouth of a river'. Genêts used to be a significant port, until it silted up. Nowadays, you can do a guided walk across the Baie du Mont Saint-Michel from the Bec d' Andaine, a short distance from Genêts.

From Genêts, the D911 follows the edge of the Baie past the Chateau de Brion (an historic manor house and Benedictine Priory belonging to the Abbey at Mont Saint-Michel, and now turned into a hotel). It goes through St-Jean-le-Thomas, then the second and final categorised climb of the day begins - the Côte des falaises de Champeaux.

Côte des falaises de Champeaux (Category 4)

After St-Jean-le-Thomas, the road goes up from an altitude of 19m, to 81m near the Falaises de Champeaux. This is a height gain of 62m over a distance of 1.3km, at an average gradient of 4.8%.

Near Carolles, the race passes the Cabane Vauban, a little look-out post built of granite. It then continues through the beach resorts of Jullouville and St-Pair-sur-Mer, to reach Granville, with its views of the Iles Chausey off the coast.


Granville DSC02956, vue du ciel, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: Granville to Créances

Dunes at Blainville-sur-Mer

Blainville sur Mer, ilianblaszczyk, Flickr, Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

There's a map of the Tour de France route in Granville on Granville's Tour de France information site.

The race leaves Granville via Donville-les-Bains (where, according to NormandieActu, Etixx Quick-Step and Trek Segafredo are staying while the Tour is in Normandy, in the Best Western Hôtel de la Baie). It follows minor roads along the coast through Bréville-sur-Mer (past the Granville-Bréville aerodrome), St-Martin-de-Bréhal, and Bricqueville-sur-Mer. It then continues to Annoville and Montmartin-sur-Mer, and crosses the river Sienne on le Pont de la Roque. (There's an old, broken bridge, with a section missing in the middle, but luckily, there's also a newer bridge which goes all the way over the river). 

Pont de la Roque

Pont de la Roque, by Xfigpower, Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Next on the Tour route is Heugueville-sur-Sienne, before the riders join the D650, which takes them past Blainville-sur-Mer, Gouville-sur-Mer, Anneville-sur-Mer, and Pirou-Plage. They leave the D650 to go through Créances.

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: Créances to Montebourg

Lessay Abbey

Lessay, F-50 Abbaye Sainte Trinité, isamiga76, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

From Créances, the race heads inland away from the west coast, cutting across towards the Normandy landings beaches to the north. The first town after Créances is Lessay, which is a town that originally grew up around a C10th monastery. Lessay Abbey is a fine example of Romanesque architecture. The town and the Abbey were damaged by Allied bombardments in advance of D-Day, and on 11th July 1944, the Abbey was blown up by the retreating Germans, having to be rebuilt from 1945. There's a 3-day fair in Lessay in September, the Sainte-Croix fair, which attracts 400,000 people, and which has been going since the C11th. 

After Lessay, the race continues on the dead-straight D900 to la-Haye-du-Puits, which is where the day's intermediate sprint takes place.

Profile of sprint on Stage 1, Tour de France 2016, at la-Haye-du-Puits

Profile of intermediate sprint at la-Haye-du-Puits, © A.S.O. Tour de France organisers

(La-Haye-du-Puits was the seat of Norman barons from the C11th. The remains of their Medieval castle still stand today. The village is well-known for the last witch trials in France, in 1669: 37 people were convicted of witchcraft, but King Louis XIV commuted their death sentences to banishment. [Insert joke about Marcel Kittel casting his spell over the other riders today].)

In 1944, the town suffered because it took ten days of fighting for the advancing Allies to take it from the German defenders.

La Haye-du-Puits during the Battle for Normandy

La-Haye-du-Puits p012254.jpg, Photos Normandie, Flickr, Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Stage 1 then goes through Neufmesnil, across the nature reserve of marshes known as la Réserve Naturelle des Marais de la Sensurière et de l' Adriennerie, and to Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, with its medieval castle ruins and its Benedictine Abbey. It continues north on the D2, then branches off on the D42 to Hautteville-Bocage (part of the bocage Normand) and Le Ham (Le Val); a little further on, it arrives in Montebourg.

Montebourg, Abbaye Sainte-Marie

Montebourg Abbey, by Xfigpower, Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

(There are around 2,000 Montebourgeois - the name for the inhabitants. They are also called Cassins, which stems from the fact that there is a Benedictine Abbey here, like the one at Monte Cassino in Italy. The Abbey (Sainte-Marie) at Montebourg was founded by William the Conqueror. The town was the scene of fighting between American and German troops from 7th to 14th June 1944 - the Americans trying to make their way north-north-west from Utah Beach towards the port of Cherbourg - during which many buildings were reduced to rubble.)

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: Montebourg to the finish line at Utah Beach

Parachutist on the church at Sainte-Mere-Eglise

Sainte Mère Eglise Normandie, Achili Family Journeys, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

From Montebourg, the race takes the D42 to Quinéville (taken by the Americans 11 days after D-Day), reaching the Channel coast here, and heading south east along the seafront on the D421. The race route turns away from the sea on the D15 to Ravenoville (Ravenoville-Plage, with its beach huts, and 2km inland, Ravenoville-Bourg, which boasts an octagonal pigeon house). 

Pigeon-house, Chateau de Ravenoville

Octagonal pigeon-house belonging to the Château de Ravenoville, by Xfigpower, Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

It continues to Sainte-Mère-Eglise, and Chef-du-Pont (taken by the US 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day because of its strategic bridge over the river Merderet; inhabitants are called Capipontains). 

The route is then on the D70 to Sébeville and Sainte-Marie-du-Mont (which has an impressive Gothic church, and a Liberation Museum), before the final run along the D913 to the finish line at Utah Beach (one of the Normandy landing beaches). This map shows the final (approximately) 2km:

Map of last kilometres to finish of Stage 1, Tour de France 2016 at Utah Beach

As you'd expect with a sprint to the beach, the final straight is flat.

Profile of the final kilometres of Stage 1, Tour de France 2016

Profile of the last kilometres of Stage 1, © A.S.O. Tour de France organisers

This short video shows the straight, flat road to the finish:

What will happen on Stage 1? There may well be a breakaway group today, but with the yellow jersey at stake, as well as the stage win, it seems highly unlikely that the sprinters' teams will allow any breakaway to succeed. The favourites for the win will be Kittel, Greipel, Cavendish, and perhaps Degenkolb.

Utah Beach

Utah Beach, Fabrizio Sciami, Flickr, Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

There's to be a 20 minute display by the Patrouille de France, the French army's aeronautical display team, after a commemorative ceremony at the US cemetery and monument at Utah Beach.

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: the favourites for the stage win

Stage 1 will be hotly contested, because all the riders will be fresh, and as well as the stage win, the yellow jersey is at stake. Marcel Kittel is the favourite, since he has shown himself to be the fastest sprinter on a straight, flat finish. The competitors hoping to spoil his plans include André Greipel, Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb, and perhaps Dylan Groenewegen. 

Nacer Bouhanni isn't taking part, after he injured his hand by punching a drunken and rowdy fellow hotel-guest in the face, the night before the French National Championships. The wound became infected, and his state of health makes it impossible for him to line up in Mont Saint-Michel.

Marcel Kittel

Marcel Kittel

Marcel Kittel in the colours of his former team, Giant Alpecin, by Brian Townsley, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Marcel Kittel is the favourite to win Stage 1. His Etixx Quick-Step team have named their Tour de France line-up. Kittel's helpers include Iljo Keisse, Tony Martin, and Maximiliano Richeze. Barring illness or accident, Kittel is likely to be too good for the rest of the field.

André Greipel

André Greipel

André Greipel, by filip bossuyt, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

André Greipel is perhaps the best-placed rider to challenge Marcel Kittel. He is in good form, and is the main focus of his Lotto-Soudal team's Tour de France campaign.

Presumably he didn't pen the words for his Tour de France song, Bonjour le Tour, or maybe he did. They are from the literalist school of lyric-writing, and it's doubtful whether lines like this are sufficiently inspiring to make him ride faster:

Once in France, I'll give my best,

To make my dreams come true,

To win a stage at the Tour de France,

For my family, my team, and you.

You can judge for yourself if a singing career is likely to an option for the Gorilla once his cycling days are over:

There's a thought for injured teammate Stig Broeckx at the end of the video, who at the time of writing is still in a coma after a crash with a motorcycle. We wish him the very best possible outcome.

Mark Cavendish

Mark Cavendish

Mark Cavendish in his HTC Colombia days, by Brendan Rankin, Flickr, Licence CC BY-ND 2.0

Mark Cavendish was named in Dimension Data's Tour de France 2016 team on 27th June 2016. He'll have lead-out men Bernhard Eisel and Mark Renshaw to support him. 

Cavendish has 26 stage victories in the Tour, more than any other rider taking part in the 2016 edition. He'll be looking to add to that tally, but he was disappointed to lose out to Adam Blythe in a sprint in the British National Road Championships on Sunday 26th June. Cycling Weekly speculates that all the training he has been doing on the track, for the omnium at the Olympics, may have affected his top-end speed; and that he may not complete the Tour de France, so as to have a longer break before Rio.

There are other riders on the Dimension Data team who are capable of stage wins. Edvald Boasson Hagen is an all-rounder/sprinter, who will be expected to take part in Cavendish's sprint train, but who will have opportunities of his own. He's more likely to be the fastest of a breakaway group, than to beat Kittel and Greipel on Stage 1. Steve Cummings, whose speciality is now focusing on occasional stages, and getting involved in a breakaway or a late attack, is also well able to win a stage. Daniel Teklehaimanot will probably concentrate on the King of the Mountains competition.

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: comments

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Stage 2, Tour de France 2016

Cherbourg Ferry Terminal

The Grand Départ of the 2016 Tour de France in the Manche département of France continues on Stage 2

The race sets off from Saint-Lô, which was a 'city or ruins' after the Second World War. It goes through countryside known as the bocage Normand, then heads up by the sand dunes of the Channel coast to Cherbourg. The finish at La Glacerie in Cherbourg involves a 3km climb, so could suit a puncheur rather than a pure sprinter.

Read about Stage 2, Tour de France 2016.

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: sights and attractions on the route

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel, entrance through fortified walls

Mont Saint-Michel, Olivier Letourneux, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

The Michelin Guide asks of Mont Saint-Michel, 'What is the reason for the world's fascination with Mont Saint-Michel? No doubt it is something which goes beyond the beauty of the architecture or its long history; perhaps it is the whiff of mystery that seems linked to the movement of the tides, to the play of the twilight on the water and the walls, to the cry of the gulls gliding above the salty grass marsh.'

Mont Saint-Michel is called a Marvel of the Western World, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It appears in this official video made for the Grand Départ in La Manche-Normandy:

History of Mont Saint-Michel

Abbey, Mont Saint-Michel

Le Mont-Saint-Michel, Andrew Smith, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Mont Saint-Michel was founded in the 700s, at a time when the shore of the bay was covered with a dense forest. The Archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, and told him to build an oratory on the island. At that time, oratories were built on high rocks, but this seemed a particularly unpromising site, and Aubert hesitated. The matter was settled when St Michael reappeared before Aubert, and dug his finger into Aubert's skull. Aubert built the oratory. (There is a skull with a hole in it displayed in a church in Avranches, which may be that of Aubert).

In the 800s, the oratory was replaced by an Abbey, which meant that monks lived there. From that time until the 1500s, ever more splendid buildings were built on the mount, which was dedicated to the Archangel Michael. The building was done with blocks of granite from Brittany, and the Chausey Islands, just off the coast from Granville. The granite blocks were hoisted to the top of the mount using strong ropes.

Pilgrims flocked to Mont Saint-Michel, even during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), when the area, but not the mount itself, was under English control. (At that time, pilgrims were granted safe passage in return for payment). All sorts of people made the journey - noblemen, rich people, and beggars. The poor were given free accommodation by the monks. Other pilgrims spent money on hotels, and buying religious souvenirs, like medals with St Michael on them, and lead amulets which they filled with sand from the beach.

There were monks on Mont Saint-Michel for centuries, but the buildings fell out of use as a monastery, and were used instead as a prison before and during the French Revolution. In Napoleon's time, political prisoners were held there. In 1874, the Abbey passed to the Historic Monuments Department, and restoration began. Since 1966, a few monks have been in residence again.

Visiting Mont Saint-Michel

The tourist office brochure has a colourful map of Mont Saint-Michel, and mentions some of the history, and main places to visit (the Abbey and the main street).

Baie du Mont Saint-Michel

Exodus, Mat's Eye, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Mont Saint-Michel is an island just off the shore, and until 1877, visitors had to cross the sands at low tide. There were dangers - pockets of quicksand, a fearsome fog which can envelop the bay, and the tide racing in. (The tide usually comes in at 2.25mph, but the fastest spring tide can come in at 18mph. The difference in sea level between high and low water is 12m or 40ft, and the sea can retreat as much as 9 miles).

A causeway was built in 1877, making it safe to cross to the island. However, it was making the bay silt up. The sea was depositing a million cubic metres of sand and sediment in the bay each year, partly because of the causeway. In a €184 million scheme, the causeway was replaced with a bridge, which allows currents to flow between the mainland and the island. The bridge was opened in December 2014, and it can be crossed on foot or in the buses which take visitors from the car park on the mainland to the Marvel.

Mont Saint-Michel is surrounded by fortifications - walls, with guard towers, which were built from the 1200s to the 1400s. When you've crossed the bride, you enter via one of the gates in the defences.

Grande Rue, Mont Saint-Michel  

Mont Saint-Michel, Cristian Bortes, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

You can walk up to the Abbey at the top of the rocky island on the ramparts, or via the Grand Rue, which is the main street, full of souvenir shops, cafés, and restaurants.

Abbey cloisters at Mont Saint-Michel

Cloître Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel, Benh LIEU SONG, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

The Abbey is the main site to visit (pay to go in). You see the Abbey church, right at the top, the cloisters (roofed galleries in a rectangle around an open space with lawn), the refectory, the crypt, the ossuary, and a big wheel which was used to hoist provisions up to prisoners held in the Abbey church, and which needed 5 or 6 people to work it like a treadmill.

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: Avranches

Cathedral Saint-André, Avranches

Normandie 0903 Avranches, Allie_Caulfield, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Avranches is a town of about 8,000 people, twinned with Crediton in the United Kingdom. It takes its name from the Celtic Abrincates tribe (the word Abrincates being the Latin name for the tribe, and meaning the warriors of the estuary). A settlement was built on the present site by the Romans after the conquest of the Celtic people by Julius Caesar in 56BC.

Patton memorial, Avranches

Normandie 0895 Avranches, Allie_Caulfield, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Avranches suffered during World War II. A few days before D-Day, 6th June 1944, the Allies dropped leaflets telling the population to disperse into the countryside, but the local people weren't convinced to do so. The day after D-Day, 7th June, six bombers dropped their loads on Avranches and destroyed several sectors of the town. The aim was to prevent German reinforcements coming towards the Normandy landing beaches. There were about 80 civilan victims. More bombardments followed, until the town was liberated at the end of July 1944.

General Patton, Avranches 

Normandie 0898 Avranches, Allie_Caulfield, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: Granville & the Iles Chausey


Granville, Stephane Martin, Flickr, Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Granville is a town of 13,000 people. It marks the northern end of the Baie du Mont Saint-Michel. The river at the northern boundary of the town is Le Boscq. On the west of the town, looking out to sea, is the Pointe du Roc.

Granville was founded by a vassal of William the Conqueror. From the 1600s, it was a town of corsaires - vessels from Granville attacked the merchant ships of enemy states, with the authorisation of the king, to steal their cargoes. The town was occupied by the Germans during World War II, but Maurice Marland was notable for his organisation of the resistance. It was liberated without combat by General Patton, whose army arrived from Coutance on 31st July 1944, and continued towards Avranches. Granville was re-occupied for several hours on 9th March 1945 by German soldiers who had left Jersey.

The Musée Christian Dior is in the childhood home of the designer. There's also a museum of old Granville, a modern art museum, and art-deco style casino.

The port of Granville is used by commercial, fishing, and passenger vessels, including boats to the Channel Islands and the Iles Chausey.

Iles Chausey

Low tide on Ile de Chausey, Erik Cleves Kristensen, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

The Iles Chausey are made up of a total of 52 granite islands at high tide, and more than 365 at low tide. They are 17km from Granville. On Grande-Ile, there are houses and a permanent population of around 30 (more in summer than in winter), but no cars. 

Historically, the granite of these islands was quarried, and the stone was of excellent quality. It was used to build the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. The islands have also been used as a base for smuggling contraband. Now, they are a destination for fishing and tourist excursions. Around 200,000 tourists per year stay on Grande-Ile.

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: bocage Normand

Bocage Normand

Bocage Normand, panorama, by Bocage Normand Tourisme, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Bocage describes a type of countryside found in Normandy (and, for example, in Devon in England) with mixed woodland and pasture, and hedges on the field boundaries. The hedges are as much as 2,000 years old, and have thick, tangled roots. The hedges have come to grow on earth banks as much as 10ft thick, and the country lanes are sunken between the hedge banks. 

After the Normandy landings, the bocage made it difficult for the Allied tanks to advance, and provided good terrain for the German defenders to use to their advantage. Attempting to advance through the bocage was known as the 'war of the hedgerows' or la bataille des haies - see after the landings, below.

Donkeys in the bocage Normand

Donkeys in the bocage Normand, by Bocage Normand Tourisme, Flickr, Licence CC BY 2.0

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: D-Day, the Normandy landings, and the Battle for Normandy

The start of WWII

World War II had begun with German agression. Hitler had annexed Austria, and invaded Czechoslovakia (1938, and early 1939). When Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Britain and France required that he withdraw – and when he had not by 3 September, there was a state of war between Germany on the one hand, and Britain and France on the other.

Hitler then invaded France through Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium in May 1940. This was the successful Blitzkrieg, a lightning war with tanks and planes. He rapidly defeated the French and British, and the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from Dunkirk. He occupied the northern part of France, and the whole of France from Nov 1942.

The British were fighting a lonely war. London was bombed during the Blitz in 1940, and Britain was expecting a German invasion. Then Pearl Harbour caused the Americans to join the war. This was December 1941, when the Japanese used planes to destroy the American Pacific fleet at its Hawaian base. Churchill said 'So we had won after all!' and it did seem that the tide had turned decisively.

The war was going on in lots of places in the world, including north Africa and the Pacific, but the Allied strategy was to strike towards Germany. 'Germany first – but not quite yet.' They would eventually plan an invasion of France, to liberate it, and as a route to Germany.

Planning an invasion

The Normandy landings were agreed at meetings between Churchill and Roosevelt in Washington and Quebec in 1943.

The shortest route across the Channel would have been to Calais, where the Allies would have landed on level, sandy beaches. But they decided on Normandy because it might be less well defended, and the German lines of communication could more easily be cut off.

The element of surprise

The Allies tried to keep Hitler guessing about where the invasion would take place, and persuade him that it might be Calais.

They had a deception plan called Operation Fortitude. They invented a fictitious First US Army Group located opposite Calais in Kent, and referred to it in real and false radio transmissions. (One double agent sending radio messages to the Germans was nicknamed Garbo). He told them about the Army Group. They also bombed heavily around Calais. They even sent a bogus invasion fleet across towards Calais on the night of 5th/6th June 1944.

The plan is credited with getting 7 divisions of the German army diverted from Normandy to Calais.

Real landings – preparations

The invasion plan was called Operation Overlord. It was under the command of Eisenhower, who was the Supreme Allied Commander.

The Allies built floating harbours (called Mulberries), and landing craft. The landing craft would be used to get ashore. The Mulberries were required for reinforcements and supplies – as the Allies would not have captured a harbour, they would have to bring their own.

There were also air raids in Normandy, to paralyse the railways, and destroy roads and bridges. The French Resistance also sabotaged infrastructure.

The success of the operation would depend on getting enough Allied forces ashore and inland, before the Germans identified where the landing had occurred, and brought their own strength up to the area. If the Allies were caught on the beaches by German fire before they could establish themselves, they would be in danger.

The landings

The invasion army massed in southern England, and they sailed on the night of 5th June 1944, into the middle of the English Channel. 6,843 vessels were used for the voyage, including 4000 landing craft. Minesweepers went in front of the fleet. 12,000 US and British planes would support the landing.

John Keegan in his book 'The Second World War' writes: 'On the Normandy coast, the seas from east to west, and as far north as the seaward horizon, was filled with ships, literally by the thousand; the sky thundered with the passage of aircraft; and the coastline had begun to disappear in gouts of smoke and dust as the bombardment bit into it... [There were enormous, dirty clouds of smoke and brick dust from the villages which were being hit, which drifted out to sea.] Under these angry clouds the British, Canadian and American infantry were debarking from their landing craft, picking their way between the shore obstacles, diving to cover from enemy fire and struggling to reach the shelter of the cliffs and dunes at the head of the beaches.'

The Allies had given names to the beaches they were to land on.

British and Commonwealth landings

At dawn on 6th June 1944 (D Day), the British and Commonwealth (including Canadian) troops established beachheads at Sword, Juno and Gold beaches, and linked up with airborne troops who had been dropped in under cover of darkness, with orders to hold or blow bridges to stop the German army rolling up.

Montgomery (the British commander) had hoped to capture the city of Caen on 6th June, but he did not, and it took until 9th July, after the RAF had dropped 2,500 tons of bombs on the city, virtually destroying William's ancient capital.

American landings

American paratroopers had also been dropped, but not very accurately, because the pilots were inexperienced. Some of them were dropped in the sea and drowned; the others were scattered, which seemed like a bad blunder, but it did help sow confusion amongst the Germans.

There were 2 beaches where the Americans landed.

Americans landing at Utah beach suffered only 197 casualties out of the 23,000 men.

At Omaha beach, they had the worst of it because:

*there was a strong coastal current which swept the landing craft off course

*they were facing the best German troops, and their beach was backed in places by steep shingle banks and overlooked at either end by steep cliffs. The cliffs were a good position from which the Germans could fire on the landing craft as they neared the shore, and it was difficult to exit the beaches.

(In particular, there were 99ft cliffs at the western end of Omaha beach, at a place called la Pointe du Hoc, heavily defended by the Germans. There was a naval bombardment by the ship Texas; then specially trained Rangers used ropes and ladders to scale the cliffs and capture the positions – which they did, but their losses were 135 men out of 225.)

*their swimming Shermans (amphibious tanks, designed to swim ashore) were launched too far from the shore in rough seas, and foundered.

This was the experience of one Battalion:

'Within ten minutes of the ramps being lowered, the leading company had become inert, leaderless and almost incapable of action. Every officer and sergeant had been killed or wounded...it had become a struggle for survival and rescue. The men in the water pushed wounded men ashore ahead of them, and those who had reached the sands crawled back into the water pulling others to land to save them from drowning. Within 20 minutes of striking the beach, A Company had ceased to be an assault company and had become a forlorn little rescue party bent upon survival and the saving of lives.'

Things did go badly at first, but then the companies rallied, and by evening they had taken the coast road. They had to fight to capture the town of Carentan before they could link up with their airborne troops, which they did 6 days after landing.

After the landings

There were fierce battles after the landings, and the Allies made slow progress.

The Americans were heading south to St Lo and and Avranches; and west to Cherbourg (what's called the Cotentin Peninsula).

They had to fight the 'war of the hedgerows'. They advanced through leafy hedgerows and sunken lanes, and it was ideal terrain for defenders. The hedges were on field boundaries, and had been planted by Celtic farmers 2000 years earlier (see bocage Normand, above). The tangled roots had collected earth, to form banks as much as 10ft thick. Later in the campaign, they would equip their tanks with hedgedozers, but for now every field and orchard was a battle to cross.

They captured Cherbourg on 26th June, and reached St Lo on 19th July. Cherbourg was important because it was a port which could be used to supply the Allies. St Lo was important, because it was an important crossroads, and once it was captured, tanks could be used more effectively. Bad weather from 19th to 25th July suspended operations on all fronts, but after that Allied armour could drive down the main roads and carry out vast encircling movements.

There was a counter-attack by the Germans around a town called Mortain in early August, but the Allied airforces crushed it, and the Germans had to retreat. The German army was then caught in a pincer movement by the Canadians and the Americans, and had to surrender.

By 21st August, the Battle for Normandy was over. It had cost the Germans 640,000 men killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. On 23rd August, the first troops made it to Paris, which was liberated by American, and French troops led by General de Gaulle, on 25th August 1944.

Stage 1, Tour de France 2016: Sainte-Mère-Eglise

Airborne museum, Sainte-Mère-Eglise

Musée Airborne, Marc Lagneau, Flickr, Licence CC BY-ND 2.0

Sainte-Mère-Eglise is famous for its role in the Normandy landings. Paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st US Airborne Divisions landed and occupied the town in the early morning of 6th June 1944, albeit with many casualties. Paratrooper John Steele got his parachute caught on the church spire, and hung there for 2 hours pretending to be dead, before being taken prisoner by the Germans. He later escaped and rejoined his division. This incident is portrayed in the film The Longest Day, and a dummy representing John Steele stillhangs from the church spire.

The Airborne Museum is near the church. It is devoted to the airborne troops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The purpose of dropping the airborne troops was to blow or defend bridges, in order to stop the Germans arriving fast and 'rolling up the amphibious bridgehead' – in other words, stopping the Allies on the beaches. The British 6th Airborne division was compactly dropped, and went to their objectives – to blow the bridge over the Dives, and hold the bridge over the Orne near Caen. The American airborne troops were more scattered – over an area 25 miles x 15 miles. The troops themselves were good though – trained to a knife-edge, and ready for battle. 3000 men rallied; some of the others roamed behind enemy lines, not surrendering while rations and ammunition lasted. 

The first building of the Airborne Museum: it is in the shape of a parachute, and shelters a Waco glider. Second building: in the shape of a delta wing, it shelters a Douglas C47 plane Argonia, which was used to drop parachutists and tow gliders. The museum also shows a film called 'Battle for Liberty'.

Baie du Mont Saint-MichelAbbey at Mont Saint-MichelUtah Beach

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