Top Ten: Battlefield Sites

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Alex Kershaw
February 26, 2024

This year will see 80th anniversary commemorations of several major battles in WWII, especially in Europe. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited most of the battlefields in western Europe, in some cases many times. For those contemplating joining Friends for our 80th anniversary trip this coming September, The Last Battles Tour, and others wanting to travel to Europe this year, or any time, here are some must-see places that I’ve selected. They’re not museums but rather places where you can stand where Allied soldiers actually fought. As with my other “top ten” lists, my favorite is the first selection; the others are highly recommended.

1] Dog Green Sector, Omaha Beach, Normandy.

The bloodiest sands on D Day.

From the parking lot at the Vierville sur Mer draw on Omaha Beach, walk down to the National Guard Memorial and then look down, at low tide, onto the hundreds of yards of hard, golden sands where 19 Bedford Boys were slaughtered on D Day. Walk down steps and kneel down and scoop up some of the sand – you’ll be holding holy grains. To your left, you’ll see a jetty – you can walk along it, out into the crashing waves, when the tide is high.

This is where the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan actually happened, where the highest fatalities were suffered by any unit on D Day eighty years ago. To feel the enormity of the loss, the extent of the challenge faced by invaders, and the beauty of the beach, stretching five miles away from you to your right – to the east – this is absolutely the best place to be. It’s my church. I’ve stood there many times, at dawn, at dusk, on 6 June at H Hour, with veterans too moved to speak. Life-changing if you actually know a little about what happened there.

Try the oysters at the nearby Hotel Casino, just a short walk from the beach.

2] The Chiunzi Pass above Maiori, Sorrento Peninsula, Italy.

The view from the top of the Chiunzi Pass.

A vertiginous drive inland from one of the most charming coastal towns on the often too touristy Amalfi Coast, the views of Pompeii and Naples from the top of the pass are divine. One of the most shelled spots in Europe in WWII, this is hallowed ground for the Rangers who battled with incredible guts and grit to hold these vital heights in September 1943.

Tagliolini with lemon makes a great seaside lunch.

3] The I&R Memorial, Lanzareth, Belgium.

From Luxembourg, take a drive north to this small village. On the outskirts, you’ll find a bench and a memorial to the Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon from the 99th Division who fought so valiantly on 16 December 1944 from foxholes along a nearby tree-line. Take a copy of my book, The Longest Winter, and imagine what it took to stop hundreds of Germans rushing up the hillside toward you, having been given suicidal orders to hold at all costs.

The Battle of the Bulge comes to life here.

“Moules frites” in local restaurants is the way to go.

4] The Memorial to the Waal Crossing, Nijmegen, Holland.

All American guts and glory.

Look at the names on the memorial – so many from the 504 PIR, paratroopers killed or who died from their wounds on 20 September 1944 as they crossed the Waal in canvas boats. How the hell did they stand a chance? It was one of the greatest, most heroic river crossings in all history. A place that truly fills you with awe. You’ll feel all American all the way back to your hotel. Friends of the National WWII Memorial will be there this September on our The Last Battles Tour. For more information on availability - spots will go fast - contact Holly Rotondi, our executive director.

The cemetery at Margraten is well worth the visit while in the area.

5] The control tower, Thorpe Abbots airfield, England.

The beautifully preserved control tower.

Drive from Cambridge or London and wind through gorgeous countryside and then stand on the roof of the perfectly preserved control tower at the base of the legendary Bloody Hundredth Bomb Group, subject of Apple TV’s Masters of the Air. Imagine waiting and waiting and then counting the shot-up B-17s as too few returned from hell in the skies over Nazi Germany

The local pubs serve some of the best pints in Britain.

6] Pampelonne Beach, St. Tropez, France.

Where Audie Murphy waded ashore on 15 August 1944.

No more than twenty minutes from the self-consciously glamorous St. Tropez, this long beach is where the amazing Audie Murphy and his fellow dog-face soldiers of the Third Infantry Division came ashore on 15 August 1944 as part of Operation Dragoon. Near the famous Club 55 beach restaurant, you’ll find a monument to Alexander Patch, 7th Army commander. Look to the hills inland where, amid vines and umbrella pines, Murphy earned the DSC and lost his best friend. Idyl and death side by side.

Remember to bring a bathing costume and credit card in the summer.

7] Number 11, Avenue Foch, Paris.

The residence of the Jackson family in WWII, this ground-floor apartment still rests behind the same black fencing that existed during Nazi occupation. A short walk away is the Arche de Triomphe. Avenue Foch is the widest avenue in Paris, home to the Gestapo, spies and mass murdering SS officers from 1940 to 1944, and home to the American Jackson family, which joined the resistance and was tragically deported to the camps before liberation. Think of never knowing whether death or a friend would welcome you when you opened the front door. To explore the area better, use the map in my book, Avenue of Spies.

Don’t forget to stroll down the nearby Champs Elysees.

8] Remagen, Germany.

The famous Ludendorff bridge.

Park your car near the Rhine and wander along the banks. Stand at the blackened remains of the Ludendorff Bridge and imagine the euphoria of Eisenhower and other top brass when they learned that American soldiers had managed to cross the bridge on 7 March 1945. The Rhine was the last natural barrier between the Allies and Berlin. Crossing it was a massive moment, the culmination of seemingly endless sacrifice and toil.

The riverside restaurants have Wiener Schnitzel to die for.

9] The Lidice Memorial, Czech Republic.

Just half an hour from Prague, this memorial is one of the most haunting in Europe. I’ll never forget looking at the flat fields near it on a beautiful hazy day more than thirty days ago and first realizing the enormity of Nazi evil. After SS supremo Reinhard Heydrich was killed in Prague in 1942, the Germans carried our reprisals, murdering 173 men from Lidice and sending the women to camps. One of so many places where Hitler’s men scarred Europe forever

You’ve not been to the Czech Republic if you haven’t eaten roast pork and dumplings.

10] St. Martin’s Church, Bladon, United Kingdom.

A modest, beautiful end.

You won’t find a more peaceful church or graveyard in England. North of Oxford, this is where Winston Churchill rests in peace in a surprisingly modest grave. The man who did more than any other to save the West in the 20th Century was born a few miles away at Blenheim Palace. Leave some flowers, or a wreath, and thank God for sending “Winnie” to save civilization in its darkest hour.

Nearby Woodstock and Blenheim Palace are unmissable.