D-Day’s Historic Beaches Face a New Onslaught: Rising Seas

POINTE DU HOC, France — Although filled with grass and wildflowers, the crater is still so deep and wide that you can still feel the explosion of the bomb that carved it 79 years ago.

At the entrance to the old, pockmarked German bunker, you can almost feel the roar of machine gun fire. Peering over a 100-foot cliff into the ocean below, you clearly see how exposed these young Americans were as they climbed the ropes to wrestle in the early hours of June 6, 1944.

Of all the D-Day sites, none conveys the horror and heroism of this pivotal moment during World War II as Pointe du Hoc.

But it disappeared, fast.

The Nazi defense and reconnaissance point between the two landing beaches in Normandy, which was conquered by the American Rangers, suffered three more landslides this spring. An inspection revealed that the waves had eaten away more than two and a half meters into the bottom.

“There is absolutely no doubt we will lose many more of our bluffs,” said Scott Desjardins, superintendent of the American Battle Monuments Commission of the site which receives about 900,000 visitors annually. “We know we are not going to fight Mother Earth. What’s scary now, is the speed with which it happened.”

Climate change and erosion are eating away at the French coast, raising nagging questions of property rights, security and sustainable development. But along the northern band of beaches and cliffs in Normandy, where 150,000 Allied soldiers landed to face machine guns and fascism, history, memory and even identity are also threatened.

When the sites are gone, how will France tell itself, and the rest of the world, the impact of that moment? Or, how much will they have to save?

“If I don’t have the site, I lose the history of what happened here,” said Mr. Desjardins while staring at the frothy waves crashing against the cliffs. “You should stay home on the couch and read a book.”

Even for a country with an official “warning advisor” to the president, the 50-mile stretch that witnessed the arrival of the Allies took the warning to extraordinary levels. The Normandy tourism office lists more than 90 official D-Day sites, including 44 museums, attracting more than five million visitors each year.

Countryside roads are decorated with statues of tributaries and banners bearing the faces of Allied soldiers who died in battle. The village square is named June 6, the main street is labeled “Libération” and the tourist shops are filled with D-Day magnets and vintage army paraphernalia.

All of that is under threat: Two-thirds of the coast is eroding, according to Normandy climate change reportand experts predict worse things to come with rising sea levels, increased storms, and higher tides climate change heralds.

“The coast will go inland. We are sure of that,” said Stéphane Costa, a geography professor at the University of Caen, and a leading local climate change expert.

The French government has declared defeat. After centuries of defending against the ocean’s torrents with rocky shelters, he now advocates the principle of “live with the sea, not against it”. Communities around the country’s edges, including a number of D-Day beaches, are working on adaptation plans, which would include the prospect of moving.

For many, the idea of ​​leaving such a powerful historical site is unacceptable.

“This is a symbolic place; It’s a myth,” said Charles de Vallavieille, standing on the shores of Madeleine Beach, which, from June 6, 1944, was known as “Utah.”

“Everyone has to come here once in a lifetime to understand what’s going on here,” said Mr. de Vallavieille, the local mayor.

The furthest west of the five D-Day beaches, Utah Beach was quickly captured by American troops who then pushed inland to the central square of Ste.-Marie-du-Mont, where the American paratroopers — dropped in the night by plane — already against the German army.

“An American paratrooper is hiding in the alcove behind this pump,” read a sign above two water taps. “He held his rifle in the crook of his elbow, like a hunter,” he continued, shooting at the Germans and killing about 10 of them.

Across the street, a large black-and-white photograph of American soldiers praying during Mass hangs at the entrance to the village’s 11th-century church.

Like many residents, Mr. de Vallavieille is closely associated with D-Day. American paratroopers shot his father, Michel, in the back five times that morning. They then took him to an army tent for a life-saving operation and to England for further operations. Later, Michel de Vallavieille became mayor and opened one of the area’s first D-Day museums in a former German bunker on Utah Beach.

The museum has been expanded along the dunes many times to make room for some 1,300 artifacts, including the original B-26 bomber. But it is increasingly finding itself on the crosshairs of climate change.

Over the last few years, Mr. de Vallavieille had been granted permission to line the beach in front of the museum by removing large amounts of sand. But the state’s permission to do so expires in 2026, and states that it can only be renewed if the museum has developed a long-term plan to move – a proposition Mr. de Vallavieille.

“To me, we have to really protect it,” he said, pointing out that Dutch cities like Rotterdam have mastered the construction of levees. “Museums should be here. That’s the importance of this place.”

The director at the Landing Museum in Arromanches-les-Bains feels the same way. They recently reopened after a major renovation of their building at a cost of 11 million euros, or about $11.8 million. The museum’s internal risk assessment indicated the site was unlikely to flood or erode, even given climate change, said director Frédéric Sommier.

If government politics bends, the price tag could still prove insurmountable. In 2010, American engineers spent $6 million to secure an observation bunker at the end of Pointe du Hoc, embedding concrete blocks at the base of the cliff and anchoring them to the bedrock far below.

Sensors indicated construction was successful — the observation bunker hasn’t moved since. However, the crashing waves had eaten away at the concrete blocks beneath, said Mr. Desjardins. He’s planning another $10 million renovation to better serve the site’s crowds, but even that doesn’t include securing it from stormy seas.

“We have to change the way we do things,” he said, adding that the region may want to “pull back” the large number of visitors to the area.

A ongoing studies by local university professors into social perceptions of climate change and the D-Day site reveals mixed sentiment – ​​many people who live close to the site feel protective of it, but overall, Normans accept that most should relocate, said Xavier Michel, assistant professor of geography at the University of Caen who led the study.

Cécile Dumont, 92, is one of the few surviving D-Day witnesses. He considered Utah Beach sacred, and wanted to see the museum remain there. But, he admitted, it was impossible.

“The ocean will take it all. We will have no choice,” she said from her little stone house in Ste.-Marie-du-Mont, surrounded by rosebushes and mementos of longevity—including knee-highs. cartridges, which he now uses to store waste paper.

Ms Dumont was a young teenager on D-Day, and vividly remembers the sounds of planes overhead, bomb explosions, gunfire. His father, a dairy farmer, dug a ditch beside the house, where the family spent their nights praying for two weeks. “The bombing never stops. It doesn’t last just one day,” he said.

He watched in amazement as the column of soldiers arrived, first on foot, but soon followed by tanks, jeeps, bulldozers. That first day, 23,000 troops, 1,700 vehicles, and 1,800 tons of supplies were sent to Utah Beach. They were followed by nearly half of the US troops heading to the front — more than 800,000 troops — and all the supplies to support them, over the next few months.

“People need to understand what’s going on here,” he said.

Further east, a different conversation is taking place at the Juno Beach Center – a museum set in which 14,000 Canadian troops landed on D-Day. The beach here has actually thickened over the years, its mounds eating into old German bunkers.

Still, Nathalie Worthington, the center’s director, said, “It’s not a question of whether we’re going to be flooded, it’s a question of when.” Instead of spending money on a protection plan, the museum’s leadership has instead decided to invest in the global battle against what is considered the greatest threat to peace and democracy today – climate change.

In 2020, staff measured the museum’s carbon footprint, and committed to reducing it by 5 percent annually until 2050, in line with the French government’s climate change strategy.

Since then, the center has introduced reduced “low-carbon” ticket prices for visitors arriving by bike, slashed its energy use, and ordered Canadian supplies from the gift shop by boat, not plane.

They have also built a carbon sink – planting trees in a nearby forest, where Canadian troops harvested wood during the war. Their hope, said Ms. Worthington, are other museums will follow.

“They deserve so much more from us than just crying over their graves,” said Ms. Worthington about the former soldier. “They lost their lives to set us free, to give us what we enjoy today. So what do we do to keep it going?”

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