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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

D-Day’s historic beaches face a new onslaught: Rising seas


A World War II memorial in Ste.-Marie-du-Mont. Built on the spot where American troops landed, it is now threatened by coastal erosion.

By Catherine Porter


Even filled with grass and wildflowers, the craters remain so deep and wide that you can still sense the blasts of bombs that carved them 79 years ago. At the pockmarked entrance of an old German bunker, you can almost feel the rattle of machine-gun fire. Peering over the 100-foot-cliff to the ocean below, you see clearly how exposed the young American men were as they climbed up grappling ropes early that morning of June 6, 1944.


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


But it is disappearing, fast.


The Nazi defense and lookout point between two landing beaches in Normandy, which American Rangers conquered, suffered another three landslides this spring. Inspections revealed that waves had chewed a cavity more than 2 1/2 yards deep into their base.


“There is absolutely no doubt we are going to lose more of our cliff,” said Scott Desjardins, the American Battle Monuments Commission’s superintendent of the site that receives an estimated 900,000 visitors annually. “We know we are not going to fight Mother Nature. What’s frightening now, is the speed at which it is happening.”


Climate change and erosion are eating at the French coasts, raising gnawing questions about property rights, safety and sustainable development. But along the northern ribbon of beaches and cliffs in Normandy, where 150,000 Allied soldiers landed to confront machine guns and fascism, history, memory and even identity are at risk too.


When the sites are gone, how will France recount to itself, and the rest of the world, the impact of that moment? Alternatively, at what cost should they be saved?


“If I don’t have the site, I lose the history of what happened here,” said Desjardins, looking down at frothy waves pounding into the cliffs. “You may as well stay at home on the couch and read a book.”


Even for a country with an official “memorial adviser” to the president, the 50-mile stretch that witnessed the Allied arrival takes commemoration to an exultant level. The Normandy tourism office lists more than 90 official D-Day sites, including 44 museums, drawing more than 5 million visitors annually.


The edges of the country roads are decorated by tributary statues and banners flashing the faces of Allied soldiers who died in the fight. Village squares are named June 6, main roads are labeled “Libération” and tourist shops are packed with D-Day magnets and antique army paraphernalia.


All of that is threatened: Two-thirds of these coasts are already eroding, according to the Normandy climate change report, and experts predict worse to come with the swelling sea levels, increasing storms and higher tides heralded by climate change.


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


The French government is already declaring defeat. After centuries of bracing against the ocean’s outbursts with stony protections, it now pushes the principle of “living with the sea, not against it.” Communities around the country’s edges, including a number along D-Day beaches, are working on adaptation plans, which will include the prospect of moving.


For many, the idea of abandoning a site of such potent history is not acceptable.


“This is a symbolic place; It’s mythical,” said Charles de Vallavieille, standing on the shore of Madeleine Beach, which, starting June 6, 1944, became known as “Utah.”


“Everyone must come here once in their life to understand what happened here,” ​said de Vallavieille, the local mayor.


The farthest west of the five D-Day beaches, Utah Beach was quickly conquered by U.S. soldiers who then pushed inland to the central square of Ste.-Marie-du-Mont, where U.S. paratroopers — dropped in the night by plane — were already battling German soldiers.


“An American paratrooper hid in the recess behind this pump,” reads a sign over two water faucets. “He held his rifle in the crook of his elbow, like a hunter,” it continues, firing at German soldiers and killing around 10 of them.


Across the street, a large black-and-white photo of U.S. soldiers praying during Mass hangs by the entrance of the village’s 11th-century church.


Like many residents, de Vallavieille’s personal story is intimately linked to D-Day. U.S. paratroopers shot his father, Michel, in the back five times that morning. They then rushed him to an Army tent for lifesaving surgery and to England for further operations. Later, Michel de Vallavieille became mayor and opened one of the region’s first D-Day museums inside a former German bunker on Utah Beach.


The museum has expanded along the dune many times to make space for some 1,300 artifacts, including an original B-26 bomber. But it increasingly finds itself in the crosshairs of climate change.


Over the past number of years, de Vallavieille has been given permission to pad the beach before the museum with dump loads of sand. But the state permit ends in 2026, and declares it can only be renewed if the museum has developed a long-term plan to move — a proposition de Vallavieille passionately rejects.


“For me, we absolutely have to protect it,” he said, pointing out that Dutch cities like Rotterdam had mastered dike-building. “The museum has to be here. It’s the importance of this place.”


Directors at the Landing Museum in Arromanches-les-Bains felt the same way. They just reopened after a massive renovation to their building costing 11 million euros (about $11.8 million). The museum’s internal risk assessment showed the site was unlikely to flood or erode, even given climate change, director Frédéric Sommier said.


If government politics bend, the price tag could still prove unsurmountable. In 2010, U.S. engineers spent $6 million to secure the observation bunker at the tip of Pointe du Hoc, implanting concrete blocks at the cliff’s base and anchoring them into bedrock deep below.


Sensors show the construction worked — the observation bunker has not budged since. However, pounding waves have eaten all around the concrete blocks below, Desjardins said. He is planning another $10 million renovation to better serve the site’s swarm of visitors, but even that does not include securing it against ocean storms.


“We will have to change how we do things,” he said, adding that the region might want to “draw back” the sheer number of visitors to the area.


An ongoing study by local university professors into social perceptions of climate change and the D-Day sites reveals mixed sentiments — many people living close to a site feel protective of it, but overall, Normans accept that most will have to move, said Xavier Michel, an assistant geography professor from the University of Caen who was leading the study.


Cécile Dumont, 92, is one of the few D-Day witnesses still alive. She considers Utah Beach sacred ground, and would like to see the museum stay there. But, she concedes, it’s unlikely.


“The ocean will take it all. We won’t have a choice,” she said from her small stone house in Ste.-Marie-du-Mont, surrounded by rose bushes and mementos of a long life — including a knee-high shell casing, which she now uses to store scrap paper.


Dumont was a young teenager on D-Day, and vividly remembers the sound of planes overhead, bomb blasts, gunfire. Her father, a dairy farmer, dug a trench next to the house, where the family spent their nights praying for two weeks. “The bombing never stopped. It didn’t last just one day,” she said.


She watched in awe as columns of soldiers arrived, first on foot, but quickly followed by tanks, jeeps, bulldozers. That first day, 23,000 soldiers, 1,700 vehicles and 1,800 tons of supplies were delivered to Utah Beach. They were followed by nearly half of the U.S. troops heading to the front — more than 800,000 soldiers — and all the supplies to support them, over the next few months.


“People need to understand what happened here,” she said.


Farther east, a different conversation is unfolding at the Juno Beach Center — a museum set where 14,000 Canadian soldiers landed on D-Day. The beach here has actually thickened over the years, its dune consuming old German bunkers.


Even so, Nathalie Worthington, the center’s director, said, “It’s not a matter of if we will be flooded, but a question of when.” Instead of spending money on protection plans, however, the museum leadership decided instead to invest in the global battle against what it considers the biggest threat to peace and democracy today — climate change.


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


Since then, the center has introduced a reduced “low carbon” ticket price for visitors arriving by bicycle, cut its energy usage and ordered Canadian supplies from the gift shop by ship, instead of plane.


They have also been building a carbon sink — planting trees in a nearby forest, where Canadian troops harvested wood during the war. Their hope, Worthington said, is that other museums will follow.


“They deserve more from us than to just cry over their graves,” Worthington said of the former soldiers. “They lost their lives to liberate us, to give us what we enjoy today. So what are we doing to maintain it?”

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