In Sainte-Mère-Église, the town in France where the first of the Normandy battles of World War II began, visit the famous church with stained glass windows with paratroopers surrounding the Virgin Mary, the World War II Airborne Museum, and landmarks around the town depicting its famous history, especially during the D-Day Battle. As my husband and I strolled through the quaint town and visited the sites honoring the special time in history, we felt gratitude for the people of Normandy for remembering those who fought and died for freedom during World War II.
Be sure to click on the audio link at the end of this post if you would like to listen to the accompanying podcast for even more information. Access the map in an interactive format by searching for Sainte-Mère-Église at www.walkli.com.
I think a fitting quote that sums up my visit to Sainte-Mère-Église and the historical sights in Normandy is the quote:
“As long as there is someone left to remember, nobody ever dies. Their deeds live after them.” by Army Chaplain George “Chappie” Wood
Chappie Wood was a paratrooper and chaplain of the 82nd Division of paratroopers who landed in Normandy on the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944. He made these comments in 1990 at a memorial service inside the Church of Sainte-Mère-Église.
But, let me begin by telling you a little bit about the day in history that changed the town of Sainte-Mère-Église forever, and why you might want to spend a day or a half-day of a trip to Normandy, France, in this special town. And, if you are interested in the history of World War II, I would definitely recommend you begin your trip to Normandy here, because this is where the war first touched the region of Normandy.
The Beginning of the Battle of Normandy – Map Point A
The battle began at about 2 am on June 6, 1944, when paratroopers from the United States 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions descended on Sainte-Mère-Église. It was important to begin in Sainte-Mère-Église, because it is located in the middle of Route N13. The Germans would almost certainly have used the route for any counterattack on the Allied troops that would soon be landing on nearby Utah and Omaha beaches. The town of Sainte-Mère-Église marks the official location of the beginning of the battle at Milestone Zero, located across from the town hall, marked with an A on my map. The 48 stars on the marker depict the 48 states of the United States of America that were part of the country in 1944. The torch of freedom on the marker is based on the model of the Statue of Liberty in New York City.
Paratroopers Land in Sainte-Mère-Église
As the paratroopers landed, they took many casualties. The town had been the target of an aerial attack, and a stray bomb had set fire to a house near the town square. The church bell was rung to alert the town, so paratroopers were easy targets for the German soldiers occupying the town.
One wounded paratrooper, John Steele, was caught near the tower of the Church of Sainte-Mère-Église. He hung from the tower and pretended to be dead during the long battle, before Germans took him prisoner at the end of the battle. He was able to rejoin his division when US troops of the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment came in later. John Steele was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.
Auberge John Steele – Map Point B
Steele visited Sainte-Mère-Église throughout his life until he died in 1969. The Auberge John Steele, at Map Point B, houses a small hotel and fine dining restaurant.
The building houses photos, letters and articles in memory of John Steele. He was portrayed by actor Red Buttons in the 1962 movie, The Longest Day, about the D-Day battle of World War II. Check for the restaurant offerings and opening dates and times of the hotel and restaurant at the website:
Church of Sainte-Mère-Église – Map Point C
The 11th century Romanesque-Gothic Church of Sainte-Mère-Église dominates the center of the town. The church, and the name of the town, is translated in English to “Holy Mother Church”. A statue of paratrooper John Steele, complete with parachute, hangs from the exterior of the church tower. Inside, two stained glass windows depict paratroopers on either side of the Virgin Mary. Another window depicts Saint Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers.
Airborne Museum – Map Point D
Walk across the street from the Church of Sainte-Mère-Église to Place du 6 Juin on Rue Eisenhower to the Airborne Museum (Musée Airborne) a French museum to honor the paratroopers of the United States 82nd and 101st airborne divisions. The museum is composed of several buildings holding over 10,000 artifacts from World War II, mostly centered on the Battle of Normandy.
The Waco building is located in the same location as the house that caught fire on the night the paratroopers landed in 1944. It was inaugurated on the 20th anniversary of D-Day in 1964. The building, shaped like a large parachute, contains an original WACO glider. The gliders transported troops, vehicles, ammunition, and rations for the soldiers.
A second parachute-shaped building covers a C-47 plane. This plane was involved in airdrop operations on Sainte-Mère-Église on the night of June 5 to 6, 1944 and in the missions that followed. In this building, be sure to see the film “Fight for Freedom” that describes life during the German occupation and the liberation of Sainte-Mère-Église and the Cotentin Peninsula in this region.
In 2014, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, a third building was unveiled. The building, named Operation Neptune, after the first assault phase of Operation Overlord, the code name for the Battle of Normandy. Through a simulation, here you can experience a night jump from a C-47 as if you were there during World War II. The building’s annex, the Ronald Reagan Conference center, houses temporary exhibitions and features a large auditorium.
The Airborne Museum is open daily in the months of February through October from at least 10 am until at least 6 pm. There is a small admission fee. Check the museum website below for current pricing, updates, and possible opening dates in December and January:
D-Day Battle Tours
If you are interested in a guided tour of Normandy, check out D-Day Battle Tours, housed at the museum’s entrance. Standard tours run daily, and custom tours can be arranged. According to Monica Baan of D-Day Battle Tours, “We’re one of the few guides that stay with the people all day, we don’t drop off people at Pointe du Hoc or the American Cemetery and leave them to walk around themselves.” For more information, check out the website at: http://www.ddaybattletours.com.
C-47 Café – Map Point E
Perhaps stop for lunch at the C-47 Café at 4 Rue Eisenhower, located in an old house and stable. The menu includes burgers, sandwiches, ice cream, specialty coffees, wine, and beer. (Note: The cafe no longer contains a C-47 rudder as it had in the past.)
E. Castel is another lunch option. It is located on the other side of the square at 1 rue du General Koenig. Menu items include quiche, soups, sandwiches, and desserts.
Crêperie Cauquigny, located at 31 rue du Général de Gaulle near the town center, is open for lunch (12- 2:30 pm) and dinner (7 pm – 9:30 pm). Look for the wall filled with veterans signatures.
Shopping Area of Sainte-Mère-Église – Map Point F
End your perfect day in Sainte-Mère-Église by taking some time to shop in the area of the intersection of Rue Eisenhower and Voie de la Libertè. There are interesting gift shops, a department store, and a number of specialty shops, too.
If you would be interested in hearing more about places I visited in Normandy, please let me know. We enjoyed visiting other World War II historical sites, as well as Mont Saint-Michel, the Malraux Museum in Le Havre that houses so many wonderful Impressionist works, the seaside town of Honfleur, Monet’s garden at Giverny, and the towns of Cabourg and Rouen.
I would like to close by thanking listener, Jenny, for taking the time to email me at email@example.com with a note of appreciation.
“I just thought I’d drop you a note of appreciation. I recently tagged along on a business trip to London with my husband. He had a day of business there. I did a random search of podcasts and landed on yours. I began the day at 9:30 am at Westminster Abbey as you suggested. I followed your route pretty closely. I also went inside the National Portrait Gallery. It was an awesome day and I appreciate your insight for an efficient route to get the most out of a day as possible. Thank you so much!” Jenny
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Until next time, I hope all your travel days are just perfect!