The first Jesus followers in Great Britain used the expression ‘Thin Place’ to describe locations where the dividing line or the veil between heaven and earth seemed at its thinnest point. Places where God’s presence could be felt and they could meet with him. For me,Omaha Beach is a very thin place. The battle that was waged behind me on the morning on D-Day is immortalised in the opening scenes of the Hollywood movie Saving Private Ryan. It was an absolute massacre and even after all these years you can still feel it in the air. A nineteen year old who was here during the first assault wave said his strongest memory was of his dying friends crying for their mothers.
43,000 young American lads from, New York to Los Angeles and from Houston to Chicago, hurtled towards this beach in 1,000 landing craft straight into the jaws of death. The vast majority had never seen combat before. Hundreds of them would not even make it out of the assault boats. Exhausted and dehydrated from sea sickness, those who made it this far experienced hell on earth. Shrapnel was flying everywhere and many were cut down by devastating crossfire in a desperate struggle to clear the beach. The slaughter that took place here on Bloody Omaha was unparalleled anywhere else on D-Day. These words from a veteran are inscribed onto a stone tablet not very far from here “You can manufacture weapons, and you can purchase ammunition, but you cannot buy valour and you cannot pull heroes off a production line”
A guy who came ashore that day with the US 1st Infantry Division, was an army chaplain who carried a prayer book instead of a gun said “The shells were falling all around and I knew only God could keep them from us.” There are many personal accounts of these remarkable soldier pastors on the beaches of Normandy that day both from the individuals themselves and the troops who were shoulder to shoulder with them in the battle. The chaplains stayed close to the men comforting the wounded and praying for the dying. Few of us will ever have to contemplate what those lads went through during those horrificfew hours of carnage on this now peaceful beach in France. I’ve brought many people here and invited them to step into the story. Every time I’ve seen people faced with fragility of life.
The defences here was formidable but it could have been much worse had it not been for a brilliant diversion back in England comprising of a gigantic replica invasion force, complete with inflatable tanks, cardboard landing craft and some very smart work from double agents who leaked false information to the Nazi high command. The net result was that everyone expected the invasion to be at Calais not here in Normandy. Coupled with the horrendous weather in the first week of June, Erwin Rommel, the man in charge of the Atlantic Wall, was caught off guard. June 6th was his wife’s 50thbirthday and as the Allies approached the beaches, Rommel was cutting birthday cake back in Berlin.
In the first two hours of the landings here the casualties ran into the thousands. The top brass out at sea considered aborting questioning whether the sacrifice of all those men was worth it. History would provide the answer for them. The battle that was fought and won on Omaha Beach, contributed massively to the liberation of France and the end of the war in Europe. It wasn’t just the army chaplains who were unarmed that day, another was wartime photographer, Robert Capa. All the photos that exist capturing the assault were taken by him. Many more photographs were taken but they were over exposed in a developing accident back in London.
I’ve got two battle helmets that both have their origins on this beach. The one worn by an American and was unearthed from the sand a few years after the war. The one worn by a German defender was found decades later in a drainage ditch up there on the hillside. That’s where the famous American cemetery is situated. It’s the final resting place of 10,000 men who lost their lives that day and in the 10 weeks of fighting that followed to liberate Normandy. Ten miles away is another cemetery at La Cambe. It’s run by volunteers and depends on donations as opposed to the many full time staff and government budgets allocated to the both the American and the Commonwealth War Graves Commissions.
It’s different because it’s German and the visitor numbers are in stark contrast with the American cemetery. I’ve been there many times too and as soon as you drive in you’re confronted with the contrasting atmosphere. There’s parking for 20 cars and 3 coaches as opposed to 500 cars and 50 coaches here. It says it all unfortunately, less people want to go there. There are certainly some very evil people buried at La Cambe including the SS officer responsible for the massacre of 642 innocent people in a French village. But the majority of the German war dead signed up neither for the cause nor the fight. Winston Churchill, the British wartime Prime Minister was right when he said that when war is over, it no longer matters who was right, it only matters who is left.
Mankind has failed and continues to fail to live in peace, but the Bible says that Jesus is our peace. He is the hope of both personal and global transformation. We receive that peace when we understand that Jesus won a battle on the cross establishing a bridgehead for each one of us to get off the beach of brockeness and failure. Not just in the context of our struggles of today but in the life to come beyond fear, devastation and loss. We can know with absolute certainty that we are loved by God and have an eternal home with him.
“As I look back through the days just gone by, it’s a miracle we even got off the beach. There were a lot of miracles that day.”