Golfing with history

Currently on The Big Table is John Butterfield’s solitaire game “D-Day at Omaha Beach”. I’ve played the game’s intro scenario several times now, and I’m rushing head-long into the full-day scenario as I write this. So far, I’ve found the game very clever, innovative and enjoyable.

As I dig more deeply into the game and take some time to explore the history behind it, I’ve come to realize that there may be no other people on Earth so adept at “moving on” as the French. Their country is dotted with many well-known places and relics of history, but they somehow manage to keep it all moving into the future while maintaining a great degree of respect for the past.

The battlefield along the Normandy coast is one prime example. Although the contemporary landscape is sometimes interrupted with the occasional memorial, museum or cemetery, life in Normandy just sort of seems to ooze easily around all of the history from six decades past. Much of the area retains its familiar rural character – working farms, orchards, small villages. But, as you may expect, some things have changed in the last 65 years.

The golf course, for instance.

A view of the Omaha Beach Golf Club Ocean course, along the 6th hole looking east toward Port-en-Bessin.

A view of the Omaha Beach Golf Club Ocean course, along the 6th hole looking east toward Port-en-Bessin.

The Omaha Beach Golf Club is located just west of Port-en-Bessin astride the D514. Part of it borders the village of Huppain. The club’s ‘Ocean’ course stretches down to the bluffs overlooking the beach, roughly half-way between Omaha Beach and Gold Beach – right on the dividing line (65 years ago) between the US and British areas of operation.

Back in the mid-90s the Missus and I stayed there for a week or so (a condo exchange, I think). We were in our ‘golf phase’ at the time, so our excursions back and forth along the coast were mixed in with daily adventures on the golf course. It’s the only golf course I’ve ever played that could claim the distinction of having a real bunker as an unmarked hazard.

As a military history enthusiast of long standing, I had read extensively about the D-Day landings long before any of our visits to the area. Even so, I have to say that until I saw them first-hand I didn’t truly grasp the ruggedness of the famous bluffs along the landing beaches. Time and tides have altered the beaches themselves – the well-known ‘shingle’ seems barely a ripple of pebbles today compared to 1944 – but the bluffs stand behind them, imposing as ever.

Modern-day Omaha Beach, looking east from Point et Raz de la Percee near the Vierville draw.

Modern-day Omaha Beach, looking east from Point et Raz de la Percee near the Vierville draw.

Except for the fact that they had convinced themselves the beaches would be mainly undefended, I still can’t imagine any invasion planner outside of an insane asylum looking at those bluffs and thinking: “Yeah. Great spot to land a couple of divisions.”

So now when I dive back into the histories that have been written – like Joe Balkoski’s excellent “Omaha Beach” – I’m more amazed than ever at the accomplishment. On an overcast June morning 65 years ago a relative handful of American infantry companies crossed those same beaches under the deadliest fire, climbed those same bluffs and began the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny.

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