Visiting Normandy and touring the beaches from D-Day, June 6, 1944, is a powerful experience. It is an experience that all American citizens should plan to do. There are incredible stories of American servicemembers that left their homes to serve and sacrifice for a cause greater than themselves. It is important to remember and honor these heroes. Many people do this every year as there are approximately 1.7 million people who visit the Normandy American Cemetery annually.
In this podcast episode, I speak with a tour guide, Yannick Sterke, who gives tours of the Normandy battlefields. In the summer of 2022, I took a three day tour with Yannick. He is a wealth of knowledge. He showed our group significant places including Omaha beach, Utah beach, Point du Hoc, and Saint Lo. At each place, he told us about the history of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy with a lot of powerful stories. Yannick and I kept in touch and he agreed to do an interview to talk about the history of World War II, D-Day, the Battle of Normandy, and his work showing people (including World War II veterans) the battlefields.
Yannick Sterke was born in Cambrai in the north of France near Belgium. He then grew up in a small village north of Paris near Compiègne, which is where the armistice of World War I was signed. To this day, people can see a replica of the train where the French and Germans signed the armistice.
While in school at age of 13, Yannick studied the history of World War II. Yannick’s teacher was passionate about history. As a result, Yannick developed a strong interest in World War II history. His parents gave him books and encouraged him to learn more.
Yannick studied tourism for three years and earned a certification to become a tour guide. After school, he started working at the Normandy American Cemetery. During the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Yannick interacted with many veterans of the D-Day invasion and the Battle of Normandy. He was inspired to continue researching and learning more about World War II and Normandy.
In 2023, Yannick decided to start his own tour company called HQ Company Tour. His company offers public and private tours of the Normandy battlefields. He is dedicated to promoting World War II history specifically the battlefields of Normandy.
World War II Background
In September 1938, Nazi Germany, France, Britain, and Italy signed the Treaty of Munich. This was after Hitler’s Germany seized part of Czechoslovakia specifically an area known as the Sudetenland. The compromise with Hitler by France and Britain is viewed historically as a policy of “appeasing” Nazi Germany rather than standing up to them. It also led to the declaration by Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that the agreement had secured “peace for our time.”
However, the Munich Treaty only bought the Nazis time. Indeed hostile action began again on September 1, 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. In fact, the Nazis and the U.S.S.R. previously signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. This was a non-aggression agreement between the two countries. By signing the pact, both powers waged war on different countries and sought to expand their influence. The Soviets invaded the eastern half of Poland and the Germans invaded the western half. September 1, 1939 is largely viewed as the beginning of World War II.
In May 1940, Germany invaded Holland, Belgium, and France. The French had relied on a line of fortification known as the Maginot Line. However, the Nazis used superior military tactics to include the famous blitzkrieg. Yannick explains that in terms of tank warfare the Germans used “six groups of 100 tanks while the French used 100 groups of six tanks.” Thus, the German tank tactics worked more effectively.
The blitzkrieg also led to the evacuation of 300,000 British and French forces from Dunkirk.
In the lead up to D-Day on June 6, 1944, the Allied powers implemented a deception plan called Operation Fortitude. The goal was to make the Germans think that they were going to land at Calais. In Fact, General Patton was put in command of part of the operation that used inflatable tanks as a way to feed the Germans faulty intelligence.
On the day of the invasion, the Americans, British, and Canadians divided the landing zone into five sectors. The Americans were responsible for Omaha and Utah. The British were responsible for Gold and Sword. The Canadians were responsible for Juno. In Fact, the entirety of the beachfront was about 60 miles. At the same time, there was a massive airborne operation that involved 19,000 American, British, and Canadian paratroopers.
The original plan set the invasion date on June 5, 1944. However, the Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had 200,000 troops under his command, decided to delay one day because of a bad storm. As a result, the invasion happened on June 6, 1944.
Battle of Normandy
Yannick explains that Normandy is the equivalent of a state in the U.S.A. Thus, it is a large area to cover. In fact, the fighting took place over 100 days and culminated in the capture of Paris. The first American objective was the strategic port of Cherbourg. The Americans were able to secure Cherbourg on June 27, 1944. After securing Cherbourg and restoring it to operational capacity, it became an important logistical port for the Allies.
Throughout Normandy, the Allies had a fierce fight in what is known as the “battle of the hedge rows.” In fact, Yannick describes this like fighting in a maze. When the Battle of Normandy began, the Allies had no formal doctrine on how to fight in the hedge rows. Moreover, this type of fighting was similar to urban warfare. It was very slow and methodical. Units cleared one field before moving on to another. Yannick says that each division developed their own doctrine on how to fight in the hedge rows.
How did the Allies overcome the tactical challenge of fighting in the hedge rows? Yannick tells the story of Sergeant Curtis G. Culin, who had the smart idea to use German obstacles on tanks as a way to cut down the hedge rows. As a result of his improvisation, General Eisenhower awarded the Silver Star to Sergeant Culin.
By the end of July, the British and French were able to capture Caen. This created a breakout in which the Allies continued south. Hitler ordered a counterattack. However, the Allies successfully repelled the counterattack. This set the stage for the Battle of the Falaise Pocket. During this battle, the Allies were able to capture 50,000 Germans by using a successful pincer movement. On August 26, 1944, Allied forces liberated Paris.
Stories from D-Day and the Battle of Normandy
One of the most important stories is that of the “Bedford Boys.” Bedford is a small town in the mountains of Virginia. On June 6, 1944, 35 soldiers from Bedford, Virginia landed on Omaha Beach at a section that was codenamed “Dog-Green.” Out of the 35 soldiers from Bedford that landed on Omaha, 19 were killed. As a result, Bedford, Virginia suffered the most casualties per capita of any town in the United States. Yannick tells the story of the Bedford Boys on his tours. Furthermore, the American National D-Day Memorial is currently in Bedford, Virginia.
Another amazing story is also about two medics named Bob Wright from Ohio and Kenneth Moore from California. These soldiers were part of the 101st Airborne. They set up an aide station in a church. For two days they took care of 80 soldiers. Half of the soldiers were Germans. A mortar shell cut pierced through the church and landed inside, but it did not explode. In 2004, Ken and Bob were reunited. The story had previously been unknown. People knew it was an aid station, but did not realize what Bob and Ken had done. To this day, people can tour the church and still see bloodstains on the pews.
There is also the story of Jim Kunkle. Jim was a P-38 pilot and was flying during the Battle of Falaise Pocket. Yannick saw that a street was named after him. Little did he know that Jim was on his tour!
Lieutenant Dick Winters was offered a statue dedicated to his service. However, he did not want it dedicated to him. Instead Winters wanted the memorial dedicated to leadership. Yannick took us to see the statue in Normandy. Yannick quotes Winters who said, “In intense combat you don’t follow the rank, you follow the leader.”
Yannick tells the story of Jimmie Montheith. Monteith was born in western Virginia. He went to high school in Richmond, Virginia. For college, he attended Virginia Tech. As a 1st Lieutenant, he was part of the U.S. Army First Division known as the “Big Red One.” Lt. Montheith was described as a “true leader.” He helped disarm mines with a bayonet. In the process, he helped the Americans overcome the German defenses. However, he was killed on the beach while clearing a path for the tanks.
He posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Jimmie joined the Army because he did not know what to do with his life. Yannick likes to tell this story to young men that are also looking for direction and inspiration in their lives. Jimmie’s story is important and deserves to be taught in American schools.
Practical Travel Advice
As you think about visiting Normandy, stay in Bayeux. Yannick explains that Bayeux is a nice town where HQ Company Tour will meet their guests. A lot of visitors will try to make the trip from Paris, France. However, Paris is several hours from Normandy. As a result, it turns into a long and tiring day to try to come from Paris to Normandy. Bayeux is a better option. It also has several nice hotels, restaurants, and bars to relax at the end of a day of touring.
Our group specifically stayed at the Hotel Villa Lara, which was a wonderful boutique hotel in the heart of Bayeux.
- Check out HQ Company Tour
- Visit HQ Company Tour on Facebook, Instagram, or TripAdvisor.
- Yannick is also doing research on Dunkirk. He is interested in Dunkirk not only because he does tours there, but also because he has a great uncle that died there.
- Operation Jubilee: Dieppe, 1941: The Folly and the Sacrifice
- The Dead and Those About to Die: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach by John C. McManus
- Omaha Beach D-Day June 6 1944 by Joseph Balkoski
- The Bedford Boys by Alex Kershaw
- Munich, 1938
- For more information on the hedge-cutter device, check out this article.
- Interview with Victor Davis Hanson to discuss the importance of a military Education. Check out the episode.