A European vacation is a lovely thing, whether you like to immerse yourself in the culture, lie on a sandy beach or find the best food the region has to offer, but how often do you think about the history of Europe?
Certainly, there are museums, ruins and even intact castles all over, but even within your own lifetime or those of your parents or grandparents, British and Commonwealth men risked their lives to ensure freedom and prosperity for generations to come. It may be a bit poignant, but Europe is full of Britain’s World War Two battlefields that can provide anything from something to think about for an afternoon to fascinating sites to build an entire vacation around.
Here are some fantastic European holiday destinations that just happen to offer heaps of recent history as well.
Occupied Britain – Jersey
Jersey is a brilliant destination for a relaxed or outdoors-focused holiday, with lovely beaches and a unique, almost untouched landscape to explore. What is often forgotten, however, is that Jersey was occupied by the Germans from June 1940 until May 1945.
Jersey was the closest the Germans came to invading Britain proper, and they spent their time there turning the island into a veritable fortress, and there remains evidence of that all over. The Channel Islands Military Museum, for instance, is situated in a surviving Atlantic Wall bunker, and it isn’t the only site – there are half a dozen surviving coastal fortification sites on Jersey.
Underneath all of that, literally, are the Jersey War Tunnels – over a kilometre of bunkers, storage and other facilities dug for the Germans by slave labour. The tunnels still exist and are open to the public, having been partially converted into a museum telling Jersey’s occupation story.
Northern France – Normandy
Normandy is packed full of historic attractions from all ages, from the Bayeux Tapestry, telling the story of William conquering England, to the spectacular Abbey and commune of Mont-Saint-Michel and the stunning Gothic cathedral in Rouen. But on the 6th of June 1944, the largest amphibious invasion in history marked the beginning of the end for the Nazi occupation of France.
The five D-Day beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – span only about fifty miles between Carentan and Caen on Normandy’s coastline, but they offer an incredible look at the magnitude of undertaking required to win the war.
Apart from offering lovely beaches, an incredible amount of history is still visible on the D-Day beaches. The vast fortifications of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall still overlook the coastline, trenchlines and shell craters are still visible almost 75 years on and the remains of a Mulberry Harbour, a temporary construction on a vast scale to allow ships to resupply the Allied forces, are still present on the British Gold beach. For the best experience, however, an experienced battlefield tours operator can bring the beaches to life with information and knowledge of hidden gems.
Many of the D-Day beaches also feature museums dedicated to the endeavour, including the Musée du Débarquement overlooking Gold beach, the Overlord Museum at Omaha beach and Juno Beach Center dedicated to the Canadian forces. Normandy is also home to a number of cemeteries and war memorials, many dedicated to individual formations who took part in the Normandy campaign.
The Netherlands – Operation Market Garden
When most people think about visiting the Netherlands, they mean the cities in the north-west – Amsterdam, Rotterdam and maybe even The Hague, but the southern provinces between Belgium and Germany offer more than you might think, being home to everything from beautiful medieval market towns to one of the leading modern and contemporary art museums, Van Abbemuseum, in Eindhoven. In 1944, though, the Netherlands was occupied territory, and the site of a bold British and American plan to end the war early called Operation Market Garden.
Operation Market Garden was intended to seize a series of bridges between Eindhoven and Nijmegen to give the Allies a safe way to cross the Rhine river and, hopefully, the ability to end the war in 1944.
The operation was divided into two sections, Market and Garden. Market involved the American paratroopers dropping into the Netherlands and securing the bridges, as shown in television series such as Band of Brothers, while Garden involved the British and Commonwealth troops driving quickly through the German lines to link up with and reinforce the paratroopers.
In northern Europe, there are dozens of battlefields which involved thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers. Any one of these sites can make an incredible part of a vacation, even for those with only a passing interest in history. For an enthusiast, each operation holds enough to keep you entertained for days, even if that means neglecting everything else the region has to offer.