D day the battle for nor.., p.59
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.59Antony Beevor
When the fighting was over, most of the correspondents headed for the Hôtel Scribe, which they had known from before the war. Hemingway and David Bruce, surrounded by some of the writer’s improvised militia, went straight to the Ritz, which Hemingway was determined to ‘liberate’. But the most legendary part of the Liberation was what one young officer of the 2ème DB described as ‘les délices d’une nuit dédiée à Vénus’. The Parisiennes, who had greeted the troops with the heart-felt cry, ‘We’ve waited for you for so long!’, welcomed the Allies that night with unstinted generosity in their tents and armoured vehicles. Father Fouquer, when he returned to his unit after dining with some friends, found that most of the 2ème DB had moved to the Bois de Boulogne. ‘I was providentially removed from the Bois de Boulogne and this night of madness,’ he wrote. The American 4th Infantry Division, bivouacked in the Bois de Vincennes on the eastern edge of Paris and on the Ile de la Cité behind Notre-Dame, also enjoyed the generosity of young Frenchwomen.
The city seemed to suffer from a collective hangover the next morning. David Bruce recorded in his diary that the previous day they had drunk ‘beer, cider, white and red Bordeaux, white and red Burgundy, Champagne, rum, Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados. . .thecombination was enough to wreck one’s constitution’.
‘Slowly the tank hatches opened,’ wrote an American officer, ‘and bedraggled women crawled stiffly out.’ In the Bois de Boulogne, Capitaine Dronne went round pulling the young women out of his men’s tents. One of them made advances to him. To roars of laughter from his men, he replied, ‘Me, I don’t give a damn. I’m homosexual.’ The lovers of the night then breakfasted together on K-Rations round improvised campfires.
Saturday, 26 August was also a fine, sunny day. There were a few miliciens and isolated Germans who still held out, but the occasional bursts of shooting came mostly from over-excited members of the Resistance. Many of them charged around dangerously in commandeered black Citroëns with the letters FFI daubed all over them.
General Gerow, hearing the small-arms fire, persuaded himself that the 2ème DB was failing to carry out its primary duty of clearing the city. He still seethed at the way the French commanders flouted his authority. Hearing that General de Gaulle was planning a victory procession that afternoon, he sent the following signal at 12.55 hours to the 2ème DB: ‘Direct General Leclerc that his command will not, repeat not, participate in parade this afternoon but will continue on present mission of clearing Paris and environs of enemy. He accepts orders only from me. Ack[nowledge] and report when directive delivered to Leclerc. Signed Gerow.’
Once again, Gerow was ignored. At 15.00 hours, de Gaulle took the salute of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad by the Arc de Triomphe. This uniquely French moment was in no way undermined by the international composition of the 2ème DB, with its Spaniards, Italians, German Jews, Poles, White Russians, Czechs and other nationalities.
When de Gaulle set off on foot down the Champs-Elysées on his way to Notre-Dame, he was guarded on either side by half-tracks of the division. Colonel Rol-Tanguy’s headquarters had called for 6,000 members of the FFI to line the route of the procession, but their presence did little to reassure de Gaulle’s entourage. He was followed by Generals Leclerc, Koenig and Juin. Behind them came the rather disgruntled members of the National Council of Resistance, who had not at first been invited. But the joy of the enormous crowds - lining the great avenue, perched on lamp posts, leaning out of windows and even standing on roofs - could not be doubted. Over a million people were estimated to have thronged central Paris that afternoon.
Shooting broke out on the Place de la Concorde, causing panic and chaos. Nobody knows how it started, but the first shot may well have come from a nervous or trigger-happy Fifi. Jean-Paul Sartre, watching from a balcony of the Hôtel du Louvre, came under fire and Jean Cocteau, watching from the Hôtel Crillon, claimed unconvincingly that the cigarette in his mouth was shot in half. But a senior official in the Ministry of Finance was shot dead at a window and at least half a dozen others died in the cross-fire.
De Gaulle was then taken by car to the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Cardinal Suhard was conspicuously absent. He had been prevented from attending because he had welcomed Pétain to Paris, and had recently presided over the memorial service in honour of Philippe Henriot, the Vichy minister of propaganda assassinated by the Resistance.
When de Gaulle entered Notre-Dame more fusillades broke out, both inside and outside the cathedral. But de Gaulle never flinched. As almost everyone threw themselves to the ground around him, he continued to march up the aisle, doubly determined to disarm the FFI, which he regarded as a far greater threat to order than any remaining miliciens or Germans. ‘Public order is a matter of life and death,’ he told Pasteur Boegner a few days later. ‘If we do not re-establish it ourselves, foreigners will impose it upon us.’ American and British forces now appeared to be seen as ‘foreigners’ rather than allies. France was truly liberated. As de Gaulle himself put it, France had no friends, only interests.
Although the French reluctance to acknowledge American help still rankled deeply, General Gerow subsequently accepted Leclerc’s peace-making overture. His 2ème DB was ready to move on 27 August and went into action against the Germans round Le Bourget aerodrome. Also on that day, Eisenhower and Bradley paid ‘an informal visit’ to Paris. Eisenhower had invited Montgomery, but he refused on the grounds that he was too busy. Despite the informality of the event, General Gerow could not resist meeting his superiors at the Porte d’Orléans with a full armoured escort from the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron to accompany them into the city. The following day, V Corps reported, ‘General Gerow, as military commander of Paris, returned the capital city to the people of France.’ When informed of this by Gerow, General Koenig replied that he had been in charge of Paris all along.
Gerow arranged for the 28th Infantry Division, newly attached to V Corps, to march through Paris the next day to create ‘a parade of the might of the modern American Army for the populace’. Generals Bradley, Hodges and Gerow were joined by General de Gaulle at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe, where they laid a wreath. Then the four men reviewed the march-past from a stand erected by American engineers out of a Bailey bridge turned upside down on the Place de la Concorde. It was entirely fitting that Norman Cota, now the commander of the 28th Division, should lead the parade. Few men had demonstrated so clearly, as he had done at Omaha, the need for determined leadership in battle.
The ugly side of Liberation reared up almost immediately, with denunciations and revenge on women who had had liaisons with German soldiers. Marshall and Westover saw one woman scream ‘collaboratrice! ’ at another. The crowd turned on the accused woman and started to rip her clothes. Marshall and Westover, with a couple of American journalists, managed to save her. In Paris too the head-shaving began. On the balcony of a local mairie, barbers attacked the hair of women rounded up for ‘collaboration horizontale’ with Germans. The crowd below yelled its approval and applauded. A young woman who had been present recorded afterwards how much she despised herself for having been part of that crowd. And a young officer with the 2ème DB wrote, ‘We are sickened by these dregs who mistreat women with shaved heads for having slept with Germans.’ Altogether some 20,000 Frenchwomenare estimatedto havehad theirheads shaved in the summer of 1944.
Disillusionment between liberated and liberators also increased. Americans and British saw Paris not just as a symbol of Europe’s freedom from Nazi oppression, but as a playground for their amusement. ‘As we neared the city we were seized by a wild sort of excitement, ’ wrote Forrest Pogue. ‘We began to giggle, to sing, yell and otherwise show exuberance.’ American supply services, to Eisenhower’s irritation, commandeered all the best hotels to lodge their senior officers in style. No French people were allowed to enter without an invitation. They were naturally jealous of the food. Simone de Beauvoir described the Hôtel Scribe, reserved for foreign journalists, as ‘a
Pogue himself was shaken to find that the Petit Palais had been taken over, with a large sign announcing the distribution of free condoms to US troops. In Pigalle, rapidly dubbed ‘Pig Alley’ by GIs, prostitutes were coping with over 10,000 men a day. The French were also deeply shocked to see US Army soldiers lying drunk on the pavements of the Place Vendôme. The contrast with off-duty German troops, who had been forbidden even to smoke in the street, could hardly have been greater.
The problem was that many American soldiers, loaded with dollars of back-pay, believed that hardship at the front gave them the right to behave as they liked in the rear. And American deserters in Paris, combined with a few Milo Mindbenders in the supply services, fuelled a rampant black market. The capital of France became known as ‘Chicago-sur-Seine’.
Sadly, the behaviour of a fairly unrepresentative minority soured Franco-American relations more profoundly and permanently than was understood at the time. It distorted the huge sacrifice of Allied soldiers and French civilians in the battle for Normandy, which had freed the country from the suffering and humiliation of the German Occupation. It also diverted attention away from the massive American aid. While combat engineers deactivated mines and booby traps, over 3,000 tons of supplies per day were rushed to Paris, bringing much of the Allied advance on Germany to a virtual halt.
‘Paris had fallen very suddenly,’ the Central Base Section reported. ‘People thought that we had an inexhaustible supply of food and lots of clothing and plenty of gasoline for their cars. Our offices were as crowded as the Paris Metro.’ There was an overwhelming demand for penicillin as well as morphine for civilian use. Major General Kenner, SHAEF’s chief medical officer, organized a monthly allocation to be made to the French government. Meanwhile, the medical services of the American, British and Canadian armies did whatever they could for injured and sick civilians in their area.
The success of the Allied double invasion, first in Normandy and then on the Mediterranean coast, had at least spared most of France from a long-drawn-out battle of attrition.
News of the liberation of Paris had provoked almost as much emotion in the rest of France as in the capital itself. In Caen, Major Massey with the British civil affairs team wrote, ‘I saw Frenchmen in the streets crying with joy as they took off their hats to the playing of the “Marseillaise”.’ But the citizens of Caen and other stricken towns and villages feared, with justification, that amidst the jubilation in Paris their suffering would be forgotten. This proved even more true as the war moved towards the German border. De Gaulle finally visited Caen in October and promised his support, but two months later the minister of reconstruction warned the region that it would be ‘many years’ before Calvados could be rebuilt.
The cruel martyrdom of Normandy had indeed saved the rest of France. Yet the debate about the overkill of Allied bombing and artillery is bound to continue. Altogether 19,890 French civilians were killed during the liberation of Normandy and an even larger number seriously injured. This was on top of the 15,000 French killed and 19,000 injured during the preparatory bombing for Overlord in the first five months of 1944. It is a sobering thought that 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied action during the course of the war, a figure which exceeds the total number of British killed by German bombing.
Although some villages and areas of countryside had been miraculously spared during the battles, large tracts were devastated, with cratering from shells, trees stripped bare and orchards destroyed. A pestilential stench from the rotting corpses of bloated livestock still hung heavily in the air. Allied engineers had dealt with as many as they could, using bulldozers, or incinerated them with gasoline, but once the troops moved on, farmers had little but their own strength and a spade to bury the bodies. Casualties continued to rise from unexploded shells and mines after the Liberation. Around Troarn, more people are said to have been killed after the battle than during it. Many children died from playing with the grenades and ammunition they found abandoned by both sides.
As well as the towns and villages flattened by bombing, the hamlets and stone farmhouses, which the Germans had used as strongpoints, had been wrecked by artillery and mortar fire. In the département of Calvados alone, 76,000 people had lost their homes and virtually everything they possessed. The looting and unnecessary damage caused by Allied soldiers only added to the bitterness felt by many in the strongly mixed emotions of the Liberation. A number grumbled that they had been better off under the Germans. ‘There are those who celebrate the landings,’ said the wife of the Vichy mayor of Montebourg. ‘As for me, I say that it was the start of our misfortunes. As you know, we were occupied, but at least we had what we needed.’ Although most Normans would not have agreed with her political sentiments, the vast Allied presence in Normandy felt oppressive. In any case, as the more perceptive Allied soldiers understood, the local population had much to mourn, even beyond their own losses. Many were anxious about husbands and brothers still imprisoned or taken for forced labour in Germany. There were even greater fears for local members of the Resistance arrested by the Gestapo and transported to concentration camps.
Allied civil affairs teams, in cooperation with the French authorities, did what they could for food distribution, refugees and the restoration of essential services. Some towns, however, remained without water or electricity until well into the autumn. Sewerage systems were damaged and the infestation of rats became a major threat to public health. In Caen, only 8,000 homes were habitable for a population of 60,000. Few skylines remained recognizable after the spires of ancient churches had been blasted down by tank and gunfire to destroy possible German observation posts. A major source of resentment came about because German prisoners of war put to work by the Allies received regular army rations, according to the regulations of the International Red Cross. This meant that they were eating better than local civilians.
Despite the appalling strains placed upon the social fabric of Normandy, the population had discovered a ‘camaraderie du malheur’, a solidarity in suffering. The young had demonstrated an astonishing degree of bravery and self-sacrifice in the Défense Passive, while most Norman farmers, despite a reputation for independence and even tight fists, had displayed a great generosity to the thousands of refugees fleeing the bombarded towns. The Saingt family, who owned a brewery at Fleury, on the southern edge of Caen, had sheltered up to 900 people during the battle in their deep cellars, providing them with everything they could. Even amid the fear during the bombing of the city there had been remarkably few disputes in the refuges, with almost everyone showing a ‘discipline exemplaire’ even over the distribution of food. The prolonged crisis, as many noted, had not only proved a great leveller, it had brought out the best in people.
Many British and American troops, overwhelmed by the joyous welcome they received as soon as they left the battle zones, could not help contrasting it with the sometimes cold reception they had received in Normandy. This showed a lack of imagination. The Normans could hardly be blamed for fearing that the invasion might fail and German reprisals would be harsh. And the local population, surveying the damage inflicted on their lives, were unlikely to be joyful even when it became clear that the Allied footing on the Continent was secure.
Considering the circumstances, most Normans were extraordinarily forgiving. The 195th Field Ambulance set up a dressing station near Honfleur beside a château overlooking the Seine. The officers’ mess was in a small house nearby, where the doctors were most hospitably received by the elderly Frenchman living there alone. After a few days, as resistance had ceased south of the Seine and their only patients were local civilians who had been wounded in the fighting,
‘Civil life will be mighty dull,’ wrote the egocentric General Patton in his diary after the triumph of the Normandy campaign. ‘No cheering crowds, no flowers, no private airplanes. I am convinced that the best end for an officer is the last bullet of the war.’83 He would have done better to remember the Duke of Wellington’s famous observation that ‘next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained’.
The ferocity of the fighting in north-west France can never be in doubt. And despite the sneers of Soviet propagandists, the battle for Normandy was certainly comparable to that of the eastern front. During the three summer months, the Wehrmacht suffered nearly 240,000 casualties and lost another 200,000 men to Allied captivity. The 21st Army Group of British, Canadians and Poles sustained 83,045 casualties and the Americans 125,847. In addition, the Allied air forces lost 16,714 men killed and missing.
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