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The Price of Liberation

By William I. Hitchcock
4/19/2018 • MHQ Magazine

In 1944, the Allies freed Caen from the Nazis. But the residents had to wonder: Was it worth the deaths of thousands and the pulverization of their city?

In the final year of the Second World War, inhabitants of occupied countries across the globe awaited their liberation with eagerness—and anxiety. They knew they would pay a high price for the freedom that the Allied armies brought with them. Sure enough, cities such as Naples, Warsaw, Manila, and Budapest were devastated in the final months of the war. While many of Europe’s most beautiful cities were spared this sort of destruction—Paris, Brussels, and Prague were freed with virtually no damage—many smaller towns were ground to rubble by the Allied advance.

In Normandy, where the Allies fought a brutal three-month campaign against the Germans in the summer of 1944, Allied air bombardment and artillery devastated the region, especially the department of Calvados and its principal city, Caen. This city, which the Allies had planned to take and liberate on D-Day itself, paid an almost unbearable price for its freedom.

Its deputy mayor, Joseph Poirier, recalls trying to calm the screaming women and children in the local school as Royal Air Force bombers dropped their payloads on Caen in July, a month after it was supposed to have been liberated. “But what can you do to calm these poor people who had already experienced the bombings of June 6 and 7 and who, for a month, had been living the lives of soldiers on the firing line?”

A productive region of apples, cider, brandy, milk, and butter, Calvados had some 400,000 inhabitants in 1940; Caen was home to 60,000 citizens. During the war all the northern coastal departments were filled with German soldiers preparing for an expected cross-Channel Allied attack. By the fall of 1941, the Germans had stationed 15,000 to 20,000 troops in Calvados alone, and triple this number by June 1944. Throughout the war, local inhabitants lived literally side by side with the occupiers. Germans took over hotels, public buildings, and schools for barracks and headquarters, and requisitioned furnishings, beds, and all manner of domestic equipment; their soldiers were billeted upon the population, taking up living rooms, barnyards, and stables and displacing local families. German requisitions of food for their troops and forage for their animals hurt the economy, as did military maneuvers through the heavily agricultural countryside.

As the prospect of an Allied invasion of France neared, the German occupation of Calvados intensified, with profound consequences. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commanding the German armies in the west, deployed 4 of his 60 divisions in Calvados. Added to other occupation authorities and labor services, this meant there were 60,000 to 70,000 foreigners in the department by June 1944, all of whom had to be fed and housed. From the late fall of 1943, the Germans massively increased the pace of defensive preparations. Mines, obstacles, tank traps, barbed wire, and concrete gun emplacements popped up all along the coastline. The Germans flooded lowlands and studded open areas with “Rommel’s asparagus,” tall poles designed to shred any troop-carrying Allied aircraft that might attempt a landing.

They made still further demands for local labor details, forcing village mayors to produce able-bodied men between 18 and 50 years old to work on the fortifications. Inevitably, the economic life of the region ground to a halt as the fevered work on the Atlantic Wall sucked in workers and materials; in the fields, labor disappeared, and the Germans requisitioned horses to pull wagons, so crops were not sown. The Calvados countryside, one of the richest and most productive regions of France, was largely abandoned.

The behavior of the Germans toward the civilian population worsened as the likelihood of an Allied invasion increased. In January 1944, Adolf Hitler’s chief of conscript labor, Fritz Sauckel, demanded that France produce yet another million laborers to be deployed for the Nazi war effort, but few complied. In Calvados, of the 1,370 men called up, a mere 104 responded to Sauckel’s order. The desperate Germans resorted to roundups and arrests in cinemas and public places to secure recalcitrant labor conscripts, and shipped their captures off to camps in Germany.

Prisons bulged with civilians arrested on the least pretext. After stepped-up Resistance attacks on local officials, collaborators, and German soldiers, the Germans responded violently. In March 1944, all civilians were ordered to surrender their radios so that they could not listen to BBC broadcasts. Through arrests, torture, and infiltration by collaborators, the Germans managed to crack open many of the local Resistance networks; they killed more than 200 local resisters in the six months before the Allied D-Day invasion. All these travails made the people of Calvados yearn for liberation.

Yet when it came, it came in a storm of violence. Four of the D-Day landing beaches (Sword, Juno, Gold, and Omaha) were in Calvados and some of the fiercest fighting during the Normandy campaign took place there. But first, during the run-up to D-Day, Allied bombing of targets in coastal France intensified, making life a constant misery for millions of people in towns from the Pas-de-Calais to Normandy. In the neighboring department of Seine-Maritime, the city of Rouen—a rail junction that Allied planners knew the Germans would use to reinforce Normandy—was devastated by repeated attacks: on April 19, 1944, British bombing killed 900 people in Rouen, and in the first week of June a series of attacks by American bombers killed an additional 200 people there. In Calvados, the prefect’s reports reveal the constant and enervating presence of Allied aircraft in the skies: between March 1 and June 5, 130 people died.

The heaviest blow, however, came a few minutes before midnight on June 5, when 946 aircraft of the Royal Air Force struck targets along the coast of the landing beaches. The RAF dropped 5,000 tons of bombs on German defensive positions in 10 towns, 7 of which were in Calvados: Maisy, Saint-Pierre-du-Mont (the location of the massive guns perched on the promontory of Pointe du Hoc), Longues-sur-Mer, Mont Fleury, Ouistreham, Merville, and Houlgate. This was the largest tonnage of bombs yet dropped in a single night in the entire war. Fortunately, these sparsely populated towns had been largely evacuated in the weeks before the landings by order of the Germans and of local authorities. Even so, these initial bombardments killed at least 40 civilians.

At dawn on June 6, 1,083 Boeing B-17s and Consolidated B-24s of the U.S. Eighth Air Force took their turn, hammering the general vicinity of what was to be Omaha Beach. Many of the bombs were dropped too far inland, leaving the coastal batteries on Omaha untouched, while Port-en-Bessin, the coastal village on the far eastern flank of Omaha, was struck hard, as were most of the surrounding hamlets. Naval gunnery joined in, aiming at German batteries but inevitably hitting the surrounding villages.

The purpose of these assaults was obviously to kill Germans and to impede the movement of any reinforcements from the Pas-de-Calais, where large concentrations of Germans had been placed in anticipation of Allied landings there. Yet air power was at best a crude tool: Allied aircraft did not possess the accuracy required to destroy a bridge, a crossroads, a telegraph station, or an artillery position without also destroying a great deal of the surrounding area. The results were predictably awful: dozens upon dozens of hamlets were heavily bombed. On D-Day alone, Allied bombing in Calvados killed 1,300 civilians. On June 7, another 1,200 died. And the human price grew steeper as Operation Overlord came to a grinding halt outside the gates of Caen.

More than any single location in Normandy, Caen offers testimony to the brutality of the region’s liberation. Caen was the chief target of the British and Canadian landings on D-Day, but for a number of reasons that still stir controversy, Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s men failed to take the city. It was partly because the German 21st Panzer Division put up a stubborn defense just north of Caen, partly because the British tanks got bottled up on the beaches, and partly because the plan was simply too ambitious an objective for units that had crossed the Channel and undertaken an unprecedented amphibious landing the same day. Yet it was not for lack of trying.

From June 6 to June 8, Anglo-Canadian forces tried to bash their way into Caen, and the skies filled with bombers to help them. At 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. on June 6, and 2:30 a.m. on June 7, RAF and U.S. Eighth Air Force bombers pummeled the city in an effort to destroy its bridges across the Orne River and slow German reinforcements moving through Caen. Yet for all the bombing, at least one bridge over the Orne was still intact, while concentrations of German troops were not hit. The 21st Panzer was already established north of the city and was soon joined by the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. On June 9, the Panzer Lehr Division arrived in the field and now there was a strong defensive shield to the north and west of Caen. There had been little military value gained by the air attack. The rubble in the streets impeded military vehicles, yet even the official history by the U.S. Air Force admitted the bombing was militarily insignificant: “the effect upon the enemy was small,” it concluded, “since detours were easily established.”

The effect on Caen’s inhabitants, however, was great. In a matter of 36 hours, the city was shattered. The attacks on June 6 killed 600 people. The June 7 strikes left another 200 dead. Thousands were wounded. The city lay in ruins, ablaze, and did not see any liberating soldiers for another month.

Deputy Mayor Poirier wrote one of the most powerful accounts of these two awful days. “Nothing had prepared us for the swiftness of the attack,” he wrote six months after the liberation of the city. “We knew well that our deliverance was at hand, that the hour of liberation had sounded, but selfishly we thought that the landings would happen elsewhere and that our region would be spared. Providence had decided otherwise.”

The first bombing raid at 1:30 p.m. struck the central quarters of the city. “It was of an unprecedented violence….” Despite later, and wholly ineffectual, attempts by the Allied command to warn the citizens of impending bombing, no warning had been given on June 6. “The raid had lasted no more than ten minutes but the damage was enormous. The Monoprix stores were shattered and at least ten fires burned in the downtown.” The next attack, at 4:30 p.m., struck the prefecture headquarters and other municipal buildings in the center of town as well as the church of Saint-Jean. Shells hit some of the buildings of Le Bon Sauveur, the 20-acre Benedictine hospital complex in the northwestern quarter of the city; one nun was killed, trapped under falling stones. By now a quarter of the city was in flames.

The attack of 2:30 a.m. on June 7 proved even more devastating. The first bomb load fell on the central fire station, killing the chief, his deputy, and 17 firefighters. More than 20 bombs hit the town hall, in whose basement Poirier had sought shelter. The hospital clinic of La Miséricorde, located on the rue des Carmes in the center of town, took a direct hit. Seventy-two people, mostly nuns and their patients, were killed, their bodies buried under the rubble; 171 others were wounded.

Emerging into a nightscape illuminated by dozens of fires, Poirier saw bodies lying in feeble air raid trenches, body parts, dead children, the corpse of a close friend on the ground, headless. The electricity, telephone, and water lines were cut, making it difficult to coordinate aid to the wounded. The firefighting equipment was destroyed.

“The population was literally crazed,” Poirier noted, “seized by panic, and trying to flee the city into the countryside. People were running about in nightshirts, bare-foot, without having had the time to put on the least clothing. The city was enveloped in a yellowish smoke and dust from all the shattered buildings. It was an infernal scene.” The best he and his civil defense teams could do was try to get the wounded to Le Bon Sauveur, and gather up the horribly mutilated corpses and pile them up at the Central Commissariat. Then he could only ponder, “Where, when, how would we bury them?”

Had the liberating troops arrived in Caen on June 9 or 10 with offers of aid, food, medicine, bulldozers to clear rubble, and manpower to restore public services, then perhaps its liberation would have gone down as merely one of many sad chapters in a war that took so many civilian lives. But Caen’s travails were far from over.

By June 10, the Anglo-Canadian troops north of Caen were no closer to taking the city than they had been at midday on June 6. Indeed, with the Germans pouring reinforcements into Normandy, and especially north and west of Caen, the city lay just behind an ever-strengthening German perimeter. With the Americans heavily engaged in the Cotentin peninsula, where they were trying to seize the port of Cherbourg, the British slugged it out with the Germans for every inch of ground around Caen. After the initial assault of June 6–8 had failed, General Montgomery directed another major attack in an attempt to outflank Caen, aiming his tanks at Villers-Bocage, a small town some 12 miles southwest of the city. Historian Max Hastings has called this battle a “wretched episode,” in which the British were thoroughly outfought by the German defenders; but Monty tried again on June 26, sending three divisions—60,000 men and 600 tanks—crashing into the German line west of Caen, running out toward Tilly-sur-Seulles, in Operation Epsom. It too failed.The implications of these military operations on the western outskirts of Caen were grave for its civilians. German concentrations in and around Caen were under assault from the air or from artillery, and the city endured near-constant fire. Thousands of its inhabitants sought shelter in the hospital of Le Bon Sauveur and other points designated as shelters by the city authorities; the thick walls of the old churches like Saint-Étienne offered shelter to thousands of citizens, sprawled amidst the pews on beds of straw. Aid workers painted red crosses on the grounds and buildings of Le Bon Sauveur and on the Lycée Malherbe, a school across the street. Its cafeteria had been turned into a hospital ward.

Even so, on June 9 and 10, 200 artillery shells, intended for German positions on the outskirts of town, landed on Le Bon Sauveur and 57 hit the Lycée, killing more than 50 people. On June 12, a huge artillery shell struck the superb steeple of the church of Saint-Pierre, a beloved landmark in the center of town. It crashed down in pieces, a Gothic masterpiece wiped out in a flash. On June 13 and 14, the shopping districts, cafés, and hotels of the center of town were all set ablaze, and without water, the remaining firefighters had no hope of containing the flames.

Le Bon Sauveur, which in normal times handled 1,200 patients with a staff of 120 nuns, was now packed with 2,000 refugees and 1,700 wounded. Working around the clock with few supplies, no electricity, and only what water could be pumped manually from the wells, doctors tried to treat the worst cases. A patched-together staff of 31 doctors, 22 interns, 114 nurses, and 46 French Red Cross personnel achieved great things, conducting some 2,300 operations between June 6 and August 15. Across the street in the Lycée Malherbe, a skeletal staff of 12 doctors and a handful of Red Cross workers gave basic treatment to more than 500 wounded people and thousands of homeless refugees on makeshift pallets in the hallways and basements.

As residents fled the city, Caen’s population dwindled to about 17,000 by mid-June. Seeking shelter from the bombing, thousands of people made for the large stone quarries two miles to the south of the city, in the suburb of Fleury. Here opened up another astonishing chapter in this saga of Caen’s destruction. During June and July, as many as 12,000 people huddled in the extensive networks of vacant caves in the old quarries, where the pale yellow limestone, used to build many of Caen’s churches, had been quarried since the 11th century.

In this dark, dank network of caverns, small villages sprang up overnight: the ill and elderly were grouped in makeshift beds, women set up laundry and cooking facilities, the men took on heavy labor on a rotating timetable: digging potatoes in the fields, hauling water, sawing lumber for the communal kitchens, gathering supplies from the nearby villages. Bakers and butchers from Fleury delivered bread, meat, and occasionally vegetables.

They had little electricity, and therefore very little electric light. The floors of the caves, which had been used lately for cultivating mushrooms, were constantly damp and muddy; there was no running water. One young girl who, with her family, sought shelter in the caves at Fleury recalled the misery of it all: “apart from the fleas, our heads were alive with lice, scratch-scratch all day. Hygiene was non-existent; there were no toilets in the caves. We had to make do with corners or heaps of stones.”

As the people of Caen clung to life in and around their besieged city, the British Second Army continued its efforts to break through the German line blocking its advance into the interior of France. Having tried twice to outflank Caen, Montgomery now thought he might go straight at it. He called on the Royal Air Force to lay down an intense bombardment of German defensive positions and artillery to the north of Caen to open the way for an assault by I Corps directly into the city. What followed was “one of the most futile air attacks of the war,” according to one historian.

Although it was well known that most of the Germans were deployed north of the city, Bomber Command, in its care not to hit the closely engaged British troops, altered the plan and moved the bombing area farther into Caen itself. With dreadful precision, RAF De Havilland Mosquitoes acting as Pathfinders flew in first and dropped their smoke-bomb markers on the northern half of a city already ruined and quite free of German units. On July 7, under a clear evening sky, and facing little flak, 456 Lancasters and Halifaxes dumped 2,276 tons of bombs on Caen. “It was afterwards judged,” concludes one laconic account, “that the bombing should have been aimed at the original targets. Few Germans were killed in the area actually bombed.”

The sight of so many friendly aircraft in the skies over Caen was a great morale booster to the thousands of British troops in the field who had been badly beaten up by the Germans for over a month. “What a lovely sight we saw at about 10:00 p.m.,” wrote one soldier in his diary. “Hundreds of Lancasters passing over on way home. Could see them on their bombing run somewhere over Caen in more or less single file.…Could see the flak—a grand sight which inspires confidence.”

It was not so heartening for the people inside Caen, however. From within the buildings of the Lycée Malherbe, Joseph Poirier too saw the fearsome number of bombers overhead, “blocking out the sky.” He was then thrown against a wall by the force of the explosions. As reports came in, Poirier learned that the university and its wonderful library were in flames. The church of Saint-Julien was destroyed. The battered remains of the town hall were crushed. A shelter on the rue Vaugueux, near the church of Saint-Julien, took a direct hit: 54 people, including many of the church staff, were killed. Fires erupted across the city. “I feared that I would lose my mind in the face of such a calamity,” he wrote. Another 250 names were added that night to the lengthening rolls of the dead.

On the morning of July 9, Poirier noticed a new development: the few Germans still in the city were withdrawing. This was an organized retreat to higher ground south and east of the city; but for those residents in the northern quarter around Le Bon Sauveur, this marked the start of their liberation. In the afternoon, along the rue Guillaume le Conquérant, Poirier encountered a column of Canadian infantry—French Canadians, who handed out sweets and cigarettes to the bedraggled citizens of the quarter. In a gesture indicative of the continuity between pre- and postwar France that most local officials insisted upon, Poirier now donned his tricolored sash, the symbol of his municipal office, to prepare to greet the British commanders.

“I was overcome by emotion, for I recalled at this instant that on the morning of 18 June 1940, it was I that had the sad privilege of greeting the first German officer who arrived in Caen.…But today, the man who would soon present himself was our ally, one of the determined British who never lost faith in victory and who now returned to us the right to wave our flag and to sing the Marseillaise.” Poirier greeted the commander of 201 Civil Affairs Detachment. They shook hands warmly, and Poirier acknowledged that they both had tears in their eyes.

Yet the meeting took on a tragicomic air when, after a long discussion about the desperate civilian needs in the city, the British major asked if Poirier could suggest a good hotel where he might have a hot bath. Poirier, stunned, gathered his composure and gently informed the major that there were virtually no buildings at all left standing in the city.

The survivors were unable to show a great deal of warmth for their liberators. “The Canadian and British armies have been received in Caen without great enthusiasm,” wrote one of the Benedictine sisters of the Abbey of Nôtre Dame de Bon Sauveur. “The residents have been too shaken by the memory of days of agony and mourning which we have experienced, and by all the civilian dead, by all the grief. There was not on this day the joy that we might have had if these ‘friends’ had saved the women, the children, the old people. There has been too much suffering.” During the battle of Normandy, 8,140 residents of Calvados were killed. No other department suffered so high a toll, though the butcher’s bill was shockingly high in the departments that neighbor Calvados: an additional 11,750 civilians died in Manche, Orne, Eure, and Seine-Maritime. Nearly 20,000 French civilians in Normandy paid for liberation with their lives. The extent of the destruction profoundly shaped the way that soldiers—those sent to France to liberate civilians—came to understand the war. It was impossible, after some of the things these men saw, to think about the war as “a great crusade,” as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had called it on D-Day; or to speak of killing Germans, as Monty had done on DDay, as “good hunting.”

“Villers-Bocage was a sight I’ll never forget,” recalled one British trooper in the Royal Engineers. “There was just enough room for two lorries to pass through between two heaps of rubble which once were houses; the whole place was absolutely razed to the ground and just outside, in the fields, was a complete mass of bomb holes.” The once lovely town of Lisieux, home to a glorious cathedral and a site of many religious pilgrimages, was “absolutely flat, words can’t describe the destruction, Coventry and London are nothing compared with this….If a bomb had been placed in every house the damage could not have been greater.” Lisieux had suffered the second-highest death toll in Calvados after Caen: 781 killed.

“We traveled by jeep through Tilly-sur-Seulles,” recalled Major A. J. Forrest of the Royal Artillery. The village was “a scrap heap with every house and shop shattered.” The once well-tended land was filled with “orchard trees broken, blackened and stripped of foliage, the ground blasted, buildings razed and carcasses of horses and cows lying in the open, grossly inflated, putrescent, and beset by swarms of blood-avid flies, feeding on their exposed flesh and tender parts.” Villers-Bocage, he recalled, “appeared dead, mutilated and smothered, a gigantic sightless rubble heap so confounded by devastation as to suggest an Apocalypse.”

Sgt. Richard Greenwood of the Royal Tank Regiment saw only “a barren wilderness of destruction [that] resembles the battlefields of the last war. A few gaunt trees standing up, leafless, lifeless.”

Not until the Allied armies reached Paris in late August did they begin to receive the sort of warm, full-throated welcome they had expected in Normandy. The same warmth met the liberators across northern France right up to the Belgian border, where the fighting had been light or had passed by altogether, and where the infantry was at last riding in trucks, moving 40 miles a day and more. Here, at last, liberation began to look and feel the way it was always supposed to be: flowers, girls, crowds, cheers. “The battalion stopped at the village of La Fertie [La Ferté, to the east of Paris],” recalled A. G. Herbert of the Somerset Light Infantry. “We now felt at last that we had left Normandy and were meeting the real French people for the first time. Unlike the people of Normandy, these folk made us feel welcome, and it seemed worth fighting for their freedom.” The delirious cheering intensified all the way through Belgium.

Yet back in Normandy, there was little elation to be found in the newly liberated—and shattered—towns. An initial assessment of Caen found that, in this city that had once housed 60,000 people, there was habitation left for a mere 8,000. Many returning refugees would have to be evacuated again. Meanwhile, the area between Tilly-sur-Seulles, Falaise, Argentan, and Vire had only one-fifth of its houses left standing. As one somber report by a British official put it on August 30, “there will be no greater war problem in the whole of France than exists in Calvados at the moment.” About 125,000 people in this department alone were designated sinistrés, or war victims; of those, 76,000 had lost everything they owned, including their homes.

By the end of August, over 1,000 civilians had been hurt or killed by stepping on buried mines. Allied military authorities set up temporary refugee camps to try to limit civilian movement in the war-torn areas, but refugees avoided them, only desiring to return to their towns and assess the scale of the damage.

Along with the housing shortage, food was still strictly rationed in Caen, with bread down to 100 grams per day and 120 grams of meat per week. A particular grievance of the locals was that the Allies gave better rations and clothing to the 12,000 German POWs in Calvados, who were put to work on road-building crews, than to the French. “People compare their appearance when the two groups [French and German laborers] arrive for work at the various public works,” wrote the prefect of the department of Caen. “The Germans arrive by car or truck, clothed in raincoats, with good shoes. The French arrive on foot, with bad shoes and an assortment of cast-off clothing, some civilian, some military.”

With no summer and fall harvest, cattle lacked fodder and straw. In December, the sub-prefect of Bayeux termed the condition of livestock in the region “critical.” Petty theft and looting of emptied or damaged houses was a constant problem for municipal police, as the crime blotter in the daily newspapers reveals. Basic services such as streetcars, buses, trains and electricity were not in place until December and even then were intermittent at best. The region was beset by a criminal racket that trafficked in stolen military goods, which the police found impossible to control, since Allied soldiers were deeply involved.

And prostitution—a trade that was legal in France when practiced in licensed houses with regular inspections—had become a major public health problem; women had begun to ply their trade secretly among a desperately eager military clientele, leading to rampant venereal disease.

Caen residents wondered why they had been forsaken. An editorial in the Caen-based newspaper Liberté de Normandie, one of the first dailies published in liberated Normandy, cried out that “Martyred Calvados Must Not Be Forgotten.”

“For the success of our allies,” the paper wrote, “Calvados has paid an unbearable tribute. Entire villages have been pulverized, towns razed, cities wiped out.…We do not complain. Fate determined that we should become the ransom for Liberty, and we have strong enough hearts to accept this holocaust with pride. We only ask that we not be forgotten. And yet, we are being forgotten.”

In October, the leader of France’s provisional government, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, made his first visit to Caen, and promised immediate aid. “Caen, mutilated in the service of the nation,” he said, “Caen, more proud and resolute than ever, I give you my word, you will have the support of the public authorities.” Yet in December, Raoul Dautry, the minister of reconstruction, visited the region to inform local leaders that due to shortages across the country, it would be “many years” before Calvados would be rebuilt.

Indeed, in January 1945, six months after D-Day, the local director of the office for war victims described the desperate plight of the homeless in the department, and begged for an immediate delivery to the region of 50,000 blankets, 20,000 cots and mattresses, 40,000 suits of clothing, and an equal number of shoes. For the liberated of Calvados, freedom brought an end to Nazi rule but opened up a long period of privation, destitution, and mourning.

Six decades after the liberation of Normandy, few visible traces of the trauma of war remain; the green fields and small towns have long been put to rights. The natural beauty of the land is evident at every turn. Caen, so badly mauled in June and July 1944, is today a quiet, tidy city of 117,000 people. Its inhabitants make their living in a variety of industries, including auto manufacturing, electrical engineering, and, of course, agriculture. The steeples of three handsome churches rise above a modern cityscape of straight boulevards and pedestrian walkways, and the thick walls of William the Conqueror’s castle—which withstood the bombing of 1944—dominate the town center. The river Orne still bisects the town, running slowly northeast on its path toward Ouistreham and the sea. A series of low, stout bridges cross the river, and restaurants and cafés crowd along the riverfront boulevards.

Everything seems perfectly normal, and it is, even though the Caen of today is entirely a modern fabrication. The historic town of small, wooden Norman homes and ancient churches died in June 1944. Caen today is a recreated rather than a restored city.

In Caen itself, many small plaques affixed to city walls honor French men and women who assisted the wounded, or who died fighting the German occupiers. The principal site of memory, how ever, is called “Le Mémorial de Caen.” It was erected in 1988 and opened by President François Mitterrand, himself a former member of the Resistance. Though its original purpose was, like the nearby American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, to honor the sacrifices made during the liberation of 1944, the Caen memorial has emerged as something altogether different: “un musée pour la paix”—a peace museum.

The flags of all the nations that fought in the campaign, including Germany, surround the museum; indoors, the central galleries are dedicated to images and ideas of world peace. A Hall of Peace asks visitors to contemplate how world civilizations across time have thought about peace and tolerance.

One might, of course, see the construction of this sophisticated peace museum as a sign that the people of Caen do not wish to dwell too much on their past, or do not wish to be associated only with the tragedies of D-Day’s aftermath.

Yet the epigrammatic words engraved in stone on the outside of the building suggest not so much a turning away from the past as a particular stance toward it: “La douleur m’a brisée, La fraternité m’a relevée; De ma blessure a jailli un fleuve de liberté.” Sorrow broke me, Brotherhood has raised me up again; From my wound has sprung a river of freedom.

 

Excerpted from The Bitter Road to Freedom, by William I. Hitchcock. Copyright © 2008 by William I. Hitchcock. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.

Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.  

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