Normandy at the moment is a bit like a large grey, green sponge. There has been so much rain here that the Marais, natural marshland, has turned into a lake, though the odd beautiful, sunny day punctures the grey cloud monotony and spring threatens to break out everywhere, like hope. The locals seem to like the English who have bought holiday houses or settled here, though the local village of Grainge (it has another name too), where I go to get croissants and bread, is defiantly French.
It was here, in the square, in June 1944, that in the English, American and Canadian landings that represented D-Day, the occupying Nazis committed another atrocity, in the massacre of over 33 prisoners in the town square, including the Jewish-American doctor. There is a memorial to them, though not in the strange concrete church, and to the French war dead. The SS contingent was comprised of a group of thuggish killers, a partly Rumanian unit that had fought and lost their humanity on the Eastern front. It was my host’s question, a military historian himself, about why the Nazis, knowing the war was effectively over, still engaged in such relentless brutality? Perhaps it was that Blitzgreig, or Total War ‘philosophy’ and that especially the inner corp of the SS was dedicated to a kind of death cult, hence those skulls on their caps.
Next year will see a very significant D-Day anniversary, a 70th, perhaps one of the last involving any surviving veterans. Writing to a friend in the US I learnt that her uncle, the golden boy of the family, had been in an American unit and died near St Lo. I thought of him as I drove around, though perhaps he lies among those rows and rows of simple white crosses at the large US cemetary near Bayeux, looking towards Caen. The town that the British commander Montgomery delayed attacking for nearly two months, probably at the cost of greater casualties, though he never admitted it. The old medieval town of St Lo was almost bombed flat, though it has been partly restored. Up at the citadel you can see the clear concrete in-filling of the great cathedral door and another memorial, though to Jews and French resistance fighters, at the old prison gate.
Walking down onto Utah beach, near a little military museum with a few World War II tanks and aircraft, with Omaha beach, one of the two US landing beaches, was oddly moving, for some spirit of the place, though now it is just a rather pleasant strip of sand and salt green sea. But it is beyond the double estuary, at the Point du Hoc, that you touch the full drama of the landscape and of the landings too. To the east of these vaulting cliffs is Omaha beach and it was near here that those extraordinary sequences in the Spielberg movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ were recreated.
There is a well done sort of sculptured tableaux, in metal, about the place, that also records Ronald Reagan’s visit 30 years ago, as facilities are being extended in preparation for the anniversary. But it is here that one of the most dramatic actions of the campaign took place as 220 US Rangers came ashore, to scale the cliff faces with projectile grappling hooks. Their objective was to take out the massive gun emplacements that topped the cliff, still in evidence in the large concrete bunkers, surrounded by shell craters. The purpose was to close down the artillery fire that could have devastated the troops coming ashore at Utah and Omaha.
When the Rangers reached their objective however they were to find that the huge guns had been moved inland, so they had to track them down and destroy them, cut off from the rest of the troops and so having to defend their position for two days. It is a remarkable story and worthy of a film itself and definately a place to return to for next year’s memorials.