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French Survivors Honor Jubilation and Mourn 20,000 Civilian Lives Lost in Normandy
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By Associated Press
Published 3 weeks ago on
June 5, 2024

As the 80th anniversary of D-Day approaches, French survivors of the Battle of Normandy remember both the jubilation of liberation and the somber reality of the immense civilian and military casualties endured during the campaign. (AP File)

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CARENTAN-LES-MARAIS, France (AP) — Shortly after D-Day in 1944, the American soldiers heading out to more fighting against Adolf Hitler’s forces couldn’t help but notice the hungry French boy by the side of the road, hoping for handouts.

One by one, the men fished fragrant, brightly-colored spheres from their pockets and deposited them in Yves Marchais’ hands. The 6-year-old boy had never seen the strange fruits before, growing up in Nazi-occupied France, where food was rationed and terror was everywhere.

Thrilled with his bounty, the young Marchais counted them all — 35 — and dashed home for his first taste of oranges.

But also seared into survivors’ memories in Normandy are massive Allied bombing raids that pulverized towns, villages and the cities of Caen, Rouen and Le Havre, burying victims and turning skies fire-red.

The 80th anniversary this week of the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion on D-Day that punched through Hitler’s western defenses and helped precipitate Nazi Germany’s surrender 11 months later brings mixed emotions for French survivors of the Battle of Normandy. They remain eternally grateful for their liberation but cannot forget its steep cost in French lives.

Marchais remembers his family’s house in Carentan, Normandy, shaking during bombardments that sounded “like thunder” and how his mother stunned him by gulping down a bottle of strong Normandy cider when they were sheltering in their basement, declaring as she finished it: “That’s another one that the Germans won’t drink!”

“The Americans, for us, were gods,” Marchais, now 86, recalled. “Whatever they do in the world, they will always be gods to me.”

Ruined Normandy Towns Count Their Dead

Some 20,000 Normandy civilians were killed in the invasion and as Allied forces fought their way inland, sometimes field-by-field through the leafy Normandy countryside that helped conceal German defenders. Only in late August of 1944 did they reach Paris.

Allied casualties in the Normandy campaign were also appalling, with 73,000 troops killed and 153,000 wounded.

Allied bombing was aimed at stopping Hitler from sending reinforcements and at prying his troops out of the “Atlantic Wall” of coastal defenses and other strongpoints that German occupation forces had built with forced labor.

The list of Normandy towns left ruined and counting their dead grew with the Allied advances: Argentan, Aunay-sur-Odon, Condé-sur-Noireau, Coutances, Falaise, Flers, Lisieux, Vimoutiers, Vire and others. Leaflets scattered by Allied planes urged civilians to “LEAVE IMMEDIATELY! YOU DON’T HAVE A MINUTE TO LOSE!” but often missed their targets.

Some Normans were furious. Writing before being liberated, a woman in the bombarded port city of Cherbourg described Allied pilots as “bandits and assassins” in a June 4, 1944, letter to her husband who was being held prisoner in Germany.

“My dear Henri, it’s shameful to massacre the civilian population as the supposed Allies are doing,” reads the letter, which historians Michel Boivin and Bernard Garnier published in their 1994 study of civilian victims in Normandy’s Manche region.

“We are in danger everywhere.”

Norman Losses ‘Swept Under the Carpet’

French President Emmanuel Macron paid homage to civilian victims in commemorations on Wednesday in Saint-Lo, recalling how the Normandy town became emblematic of losses from Allied bombing when it was razed on June 6 and 7, 1944. The death toll was 352, according to Boivin and Garnier’s study. Playwright Samuel Beckett dubbed Saint-Lo “The Capital of the Ruins” after working there with the Irish Red Cross.

Macron said Saint-Lo was “a necessary target” because Allied bombers were aiming to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the invasion beaches and described it as “a martyred town sacrificed to liberate France.”

Those killed in Saint-Lo included Marguerite Lecarpentier’s older brother, Henri. She was 6 at the time. Henri was 19 and he’d been helping another man pull a teenage girl out from under debris when the town was bombarded again. All three were killed. Marguerite’s father later identified her brother’s body “because of his shoes, which were new,” she said.

When her family subsequently fled Saint-Lo, they crossed through what was left of the town.

“It was terrible because there was rubble everywhere,” Lecarpentier recalled. Her mother waved a white handkerchief as they walked, “because the planes were constantly flying overhead” and “so we’d be recognized as civilians.”

“It Was the Price to Pay”

Still, Lecarpentier speaks without rancor of Allied bombing. “It was the price to pay,” she said.

“It can’t have been easy,” she added. “When one thinks that they landed on June 6 and that Saint-Lo was only liberated on July 18 and they lost enormous numbers of soldiers.”

University of Caen historian Françoise Passera, co-author of “The Normans in the War: The Time of Trials, 1939-1945,” says Normandy’s civilian casualties were overshadowed for decades by the exploits of Allied soldiers in combat and their sacrifices.

Although towns held remembrances locally, she noted that it wasn’t until 2014 that a French president — Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande — paid national homage to Normandy’s civilian dead.

Until then, because France had been bombed by its liberators, “this was not a subject that could be raised very easily by French authorities,” Passera said.

“Civilian victims were swept under the carpet somewhat to not offend the Americans,” she said. “And to not offend the British.”

But for Normans, D-Day and its aftermath were “a bit of a confusion of feelings,” she said. “We cried with joy because we were freed, but we also cried because the dead were all around us.”

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