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, the doctors decided to give a party. They ‘invited the Countess and her relatives from the château’. She accepted but requested that the party be moved up to the château. Three days before their arrival, she explained, the wife of their host had been killed during an attack by an RAF aircraft on the retreating Germans. The medical officers were dazed when they thought of the courteous behaviour of the elderly Frenchman, ‘so tragically bereaved on the eve of liberation’, especially since it had been a British plane which caused his wife’s death.
‘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.
The post-war squabble between Allied generals, claiming credit and apportioning blame in their reports and memoirs, was correspondingly ferocious. That keen observer of human frailty Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke was presumably not surprised. He had once written about a row in June between senior naval officers: ‘It is astonishing how petty and small men can be in connection with questions of command.’
Montgomery placed himself at the centre of the post-war storm mainly because of his preposterous assertions that everything had gone according to his master plan. He felt that he should be seen on a par with Marlborough and Wellington and implicitly denigrated his American colleagues. Almost single-handedly, he had managed in Normandy to make most senior American commanders anti-British at the very moment when Britain’s power was waning dramatically. His behaviour thus constituted a diplomatic disaster of the first order. Whatever the merits of his arguments at the end of August 1944 about the planned thrust into Germany, Montgomery mishandled the situation badly. He had also provoked the higher ranks of the Royal Air Force, who were even more enraged than the Americans at his lack of frankness over operations in Normandy.
The usually tolerant Eisenhower refused to forgive Montgomery for the claims he made after the war. ‘First of all he’s a psychopath,’ Eisenhower exploded in an interview in 1963. ‘Don’t forget that. He is such an egocentric that the man - everything he has done is perfect - has never made a mistake in his life.’ It was tragic that Montgomery should have thus diverted attention away from his own undoubted qualities and from the sacrifice of his troops, who had held down the vast bulk of the German panzer formations and faced the greatest concentration of 88 mm anti-tank guns.
Montgomery’s unplanned battle of attrition, as unplanned as the Americans’ bloody slog through the bocage, had of course been handicapped by the delays caused by the appalling weather in mid-June. Yet British and American alike had gravely underestimated the tenacity and discipline of Wehrmacht troops. This was partly because they had failed to appreciate the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda in persuading its soldiers that defeat in Normandy meant the annihilation of their Fatherland. These soldiers, especially the SS, were bound to believe that they had everything to lose. Their armies had already provided so many reasons for Allied anger.
The battle for Normandy did not go as planned, but even the armchair critics could never dispute the eventual outcome, however imperfect. One must also consider what might have happened should the extraordinary undertaking of D-Day have failed: for example, if the invasion fleet had sailed into the great storm of mid-June. The post-war map and the history of Europe would have been very different indeed.