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Innocent French Civilians, D-Day's Forgotten Victims

The remains of "flattened" Le Havre in January 1945
The remains of "flattened" Le Havre in January 1945
Sylvie Barot and Andrew Knapp*

AUNAY-SUR-ODON — Will there ever be a place for the civilian victims in the commemoration of French liberation and of the air raids that helped hasten the end of Nazi occupation?

On June 6, France, along with other European and North American countries, will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings, and will rightly pay tribute to those who lost their lives on the landing beaches.

But what about the French civilians, including the estimated 2,500 who were killed during the first 24 hours that followed the dawn of D-Day? Most were killed by Allied bombs. Hundreds lost their lives in Caen, Saint-Lô, Lisieux, Condé-sur-Noireau, Vire, Flers, and Argentan — towns devastated by rains of fire and steel.

These bombings were the result of a meeting held in London on Jan. 21, 1944, whose attendees included, among others, General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces; his British deputy, Air Marshall Arthur Tedder; Bernard Law Montgomery, the British commander-in-chief of the Allied land forces; Air Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the British commander-in-chief of the Allied tactical air force; and General Carl Andrew Spaatz, head of the American air forces in Europe. They agreed that the Normandy road intersections and the towns around them had to be "flattened out" to delay the arrival of enemy reinforcements. To little effect, as it turned out because the Germans had no difficulty in navigating around the ruins.

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Allied commanders meet in London on Feb. 1, 1944 — Photo: Imperial War Museums

The raids on June 6 and 7, however, were only a small part of a concerted and planned air offensive that had grown steadily in strength since the French surrender in 1940, and that only ended in April 1945. During the course of the war, the British, joined in August 1942 by the Americans, dropped some 518,000 tons of bombs onto French territory — nearly seven times the total dropped by the Luftwaffe on the United Kingdom. Approximately 57,000 French civilians became what was not yet termed "collateral damage."

Some of these operations hit their targets and claimed relatively few French lives, which the Allied forces did in principle try to protect, unlike German or Japanese civilians. Others — for instance, the raids on Lille on April 9, on Sotteville-lès-Rouen on the 18th or on La Chapelle, Paris on the 20th — more or less destroyed what they were supposed to, but also inflicted great human and material damage to the surrounding areas.

Nasty weapon

Some killed French civilians and destroyed towns without providing any military advantage, as even Allied commanders admitted. The controversial Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, known to the press as "Bomber Harris," was obviously not prone to squeamishness, and in October 1944 declared that during the previous month's raids on Le Havre, “many French civilians were killed and much damage was done, which did not materially help our army to take the port.”

From the Normandy landings on, heavy bombers were regularly called upon to support Allied troops on the ground. The last operation of this kind was against the port of Royan, on the Gironde estuary, which was still under German occupation in April 1945. Historian Howard Zinn, who was with the American crews during this attack, later wrote that during the briefing, "We were told that in our bomb bays were 30 100-pound bombs containing "jellied gasoline."" Zinn and his fellow crew members were dropping a new weapon with a nasty future: napalm. Today, under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, signed in 1998, such practices could be treated as war crimes.

The Allies' bombing of France is still remembered, and with good reason, by those who lived it as an indelible trauma, by the descendants of victims and by regional historians. But it is still too often marginalized in the "grand narrative" of France's dark years under Nazi occupation from 1940 until the end of the war.

Rightful place

This account of the Allied air raids runs against the dominant story of a fight between the Resistance, Free France and the Allies versus the Nazi occupiers and their accomplices in Vichy. Everything is the wrong way. The long awaited liberators brought death and desolation, while the shameful regime of Premier Philippe Pétain and Prime Minister Pierre Laval attempted (though not always very well) to protect and to care for the civilian population.

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Allied paratroopers and members of the French Resistance during the 1944 Battle of Normandy — Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps

Were France's civilians victims? Yes, in part. We should be able to remember this without sinking into nostalgia for the sordid and murderous Pétain regime, or into the virulent and putrid anti-Americanism associated with it on so-called "French identity" websites.

French towns and villages have generally maintained a dignified stance on the subject. At Aunay-sur-Odon, a pleasant town rebuilt in the Norman countryside, miles from the landing beaches, one has to step into a hotel on the main square to see photos of the old times, and of the church tower that was all that remained standing after the raids of June 12-15 1944. Elsewhere, countless war memorial plaques indicate the civilian victims of the "air raids suffered between 1939-1945," without any other details.

The history of France's dark years often describes heroic members of the Resistance, vile collaborators or awful profiteers and other traffickers, as well as ordinary French people just waiting to see, simply trying to survive. But we should also remember that among the French who faced the bombs were hundreds of thousands who joined the Red Cross or civil defense teams, who risked their lives to dig people out of danger, to put out the fires, to help and comfort the wounded and the dying. They deserve their rightful place in our national history — nothing more and nothing less.

*Barot is chief archivist for the French city of Le Havre. Knapp is a professor of French studies at the University of Reading and co-author of Forgotten Blitzes.

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