Excerpt: D-Day through French Eyes

June 5, 2014
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As World War II continued to rage, and though they yearned for liberation, by late spring 1944, the French in Normandy nonetheless steeled themselves for war, knowing that their homes and land and fellow citizens would have to bear the brunt of any incoming attack. The result of events that took place that June 6th—the largest seaborne invasion in history—led to a restoration of the French Republic and in story familiar to many, shifted the tide in favor of the Allied Forces. In D-Day through French Eyes, historian Mary Louise Roberts turns those usual stories of D-Day around, taking readers across the Channel to view the invasion from a range of gripping first-person accounts as seen by French citizens throughout the region. And as we approach the 70th anniversary of one of the most iconic military events of the twentieth century, we’ll be running an excerpt from the book (today) accompanied by a Q & A with Roberts (tomorrow), to honor, expand upon, and reinvigorate the story we thought we knew.

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CHAPTER ONE

THE NIGHT OF ALL NIGHTS

For Normans, the invasion began with noise. Just before midnight on Monday night, the fifth of June, hundreds of airplanes could be heard flying south over the Cotentin Peninsula. The constant rumble of plane engines and the distant roar of artillery—these two sounds combined to create what one witness called “a ceaseless storm.” Together they awakened thousands of Normans from their deepest sleep of the night. They rose from their beds, ran outside in their nightclothes, peered at the sky, and tried to figure out what was happening. Is this it? they wondered, overcome with fear and excitement.

The sound of airplanes was by no means a novel phenomenon. In the past months, civilians had grown accustomed to planes flying overhead—hundreds of them—almost every night. Allied bombing of strategic sights throughout northern France had become a common event. But this night was different; something new was happening. The aircraft were flying close to the ground and reaching targets. In response, German machine guns and artillery were firing furiously, contributing to the din. Soon the Norman night was filled with strange sights as well as sounds: the landing of parachutes and gliders, the dancing lights of artillery, the red glow of villages in flames. These sights were terrible, frightening, but also oddly beautiful.

In her memoir, Madame Hamel-Hateau, a schoolteacher in Neuville-au-Plain, near Sainte-Mère-Église, captures the dreamlike magic of the night of June 5–6. Hamel-Hateau lived close to the village school and spoke some English. The paratrooper she meets is a pathfinder sent to illuminate the landing areas for thousands of paratroopers who would soon land in Normandy to begin the invasion. He is one of the very first American servicemen to arrive in France.

In the month of June, the days no longer have an end and the night is really just a long twilight because the darkness is never complete. Around 10:00 p.m. this Monday, the fifth of June, I have just gone to bed next to my mother. We are both sleeping on a daybed that we open up every night in the common room. Since the evacuation of Cherbourg, we have given our bedroom to my grandparents. The daybed faces the window, itself wide open on the night. In this way, from my bed, I am taking a moment to reflect on the end of this beautiful day. With sadness I think of a similar June night in 1940 when my boyfriend, Jean, had left to join the Free French. I had received news that he had landed in North Africa, so perhaps he was now in Italy? Perhaps it will be soon . . . I thought, but then refused to let my mind wander further. It was time to go to sleep.

Abruptly, the noise of airplanes breaks the night’s silence. We have gotten used to that sound. Since there are no military targets here and the railway is more than five miles away, we normally do not pay much attention. But the noise gets louder, and the sky begins to light up and get red. I rise out of bed, and soon the whole family is up as well. We go out into the courtyard. There everything seems calm. The only thing you can hear is the distant murmur of a bombardment in the direction of Quinéville. Yet there seems to be an endless number of planes mysteriously roaming about; theirengines create an incessant hum. Then the noise decreases and becomes vague and distant. “It’s just like the last time,” says my mother, “when they had to bomb the blockhouse on the coast.” And we all go back to bed.

Mama goes to sleep right away. But I sit on my bed and continue to study the rectangle of cloudless night carved out by the window. The need to sleep slowly overwhelms me, but my eyes remain wide open. It is in this sort of half sleep that I begin to see fantastic shadows, somber shapes against the clear blackness of the sky. Like big black umbrellas, they rain down on the fields across the way, and then disappear behind the black line of the hedges.

No, I am not dreaming. Grandma was also not sleeping, and saw them from the window of the bedroom. I wake up Mama and my aunt. We hurriedly get dressed and go out into the courtyard. Once again, the sky is filled with a continuous, ever-intensifying hum. The hedgerows are alive with a strange crackling sound. Monsieur Dumont, the neighbor across the street, a widower who lives with his three children, has also come out of his house. He comes toward us and shows me, hanging on the edge of the roof courtyard, a parachute. The Dumont kids follow their father and join us in the school courtyard. But the night has not yet revealed its secret.

An impatient curiosity is stronger than the fear that grips me. I leave the courtyard and make my way onto the road. At the fence of a neighboring field, a man is sitting on the edge of the embankment. He is harnessed with big bags and armed from head to foot: rifle, pistol, and some sort of knife. He makes a sign for me to approach him. In English I ask him if his plane was shot down. He negates that and in a low voice shoots back the incredible news: “It’s the big invasion. . . . Thousands and thousands of paratroopers are landing in this countryside tonight.” His French is excellent. “I am an American soldier, but I speak your language well; my mother is a Frenchwoman of the Basse Pyrénées.” . . . I ask him, “What is going on along the coast? Are there landings? And what about the Germans?” I was babbling; my emotions were overwhelming my thoughts. Ignoring my questions, he asked me about the proximity of the enemy and its relative presence in the area. I reassured him: “There are no Germans here; the closest troops are stationed in Sainte-Mère-Église, almost two kilometers from here.”

The American tells me he would like to look at his map in a place where the light of his electrical torch will not be easily spotted. I propose that he come inside our house. He hesitates because he fears, he says, in the event that the Germans unexpectedly appear, he will put us in danger. I insist and reassure him: “Monsieur Dumont and my old aunt are going to watch the area around the school, one in front and the other in back.” Then the soldier follows us, limping; he explains to me that he sprained his ankle on landing. But he would not let me care for him; there are many things more important. . . . In the classroom, to which Grandmama, Mama, and the Dumont children follow us, he takes off one of his three or four satchels, tears off the sticky little bands that sealed it, and takes out the maps. He spreads one out on a desk; it is a map of the region. He asks me to show him his precise location. He is astonished to discover how far he is from his targets: the railway tracks and the little river called the Merderet bordering the Neuville swamp toward the west. I show him the road to follow in order to arrive there, where he is supposed to meet his comrades. He looks at his watch. Without thinking, I do as well. It is 11:20 p.m. He folds up his map, removes any trace of his presence, and after taking some chocolate out of his pocket which he gives to the children, so flabbergasted they forget to eat, he leaves us. He is perfectly calm and self-controlled, but the hand I shake is a little sweaty and stiff. I wish him luck in a voice that tries to be cheerful. And he adds in English—so that only I can understand—“The days to come are going to be terrible. Good luck, mademoiselle, thank you, I will not forget you for the rest of my life.” And he disappears like a vision in a dream.

Once again, the mystery of the night deepens. We stay outside waiting for who-knows-what, keeping our voices low. Suddenly, there is an extraordinary blaze of light. The horizon in the direction of the sea lights up as if reflecting an immense fire that has been lit over the ocean. The formidable growl of marine artillery can be heard even here, although muffled by and submerged in a multitude of other inchoate sounds. The black silhouettes of airplanes arrive in the clouds and turn around in the sky. One of them passes just above our little school; it puts on its lights and releases . . . what? For an instant, we think it’s a stick of bombs. But we are only starting to throw ourselves on the ground when parachutes open and float down like a mass of bubbles in the clear night. Then they scatter before disappearing in the confusion of the nocturnal countryside.

Another airplane passes over and releases its cargo. At first, the parachutes seem carried by the wake of the plane; then they drop vertiginously downward; finally the silk domes open. The descent gets slower and slower as they approach the ground. Those men whose dangling legs can clearly be seen get there a little more rapidly than those who hold bags of foodstuffs, equipment, ammunition. In a few moments, the sky is nothing more than an immense ballet of parachutes.

The spectacle on the earth is no less extraordinary. From all corners of the countryside shoot bursts of multicolored rockets as if thrown by invisible jugglers. In the fields all around us, big black planes slide silently toward the earth. Like flying Dutchmen, they land as if in a dream. These are the first groups of gliders. Our parachutist had been part of a group of scouts sent to signal the descent and landing zones.

To read more from this excerpt, click here.

For more information about D-Day through French Eyes, click here.

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One Response to Excerpt: D-Day through French Eyes

  1. […] favor, leading to a restoration of the French Republic. Yesterday, to commemorate the event, we ran an excerpt from historian Mary Louise Roberts’s D-Day through French Eyes: Normandy 1944, which […]

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