Saturday, June 6, 2009

D Day Normandy 1944 - 2009

Far from being universally welcomed as liberators, many troops who came up from the D Day beaches had a distinctly surly reception from the people of Normandy. For many families who lived through the war, it was the arrival and passage of British and American forces that was by far the most harrowing experience. Many Normandy towns and villages had been totally destroyed by Allied bombing. Some 20,000 French civilians were killed in the two-and-a-half months from D-Day, 3,000 of them during the actual landings.
In the Falaise pocket the final stage of the operation the Germans were routed, forced into a single pass and then massacred. In the Falaise area there was hardly a village left intact and most had been completely obliterated.

In the city of Caen, the south was bombed until practically flattened, but in the northern half of the city where the Germans were stationed was left largely untouched

Caen 1944

"It was profoundly traumatic for the people of Normandy," said Christophe Prime, a historian at the Peace Memorial in Caen.
Think of the hundreds of tons of bombs destroying entire cities and wiping out families. But the suffering of civilians was for many years masked by the over-riding image - that of the French welcoming the liberators with open arms." It is not as if the devastation wrought by the Allies is not known - it is just that it tends not to get talked about.

St lo 1944

At the same time an exhibition at the Caen memorial displayed letters from Allied servicemen speaking frankly about their poor reception by locals.
For example;
Cpl LF Roker of the Highland Light Infantry wrote:

"It was rather a shock to find we were not welcomed ecstatically as liberators by the local people, as we were told we should be... They saw us as bringers of destruction and pain,"
Ivor Astley of the 43rd Wessex Infantry, Wrote:
The locals as "sullen and silent... If we expected a welcome, we certainly failed to find it."
According to Prime, it was during the 60th anniversary commemoration five years ago that the taboo first began to lift. At town meetings across Normandy, witnesses - now on their 70s - spoke of the terrible things they had seen as children.

Sexual violence
"The theft and looting of Normandy households and farmsteads by liberating soldiers began on June 6 and never stopped during the entire summer," he writes.One woman - from the town of Colombieres - is quoted as saying that
"the enthusiasm for the liberators is diminishing. They are looting... everything, and going into houses everywhere on the pretext of looking for Germans."
Even more feared, of course, was the crime of rape - and here too the true picture has arguably been expunged from popular memory. According to American historian J Robert Lilly, there were around 3,500 rapes by American servicemen in France between June 1944 and the end of the war.
There are villages in Normandy where until recently the 6 June celebrations were deliberately shunned, because the associations were too painful.

So why do we celebrate it?
The reason for this is obvious, The campaign removed the Germans from France. It was hard for the people of Normandy to spoil the national party by complaining of their lot. The message from “above” was sympathetic but clear:
We know you have suffered, but the price was worth it. Most people agreed and were silent. After the war, abusing the Allies would have seemed like siding with the defeated and the dishonored.
Normandy would have seemed much like Iraq must seems to its inhabitants today. It was quite possible that after D Day, France could have quickly descended into civil war. There was factional local fighting throughout to control the towns and departments the Germans had left. In the south of France under the self run Vichy government many acts of revenge and reprisal were taken as the allies liberated France.

D – Day today
Now every year there is almost a carnival atmosphere in Normandy each June 6 WW2 Tanks, lorries, planes, jeeps, TV crews, faux American swing bands and more heads of state than you can shake a doodle bug at arrive here to drive up and down the coast and play their role in the D day experience.
The media storm this year is about which alpha monkey is pictured looking sincere in front of a flag and who is not. None of these people are old enough to have taken part and are nearly all guilty of being involved with a current war somewhere in the world.

The veterans of the war who justifiably still visit Normandy each year are fast decreasing in number, (This year one veteran died in Deauville on his way to the celebrations) and soon there won't be many of them still living. The D day event will probably carry on though and we will be left with people who don't understand the historical significance playing at being soldiers for a weekend. The 6th June will become just a day when people can have a party and buy into a largely meaningless D day experience.

So perhaps the truth behind the celebration of the largest invasion in history is that by celebrating this destruction we can can hide the guilt of wasting the two generations
that the first and second world wars cost us. How many of those who died in the conflict could have gone on to improve the world in ways we will now never know?

History repeats itself because we forget the past quickly. Times have changed but we don't always change enough.
The same groups and classes of people who started the first world war are still allowed to have the same powers today. The end of a war is worth celebrating but useless if we just start new ones.