FLASHBACK

06.05.14

The Deadly Trap Behind D-Day’s Beaches

The invasion of Fortress Europe began on the beaches but nearly ended in the tangled bocage of the countryside.

Never forget. N’oubliez pas.

Seventy years ago the fate of Europe was decided in a few bloody hours on the beaches of Normandy. On June 6, 1944, the greatest amphibious force ever assembled began to fight its way ashore. In Normandy on Friday President Obama, along with other world leaders, celebrates the salvation of Western civilization from the Nazi scourge. That mission had a messianic quality; General Dwight Eisenhower, its architect, called it a crusade—a language echoed this week in Poland when the president used “sacrosanct” to reaffirm the American commitment to the defense of Europe. 

Extraordinary heroism was demonstrated on the beaches named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword—Hitler spent four years building what he thought was the impregnable Atlantic Wall and it was breached in one day. But what lay beyond the beaches turned out to be far more formidable and entangling than Hitler’s shoreline bunkers. It was called bocage—the English equivalent word, hedgerows, doesn’t convey what it really is: a deep earthen berm reinforced by a web of the roots of shrubs, bushes and trees. It was really a Norman delineation of turf, creating the earliest pattern of European feudalism, setting the boundaries of field and meadow as permanently as stone walls.

The Allied infantry—long, thin lines of lightly armed men—depended on tanks to give them a shield against formidable Nazi gun emplacements. But the bocage was a tank trap. The military historian John Keegan wrote: “Bocage came to mean the sudden, unheralded burst of machine-pistol fire at close quarters, the crash of flame of a panzerfaust strike on the hull of a blind and pinioned tank.”

Then, in one of many brilliant improvisations carried out in the heat of battle, Sergeant Curtis G. Culin of the American 2nd Armored Division took up an idea that others ridiculed. Using scrap from German beach defenses he fashioned giant saw teeth and attached them to Sherman tanks. These “Rhinos” sliced through the bocage in seconds and changed the course of the battle.

The other, benign, face of the bocage was its role as an unbelievably productive larder. Never was an army better provisioned than from these heavy pasturelands, source of the richest creams and most pungent cheeses in the world. British infantry couldn’t understand their officers’ lust for the gamey, raw milk cheeses like Pont l’Eveque, Livarot, Camembert—a taste that the grandchildren of these soldiers now embrace as commonplace.

No army cook had encountered anything like Norman cream and eggs.

American field kitchens arrived with everything to cater to the raw hunger of battle, including ice cream machines. No army cook had encountered anything like Norman cream and eggs. The results were far richer and more addictive than anyone used to industrialized ice cream could imagine. But the fecundity of the land was a fringe benefit as the battle raged on and the Germans, recovering from the initial shock, attempted to drive the invaders back into the sea. (General Edgar Feuchtinger, commanding the only German armor at the coast on the morning of D-Day, was late to the battle because he was with his high-born French mistress.)

These days the landscape of Normandy appears to have healed as completely as, say, the killing fields of the Civil War, places like Antietam Creek or the slopes and meadows of Gettysburg. Anyone visiting to see the beaches and the battlefields beyond will find a gourmet paradise—outstanding seafood and the bounty of Europe’s finest pasturelands, together with hotels and chateaux to match.

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American soldiers near St. Lô, July 26-30, 1944. (Robert Capa/ICP, via Magnum)

But take a second look. In almost every village, and in many towns and cities, few buildings more than 70 years old survive.

For a place with a past stretching into the dim mists, this is the architectural equivalent of a historical death. In Caen, for example, an ancient regional center, 80 percent of the city was destroyed and 2,000 residents killed by bombing and bombardment.

The French accepted these losses as the cost of liberation, and at the same time they took care to honor the men who would never see their homelands again.

Above the cliffs at Omaha Beach is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, beautifully landscaped by Markely Stevenson. There, 9,387 white crosses are aligned so that from any viewpoint they form perfect formations.

But equally poignant in their economy and concentration are hundreds of other cemeteries along the path of the great battle. A few miles south of the city of Bayeux is one of the smallest cemeteries. Forty-six British and one Czech soldier lie here, in an immaculately tended plot given the name of a hamlet nearby called Jerusalem. There was an intense firefight around Jerusalem, repelling a German column trying to retake Bayeux.

Graveyards of every nationality involved in the Battle of Normandy crop up like this, men left near where they fell in clusters, most of them very young from faraway places.

Others lie beneath the waves of the English Channel, in the approaches to the invasion beaches. June 6 offered the planners a fragile window between storms coming in from the Atlantic and, even then, the seas were rough with a Force Five wind whipping up waves more than 4 feet high.

At Omaha Beach landing craft were swamped and sank. A force of Sherman tanks, converted to be supposedly amphibious and driven by propellers, was launched into the water, intended to sail to the beaches where they were sorely needed. At Omaha 29 were launched, but only two made it. (At Gold Beach the British, who had dreamed up the idea of amphibious tanks, didn’t take the risk and landed them directly on terra firma.)

Recent surveys by vessels fitted with advanced sonar imaging show the seabed littered with wrecks varying in size from destroyers and troopships, sunk mostly by mines, to the Shermans lying encrusted with barnacles, hatches open.

Near the charming fishing harbor of Port-en-Bessin is the somewhat ramshackle Musee des Epaves Sous-Marines de Debarquement. Outside sit two of the Shermans salvaged from the seabed. Inside the museum are the disturbingly personal equipment of men who drowned—a pair of binoculars made in Rochester; a Gem razor made in Brooklyn; a pair of wire rim spectacles; a ship’s canteen tray with traces of noodles calcified on the dull metal.

The museum traced to the U.S., with the help of a letter to his sweetheart left in the wreck of a Sherman, a certain Sergeant John H. Glass. There is a photograph of Sergeant Glass on a postwar visit, proudly holding aloft an exhibit: a pair of his boots also left in the tank.

All over Normandy, the many memorials (sometimes to just one hero) and cemeteries are immaculately tended with fresh-cut flowers always there.

N’oubliez pas—do not forget.

But remembering also involves understanding why France capitulated in 1940.

At the impressive Memorial Museum in Caen there is a darkly lit subterranean section called “France in the Dark Years.”

Here you can listen to a recording made by the Germans of a telephone conversation between a French general, Huntziger, in Paris, and his chief, General Weygand, who was in Bordeaux. Huntziger is relaying the terms of France’s abject surrender as dictated by Hitler. In a few sentences, as though discussing the closing of a mortgage, they have given away France.

And yet Weygand is able to tell 84-year-old Marshal Petain, about to become the Nazi satrap in France, that the terms were “harsh but not dishonoring.”

The museum commentary describes this as “within six weeks the unprecedented collapse of a great power.” But, of course, no truly great power collapses like that.

Hubris and narcissism played a role. In May 1940, shortly before the Panzer divisions rolled over northern France toward Paris, France Magazine reviewed the French army’s state of parade and reported: “One look at the comfort and elegance of these new uniforms is enough to convince us that we shall soon have the best dressed army in the world.”

Among those who gave back France to the French were the men of the Polish II Corps, composed of 80 tanks and 1,500 infantry. The Poles were avengers. They fought the Germans with the specific fury of men whose country was the first to be blitzkrieged in 1939. In mid-August 1944 the Poles sat atop a hill, marked on maps as Hill 262, overlooking the German armies in retreat.

Canadian artillery shelled the Germans from the north. The Polish tanks on the hill joined in.

But the Poles were in danger themselves. Powerful German units seeking to keep the escape route open were coming up, undetected, behind them. The German Panzers fought with suicidal ferocity, storming the hill until it was rimmed with a bulwark of bodies.

After the Poles had been besieged for 24 hours they were relieved by a column of Shermans from the Canadian Grenadier Guards. The Poles had lost 235 men. More than 1,000 were wounded and 114 missing—20 percent of the entire Polish combat strength in France. When the Canadians arrived the Poles had no more food left.

Today four flags fly at a memorial on top of Hill 262—French, American, Polish and Canadian.

Never forget. N’oubliez pas.

But the Battle of Normandy was nearly over.

Moissy is a hamlet on a road to nowhere in a shallow valley rich with three of the region’s crops, wheat, sunflowers and grazing grass. Easily overlooked at a road junction is a small hand-painted sign, Aout, 1944. Couloir de Mort.

Corridor of Death?

On August 21, 1944, remnants of a German army once half a million strong attempted a headlong retreat from the encircling Allied armies. At Moissy they headed into a one-lane road, both banks thick with bocage.

The Third Reich met its nemesis as much here as it had—albeit in far greater numbers—at Stalingrad. The Germans were forced into a pocket, the shape of a deflating balloon. Trying to break out into the open country beyond, they wheeled, unsuspecting, into the neck of the balloon—at the gates of Le Couloir de la Mort.

It was, literally, a dead end. They were strafed by rocket-firing Allied aircraft, aiming for the lead vehicles of the column so that the rest were trapped in the single lane. Men who broke into surrounding fields were cut down by Canadian gunners. “What a massacre” recorded one of the Canadians, “…terrified horses trying to break out of their harness, men trying to flee. It was useless.”

On August 23, General Eisenhower arrived at the killing fields. He said it was a scene that only Dante could have described. A French historian did his best: “For hundreds of metres one could walk only on decaying human remains, in ominous silence, in luxuriant countryside which life had suddenly deserted…the trees had lost their leaves and branches and no bird sang….”

By then, more than 2 million Allied soldiers, well over half of them American, had flowed from the beaches into Normandy. More than 206,000 of them died in that shattered Elysium.

Never forget. N’oubliez pas.