The day Allied bombers destroyed my home town
In the weeks after D-Day, more than a dozen medieval French hamlets were flattened, killing thousands of civilians. John Lichfield met survivors who will never forget the horror of those raids
05 June 2004
When Renée Fouques was 16, her childhood was exploded before her eyes. "Our old Aunay disappeared that day," she says. "The school where I had learnt to read; our narrow streets with wooden buildings; the hospital we were so proud of; my grandmother's house, where I lived.
"The memory of that day will stay in my heart until my death. Sometimes at night, I can still hear the screams of M. Joismel, our neighbour. He was trapped in the rubble of his home up to his waist. We tried to get him out. Everyone tried to get him out but we could not move him; he was buried too deeply and too badly injured. The bombs were still falling. We had to leave him. I will carry his screams with me until I die."
Soon after dawn on Monday, 12 June 1944, Aunay-sur-Odon, a small market town in the Norman hills, was bombed by British aircraft. By the following day, the fires started by the heavy bombs had spread through the close-packed, half-timbered buildings in the town centre. On the Wednesday night - Aunay's night of hell - the RAF returned and systematically pulverised what remained of the town, dropping 6,500 tons of bombs in an area of less than one square kilometre.
Many townspeople had already fled, but not all. The priest, Abbé André Paul, who had stayed behind to search for survivors and help the injured, wrote afterwards: "The ground shook violently under the explosive charge[s]; houses trembled as though there was an earthquake. The unfortunate survivors who had sheltered in trenches were lifted from the ground and projected against the sides. At the hospital, two wards and the chapel succumbed. Half of the maternity department stayed up but fire threatened the basement where sick and wounded had crowded in."
By the next morning, all that remained of Aunay-sur-Odon were the church tower and the gutted shells of two other buildings. Even long-dead citizens had been torn from their graves in the cemetery. Of Aunay's 1,700 people, 165 died in the British air-raids, including all six members of one family. There were no German casualties, because there were no Germans in the town.
In destructive power, the raids on Aunay were among the most effective RAF actions of the war. But why were we attacking our allies? Why were we killing the people we were trying to liberate? The raids on Aunay were part of a calculated pattern of obliteration of Norman towns and villages, which was the most shameful and misconceived episode in an otherwise heroic and brilliantly planned invasion.
On the night and afternoon of D-Day, heavy bombers of the RAF and USAAF diverted from their 24-hour assaults on Germany and carpet-bombed Lisieux, Pont L'Evôque, Condé sur Noireau, Falaise, Flers, Vire, St Lô, Argentan and Coutances. More than 3,000 Norman civilians, including many children, women and old people, died in these initial raids, almost exactly the same as the number of Allied soldiers who died on the five invasion beaches that day.
Within hours, a dozen beautiful old towns were in rubble, the equivalent of the destruction of Canterbury, Rye, Folkestone, Tunbridge Wells and every town in Kent. Aunay-sur-Odon and the great medieval city of Caen, the capital of William the Conqueror, were flattened in raids days later.
Of the estimated 20,000 Norman civilians killed in the nine weeks of the Battle of Normandy, 10,000 of them died in Allied bombing. But the bombardments scarcely feature in movies such as The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan. The military myth which led to the raids - the belief that you can liberate populations by bombing them - has survived to influence the conduct of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even in Normandy, at the time, the destruction was accepted by many (not all) people as a necessary sacrifice; part of a cruel war; a painful amputation to save France from Nazi tyranny. As the years passed, the awkward questions have returned more insistently and the bitterness, suppressed for so long, has been expressed, but not quite openly.
Professor Jean Quellien, an internationally respected historian at the University of Caen who has studied many of the myths and forgotten stories of the Battle of Normandy, said: "If you, as a Briton, ask any Norman person about the bombardments, there will still be a reluctance to criticise or complain. There is strong, overall sense of gratitude for what the British and American and other troops did 60 years ago, and a feeling that, to protest about the bombings, would be misunderstood and would be seen as ungrateful in some way.
"When Normans talk among themselves, it is quite different. People are ready to say now what they were not ready to say before. There is a strong sense of bitterness, a belief that this was done too casually, even callously, and was, in any case, unnecessary."
The rebuilt town of Aunay-sur-Odon had refused to celebrate D-Day and the liberation of Normandy. The older citizens take the view that their town was not liberated, but destroyed. This year, Aunay has relented and invited veterans and others from its Devonian twin town, Holsworthy. Madame Fouques said: "Personally, I feel no bitterness towards the British, although I know that for many years some people did feel bitter, and some in Aunay still do. I just want to ask the same question that we, all of us, asked at the time, 'Why us? Why was it necessary? Why Aunay-sur-Odon?'."
To answer that question, you have to put yourself into the shoes, and minds, of the politicians, generals and air chiefs who planned the Normandy landings. The Allies had an overwhelming superiority in air power. Since the destruction of Guernica by German planes during the Spanish Civil War, and the terrorising of civilian populations in Poland, the Netherlands and France by the Luftwaffe in 1939-40, there was an exaggerated belief in the importance of "strategic" bombing.
We tend to think of the Battle of Normandy as a one-day event, not the murderous nine-week struggle that it was. The crucial issue for D-Day planners was how to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their armies in lower Normandy before the Allies brought large numbers of men and guns and tanks and munitions ashore.
If the Germans managed to bring together the divisions that were in Brittany, or the Pas de Calais, or the south of France, the invasion forces could be thrown back into the sea. The Allies delayed the movement of some reinforcements by tricking Adolf Hitler into believing another invasion was planned in the north. They used French Resistance groups to blow up key roads and railway junctions (but did not give them the resources to do the job properly).
The British and US bomber commands, determined to be involved in the most important single act of the war, lobbied for another solution: the obliteration of every road junction in lower Normandy, which meant, in effect, almost every Norman town. Tanks and trucks could not cross a town in ruins, the air chiefs said. They knew their bombers were too inaccurate to hit individual targets, such as bridges, but they could destroy towns, especially towns undefended by anti-aircraft fire.
Even at the time, some military commanders and leaders - Winston Churchill included - cast doubt on the wisdom and morality of systematically destroying French communities. Terror bombing of Germany was one thing, but what was the point of terror bombing one's friends? The strategic- bomber lobby got its way.
It was not possible to warn the civilian population through the Resistance network without risking the invasion plan. Leaflets were dropped from aircraft the day before, reading: "Urgent message. To the people of this town: Leave now. You don't have a minute to lose". The pamphlets said all large towns and "transport centres vital to the enemy" would be destroyed. Many of the leaflets fell in open countryside or into the wrong towns or villages. There was no mass exodus before the bombers arrived.
Towns such as Lisieux and Pont L'Eveque and Falaise and Argentan, which had been jewels of French, and European, culture from the Middle Ages, were wiped out, not by enemies, as Coventry or Dresden were wiped out, but by France's allies. Caen was spared at first because the D-Day plan envisaged its capture on the first day. When the Germans resisted, the city was pulverised on 7 and 8 June but still did not fall fully to the Allies until 19 July. The British and Canadians rediscovered what the Germans had found in Stalingrad: that it is harder, not easier, to capture a town in ruins.
Aunay-sur-Odon was bombed from 12 to 15 June, on the specific orders of the Allied land commander, General Bernard Montgomery. German tanks had been spotted in that area. The town stands on a seven-way crossroads. The RAF was ordered to destroy the crossroads and, therefore, the town.
Did the bombing of Norman towns help the Allies? The official British and American military histories are coy on the subject but even they suggest the bombardments held up the Germans for no more than a day or two. Crucial days? The German military histories suggest not. The Norman historian, M. Quellien, says: "According to the German version, the flattening of the towns inconvenienced them a little but they soon found other roads or cleared a way through the ruins. If you study all the primary sources and you examine the views of historians on all sides, and you ask the question, 'Was the bombing justified?', there is only one possible answer. No, it was not."
The single most effective weapon against the Wehrmacht in Normandy - and efforts to reinforce it - was air-power, but not the large, clumsy bombers which flattened towns. British and American fighter-bombers, firing rockets at short range, wreaked havoc on German convoys on the roads, railways, rivers and canals, forcing them to travel only by night. German diaries and military records from the time speak with respect, and terror, of the power of the Jabos, the German word for the Allied fighter-bombers. There is little mention of the impact of the carpet-bombing.
On the first night of the RAF raids on Aunay, the 16-year-old Renée Fouques fled from the blazing mass of rubble. "We put my grandmother into a hand-cart because she was too ill to walk, and we hid in the countryside. We lost everything, but not our lives. Across the road, there was a family which was wiped out, except for an 18-month-old baby who was found alive in his cot hanging from the rafters."
Mme Fouques now lives in one of 15 houses given to the people of Aunay by the Swedish government in 1949. The rebuilding of the town, funded by the Marshall Plan, was completed in 1952 in a kind of Legoland style. The new Aunay is a spacious place, full of flowers, with a lively market on a Saturday morning and a town hall and a church which would grace much larger towns.
But Aunay-sur-Odon remains an architecturally soulless place, a town with too little history, or too much. "We have a new Aunay now and I have learnt to appreciate it but it is not the same for me," Mme Fouques says. "Our old Aunay, our beautiful old Aunay, had no running water, no flushing lavatories. The houses were often cold in the winter. But it was my whole life and we were happy until the war came. Now when I walk around the town, there is nothing to remind me of my childhood, except the war memorial."