The Road Back to Normandy, Part Three

In May 1954 my uncle John Alldridge returned to Normandy. This is his third and final report for the Manchester Evening News. The lines at the end are inspired, I think, by the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V.

By now I should be something of a connoisseur of man-made destruction. I have studied all the best modern examples: Coventry, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Berlin, Foggia, Bizerta.

But for sheer wanton savagery, merciless in its precise execution, senseless in its purpose, I have seen nothing that could compare with what happened to Caen between June 6 and July 20, 1944.

It was not so much that this was ever a very lovely or historic place. It had its Old Town, huddled under the frowning citadel William the Conqueror built.

There were some quaint old streets and one or two handsome romanesque abbey churches.

There was an oldish university and a pleasant town hall. Malherbe the poet, the scholar Huet, and Auber the musician were natives. Charlotte Corday lived here.

But Caen was never a Canterbury or even a Sienna. In 1939 it was a prosperous, hard-working provincial town, capital of its department, supporting a population of 45,000 through its industry which had made it a centre for cloth-making, timber-sawing, metal-founding, and of oil from the colza which grows in these parts.

It was Caen’s misfortune to be caught in the cross-fire of two powerful armies, one vigorously attacking, the other sullenly, venomously defending.

When the news of the Invasion reached Caen from the beaches eight miles away the people came out in the streets and danced all night to the music of the guns and their own cathedral bells.

There was a horrible anti-climax.

According to the plan Caen should have been liberated, like Bayeux, on D plus 2. Then the British and Canadians would swing in to the right and eventually link up with the Americans at Cherbourg.

But the Germans – who knew all about this from an Allied operation order picked up from the water in the Channel – saw danger just as quickly as we did.

From that moment Caen’s doom was sealed. It must be the pivot, the hinge of the whole Invasion. And as soon as they had recovered from the initial shock the enemy rushed in fresh divisions to defend the place.

And so, on the night of June 7, Caen’s martyrdom began. For six weeks it was slowly, methodically razed to the ground as if pulverized by the hammer-blows of two giants gone berserk.

Following a thousand-bomber raid on that first awful night of June 7 the town caught fire and burned for eleven days. The last and most terrible bombardment shattered what was left of it on July 7: in 50 minutes 2,200 heavy bombers dropped 7,000 tons of bombs on the debris that was Caen and its suburbs.

Two days later Crerar’s Canadians stormed the airfield at Carpiquet and broke into the town from the west. But it was not until July 20 that the enemy finally gave up the bitter struggle for the town.

Attack on Carpiquet Airfield
By Royal Air Force official photographer; Original uploader was Skinny87 at en.wikipedia – This is photograph C 4460 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,

And even then it was another month before the last vengeful German shell dropped on the town.

We have a vivid picture of that murdered town as it looked to an Australian war correspondent on the morning of its final “liberation”.

“Such desolation that one could think only of the surface the moon. Where three and four storey houses had been, there were now mere hollows in the ground. Row after row of immense craters. New hills and valleys wherever you looked. The very earth was reduced to its original dust.

“House after house had been dragged down into the ground and there disintegrated, so that there were no longer streets or footpaths or any decided evidence that human beings had once been here and lived. There was a kind of anarchy in this waste, a thing against which the mind rebelled; an unreasoning and futile violence. . . . This was the end of the world, the end of the war, the final expression of man’s desire to destroy.”

It was a sight to make strong men weep. And more than one brawny soldier of the 15th Scottish – a “green” division which in a month’s fighting had grown old and hard and wise in war – did just that: the puzzled tears making runnels through the caked mud and dust.

Clearing rubble in Caen
Ken Bell / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-169342, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet the miracle was that even in this holocaust life went on. Such is the obstinate spirit of man to survive. Two thousand homeless were camping out in the abbey church of St. Etienne.

The old monks’ cells became living-quarters again; and each morning, in the middle of that hell-on-earth, Mass was celebrated at the shattered High Altar.

The Lycée Malherbe became a hospital: an operating-room was set up in the refectory and the dead were buried in the cloisters.

The vast Hospice du Bon Saveur served as an air-raid shelter for 4,000 people. Thousands more lived a troglodyte existence among the caves at Fleury.

And it is the stubborn spirit of these same Norman clerks and wheelwrights and shop assistants and their womenfolk which has survived the death of their town.

Officially four-fifths of Caen was destroyed. Only the western quarter remained reasonably intact. The Conqueror’s citadel was battered but still serviceable. So was the Abbaye aux Dames – the convent church he built to appease the Pope for an unlawful marriage. (It will take more than a world war to make William take a back-seat in history).

But most of the town’s historic monuments suffered grievously. The university and the Hotel de Ville were gutted beyond repair. The lovely tapering spire of St. Pierre – the pride of Caen – was brought down by a direct hit from the Rodney.

Ten years have passed. And once again time has worked its miracle. The town of Caen is rising from its ruins, and rising fast. Though it will be another twenty years at least before the job is finished.

From the ramparts of the Conqueror’s battered but inviolate fortress you can see the town-plan of the new Caen laid out under you like a map. You notice, too, the typical ruthlessness with which these French town-planners have gone to work.

Their terms of reference were to build all over again from the ground up; to make this new Caen plus sain et aérée qu’autrefois.

So light and air were the watchwords. And they have gone at it with an almost fanatical zest.

Like most small French towns the pre-war Caen was a nightmare of narrow, tortuous streets. The new Caen already has a circuit of splendid carriage-ways, some of them wide enough to stage a road-race.

The blitzed sites around the ancient churches were long ago levelled to make way for tree-fringed public gardens.

Fine new bridges span the sluggish dirty Orne, once so choked with the refuse of war that it overflowed its banks in sheer despair. (But it is like a breath of home to see that the main stream of traffic over the river is still carried by a stout Bailey Bridge, which for all I know was made in Stockport.

Between the Orne and its canal there was formerly a maze of mean streets and squalid slums. Six weeks of bombardment partially cleared that up; ten years of reconstruction have done the rest.

The town-planners zoned it as an industrial area and refused to be argued out of it. It now finds room for some of the most modern industrial plant in France.

But housing was the worst headache. During those six weeks 9,000 houses in Caen were totally destroyed, another 1,000 badly damaged. At a conservative estimate there were 25,000 living without a permanent roof over their heads.

They tackled it in two phases.

Phase one involved an ingenious elaboration of “pre-fabrication”. Everybody and  everything was housed in prefabs.

Caen became a vast hutted camp (I slept last night in a prefab hotel, built bungalow-style, all in a single one-storey unit. For fifteen shillings I got better accommodation  than I could hope to find at twice the price in any provincial city in England.)

But that first temporary prefab phase is almost over.

Phase two is taking shape. You can see evidence of it in the great square blocks of apartment-houses in the new broad tree-lined Avenue du 6 Juin.

Barrack-like cubes, ten storeys high, made from the same grey, oolitic Caen freestone that went to build the cathedrals of St. Albans and Winchester and Canterbury.

You can see it in the brand new railway station – with its memorial to the 16 railwaymen of Caen who were shot for serving the Resistance.

You can see it, too, on that dreadful Livisy Ridge on the northern edge of the town,  where ten years ago the Fifteenth Scottish and the Eleventh Armoured took the full fury of Rommel’s panzers and fought them to a standstill, just as their ancestors held and broke the Old Guard at Waterloo.

Where the German Seventh Army made its last desperate throw now stands a shining new university. Where 4,000 young men from Manchester and Montreal, from Morley and Medicine Hat learned from bitter practical experience the arts of war, as many young French men and women are learning the arts and sciences of peace. Youth handing on the torch of Youth. . . .

Old men forget, they say;
Perhaps Youth will remember


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Jerry F 2021