The Road Back to Normandy, Part Two

In May 1954 my uncle John Alldridge returned to Normandy. This is his second report for the Manchester Evening News.

From Arromanches to Bayeux is only about seven miles. By car you can be there and back in half an hour.

But coming into Bayeux after the shambles that was the Allied invasion beach-head is like going back in time a couple of centuries.

For Bayeux sits there much as it has done this thousand years and more, a grey old broody hen of a town, blinking sleepily in the afternoon sun.

The fury of twentieth-century war mercifully spared seventeenth-century Bayeux. Its splendid cathedral, built by that turbulent mace-swinging bishop Oda, escaped with hardly a scratch.

Forget the Camembert cheeses and the wine-carts rumbling up the tortuous old Rue St. Jean and you might be in Chester or Canterbury.

One can imagine the incredulous surprise with which the tired, battle-weary men of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division found it on that cloudless morning of June 7, 1944.

After 24 hours of murderous fighting – to sit down at clean tablecloths under gay striped awnings and order unlimited omelettes and steaks!

These is a plaque now to the memory of all ranks of that glorious hard-fighting “Fifty Div,” who had been first in and last out all the way from Gazala back in ’41, and to whom fell the honour of formally liberating the first town in France.

You will find it, a simple bronze tablet set in the wall of the public library. And there is a touch of unconscious irony in that. For in the public library is the famous,  fabulous Bayeux Tapestry, that longest strip-cartoon in history, a band of wool-embroidered linen 231 feet long by 20 inches wide, which details events of an earlier and equally successful invasion in the opposite direction.

The Tapestry – which legend insists was embroidered by Queen Matilda, wife of  William the Conqueror, but was more likely the work of English “collaborators”  – now has a room to itself, a long, low, airy chamber superbly suited to it. I’m told that “box-office” receipts have never been better.

But Bayeux is one very small oasis in a desert of devastation. Look at sheet 54 of the Michelin map of Normandy and you will find it pitted with dozens of what look like dozens of red-ringed shell craters.

Each of those red rings represent a village or town either seriously damaged or completely destroyed. There are 391 altogether.

The crop is particularly thick in the narrow box, 20 miles wide by 15 deep, formed by the four main roads linking St Lo and Torigni and Bayeux and Caen.

With a little imagination you can picture the whole vicious slogging-match that lasted from D-Day to D plus 50 – that bloody interlude between landing and break-out which future historians may see as the most decisive battle of the Second World War.

See it all as a game of cops and robbers and it comes vividly into perspective. The robbers are caught in a room with only one window, behind a locked door.

Outside one policeman throws his weight against the hinges of the door while the other kicks away at the lock.

The robbers are Rommel’s Seventh Army: the policeman kicking away at the keyhole is Bradley and his Americans: the policeman with his shoulder at the hinges is Dempsey and his Anglo-Canadians.

It was the Americans who got the door open first at St. Lo. But it was the British and Canadians who had to stop the robbers from escaping either by the door or the window. And the place where they stopped them was Caen.

I motored out along the Bayeux road towards Tilly and Villers-Bocage.

For the first few kilometres traces of the war are few and far between. My driver, a sociable, garrulous soul who has done this conducted tour many times, pointed out the last of Rommel’s “Tigers” (is there anything in this world more useless than a dead tank?) half-buried in tall grass, its 88 millimetre barrel still cocked in a last gesture of defiance; the strands of field-telephone wire clinging like rusty ivy to the trees along the roadside; the farmhouse roofed with tin from flattened petrol-drums.

High in a free untroubled sky a lark sang his heart out. Fat contented cows rolled incurious eyes at us.

Around Vendes children were picking posies in those murderous hedgerows. At Juvigny – where the ruined church stands blind and empty – a cock-pheasant strutted proud as an alderman across the road in front of us. Ten years ago they were hunting bigger game in the woods round Chateau Juvigny: young frenzied Nazis who tied themselves to those trees and sniped and sniped to the last round. . . .

And then we came to Villers-Bocage. If you want an example of how man can imitate the stubborn, patient virtues of ant or beaver you have it here in Villers-Bocage.

The battle for this vital crossroads market town was typical of all the fighting in Central Normandy.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-738-0267-28A / Grimm, Arthur / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

First we would move in, an armoured brigade ahead, the infantry following in lorries. Dug in all round the Germans would be waiting for us. And so as soon as we were well inside they opened fire on the town. While we were running for cover the town started falling down around us.

So while we paused for breath, our tanks out-gunned, our infantry ambushed, we would call up the bombers – to knock the houses into the streets and stop the enemy from getting supplies to his forward troops.

Aerial bombardment of Villers-Bocage
Royal Air Force official photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was the same slow useless technique that had battered down the villages in Sicily and Italy.

So the bombers bombed Villers-Bocage to dust and rubble. It was all over in 20 minutes. And when it was over and when the infantry went in the Germans were waiting for us just as before.

They had retired into the fields until the bombing was over. And the sickening business had to start all over again.

Days later, when the fighting was done, the bulldozers arrived and smashed new roads through 20 feet of rubble.

As one eye-witness described it graphically: “It was like an archaeological excavation into a lost world.”

Now, 10 years after, Villers-Bocage is a thriving market town again.

The new town is bigger than the old. Much of the cattle trading of the Bocage country is done here, its new abattoir, opened last year, is the largest and most modern in Normandy. The old one was built before the Revolution.

Instead of picturesque – and highly insanitary – cottages it has six-storey blocks of flats. It has the first main-drainage system in its history. From America it has borrowed central-heating and a parking-lot.

It has a new cinema that looks like a church, and new church that looks like a cinema.

There is only one link with the past. There used to be a restaurant here, famous for its tripe and escalope à la Normande. The restaurant disappeared under the first bomb. But the escalope they serve where it stood is still “worth a visit”’, as the Guide Michelin puts it.

One after another the Normandy villages were obliterated like Villers-Bocage, though here and there a stout fortress-farmhouse has defied modern war just as it stood up to the Hundred Years War and the wars of religion.

And just like Villers-Bocage they are slowly but surely coming back to life.

They will never be so picturesque, so picture-postcard romantic as they once were. But they have electric light, hot and cold water, indoor sanitation, and – sooner or later – television.

And so we came back again through Tilly-sur-Seulles, which has a brand-new hotel in place of the old Jeanne d’Arc, but refuses to give up its air-raid siren; through Etregy and Fontenay and Cristot. where the lovely old manor-house which once belonged to a mistress of Louis XIV looks like the castle of the Sleeping Princess, so lost and forgotten is it.

And on the way back we passed some who came so far and no farther. . . .

Near the hamlet of Le Douet, where a squadron of “Tigers” held up our whole advance for half a day, is the tiny war cemetery of Jerusalem.

It is the smallest in Normandy. There are only 30 graves. But it is called Jerusalem because here Jew and Gentile lie together, brothers-in-arms.

They lie in a corner of what was once a French farm meadow. But the blanket of turf that covers them is English turf.


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Jerry F 2021