On May 26, 1940, FRANZ HALDER, chief of staff of the Army High Command (OKH) since 1938, made an entry into his daily war diary (later well-known as ‘Kriegstagebuch’ or ‘Halder diaries’). The passage included a supportive attitude toward Hitler’s decision to finally resume the advance toward Dunkirk: Halder was confident enough to schedule the oncoming seizure of the road in the direction of the French city of Bayeux in Normandy. A city with a pre-war habitancy of merely 7000 people, up to 54 000 integrally with its arrondissement, was occupied in the early days of June 1940, thus sharing the fate of thousands of French communes of such kind for the next four years. The seizure and control over Bayeux apart from the general occupation of North France (‘zone occupée’ or ‘occupied zone’) until June 1944 would facilitate German control over a substantial length of the Norman seaboard. The sector was fated to become a part of the so-called ‘Atlantikwall’ or Atlantic wall’, another never-fulfilled ‘Hitler’s citadel’ in Europe. 

In the close aftermath of WWII, field marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, military commander of the Western Front in 1944, would call the Atlantic wall ‘an enormous propaganda bluff. Toward the fifth year of the World War, the economic efforts of the Third Reich faced such strain, that Hitler’s ‘Festung Europa’ (Fortress Europe) proved itself to be nothing more than a dream that vanished into thin air. It was never indoctrinated into military thinking of Wehrmacht in a way it had been masterminded on paper. With all its military inability, it would strain the German economy for another 3.7 billion Deutschmarks. The initial plans assumed the defense of 3800 km of the coastline of Western Europe from Spain to Norway with a means of 15 000 fortified bunkers: a utopian dream for the state formation, which was to conduct war on multiple theatres. All totaled, the erection of the fortifications in France alone swallowed up an enormous 17 million cubic meters of concrete and 1,2 million tons of steel. This latter figure was equitable to the amount of metal, that the Third Reich used to manufacture tanks annually. As history would show, Hitler’s strategic stress on harbors and ports as opposed to open beaches in between them, was a critical error. 

Erwin Rommel during the inspection of the 'Atlantic Wall'
Erwin Rommel during the inspection of the ‘Atlantic Wall’, Spring 1944
Rommel in Normandy 1944
Rommel inspecting beach obstacles

Getting back in time to June 1940, the German army as well as publicity at home experienced an exhilaration of military successes in Western Europe and rapid domination over the opponents. Any thoughts of concern on possible invasion from that direction were no more than a distant perspective. It was a period of relatively prolonged break in the massive war effort prior to Spring 1941 and service in France would be highly appreciated by the German soldiers in the late years of military setbacks. In parallel with thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers, who flooded Paris starting from June 1940 (their admiration of the city in some way was discordant with the role of the ‘conquerors’), Normandy was to become a destination point for so-called ‘Occupational tourism’.

The Nazi policy of treating the French with relative respect (at least at this stage of war) in equal measures stimulated tourism and applied restrictions by reminding them of their duty and preserving honor. Visiting the landmarks, journeys to NORMANDY and Bretagne as well as the everyday routine within these regions soon became the keynote of the letter from France, notably largely free from censorship. In the times when French families were shedding tears over their killed relatives, were humiliated as a nation, and was to become a donator for the ever-growing ambitions of the Nazi economy, the ‘conquerors’ used to spend time with French wine, numerous sorts of cheeses while traveling. 

The attitude of the German soldiers toward France and particularly Normandy, of which Bayeux was a kind of symbol (notably due to its medieval history and the famous ‘Bayeux Tapestry’), is crucial in understanding the events of June 1944. In a wider sense, the Nazi regime used to underline a historical correlation between the French, particularly the Normans, and the Germans. Numerous travel guides in the years between 1940 and 1944, included passages that the Normans had been none other than the descendants of the Vikings, thus descendants of Germanic tribes as it was believed within the Third Reich. As opposed to Eastern Europe, which was put forward as the ‘Lebensraum’ (A living space) and lands for German ruthless colonization, in Northern France, the German soldiers were supposed to learn something from their own history. Most notably, visitation of the Norman churches and monuments, particularly the Bayeux Cathedral, was supposed by the regime to fuel the nationalistic worldview of the soldiers. In this manner, the occupation of Normandy meant more than the presence of the armed forces: an awareness of history, architecture, and even the local way of life of the peasants. 

The Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler and the French POWs
The Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler and the French POWs, summer 1940

In the years 1940-1944, the German soldiers were familiar with the city guides, printed in German. A number of those outlets were in fact pre-war and now translated from French, yet some booklets were printed during the occupation. Apart from Paris, one could find books about Normandy, Brittany, and the Southwest, particularly Rouen, the historical capital of Normandy. Smooth-talking descriptions and multiple illustrations were successful in advertising French landscapes, cathedrals, and mansions. Notably, a guidebook on Normandy included a claim that a German soldier had to learn from the other country as much as his duty allows. It is worth noting, that the occupational administration was not concerned with the perspective that their soldiers could develop a stronger liking toward France as opposed to the one for Germany.

Starting from June 1941, when the Wehrmacht was conducting a ‘VERNICHTUNGSKRIEG’ (war of annihilation) in the East, the travel guides in France advertised a love toward the homeland by means of admiration of the foreign lands. It must be mentioned, that a fracture of the German soldiers found themselves frustrated with these windows of opportunities to recreate next to the locals, who used to suffer from foreign occupation and in the times when their countrymen lost their lives on the frontlines. 

Another humiliative page of the German occupation of France is generally attributed to the so-called ‘Maison de la Wehrmacht’ or ‘Wehrmacht houses’. As early as July 29, 1940, ‘free prostitution’ was proclaimed outlawed within the territory of the ‘occupied zone’ in France. Apart from a cinema for the soldiers, a dental room, and other ‘facilities’, the city of Bayeux also accommodated a brothel. As early as June 1944 Bernard Law Montgomery, commander of the British Eighth Army,  would order to close every brothel within the liberated territories. The rendering and fulfillment of this instruction faced a kind of silent opposition among the Allied soldiers, who preferred to ‘use services’ of the local women. 

Another painful page of the occupation is conventionally attributed to the burden of the German war, in fact, a deadweight of a new World War now fell on the economies of the countries under Nazi rule in Europe, particularly France. Given that, modern historiography is generally focused on the expropriation of the resources from the occupied territories of the Soviet Union during WWII, Denmark, Holland, and France in total supplied the Third Reich with 21.4 million tons of grain equivalent as opposed to 14.7 million, brought from East. In a wider sense, the burden of the Second World War mainly affected the peasants who were not ready for war (if it is at all possible for anyone). During the times between 1940 and 1940 when Germany used to seize food products from France, particularly Normandy, it itself had to import supplies to survive: such imports totaled 17% of the total food consumption in France during the occupation. Toward 1944 and the fifth year of the War, the average food intake of the French citizen collapsed to nothing but 1 050 calories daily. The black market and the supplies from the historically agricultural regions such as Normandy became a means of survival. 

In the course of the 1940-1944 years, France experienced a dramatic increase in statistics of some the diseases, such as Tuberculosis, the spread of which is closely correlated with malnutrition. Prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy, the average height of the French children was 11 cm for girls and 7 for boys under the figures before the War. Thousands of them suffered from pathological vitamin D deficiency in their diet. Along with that, the German soldiers in France used to take advantage of the bartering of food supplies from the locals. The cigarettes were generally converted into cheese, butter, and grain to send them to Germany, where their families suffered from the same decreasing food ration as the War progressed. With the intensification of the Allied air raids in the Spring of 1944 prior to D-Day, the farmers in Normandy had little alternative but to sell the supplies to the Germans due to the breakdown of the transport system in the region. 

City of Bayeux 1944



The Second British Army, with its history, had originated as far back in time as Christmas 1914, thirty years later was officially inaugurated as the ‘British Liberation Army’. In June 1944, Sir Miles Christopher Dempsey, a combat veteran of the ‘Great War’ (WWI), and his soldiers were assigned to cross the English channel with a bigger role than just a part of the Allied forces, which had been masterminded to liberate Northern France from the Nazis. The people of the Commonwealth and particularly England put a sense of national dignity into the return of one’s army to the continent. Four years after the evacuation from Dunkirk, Winston Churchill’s ‘We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air’ words now took a new meaning. In a less-known speech dated October 2, 1940, the British Prime minister took an oath on behalf of the Empire and dominions to the French people on ‘cleansing Europe from the Nazi pestilence and saving the world from the new Dark Ages’. Churchill appealed to the French to ‘sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come’.

Medium Tank M4, Sherman Normandy 1944
The British Medium Tank M4, ‘Sherman’ at the Gold Beach

That ‘morning’ was now dated June 6, 1944, and fated to become a kind of redemption of England for the Fall of France in 1940, Dunkirk and the failed grounding in Dieppe in 1942, as well as the German occupation of the Channel Islands since 1940. The ‘disgrace’ of the 1938 Munich (the so-called ‘Munich agreement’ and the appeasement of Hitler by the Western democracies) was to be wiped out now. The frontlines of the World War for the British Empire were now to include France apart from the previous theaters of war: the Balkans, Medditerean and the Atlantic Ocean, Middle East, Northern Africa, and Italy. In the Spring of 1944 the Allied air raids in Europe, shifted focus from the devastation of the German cities to the military camps, munition factories, and transport infrastructure in the West. Prior to the landing in June, the bomber command of England possessed 1160 air units, a figure one-third higher than in March. Solely in May 1944, the British Air Force conducted 9 900 sorties. Along with such high ‘capacity’, the focus on small targeted raids resulted in the reduction of the casualties (up to less than 3%) among the crews and simultaneously softened the stance of the German position in Western Europe. The limited radius of the air raids (as opposed to the bombardments of the German territory deep into the continent) in France opened the war initiative to increase the tonnage of the bombs. 

Royal Navy demolition teams on Gold Beach
Royal Navy demolition teams were among the first personnel to disembark on Gold Beach
British commandos rush ashore at 'Gold Beach' on D-Day 1944
British commandos rush ashore at Gold Beach on D-Day

In virtue of established reconnaissance and the extensive assistance of the French Resistance, the Allies were well-informed about the partial evacuation of the locals from the coastline of Northern France, which had been started by the Germans as far back as June 1943, one year prior to the invasion. By stimulating the population of the agricultural regions and cities lengthwise to the Channel (including Bayeux) to leave their homes, the occupational forces thus ensured the fortification of the coastline and ‘Atlantic Wall’. Particularly the Germans insisted on the importance of sending children further inland and some of the Norman communes were evicted due to the orders. Prior to D-Day (June 6, 1944) thousands of citizens had already left Cabourg, Caen, Deauville, and Bayeux.

At that time, the habitancy of Caen totaled 70 000 people, 177 000 if combined with its arrondissements (administrative districts), Bayeux still accommodated merely 7000 people and 54 000 with its rural districts. Therewith, the Germans made arrangements to preserve some ‘vital’ professions, which they needed to administer the occupied territories: the local civil servants, doctors, and nurses, policemen, priests, shopkeepers, haircutters. The local population of Normandy was known as conservative and prudent. For the most part, they regarded De Gaulle with conspicuousness and used to refer to the Vichy government and particularly Marshal Petain without antagonism. 

Soldiers of the 50th Division debark at Gold Beach
British soldiers of the 50th Division debark at Gold Beach, at midday on June 6

The intelligence information from the local citizens and the members of the French Resistance is another important chapter of planning the landings in Normandy in 1944. The city of Bayeux had its own resistance circuit with Guillaume Mercader as a distinctive representative of such activity. As an owner of a bicycle shop, for months prior to the invasion he could travel across the region and the communes of the Calvados lengthwise the coastline to gather intelligence on German garrisons and fortifications. Once a week, Guillaume Mercader used to make his way to the city of Caen to deliver his findings to the leader of the local Resistance unit supernal to the one in Bayeux. These results of reconnaissance proved oneself to make a great contribution to the planned invasion, accompanied by extensive air reconnaissance and the interception of the German intelligence, which all resulted in unprecedented amounts of information. In virtue of the continual arrests of the Resistance members by the Germans, the Allies could not give notice on the exact day in advance. On four occasions every month, the Resistance members used to listen to BBC broadcasts in wait for a double repeat of the code signal. In the case of Bayeux, the awaited message prior to D-Day was “It is hot in Suez” followed by “The dice are on the carpet”.

The Canadian artillery men at the 'Juno beach', Normandy 1944
The Canadian artillerymen at ‘Juno beach’

The historiography of the after-war years would come to the conclusion that the primary objectives of the British army for the first day of invasion on June 6 were ‘too ambitious’. They included the seizure of the cities of Bayeux and Caen, 7 and 10 kilometers from the coast retrospectively, as well as the road between them. Among three Commonwealth zones of landings (GOLD/JUNE/SWORD), the ‘Gold Beach’ between Arromanches and La Rivière adjoined the American ‘OMAHA beach’. The 50th (Northumbrian) Division was to become the advancing forces within the ‘Gold Beach’, whose touching started as early as 7:30 a.m. The British forces found themselves on the beach one hour after the American Allies due to the flowing tide. As early as 8 a.m. the USS Arkansas, which had fired on the German positions since 5:52, received an order to tape the enemy battery to the West of Bayeux. In total, 24 970 British soldiers set foot on the shore of ‘Gold Beach’ and faced the German machine-gun fire and unconnected cannonade of the artillery. Toward the end of D-Day June 6, solely the 50th Division lost 700 men killed in action or wounded. 

The soldiers of the 'Beach' Group shares rum on D-Day, June 6
The soldiers of the ‘Beach’ Group share rum on D-Day



As a counterbalance to the Nazi hyperbolic worldview regarding the heritage of the German tribes and Normans, the region of the 1944 Allied invasion is historically closely related to the history of England. William I the Conqueror, one of the most outstanding political and historical figures of his time, was no other than ‘Duc de Normandie’ or ‘Duke of Normandy’. Regardless of one’s vassal dependence on the King of France (William was the ruler of only one of the regions), in 1066 he succeeded in conquering England and becoming its King. The seizure of the island by a French conqueror affected British history fundamentally and indoctrinated a re-orientation toward continental Europe, France in particular. The conquest of England in the XI century would later become the cover theme of the iconic-like relic from Bayeux, known as ‘Tapisserie de Bayeux’ (Bayeux Tapestry), a linen canvas 70 meters long. Apart from Bayeux, Caen was known as the favorite residence of William I the Conqueror. After passing away, the King and his wife were buried under the Abbey of Saint-Étienne, which had been previously patronized by the ruler himself. 

The Cathedral of Bayeux

Nine hundred years after the armed forces of Norman King William I disembarked themselves on the coastline of England, the ‘British Liberation Army’ was to liberate France, which had been occupied by the Germans four years before. Although the end of D-Day on June 6 witnessed only a partial accomplishment of the initial ambitious plans, that day the British army did more than just seize a narrow sea line. All while the advancing detachments of the 50th Division did not take an opportunity to take Bayeux the same day (the road was accessible until 5.30 p.m.), the soldiers from ‘Gold Beach’ managed to infiltrate the occupied territories for merely 10 kilometers by day’s end. Toward nightfall, the British soldiers entered Bazenville, a french commune 6 kilometers North-East of Bayeux, and consolidated with the Canadian forces at Creully farther to the East. In the course of June 6, separate groups of German soldiers received an order to drive their wounded to the German hospital in Bayeux, yet they devastatingly discovered that it had been already evacuated. 

A plate to commemorate the soldiers of the 50th Division, Bayeux

As opposed to the instructions by the Germans to stay inside their homes, a number of citizens in Bayeux crowded the inner courtyard of the famous Cathedral, a historical landmark of the XI century, the times of William I. A local priest found an outlook within a 70-meter-high tower with a panoramic view over the coastline and the Allied invasion and commented on the events he could see. The German soldiers left Bayeux hours before late sundown and the locals would later report on the fleeing occupants, who made headway through the streets and fields. One of the last among these Germans in Bayeux, as it was later recalled, committed suicide. Major-General Douglas A.H. Graham, the commanding officer of the 50th Division made a decision to postpone the capture of the city until the next morning in order to evade possible street shootings at nighttime. Relatedly, at least a few British soldiers succeeded in reaching the Cathedral minutes prior to midnight, thus de facto fulfilling the initial plans to capture Bayeux on the very first day of the invasion. 

Liberation of Bayeux, June 7, 1944

Sherman tanks passing through Bayeux оп 7 June 1944.
Sherman tanks passing through Bayeux, 7 June 1944.

Getting into the city of the vanguard as late as the night of June 7 and the reconnaissance data from the local French Resistance on the Germans went off, made it possible to avoid the artillery shelling and air raids against the enemy garrison in Bayeux. In the early hours of June 7, Apr. at 4 a.m. a British tank was sent to the city to scout the situation: its company would be later considered the ‘first liberators’ of Bayeux.  They were welcomed by the locals, who expressed delight in seeing the British. Although the Germans had left the city a day before, the soldiers of the 50th division were attacked by gunfire in the south part of Bayeux, which originated from a machine-gun nest within one of the windows. The tank neutralized this spot of enemy resistance and a brigade of the local French firemen smothered a fire and took the bodies of the German soldiers outside. 

June 7, 1944 the city of Bayeux

French civilians on the streets of the liberated Bayeux

Toward the midday of June 7, the city of Bayeux (which had been liberated without fierce fighting and casualties among the locals) was flooded with the euphoria of both the French peasants and the Allied soldiers. Two battalions of the 50th Division, as well as the 2nd Glosters of the 56th Brigade, now were making their way across the narrow medieval streets. The Commonwealth soldiers could observe the famous local cheese Camembert (with a distinctive smell), as well as the French furniture and porcelain tableware in the front windows of Bayeux shops. The French boys were brave enough to use their smiles to ask for a cigarette. Some of the citizens saluted the liberators with a Nazi hand salute, apparently frustrated with the way they should welcome another foreign army on their land. The British civil affairs detachment was not long in arriving at Bayeux in order to carry out arrests of the known collaborators, which happened to be a daunting challenge. As they (the British officers) would later report, at the start it was difficult to distinguish a French patriot from a pro-Vichy or pro-nazi.

The Allied war correspondents and journalists accommodated an improvised press headquarters inside Hôtel Le Lion d’Or, a hotel and restaurant from the XVIII century. A french brothel was known to be located on the upper floors during the German occupation. Though Bayeux itself experienced an almost bloodless liberation, and the Bayeux-Caen highway was now open, Merely 36 000 French communes remained to be liberated in the following months, and oftentimes this process would not be as euphoric as in Bayeux on June 7, 1944. As early as June 20, Hitler issued a German counter-attack in the direction of Bayeux, yet it would cost large human and machine losses to the already exhausted Wehrmacht. 

British soldiers in the French city of Bayeux 1944

Normandy museum in Bayeux



Subsequent to the blistering events of the first days after D-Day, a rapid seizure of the landing beaches, and the bloodless liberation of Bayeux, the initial enthusiasm was soon played out. All while globally Nazi Germany lost the initiative in the World War and the liberation of the whole of Normandy and then France was only a matter of time, the average Allied soldier now faced utterly egregious months of fierce fighting. The liberators were now swallowed by a routine of war. The constant repositioning, installation of the trenches and firing positions, the passing of the lines of the French Bocage, English tea or dishwater on breakfast, advance during the day, and nearly always a setback at nighttime. The majority of the Allied soldiers were exhausted by extremely long daylight hours in France in June, which lasted from 4.30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The bedtime of the soldiers was therefore reduced to a bare minimum and the officers faced a liability to write reports during the short period of supposed rest. 

Bayeux after liberation, June 1944

In virtue of its geographical proximity to the landing beaches on D-Day, a well-developed infrastructure in a city of 7000 people, a vicinity to major freeways of Normandy, and the liberation as early as June 7, Bayeux was fated to be turned into a kind of a British military hub for further advance. The fact that the city had not been devastated in the course of liberation made it initially a center for the international press and later the home of the first French newspaper in liberated France since 1940. The city hospitals including the former German ones were now to accommodate the wounded Allied soldiers and French civilians, who suffered from war. In order to facilitate even more space for treating the wounded, local schools and even the seminary in Bayeux was also turned for some time into military hospitals. 

Bernard Montgomery inside the hospital in Bayeux
Bernard Montgomery at the military hospital in Bayeux, June 1944

Military hospital in Normandy 1944

An influx of the allied soldiers and military equipment passing Bayeux on the further way inland increased in progression to the necessity to pave a new diversionary road on the sidelines of the city to cope with the ‘traffic’. In the course of June-August 1944, the Allied forces paved more roads in Normandy than the French had made in all years before the war. In virtue of the fact, that the streets of Bayeux, a medieval town from the times of William I the Conqueror, were narrow, a new diversionary road made it possible to increase the military traffic just as a number of buildings had been demolished, hundreds of trees uprooted and the local hilly terrain artificially smoothed. On June 14, General De Gaulle made his historically famous speech in Bayeux on the matter of regaining French sovereignty. In mid-July, the city would be visited by Winston Churchill. Until the very liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944, Bayeux was fated to be the performative capital of France

Apart from the peaked military traffic through Bayeux and its new diversionary road and the ever-increasing demand for hospital facilities, another issue emerged in Bayeux: treating the former collaborators, German POWs, and thousands of refugees from all over the region. Toward the Fall of 1944, at any rate, 300 000 files regarding collaborating with the Germans were still open for investigation, months after D-day. The administration of De Gaulle’s provisional government, established in June, would not be able to operate all these cases, even with the assistance of the Allied investigators. The issue was carried out to the extent that any kind of cooperation with the German occupation forces could be a reason for the arrest. The list of the charges snowballed to reach a number of pages of imputations separated by commas: the anti-French mood during the occupation, providing civilian clothes to a German soldier, pillaging, encounters with the Germans, purveyance to the enemy soldiers (the latter was in fact a necessity for thousands of peasants to survive). Apart from indicting the French, the outskirts of Bayeux witnessed an establishment and steady growth of a POW camp for Germans, Italians,  pro-franco Spaniards, and Russians: all of who had previously been among the occupants. 

A new diversionary road in Bayeux
This new diversionary road was built to deal with the increased traffic

new diversionary road Bayeux

In defiance of the fierce German resistance in Normandy and the later arrival of the forged forces from the Eastern front, the war initiative was now on the side of the Allies. All while up to 165 divisions fought in the East in June 1944, merely 65 were assigned to defend the dreadfully lengthy Western front, from Spain to Norway. In a matter of a few weeks after D-Day, the Allied forces in France gained not only an over-balance in manpower (1.5 million Allied soldiers faced just 400,000 German men in France in July 1944) but a staggering superiority in material resources and in the air. Toward the second month after the landing, the Allies located 3800 tanks in Normandy as opposed to 1200 under-maintained ones on the German side.

Toward October 1944, roughly 1.2 million French civilians would become homeless by virtue of the intense air raids, and as many as 19 000 are calculated to lose life due to aerial bombing in Normandy alone. Winter 1944-1945 would witness a devastating famine, which affected in the first instance an urban population of France. As early as 1945 and the fall of the Third Reich, merely 1.5 million people, French POWs from the time of 1940, and civilians, who had been taken for work for the sake of Germany, managed to come back home. The liberation of the French territory from the Nazi occupation proved itself to be a prolonged and bloody process, which demanded more casualties among the French than all in the course of the whole period between June 1940 and June 1944. 

Bayeux, the capital of France in 1944

The monument of liberation of Bayeux



The midday of June 6, 1944, was more than ordinarily busy and crowded for the Broadcasting House, the main office of the British BBC in London. Apart from the employees and Allied officers swallowed by the task of giving publicity to the invasion of Normandy, a tall lean man just over fifty was promptly identified as Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle. At 6 p.m. this evening, as on the often occasion in the course of the last four years, the British broadcasting system would render confident rhetoric of the French general in exile. In follow up of disputes with Winston Churchill and politics on the right of speaking on behalf of the whole of France, now De Gaulle declared that ‘The supreme battle has begun’ and after a short pause, he continued with: ‘It is, of course, the Battle of France’.

The following day Winston Churchill would send a personal letter to US President Roosevelt in which he would characterize De Gaulle’s speech as remarkable, in light of the fact that not a single French soldier under the general now is fighting on the beaches of Normandy. Among thirty-nine divisions assigned to invade Northern France, only one was under the ‘Free French’ forces. The ‘Deuxième Division Blindée’ (Second Armoured Division) under General Ledere, equipped with 4200 vehicles, would embark on Normandy as early as August 1944. For the British allies, De Gaulle’s reference to the ‘French government’ rather than a ‘provisional’ in his speech was also debateful. Nevertheless, the general appealed to the Frenchmen and called them ‘To fight the enemy by all the means available. 

Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle at BBC

In virtue of the fact that on D-Day the Allies failed to complete every of the planned objectives, including the seizure of Caen (Germans would be withdrawn as early as July 21), a thin band of French soil was liberated on the very first day of the invasion. In the course of the first eight days since June 6, the Allied forces succeeded to regain a territory of 100 km in length and up to 25 kilometers in depth from the Germans. It’s a little historical wonder that De Gaulle strived to visit this vanguard territory of liberated France and to assert himself. With the failure of the rapid seizure of Caen, Bayeux with its 7000 habitancy was fated to be the largest French town liberated not to say symbolically the first. De facto, Bayeux became the first town in continental France. Corsica was liberated back in September 1943, yet it is an island. An anticipated journey to the coastline of Normandy was of enormous importance for the French general, a self-proclaimed leader of the Resistance in exile since 1940. In those days of early June 1944, he faced the necessity to confirm the authority of his Government as opposed to the British and American military administrations. 

Whereas general De Gaulle was visualizing one’s triumphant landing in Northern France, Winston Churchill sent another personal letter, this time to General Montgomery, the British commander of Allied ground forces participating in Operation Overlord. The British Prime minister expressed a kind of skepticism toward the coordinated visit of the French general and suggested Monty not meet De Gaulle personally upon disembarking at Gold Beach. Churchill also expressed his own vision on the nature and agenda of this visit, which was supposed to be a brief visitation of Bayeux without alluring crowds of people and proclaiming any mass-rallied political statements. The Prime Minister wanted De Gaulle to shake a few hands and to come back to London in a matter of a few hours. Almost exactly the same vision of the occasion was expressed by Anthony Eden in his correspondence with Churchill.

As for the attitude of the Allied administrators in the liberated territories to the Gaullists to come, there was also not much enthusiasm. The main unvoiced ‘circumstance’ of their cooperation with the representatives of the ‘Provisional Government of the French Republic’ was the proven grassroots support in the liberated parts of Normandy. This humiliating waiting by De Gaulle for the ‘permission’ to visit France would later occur again in August prior to his ‘landing’ in Cherbourg on August 20, 1944, and the liberation of Paris. 

Alan Brooke, Winston Churchill, and Bernard Montgomery, June 12 1944
Alan Brooke, Winston Churchill, and Bernard Montgomery at Montgomery’s headquarters, 12 June 1944
General Miles Dempsey, King George VI, and General Bernard Montgomery at the HQ at Château de Cruelly, 16 Jun 1944
General Miles Dempsey, King George VI, General Bernard Montgomery at Château de Cruelly, 16 June

With regard to the attitude of the French people toward De Gaulle, the ‘Free France’ and later to ‘Provisional Government’, the Allied intelligence reports expressed confusion. The population of Normandy was conventionally characterized as people without strong political preferences, with common pro-Vichy attitudes as well as sometimes anti-Gaullist. All while in a wider sense the Vichy regime had lost the credibility of the French people long before D-Day, particularly since the full occupation of the country by the Germans back in November 1942, ‘Le Vieux Maréchal’ (the old Marshal) Philippe Petain was still generally held in esteem. Two months before the Normandy landing, Petain’s visit to Paris, though mostly a propaganda occasion, rallied thousands of people next to the old French Marshal, and the made image of ‘the protector of people from the horrors of war’ still resonated with a part of the population.

 On top of everything else regarding an attitude to De Gaulle, Normandy was never a region with the most active Resistance movement: its population had been known as conservative and close-minded. All this was not conducive to enthusiasm toward general De Gaulle, who for so many French remained a voice of a British radio broadcast rather than a sustained political figure and a national leader of France. Jacques Kayser, a French journalist and resistance fighter would later write, that during his trip across the liberated territories in June 1944, very few locals were in discussion with De Gaulle and even had a clear understanding of who he was. At the same time, one could get the impression that the Vichy government had never existed as well. As time would show, De Gaulle’s later absence until August was of more use for him than a constant ‘presence’ in France. 

Toward those early hours of June 14, when general De Gaulle and his numerous entourage boarded the torpedo boat ‘La Combattante’ at Portsmouth in England, the presence of the Allied forces in Normandy totaled 600 000 men. The ship itself was built in British Shipyards back in 1941 and on June 6, 1944 (D-Day) succeeded in destroying a few of the Germans’ positions onshore. Prior to 9 a.m. on June 14, apart from De Gaulle, the French delegation included: 

  • Général Antoine Béthouart, Chief of Staff of the (French) Committee for National Defense since April 1944
  • Général Marie-Pierre Kœnig, De Gaulle’s close military adviser and the commander of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI)
  • Colonel Pierre de Chevigné, Chief of Staff of the French Forces in Great Britain under General Koenig
  • Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, a former priest and commanding officer for the ‘Free French’ naval forces in Great Britain
  • Gaston Palewski, former Director of Political Affairs of the Free French, command of the Free French Army in East Africa, and De Gaulle’s ‘political right-hand’.
  • Pierre Viénot, a ‘Free France’ ambassador to the British government (he would pass away on July 20, 1944)
  • Pierre Armand Gaston Billotte, an escapee from German imprisonment, former head of the French Military Mission to Moscow, and chief of staff to Charles de Gaulle between 1942 and 1943
  • François Coulet, chief of De Gaulle’s cabinet in 1941-1942, later secretary general of the Police in Corsica
  • Geoffroy Chodron de Courcel, former Gaulle’s chief of staff and later for some time deputy chief of the cabinet of General de Gaulle
  • Pierre Laroque, a former member of the first Vichy government who fled to London in 1943
  • Claude Hettier de Boislambert, De Gaulle’s associate at the Casablanca Conference and the head of the French military liaison administrative mission, supervised relations between the Allied forces and the liberated population.
The French ‘La Combattante’
French ‘La Combattante’ boat during the War
De Gaulle June 14, 1944
Charles De Gaulle on board of ‘La Combattante’

The French delegation experienced a rough sea on their voyage from Portsmouth to the coastline of Normandy and ‘La Combattante’ cast anchor opposite Juno Beach next to a french village Courseulles-Sur-Mer one hour in arrears. De Gaulle and his entourage disembarked with the means of a DUKW amphibian boat to set foot ashore on the furrowed sand. Nowadays a street next to a ‘landing place’ is known as ‘Avenue du General de Gaulle’. As it had been discussed in advance, the French delegacy, at least De Gaulle and the closest associates, was to meet General Bernard Montgomery, leader of the Allied Land Forces. The encounter was to take place at the headquarters of the 21st Army Group, the eighteenth-century mansion ‘Château de Creullet’ (commune of Creully).

Two days prior to De Gaulle’s visit, the HQ welcomed Winston Churchill and the mansion would be occupied by the British HQ until June 22 (with its owner Marquis de Druval all-time in). It was located close to the frontlines, yet was not exposed to enemy artillery. In the aftermath of a brief encounter with Monty, accompanied by Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu and Général Marie-Pierre Kœni, De Gaulle resumed his planned journey to Bayeux within a jeep driven by Louis Sanderson, major of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, an officer who knew French and was trusted by Montgomery. On June 16 Monty would welcome none other than King George VI at his Creullet headquarters. 

De Gaulle at the Normandy beach, Junr 12 1944
A concerned De Gaulle minutes after setting foot on the Normandy beach
De Gaulle’s visit to Monty at Creully
De Gaulle and Monty at the Cruelly headquarters, midday June 14

Regardless of Montgomery’s order not to hang up a French flag on the automobile, De Gaulle rejected such limitation and the driver major Louis Sanderson had to anchor a small color on the vehicle. The British were not prepared to welcome as many French as De Gaulle had decided to take with him and some of them (French) were to wait within Juno Beach for additional transport means to carry them to Bayeux. Admittedly, François Coulet, Colonel de Chévigné, Hettier de Boislambert, and Gaston Palewski would reach Bayeux prior to De Gaulle’s arrival thus ‘conditioning the environment’ for the visit of their chef. During the short trip from ‘Château de Creullet’ to Bayeux, Pierre Viénot took note of the fact that this day June 14 is the fourth anniversary of the German seizure of Paris in 1940.

General De Gaulle calmly took it lying down and replied that ‘They (the Germans) made a mistake)’. In the eight days since liberation, Bayeux was on paper under the rule of Allied civil affairs officers, who de facto did not intervene in the affairs of the French statesmen. A now-former Vichy sous-préfet Pierre Rochat, as well as the city Pétainist bishop, were both in the same positions as under the German occupation and still held in esteem by the locals, particularly for their assistance in treating victims of the War. Summing up the mixed administration, on June 14, 1944, Bayeux existed in a plane of Allied administrators, Vichy officials, and the French Resistance fighters, now unveiled. 

De Gaulle and major Louis Sanderson at the streets of Bayeux
De Gaulle is driven by major Louis Sanderson through the streets of Bayeux

De Gaulle himself would later fill his war memoirs with a paragraph on getting encounters with two French gendarmes well short of Bayeux that day, who (by De Gaulle’s own statement) recognized him with enthusiasm. This story would be placed in question for the next eighty years and would become a crucial element of De Gaulle’s image. The mayor of Bayeux, Monsieur Dodeman, and a few local civil servants of the Vichy times welcomed a small cortege of two jeeps on the periphery of the city and went with it to Bayeux. Arp. at 3:30 p.m. De Gaulle was finally in a position to abandon the vehicle to find himself within the cozy narrow streets of the medieval city, among the people, who had already advertised his coming. Finally, after four years in exile, the General came to be on French soil in between the French. It’s worth noting that some of the citizens of Bayeux took Général Antoine Béthouart with his four general’s stars for De Gaulle himself, whose appearance had not been familiar to the majority of people in France. Apart from this black swan moment, the locals welcomed the French delegation with enthusiasm, reflecting the part that in the course of the previous four years they had had to see the German soldiers every day and now the British and American ones.  

Charles de Gaulle in the city of Bayeux 1944
Charles De Gaulle in Bayeux, june 14 1944

The streets of Bayeux, Normandy, France

By being welcomed by the mayor of the town and a few local bureaucrats, surrounded by children, the VIP party forwarded its way toward the building of ‘Préfecture de police’ (today symbolically 7, place Charles de Gaulle). A building of a classical style was erected as far back as 1867. The regional sub-prefect of the Vichy times was so anxious that he had not taken away the portrait of Marshal Petain from his cabinet. De Gaulle rejected taking a glass of wine with the statesmen (it would be generally regarded as the refusal to fraternize with the representatives of the puppet Vichy regime under Nazis) and stuck out for an immediate handing over of the reins of power in the city. The procedure took as much as a few minutes in parallel with getting encounters with the Bishop of Bayeux. The doubts of the latter were dispelled once he saw Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, the one he knew from the times of the theological seminary, as well as Colonel de Boislambert, a nephew of the well-known patron of the Church in the Normandy. 

De Gaulle gets encounters with citizens of Bayeux

Charles De Gaulle on the streets of Bayeux, June 14, 1944

In virtue of delegating administrative authorities in Bayeux, De Gaulle and his retinue left the building of ‘Préfecture de police’ to walk toward the opposite side of a spacious square, known as ‘Place de Château’ at the time (now ‘Place Charles De Gaulle’). The emissaries (who had reached the city before De Gaulle himself) and a short pause with the local statesmen made time to erect an improvised rostrum. A french tricolor was held tight in between the trees and the grandstand was backed by the flags of France, as well as Britain and the United States with ‘Croix de Lorraine’ (Cross of Lorraine), a symbol of French patriotism to the right. It is worth mentioning that it was Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu who suggested the Cross of Lorraine become a symbol of the ‘Free French Forces’. In the course of the previous half an hour, a van with a loudspeaker was riding the streets of Bayeux to advertise the coming speech of general De Gaulle at 4 p.m. at ‘Place de Château’. The large open space was now crowded with merely 2000 people, one-third of the city population, watered with Allied soldiers. 

De Gaulle leaves the building of ‘Préfecture de police’ Bayeux
De Gaulle is leaving the building of ‘Préfecture de police’ in Bayeux
General De Gaulle at ‘Place de Château’
General delivers his speech at ‘Place de Château’

Some people among the mass of people at ‘Place de Château’ were yelling ‘Vive De Gaulle’ when the general and the future president proclaimed the restoration of the sovereignty of France by doing this not by the means of radio, as in the previous fours years, but on the French soil in the first French city, which had been liberated. For De Gaulle personally, who in fact was awaited to come back to the Beach as soon as 4 p.m. (the time of the speech), appreciated the crows and their recognition of his presence as approval of one’s legitimacy in the eyes of the French people as well as the Allies. The general characterized the place as ‘our glorious and mutilated Normandy’. On the heels of such an emotional occurrence and singing ‘La Marseillaise’, De Gaulle was in some way restrained by major Louis Sanderson’s appeal that they are awaited, in accordance with Montgomery’s order, to go straight to the beach not to obey the 4 p.m. deadline, which had been, in fact, already infringed. As the major would recall decades later, De Gaulle got into a temper and ordered to go to Isigny, the heart of the US sector at that time. 

The monument of De Gaulle in Bayeux
The monument, which was inaugurated in 1946

The words of the speech of De Gaulle in Bayeux 1944

Isigny-Sur-Mer was all but a suburb of Bayeux, which can be visited on the way back to  Courseulles-Sur-Mer. The commune with a population of merely 2500 people is located 32 kilometers further to the West of Bayeux and 56 kilometers distance from Courseulles-Sur-Mer. A small retinue included another jeep with three officers of De Gaulle’s entourage. Isigny-Sur-Mer was exposed to two subsequent Allied bombardments on June 8. The larger half of the town lay in ruins and the corpses of the killed citizens were still on the streets. De Gaulle allured a group of locals next to a War memorial (‘Monument aux morts’) to deliver another brief yet very emotional oratory regarding the freedom of France. With the ongoing ignoring of major Sanderson’s appeal, the General ordered the driver to visit Grandcamp-Maisy, 9 km to the North-East. The major was not ‘awarded’ with an explanation of such a route and he finally got the approval of getting back to the initial point. Around 7 p.m. and three hours after the planned time (by the British) the two jeeps got back to the section of the ‘Gold beach’ near ‘Courseulles-Sur-Mer’ to come on board ‘La Combattante’. 

Charles De Gaulle at Isigny-Sur-Mer, June 14 1944
The devastated streets of Isigny-Sur-Mer and De Gaulle at the local memorial

De Gaulle among the crowd in Isigny-Sur-mer 1944

Toward the end of June 14, De Gaulle came back to London in order to disembark for Algiers two days later. Back in France, he left the reminiscence of his brilliant piece of oratory in Bayeux and Isigny, his deputed representatives, and 25 million French marks in banknotes. This money was brought to France to become a kind of counter-balance, the desired alternative to the currency, which was masterminded by the Allies to be spread. General Montgomery was left dissatisfied with a prolonged visit of the French delegation, De Gaulle’s public speech, and with the fact that the Frenchman had reserved fourteen hotel rooms in Bayeux.

In his letter to Winston Churchill, the British commander would describe the whole visit and the reception by the locals as ‘definitely lukewarm and there was no real enthusiasm’, which of course was not true. As a matter of historical fact, De Gaulle not only asserted himself as a political figure in after-war France but presented the Allies with ‘fait accompli’ (done deal) in a way that liberated France would be administered by the French rather than the Allied administration. Soon after the visit,  ‘Comité français de Libération nationale’ (French Committee of National Liberation edited a video newsreel of De Gaulle’s journey to Normandy. The most peculiar not to say a comic moment of the footage depicts the handshake between De Gaulle and Montgomery looking as if De Gaulle is giving orders to Monty. 

De Gaulle in Bayeux, a historical footage
The shots from the newsreel, which was produced on the heels of the visit

De Gaulle was leaving France with a certainty of the integrity of one’s delegates, who were now assigned to restore the French administration within the liberated territories of France. François Coulet, the one among the June 14 retinue and a man who had previously proved himself as a skillful administrator in Corsica in 1943, was now to become De Gaulle’s ‘provisional Commissaire’ or ‘Commissioner of the Republic for the Rouen region’. François Coulet would achieve delegating authority from the pro-Vichy mayor and sub-prefect, yet his own authority would be debateful among the Allies as opposed to the fact that Bayeux was now the de facto capital of France all the way prior to the liberation of Paris in August.

In the course of his following visits to Normandy on June 20 and July 11 Winston Churchill (who had not been noticed in Coulet’s role in advance) would not get encountered the ‘provisional Commissaire’, Coulet faced the situation that the larger part of the local habitancy still put esteem in Marshal Petain. De Gaulle himself would make his way back to Bayeux on June 16, 19446 to deliver another heartfelt speech within the city’s main square and to be present on the occasion of the inauguration of the plate, devoted to his previous oratory in June 1944. On the same day June 16, 1946, he would also visit Isigny-Sur-Mer. Years later, the Gouverneur hotel at 8 Rue Bourbesneur would be chosen to accommodate ‘Museum-Mémorial du Général de Gaulle’ (Museum Memorial General de Gaulle). 

De Gaulle June 16, 1946 in Bayeux
General De Gaulle in Bayeux on June 16, 1946

De Gaulle June 16, 1946 in Normandy

'Museum-Mémorial du Général de Gaulle' (Museum Memorial General de Gaulle)
Museum Memorial General de Gaulle in Bayeux


Modern (after-war) historiography generally regards the period of occupation of France between 1940 and 1940 as ‘The Dark Years’. Apart from the extortionate (even in the realm of the previous World War) economic and material losses, the most dramatic ‘damage’ was caused to human lives and fates. In total, merely 1.5 million French men were taken as prisoners of War in May-June 1940 and the primary burden of their captivity for the next four years (at least 600 000 of this figure were released earlier) fell on the French exhausted economy. At the very least another 120 000 French soldiers were killed or missed in action during the French campaign. Substantially, up to 650 000 civilians were involved in labor within the German enterprises, primarily of military nature. 80 000 Jews would become the victims of the Holocaust, primarily in the Auschwitz death camp, and at least 30 000 men and women would be executed as members or assistants of the French Resistance movement, hostages of any kind, or during the actions of reprisal, such as a notorious military crime in ORADUR-SUR-GLANE. Another 60 000 French with no Jewish origin, would be deported to the Nazi concentration camps during the years 1940-1944. 

The French Resistance played an instrumental, not to say foundational role in the successful seizure of the Normany in June 1944 and the later liberation of the whole of France from the occupation. Had originated from the disjointed partisan squads in June 1940, toward the turn of 1944 the movement snowballed into a giant complex formation, yet divided regionally and politically. As opposed to bravery, a readiness to sacrifice one’s life for the purpose of the liberation of France, and strong patriotism, the French resistance had to face another reality of the occupational years under the Nazis. For the most part even after D-Day, the members of the Resistance were badly armed, sometimes chaotically coordinated, and were sometimes distrusted by the local population. As it wasn’t enough, the resistance suffered orderly insults in virtue of the German network of informers, who used to infiltrate the rank of the fighters, and the Gestapo machine of reprisal, which took hostages, carried out executions, or used to send people to the concentration camps. 

In parallel with the triumphs of the Allied cryptanalysis of the German war code and scheduled reconnaissance flights, it was the activity of the Resistance in Romandy, particularly within the Bayeux arrondissement area, which made a path to accumulating such enormous bulk of information regarding the planned landing sites, fortifications of the ‘Atlantic Wall’ and the German manpower in the region. Whereas the first three years of disjoint acts of sabotage inflicted a little damage to the occupational forces in France, toward the start of 1944 the situation took a quite different turn. In the course of only the first three months of the year, the members of the Resistance sabotaged (thus destroyed) merely 800 train locomotives, twice as much as the Allied air raids in the same period. In one single 24-hours period from the late hours of June 5 to the end of D-Day on June 6, Normandy witnessed merely 1000 acts of sabotage toward the Germans forces.  During this first day, as it would be calculated years later, the Resistance in the areas of landing beaches suffered losses of 124 members killed, missed in action, or taken prisoners. In a wider sense, the risk of such activity was extremely high for the people, who in most parts had no military training or appropriate armament. 

The American soldiers speak to the Resistance fighters in Normandy 1944
The American soldiers speak to the Resistance fighters in Normandy

Notwithstanding the fact that Bayeux stood aback by the evident damage during the ‘Battle for France’ in June 1940, its population, as in most parts of the country, was exposed to the realities of the occupation, including the anti-Jewish propaganda, pogroms, and deportations. In virtue of being cut into two zones in the terms of the Compiegne armistice, the ‘pace’ of the anti-Jewish actions differed in the ‘Occupied’ zone ruled by the Germans and the so-called ‘Free zone’ under the supervision of a puppet Vichy government. The infamous roundup of the Parisian Jews (Occupied zone) in July 1942 resulted in the deportation of 15 000 people. The next month (August 1942) the mass round-ups against the Jews within the ‘Free zone’ sealed the fate of another 10 000 people. In total 41 951 people of Jewish origin were deported from France in 1942 solely, predominantly to the Auschwitz death camp. In November 1942 followed by the Allied invasion of North Africa, the Germans occupied the so-called ‘Free zone’, thus now the whole of France, except for a territory that had been annexed by Italy, was under the Nazis. 

The French Jews at the Drancy transit camp, 1942
The French Jews at the Drancy transit camp before being deported to Auschwitz, in 1942

In 1943 the figure of 17 069 deported was far from the 1942 peak, yet the first seven months of 1944 witnessed the eviction of 16 025 Jews from France to Poland prior to the liberation of the larger half of the country. Only the invasion of the Allies and the defeat of the Germans in France finally put an end to the inhuman deportations. In accordance with the preserved documents of the deportations from France, modern historiography factualized the figure of 75 721 Jews who were deported from France in the course of the four years of occupation with another 4000 people, who died or were executed inside the country without crossing the border. Out of 80 000 victims of the Holocaust in France, no more than 2500 people managed to live through the pogroms and the death camps, apart from Apr. 240 000 French Jews, who evaded deportations. Of this figure (80 000) every third Jew had citizenship of France and the rest were foreign. As opposed to Belgium, which witnessed the deportation of three-four of the Jewish population, in France the figure was the opposite: one-fours (80 000 out of 320 000). All while 75% of the Jews in France escaped deportation, the Germans got the system of expropriation up and running. 

SS-Polizeiregiment Griese conducts deportation in Marseille
SS-Polizeiregiment ‘Griese’ conducts deportation in Marseille, January 1943

On July 25 1944 Martin Mutschmann, the nazi Gauleiter of the State of Saxony, wrote a personal letter to the Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler. On its pages, the NSDAP member since 1922 Mutschmann expressed his bewilderment with the high proportion of the Jews, who had survived in France during the four years of occupation, particularly in Normandy, the scene of the Allied invasion. The self-confessed racist, Mutschmann expressed his worldview, that up until the time that every Jew in Europe would be eliminated, the Third Reich would suffer from the enemies in the rear. Himmler had to prove to himself in the follow-up letter, that the ‘removal’ of all Jews in France had been challenging due to ‘Sehr Misslichen Verhältnisse’ (very awkward circumstances). Later on paper, one of the architects of the Holocaust (Himmler) mustered a counter-argument, that in the case of Hungary, they ‘achieved good results’. 

In May 1949 a ‘Monument des Déportés’ or ‘Deportation Memorial’. was unveiled in the very heart of the city of Bayeux next to the famous medieval Cathedral. The monument has the form of a large stone plate with the ornamentation of an image of the exhausted man’s body laying on the French flag. The memorial which annually (the last Sunday of April) whips people in masses during the ‘National Day for Remembering the Victims and Heroes of the Deportation’, preserves the memory of the citizens of Bayeux, who were deported during the 1940-1944 occupation. Above the ornamentation, one could read the words of the famous French poet and a member of the Resistance, Louis Aragon, which he wrote in 1945. In his emotional poetry, the author underlines the historical fact that it is natural for people to fight for their freedom despite the contradictions. The side and bottom part of the memorial stone honors the names of the Bayeux people, who were deported during WWII. In parallel with the names, it preserves the title of the infamous concentration and death camps, the final destination for the evicted. Apart from Auschwitz, one could see Mauthausen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Gross Rosen, and Bergen Belsen. 

‘Monument des Déportés’ or ‘Deportation Memorial’ in Bayeux

Qu’importe comment s’appelle (No matter what is called)

Cette clarté sur leurs pas (This lightness on their steps)

Que l’un fût de la chapelle (Whether one enjoyed the chapel)

Et l’autre s’y dérobât (Or the other one shunned it.)

Celui qui croyait au ciel (He who believed in heaven)

Celui qui n’y croyait pas (He who did not.)

Tous les deux étaient fidèles (Both of them were faithful)

Des lèvres du cœur des bras (With their arms, Heart, lips)

Et tous les deux disaient qu’elle (Both of them said that she)

Vive et qui vivra verra (Would live and Time would tell.)

Celui qui croyait au ciel (He who believed in heaven)

Celui qui n’y croyait pas (He who did not.)

Quand les blés sont sous la grêle (When corn is under hail)

Fou qui fait le délicat (Mad is the choosy man)

Fou qui songe à ses querelles (Mad who thinks of his quarrels)

Au cœur du commun combat (In the dead of common fight.)

Celui qui croyait au ciel (He who believed in heaven)

Celui qui n’y croyait pas (He who did not.)

– Louis Aragon, 1945



On June 5, 1994, fifty years after D-Day in 1944, the Eastern part of the city of Bayeux was inaugurated with one more memorial of historical remembrance and importance. It was devoted not to a group of men (an army, division, platoon, or Resistance unit), not even to a French citizen, but to General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. The General and the future US president made his first visit to the liberated territory of France as early as June 12, 1944, on the seventh day since the invasion of Normandy. Accompanied by George Marshall (US Chief of Staff), General Henry H. Arnold of the Army Air Forces, and Admiral Ernest King (Commander in Chief, U. S. Fleet), ‘Ike’ landed on the beach of Omaha. The visitation had an evident symbolic meaning and meant the global success of the whole operation OVERLORD, as well as the practical safety of the beaches, now taken by the Allies. The four generals had lunch with general Montgomery at the British headquarters of the 21st army group at ‘Château de Creullet’ (commune of Creully), the one which would be visited by De Gaulle days later.

Eisenhower speaking to 'Easy Company' men England, 5 Jun 1944
Eisenhower speaking to ‘Easy Company’ men of the US 101st Airborne Division, England, 5 June 1944

Eisenhower June 5, 1944

General Isenhower with Bernard Montgomery 1944

Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley in Normandy
Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley in Normandy, 1944
Generals Dwight Eisenhower on the streets of Isigny-Sur-Mer, June 12 1944
Generals Dwight Eisenhower on the streets of Isigny-Sur-Mer, June 12

Five decades after the visit of Dwight Eisenhower to Bayeux, which ‘IKE’ had dropped in on his journey across the frontlines, Susan Eisenhower the granddaughter of the General was a welcomed guest during the inauguration of the memorial. She used to come back to Bayeux every year since then to pay tribute and lay flowers to the monument of her iconic grandfather. The monument is dominated by a bronze statue of ‘IKE’, a work of the US sculptor Robert Lee Dean. Its sculptor ‘twin’ was also opened in the heart of London, at Grosvenor Place, behind the American embassy. Back in 1994, the erection of the memorial was donated by the ‘Battle of Normandy Foundation’ and the current care is being taken by the city of Bayeux. 






While Bayeux had not become a scene of fierce fights on and after D-Day, it was fated to become the last resting place for thousands of soldiers, predominantly British, yet of other nationalities as well. In virtue of the preservation of the city infrastructure, the liberation as early as the second day after the landing, proximity to the coastline, and the location in the borderland between large arterial roads of Normany, the first French city to be liberated became a milestone for carrying forward the advance of the Allied forces in Northern France after June 7. In addition to the fact that an increased traffic volume (which at one point demanded the building of a diversionary road), and the new headquarters of the French and Allied journalists, turned Bayeux into a kind of staging ground, it soon became the ‘medical center’ of the British sector in Normandy. 

It is worth repeating, that the town was fated to include the largest Commonwealth cemetery of the Second World War in France not because of fierce fights inside or close to it, but notedly due to military hospitals, which had been organized to receive wounded and dead from all over the British sector. The organized hospital facilities, which included both the French pre-war and the German ones, were assigned to receive wounded soldiers, including the injured Germans as well as civilians, who had suffered from the realities of war. When it comes to the French civilians, it’s worth mentioning that in most cases they were buried at the local cemeteries.  

The first phase of the burials at the BRITISH MILITARY CEMETERY, in 1944


Summing up, as early as June 1944 an open field in the South-West part of Bayeux was chosen to be turned into a war cemetery. In accordance with a British military tradition, the fallen warriors are conventionally buried next to their comrades-in-arms close to the sites of death. As opposed to the practice of the American forces of reburying their soldiers, the British and Commonwealth soldiers were in most cases not reburied. Relatedly, a military cemetery in Bayeux was to receive the remnants of the fallen soldiers until 1952, when it finally took on the current borders.  The ‘Cimetière Militaire Britannique de Bayeux’ is obviously not the only military cemetery of this kind in Normandy, though the largest one. In total, more than 25 000 Commonwealth soldiers were buried within nineteen relatively large cemeteries in the department of Calvados, and 26 in Normandy overall. Apart from this figure, thousands of fallen warriors found their resting place within the local pre-war civilian cemeteries. 

Baeyux War Cemetery


In accordance with the factualized statistics, the Bayeux War Cemetery hosts the graves of 4648 soldiers between 17 and 58 years old: 3935 British, 181 Canadian, 17 Australian, 8 from New Zealand, and one from South Africa. 482 men were killed on D-Day, Tuesday 6th June 1944. Apart from the people of the British empire, 506 soldiers of different nationalities are buried here. Among them are 25 Polish, 7 Russian, 3 French, two Italian, and two Czech graves, one with a nationality unidentified. The largest national group after the British is formed of 466 German soldiers or Apr. 10% of the overall figure of the burials within the cemetery in Bayeux. The Bayeux cemetery is under the supervision of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Among more than 4000 Commonwealth soldiers there are 338 graves (437 unidentified of the total 4648 number) with ‘A soldier of the 1939-45 War – Known unto God’ inscription. The grave of Corporal Sidney Bates of the 1st Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment commemorates the last resting place of the Victoria Cross recipient, the British Army’s highest military honor, awarded him posthumously. Soon after the end of the war, thousands of British would cross the English Channel annually to pay tribute to the graves of the fallen soldiers.  



Opposite the ‘Cimetière Militaire Britannique de Bayeux’ one could find the ‘Memorial of the Missing’, which commemorates the memory of 1808 Commonwealth soldiers missing in combat, among them 1537 British warriors, 270 Canadian from South Africa. Among them was a war correspondent and photographer IAN HERBERT FYFE. These fallen warriors were regarded as the MIA (missed-in-action) during the fighting in Normandy and their graves were never found. The stone collonade is dominated by the inscription in Latin: ‘NOS A GULIELMO VICTI VICTORIS PATRIAM LIBERAVIMUS’, which can be translated as ‘We, once conquered by William, have been now set free the Conqueror’s native land’. It bears a reminder of the historical fact, that the Englishmen, who had been conquered by the Normand king William the Conqueror in 1066, in 1944 landed in France to liberate the country from the Nazi occupation. The ‘Memorial of the Missing’ was ceremonially opened on June 5, 1955, in the presence of Henry William Frederick Albert, Duke of Gloucester, the third son of King George V. He was the uncle of Queen Elizabeth II, who herself visited the ceremony of the 60th anniversary and 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 2004 and 2014 retrospectively within the cemetery. 

‘Memorial of the Missing’ Bayeux

‘Memorial of the Missing’ Bayeux cemetery

I am very grateful to war archives, museums, libraries, private collections, and writers for the historical photos in this article. To the extent that some author or a copyright owner may not want some of the above black-and-white photos to be used for educational purposes here, please contact me for adding credits or deleting the pictures from the article.