In the early hours of June 6, 1944, a man knocked loudly on the door of Alexandre Renaud, Mayor of Sainte-Mère-Église. Since the town’s occupation by the enemy in 1940 there had been a strict curfew. This late night visit could only mean an emergency.
The visitor explained rapidly that a house just off the main square was on fire. There were frequent air-raids in the area in 1944, it was not unusual for fires to start. They could not know this fire was probably caused by a flair set down by pathfinder aircraft, ahead of the D-Day invasion.
A Normandy family
Alexandre was a veteran from WW1, the town pharmacist who just two weeks before had taken on the questionable privilege of mayor in occupied Normandy. He rushed out into the square. The Germans agreed to lower the curfew and soldiers with machine guns watched as locals people formed a chain to ferry buckets of water from the town pump to the burning house.
Church bells rang, calling across the countryside for help but their efforts made little difference. The blaze lit up nearby buildings and the church as they worked, then an incredible noise filled the night air.
“Just at that moment,” Alexandre recalled in his war memoir ‘Sainte-Mère-Église’ “a big transport plane, all lights ablaze, flew right over the tree-tops, followed immediately by others, and yet others. They came from the west in great waves, almost silent, their giant shadows covering the earth. Suddenly, what looked like huge confetti dropped out of their fuselages and fell quickly to earth. Paratroopers!”
His wife Simone and children, in their home above the pharmacy were now all wide awake. Younger son Henri-Jean recalled “shouting outside, guns. My brother and I tried to look out the window. My mother said, ‘No, no!’ pulled us back and we all knelt and prayed.”
Alexandre hurried back to his family. There had been rumours of a long-awaited invasion in Northern France but they expected the Allies to send small reconnaissance missions to scout out the area first. With huge excitement Alexandre told his family “It’s too many! It’s not commandos. It’s the liberation!”
The family headed out to a ditch away from the houses and fighting. Paul Renaud was 14 years old, Henri-Jean was 10. Henri-Jean recalled “I could see them, the soldiers, coming down in the night. We heard shouting but we were not afraid, my brother and I, because we were excited that the Americans were coming. A big shell exploded near the house and I couldn’t see my parents. I started to cry, then.”
It was 1.30am in the morning of 6 June 1944.
The burning house was a catastrophe for the men of the 82nd Airborne division, parachuting in and around Sainte-Mère-Église. Well lit, some were easy targets for the soldiers already on the ground. With little control over their parachutes, some were sucked into the fire. Many were caught up in trees and utility poles, unable to free themselves before they were found and killed by the enemy.
But as more and more Allied soldiers fought in the streets of Sainte-Mère-Église the hundred or so enemy realised they were outnumbered and fell back, out of the town.
By 4.30am, while terrified families hid in the fields and in basements, the Third Battalion, 505th Regiment, 82nd Airborne forced the last few Germans out and LTC. Edward C. Krause, raised his unit’s colours in front of the town hall.
The shock of freedom
In the early morning light Paul accompanied his father as he went out to greet their liberators. “My father told me I was big enough to come with him. We crossed the square. I saw my first bodies there. That of a German soldier and, at ten meters, that of an American paratrooper. On one side, condoms had slipped from his pocket. On the other hand, he held a small Bible in his hand. This image marked me.”
Henri-Jean was with his father when he saw “a paratrooper hanging from a tree. I had never seen a dead man before and I touched his boot. He began to turn around slowly in the air.” And later “There was a German on the ground, but no blood. It was the first time I saw one dead. I saw several paratroopers killed, one of them had no equipment or shoes or helmet, he had been robbed by the Germans.
A friend, and a memory, made
Later that shell shocked morning, Paul passed an American soldier, resting on a bench. The soldier called him over; “He beckoned to me to approach. He pulled a bundle of chewing gum out of his pocket and offered me one. I did not know what it was. I was about to swallow it when he explained to me, by gestures, that it was necessary to chew it”.
It was not peaceful for long. Later on 6 June the Germans launched a heavy attack that lasted two terrible days.
No hiding from danger
Families stayed out in the fields and woods, the Renauds’ in their ditch. The local butcher’s family joined them and Henri remembers moving up along the ditch to make room as gun fire filled the air. Henri recalled “We made room for them. The next day the butcher’s wife was killed by a shell just were I was the day before”.
By the afternoon of 7 June reinforcements arrived; tanks from nearby Utah Beach. The town was secured for the Allies by the afternoon of 7 June. The people of Sainte-Mère-Église would never forget their liberation, or that the Allied paratroopers stayed on as the Germans tried to take back the town.
Henri-Jean later said “If the Germans had succeeded, they would have destroyed the whole town and killed everybody. Thank God, these guys succeeded in stopping them. The feeling of the people here is so strong because of that.”
A different sort of childhood
While Alexandre and the adults of the town worked to rebuild, the children of Sainte-Mère-Église remember that June as a time of treasures after years of deprivation. They scoured the countryside and brought home what they found, the detritus of two armies; machine guns, radios, helmets, bayonets, caps, badges, brown packages provisions, strange medicines. Crashed gliders nosed through hedges and spread across fields. Parachutes became shrouds for the dead and dresses for girls and their mothers.
Towns around them spent days and sometimes weeks lurching between Allies and enemies so liberated Sainte-Mère-Église became an Allied headquarters. Perhaps nowhere was more aware of the cost of liberation; together with Bolsville, it was also the site of temporary war graves for around 13,000 soldiers killed so far from home. Until the end of her life Simone Renaud, who tended the temporary graves with love and flowers, wrote to families who could not afford to visit their dead sons and husbands. There is still a strong bond between Sainte-Mère-Église and the Allied countries that will never been broken.
A fitting memorial
A medieval church stands at the centre of Sainte-Mer-Eglise and took the brunt of battle, its windows destroyed. It was agreed the new window should be a memorial and a symbol of the towns thanks to their Liberators. Paul Renaud was now 16 and a skilled artist. Looking back at drawings he made of the night that changed all their lives, he designed a potent image. It recalled the courage and sacrifice that freed them, and the power of the faith that helped the town endure.
Gabriel Loire from Chartres made Paul’s window and it is possibly the most compelling memorial in this town of memorials. The Virgin Mary stands peaceful, holding the infant Jesus as around her paratroopers fall to the ground, their welcome well known.
A second window was donated on the 25th anniversary of D-Day by veterans of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, in 1972. Made again by Gabriel, it is of Saint Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers.
Sainte-Mère-Église is a vibrant memorial to liberation. The new Airborne Museum, built on the site of the burning house, gives visitors a good understanding of D-Day history and includes many personal stories of great bravery and humanity. In the town the flags of France and the Allies are always flying.
Every year there are celebrations, parachute drops, parties and enactments to remember the liberation. Visit the museum website to find out more.
Over the last 70 years the Renaud family have been involved in keeping the memory of liberation alive. Copies of Alexandre’s book ‘Sainte-Mère-Église’ can still be bought second hand online. Paul Renaud never lost his love of American chewing gum.
The excellent Airborne museum should be on everyone’s Normandy list.
Head away from the main square along Rue du Cap de Laine to see the big old liberation marker ‘0 km from liberation’ by the town hall.
The liberation memorial in our postcard is still by the church. It was covered by a chute during the making of film The Longest Day as the town mayor would not allow its removal.
Yes, that is a paratrooper dangling from the church tower. Have you heard of John Steele?
And of course step inside the church and have a quiet moment to remember a unique time in history, under the light of these two remarkable memorial stained glass windows.
A clip from the film The Longest Day, showing the parachutists landing at Sainte-Mère-Église