This week our match is 73 years out of date. The early postcards reveal a world now lost. They are matched with photos taken in the summer of 1944, in WW2. The wartime quality of the photography is not sharp, but the story is clear.
The battle for Caen lasted just under two months and was so vicious 73% of the city was destroyed and it is estimated 3000 local people; children, women and French civilians, died.
Here we remember those terrible days through the voices of local people.
The bombardment begins
On 6 June American bombers, aiming to knock out bridges on river Orne, missed their targets and destroyed sections of an unsuspecting city. Over 300 people died. This was just the beginning.
Cécile Leclerc, then a 17 year old student nurse recalled the bombardment after D-Day:
“I was a nurse with my sister Therese in a dispensary near the Rue des Carmes, transformed into a clinic, which was totally destroyed during the bombing. Outside, we heard the noise of the planes and the explosions of the bombs. Caen was on fire. On the 7 of June, about seven o’clock in the morning, it was terrible. The noise of the bombs, the fire, everything cracked … I managed to free myself from the rubble but I never saw my sister Therese again.
Just nine miles south of the D-Day beaches, the Allies expected to liberate Caen quickly. The city was vital for transport through the region and if left in German hands would give German reinforcements good access to the coast.
But they had underestimated resistance by German Panzer divisions who held the Allies away from Caen for some weeks. Eventually a major assault was planned on the city for 8 July. Bombers would prepare the way. They started in earnest on 7 July.
7 July 1944
Survivors always said 7 July was the worst day for Caen. On that day records show Lancaster and Halifax bombers dropped 2500 tons of bombs on the city.
André Heintz, a 24-year old resistance fighter was in Caen when the bombs dropped.
“I was haunted by what I saw, it was terrible to see so many wounded. It was difficult to bear.”
A bloody cross and a new legend
André had to resort to dipping sheets in blood to create a red cross he laid across the roof of their makeshift hospital, in the hope this would keep the bombers away.
Somehow the Abbey survived and the hospital, thanks to that huge red cross. Both buildings were still hit by nearly 200 shells, but around them city was hit with 600,000 shells in the weeks after D-Day.
Many people took refuge in the Abbey because it was a very strong building but also because a legend never heard before that they clung to; William the Conqueror was buried there and they believed the Allies wouldn’t dare bomb the grave of an English king. The rumour was that if William’s grave was ever destroyed, it would be the end of the English crown. This ‘legend’ may have given them confidence at the time but is not known in England. Rather than disappearing after the war this new legend is still repeated by some guides at the abbey.
Annihilation of almost all of Caen
Living just a few miles from the city Marie Louise Osmond recorded the bombardment in her diary;
July 9 “The offensive lasted 36 hours (we were stupefied by the noise)…
July 11 “I learn for certain of the annihilation of almost all of Caen, of the death of so many people”.
After news reaches Marie Louise of friends dead or lost in the chaos, she resolves to visit Caen. The journey of just a few miles is traumatic:
July 12 “On the sides of the road the traces of the battle, broke rifles, abandoned equipment, German and English mess tins lying together, punctured by bullets..”
“Graves on the edge of the road (one so shallow the boots and shoes stick out) a little cross hastily made, a helmet…A German corpse lies in its green tunic, the red ribbon of Russia gleaming, surrounded by flies.”
In the city she finds heaps of rubble in the place of roads and churches, it is a wasteland.
Liberation, at a price
Although parts of Caen were liberated on 9 July, still the enemy resist and the Allies could not get across the Orne river that bisects the city. A further 7,000 tons of bombs and 250,000 shells were aimed at Caen. Finally the enemy are completely pushed back on 21 July.
The city has been reduced to rubble, impassable by Allied troops.
After living though the bombardment, Marie-Louise Osmont earned the right to ask “but at what a price!”
The most beautiful day
But there was also the euphoria of liberation. André Heintz says;
“I went to the northern part of the city, to the area that is now part of the university campus. The whole area looked like I imagined the moon to be, because the many bombs that had been dropped had brought lots of white stone to the surface.”
“When I saw the first Allied soldier I put my hands up, because I had no way of identifying myself. I was taken to the Intelligence Officer, who was very pleased to see me because I could pinpoint our location on a map. The soldiers gave me sugar, chocolate, jam and Spam. I took them to meet the Deputy Mayor at the Abbey, and remained their interpreter for the next five months.”
“That day was the most beautiful of my entire life. I could hardly believe that I survived the German occupation and the battle, and I rushed to church as soon as I could to thank God for the privilege of being alive and being free again.”
The horror lingers
But the damage Caen suffered was a shock to many people across the world, a shock that has lingered.
Following the capture of Caen, British war correspondents for the Daily Mail reported on 28 July;
“One must drive through Caen every time one goes to or from the Orne front and it’s still a horrible and rather shaming thing. The people of Caen will never quite understand why we had to do anything so awful to them. Still, day by day, the bodies of their fellow-citizens are being dug out of the ruins.”
‘I am ashamed’
When asked about the controversy surrounding the terrible bombing of Caen, André Heintz said:
“Obviously it was a crime to cause such destruction and kill so many people, but probably it was the only thing to stop the Germans long enough from rushing towards the sea…”
He recalled an emotional meeting with a British student in Edinburgh, where he taught French after the war.
“The student didn’t dare look at me. I was fed up after a while and asked him why. He said: ‘I’m ashamed. It was my fault if Caen was destroyed. I was the one who studied the aerial photographs throughout the battle and we had to find the places where the Germans opened new roads and destroy them”.
“But the Allies were bringing us freedom. They could not be blamed for being wrong. It was war; there were no limits.”
The French call Caen ‘a city martyred for peace’.
Pathe newsreel from 1944 showing the final bombardment of Caen from the British side, including their advance inside the destroyed town.
Cécile Leclerc talks about being in Caen during the bombardment (fr, images text and film)
André Heintz talks about the Resistance and the battle for Caen, in the BBC People’s War pages
Further info – account of the battle by a British soldier, BBC pages
Read the full Battle for Caen history on ThoughtCo
After the war the Sainte Jean church was restored. Having lost all of it’s glass, Danièle Perré was commissioned to create new windows and they are extraordinary. Have a look here.