With some trepidation we travelled to Vire to match a couple of old postcards picked up as part of a job lot ‘carte postale, Normandie, €10’ from a seaside brocante. Would we have bought them individually? I don’t know.
A dark day in history
On 6 June 1944 at around 8pm the quiet town of Vire in the Bocage region of Calvados was bombed relentlessly by the Allied Forces. Over 80% of it’s buildings were destroyed.
Warnings about the bombing were inadequate or ignored, but who could have foreseen such destruction by their liberators?
An estimated 350 people were killed that night, more were injured and not one family was untouched by the tragedy.
Homes were destroyed, roads that could have delivered supplies and aid became completely impassable, the town was a disaster area for some months.
We arrive in Vire
Our postcards are of the Porte Horloge and the Eglise Notre Dame.
We had read that the heat, as Vire burned, was so intense the bells of Notre-Dame church and all of the town’s stained glass melted. What would be left today?
Rising from the ashes
Both Porte Horloge and the Eglise Notre Dame were hit but could be saved. Very little else of Vire’s past survived.
The appalling impact of 6 June cannot be underestimated and were remembered recently in an exhibition at the Museum; ‘Permis de re-construire’ Permission to reconstruct. As well as a memorial to people lost and lives changes by the war, the museum talked about the brave new world Vire slowly carved out of post war Normandy.
Forced to modernise, a bright new town was created with wider streets, a new market square (‘Place du 6 Juin 1944’) by the Porte Horloge, schools and homes. The introduction of sewage system and water supply was a huge improvement to Vire health.
Hours to destroy, years to rebuild
During reconstruction the Virois became refugees in their own city.
Hundreds of temporary barrack style houses are built away from the damaged centre on vacant land and new temporary districts created: America, Sweden and French City of Courts.
It took 20 difficult years to put Vire back together again; the delicate balance of individual expectations, town needs and financial constraints an impossible challenge.
The first reconstruction stone was laid on 25 February 1949. Architects Marcel Clot, Marcel Chappey, Claude Herpe and Raymond David then left their mark upon Vire.
A little help from our friends
Completion is generally agreed to be the opening of the new library in 1965. A building very much of it’s time made from golden granite and cement, the interior a technical triumph.
Vire’s original library and 70 thousand irreplaceable volumes had been destroyed that terrible night in 1944.
Still the new library was filled with books. Books donated from across France and around the world, from libraries and institutions keen to play their part in healing Vire.
Glad we visited
Today Vire is a busy and vibrant town, proud of its modern architecture and not keen at all to dwell on just one story in it’s past.
Vire is far more likely to talk of the delicious Salmon trout caught locally, or the rather more challenging delicacy ‘Andouille de Vire’, a sausage made with some surprising ingredients.
But when the Library recently extended and became an impressive Médiathèque, within it’s walls the architects were careful to save remnants of an ancient building.
- Read a detailed history of Vire in 1944/5 by Christopher Long
- La nouvelle Bibliothèque municipale de Vire – 1965 news article about the new library (open in Chrome for instant translation!).
- From ‘Permission to reconstruct’ the museum’s recent exhibition and here one of their pamflets, with fascinating photos of the reconstruction in progress.
- Read about our experience of Andouille….