Vernon, the town that liberated itself in 1944 Normandy
As we stood on the latest Vernon bridge (there have been many) in Eure, we matched our postcard with no idea of the dramas this idyllic scene had witnessed. An online search revealed a vast library of WW2 pictures of soldiers. Then we discovered just a suggestion of a lesser known story that shocked and enthralled us. A story that had to be hidden and is still not often told.
During WW2 in Vernon they were short on food, munitions and freedom. But not on bravery.
A unintentional betrayal
The first Vernon Resistance group, known as ‘le Réseau’, were created in the first year of German oppression, 1940. Led by Primary school teacher Louise Damasse it was part of the ‘Hector’ network. ‘Hector’ was originally set up in Granville in June 1940 with the British Intelligence Service (IS) and quickly spread across Calvados, Eure and Orne. Hector’s success was short lived.
One a terrible August day in 1941 Pierre Aussannaire, a Resistance recruiter born in Vernon and completely immersed in the Normandy and Paris networks, is captured on Gare Saint-Lazare railway platform in Paris with a bag of guns. Tragically an address book is also found.
The Gestapo initiate Operation Porto and in October 1941 round up 244 people across Normandy and Paris. The ‘Hector’ network is largely destroyed. Pierre is deported to Germany, he died in terrible captivity on 4 April 1943.
In 1942 a second Vernon group ‘Résistance’ is set up by Georges André. Résistance circulate underground newspapers Résistance and Porte normande while collecting intelligence and keeping up a barrage of guerilla activities against the occupying forces.
Also in 1942 a third group ‘Vengeance’ appears, based in nearby Écos. They focus on sending information to the UK, ‘immediate action’, medical assistance and helping Allied airman. They are betrayed in the winter of 1943/4 and many arrested, but the group continues.
By 1944 the Eure Resistance networks are the largest in Normandy, linking well over 1000 people. Members of the Resistance live a precarious existence, facing the the daily threat of exposure by spies and collaborators and deadly torture by the Gestapo.
But they have also had some very good news. The invasion is imminent. To strengthen their cause insurgent groups across France join together as FFI, Forces Françaises de l’
The battle for the bridges of Vernon
George’s town is under attack. The Allies are desperate to destroy the bridges at Vernon, the last crossing before Paris. The Seine offers the only natural barrier for any 3rd Reich troops attempting to get back to Germany and because of it’s strategic importance the town is heavily occupied.
Then on May 7 1944 American P-47 Thunderbolt pilots, dive bombing to dangerously low heights, destroy the railway bridge over the Seine at Vernon. But the main bridge that could carry thousands of troops and vehicles is only slightly damaged.
Refugees in the cliffs
After this partial success, further bombing was all from high altitude. From April to August 34 air attacks fail to destroy the bridge. Many Vernonnais become refugees as stray bombs battered the town and the death toll grows. Dozens of families are forced to set up home in the caves, old quarry workings, across the river.
June 1944 and news of the D-Day landings is marked by increased violence and oppression by the occupying forces but in spite of the danger of reprisals over 100 airmen are rescued by the Eure FFI.
As the air attacks continue the Resistance fighters of Vernon know they have to act before the town is completely destroyed. The Allied forces are avancing and the bridge’s importance to the both sides grows daily. Fernand Caffiaux, Georges André and his son Stephen, Marquet, Leroux and Le Meur plan an act of suicidal bravery.
Bodies in the Seine
They agree the attack should take place in daylight as it will be least expected.
On Friday 18 August Marquest rows two friends under the bridge over the Seine. Desperately avoiding the attention of the guards Léon Le Meur and Francis Leroux quickly attach to the bridge all the explosives they have been able to gather.
Speeding silently away they are back by the town when they hear the explosion. A flash of light, dust and debris everywhere and a huge wave of water confirm their success. German bodies float along the Seine.
They quickly learn that although badly damaged the bridge is just about passable on foot. Still people of the town are ecstatic.
‘Make themselves safe’ but without the Americans
August 19. A sighting across the plains and a rumour spreads across Vernon; the Americans have arrived! Encouraged by the audacious attack on the bridge and the sight of the Allies, Resistance groups mobilise their sections and set about ridding the streets of Vernon of their hated invaders.
Leaders Caffiaux and André speed out to meet the Americans and quickly learn from Colonel Regnier that their optimism has been misplaced. The 5th Regiment will not be stopping at Vernon, their orders are to travel only to Louviers. Vernon must wait for the British Army.
Caffiaux and André explain they have already taken the artillery barracks, the park, the Château de Saint-Just and released Sainte Marcel and Sainte Pierre d’Autils. They are advised to ‘make themselves safe’ and await the English. It should only be a day or two. The Colonel thoughtfully leaves them a liaison officer, M. Lavoie.
The town that liberated itself
Back in Vernon forty FFI fighters attack three German tanks and two trucks at the town hall. Finally after delivering a hail of shells the tanks turn tail and leave Vernon. There is an intense battle along Rue Carnot. FFI reinforcements arrive and the famously elegant tree lined Rue des Capucins becomes a battle ground. Several SS are injured, the others surrender.
Just across the river German troops hold the village of Vernonnet and the hill. They continue to fire on Vernon but the FFI are unwilling to respond, only too aware of the vulnerable townsfolk in the caves.
Francis Leroux, posted amongst the rubble of buildings on Rue d’Albufera overlooking the remains of the bridge, spots infantry quietly attempting to cross. FFI ammunition is dwindling. He gathers FFI forces and they wait until the group are near then open fire. Grenades complete their task and few survivors cling to the shore. For now no-one will be attempting to cross the bridge.
It is August 21 1944 and Vernon is free.
Flag of freedom
On 22 August the FFI dismiss the town council that took it’s orders from the hated Vichy government and for the first time in 4 years the French flag flies over the town.
A dangerous waiting game
For five days the free people of Vernon watched as in the distance the American troops pass them by. Ever vigilante they expect the return of the SS at any moment and are under constant fire from the Germans on Vernonnet.
Then, in the afternoon of 25 August 1944 the 1st Worcestershire Regiment (British regiment) arrived in Vernon.
How the British built a bridge, and with help of the FFI cleared the hill at Vernonnet is another, incredible, story. You can read about Operation Neputune here.
The brave Resistance fighters who freed the town are not forgotten; every day the people of Vernon walk along roads named in their memory; Rue Louise Damasse, Rue Georges André. But there is no road for Pierre Aussannaire, remember him?
Lots of photos of Vernon during the events of 1944 here in the Imperial War Museum UK online resource
Beaucoudray information on the Resistance in Normandy and specifically Beaucoudray
Worcestershire Regiment.com heroes of Vernon
Information on the Normandy Resistance Eure-en-Ligne
More on the liberaton of Vernon on Giverney.org
An the Vernon caves and their role in the war and more Vernon Viste.org
Boo: The price of liberty