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When Hollywood met Normandy, on Sword Beach, 1944

There is a famous black and white film, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck with the best intentions of exposing the horror and bravery of war.  He had determined to make a revolutionary, realistic movie to parade before audiences who were just boys and girls during WW2.

The film would be about 6 June 1944, it is called The Longest Day.

The Casino at Ouistreham - match!
The Casino at Ouistreham – match!

The longest day

On 6 June 1944, No. 4 Commando under Colonel Dawson landed at Ouistreham (Roger section of Sword Beach) tasked to clear the Ouistreham bunkers, with the casino bunker a primary objective, then fighting their way to Pegasus Bridge.

No. 4 Commando were unusual.  Their numbers included 185 soldiers from France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Canada, Russia, Austria and Poland.  These ‘1er Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos (BFMC)’ had all somehow escaped occupied Europe and made it to England.  The Batallion been set up by Frenchman Lieutenant Commander Philippe Kieffer.

At 7.25am on the morning of 6 June 1944 Colonel Dawson ensured two Frenchmen of the BFMC were the first to step onto French soil. It was important for everyone that these men be at the forefront of Europe’s liberation.

Military monster

The beach was a vicious forest of booby trapped stakes, barbed wire and mines.

Behind the beach once stood the Riva Bella Casino, a pretty building in the wood beamed Normandy villa style.  Sometime in 1942 the occupying German army had levelled the casino, along with over 100 seaside villas at Ouistreham. They were making way for a vast concrete bunker, or rather a network of 80 bunkers.

Rommel was so proud of the bunker complex he had made two personal visits, in November 1943, and again just 7 days before D-Day.

Within this military monster stood immense firepower including 155mm guns with a range of 21.3 km, 75mm and 50cm guns in pill boxes, defending a watchtower, sitting on top of one of the remaining villas and in the remains of the old casino.  The bunkers were linked by underground tunnels and surrounded by trenches. The construction buzzed with hundreds of armed soldiers.

The flattened casino, now part of a vast bunker complex, 1944 Ouistreham
The flattened casino, now part of a vast bunker complex, 1944 Ouistreham

Tough resistance

As wiki says with some restraint “British and French commandos encountered tough resistance in the seaside town of Ouistreham”.

Timed to land at low tide when the beach defences could at least be seen, the commandos ran across the murderous sands through gunfire, shells and grenades.

In the first long minutes of the assault 4 officers  were wounded – including Colonel Dawson and Commander Kieffer – and 30 men were killed or wounded.

Three commandos, part of a group trapped at the foot of an anti-tank wall, attempt to scramble up it.  The are quickly shot and killed.  Deputy Lieutenant Hubert is hit by a bullet to forehead dying instantly.

Despite their best efforts it is clear the concrete strengthened bunker cannot be taken by manpower alone. Commander Kieffer hears on the radio that Sherman DD tanks of the 13/18 Hussars are landing not far along the beach.  Already wounded in the thigh he runs back onto the beach and makes it across to the tanks. Shot for a second time he still manages to reach them and a tank heads directly to support the casino attack.

Landing at Sword Beach
Landing at Sword Beach

A deadly search

The Sherman tank’s shells finally stop the casino guns and the commandos successfully storm the bunker.  Their next task is equally deadly.  They search every room, every corridor, every part of the vast bunker complex to rout out the enemy, often fighting hand to hand as their adversaries resist capture with everything they have.  Then the commandos fight to liberate the streets of the town, under fire from snipers.

Freedom at a cost

By late morning Rommel’s pride and joy the Ouistreham bunker complex is in the hands of the Allies and Ouistreham, for the first time since 1940, is free again.

Local people are quick to thank their liberators, some moved to tears to discover French and French speakers among them.

Eight of the BFMC lost their lives liberating Ouistreham, 31 were badly wounded.

At 12.40 the commandos regrouped and made for their second objective of the day, to meet up with the 6th Airborne paratroopers at the Bénouville bridge, now known as Pegasus.  By the evening of June 6, the 1er BFMC had lost almost 25% of its personnel. The Batallion fight on through Normandy until 27 August, when they are finally returned to the UK for rest, and to receive replacements for lost comrades.

Commandos engaged in house to house fighting with the Germans at Riva Bella, near Ouistreham Normandy
Commandos engaged in house to house fighting with the Germans at Riva Bella, near Ouistreham Normandy

The book and the film

Years later the commando’s bravery at Ouistreham was included in a book, The Longest Day, by Cornelius Ryan published in 1959. This remarkable volume included personal stories based on real interviews and was informed by senior officers involved in the day.

When Darryl F. Zannuck decided to make a film based on the book he paid Cornelius Ryan $175,000 for the film rights and the story got the Hollywood treatment.

Well meaning as the film is, there are some surprising ‘amendments’.

Well that’s odd

The assault on the casino and liberation of Ouistreham were filmed in the sand-free fishing port of Port-en-Bessin – the world ‘Ouistreham’, painted on the side of a local building can still be seen.

The casino reappears as a three story building, not only resurrected but quite unlike the original. It’s roof is packed with German soldiers, filmed to great effect from a helicopter.  The casino is soon blown up to great affect.

Zannuck employed many big stars, hoping to interest a wide audience in his epic.  John Wayne played the role of Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort, to the Colonel’s disappointment since even 17 years after D-Day Vandervoort was still a decade younger than the 54 year old Wayne.

The nuns being rescued from a convent at Ouistreham was a surprise to veterans and the town which has never had a nunnery.

The resurrected casino 6 June 1944 - screen grab from the film The Longest Day
The resurrected casino 6 June 1944 – screen grab from the film The Longest Day

Return to Pegasus

But despite these and many other  surprising and unnecessary embellishments, the film is sincere and has some moments of unexpected authenticity – the actor Richard Todd played Major John Howard leading the assault at Pegasus bridge.  On 6 June 1944, a younger Richard Todd was a captain in the British 6th Airborne Division and landed in Normandy and met up with Colonel Howard – at Pegasus bridge.

The Longest Day cost $10,000,000 and was nominated for five Oscars.  It didn’t win Best Picture but did win for Best Cinematography and Best Special Effects and made back every dollar invested in it.

As Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote at the time “It is hard to think of a picture, aimed and constructed as this was, doing any more or any better or leaving one feeling any more exposed to the horror of war than this one does.

1er Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins (BMFC) 14 July 1943
1er Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commando (BMFC) 14 July 1943

 

We recommend

Discover more about the liberation of Ouistreham visit Musée du No.4 Commando just opposite the new casino.

The beach at Ouistreham today
The beach at Ouistreham today

Beach huts at Ouistreham

Beach huts at Ouistreham

 

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