This story was written a few years ago. I share it every year on June 6.
France will never forget.
On June 6, 1944, American, British and Canadian troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. The liberation of France and Western Europe had started, leading to the defeat of Nazi Germany a few months later. We have all heard the stories of heroism, bravery and sacrifice; seen the photos; heard the staggering numbers of military and civilian casualties. Some of us have visited the museums, cemeteries and famous Normandy beaches.D-Day. Operation Overlord. Or, to the French le Débarquement. This was admittedly the largest air, land and sea operation undertaken in the history of warfare.
It all happened 68 years ago. A lifetime ago. But the people who lived through – and survived – these dramatic times, remember the war like it was yesterday. They have not forgotten. And they do not want others to forget, either.
So today, to celebrate the anniversary of D-Day and the liberation of my homeland; to honor the brave men and women who fought and sacrificed so much – and the civilians who endured, I would like to translate for you a personal letter.
Like many boys his age, my 12-year old son is fascinated with military history. In a few weeks, he will be lucky enough to learn more about trench warfare during World War I when he visits Verdun, in Northern France, with his cousin and my parents. Junior recently asked his grandmother, Mutti, to tell him about World War II, and her life as a young French girl during the German Occupation. This is what she wrote to him. They have both agreed to let me publish a free translation here.
Here is Mutti’s story…
“Yes, Alec, I am happy to answer your questions on WWII. It’s a good thing to be curious (…) I was six years old when war was declared at the beginning of August 1939, and I was 12 when Allied forces (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Russia, and France,) signed the Armistice that put an end to war in Europe on May 8, 1945. You understand why I still remember a lot about those years.
I lived with my parents and my sister Micheline at the time, on the 4th floor of a Parisian building. After the outbreak of the war, Germany beat the French army pretty quickly. The Germans invaded France and entered Paris in June 1940. They called it “The phony war.” It was horrible for us to see the enemy in our homeland, taking over the most beautiful Parisian buildings and most elegant hotels for their generals, senior officers and their staff. They paraded on the Champs-Elysées. We were heartbroken.
|German troops on the Champs-Elysées|
|German officers in Paris|
|French civilian, Marseille, September 1940|
Then the Germans bombed strategic targets all over France, factories, railroads, towns and villages to crush our country, leaving behind human casualties, chaos, and ruins.
The German army captured tens of thousands of French soldiers, who were sent to camps in Germany where those who survived stayed for four, sometimes five years, until they were liberated by the Allied forces en 1945, as they were slowly dying of cold and starvation. My father, your great-grand-father, was one of them. He was lucky to be able to escape.
|French prisoners, on their way to five years of captivity|
We, civilians, lived in France during those years, controlled by the Germans who took away all our supplies to feed their troops, or sent them to Germany, while we hardly had anything left to keep warm or to eat.
Winters were the hardest time for us. They were particularly cold during the war years. We were freezing everywhere we went, at home, at school, in church. The only place where we could keep warm was the Métro. I still cringe when I think about those winters. There was hardly any power left: We did our homework by candlelight!
We used rationing books to purchase food: After a while, there was no meat, no butter, no eggs, no potatoes, no fruit or vegetables. We would eat rutabagas (turnips) – yuck! – but my parents did their best so my sister and I had enough to eat.
Then came air raids, when Allied airplanes fighting enemy troops flew over France on their way to Germany. I can still hear the sirens, in waves, resounding in the middle of the night. We did not know where the bombs would fall next. On our house? We were told to run for cover, usually in the basement, even in the dark. We were not afraid, and my sister and I used to giggle silently.
|Rue Championnet, Paris, 18th arrondissement|
|St-Lô, Battle of Normandy, 1944
“Capital of Ruins”
We wore special gas masks, meant to protect us from potential deadly gas like the ones used during WW1. We never actually used them, but we had to carry them with us everywhere, even as we dragged around our heavy school bags on the way to school. They were cumbersome and annoying.
|School children “practicing”|
Meanwhile, General de Gaulle was in London with our English friends and our great American friends, and they were planning le Débarquement (D-Day.)
We all had high hopes that this would put an end to the German occupation.
|General de Gaulle, reviewing the Free French Forces,
Ah, unparalleled joy when on June 6, 1944, we heard that the Americans and Allied forces had landed in Normandy. You visited the region with your father and you understand what an incredible feat they accomplished that day. Thank you, thank you, thank you to all of them!
|(from the US Coast Guard collection in the US National Archives)|
|Liberation of Cherbourg, June 1944
Then, as you know, the war went on, with several highlights: the Russians’ victory, Hitler’s suicide, the fall of Berlin, and finally, Japan’s surrender after the terrible events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The world had been torn to pieces. It had to be rebuilt.
The Armistice put an end to that abominable war. It was signed on May 8, 1945. My family and I got to watch the most incredible military parade of victorious troops on the Champs Elysées on July 14, 1945. I was 12 then, like you today.
|Liberation celebrations (Paris, summer 1945)|
|Paris, Ponts d’Iena, summer 1945
|Parisians celebrating on the Champs-Elysées,
July 14, 1945
Here you are, my little Alec, a few memories – still so vivid – of those sad times. I can’t wait to tell you more when you visit Paris this summer.
– Gros bisous,
D-Day, a tribute. Photos by Savoye Images
Do not use without permission.
|Remnants of the temporary floating harbor,
|Tall cliffs and a restless sea…|
|The “Pointe du Hoc:” It did not resist
the US 2nd Ranger Battalion’s two-day assault
|American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer|
To my readers: Read more about D-Day here.
Excellent post by “Je parle Americain.”