Most of the information for my trip has been taken from an interview that my brother conducted in the fifth grade. He asked Grandpa the questions that I never had the nerve to. This is how I know that at some point, Grandpa was in France. He told my brother that after leaving England he landed on “a beach in France.” Grandpa did not fight in Normandy. I decided to go to Normandy because of the historical significance of the fighting that took place here. Grandpa got to France in December of 1944, five months after D-Day.
But before Grandpa landed on that “beach in France”, 61,732 American, British and Canadian men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner on five different beaches, spanning eighty miles in France. During the early morning of June 6, 1944, the Allies launched the largest and riskiest attack of World War II: Operation Neptune. For months they planned two attacks: one real and one fictitious. The decoy was to be in Calais, where fake units were sent. The Allies even went so far as to plant soldiers to be captured by the enemy only to be tortured into giving false information. The deception worked but for one Nazi general. But I will write further about that next time.
Visiting the town of Sainte-Mere Eglise was eye-opening to say the least. Remember, Grandpa trained as a paratrooper but for one reason or another, never jumped in the war. The whole time I was going through this tour, hearing the statistics and the stories, I couldn’t help but be selfishly grateful that Grandpa had ended up instead in the infantry.
My tour guide, a strawberry-blonde woman named Sunny, had grown up only twenty minutes from the town. Her grandparents had evacuated during the bombardments of D-Day. She told us that the Americans would always warn the civilians before they started a bombing and her grandmother insisted on taking refuge in the church. Her grandfather knew better than to hide out in the town center and convinced her to run with him instead to the outskirts of town, into the country. That saved their lives and the lives of their children. Seventy-five percent of the town was destroyed in the bombing, a rarity for Normandy. Most of the towns were fairly untouched.
Sunny described to us the early morning of June 6th, when American paratroopers fell from the sky to liberate the people of Sainte-Mere Eglise. It was about one o’clock and an unfortunate house fire had been raging for nearly two hours. The fire made the night more bloody than planned. It awakened the German soldiers, who had to authorize a lift of the curfew in order for the townspeople to help extinguish the fire, and illuminated the town that would otherwise have been pitch black and empty. The paratroopers began descending in their virtually uncontrollable but silent parachutes, one soldier cutting off most of the flesh from his thumb as he struggled to get free of his parachute before being shot by the Germans.
The most famous incident in this town is the story of John Steele, who was caught on the very top of the cathedral, called Notre Dame, in the center of town. He was not the only paratrooper caught on Notre Dame, but he was the highest up. On the other side of the building, Kenneth Russell found himself caught as well, about twenty feet from a German soldier, who drew his gun to shoot when behind him landed yet another American paratrooper, Sergeant John Ray. The German turned and shot Ray then turned back to shoot Russell and Steele but Ray was not dead. Ray drew his own weapon and killed the German soldier, allowing time for Russell to escape. Russell unfortunately believed that both Ray and Steele were dead and ran off to join the fighting.
Ray died of his injuries the next day. Steele faked being dead for two hours before being cut down by German soldiers for looting. He was taken prisoner and escaped only three days later, rejoining the Allies and fighting in the rest of the war, including the Battle of the Bulge with my grandpa. John Steele returned to Sainte-Mere Eglise in the sixties and when he passed, donated his medals to the town. They are on display at the Airborne Museum. Steele became famous for his depiction in the film “The Longest Day” and as a result, the town hung a dummy paratrooper at the top of Notre Dame to appease the tourists.
The paratroopers in Sainte-Mere Eglise suffered enormous losses. Many were shot down from the sky, many ended up drowning in marshes as they landed. Still, the survivors took the town by four in the morning, making it the first liberated town of the war. It had been under the Nazi rule for four years.
The impact of that night and the liberation of the small town still resonates today. There are parachutes painted on shop windows, there are statues in honor of the paratroopers. To me though, the most touching tribute to those men was in the cathedral where John Steele and Kenneth Russell were trapped.
The citizens were so grateful to the paratroopers that they wanted to make one of the stained glass windows of Notre Dame a tribute to them. They paid for a new window to be made above the alter in the cathedral, depicting Mary surrounded by paratroopers, falling from the sky like angels. You have to take a moment and think about this. The year that they made this happen was 1947, it was extremely expensive to make and the town, like so many other towns and cities during that time, was still recovering from the war financially and economically. The enormity of the sacrifice that it took for these people to put up the stained glass is something to admire. Just to put it in perspective: rationing of meat, butter and cheese in England, one of the world’s superpowers, did not end until 1954. The war had been over for nearly a decade.
When American veterans returned to the town years later, they were so enormously touched by the stained glass window of them, they donated two more to the cathedral: all to represent the friendship between the two nations and the day of the first liberation.
The relationship between the paratroopers and the town of Sainte-Mere Eglise reminded me of a picture I found in my grandpa’s things. It shows a jeep and a group of soldiers and one soldier off to the left, kneeling down and embracing a child. I don’t know where or when it was taken or who the soldiers are, but it struck me. There are many pictures like this in Normandy, on postcards and hanging in shops and restaurants.
Peace is all around this region. There is no room for hatred here. Even in the German cemetery, there is no graffiti, the grounds are well-kept and beautiful. “This is not a graveyard of Nazi fanatics,” Sunny explained, “many of the men buried here were not even German. They were prisoners of war or any citizen who could hold a gun.” The youngest soldier buried in Normandy is a German boy, only fourteen years old. The oldest is also German. A seventy-five year old veteran of World War I. If there are any SS soldiers in the German cemetery, their headstones do not note it. “We want to prevent any desecration, to forget the hate. It was hate and resentment that started the second world war.” Sunny said, “We do not want that again.”
Sunny is right, Hitler preyed on the disappointment and economic depression brought on by losing WWI. He blamed the Jews, harnessed the people’s anger and manipulated his way to power. By the time the true degree of his hatefulness, his fanaticism and evil was realized, most of the German population found themselves prisoners as well. This is something to remember, too many people paid for his hate with their lives.