Roughly as many (c. 65,000) French and British civilians died in World War Two as a result of aerial bombing. This is not obvious given the way the war unfolded. France was not subjected to aerial attack during the “phoney war” period between September 1939 and May 1940. Moreover, the campaign in Northwest Europe which saw the Germans overrun Holland, Belgium Luxembourg and France in May/June 1940 was over in six weeks. France was subjected to nothing akin to the “Blitz” that was unleashed against British cities in the winter of 1940-41; or even the sporadic raids in 1942 and 1943; still less the short but devastating bombardment by V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets in 1944-45. So how was it that so many French civilians died in this way?
The answer, of course, was that the aerial bombardment that killed so many French civilians was not conducted by the Germans, but by the air forces of America and Britain. The casualties began to mount up during the spring of 1944, when allied heavy bombers were placed under the command of US general Eisenhower in preparation for the invasion of Normandy.
Together with his British deputy, Air Marshal Tedder, Eisenhower devised a plan to isolate the invasion beaches in order to delay the flow of men and material to the frontline German forces. Initially they had looked at destroying railway junctions. However, since these were relatively easy to fix, they alighted instead upon the locomotives themselves, together with the workshops – often located within French towns and cities – as the best target. As Patrick J. Kiger at the History Channel notes, the potential impact on French civilians resulted in a behind the scenes row between Churchill and Eisenhower that was only resolved after the latter threatened to resign.
Churchill’s qualms were realised during the build up to the invasion itself. As Ian Carter at the Imperial War Museum records:
“Winston Churchill was one of those still worried about loss of life, and insisted that locations where more than 150 French or Belgian casualties might be expected from a single raid were excluded…
“A total of 198 RAF bombers were lost – an acceptable rate of loss. Sadly, the civilian casualty rate in some cases far exceeded the prescribed limit of 100-150 each. At Lille on 9/10 April 456 civilians died and in Ghent on 10/11 April it was 428.”
These losses, however, were merely a starter for the blitz that the allied air forces would unleash on the residents of Normandy in June and July 1944. According to French historian Jean-Claude Valla, allied bombing destroyed 96% of Tilly-la-Campagne, 95% of Vire, 88% of Villers-Bocage, 82% of Le Havre, 77% of Saint-Lô, 76% of Falaise, 75% of Lisieux and 75% of Caen. Around 20,000 civilians were killed in the immediate area of the allied beachhead and as many as 50,000 in Normandy and its surrounds.
One reason why the civilian death toll was so high was that the allied invasion plan for 6 June 1944 miscarried. The plan called for British and Canadian forces to push forward more than 10 miles south of the beachhead to envelope the city of Caen and to capture the German airfields on its outskirts on D-Day itself. To achieve this aim, more than two-thirds of the armour landed on D-Day was allocated to the British. Britain, however, was at the end of its manpower reserves and its forces – under the command of the overly-cautious Montgomery – lacked the aggression later displayed by the American forces to the west. Advanced Canadian forces reached the outskirts of Caen, where they ran up against the infantry units of the 21 Panzer division (the only German armoured force in the area) whose tanks were then driving a wedge between the Canadian and British forces that very nearly reached the invasion beaches.
Caen did not fall until 18 July 1944; by which time it had been reduced to rubble. One reason for this was a lack of coordination between the British army and air force commanders. As an RAF paper by Wing Commander P Rait explains:
“The ability to capture or construct airfields in Normandy was a deciding factor over the Pas de Calais as a choice for invasion point and was a key issue in understanding why relationships between Montgomery and the Airmen deteriorated. The RAF’s fighter-bombers needed landing grounds as their relatively short range meant that best use was not being made of them whilst they had to operate from England… This failure to capture the airfields threw a spotlight on to the ever-deteriorating relations between Montgomery and the airmen.”
The myth that emerged after the war – largely perpetuated by Montgomery and his supporters – is that everything that happened on D-Day and during the Normandy campaign went exactly as planned. According to this version of events, Montgomery had always planned to turn Caen into a meat grinder in which Germany’s mobile forces would be subjected to First World War-style attrition at the hands of the Royal Navy’s guns and the Royal Air Force’s heavy bombers. If this is so, it is certainly not the plan that Montgomery had sold to his superiors; which envisaged a rapid British advance onto the open plains south of Caen, to be followed up with a broad allied advance toward Paris and the Seine.
What Montgomery had done with the D-Day plan as a whole, he would do again to tragic effect in the Operation Goodwood assault which finally captured what remained of Caen. Montgomery insisted on using heavy bombers to devastate the German positions around Caen prior to launching an armoured attack. In order to secure the support of his superiors, Montgomery claimed that Goodwood would be the long-awaited breakout. Like the D-Day plan itself, Goodwood miscarried. German units had pulled back their defences; and although those German forces caught up in the aerial bombardment were easily overrun, the British advance was halted after just seven miles when German artillery destroyed some 400 British tanks. Later, Montgomery would claim that this operation, too, was just another act of attrition designed to destroy German armoured formations. At the time, however, the failure very nearly caused Montgomery to be fired.
Montgomery’s attrition tactics were not lost on the French. As Henry Samuel reported in the Telegraph five years ago:
“Some French locals still have ‘a problem’ with the actions of the British, who were referred to as ‘bastards’ by some shortly after devastating RAF raids on the city of Caen and other Norman towns and villages…
“Antony Beevor, the British historian, has been scathing of the Caen bombings in his book, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, dubbing them ‘stupid, counterproductive and above all very close to a war crime’.”
Much of what is being commemorated on the 75th anniversary of D-Day is a version of events that was sanitised by the participants themselves. As Leo Tolstoy once put it, “History would be a wonderful thing – if it were only true.” And perhaps some of the later animosity around the history books as they began to be published gives a sense of the hidden conflicts among the D-Day commanders at the time. As Beevor wrote in the Telegraph a decade ago:
“Montgomery, partly for reasons of morale and partly out of pride, could not admit that any of his plans had gone wrong. He later created resentment and suspicion among American colleagues by claiming that he still intended to break out towards Falaise, yet insisting at the same time that he had always planned to trap the bulk of the panzer divisions onto his front to give the Americans the great chance of a breakout. This simply made a virtue out of a very sore necessity.
“But although Montgomery’s change of strategy was a perfectly pragmatic reaction to the situation, the Americans were furious at the way he tried to pretend that it had been his ‘master plan’ all along…
“Montgomery’s attempts to preserve his own and his country’s pride, had achieved the opposite effect. And the battle of the generals extended after the war by other means. Montgomery’s memoirs inflamed old disputes, with his claim that everything had gone according to his master plan. He clearly felt that he should be compared to Marlborough and Wellington.
“The usually tolerant Eisenhower was enraged. ‘First of all he’s a psychopath,’ Eisenhower exploded in an interview with Cornelius Ryan in 1963. ‘Don’t forget that. He is such an egocentric that man – everything he has done is perfect – he has never made a mistake in his life’.”
As the Normandy slips from memory into history, it is perhaps time to acknowledge that, while a necessary evil, it was still an evil; and that those who planned and oversaw it, for all of the complexity involved in its undoubted ultimate success, were not omnipotent and in many instances bordered on the incompetent. And as with every war before and since, it was the civilian population that paid the highest price.
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