D-Day: Normandy--Intense Figting and Civilian Casualties (June-July 1944)


Figure 1.--Here an unidentified medic administers to a French boy who has hurt his ankle. Notice the Glengary cap. This means that the soldier is British or British soldiers must have passed through. One source says the medic is Candian. This would place the scene on the eastern part of the Normandy bridgehead, we think around Caen. This was the Brotish objective on Dy 1, but proved tonb thevkey stine of the Germn defenses. We don't recognize the medic's patch which isn't shon very clearly and he is not wearing his helmet--the most obvious way of differentiating between British/Canadian and American soldiers. A reader suggests, "I suspect the medic has loaned the boy his cap while he attends to the ankle". If so he might have had a hard time getting it back.

The Allied invasion transformed Normandy from a backwater of the War to perhaps the Wars most critical focal point. Both the Allies and Germans appreciated this and the fighting was not only intense, but confined to a relatively small area. The Germans knew that retreating from Normandy mean losing the War. The Allies had their backs to the Channel. The problem for the Germans was not only did Allied air power isolate Normandy, making reinforcement difficicult, but a massive Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front was destroying Army Group Center, the largest and most powerful German formation in the War. Dealing with increasing American pressure in the west forced the Germans to move forces west making the German position increasingly vulnerable to what would become one of the great tank battles of the War. The intense figting during June and July caused considerable damage throught out the area. This was especially true because the Germans managed to bottleup the Allies in the Normandy beidgehead for several weeks. This meant the fighting on the Western front was confined to Normandy. Many villiages and even cities like Caen were destroyed. There were large numbers of civilian casualties. The French during World War I had evacuated civilians from the Western Front in northern France. In Normandy there was no where to evacuate the civilians.

Relatively Untouched Area

Normandy before D-Day was an area relatively untouched by the War. After the German invasion, the French surrendered before the fighting reached Normandy (June 1940). And for 4 years, Normandy continued to be a backwater of the War. The Germans enjoyed the food and beaches. Firld Marshall Rommel was given command of Army Group B and upon arriving in France (early-1944) increased the pace of constructing beach defenses. There were some air attacks as the Allies prepared for D-Day, but the weifht od Allied bombing focused ion the Pas de Calais to fool the Germans and to distrupt the transportation network (primarily the railroads) leading from the Reich toward the coast. The people settled into a tranquil life living with the Germans whose behavior was realtivly correct. Thus the local populatuin was totally unprepared for what was to come. And many did not appreciate the Allies chhosing Normandy beaches because of the destruction and loss of life which would follow.

Intense Fighting

The Allied invasion transformed Normandy from a backwater of the War to perhaps the Wars most critical focal point. Both the Allies and Germans appreciated this and the fighting was not only intense, but confined to a relatively small area. The Germans knew that retreating from Normandy mean losing the War. The Allies had their backs to the Channel. The problem for the Germans was not only did Allied air power isolate Normandy, making reinforcement difficicult, but a massive Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front was destroying Army Group Center, the largest and most powerful German formation in the War. Dealing with increasing American pressure in the west forced the Germans to move forces west making the German position increasingly vulnerable to what would become one of the great tank battles of the War. But while in Normsandy the fighting was bitter abd at extremely close quarters. Opposing units were often separated only by small fields between hedgerows.

Civilian Casualties

The intense figting during June and July caused considerable damage throught out the area. This was especially true because the Germans managed to bottleup the Allies in the Normandy beidgehead for several weeks. This meant the fighting on the Western front was confined to Normandy. Many villiages and even cities like Caen were destroyed. There were large numbers of civilian casualties. The French during World War I had evacuated civilians from the Western Front in northern France. In Normandy there was no where to evacuate the civilians. We note reports of thousands of civilian casualties, byt have not been able to find any precise statistics. After the War there were criticisms from French sources, but there seems to have been replatively little complaint from French sources. Most accepted the terrible equation of warfare and that freeing France was worth the cost. And there was not a little conscious about French collaboration with the Germans. The largest casulaties in Normandy seem to have occurred in connection with air attacks on Cherbourg. One source reports 50,000 civilan deaths, mostly from Allied bombing attacks. [Amouroux] I'm unsure how accurate these estimates are, but there were undobtedly substantial civilian casualties. Not only was Cherborg heavily bombed, but Caen was almost completely destroyed.

Allied Civil Affairs Department

Both the Whermacht and the Allies had civil affairs components. The roles of the two groups, however, varied greatly. The Germans were primarily concerned with controlling a generally hostile civilian population in occupied countries. In this they worked with the security forces under SS command. This included rounding up Jews. The Whermach's other main assignment was to attract as much food and other resouces as poosible for its own uses and to transport to the Reich to support the German war effort. This process swas more regularized in France, than in the East where food shortages simply fit into the Hunger Plan. Even so, the German exploitation of the French economy was such that it creeated very severe food and other shortages. Rural areas like Normandy fared better than the major cities as regard to food. Supplying food to the local population was entirely the responsibility of French authorities and not the Germans. The Allied Civil Affairs Deoartment (CAD) in sharp contrast cooperated with the local population to restablishing civilian administration and to provide essential services like food, electricity, and water. As a result of ghe heavy fighting in water, such services had broken down. Cities like Caen were in ruin and large numbers of people were in desperate need of food. This the CAD did what it could to provide on an emergency basis. Here the Allies had a serious limitation. The success of the D-Day Normandy operation was in part a struggle of logistics. This is why the Germans defended the ports so strongly. It became a matter of whether the Allies could amass and supply a substantial losdgement before the Germans cioncentrated in force. Every ton of food delivered to feed civilians meant a ton of supplies that was not delivered to the the fighting forces. And all the supplies at first had to be landed on the beaches, an inefficent way of moving supplies, as no ports were available. Fortunately for the Allies, OKW did not move immediately to concentrate its forces in Normandy, especially the Panzer divisions. OKW and Hitler hesitated, believing for some time that FUSAG and the major Allied invasion force would land in the Pas de Calais, thev shortest and most direct route to the Reich.

Sources

Amouroux, Henri. La Grande histoire des Français sous l’Occupation volume 8. Amouroux estimates 20,000 civilians were killed in Calvados department, 10,000 in Seine-Maritime, 14,800 in the Manche, 4,200 in the Orne, and about 3,000 in the Eure. That adds up to more than 50,000 killed people.







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Created: 6:49 PM 8/1/2007
Last updated: 10:13 PM 11/15/2014