That day on the 5 June 1944, was the arrival of the first American soldier
Roger Lecheminant was 20 years old in 1944, his parents held a farm at Houesville in the Manche. The 1940 debacle, the occupation, the liberation by the American parachutists, and then . . . He remembers, as if it was yesterday.
The British were leaving, and the Germans were arriving. In 1940, I remember the British going to embark at Cherbourg. They blew up the bridges at Carentan, and the Cherbourg naval marines, with their guns, blocked the Germans for 24 hours. But a German officer went to see the mayor of Carentan and said to him: “If you don’t stop the firing we will blow up the town !” ; so the mayor went off with a white flag to tell the marines to stop ; the time they took to make a detour permitted the British to embark. From Carentan to Cherbourg I saw them set fire to all their trucks along the road so that the Germans could not use them. When the Germans arrived we were afraid. The first one I saw was a scout on a side-car, then came all the equipment, the miles of convoys, trucks and carts with horses.
Daily life under the occupation. With the Germans it was not too bad, we didn’t take much notice of them, they were not so terrible as that. They requisitioned the big houses and the chateaux, they occupied half of them. In Carentan they installed some shops. Being “Required”. I was requisitioned at Cherbourg end of 1942, by the Todt organisation, to make blockhouses. They had to send two youngsters per community. We were 1200 workers. The job was hard, but the French were smart. “Frenchmen big rogues !” When I had to strip down some blockhouse formwork and I found a plank which was not too heavy so I kept it on my back, I walked around with it all day. They saw what we did but did not retaliate upon us. The German Todt soldiers were dressed in yellow uniforms, with a swastika ; they were fairly nice to us. Many of them spoke French ; we discussed and laughed together sometimes. I stayed at Cherbourg, at the Hotel Sud Amérique which was near the Roule mountain. There were about forty large buildings, with no upper floors, requisitioned by the Germans. We were forty per room, with bunk beds. One night, a bomber crashed into the garden, I was asleep, and I didn’t hear a thing. The next morning, there was nobody left in the bedroom. The others said to me : “didn’t you see what happened, you stayed in here ? A bomber crashed within twenty metres from the building”. So I told myself that I wasn’t staying here. I went to stay in Carentan with one of my uncles ; I then took the train to Cherbourg, they called it “yellow belly”. But Cherbourg was bombarded every day. The Germans were making V1’s and V2’s under the Roule mountain, inside a tunnel which was more then a kilometre long. The Americans were certainly informed, on the 11th of November 1942 they dropped thousands of bombs to destroy the facilities. I had fled. But the Germans went to fetch my father, and took him as a hostage. So I returned to Cherbourg, I presented myself, they took me to the Feldkommandantur. I told them that I was afraid of the bombing. They released my father. The Feldkommandantur made me sign a paper as “deserter of the German army”. I was put into a discipline camp at Rouville-la-Bigot in the Manche, and there, we made blockhouses night and day. We filled up the wagons with sand. We went to Cherbourg, on the ferry terminal side, to make a blockhouse; we worked for three days and nights. We were nourished via the black market: I had 40gr of butter every day, 40gr of sausage and a semi loaf of bread. In the evening we had soup made of barley flour. They paid us; we bought false ration cards from the Belgians, with these, we were allowed three pounds of bread each from the bakers shops; this allowed me to have some better nourishment. I was allowed one packet of cigarettes per week. I sold them one at a time, ten francs per cigarette, to buy tickets for bread.
But we ate better at home, because we had a small farm, we grew plenty of vegetables, we had livestock and we managed to find the flour to make pancakes, we had everything we needed. But we still had to fend for ourselves, we made exchanges. The towns suffered from hunger more than us ; everybody deserted the big towns like Caen and Cherbourg. Bread tickets were much more expensive than the bread itself, it was three times the price. That’s the black market.
Rommel and the Atlantic Wall. The Russian women. We suffered, but we were not the most unfortunate, it was the Russian women. One of them, a young 18 year old girl who spoke good French told me; she slept at the same hotel as us but we were not allowed to speak to them, it was forbidden. They were captured in Russia when the Germans captured a town near Stalingrad. They parked buses on every street and all the women between 18 and 60 years old were taken away. They were taken to the railway station. They travelled for eight days, forty of them in each cattle wagon. When they arrived at Cherbourg, they did not know that they were in France. They were taken to the Hotel Sud Amérique, they were not lodged in the same buildings as us. They received a truck of half rotten carrots as food. Trains full of cement bags arrived every day, they were for the blockhouses. Every morning, they went to the ferry terminal with a big stone on their head. Two hundred women in columns with the Germans armed with machine guns each side; when they arrived at the Arsenal, they had to empty the cement from the wagons. They carried on their heads 50kg bags. They were extremely tough. The evening, they went back with their big stones on their heads and left them at the hotel entrance. The next morning they picked them up, in that way they had their arms in the air, and so could not flee. They were very badly nourished. I saw them pick up bread crumbs from the ground. Rommel inspects the wall. The Germans of the Wehrmacht told us that they were fed up with the war, they spoke good French; some said Hitler was mad, “he wanted to do better than Napoleon !” There were old soldiers on the Normandy wall; some were sixty years old, they didn’t want to fight the war, unlike the Hitlerian youth and the SS. I saw Rommel in 1943. He came to visit the Cherbourg fortifications. I was digging holes in the Roule mountain with a pick-hammer to make holes to install mines. He did one inspection, but he was difficult to recognise, as they all more green raincoats. When he left, the Germans told us that Rommel had come. We had to work. At the beginning of 1943, the Germans cut down all the trees in the area, and the elder people were requisitioned to put them in the fields and marshlands ; they dug holes in the ground to plant them upright; the Germans cut the trees three metres high with dynamite. It was to stop the gliders from landing, we called them “Rommels esparagus”. One day they decided to flood all the marshlands; during a storm, all those tree trunks were blown down; with a flat bottomed boat I recuperated them ; we had enough firewood for three years ! During the summer, I worked for a German company, I had to do roof tarring on the aircraft hangers. The German in charge had shot down a lot of planes. He had a rabbit. Every day I was in charge of feeding it, I picked dandy-lion leaves one by one. One morning four aircraft left for England. I was looking after the rabbits, when I saw all four of them come flying back. The fourth aircraft was, in fact, a British plane ; he had followed the Germans ; he fired upon the three others and shot them down, then he went back flying close to the seas surface.
The Resistance. One day the Gloria Dairy, in Carentan, caught fire; inside there was 450 tons of butter, I saw the Germans try to put the fire out with water canons. That must have been sabotage, that’s what many thought. But we should not do sabotage, because the Germans arrested the local people and shot them. In Saint-Clair, a plane crashed, the crew parachuted and landed near a forest ; the farmers took in the three British airmen; they were all shot. In Méautis, at 4km from Carentan, four youngsters, one of which was from my family, were all shot because they attached pieces of white cloth on some fruit trees. It was meant to stop the birds from eating the fruit. The Germans thought that it was a signal for the British planes.
The D-Day landings, a little “promenade” in England. In the month of June I was still requisitioned, but I went back home a second time because of the bombings. In Cherbourg, it was heating up so much that the Germans didn’t have the time to look after us. They had to organise the coastal defences. I suspected somewhat that the landings were arriving. I had an uncle who lived at Trévières, no one knew, not even his wife, that he had a radio emitting set to inform the Allies. One day he said to me: “You know, if there is an Allied landing in the area, you must say to the Americans or the British “be welcome !” He was decorated after the war. During the night of the 5th of June I didn’t sleep very well. Planes dropped parachuted flares everywhere, to see if there was any movement of German troops ; they were flying around non stop. At 20h30, an American appeared at my parent’s house in Houesville. He said to us “American !” So, we understood that it was an American. He asked us if there were any Germans, he said : “Boche ? Boche ?” We replied no. He didn’t even stay five minutes and he went to camouflage himself in the nearby fields; You should have seen his equipment. He had really a heavy load : grenades, machine gun, a buoy, a bullet proof vest … A big guy, he seemed to be two metres high. Ten minutes afterwards, a motorbike stopped in the yard, it was a German. He started to tinker with his motorbike, he seemed to have a problem with his spark plugs. We were afraid for ourselves. Then he set off on his motorbike ; it was a long straight road, we heard him for at least a good kilometre. The next morning, we saw two dead Americans on the roadside. We were liberated. The shells passed over our house. We heard the sounds of the fighting. Then the gliders came. They came down in the fields all around; they avoided the marshland because it was flooded up to two metres deep, but some of them were drowned all the same. To land the the gliders onto the fields was not easy because of “Rommels asparagus”. For the parachutists it was difficult at first, then when the bulk of the landings arrived and they had invaded all the zone we said : “This time we are saved ; it’s over”. When the Americans had landed we left our home; they did not stop us from going anywhere ; we went all over the place as we wished. They didn’t say anything, on the contrary, they threw us cigarettes, chocolate, ration tins of Kellogs. They were very kind to us ; we couldn’t complain about the Americans. We found many objects belonging to them. We recuperated parachutes, they were everywhere, in the fields, in the trees. The American parachutists left them on the spot; we made shirts with them of all sorts of colors ; the color of every parachute indicated which type of commodity it transported. The Channel was covered with ships. On the 10th of June I was riding my bike on a coastal road. I had fitted compressed air pipes as tyres, with a bolt to hold them. When I saw the ships ! You should have seen all the armada of ships there were. The Channel was covered with ships. The sea was very rough. There were some flat-bottomed ships to be able to approach the beaches. I saw amphibious tanks who approached via the sea ; they were encircled by a big steel casing surrounded with cork floats. The Americans had sent up some “sausages” : around fifty big balloons. When they arrived they had dropped thousands of leaflets by air. I pedaled towards Sainte-Marie-duMont. The town had been liberated. There were Americans everywhere, the Germans had gone. Sainte-Mère-Eglise was liberated on the 6th of June, the first town to be liberated in the Manche. Carentan was liberated after us. I went to Sainte-Marie-du Mont on my bike or by foot, I took some Calva, that my parents made, for the Americans, and I came back with ration tins and cigarettes. I knew all the area very well because my grandfather looked after sheep herds there for many years. You should have seen all the munitions in the fields ; tents everywhere, they piled up the sacs of flour, and after a while, as they couldn’t enter the fields, they drove over two rows of flour sacs with their GMC’s ; They ate a lot of rice bread, and white bread; they supplied also the bakers ; the Germans had black bread; We ate ration tins ; as we did not understand American, sometimes we opened a tin thinking it was potatoes but it was jam made with orange skins, very bitter. Arrested by the Military Police. Around the 16th of June, an American officer who was lodged with the mayor of Houesville, said to me : “Do you want to take a walk on the beach ?, I am going to deliver our mail”. We went with my brother into his jeep. The officer had some documents to deliver ; a fast speedboat was waiting for him on the coast. We got off the Jeep with a friend and went for a walk on the beach. There were ships by thousands, some were enormous, they did not accost. There were amphibious trucks. We were only 200 metres from the jeep, when suddenly another jeep arrived, it was the Military Police. They forced us to climb into their jeep ; we told them that we were with an American officer but they didn’t want to know. They took us into the dunes and held us inside some big square tents for half an hour. Then they took us back to the beach and put us inside a speedboat and it drove off towards Southampton in England. During this time, the American officer who brought us was looking everywhere for us; the next day in the afternoon we embarked on board another boat direction Saint-Marie-du-Mont, the American officer was there waiting for us with his jeep. Our parents wondered where we had been, but the how many ships there were ; it was incredible ; there were all sorts of ships. Good thing that the Germans didn’t have the same equipment as the Americans had ; we wouldn’t be here any more. The Germans didn’t have much left. They had so much territory to supervise, as far as Russia; But they resisted all the same ; there were blockhouses in every direction. Many Americans were killed. I saw them driving GMC’s full of bodies ; they were taking them to a cemetery in Blosville.
After the D-Day Landings, an encounter with the General Bradley. Death and destruction. One must have lived the war to realise how much materiel and equipment had come from America. There was everything. They made an airfield camp in no time ; the runways for the big four-engined aircraft were made of plates of steel which fitted into one another, or with rolled out wire mesh. A good month and a half after the D-Day landings in August, I went hitchhiking to Caen with some Americans, to fetch a bicycle as I did a lot of sport. After I rode all the way through Caen on my bicycle ; there was a very narrow passage in the rue Saint Jean, one could not even get by on a bicycle. All the houses were destroyed, the streets were blocked by stones. The only thing I disliked is that they demolished the cities with bombs when the Germans had gone. At Caen there were several thousand civilians killed. The houses were completely destroyed ; they bombed at 4 o’clock in the morning, while everybody was asleep : they were killed during their sleep, I saw some of them. During the reconstruction companies made fortunes clearing all that up. After D-Day, there was an enormous job to do, all the roads had to be repaired. I worked for a company which filled in all the bomb craters. I did like everybody else : when I counted 150m3 I doubled it. We never had enough earth to fill in all the holes, the Americans put loads of munitions and even tanks to fill them in. But five or six years later, we had to dig them up to take them out. We did not earn much, it just paid for our food. I worked a while digging ditches in a cemetery with one of my uncles. But it did not pay much either. My encounter with the General Bradley early July 1944, I shook the general’s hand : I was discussing with the gendarmes of Carentan ; the general was in the area with his troops ; he came towards us, he looked at me and shook my hand. He asked me for some information ; he spoke French very well and wanted to know where the Germans could be, I answered that they might have gone over the Sienne river towards Coutances. At that time I did not know that he was General Bradley. After he left, the gendarmes told me who he was. The American Headquarters were in a chateau at Petit Liesville ; he stayed there for a while, then they changed. Before the D-Day landings the Germans occupied the same chateau. Dangerous games. We were young, and we did some silly things. We dismantled some grenades, taking the powder out and putting some in the bottom of cartridges to make hunting ammunition. We ground the powder from war rifles with a coffee grinder, the powder from a grenade explodes as the powder from war rifles is made to push out the bullets. It was very dangerous but we were afraid of nothing. One day a colleague had his hand torn apart by a charge of dynamite. This calmed us down.
Epilogue. I do wish for young people to never see war ; war is a massacre, it is so shameful ; I have seen American soldiers cut to pieces. The D-Day is finished, and I would never like to see it again and I would never like the youngsters to see what it was. It is so shameful to massacre people for nothing at all. The youngsters don’t realise what it can be ; I have no wish that they will ever see a war ; it is so terrible . . .