From Cherbourg to Grimesnil, in the core of Roncey pocket

Témoignage Grimesnil image2

The Liberation remains engraved in the memory of the Normans. Some found themselves right in the middle of the battles, death blindly striking soldiers and civilians, adults and children. This was the fate of Georges Vastel, who was 9 years old in 1944, and his family, they lived the battles of the German forces trying to escape the Roncey pocket, end of July 1944. Tous les droits de l’auteur des textes et des photographies sont réservés. Toute reproduction ou utilisation des œuvres, autre que privée ou à fin de consultation individuelle sont interdites, sauf autorisation. Traduction de John Barry Stonham, publié avec son aimable autorisation.

I rejoined my maternal grand parents, who were already refugees at Canisy. After the invasion of the free zone by the Germans and the scuttling of the fleet (1) – my father was working at the arsenal in Toulon -, we went back to Cherbourg, I don’t remember exactly when. The port endured important bombings. During some shopping in town, while my brother and I accompanied my mother, an alert rang out and we ran to take refuge in the doorway of a house. From then on, the authorities decreed that all children above a certain age should be evacuated. I was seven years old, my brother, too young, stayed in Cherbourg with my parents. I rejoined my maternal grand parents, who were already refugees at Canisy, which as the crow flies, was seven kilometres from Saint Lô, in a place called La Vannerie. My uncle Edouard, my mother’s brother, was a gendarme posted at Canisy living also with his wife Marie and my cousins Gérard, Jeannine and Jean. My grand parents lived in a flat within a large farmhouse, surrounded by farm operating buildings all unused, including a press. On the ground floor, there was a common room with a large table and a stove. Upstairs, there were two bedrooms, my grand parent’s room and mine. In that bedroom, during the night, one could hear the allied planes droning in the sky, I thought of my family in Cherbourg and I was worried at the idea that they could perish under the bombings. I went to the local village school, either by the road, or across the fields. Several classes were grouped within a big school hall, under rule of the same teacher. There was an ink shortage, we wrote on our notebooks with red ink coming from the teacher’s personnel reserve. In the Vannerie hamlet, there was a farm owned by the Osmond family, including a girl, called Aline, whom I found very pretty. Mister and Madame Osmond took me to market one day in their horse and carriage, with a soft hood, I was very proud; I can still hear the horse’s hooves clip-clopping on the road. I remember the harvests and the hay; everything was cut with a scythe, then bunched and tied together by the binders, a profession which needed skill and speed. We had lunch in the field drinking cider from earthenware jugs. In the evening, it was time to return to the farm, with us, the children, sitting on top of the wreaths which filled the carts. Having no carburant to operate the threshing machine, I saw the wheat ears being beaten with flails on a tarpaulin spread out on the ground in the courtyard. After milking the cows in the fields, the women brought the milk back to the farm in buckets suspended on wooden yokes, on their shoulders.

Tuesday 6th of June, in the sky we saw the fury of the allied aviation. The allied planes in the sky were more and more numerous. To deceive the German radars, they dropped thin strips of aluminium which us children, hastened to collect in the fields where they landed, to do what ? Mystery. The D-Day landings approached. In the meantime my mother and my brother had joined us. My father came to see us the week before the 6th of June, he could not get back to his work at Cherbourg, because the railway had been bombarded. The recrudescence of the bombings around the area foreshadowed the imminence of a big event; the local men dug a deep trench in a nearby field, with a bench inside where the adults could sit down. I remember sleeping at my mother’s feet lying on the straw. Although he had participated actively on the construction of the shelter, my father passed the night outside under an apple tree. The Tuesday 6th of June, we saw in the sky the fury of the allied aviation: fighters, fighter-bombers in tight squadrons, flying fortresses above Saint Lô in the glow of the fires. I have the distinct souvenir of a flying fortress in flames falling towards the horizon. What impressed me, was how slow it descended, more like a feather than a stone. My father still had his big radio set with which he listened to the BBC: “Ici Londres, the French speak to the French”. He had posted upon the wall of the common room, a map of Europe on which he indicated the fronts. The news of the D-Day landings was immediately known. Very rapidly, the Germans ordered the confiscation of all the radio sets and my father had to, very sorrowfully, take his to the town hall, he never saw it again. From that moment on, the farm where we were became a bivouac for the German detachments that went up to the front; we were about fifty kilometres from Omaha Beach. The empty farm buildings served as accommodation and stables for them; the German army still used a lot of draft horses. One day, a detachment arrived with one or more pillowcases filled with raw chops. Its superior gave orders to my mother to fry them; the men installed themselves around the table to taste them. I can see my mother, the frying pan in her hand, giving black looks towards the table where the soldiers bounced my little brother – who was of Germanic blondeness – upon their knees.

Gare de Canisy dans les années 40

Canisy Station during the 40’s

Another time, two soldiers arrived, an older man and a younger one. This last one, perhaps by fear to go into battle, was like crazy. He inspected all our poor belongings, he took my grandfathers slippers and a piece of soap. My grandmother who was cooking a leg of lamb in the oven, worried that he may seize it, she took it out and ran away with her dish. In his excitement, he got into his head to assemble all the men from the hamlet. His companion, who managed finally to calm him down, was an Austrian who spoke French. Standing in the doorway, he talked with my father, showing him some photos of his family; he had tears in his eyes. Amongst the German troops, there were soldiers recruited from eastern Russia. We called them Mongols. They were very fond of alcohol. One day, my auntie Marie was surprised to find one of them in her house drinking a bottle of eau de Cologne. One evening, being sent to the pump in the courtyard to fetch some water, I saw coming one of those Mongols bringing a horse to drink. It was a giant of a horse and its master looked so fierce with big drooping moustaches, that I started screaming. While the Germans went up towards the front, the civilians were moving away from it. That’s when I saw passing a scary procession: the female residents of the psychiatric hospital of Saint Lô, escorted by the sisters of the Bon-Sauveur, traversed Canisy end of June beginning of July; women in nightgowns, some wearing straightjackets, most of them elderly, with grey or white hair, long and hanging. Since that day, I cannot see without a shudder an elderly lady with very long white hair.

The door into the courtyard opened abruptly and we saw a GI, gun in hand and his helmet covered with branches.Slowly the front approached Canisy, the gunfire was more intense. My parents decided to move away in joining our paternal grand parents, who were refugees in Grimesnil, situated at twenty two kilometres from Canisy. We took to the road (beginning of July ?), my little brother Maurice in his pushchair, my parents and I by foot, under a sky filled incessantly by allied aircraft. I was nine years old. The risk was that we passed by a German convoy, or even one vehicle, that the fighters would not hesitate to strafe. That did not happen and we settled down inside a farm building held by Mister Jamtel, at the angle of the D302 and the D49, at a place called La Forge Criquet. There was only one unoccupied room left, which my father arranged to enable us four to sleep. I slept in an improvised hammock which he had hooked onto the ceiling, above the foot of the parent’s bed. It was at Grimesnil that the Front caught up with us. To put a stop to being stuck on the spot, the Allies decided to hit hard: it was the big bombing, in other words the Operation Cobra. At about twenty kilometres from where we were, along the Periers – Saint Lô road, on the morning of the 25th of July, 4700 tons of bombs were dropped by nearly 2500 bombers and fighter-bombers, all in a rectangle of three square kilometres. I must admit that I have no souvenir of this event which must have been heard at Grimesnil. It was the beginning of the Normandy breakthrough, the Breakthrough. Six days afterwards, the Americans arrived at Grimesnil; The morning of the 30th or 31st of July, looking down the road from the first floor bedroom window, I saw a German soldier on his belly in the ditch opposite us, with a machine gun or a sub-machine gun in front of him. I went downstairs to tell my parents, but they had already understood, by the noise, that the battle was getting closer. The men garnished the windows and the doors leading towards the road with bundles of laundry, a meager protection ! The whole family, my grand parents, my parents, my brother and me, crouched under the staircase leading upstairs. Very quickly, the roar of the guns became frightening and deafening. Seized with terror, I cried quite loudly, while my brother sang : “Do not forget me when you are far from me….”. (2) I cannot say how long it lasted before the first American appeared. The door into the courtyard opened abruptly and we saw a GI, gun in hand and his helmet covered with branches, who after only finding civilians, gave a sign with his hand, to remain quiet where they were. When the firing ceased, we were able to go onto the roadside to see our liberators go by and applaud the tanks and infantrymen. (3)

31st of July 1944 – D49 La Coucourie, American soldiers examine some destroyed German armoured vehicles (Source : National Archives USA)

31 juillet 1944 – D49 La Coucourie, des soldats américains examinent des blindés allemands détruits (Source : National Archives USA)

They had something white on the end of their rifle muzzle which intrigued me. I ask the reason for this from my parents who seemed very embarrassed and did not know what to say. I found out later that they were condoms, put there to protect their rifle barrels from dust. To have a rifle clean and in perfect condition was of primordial importance for a soldier. My mother did some washing before the beginning of the battle and asked me to help her hang it out to dry. The washing line was on the side of the courtyard, in front of the pile of fagots. Two steps away were several dead GI’s lying alongside each other. The most surprising thing was that they had cigarettes pushed up their noses and in their ears; nobody could ever tell me why. My hypothesis was the following: we were in the middle of the summer, the flying and creeping insects proliferated, and the idea that they could penetrate inside the bodies was unsupportable for their comrades. We thought that we were definitely and once and for all liberated. The Germans beaten back on the road, had retreated into the surrounding county side and engaged themselves into some guerrilla operations, helped by the bocage configuration: the fields separated by lanes and enormous hedges being several meters thick at their base, which formed powerful entrenchments. The situation in the Jamtel farm was becoming dangerous, so we migrated to another farm further away from the road, held by a lady whose husband was a prisoner. We were rejoined by our maternal grand parents and by my uncle Pierre and his family, who were also refugees at Grimesnil. (4) I do not know how long we stayed there. The Americans cleared up the bocage around us. One evening, my father observed the surroundings from a window on the first floor, an alert GI in a tree, spotted him, and fired at him; the bullet passed at only a few centimetres from his head, and tore off a lump of wood from the window frame. One morning, a squadron of young GI’s stopped in the farmyard to eat. They put a big tin can onto a small stove. Adults and children, we were all sitting around them. This was our first real contact. They gave us some biscuits and cigarettes. My paternal grand mother did not dare to refuse and that was the only time I ever saw her with a lighted cigarette in her hand. One of them showed us a magic trick: he pushed a cigarette into one ear and made it come out of the other; a trick that I know now is very simple to do, but then it amazed us. Apart from what the farm could provide, food was rare. No bread, this was replaced with radishes. Some men who new a little about it, went to cut off some steaks from the cows killed during the battle; One evening, at nightfall, someone knocked at the door; it was a group of Germans who had roamed about for several days in the fields eating apples, and asked us for something to eat. They were mature men, obviously at the end of their tether. My father spoke to the one who seemed to be their superior, and encouraged him to give himself up, saying that there was no hope left. I do not know how my father found out if they had followed his advice. Was it the same evening, I don’t know, but after the departure of these Germans, the Americans, suspecting that the farm harboured Germans, started to fire towards it. I can still see my father and my uncles attaching some white linen onto a broomstick and pushing it through the front door breaking the window, trying to put an end to the attack. That marked the end of the fighting. After, the house which was occupied by the Germans in the village, was “looted” by the population who took everything they had left behind: bottles of cognac, tins of sardines bearing the mark of the Wehrmacht, rucksacks, haversacks… Then it was the return trip back to Cherbourg, transported by GMC’s (covered trucks with sideboards) of the American Army, with nightly halts in community halls, where we “slept on the floor”.

(1) The German and Italian troops invaded the free zone on the 11th of November 1942, the French fleet was scuttled on the 27th of November in the port of Toulon. (2) Song dated 1935, interpreted by Marcelle Bordas. (3) 2nd US Armoured Division Hell on Wheels. (4) During the battle, my maternal grand parents were sheltered inside a barn made with mud walls ; a shell transpierced a wall without exploding, making a big hole. My grand father wanted to come out to keep an eye on a rabbit stew that he had left on the stove to simmer, but a GI grabbed him by the collar to take him back into shelter.