A letter from Normandy September 1945
Madame Bouriez of Bieville
Source: The Bouriez family, from a handwritten copy of the letter by Madame Bouriez
I’m writing you this letter in hopes that I will be able to get it through to you either through Philippe who wants to go to Paris to see what his Godfather (General Brocait) can do to help him, or through the Prefecture. Whichever way, this letter has made its way to you, you’ll be relieved to know that all four of us are alive and well, that Francoise is here, and that Bieville was miraculously saved.
The solidity of this old house, and of the big beech trees which gave their lives for ours, allowed us to spend those horrific yet miraculous hours, which I am nonetheless happy to have spent on the front line. Having said that much to reassure you, I will tell the story in more details, I feel it may be interesting for you and those around you.
Since May 15th the squadrons of bombers and the infernal and dangerous anti-aircraft fire they provoked had been making life intolerable. Though I had kept my radio, until the evening of the 5th of June, there wasn’t any other news. Friday the 2nd it was particularly difficult as I made my way home from Caen, planes were constantly flying over us, and each time the “Huns” had us hide in the bushes. Sunday was also very bad, for the same reasons I had to hurry home from the wood, where I had been with my son Marcel.
In spite of all that, being in favor of the status quo, I had kept all my belongings here, and I was right to have done so. During the night of the 5th to the 6th the bombing was terrible, we heard bombs exploding close by, and with good reason…
Around midnight, the English started landing at Ver, Courselles, Bernieres, Hermanville (on our road), and Ouistreham. The ships offshore were supporting the landing with artillery fire. The noise was atrocious, making the house tremble in such a way that none of use slept at all. Finally, around 5 am, the bombs started landing on Bieville. We went down into the basement (which I had not been able to have cleaned out and reinforced, in spite of my insistence, so ignorant was the population of the risks run by those who did not have a shelter).
As it turned out, that basement saved the lives of a really considerable number of people. Meanwhile, the Germans who had been stationed in our friends the Vogt’s château, were preparing for combat. During a calm I went upstairs with Claire and I caught a glimpse of “their dirty faces”, as my son liked to say, as they mounted their tanks to go down through Blainville to Benouville. This move saved us from being exposed to attacks destined for the tanks. The Germans were routed by the English and they retreated back through the village during the afternoon, bloodied but furious. Two officers had been killed, the one who had lodged with us in May had both his legs shot off. But this retreat was very difficult for us, because they stayed for a long time organizing their convoy, in the street in front of my house, and the English planes strafed the tanks and so all the terrified villagers crowded into my basement; the elderly, the children, etc.
The morning of the 6th went on in this fashion, the bravest venturing out for news. I couldn’t stop my two sons, who were on emergency rescue duty, from going over to Caen, which was in a total state of siege. As they were passing through Lebisey some bombs fell on the ammunition depot, killing quite a few people. Finally both my sons came back around noon, we already had a good general idea of what was happening and could have lunch as normal. The afternoon was pretty bad, and we heard the bombing of Caen. Although I was worried and afraid, I organized the basement with wooden beams and a large wooden screen from the church whose steeple and roof had fallen in.
As I was telling you, the Huns had to beat a retreat through the village at around 4 p.m., and they told us with dread that the Tommies were on their heels. After that people ran about the village and the swamps between machine gun and rifle fire and the horrendous noise of the big guns offshore. Finally, around 5 p.m., a woman from the village came in yelling, ” They’re here ! I held their hands, they’re all black ! ” I thought that the emotional stress had caused her to loose her head, but she was perfectly right. During a clear spell, I was in the library when I saw three “red skin” types, their faces painted black and scary, coming up through the park from the swamp, armed with sub machine guns and with nets on their helmets.
The first of them having seen me, aimed his gun at me. I waved to him and explained, I’m not sure how, that the house was fall of women and children. Right away, from every direction, black faced and exhausted soldiers appeared in Indian file. Everyone went wild.
Meanwhile, the Huns had left, but a small garrison of heavily armed men had stayed behind with some light artillery. The street battle started in the part of the village towards Caen. It was at this point that Rene, who had been my employee at the time of my husband’s death, was killed while looking after his horses. Two farm houses were destroyed. Three English soldiers spent the night with us, it was a hard night. The Huns had climbed up into the trees around the château and around my house. They were firing incendiary bullets and caused a house to burn down. Our first floor is riddled with bullet holes, but the walls are solid. The English started digging trenches in my courtyard and in the wood.
In reaction to the quantity of people coming to take refuge, I organized a canteen where everybody would be able to eat, I set up a kitchen in the old milk cellar next to the basement. The farmers having lost all of their livestock, we had plenty of meat. Everyone brought vegetables, eggs, rabbits.
Over the course of Wednesday, which was terrible, the officers warned us that we were going to be under the fire of the Germans’ big guns, and the real tribulations began.
Thanks to the organization of this kitchen, nobody had to move. An ex-navy man acted as cook. We served between 120 and 130 people, which accounts for the fact that the village only lost 4 people, which is already a great sadness to us all. That Wednesday I went with some farmers to get poor Rene Bellanger who had been so devoted to me and my poor husband. I think that I was the most scared I have ever been, crossing through this battle torn village, the debris, the blood, the terrible explosions which rock the earth.
My neighbor, the admirable Mme. Barette, at 72 years old, seeing as how she had the emergency combat medical station in her house, was holding a leg that was being cut off in one hand, and a lamp in the other. She was with her daughter the nurse who had had the ceiling of her room fall in on her head before she could move. We were able to rescue our wounded and bury our dead in coffins. Everybody was amazing, nobody faltered.
Starting the 7th, Mass was said in my living room, the church having collapsed, its beautiful steeple fallen down. There were Germans who had been shooting from there. From the 7th to the 18th we led the life I’ve been trying to describe, the evening of the 7th we saw gliders a real sight, then we saw all different beautiful color parachutes.
On the 7th, out of the south window of my daughters’ room, I saw tanks followed by infantry going up towards Lebisey 1200 meters form here. They tried to take that hill two times, but the SS divisions were waiting for them. This delay was unlucky for us, as Caen was to have been taken on the 7th and they only killed the last Hun in the area on the 20th of June. The German divisions, having had the time to regroup and dig in around Caen, made our lives unbearable over the next couple of days. Moreover, until the 28th we were under heavier and heavier artillery fire.
The nights were atrocious in that basement with about 100 other people where 50 might have fit, we were stacked up on mattresses, the children on the floor. Deep inside, my mind was forever on the possibility of all this poor flesh and blood being crushed if a bomb fell. The airplanes didn’t stop at night, streams of bombs ripped into the houses which were, one by one, being destroyed. Mine only held out thanks to the trees which shielded us from the explosions. I don’t know how I got through those hours, thinking every moment that I might lose my house or even see those close to me killed or even be killed myself. A real monk’s retreat.
Luckily I had such a lot of responsibility, as the town had no mayor at the time, with just an secretarial assistant. What got me through was my unshakable faith in our destinies and in the Christ which I had put in the basement.
All of our thoughts were not sinister, such a congregation of people was bound to have some funny sides, there was everything that you could imagine : chamber pot, and all sorts of other dirty jokes, a few arguments, four elderly people who had somewhat lost their wits. In short, Normandy natives in their natural habitat, good eating and lively banter, though that did not get in the way of people being up to the task when the time came.
We were all thinking of the people of Caen.
During quiet spells I went upstairs to clean up the mess caused by the shrapnel and fallen plaster. We had protected the all the furniture with mattresses, but I was only later able to take any downstairs to the basement. There were, of course, people to be saved first.
On the 28th the Americans (of Civilian Affairs) insisted that the women and children be evacuated because of the battle in Caen. The elderly and large families had already been evacuated.
Thus, the 27th was a tragic moment for me. The day had been terrible, the dining room window had fallen on me, I thought that I was going to lose everything.
My two sons spontaneously asked to be allowed to stay. So I left with Claire and the rest of the village in 5 American trucks. I was more afraid of evacuating through the artillery barrages than of staying in my basement. I can’t describe the departure, the waiting in the courtyard fearing to be cut down by a sudden burst of bullets, and that crazy race through what one officer told me was the most intensive artillery barrage since El Alamein during the conquest of Libya.
There was nothing to see but a devastated landscape with batteries of artillery firing and Lebisey smoking in the background. We went through Cresserons to Amblie, where the Americans took care of us and we spent the night in a tent, then I had myself driven to Bayeux, to some friends’ house, while the rest of the population of Bieville was housed in Sommervieu. The officers were very nice to us, and helped us through this difficult time. We started waiting for Caen to be taken in Bayeux, unhappily, we had to wait until the 6th of July.
Claire and I took up service at the hospital in Bayeux. You can not image the state of the martyrs of the war. Bayeux was full of people, and was very lively, but we had very little time to ourselves given the enormous amount of work at the hospital, where we worked day and night.
My sons came from time to time by motorbike to tell me the news from Bieville where the battle was still raging. The preliminaries to the liberation of Caen were horrible, the destruction of Colombelles so violent that people couldn’t hear each other for the bombs, and more bombs coming from all directions to fall on our poor village.
When I finally came home to Bieville, I found my house not too badly damaged, but crowded with English soldiers, and 339 meters of trenches had mauled the park. The furniture is all intact, thanks to Marcel and Philippe who stayed with the rest of the men and one woman to take care of the animals, burying those which had been killed, and to prevent looting.
They had taken as many of the other villagers belongings as they could to prevent them from being stolen, and many people only ever found those of their belongings that had been left there. The damage in the village is quite considerable, but, since the end of our troubles, we’ve been getting back up on our feet, but the châteaux of Vogt and of Morel are both burned to the ground. Those of Les Formigney and Ponthaud are gutted, only the walls remaining where the château once stood. The thirty day battle has devastated the land. From the time we got back until the 10th of August, we still slept in the basement, though the last bomb fell towards the end of July, though the planes tormented us into early August.
When I came back here I found 1200 men stationed in the village. The house is occupied by an artillery company’s headquarters. Our lives are very pleasant thanks to the company of the officers who have seen that we do not lack in necessary supplies. We had good supplies in meat right away, then came flour etc, but the vegetable gardens are all destroyed, not a green vegetable to be had in the entire region. In Bayeux there was an abundance of butter, cheese, and dairy products, and we literally threw ourselves on these un-hoped for treat. It feels good not to be hungry any more. Up to the 25th of August, we saw eight army groups, three of them Canadian, come through the town, finishing up the devastation of Bieville as concerns the grass, and the fences and walls destroyed.
Marcel was drafted on the 25th, he should be in England as I am writing. Philippe joined as soon as he could, he’s serving as interpreter to Civilian Affairs, and has been able to be very helpful in the region.