Liberation of Bieville
This speech was written for the 50th anniversary commemoration of D-Day in Bieville-Beuville. The audience included many British veterans. A speech by Madeleine Marie LeFrancois of Beuville was given at the same event. The text comes from the Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shrewsbury, England.
Above: Philippe Bouriez says, “This is the alley where I met and photographed the English soldiers on June 6th 1944 at 4 p.m.” (Photo Chuck Solomon)
Left & Right: Two photos taken by Philippe Bouriez on D-Day.
THE LIBERATION OF BIEVILLE
By Philippe Bouriez
First of all, I would like to thank the Mayor for this exceptionally well organized celebration of June 6th, 1944. It will live in the memory of the townspeople of Bieville-Beuville, and the memory of the many English friends, who wanted to visit or revisit this site of the battles which liberated us from enemy occupation.
But it was time, Mr. Mayor, to call on the memory of the “old-timers” because the survivors, who were in the Front Line during these five weeks of the taking of Caen can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The striking thing about the episode in 1944 is the precision with which it is remembered. There was something unique about this June 6th, ’44, and everyone who lived through it has a dramatic or even humourous memory which has stayed intact.
Of course, ‘commemoration’ implies the word ‘memory’, and the first order of this day is to remember the 110 English soldiers who gave their lives for us. First, the 5 pilots shot down on June 6th; then also the men of the KSLI, the Warwickshire regiments, and the Norfolk regiment, who fought in the area of Bieville called La Bijude. Also we must not forget that between Hermanville and Bieville-Beuville, the KSLI lost 107 of 1000 or so men composing their regiment. To remember these brave men is the true meaning of the ‘commemoration’ which Mayor Angot wanted to present.
In addition to that, we must remember four of our own townspeople of Bieville who died on June 6th. For those who were not in Bieville in June ’44, I would like to describe briefly what life was like at that time, I will concentrate largely on Bieville because during this period when we were under shell fire, a trip of even one km was hazardous, and I can really only tell you about what I lived through myself. I hope the people of Beuville will understand. Bieville has lived through a lot. because if the nave of the Church and the base of the tower dale to 1085, there were people living in Bieville 900 years ago. The striking thing about the episode in 1944 is the precision with which it is remembered.
Life in Bieville at the beginning of June ’44.
Bieville had about 270 inhabitants (and Beuville the same). This is about six times less than today. There were therefore six times fewer houses. The most important occupation was farming on seven or eight farms. There were also some artisans: roofers, plumbers, carpenters, three cafe/tobacco/groceries, one baker and that was all. Nothing between Bieville and Beuville except the school; no doctor, dentist, pharmacist, hairdresser, etc., etc. Very few people worked in Caen, and a few steel workers in Colombelles. There was one car, of course no tele, fridge, washing machine, and only a dozen telephones, for both Bieville and Beuville.
Wireless sets had been confiscated at the beginning of 1943 because we were in a restricted zone. One had to show a card of residency between Lebisey and Caen in order to pass through. Rationing was in effect for everything: clothes, one bicycle tire a year—in exchange for the used tire; one pair of shoes a year: a quarter of a loaf of bread a day, for teenagers— and what bread! almost black; one pound of sugar per month; eight ounces of meat a week (when the butcher had it). Of course it was impossible to find potatoes at the green grocer. Everyone had their own rabbits in Bieville and a vegetable garden near the house or the Town Cross.
The ration tickets had a curious effect on people. There were tickets for wine, one liter a week for adults. No one wanted to give up the privilege for either himself or a friend. And it was at that time that the Normans started drinking more wine than cider. It was the same story for cigarettes, and people who had never smoked became smokers.
The Germans lived in the Château which was the Command Post for AKAK artillery. The nights were not quiet, as we were on the path of the British bombers flying in the direction of the north of Italy. Every evening, the sky was illuminated with search lights looking for planes. We were very worried each time two or three beams spotted a plane because of the cannon fire that ensued.
The night of the 5th to the 6th of June.
For many days, the targets of the Allies were definitely coming closer: the train line Paris/Cherbourg, the electrical installation, and there was no electricity from the 5th of June. The worst consequence of this was that once the water tower was empty, there was no possibility of refilling it as we had no functioning pump. The lack of water proved to be one of our greatest difficulties. There were also very few wells still usable.
Toward midnight, the persistent noise started and continued, coming from the sea; around 5 a.m. a bomb fell next to the marsh; then, as day broke, we could see the cloud of smoke from the sea.
With no news in Bieville, the farmer’s son bicycled towards Hermanville and I went to Caen to find out what we could. It was the Real Landings, expected for a long time, but not in our sector. The first German troops coming from Caen in command cars were avoiding the main road and took the road in front of our house. They stopped there what seemed to be a very long time. They were joined by the soldiers coming from the Château, who themselves were trying to avoid the fighters’ strafing. Finally they left to return an hour later with lessened numbers and many wounded. They went on toward Lebisey. Then, around 11 o’clock, a strange convoy of soldiers passed by. They looked somewhat Mongol, and were Russians of the Vlassov army. They were atop wooden wagons drawn by horses. They passed and we saw them no more.
At the beginning of the afternoon, the Tommies were coming closer because we were taking the first German shell hits—those that killed four villagers. It was at the same time that we heard the deafening noise of the first bombardment of Caen. Its object was to knock down the houses into the streets to prevent the German reinforcements from arriving. Meanwhile 35 tanks of the 21st Panzer Division were circling Caen with Periers as objective and the hill from Beuville to Hermanville. From these positions they could have fired on the beach of Hermanville. However, the first two tanks were destroyed by the precise cannon fire of the British antitank battery. There ensued a murderous confrontation, but the remaining German tanks went back to Lebisey. They were able to be camouflaged in a large antitank trench, dug some weeks before, from which their cannons projected over the crest of the hill, trained on Bieville. This was the line of German resistance.
The residents of Bieville began to organize themselves in the center of town. Some had fled during the terrible battle. In the center of Bieville, there were several shelters, one of which was the Bouriez cave. There were probably other hiding places also. One resident, taking no notice of the war, went about harvesting his hay. Some inhabitants went to stay with friends in Beuville or Periers. After two days, there remained about half the residents of the town, 110 of whom took refuge in our cellar. It is less than 100yds square but has sturdy vaulting dating from the 17th century. We protected the exit with a kind of scaffolding so as not to be trapped if the house received a direct hit. Later we opened another exit through a cellar opening issuing on a trench, which allowed in some fresh air.
The first Tommies arrived around 4 o’clock. They were K.SLI and appeared from everywhere with their faces blackened with soot, and twigs stuck in the netting over their helmets. I took a photograph of the first two I saw and it is hanging in the room directly above this one. Most probably it is the only photograph taken of English soldiers in Bieville on June 6th.
During the time the German shells were showering down on us. The Tommies did not stop. I saw them going down into the valley and up towards Lebisey. They had no air support, no artillery and only one tank on the bank on the other side of the marsh. They were repulsed, peppered by machine guns and cannon fire from the big guns hidden in the antitank trench. The dead stayed where they fell until July 9th.
The first British soldiers came back to the Town Cross. The valley and the hill of Lebisey remained a No-Man’s Land until July 9th. On the right flank, the Tommies tried to infiltrate into the wood where there is now a Golf Course, but bloody skirmishes between patrols pushed them back again and again.
Night fell. A British soldier, Corporal Harvey, exhausted by seasickness and his long trek from the sea spent the night in our cave.
From June 7th to 25th.
Although the shelling continued, and the church steeple had been reduced by half, life in each shelter was quite organized. In our family cellar, we added chairs and armchairs to the mattresses from the house, I slept on the ground between the legs of a chair. One of our number had been a ship’s cook, and he made the meals for everyone in cauldrons in the old creamery adjacent to the cellar. We were not short of food because of the cows killed by the shells. The courageous went to dig for potatoes.
Most people, except those who were really afraid, did not spend the whole day in the cellar. Some neighbours went home even though about 100 shells fell each day. In the evening the Curate said prayers and even baptised a child in our house.
During the day of the 7th, before the Château burned, the Germans machine gunned the roofs of our houses with incendiary bullets. They must have been wet because they did not do much damage. There were a few Germans hidden in the trees around us. They did not shoot at us, but concentrated their efforts on directing the cannon fire from Lebisey by radio. We watched the branches, which shook under their weight, and indicated to the Tommies where to aim their Sten guns.
The great media event, as we say today, happened on the 7th. Because of the bad weather, there was no possible sea support for the troops. Towards 7 o’clock in the evening, in the direction of Benouville, we saw hundreds of parachutes: white for soldiers; green for food supplies and red for ammunition. A magnificent spectacle! Gliders carrying cannons or small tanks came floating to earth at 100km an hour. The Germans could see this spectacle too and riddled everything falling to earth with bullets and AKAK. They also had to contend with “Rommel’s Asparagus”, which consisted of wooden stakes. 6 or 8 yards tall, planted in the ground at intervals to deter the gliders from landing. The greatest chore was go to get water from the marsh. Two full buckets are amazingly heavy and prevent you from running. The baker continued to make his bread. He stayed until the 26th when the American Army organized the evacuation. An officer with grey hair, the chief of operations visited our cellar, but left quickly because of the smell. We took him to the house, but just at that moment a shell burst in the middle of the lawn, not 30 yards away, and the officer decided that indeed the cellar entrance was a more prudent spot for our conversation. The next day a number of trucks arrived at our farm and evacuated many people.
From June 26th to July 9th.
There remained only seven “cave dwellers”—my brother and I among them. Maybe there were a few more townspeople who refused to be evacuated. We had several reasons for staying: to take care of the animals, who would have died of hunger and because our presence was a deterrent to looting.
Here I would like to make a point, because I, too, was a soldier. Each of the 2000 soldiers, KSLI, and Warwicks, who replaced each other every four to eight days between Bieville and Beuville, stared death in the face at every instant. As a consequence of this, worldly possessions had little value. For instance, a soldier, who wanted to shave in the morning in his foxhole, might enter a deserted house, crack a hanging mirror with the butt end of his rifle and salvage a piece of it to take back to his foxhole.
For sanitary reasons we had to bury the dead cattle in the fields. There was a serious risk of pollution to our only water supply apart from the dreadful smell. I remember one expedition with four others, armed with picks and shovels—in full view of the Germans. The first foot was dug in record time, with the expectation that we would plunge into the hole at a moment’s notice to avoid a bursting shell. Happily the Germans did nothing. Finally, we wanted to keep Bieville alive.
The Germans peppered us with more than 100 shells a day, concentrating on the hours of 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.— tea time. There were 1000 soldiers in 4000 yards between the hill and the end of town, but that did not mean one soldier every four yards. They were scattered in foxholes between the front line and 1 and 1/2 miles behind it. There was no question of trenches. They had individual foxholes, isolated and uncomfortable, and looked forward to getting together for tea at 6 in the morning and 5 in the evening. The Germans understood this, and one could see the medics coming back with loaded stretchers after those hours.
The objective of the English was apparently to block the German units at Caen by bombing 10 shells for every one German shell to make them believe an attack was imminent. The German objective was to prevent this offensive so the troop movement was reduced to patrols, particularly at night. I was drafted as guide on several occasions, and once I remember leading some Tommies up the narrow stairway of the church of Bieville to see if there was a German soldier watching the movements of the Brits. The patrols laid mines in No-Man’s Land so that their explosion would signal an attack by the enemy. This was the reason the Tommies did not allow us to go to the vegetable gardens near the Town Cross.
From 5 a,m, until midday, we could not hear what the person in front of us was saying because of the noise. Hundreds of planes— aluminum coloured for the American Flying Fortresses, and black for the English Lancasters continued, incessantly, to bomb Lebisey, Colombelles and northern Caen. Our friends, the KSLI and Warwicks got up early and were replaced by multiple cannon batteries, which added to the fracas.
Lebisey was pulverised and July 10th, on bicycling to Caen, I could only go as far as the hill on the northern border of Caen because adjoining bomb craters were too deep for the bicycle.
We were liberated on June 6th, but we really did not feel free until July 9th. Apart from a couple of bombs dropped a little haphazardly by German planes, peace, real peace, returned, and those evacuated came home to face the destruction. Almost all the roofs were scarred by bullet and shell holes; walls were knocked down; several houses levelled: the church tower reposing in the nave; bullet and shell holes on the outside of all the houses and broken glass everywhere on the inside. Garden walls were knocked down. We were somewhat protected by the numbers of tall trees which, when hit, made the shells burst in the air, (which was very dangerous for the people below), and also by the fact that fields and gardens occupied most of the land.
But what was irreparable was the loss of the lives of the villagers of Bieville as well as those of our liberators. The KSLI and Warwicks number among the 986 graves in the British cemetery at Hermanville. Fifty years after, we are here to say not only Welcome’ to our English friends, but ‘Thank You.’