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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 February, 2004, 11:11 GMT
Tears and thanks as French relive D-Day
By Hugh Schofield
Caen, northern France

Bertrand Beuron was just a boy at the time, but 60 years on he remembers with perfect clarity what it was like to be in the path of a British bomb.

D-Day
It has been 60 years since Allied troops landed in Normandy
"There is the whistling of course, but before that there is something else," he says.

"You hear a kind of vibration in the sky, like a train going through a tunnel. Then comes the explosion, which seizes your breath and smashes your ears.

"And never in my life have I seen people pray the way they did then. They were imploring God, the saints - anything they could think of.

"When we came out to look at the spectacle around us - affreux, affreux, affreux! (terrible, terrible, terrible). The sky was so dark it was almost night.

"Our faces were like ghosts', covered in white dust with drops of blood where we had been cut by flying glass. I saw a woman stammering to herself. She seemed disconnected from reality.

Early in the morning of June 6 we heard strange noises. My father lay down and put his ear to the ground, and then he turned to me and said, 'It's started'
Charles Lepailleur
"And so my parents decided to leave. Dying was one thing - and who knew how long we had to live? But dying buried in the ruins of our town: That we did not want."

The 60th anniversary of D-Day is approaching, and to mark the occasion the people of Normandy are holding a series of evening "Vigils" - town-hall meetings where the old can reminisce and the young can listen in awe.

Last week they came to Caen, the old capital of William the Conqueror, which suffered more than any other town from the sheer bloodiness of the 1944 campaign.

Flattened

Though it is situated just a few miles from the beaches where British, Canadian and US forces successfully disembarked, Caen was not liberated till July 19.

And by then it had been flattened by allied bombing. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people were killed by their own side.

One by one local people took the microphone and to an intense silence relived the pain and the hope of those June days.

Bertrand Beuron
Mr Beuron was bombed by the British
"Early in the morning of 6 June we heard strange noises. My father lay down and put his ear to the ground, and then he turned to me and said, 'It's started,'" recalled Charles Lepailleur who lived on a farm that looked over the coast.

"From then on the shells were passing right over our heads, so we decided to move to Caen."

Bernard Dubois was six at the time. His uncle was killed by an allied bomb on 7 June ("He was so torn apart you could see his heart,") and another relative was later executed by the SS on the spot where an amusement arcade now stands.

He was also caught up in the bombing, and eventually brought to the 11th century abbey that is now the town hall.

With hundreds of others he was sheltered in the refectory, the very room where 60 years on he broke down as he told his story.

They executed them in groups of six or eight. They called them into the corridor and made them go down to a courtyard where they shot them down like dogs
Former resistance member Jacques Vico
"I want to thank all the people who by their courage ... I mean the ambulance drivers who got us here under the bombs. It is thanks to all these people that I am here this evening," he sobbed.

Former resistance member Jacques Vico stood to remind the audience that "June 6 cannot be recalled without mention of that most appalling event - the execution of prisoners at the maison d'arret."

"At four in the morning the Germans realised something important was happening, so the Feldkommandantur contacted the Gestapo to ask what should be done with the 120 resistance prisoners.

"They could not find a lorry to take them away, so instead they decided to dispense with their conscience and kill them," Mr Vico said.

On the run

"They executed them in groups of six or eight. They called them into the corridor and made them go down to a courtyard where they shot them down like dogs.

"They stopped at midday - they had a lunch appointment in Falaise - then started again at three."

Christian Vautier had left Caen with his parents, both resistance members, and spent much of the war on the run.

He remembered it was French police that came to arrest his father in 1940, and a French family who later betrayed them in the Cher department.

Vigil in the refectory of Caen
A last chance to hear the story from those who were there
"I can forget what the Germans did, though it costs me a deal of effort because I saw some terrible things, but those for whom I have absolutely no..." - the words failed him - "are those French people who put on jack-boots to hand over their countrymen to the occupier."

Detail brought the story to life. Paul Peponne remembered the exciting colour pictures on the "courrier de l'air", the leaflets dropped by allied aircraft in the run-up to D-Day.

Charles Lepailleur recalled being made to dig holes for what they nicknamed "Rommel's asparagus", the tank-traps that caused such devastation on the beaches.

Henri Lacheve remembered flicking a V-for-victory sign at a group of Canadian prisoners.

And many spoke of the chilling change of atmosphere when the regular German army troops were replaced by the SS.

In the weeks leading to 6 June, more of these vigils are planned - in Cherbourg, Bayeux, Saint-Lo, Avranches and other towns whose names leap from the history books.

What everyone knows, but no-one says, is that it is a last chance to hear the war told by the people who were there.


SEE ALSO:
Veterans may need D-Day passes
03 Feb 04  |  England
D-day veterans return to beaches
04 Nov 03  |  Hampshire/Dorset


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