French showed joy Iraqis don't feel

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The squat concrete water towers provide incongruous punctuation to the rolling countryside of Normandy, meadows filled with spotted cows and fields of flax, separated by ancient hedgerows.

The utilitarian structures seem out of place amid the Romanesque churches and half-timber houses of this venerable French landscape that stretches west of Paris to the coast of the English Channel.

The water towers all look alike because they were all built at the same time. Six decades ago, their predecessors were destroyed by Allied troops. "Of course, the water towers could be used by German troops for snipers and spotting, so they had to be destroyed," explains Jacques Perreau, a Normandy guide who was 4 years old when the troops came through.

Without the towers, many Normans became sick from drinking foul water. But there was no anger directed at the Americans and their allies. Just the opposite.

"The Americans came with these water purification tablets," Perreau says. "This just confirmed to the locals that everything in America was far more advanced."

If there is a rift between the French and Americans over the war in Iraq, it is not evident in Normandy this summer. There seem to be almost as many U.S. - and British and Canadian - flags flying as tricolors of France. Sixty years after D-Day, they affirm the welcome given to liberators, the reception U.S. troops hoped for in Iraq.

At the base of the statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who has his hands on his hips in the middle of a traffic circle in Bayeaux, and the monument to Gen. George Patton in Avranches are formal bouquets of flowers, left by various French, American - even German - groups.

The war that was an ocean away for most Americans - brought home then by poignant letters and tragic telegrams and stirring newsreels, now by Hollywood movies - has always been very real to the Normans.

While in America the focus is on June 6 - D-Day - the French know that that was only the beginning of nine weeks of fighting that left many of Normandy's cities in ruins. Almost all of the destruction was caused by Allied bombs and artillery.

"In the grand scheme of American history, it was among the toughest military combat ever experienced by Americans," Baltimore-based historian Joseph Balkowski says of the Battle of Normandy. "Including the Civil War."

Sixty years ago today, Allied troops were mopping up after the battle of the Falaise pocket. The Germans suffered heavy losses as their trapped troops retreated from Normandy, but it was a missed opportunity to decimate the Nazi army.

Wednesday marks the 60th anniversary of the celebrated liberation of Paris. That was the end of the battle of Normandy, fought for a day on the beaches, for weeks on the bocage, the rolling Norman countryside criss-crossed by tall, thick hedgerows that concealed German troops and forced armor onto vulnerable roadways.

"Ultimately, if you look at World War II and the names that pop up as the worst of combat - the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima - realistically, the nine weeks of Normandy was about the worst there ever was," says Balkowski whose book, Beyond the Beachhead, followed the 29th Division in the weeks after D-Day.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of this fight, the city of Lisieux put up photographs around town, showing what it looked like as it was liberated. It was a shambles. Few of its ancient half-timber buildings remain. Like many Norman cities, it is filled with nondescript structures from the 1950s and 1960s.

No city suffered more than Caen. The British were supposed to take it a few days after D-Day, but it took weeks to defeat reinforced German troops dug in around the limited approaches to the city. American and British bombers, afraid of hitting their own troops, dropped their bombs behind the German lines, leveling the city where William the Conqueror planned his invasion of England in 1066, yet achieving no particular military advantage.

But Allied troops say they encountered little resentment despite the destruction they brought.

"These were mainly agricultural people, farmers," says Perreau, whose family's house was among those destroyed in Caen. "They were fatalists. They knew this would happen in war, that it was necessary to get rid of the Germans."

Caen now boasts a new and spectacular museum about the war, dedicated to peace. Visitors to its D-Day section are encouraged to follow the fate of a few soldiers who landed in the Allied assault. Among them is Washington native Charles W. Stockell. His biographical sketch says he was born in 1922 and was a cub reporter for The Baltimore Sun when he enlisted.

"I carried a pencil for Mark Watson," Stockell says of his job in the Washington bureau trailing behind the star reporters.

His principal memory of those days is that the windows of the Sun's offices in the National Press Building were across from a department store's models' dressing rooms. "And they never pulled down the shades," he says.

Stockell, who retired from the Army as a colonel and lives in Beaufort, S.C., was an artillery lieutenant in the 2nd Infantry when he came ashore at Omaha Beach on June 7.

"There was still some sniper fire in the area, so we just dug in for the night," he says. "When I woke up in the morning, there was this gray-green elbow sticking out of the side of my foxhole. I learned later that they had buried the body of this booby-trapped German. He had a grenade under each armpit with the pin pulled out."

Stockell confirms the brutality of fighting in Normandy. "We were in one little town, St. George d'Elle in the forest of Cerisy. The first attack I made out of that town with the company we had 200 men and five officers. One hour later after we made our assault, there were 100 dead or wounded and all five officers were dead.

"So I was in command of the company. There was some pretty terrific fighting in that area," he says.

Except for the occasional local girlfriend of a Nazi officer who would pick up her dead beau's gun and continue fighting, Stockell remembers nothing but hospitality from the French.

"They would come out of their houses, they always had a bottle of wine," says Stockell, who was wounded several times. "They would bring us things to eat, sometimes invite us over to their houses for Sunday dinner. They just could not have been nicer."

Jeffrey Herf, a historian of Germany at the University of Maryland, College Park, says this is not surprising. "Germany had occupied France since May 1940, and it had not been a pleasant occupation. There was a lot of hatred of the Germans, and whatever the French may have thought about the United States or Britain, they were coming to kick the Germans out," he says.

Herf says the occupation of France was not nearly as brutal as that endured by Eastern European countries whose inhabitants were considered racially inferior by Nazi ideology.

For the most part, the French learned to live - and to make a living - during the occupation, much as Iraqis did under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Balkowski, whose latest book, Omaha Beach, is about D-Day, has a more recent memory of the Normans' attitude toward Americans. On June 8, he was in the town of Vire - the pivot point where U.S. troops heading south from their beach landings turned east toward Germany - with a group of D-Day veterans and current troops of the 29th Division.

"Vire was captured by the 29th in early August [1944] and basically leveled," he says.

Balkowski says his group expected a formal French reception. "Instead the entire populace was out on the sidewalk with American flags, screaming madly," he says. "Basically for four hours, the entire town threw us a party. It was truly one of the highlights of my life."

For the troops who marched in Vire that day, Balkowski says, it was a taste of what it must have been like to march into Paris on Aug. 25, 1944.

Such iconic images were clearly what the Bush administration had in mind for U.S. troops going into Iraq. There was even an attempt to create an Iraqi force under exile Ahmad Chalabi similar to the Free French troops under Charles DeGaulle who landed to symbolically liberate Paris.

But the Iraq invasion did not live up to that billing. Chalabi's force failed to attract support among Iraqis. The liberators' welcome quickly turned into roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. Many in the United States turned against the war.

The basic difference is that the U.S. troops in Iraq were not kicking out a foreign invader; they were the foreign invader.

"Ordinary Frenchmen felt they had much more in common with Americans than with Germans," says George Quester, an expert on security studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Ordinary Iraqis, conversely, don't feel they have that much in common with Americans, compared, say, to Saddam Hussein."

Herf says it was wrong to compare going into Iraq with going into France, that it was more like going into Germany. "Speaking as someone who supported the war in Iraq, to me it was incomprehensible the assumption that the Baath regime and Saddam Hussein would be defeated relatively easily," he says. "That was just completely forgetting how difficult it was to defeat Nazi Germany."

Memory is a tricky thing. Balkowski says that while we now look back on being immediately greeted as liberators in France, U.S. troops had been told not to trust the locals, and most of the Normans were too concerned with daily survival to celebrate anything.

Stockell's wartime diary backs that up. His only mention of the French in his first few days there was on June 8. "Women shooting at soldiers, altho a few seem glad to see us."

In fact, the process of liberation is quite nuanced in French memory, tinged with humiliation at their defeat by the Germans, guilt over the many collaborators, and a conscious elevation of the importance of the Resistance.

Even the liberation of Paris was not a cause for celebration by all Parisians as French troops rushed there not just to take it from the Germans, but also to make sure that the Communists within the Resistance did not gain control of the city.

"What happened in Normandy in the first days after the landing would not have led soldiers to believe that they would be greeted as they are now, 60 years later," Balkowski says. "That's only retrospectively.

"So in looking at Iraq, historians want to wait for the dust to settle. Who knows how Americans will be regarded in 60 years?"

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°