The breakthrough at Avranches in late July 1944 meant the Allies could move freely in France. The liberation of western, southwestern and central France was underway.
The planners of Overlord considered retaking the peninsula of Brittany vital in order to access its deep-water Atlantic ports, and two corps of General Patton’s Third Army were assigned to the task. The US 8th Corps moved west across the north of the peninsula towards Brest, while the 20th Corps went south. Both faced enormous supply and communication problems. St-Malo surrendered on 17 August, while the tiny garrison on the island of Cézembre held out until 2 September – only surrendering after being bombed with American napalm. Brest was liberated after a determined struggle on 19 September.
Brittany’s ports had been largely destroyed by the Germans, and proved of little use, especially as the Allied advance moved further east. Continuing towards Germany, the ports at Antwerp and Marseilles took on increasing importance. In light of the huge loss of life at Brest, and the ineffectuality of its ports, the Allies decided not to attack the other “Atlantic pockets”.
The Atlantic pockets were a series of unassailable fortresses on the Atlantic coast, which had important practical and propagandistic purposes for the Germans. In theory German submarines had bases from which to operate, and unconquered territory in the west provided a morale boost to the citizens of the Fatherland who feared that the war was being lost. They were of equal symbolic value to the French, but proved impossible to conquer by force. The pockets were eventually besieged and bombed by the Allies. St-Nazaire, which held out the longest, only capitulated on 11 May 1945, three days after the surrender of Germany.
The Third Army moved east out of Brittany, liberating Nantes on 12 August without a fight. At Beaugency in the Loire Valley, courageous Resistance activities led German General Botho Henning Elster to surrender two German divisions – numbering more than 18,500 men – to US General Robert Macon.
The aftershock of the Battle of Normandy and the invasion of Provence was felt throughout France in August 1944. The 220,000 German troops still nominally occupying central and southwest France were now isolated, and the Resistance emerged into the open after months of furtive war. Outlying German units stationed in the countryside retreated to the cities where they grouped together, and preparations were made for an ordered departure. Archives were burned, arms dumps blown up and anything of use to the enemy or incriminating (such as Gestapo headquarters) was destroyed. Columns were formed and the wounded readied for travel.
Liberation in much of France is credited simply to “départ des Allemagnes” – the departure of the Germans. From mid- to late August, the remnants of a once-dominant foreign force set out in haste to join the general retreat in the northeast of France, keen to avoid getting left behind enemy lines. The Resistance did what it could to impede the German evacuation, and feelings of triumph and victory reverberated. The Germans moved out and the Resistance moved in – sometimes on the same day. In this manner, Toulouse was liberated on 19 August, Clermont Ferrand on 27 August and Bordeaux on 28 August. Occasionally there were brief, localized battles, with casualties on both sides, but the result was always a foregone conclusion.
Every major city had its day of liberation, and while most weren’t marked by spectacular battles of attrition that beset Normandy and Alsace, they were no less triumphant. Many ordinary citizens had resisted the brutal occupying force with small, uncelebrated acts, while the Resistance network was an ineradicable nuisance to the Germans – for these people, to witness the troops withdraw with little or no fight was no small honour. Battle-hardened Resistance fighters marched through the streets singing the Marseillaise; they formally took control of public buildings and arrested Pétainiste prefects and mayors.
While the military campaigns of the invading Allies and Free French inevitably created the conditions for victory, it was the men and women of the Resistance who took the cities and ensured continuation of civic authority. In the brief interlude between occupation and the return of routine, between rule according to Vichy decrees and the orders for calm from the provisional government of Charles de Gaulle, prisoners were freed from Nazi jails and a wave of cathartic épurationsauvage (rough justice) swept the country. Collaborators were shamed and in some places summarily executed. A few days later the complicated process of reconstructing a civic and political society would begin. Thousands of French prisoners of war who had surrendered in 1940, as well as men sent to Germany as forced labourers, returned to their villages, but most Jews and political prisoners of the Nazis, local individuals who took a conscientious stand aware of the consequences, did not survive.
In the towns and cities of central, western and southwestern France, there are no photographs of fresh-faced young men from Kansas in Sherman tanks being showered with flowers and cakes by the grateful local populace: provincial France quietly liberated itself. Today, there are no strategic bridges and bunkers to commemorate the events, and few “battlefield tourists” visit the local Resistance museums or the cabanes des maquis (resistance hideouts) in the woods.
An authentic German blockhouse stands in the centre of the Atlantic port of La Rochelle. It was built in secret in 1941 as an air-raid shelter for submarine commanders operating out of the port, and was found intact on the day of the city’s liberation, 8 May 1945.
What is now a peaceful island reached by boat from Saint-Malo, Cézembre enjoys the distinction of being the most heavily shelled area of Europe during the Liberation. Covering just 18 hectares, it is estimated to have received 20,000 bombs and projectiles during the summer of 1944, some of them filled with phosphorus and napalm. The German-Italian garrison eventually surrendered to the US 83rd Infantry Division on 2 September 1944.
While Paris was celebrating its liberation on 25 August 1944, the village of Maillé in the Touraine was living through a trauma that still haunts it today. An unidentified detachment of German soldiers – almost certainly of the Waffen-SS – surrounded Maillé and massacred every living being they found there, including the village animals. A total of 124 men, women and children were killed, while a few inhabitants were able to hide or feign death among the corpses. Maillé was then shelled using a rail-mounted gun. The motive for this atrocity has never been established.
The House of Remembrance bears witness to that day. It explores Maillé before and during World War II through testimony, reconstruction and memory. Its archives – documents, images, audio and video recordings – are backed up by good temporary exhibits and events.
West of Brest near Point St Mathieu (a cape reaching out into the Atlantic), the 39-45 Remembrance Museum occupies the former command post of a naval battery. In August 1944 the guns were pointing out to sea, but their circular turrets were swiveled round to fire on the Americans approaching Brest from the north and east. Displays across five floors explain the Atlantic Wall (of which the battery formed a part) and the Battle of Brest.
This concentration camp west of Pau was built in 1939 to house Republican refugees from Spain. Before France was invaded in May 1940, the French government also detained Germans here, including a large group of German Jews. Gurs was later used by the Vichy regime to hold its political opponents, as well as Jews awaiting deportation to the death camps. After the liberation it was reopened to house French collaborators and – ironically – Spaniards who had been fighting for the French Resistance lest they cross the border to challenge Franco’s regime, with which the new provisional French government was trying to establish friendly relations.
Some 25km northwest of Limoges, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane stands just as the soldiers of the SS left it on 10 June 1944, after killing 642 of its inhabitants. The ruins have been deliberately preserved as a shrine to the tragic events of that day.
The prelude to Oradour-sur-Glane began two days after D-Day. The 2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division, known as “Das Reich”, was ordered to leave its base in Montauban and make its way swiftly to Normandy to reinforce the beleaguered defenders there. Its progress was hampered by the French Resistance, which harassed the division and sabotaged its route. More seriously, resistance fighters attempted to liberate the town of Tulle prematurely, and a detachment of Das Reich troops was sent to reinforce the Tulle garrison and reassert control. By way of reprisal, the SS hanged 99 men from lampposts, some of whom belonged to the Resistance; others were ordinary citizens. Emboldened rather then discouraged, the Resistance kidnapped two SS officers, one of whom was executed.
At about 2pm on 10 June, a contingent of 150 men from the Das Reich division, led by Adolf Diekmann, arrived outside Oradour. They claimed they were checking identities, then that they were searching for secret arms caches belonging to the Resistance. The SS took the men of the village into barns, where they opened fire with machine guns, deliberately aiming low to wound rather than kill, before setting the barn alight – only six men escaped, one of whom was shot dead shortly after. Meanwhile, the women and children were shepherded into the church, where a gas bomb was set off – when this failed, the soldiers let loose with machine guns and grenades, setting the church on fire and killing almost everyone inside. Afterwards the soldiers set fire to the rest of the village. Only a handful of people escaped to tell the story.
Why the SS acted as they did has never been properly explained. It would have been made clear if – like in Tulle – this was an act of reprisal. It is possible that there was a personal motivation on the part of Diekmann for such extreme violence, perhaps to avenge the death of the SS officer killed by the Resistance; alternatively, the town may have been confused with another town called Oradour, not far away.
Diekmann was killed in action in Normandy, three weeks after the Oradour massacre. After the war, a trial failed to establish a motive – or to satisfy the victims’ families.
Top image: World War II bunker, Brittany coast © Stas B/Shutterstock