When Britain bombed France

  • 75 years on from D-Day, we will rightly hear a lot about the heroism of the Allied troops who stormed the beaches
  • We will hear much less about the British and American bombing raids that killed thousands of French civilians and levelled dozens of historic Norman towns
  • By modern definitions, these raids count as a war crime. The 15,000 Norman victims should be remembered alongside the Allied dead

By John Lichfield

For the first time in 75 years the people of Caen can visit one of the most beautiful towns in Europe this summer – their own.

An exhibition of 200 paintings, sketches and photographs, the largest ever assembled, resurrects the exquisite, medieval city destroyed by the RAF and Royal Navy in June and July 1944.

At the Château de Caen, home of William the Conqueror, visitors can marvel once again at the jumbled half-timbered streets and soaring churches that made the ancient capital of Normandy a kind of French York or French Leipzig.

The medieval city of Caen was mostly destroyed in June and July 1944

Only fragments of that Caen survive. After the war the town was rapidly reconstructed in Legoland style. A few streets and large buildings, including two abbeys, the burial places of William and his queen Matilda, either survived or were restored.

As the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy approaches, we will hear much – and rightly so – of the heroism of the Allied troops who stormed the beaches just north and west of Caen on 6 June 1944. We shall hear much – and rightly so – of the 77 days of brutal fighting which followed over the plains, through the hills and between the thick hedgerows of Calvados and Manche.

American troops wade ashore at Utah beach on June 6, 1944

We will hear much less of the killing, mostly by Allied bombs, of 15,000 Norman civilians. We will hear little on the Allied destruction – quite unnecessary in most cases – of Caen and a dozen other beautiful Norman towns.

Unnecessary? Yes, unnecessary.

Caen, which was heavily defended by German troops, is an arguable case. It was first bombed on 7 June, after the British failed to capture the city on D-Day. In July it was pummelled from Royal Navy warships off-shore as British and Canadian troops fought for control of its shattered streets – a French Stalingrad.

The attackers found, as the Germans found in Russia the previous year, that it is much harder to capture a ruined city than a complete one. British and French historians of the battle of Normandy have concluded that the bombardments were pointless, even counter-productive.

In 2009, Antony Beevor drew the wrath of the British popular press by saying that the destruction of Caen was “very close to a war crime”. In the case of other Allied bombing raids in Normandy in June 1944, the case against the Allies is clearer. By modern definitions of “war crime”, Beevor’s qualifying words “very close” are redundant.

The destruction of Caen was described as "very close to a war crime"

Just before and just after D-Day, a dozen smaller Norman towns were carpet-bombed by the RAF and USAAF, flying high in large four-engined aircraft. In almost all cases, there were no German casualties. There were no Germans present.

I live in the Calvados hills, 10 kilometres from Aunay-sur-Odon, a friendly, thriving town, built in the cheerful but soulless style of the early 1950s. For three days from 12 to 14 June 1944, the original half-timbered Aunay was smashed flat by British air-raids.

Most of the townspeople fled into the countryside. One in ten of them – 165 people – died. They included many children and six members of one family. After three days of bombardment by planes designed to destroy great cities, only Aunay’s church tower and two gutted hospital buildings remained standing.

Seventy five years on, there is no-one living in Aunay who remembers June 1944. Fifteen years ago, I spoke to Renée Fouques, who was 16 years old when her childhood exploded before her eyes.

Only the church tower and two gutted hospital buildings at Aunay-sur-Odon remained standing

“Our old Aunay disappeared that day,” she said. “The school where I had learnt to read; our narrow streets with wooden buildings; the hospital we were so proud of; my grandmother’s house, where I lived.

“Sometimes at night, I can still hear the screams of Monsieur Joismel, our neighbour. He was trapped in the rubble of his home up to his waist … The bombs were still falling. We had to leave him. I will carry his screams with me until I die.”

What happened to Aunay also happened to Lisieux, Pont l’Evêque, Thury Harcourt, Evrecy, Condé-sur-Noireau, Falaise, Flers, Vire, Saint-Lô, Argentan and Coutances.

Most were pretty market towns. Argentan, Falaise and St-Lô were miniature versions of Caen, jewels of medieval and 16th-century architecture. Only Bayeux, near the coast, captured by the British the day after D-Day, was spared.

Bayeux, captured by the British on June 7, escaped bombardment

Why do this? Winston Churchill asked the same question in a letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt but he was rebuffed.

D-Day strategists had devised a “Transportation Plan”, attacks on French railways and roads as far away as Paris to slow German reinforcements making for the Normandy beach-heads. The plan also demanded the obliteration of all large settlements around cross-roads just south of the Norman coast.

Air Commodore Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces, spoke casually of “flattening out” Norman towns. Only Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, objected. He wanted to kill German civilians, not Norman ones.

Leaflets were dropped to warn the population but most fell in the wrong places.

The plan was callous but also stupid. Normandy, like England, is a mesh of small roads. The Germans easily drove around the ruins. The Allies had, in any case, a more effective block on German troop movements – pinpoint attacks by smaller fighter-bombers on the armoured divisions heading west or north.

There was for many years a taboo in France and in Britain on talking about the bombing of Norman towns in June 1944. In recent years, that taboo has been breached. Both French and British historians have investigated the subject, although it remains rarely mentioned in the British media.

Professor Jean Quellien, historian at the University of Caen, said: “If you, as a Briton, ask any Norman about the bombardments, there will still be a reluctance to criticise or complain… When Normans talk among themselves, it is quite different… There is a strong sense of bitterness, a belief that this was done too casually, even callously, and was, in any case, unnecessary.”

Andrew Knapp, a historian at Reading University, is a specialist on what he calls the “forgotten blitzes” of France and Italy. He points out that the Allies dropped over half a million tons of bombs on France during World War Two – seven times more than the Luftwaffe dropped on Britain. Over 57,000 French civilians died, almost as many as the 60,595 British casualties of German air-raids.

Some attacks on France were justified and well-targeted, Professor Knapp says. Other bombing raids like those “on a series of quiet Norman towns on D-Day, or on Le Havre on 5 September 1944, had no military justification that would bear scrutiny… Under the treaties that Britain (though not the United States) has signed since the war, these attacks (on civilian targets) would be regarded as war crimes.”

Planes of the 344th Bomb Group were heavily involved in the attacks on Normandy

The off-hand killing of civilians was a crime. So was the thoughtless destruction of 900 years of history and culture. In 1944 the British politician, writer and diarist Harold Nicolson was mocked when he said that he could accept the death of his son, fighting in Italy, more easily than the loss of the artistic riches of Monte Cassino.

Seventy five years after the Battle of Normandy, is it callous of me – a British adopted Norman, whose father served in Normandy in 1944 – to say something similar?

Many great monuments from Leipzig to Exeter, pictured, were destroyed in the Second World War

Many great monuments of European civilisation, from Leipzig to Exeter to Warsaw, were destroyed in the second European civil war of the 20th Century. Only Caen and the other lost Norman towns were destroyed by their friends and liberators.

Three quarters of a century on, the sacrifice of 15,000 Norman civilians should be remembered alongside the 53,000 Allied victims (including 16,000 airmen) and, yes, the 50,000 or so German dead.

But I’m not the only Norman to have a sense of everlasting loss – of amputation, of permanent, unnecessary desecration of a great heritage – every time that I visit the cheerful, blank streets of Aunay or Caen.

Further reading

This Le Figaro article (in French) is a fine overview of the exhibition at the Château de Caen. The exhibition’s own website can be found here.

In 2014, Professor Andrew Knapp of Reading University conducted a series of lectures on the bombing raids in France and particularly the destruction of Le Havre. He discusses those lectures and his broader research in this post.

Anthony Beevor’s comments about the bombings, made in 2009, were well summarised by the Guardian at the time.