Ever since the summer of 1944, when over a million Allied soldiers invaded Normandy by land, sea and air, countless books and films have celebrated the joys of liberation. Photographs taken at the time show American GIs kissing pretty, laughing French girls and handing out chewing gum to appreciative children. The reality, as Mary Louise Roberts describes it, was awkwardly different.
The Allies did not arrive in France unannounced. In order to confuse the Germans about the precise location of the landings, there had been days of intensive bombing all over the country. Along the Normandy coast, precision bombing being anything but precise, houses had been destroyed, villages flattened and animals slaughtered in their thousands, their carcasses left rotting and stinking in the fields. The landings themselves brought more devastation: during the first two days 3,000 Frenchmen were killed, equalling the number of Allied deaths.
Although eager to help, the terrified Normans were appalled by their large, demanding, gung-ho liberators, who spoke no French, helped themselves to anything they wanted, killed small children by driving their jeeps too fast and created a huge amount of noise and mayhem. ‘Nothing’, as the French writer Georges Duhamel