September 15, 2022

1944. Entering Caen After the Allied Bombing and Liberation

"Why Did You Bomb Us?"
"A British soldier carries a little girl through the devastation of Caen, 10 July 1944" (source)

Below are brief accounts from Bill Downs and war correspondent Al Newman, both of whom entered Caen shortly after Allied forces took the city. More reports from Downs in July 1944 are featured here. From Newsweek, July 24, 1944, pp. 29-31:

Why Did You Bomb Us?

Bill Downs, Newsweek and CBS correspondent, was among the first few reporters to enter Caen after the British captured it. He cabled the following eyewitness story of the broken city, which once had 50,000 inhabitants.

A British colonel poked his head into a trench and said: "So you want to go into Caen?" We poked our heads out of the trench, looked at each other, and said with some doubt: "Yes."

"Well, go ahead," the colonel said. "But at your own risk." Continuing that kind of talk is bad for morale so we climbed into our jeep and headed for a mile of highway under German shell and mortar fire. No one liked the idea too much, but we had been waiting four hours to go ahead.

The jeep picked up speed. After the first quarter of a mile we relaxed—a little.

Down the hill was Caen proper. We came to an area which had received part of the 2,000 tons of bombs dropped by the RAF two days before. It looked as if someone had picked up the whole area, dropped it, and then come along with a gigantic finger and poked holes in the ground. White limestone dust covered everything, even the leaves still remaining on the shattered trees. Someone might have played a bad joke with dirt whitewash. We walked down the hill past the ruins of houses with their curtains flapping lifelessly from shattered windows. Parked beside a filling station with three leaning pumps was the remainder of a car. It looked like an oversize pepper shaker, there were so many holes in it.

This street once had been the beautiful approach to Caen. Ancient trees lined both sides of the avenue. In peacetime it was called the "Rue de la Délivrande."

The following day we were able to drive in from the west. There it was the same old story of destruction on the outskirts with damage tapering off as you reached the center of the city.

All Caen civilians who wish are being evacuated to camps near the beaches. Many of them since the invasion have lived in the Lycée Malherbe, the boys' school in the center of the city run by priests of the Church of St. Etienne. For weeks families slept on straw on the floor. There was no water, no light. But the Germans respected the asylum of the church and didn't bother the people. All in all, about 6,000 stayed here.

It was a different story for those who chose to live in their homes. German restrictions tightened when the Allies invaded. Then, following the big RAF bombing, SS troops ran wild through the town, beating civilians, breaking into stores and homes, and taking what they wanted. Liquor was their first demand.

What Price Deliverance: The people cannot understand the reason for this terrific bombing that preceded the final attack. "We waited four years for you to come," they say. "Then two days before you liberated us you bombed us." There has been no count of civilian casualties from this raid but preliminary estimates say that they may reach 2,000, maybe more.

The military argument for this tremendous attack is that the day after it was made the Germans began pulling men and equipment out of the Caen defenses. How many Germans would have defended the city and whether it would have been fought for house by house are questions that cannot be answered now. Many correspondents here have taken the line that such bombing is actually unnecessary, harmful to the Allied cause, and militarily useless. My belief is that it is impossible to tell in the case of Caen. The fact remains that Caen has been liberated.

Another Newsweek correspondent, Al Newman, arrived in Caen on Bastille Day, four days after Downs' visit. Newman sent this contrasting description of the town:

Before the cathedral, the Place du Lycée boiled with people. It took no second glance to tell that this wasn't a Bastille Day celebration but a panicky, tearful throng of refugees waiting for trucks to carry them to Bayeux. The dimly lit nave of the cathedral was thickly spread with straw, and hundreds, looking grim, scared and hopeless, lay there.

In the adjacent Lycée Malherbe, where more refugees huddled, relief workers buzzed from group to group. There were French Wacs brought from England for just such emergencies and local civilian Red Cross workers. American civil affairs officers answered questions, took notes, and shepherded refugees into trucks, saw to meals and supervised burial of the dead in mass graves behind the Lycée.

That was Caen's Quatorze Juillet observance.