Andrew Vine finds a corner of France where one of the most vicious battles of the Second World War was fought.
STEPHANE Jonot guns his battered Renault Clio far too fast along the narrow wooded lanes of Normandy, before screeching to an abrupt halt at a driveway leading to a grand house.
Fifty whitewashed German helmets used to line this drive when he was a child instead of the neatly painted stones that are here now, he explains, then points to a tree by the gate he climbed to get a closer look at the rifle still lodged in the branches 20ft off the ground, hurled up there by an explosion.
Then it’s back into the Clio for another nerve-racking charge around blind corners and a jolting stop outside Stephane’s own house, its stonework pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel.
In this year of remembrance, Stephane is anxious that his corner of France is not forgotten, hence his urgency. He knows that the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War threatens to overshadow all else but here, around Falaise, a different milestone is uppermost in its peoples’ minds.
In the summer of 1944, these lanes and fields of the Dives Valley saw the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War in Western Europe, with more than 13,000 dead between August 14 and 22 – at least 100 of them French civilians – as the Allies finally drove the German occupiers out of Normandy and left the way clear to liberate Paris.
The Battle of the Falaise Pocket, when Allied troops attempted to encircle and capture 130,000 Germans, was ferocious.
The Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D Eisenhower, was shaken by what he saw in the aftermath, writing: “It was possible for hundreds of yards to walk over decomposing human remains, in a heavy silence through a luxuriant countryside where all life had brutally ceased. It is one of the greatest slaughters of the war.”
Yet in Britain at least, the Battle of the Falaise Pocket is a neglected, perhaps even-largely forgotten episode, overshadowed by the D Day landings that preceded it, not part of this country’s collective memory of the war because most of the fighting was done by Polish, Canadian and US troops.
Stephane, a rangy, energetic figure, is in a hurry in his Clio because time is counting down to the launch of the first guided trail around the battlefield, in time for the 70th anniversary.
At 43, Stephane lives and breathes the battle, which has obsessed him since childhood, one of a dedicated band of Normandy people far too young to have lived through it, but determined to keep its memory alive.
A museum of the battle at Montormel was built around Stephane, who became its director when it opened in 2001. Its display cases are full of the relics he has unearthed over three decades of scouring the battlefield and the cellars of the people who lived through the fighting, including his own grandmother.
“She hid in the cellar while the fighting was going on around her,” said Stephane. “When it was over, a black cloud hung over the valley, made up of smoke and a mass of flies that came down on the corpses everywhere.
“The smell was so bad that children would take up smoking to combat it.”
The hill overlooking the valley on which the Montormel Memorial stands saw the most savage fighting, as mutual hatred between the Polish and German forces grappling for the high ground resulted in pitiless hand-to-hand combat.
The Poles won out, but there are no war graves for the vanquished Germans on the hill or the valley floor. In the heat of the high summer of 1944, the Allies bulldozed the dead into the fields.
Up to 30,000 German troops managed to escape the closing trap, mostly along a narrow lane that became known as the “corridor of death” and as they did so, bloody clashes took place.
One of them was at the village of Berjou, where another man gripped by what happened long before he was born has also devoted himself to chronicling the fighting.
Romaine Bon, 34, has established a museum full of relics to tell the story of what happened in this community of 500 on August 15 and 16 when British troops tried to dislodge the Germans.
This is not a publicly-funded museum like Stephane’s, but a community collection where the past feels especially close, not least because it is housed in a cottage owned by Robert Guillain, 89, who lived through the battle.
In his own home a few yards away, where he sits beneath a crucifix that was on the wall in 1944, the kitchen door still bears bullet holes.
M Gullain’s friend and neighbour is 87-year-old Maurice Chauffree, whose father warned a British soldier that Germans lay in wait, only to be waved away. The man was killed seconds later by a German who promptly surrendered. The rifles dropped by both men were kept locked away by the Chauffree family until Maurice handed them over to Romaine for his museum.
And Berjou has its own way of remembering the fallen that has endured for each of the years since the fighting ended. Romaine said: “Every year, somebody, we don’t know who, places flowers somewhere along the hedgerows. The wreath is in the shape of a crucifix, and whoever finds it always takes it to the church.”
How to get there
Andrew Vine and Mike Cowling travelled with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Caen/Ouistreham (www.brittanyferries.com or 0871 244 1400) which have return crossings from £110pp for a car and two passengers.
Details of the Falaise area are available from Orne Tourist Office (www.normandy-travel.co.uk)
The Montormel Memorial is at www.memorial-montormel.org The website has full details of the new route around the Falaise Pocket battlefield. There is a programme of guided tours and a smartphone app of the key locations.
The Museum of the Liberation in Berjou is at www.liberationdeberjou3945.fr