My great uncle, André Heintz, is, at age 94, one of the last survivors of the French Resistance. This series of posts reports on my recent trip to Normandy to visit him on the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion.
“Laisser arrivent lentement”
Once the Allies had captured the Normandy beaches, it was expected that they would sweep through Northwest France quickly, driving the discouraged Germans before them. But this didn’t happen. The Germans were well aware that if Caen fell, so would Paris, and they would quickly find their backs against the German frontier. Therefore, the Wehrmacht threw everything it had at the Allies in a desperate bid to hold Caen.
The outmanned Germans fought brilliantly,(1) albeit savagely,(2) and beat back numerous Allied attacks aimed at capturing Caen. Operations Perch, Dauntless, Epsom, Neptune and Charnwood, for example, all failed wholly or partly.(3) Allied troops eventually entered the western edge of the city on July 9,(4) but the town wasn’t secure until late July. Paris fell a few weeks later.
The delay kept André Heintz and his Resistance network busy, especially harrying the Werhmacht troops rushing toward the beaches. “Let them arrive slowly,” was their motto. For example, it took two weeks for the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich to arrive in Normandy from Limoges, a trip that would normally take two days. Furious at the Resistance harassment, the Das Reich soldiers committed a series of atrocities en route to Caen, including murdering 600 civilians at Oradour-sur-Glâne.
“We are a hospital!”
British bombs had destroyed the local hospital, and a substitute had been established at the Bon Sauveur convent. As casualties began to pour in, André Heintz’s sister, who worked as a nurse, recruited André to help out. One day, already overwhelmed, Bon Sauveur itself was bombed. The head nurse demanded that the Resistance inform the Allies that the convent was now a hospital, but André demurred sadly – it would take too long. Then his sister had an idea. The one thing they had in quantity was bloody sheets. She and André dragged large numbers of the sheets up onto the roof of the convent and laid them out in a giant “Red Cross” pattern. No more bombs fell on Bon Saveur.
“You must reach Bayeux”
Although most of the Wehrmacht held positions just outside Caen, British Field Marshall Montgomery ordered a massive bombing campaign directed against the city. The British managed to flatten one of the most famed medieval towns in the world, a town that had served as the base of William the Conqueror, and killed thousands of civilians, but they did little harm to the German defense.(5)
Recognizing that prolonging the bombing was only going to increase civilian casualties, the Resistance put out a call to its surviving members for “une mission très dangereuse:” an attempt to sneak through the German lines all the way to Bayeux(6) to beg the British to halt the bombing.
André Heintz raced to the rendezvous point but was delayed en route – by the very British bombing attacks the suicide mission was hoping to stop. When he arrived he learned that three young Resistance members had already left to make their way to Bayeux. His heart sank. These were eager-but-inexperienced young people who seemed highly unlikely to survive such a mission. (At the age of twenty-four, André Heintz considered himself to be a grizzled veteran.)
Indeed, two of the Resistance members were killed before reaching Bayeux. Remarkably, though, the third not only reached the town safely but then succeeded in convincing the British that their bombing of Caen could have no further good effect. The air raids were lifted and the remaining population of Caen was saved. Who was this intrepid Resistance fighter? It was a young girl still in high school! “Je suppose que j’ai sous-estimé sa!” I guess I underestimated her! said André.
Following the liberation of Caen, André became the chief interpreter for the British Army as the Brits and the Americans raced toward Paris, and then Berlin.
(1) Several German units fought heroically in the face of numerical superiority and total Allied domination of the skies. The elite 21st Panzer Division in particular blocked the main routes into Caen and held those roads fiercely.
(2) Of particular note, the commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”), Kurt Meyer, was convicted of war crimes for the killing of unarmed Canadian prisoners. The Hitlerjugend was unique because the great majority of its junior enlisted men were drawn from members of the Hitler Youth – the division’s average age was 17½. So young were these “men” that, rather than being issued the usual ration of liquor, the 12th was issued rations of candy.
(3) The story of the repeated failure of the Allies to capture Caen, the most important objective following the securing of the Normandy beaches, is well told by Andrew Stewart in Caen Controversy: The Battle for Sword Beach 1944.
(4) “Ce jour-là était la plus belle de ma vie,” André would say many years later. That day was the most beautiful of my entire life.
(5) British military historian, Antony Beevor, has written, “The British bombing of Caen beginning on D-Day … was stupid, counter-productive and above all very close to a war crime.” D-Day: The Battle for Normandy.
(6) Yes, this is the Bayeux of tapestry fame, although the tapestries were made not in Bayeux but in England, in the 1070s. They are known as the Bayeux Tapestries because, in 1729, they were (re)discovered hanging in the Bayeux Cathedral.
Next up: André Heintz (Part 4)(The Last Part)
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