Interview

American Bombs Falling on France

In 1944, some 60,000 French civilians were killed by Allied bombs. Was this simply the inevitable collateral damage of the Normandy landings on June 6 and the liberation of France? It was an act of pointless carnage that has since been forgotten, according to historian Stephen A. Bourque, the author of Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France and a professor emeritus at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
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American bombers attacking a road in Normandy, June 6, 1944. © U.S. Air Force

France-Amérique: The massacre of 60,000 civilians by American and British bombers mostly took place between May and July 1944. Many historians are unaware of it and the events are barely commemorated in France, save from in a handful of towns that were particularly affected, such as Lisieux and Saint-Lô. Has this silence been engineered by France and the Allies?

Stephen A. Bourque: It is true that historians rarely mention it and that there are few monuments – the only major memorial is in Saint-Lô in Normandy. Despite being a military historian myself, even I was only vaguely aware of it until the chance discovery of a memorial plaque at the Metz train station listing the names of the victims. And they were all French, without a single German! I realized that I had fallen victim to American propaganda – particularly that of its film industry, with movies such as Is Paris Burning? – which ignored these bombings. Most of the memorials and commemorative plaques are in railroad stations because they were key American targets. This inspired me to investigate these bombings and write a book about them. The title is provocative – The Allied War Against France – but it is entirely accurate.

Was this bombing campaign a necessary evil to ensure the success of the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944?

America’s strategy, as defined by General Eisenhower alone, without any concertation with the British or the French, was to destroy all pathways that would have enabled the Germans to transport reinforcements to Normandy and launch a counterattack. However, the targets were chosen at random. All railroad stations and the towns in between were destroyed with no thought for civilians or historical heritage, in the hope that these bombings would prove useful. It was a primitive strategy.

Did the Allies not carefully plan their bombing campaign?

They would not have been able to, as their bombers were not accurate. The planes were poorly equipped for honing in on their targets and were only effective in destroying large areas such as entire towns or industrial complexes, not single bridges or railway lines. [In the spring of 1944, only 29% of the bombs dropped on Europe by the Americans landed within 1,000 feet of their targets.] In fact, the U.S. Army Air Forces of the time was aware of its limits, and was totally opposed to this carpet-bombing technique. Winston Churchill was also against it, fearing that it would have serious, negative impacts on French morale and their future behavior towards the Allies. This dispute was brought all the way to Franklin Roosevelt. But the president entrusted the decision to Eisenhower, who threatened to resign if he was not provided with bombers. Montgomery, who was leading the British forces, also sided with Eisenhower. He feared a German counterattack led by Rommel, which he had already experienced in North Africa. The French caught in the crossfire were seen as collateral damage in the extensive and pointless destruction, such as the bombing of Le Havre in September 1944.

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The city of Caen in ruins, June 1944. © Le Mémorial de Caen

Given the inaccuracy of the bombings, would it not have been wiser to equip the French Resistance, who were able to blow up specific bridges and railroads?

Yes, but Eisenhower and the U.S. Army overestimated the ability of their planes. When the U.S. Army Air Forces [renamed the U.S. Air Force after the war] argued that it was not technically capable of the feats required, the U.S. Army refused to believe it. The two services barely communicated, and this separation of both cultures still exists in the United States today. Meanwhile, Eisenhower would not even consider trusting the French Resistance. He saw it as a hub of communist activists who were best left unaided. Its members were therefore deliberately underequipped and underused by the British and American Allies. Yet despite this suspicion, it was thanks to the French Resistance that General Patton’s armored vehicles were able to find their way out of the labyrinthine hedgerows after the Normandy landings.

Have you found traces of anti-American sentiment born of this U.S. indifference to civilian victims?

Yes. When I arrived in Germany at the age of 19 in 1969, I was often asked about these indiscriminate bombings by both Germans and the French. During my later research, I often noticed – particularly in Saint-Lô and Le Havre – that the Americans were not viewed as liberators. But overall, in 1944, France was a complicated society divided into Vichy supporters, collaborators, Gaullists, and communists. A consensus was then more or less established that the Americans had liberated France, without ever going into the details. And that vision still exists now.

What is the situation today?

Today, French-American cooperation is simpler. In Ukraine, the forces of good and evil are far more clearly defined. I would also highlight, as a former U.S. Army officer myself, that the quarrels between France and the United States throughout our shared history were always political. There has been a mutual understanding between our armed forces since the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, during which Lafayette was injured while leading a battalion of American insurgents against the British.

 

Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France by Stephen A. Bourque, Naval Institute Press, 2018.

 

Interview published in the June 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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