The Corridor of Death

The Corridor of Death

The Corridor of Death is the sort of road sign that tends to get your attention, isn’t it. This one is not a comment on the speed of modern drivers but refers to events during the battle for Normandy in August 1944.

Instead of attending the 8th of May VE Day commemorations in our local village, as we did last year, Sue and I drove to Montormel, about 45-50kms away, where a memorial and a museum commemorate the last battle in the liberation of Normandy post D-Day.

In mid-August 1944 Allied forces, American, French, British, Canadian and Polish, were closing in on and surrounding the German VIIth Army as it tried to retreat eastwards towards the Seine through what became known as the Falaise pocket. There were few avenues of retreat and all within range of allied bombardment, especially from the heights of Montormel overlooking the valley of the River Dives. As the noose tightened, the destruction of German men, equipment and horses became ever more devastating, hence the name given to one of those roads. Only a couple of days afterwards, viewing the carnage, Eisenhower declared that it resembled Dante’s Inferno. The images at the museum, of dead and dismembered horses are particularly upsetting

Today, that memorial and museum occupy the top of what was known as Hill 262, Mont Ormel. From here the Poles were able to seal off the last escape route but it wasn’t all plain sailing as  they found themselves being attacked from the rear by a Panzer corps.

The museum has an excellent audio/visual  animated map display as well as other descriptive signs and plaques to guide you through the battle . From these you get a good sense of the destruction that took place and the role played by the various allied units – especially the heroic actions of the Poles – but the museum displays don’t offer opinions. For those I went to the British historian Anthony Beevor’s authoritative, you might even say magisterial, account: “D-Day – The Battle for Normandy”.  From that book I learned that  Montgomery, the British general in charge of the operation, came in for a great deal of criticism from his own people for indecision in failing to close the gap soon enough, thus allowing many Germans to escape. In addition, one senior Canadian officer was relieved of his command for failing to support the hard-pressed Poles. I also learned that, so confined was the battleground in the late stages, friendly fire incidents were common. “Look out boys, it might be one of ours” was a common cry.

Numbers vary depending on which account you read but between 20,000 and 50,000 German soldiers were able to escape eastwards while 50,000 were taken prisoner and 10,000 were killed. Sobering figures. It’s fitting, therefore, that one of the pieces of sculpture in what is known as The European Way of Peace – in fact, I think it’s the first-  is at the memorial at Montormel. Below are some photos from there but as a coda, a couple of matters arising from the book I referred to. The cover photo of the paperback edition that I bought is taken from a landing craft and looking out of the bow towards US infantry wading towards the shore. Inside the vessel is a lifebuoy. They obviously didn’t want anybody to drown before they had had a chance to be shot at by the enemy. Secondly, I came across one line in the book that made me laugh out loud. So totally Franco-centric was the leader of the Free French forces that, as the author says: “Only de Gaulle could have written a history of the French army and manage to make no mention of the Battle of Waterloo”

The valley of the Dives from Montormel. Looks very peaceful today!

The valley of the Dives from Montormel through which the Corridor of Death ran. Looks very peaceful today!

La Couloir de la Mort then and now.

La Couloir de la Mort then and now.

Memorial at Montormel

Memorial at Montormel

Explanatory sign at Montormel

Explanatory sign at Montormel

Sculpture at Montormel as part of the European Way of Peace.

Sculpture at Montormel as part of the European Way of Peace.

Nothing….reminds me more of England than the song of the blackbird. There is one in our garden which defies our cats, as well as the buzzards and kestrels in the area, to serenade us. I even heard larks in the neighbourhood a few days ago. They used to be quite common but I thought they had disappeared – maybe through the loss of habitat or maybe through the use of agricultural pesticides – so it was good to hear them again.

Nature continues to delight on other fronts as well. The yellows I mentioned in my last post are still with us through buttercups and broom while that special, vivid, expectant shade of green you only see in spring is in full bloom now.

Close encounter of a buttercup kind

Close encounter of a buttercup kind

Springtime in the forest at Bagnoles de l'Orne.

Springtime in the forest at Bagnoles de l’Orne.

New evergreen growth

New evergreen growth

Dandelion down

Dandelion down

That’s not a tractor!……

How tractors used to be...before EU subsidies!

How tractors used to be…before EU subsidies!

THIS is a tractor!…..

Tractors since the EU provided agricultural subsidies!

Tractors since the EU provided agricultural subsidies!

I’ve not seen much local wildlife of late. Even those pests, the coypu that live in the   banks of the pond at the chateau at Carrouges have been a rare sight this spring. I did find these guys, though, enjoying their own version of Playstation….

Goats on their Playstation!

Goats on their Playstation!

Everybody loves a holiday, right?  Well, the French certainly do. There are 4 public holidays this month: May Day (1st), VE Day (8th), Feast of the Ascension (14th), Pentecost (24th). Just so no-one feels overworked, the holiday for Pentecost, which falls on a Sunday, is being held on the Monday.

The last two are religious holidays, of course. France is a Catholic country, after all. In that case, why isn’t Good Friday a holiday as well? It’s not celebrated in that cauldron of Catholicism, Italy, either. Odd.

A word about phone calls.  Sometimes it pays to play on the fact that we’re not French. This country is as prone to marketing calls as much as any other. Lunchtime and early evening are the favoured times. Fortunately, the French can tell a foreign accent very easily and 19 times out of 20 the call is cut at the other end even before anyone there has spoken a word. One exception are the calls in English, but with an Indian accent, informing us that they are from Microsoft Windows and they have detected a problem with our computer. Those require a different approach…

In other news….

– The French media are having great fun with the infighting in the Front National between the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen and its founder, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.  It’s open warfare fought on a public stage. Le Pen père hates the way his daughter is, as he sees it, betraying his far-right principles and taking the F.N. more towards the centre. As you would expect, Charlie Hebdo is having great fun with the feuding family. This is one of the more family-friendly cartoons.

The Le Pen family at war.

The Le Pen family at war.

– The French government has enjoyed a surge in interest from other countries in its multi-role fighter, the Rafale.  After years of no overseas sales, Egypt and India have bought  several and now Qatar has bought 24. Charlie Hebdo has even found one more use for the plane: to stone female adulterers….

I don't think anyone could accuse C.H. of pulling its punches!

I don’t think anyone could accuse C.H. of pulling its punches!

– Unfortunately, the party I voted for in the UK General Election did NOT do well, so now the Conservatives, who did win, are to offer an in/out referendum on EU membership to the people of the country. As an expat I hope that people see sense and opt to remain part of the union, even if it is in dire need of a kick up the posterior, to make it less of a bureaucratic monolith.

– The big news story at the moment is the Cannes Film Festival. Somewhere along the line my invitation to walk the red carpet on La Croisette must have got lost in the mail, so instead, Sue & I contented ourselves with a visit to the local cinema. I look out for movie listings that say “VO” -Version Originelle. That means that if it’s a film originally made in English, then that’s what you will hear and French will only appear in subtitles. So, not only did we see the splendid Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”, an excellent movie about how the British broke the German codes during WWII, but also we received a French lesson by reading  the subtitles.

Meanwhile, back at Cannes, that enduring stalwart of the festival Catherine Deneuve is once again in the spotlight with her latest film. However, just to prove that it can aim at more than one target, Charlie Hebdo has portrayed her in a somewhat less than flattering light on its latest cover. The magazine labels her as a “suspect package”.

Finally, as ever, here are the latest elegant works from Studio Sue……. À bientôt

1920s Ladies in Burgundy...or as I prefer

1920s Ladies in Burgundy…or, as I prefer “I started out on burgundy”, but not many would get that reference.

Lady in fur

Lady in fur

Redhead on chair

Redhead on chair

Foxy Lady!

Foxy Lady!

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