Week 47: French Resistance
We were so very fortunate to have my nephew, Matthew McHugh, be our tour guide on our travels through Normandy. He'd previously lived at Courselles-sur-Mer while working as a tour guide at the Juno Beach Centre. A few days prior to reaching Juno Beach, a heavy rain storm had caused flooding of the tunnels and bunkers that are part of the exhibit at the Centre. This meant they had to stop taking tour groups down to see them. Matthew had connections, however, and since certain parts had dried sufficiently, our group of 7 were taken on a private, albeit shortened, version of the tour normally offered to the public. This is a painting of one of the tunnels we walked through after leaving the German command post bunker, one of many that were built as part of the Atlantic Wall.
Hitler, obsessed with the idea of building a wall to defend against an allied naval attack, ordered the construction of the Atlantic Wall. It was started in 1942, and by 1944 it stretched from the Spanish border with France all the way up to Norway. Building a defence system of the magnitude required to cover 5,200 kilometres of coastline was quite the undertaking. To get it done, the Vichy regime imposed a compulsory labour system. They drafted some 600,000 workers from the local population to "assist" in their wall building endeavours. The Germans provided the French workers with all of the required materials, including cement, building plans, cinder blocks, steel bars, and instructions on how to reinforce the structures.
Realizing that it was not in their best interest to put a lot of pride into the craftsmanship of these bunkers, yet wanting to appear helpful, the French had to be crafty. They repaid the Germans for supplying all the materials with local wine. While the Germans were enjoying the wine, the French went to work. They used the shoddiest building methods they could get away with, and still avoid detection. You can see that the cinder blocks were actually installed on their sides, resulting in a much weaker structure. In addition, the steel rods were not used, and the barest amount of concrete was used to patch over the holes, to hide the poor construction.
Jérôme Prieure, a writer and film-maker, said this about the collective memories of the time: "We were forced, requisitioned, and we did our utmost to sabotage the construction of the wall, replacing cement with flour and sugar, when we weren't delivering plans to the Resistance!"
If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Juno Beach Centre, please do! The staff do an amazing job of bringing these memories to life, and it is important for us to remember. Especially for those of us fortunate enough to experience our freedom now because of actions taken, and sacrifices made, back then. Matthew worked at the Juno Beach Centre when the excavation process just got underway. He recalls hauling out many buckets of sand, by hand, after the discovery was made. Seeing evidence of the French Resistance, first hand, and knowing my nephew helped make it possible, was an absolutely fascinating, emotional, and unforgettable experience.