Storming the D-Day Beaches — 69 Years On

As survivors of perhaps the most critical western European battle of World War II grow thin on the ground, France has unveiled two new commemorative sites to keep the memory of twin European catastrophes alive.


At Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, an important Huguenot centre of French Resistance during World War II,  a new museum was opened Monday June 3 2013.

Earlier on June 2 2013 and this time in memory of those lost in the even more disastrous events of World War I,  Nord Tourismopened a Remembrance walking trail: “Following in Wilfred Owen’s Footsteps” at  Ors 59360, some two hours east of Calais.

Great War Journeys at Ors, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, part of  the buildup towards commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary (in 2014) of the start of  WWI. (Credit: Delphine Bartier, ADRT NORD TOURISME)

The history behind this trail is described as follows: “Ors, 4th November 1918, 05.45 hours: Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen of the Manchester Regiment and his platoon launched an attack on a German position on the opposite bank of the Sambre-Oise canal. Under a hail of machine-gun fire, Wilfred Owen and 104 other men perished just one week before the signing of the armistice. One of the great names in modern poetry had fallen. 120 years after his birth, an audio-guided walk will take visitors in the footsteps of Wilfred Owen.Starting from the Maison Forestière or Forester’s House opened in October 2011 and Simon Patterson’s work of art in his memory where he spent his last night, the trail passes through the woodlands of the Bois l’Evêque and the cemetery where he was laid to rest and on to the banks of the canal. An audio guided tour by Cambrai tourism office is also available free of charge. The 6 km trail (allow 1¾ hours) is also something of a nature walk taking in part of the woodland of the Bois l’Evêque and its history. The trail also speaks of the motivation of the mayor of Ors in paying to the poet, who was little known in France, the homage to which he is entitled.”

Watch this video clip of the inauguration of the walk presided over by Ors Mayor Jacky Duminy:

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon

The Le Chambon-sur-Lignon resistance/Holocaust story is an amazing account of just one of the many selfless and ongoing actions (this one began in 1942 and continued through to Liberation Day)  that marked Resistance activities in occupied France. Although it has been a 20-year struggle to raise funds,  Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, has now created a museum opposite the town’s Protestant  Church to ensure the history of those troubled times is kept vividly alive in what still today is one of the heartlands of Huguenot (Protestant) France —  lying 120 kms southeast of Lyon in the south-central Haute-Loire department. In 1990 the town was one of two to be given the Righteous Among the Nations award by Israel’s Yad Vashem for saving Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe (the other was the Dutch village of Nieuwlande). 

Photos from a special edition of the local paper published to mark the opening of the Le Chambon-sur-Lignon museum

The Le Chambon-sur-Lignon memorial focuses on the “hidden children” – an extraordinary feat of heroic war time actions formally recognised by Israel in 1990 as mentioned above  — and the good inhabitants of the town who made it all possible. The quiet resistance of Le Chambon contrasted starkly with what was going on elsewhere in the area. By 1944 for instance SOE (the British Special Operations Executive) and OSS (US Office of Strategic Services) were operating very close to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. The deal between the residents hiding the children and the local maquis was that no resistance actions would take place in the town itself for fear of provoking the German garrison in the area.

However, in a further layer of the complex interactions that characterised resistance in France, the SOE Jedburgh team, known as Jeremy, and led by Geoffrey Hallowes (who died in September 2006 ), operated just outside of the town. He and his team had travelled via Algiers to the south of France on 24 August 1944, where they were met by the remarkable American SOE operative Virginia Hall, nicknamed Artemis by the German Gestapo who reportedly considered her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies”. She was sent to Vichy in August 1941 and spent 15 months helping to coordinate the activities of the French Underground in Vichy and the occupied zone of France under cover of being a correspondent for the New York Post. Virginia Hall had initially worked for SOE much earlier in the war but by 1944 was working for the OSS. A painting which can be seen and is explained at this link was commissioned to depict Virginia Hall at this time at her radio set, and being helped by a local resident working a generator. The archives in Le Chambon have a photo of Virginia Hall in the area together with another one of Lesley Maber, a British school teacher who lived and worked there and also helped in the hiding of Jewish children and young people. Lesley Maber died in 1999 in Hampshire in the UK, her obituary can be found here.

A potted history of the role of this Huguenot French resistance hot-spot, can be found in this article on Wikipedia.

Mayor Eliane WAUQUIEZ-MOTTE takes up the tale: “The story of Le Chambon-sur- Lignon and surrounding rural communities during World War II is remarkable. It is a story of stubborn resistance, of hospitality, and of rescue, all carried out with quiet courage by the people of our Plateau. It is a story of life. In Huguenot country, in wild and harsh conditions, men and women of the Plateau simply did what they saw as their duty. They hid refugees, they saved and sheltered Jewish children, all at risk of their own lives. Le Chambon still regularly welcomes back these “children”, now returning as adults, who come to pay their respects to the people of our Plateau, who saved them. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, like our Memorial, needs to be kept alive in our collective memories as a place of peace, of tolerance, and of life, in the history of the 20th century forever scarred by the horror of the Holocaust. The award by the Yad Vashem Institute of Israel in 1990 of a Diploma of Honour to the people of Le Chambon and surrounding villages, recognising them as “Righteous Among The Nations”, was a powerful acknowledgement of their efforts. On the occasion of the opening of the Memorial, more than 20 years after the idea was frst put forward, I salute all those who have laboured so long to spread this message. At a time when the voices of those who took part are, little by little, growing silent, we have a duty to preserve this remarkable history so that we can pass it on to our children, and to our children’s children. The construction of a Memorial is an important step along this road. At the heart of the village of Le Chambon, opposite the Protestant church, alongside the school, new generations of young people will come to know and appreciate this extraordinary story. This is a place which speaks to everybody: to historians and history lovers, to the children of the “welcomers”, the children of the “welcomed”, to casual visitors, to students and to scholars. May those who have seen it take away with them its message of peace and hope.” 

The Town Hall in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon

Located in the heart of the town, this museum is dedicated to the transmission of the history of the righteous and the civil resistance which manifested itself during some of France’s  darkest days.


The Memorial Museum in Le Chambon sur Lignon Le Chambon (Credit: Martyn Cox)

This museum opened on June 5, 2013 and tells the story of the “modest and discrete acts” in Le Chambon sur Lignon and surrounding villages which ensured thousands of lives were saved.

The memorial plaque commemorating the town’s contribution to saving French Jews from deportation

The museum offers a permanent exhibition of the history of the area  during  World War II  and a memorial space with many filmed testimonies. The special issue of the local newspaper below offers a photographic record of this resistance. 

BBC News correspondent Robert Hall was present at the ceremony and his report contains (see next paragraph) interviews with several of the survivors.

Le Chambon: Village saved thousands of WWII Jews “A small French village which saved thousands of Jewish people and refugees from the Nazis has opened a museum dedicated to its wartime secret. Le Chambon, high in the mountains near Lyon, had a tradition of sheltering refugees from persecution even before the war, and during the conflict it became a centre for those trying to escape.” Watch this report for the BBC by Robert Hall:  

Willie Hene one of the Jewish children saved by the Protestant community of Le Chambon talks to the BBC' Robert Hall

“Wiltrude ‘Willie’ Hene one of the hidden Jewish children saved by the Protestant community of Le Chambon talks to the BBC’s Robert Hall (screen grab from BBC newsclip by Robert Hall)

Others featured in the film include another “hidden child”, Lucien Zinger and Pierre Sauvage who was born of Jewish parents living in Le Chambon in 1944. He was brought up in the U.S. but in the late 1980s returned to Le Chambon to make a film called “Weapons of the Spirit” and to set up a foundation. Here is the web site of Pierre Sauvage’s Le Chambon foundation.

Here is some French video coverage of the opening ceremony of Le Chambon’s new Lieu de mémoire along with this report in the regional paper la Gazette de la Haute LoireThe town of Le Chambon’s web site is here.

Images of the event:
Martyn Cox who together with Martyn Bell, a resistance historian, is co-founder of a new educational charity called the Secret War Museums & Learning Network, attended the ceremony and took these photos for French News Online:

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Meanwhile the history of the Resistance was recently highlighted in this French documentary account, significant for the breadth and depth of its reporting of British involvement with the Free French.

The documentary was produced by, and features, the Free French veteran and historian Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac. It also features the late Prof MRD Foot who was the first official historian of the Special Operations Executive (SOE)  who published a book  – “SOE In France” documenting the period.  Crémieux-Brilhac wrote the forward for the version in French.

The significance of this documentary is that it was produced by Crémieux-Brilhac, who is a highly regarded historian and national figure associated with the Free French, and is the first time  such a prestigious programme has been televised nationally in France.

According to Martyn Cox (who has spent many years collecting oral accounts, photos and TV footage of World War II resistance survivors), it is a very clear indication for the broader general French public, of  the British involvement in the resistance the Free French mounted. It shows how: “SOE with the RAF contributed crucially to the effectiveness of ‘the resistance’ by way of inserting agents, providing communications and codes, supplying arms, explosives, food, medical supplies, intelligence and money … and carrying French politicians, resistance leaders and agents back and forth across the channel for briefings and debriefings with de Gaulle and the BCRA, and with agent training,” Martyn notes.

Ors (Northern France)

Much farther  north can be found a memorial to another European horror World War I. The northern France tourism board has just released details of a memorial trail  designed to keep alive the memory of those who were sacrificed in this war. “Great War cemeteries remain reminders of the slaughter in the Nord. It was here, too, in the forest house at Ors that British officer Wilfred Owen is remembered for his wartime poetry; at Fromelles 250 British and Australian dead were reburied at a new cemetery in 2010. Such events, along with wartime memorabilia at Fort Seclin or the monument to New Zealanders killed while liberating Le Quesnoy bring home the ferocity of battles such as that for Cambrai, when tanks were used for the first time. While the 1940 evacuation of some 340,000 English and French troops, helped define the Dunkirk spirit, it involved considerable sacrifice. Not least was the Nazi massacre, at the riverside village of Esquelbecq, of some 100 soldiers trapped by the advancing German forces. In Tourcoing, the Musée message Verlaine, once a German headquarters, traces the messages that preceded the D-Day Landings. It also recalls the vital role played by Lille–born Charles de Gaulle as leader of the Free French Forces,” according to Catherine Jabaly writing on behalf of the board about the event. 

Memorial to Owen’s universal message on the horrors of war at Ors (Northern France)

Story: Ken Pottinger

Meanwhile President François Hollande has reportedly finally put an end to a controversy that had sparked uproar among French historians. According to Marianne magazine’s  June 7 issue he is to row-back on a decision taken last October to merge planned June 2014 commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings with the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I. The earlier decision had been furiously attacked by Nicholas Offenstadt, a specialist historian of the ’14-’18 War and Denis Peschanski, an historian of the Occupation. They described the mooted merger as “memorial confusion” and called the move “a total absurdity, negating the ideological specificity of WWII as if the nature of that War had not been a battle against Nazism but rather a re-run of the War against Germany.”

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7 Responses to Storming the D-Day Beaches — 69 Years On

  1. nancy todd June 7, 2013 at 6:58 am

    Poignant important documentation. Thanks.

    • admin June 7, 2013 at 7:15 am

      Thank you Nancy. France does a great job in curating all these sites and keeping the history and the memory alive.

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  5. olivia jones September 13, 2013 at 9:35 am

    I don’t know how anyone could visit this area and not be touched by it in some way.

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