Remembering D-Day's heavy toll on French civilians

For civilians in Normandy, the D-Day invasion was both a triumph and a tragedy. Thousands were killed in bombings that accompanied the Allied landings, and many more fled their homes. While for decades commemorations focused on military feats, more attention is finally being paid to ordinary people who saw the historic events from a different side.

By June 1944, Henri was used to seeing warplanes overhead, flying towards targets in occupied northern France.

But on the night before 6 June, Henri – 19 and requisitioned by the Nazis to build reinforcements along the Normandy coast – noticed something different.

“Planes were passing non-stop, and we started to hear bombings inland,” he recalled decades later.

He and other forced labourers were lodged in a dormitory next to Langrune-sur-Mer beach.

“At four in the morning we looked out the window and saw hundreds of boats on the sea. On the horizon, we saw that fighting had started and we said to ourselves, here it is – the landing.”

No one in France had known for sure where the Allies would start their invasion. Whichever region they chose would bear the brunt of the battle to drive out the Germans.

“We were happy in one way,” said Henri, “but afraid of what was coming for us.”

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Life under occupation

The people of Normandy had already been living with German soldiers for around four years by then.

That had involved considerable sacrifices, and they intensified as Nazi commanders began to suspect an invasion was coming.

After the shock came the exodus.

Read more on RFI English

Read also:
Podcast: D-Day and its aftermath seen through French and American eyes
The politics of commemorating 80 years of D-Day
French volunteers open German command post to the public for D-Day