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South of D-Day beaches, another slaughter is remembered

By JOHN LEICESTERJune 4, 2019
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In this photo taken on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, Gerard and Paulette Gondouin show photos at their home in in Fel, France. The couple, teenagers in 1944, were forever scarred by witnessing the destruction unleashed by Canadian, British, American, Polish and French forces that squeezed and bombarded the encircled Germans near Chambois and its surrounding villages, cutting off their routes of escape during World War II. D-Day marked only the beginning of the Allied struggle to wrest Europe from the Nazis. A commemoration Tuesday served as a reminder of this, in the shadow of bigger D-Day 75th anniversary commemorations. (AP Photo/John Leicester)
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In this photo taken on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, Gerard and Paulette Gondouin show photos at their home in in Fel, France. The couple, teenagers in 1944, were forever scarred by witnessing the destruction unleashed by Canadian, British, American, Polish and French forces that squeezed and bombarded the encircled Germans near Chambois and its surrounding villages, cutting off their routes of escape during World War II. D-Day marked only the beginning of the Allied struggle to wrest Europe from the Nazis. A commemoration Tuesday served as a reminder of this, in the shadow of bigger D-Day 75th anniversary commemorations. (AP Photo/John Leicester)

CHAMBOIS, France (AP) — In the spring that followed the terrible battle, the grass grew especially thick and green, fertilized by thousands of corpses that had been plowed into mass graves.

It’s hard now — nearly 75 years later, overlooking wheat fields spotted with blood-red poppies and with skylarks singing overhead — to imagine that it was here in August 1944, on a wide, open plain that soldiers nicknamed “the Corridor of Death,” that Adolf Hitler’s armies in Normandy were all but destroyed, clearing the path for the liberation of Paris.

With the eyes of the world again turning to Normandy this week for the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings that launched the Allied campaign to liberate Europe, a commemoration Tuesday in the small village of Chambois well south of the beaches served as a reminder that D-Day marked only a beginning.

It took many more weeks of vicious fighting to bring the Battle of Normandy to a decisive and bloody conclusion, in mid-August 1944 around the ruins of Chambois and surrounding villages where tens of thousands of German soldiers became trapped in a noose of Allied armor and fire.

Gerard and Paulette Gondouin, teenagers then, but now 90 and 88, respectively, were forever scarred by witnessing the destruction unleashed by Canadian, British, American, Polish and French forces that squeezed and bombarded the encircled Germans, cutting off their routes of escape. Allied planes and artillery rained down death.

Every August, like a ghost, the slaughter comes back to haunt them.

“In the month of August, both of us, we don’t sleep, even at night. We talk, ‘Do you remember this. Do you remember that?’” Gerard Gondouin said.

“And it’s been like that for 75 years,” Paulette Gondouin interjected.

Tens of thousands of German soldiers were killed, injured and captured. Roads became clogged with smashed tanks, other destroyed military hardware and bodies. German losses were so massive that Hitler’s forces in France never recovered. And even in their agony, some German troops sought to leave nothing of use for their enemies.

“They destroyed everything they could: their tanks, their lorries, everything. They killed their horses,” Gerard Gondouin recalled.

After the battle, villagers buried rotting corpses in mass graves — men and farm animals all interred together.

The stench of decay “stuck to us for months,” Paulette Gondouin recalled. “We were afraid of epidemics. It was a very, very, very hot August.”

In the following spring of 1945, “in the fields, the grass was thick and a very deep green,” she added.

German bodies were later dug up from around the village in the 1960s and reburied with others in a cemetery for thousands of dead.

For the Allies, trapping, killing and capturing so many Germans in one place was cause for celebration, a milestone in the Battle of Normandy that had been harder and longer than D-Day planners anticipated.

William Tymchuk, 98, fought with Canadian forces around Chambois and still speaks about the battle with pride. Back in the village for Tuesday’s ceremony and the unveiling of a monument, Tymchuk stood to attention with other World War II veterans, their chests full of medals, as a military band played.

Making a pincer movement with his hands, Tymchuk demonstrated how Allied forces closed in on all sides on the Germans. His piercing blue eyes teared up as he spoke about comrades who never came back from the fighting among Normandy’s thick hedgerows.

“We closed the gap from this side, with the Poles, and the Americans came from the other side,” he said. “It was a very decisive battle.”

“We knew the Germans were retreating ... We knew they were on the run. So we tried to close as many roads as we could, to stop their tanks and their armor.”

Before the final escape routes were squeezed shut, thousands of German troops did manage to throw off the noose. Paulette Gondouin recalled how they slipped away under cover of night. Watching from a roadside bank, fighting not to slip down and be squashed, she saw tanks, halftracks, horses and carts and thousands of troops flee, “everything you need to make an army.”

“Every August, I find myself back on that bank,” she said. “It’s a recurrent nightmare. It was atrocious.”

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