Portbail is the village where Marie-Elisabeth was born. It is just 30 miles from Utah Beach, across the Cotentin Peninsula from the Normandy Invasion landing beaches. Her grandparents lived in Portbail throughout the German occupation. Her grandmother's diary is not just a history lesson of the movement of troops and their battles. It paints a picture of what the civilian population went through during the Invasion - an aspect of war that we do not always hear much about.
Only 20 months after the liberation, Marie-Elisabeth was born in the house her grandmother describes. As a child, she remembers the reconstruction of the village and especially the reopening of the church St. Martin that is described in this diary. Her grandparents' home was one of the lucky ones - it "only" lost the roof, windows, and suffered flooding after each rain - and the outhouse had a direct hit of a bomb! War is an abstraction to many of us - but not to Europeans.
Notes on the liberation of Portbail, Normandy, France, by
Marguerite Victorine Léonie Duchemin née Huet
This diary of June and July 1944 describes the liberation of Portbail and was translated from the French by Marie-Elisabeth Clark née Lecouté – granddaughter of the author. The translator is also the daughter of Marguerite Duchemin Lecouté whose nickname was "Rirette." Rirette had gone to Morocco when France was invaded because her brother was stationed there with the French Army during the war.
Comments from the translator clarifying the text will be found in italics and smaller font size.
June and July 1944
July 10 – To Rirette (Daughter Marguerite Lecouté née Duchemin)
(Pages 1 and 2 of original notebook)
Portbail was honored with a press release: "The Little City of Portbail." If it is just a "little city," it has suffered greatly with 32 houses destroyed right in the middle of the village which does not take into account the houses that were shaken, the roofing uncovered, doors and windows blown out, and panes of glass broken. In this turmoil, we were privileged since our house is still habitable. The roof has to be redone. When it rains, the water arrives in all of the bedrooms and down to the first floor where almost all the windows are broken. The back house has also lost its roof blown out by a bomb which fell on the outhouse which has disappeared into thin air – it does not exist anymore. And to think that if I had not been in Bosquesville, I might have been in the back of the garden where I was attracted whenever I heard planes. For about two months there have been no days without us being threatened. Papa (Emile Duchemin) would assure me that Portbail did not present any interest since there was no objective – no more Germans except at the beach – just a few.
Alas – the little city had to have its share. And our beloved church St. Martin does not exist anymore. It has burned completely – only the walls are left. The Trapist monk, who was replacing the Father who was dying, had removed all the documents from the sacristy as a precaution on the day before the fire. Two days after the fire a bomb finished off the altar of the Virgin Mary. I dread seeing all of that again tomorrow – it is so sad. The row of houses from Lemonnier Hairdresser all the way to Lemarquant included is burned. Only the "Villa des Jasmins" is still standing although the inside suffered a lot – its caretaker extinguished the fire in three different spots throughout the house. The fire stopped at the house of Madame Urvoy. The house was beginning to burn. The firefighters were able to stop the fire with a deluge of water – which was about time for us (the Duchemin house was next door). The old bakery Legaillard caught on fire also.
After that terrible night, the Father was moved to the countryside (he died there a few days later, but he had the consolation of shaking the hands of four Americans). These Americans were already gathering in big numbers at the Haut-de-Grès. The following night new fires were devastating the other side of the Square (Place aux Arbres) - three houses in a row - and then over here, Mr. Audouard’s house and another one next to Mademoiselle Fresnays. Total – 32 completely destroyed counting the ones that were flattened under the bombs like Madame Peltier’s – the first to suffer – completely pulverized into piles of stone hurled around. Fortunately for them they were in Belle-Vue. Madame Duval, who had buried her husband three weeks before, was afraid of staying alone with Genevieve. She had asked them (Genevieve and her family) to keep her company because she had already been the victim of a volley of shooting which without causing damage had scared her. Genevieve was there with her kids and husband for the funeral of her father. Her husband had returned home immediately after the interment.
I will add to this chapter that during the fire a very strong wind had been activating the blaze following a period of great drought. During this time, bombs had exploded once in a while in this unfortunate little town. There were no more inhabitants – the men who were present had come back from the surrounding countryside (when seeing the blazes from where they were hiding during the bombing). This is only a summary of, I think, the most tragic day – following now are a few notes of what happened during June as much as my memory can recall. You will find these notes on a different page. It is possible that there will be some repetition of what I have already written.
(Page 3 of original notebook)
For more than 2 months before the arrival of the Americans, the Boches* had taken our radios. However, we were not without news thanks to a few resourceful people who had kept one out of two of their radios. But then it was the turn of electricity to be suppressed but we still had news from the "poste à galène"(crystal radio set). A young electrician, Jean Steiner, from Bosquesville has always kept us up to date and he is still doing it.
* Boches is a derogatory name in French for Germans most common during WWI but still used by some people in France.
Every day we would hear news of shelling on our big cities in the Manche Department – Valognes, Coutances, Montebourg – they were disaster victims on several occasions. I am without news from my Aunt, Sister Saint-Charles. All communication with the south is cut off and I know that the bridge of Soulles located at 300 meters from the convent has been bombed from the coast by the canons of the Allied Navy – 400 dead and about 1,000 injured it is said – our Doctor Lefèvre received the order to go there to help. Bishop Louvard (bishop of Coutances and Avranches) has been seriously injured. The events were happening so fast that his death could not be confirmed.
The situation was more and more tense so every day we were expecting something new happening when in the night of the 5th and 6th of June we were awakened around 11pm by a continuous roaring of planes which stopped only at 4am on the morning of June 6. We got up to see what was going on. It was an "army" of the air. The night was clear and they were not flying very high. It was impressive! I will never forget this sight. Where were they going? Surely there was going to be some change. In the morning we learned that the British had landed on the coast of Calvados and that numerous parachutists had landed at Pont-L’Abbé and at Carentan. They will be fighting for 15 days – Carentan will be taken and retaken. I am thinking of my Aunt Maria of whom I have no news. There was still more bombing in our close surroundings. Madame Urvoy and her daughters (Maryvonne one of the daughters was later married to Paul Duchemin – son of the author) decided to leave for Bosquesville offering for me to go with them. I refused.
It was Tuesday June 6 – no market – there is a little bit of panic. It is the following Friday that Coutances will have so many victims from the shelling of the Allied Navy. On Saturday June 10 it is the turn of Valognes which people say has had a lot of damage. The cause is supposed to be that the Germans took advantage of the streets of the city to park their tanks and their tracked vehicles.
(Page 4 of original notebook)They were spotted.
Every night the transportation of the air born troops (parachutists) will be repeated. Yvette and Maryvonne come every day to get as many of their personal belongings as possible and each time they invite me to join them in Bosquesville. I will still wait but two suitcases of clothes have been ready for more than a month. Our good linen was stuffed in trunks placed in the back house in case of fire so we could get them out easily into the garden. (Note – the linen was hand embroidered and came as part of the author’s trousseau.)
Monday – June 12 – I am 60 years old. For my birthday emotions were going to be heightened. The planes – always the planes – (I am alone and Emile (her husband) is in the garden at the end of the village.) They are flying over and bombing Barneville and Carteret, they are coming closer, it is St. Georges (village probably St. Georges-de-la-Rivière). The garden did not attract me. I stayed in the back house (workshop called atelier in French); the explosions are blowing into the door. Between each pass of the planes – a moment of calm. I am not brave. Emile is coming back by the archway gate, that reassures me a little bit. Madame Pierre Luce comes to find us under the archway; she is going to Bosquesville. Yvonne is already gone. Again, the planes. This time it is on us that some bombs fell. Infernal noise of broken windows in the village. The plane has left. We go out on the square. The neighbors do the same. The bombs fell on the shore right by Raoul Sansom’s (family friend’s house). He arrives a moment later, his house has been shaken, doors and windows have been blown out, not one window has resisted, the same at Gaby’s house (friend). Raoul is wondering where he is going to sleep; we offer him hospitality. Emil warns him that I am certainly going to Bosquesville. I will learn the following day that Lucienne Quesnel came to fetch Gaby. Raoul will simply leave a trunk with us that we place with ours without any guarantee. He is going to sleep at St. Marc (village) with a cousin. A lot of Portbaillais are going to leave the village. Madame Urvoy and her daughters arrive in a cart to take away still more of their belongings. This time I do not hesitate – we are going to leave with our suitcases. We are taking advantage of a car parked behind the wall of our garden so that it would not attract attention. The owner - André Hamel – parked it there because he was ignoring the prohibition of cars being used. He simply went through Montfiquet (a small road that avoids the main streets across the village) so it does not attract attention.
(Page 5 of original notebook)
Friday June 16 – Portbail is bombed around 5pm for 45 minutes by 32 "double-tails." During this time, we were in the trench shelter (in Bosquesville) dug out by the family Lequertier (relatives of Madame Urvoy). Emile came back to the village before the bombing. Yvette and Maryvonne had been obliged to go to Portbail to do an inventory of their mother’s shop – demanded by the Mayor. They are surprised with the bombing in the village while in a field behind their house when they were trying to reach the shortcut by Montfiquet. While lying on the ground they see all of the bombs falling from the planes. They call on all the Saints of Paradise; pray loudly. The pieces of shrapnel rain around them without touching them. They see in the distance Madame Lemoigne and Madame Lhardi who are fleeing in the direction of Montfiquet. Yvette and Maryvonne take advantage of a moment of calm to run to the shore all the way to Heullerie (small village outside Portbail) where they take refuge in the trenches of the people of this hamlet. There they wait until the end of the bombing. We were all very worried about them. The following morning we learned that the houses of Monsieur Peltier and his neighbor had been pulverized – only a pile of stones were left. Fortunately, the inhabitants had gone to sleep somewhere else. Few victims – three dead – an old woman Julia Prunier, a young girl Desperques, and a conscripted laborer foreign to the region. A few injured. Eligest and the young Eliard. The dead will be buried temporarily in their gardens because all gatherings are forbidden; the roads are constantly watched by the planes and shot at as soon as there is a gathering. In the meantime we hear the most alarming news concerning Pont-L’Abbé. They have been fighting there for several days hand to hand. There are no houses left standing. Even the Asylum where the Germans were hiding was not spared. The most insane had been sent in advance to Pontorson. And for the others the losses were unknown. We were told that some drowned in the swamp.
St-Sauveur-le-Vicomte also has suffered a lot. The Abbey has burned. I could not receive confirmation – it is possible that only the church and main house were burned. We were told that the sisters evacuated to Selsoif (village 3 or 4 kilometers away) and that they did not have one change of wimple. The convent was full of munitions that the German used to start the fire before they left. The novitiate was a Boche Hospital. The village of St.-Sauveur itself suffered several bombings before the battle; a good number of houses are destroyed. They set the forest on fire from planes because it was hiding a lot of Boche munitions.
I am coming back to our personal story. We spent the night in the trenches because the planes were shooting on all the roads at German convoys which were fleeing toward the south along the coastal roads.
(Page 6 of original notebook)
What a pleasure to notice the debacle for the Germans! It had been predicted that they would set everything on fire as they were leaving but they were not even taking the time to do it. They would stop in the village (Portbail) and that is what is said would be the cause of the fire of our church St. Martin. A motorcycle was spotted, he flees into the Presbytery, his motorcycle is shot at, the engine takes fire, it lights up the German convoy camouflaged around the Square under the trees (Place aux Arbres), the planes shoot at the convoy, the church burns. The Panaget House (ex-house Leprévost) and of Lecoley are knocked down by a bomb, they are only a pile of stones that block the street, there are only a few fanatics left in the village – Mr. David and Madame Després (the crazy one). The inhabitants are all spread around in the countryside. Some have found a shelter, others sleep in barns, the most destitute are in the hunting grounds under the cover of the hedges. Fortunately the weather is good. Two other houses have burned at the Callouins (Dennis and Meslin houses). The house of the family Dujardin across from our garden (the one at the end of the village) has vanished under a bomb. There is only a hole in its place and what a hole! Everything has disappeared in the explosion, the cabin of our garden is in pieces, and the house Agnès has become uninhabitable. The planes are shooting without stopping. Emile is still going every day to the village. Sometimes he goes through the hunting grounds, along the railroad to avoid taking the cemetery road where, from the Heullerie all the way to the Boys School, one can encounter the cadavers of twenty-two horses ripped open. The night before a German convoy of munitions was bombed on that stretch. A few Germans were killed. The others fled in a little path. The following days the cadavers of their horses will leave an awful smell on the road. Nobody will even dream of burying them because of the danger of being shot at.
Monday June 19 – The first American troops arrive at Haut-de-Gris (small hamlet near Portbail). The cannons begin to aim at Portbail. A German gun camouflaged on the Mont de Besneville takes its turn to shoot. Before the shooting was adjusted, a few stray projectiles fell on our surroundings (in Bosquesville). We are often in the trench. In the evening of this Monday, the fire is in the village. Emile goes to the top of the hill to see what is going on. There he meets Mr. Ledoux who is back from the village where he went out of curiosity.
(Page 7 of original notebook)
It (fire) is around the church St. Martin and the wind is blowing in that direction. He goes in the evening to the village and will come back at only 1:30 in the morning. He pulled the trunks left in advance in the workshop out into the garden. He then fights the fire with the men who came, as well as the firemen from Barneville and from Denneville. The houses burned from the Villa Hélène, dependence of the rectory, Lemonnier hairdresser, and the whole row (except for the Villa des Jasmins) all the way to the house Lemarquant included. The fire extinguishes itself when a bomb falls right on the gable of the house finishing the destruction of the façade. "Run for your life!" screamed the policemen from Barneville!
When he returned, Emile tells us that our house was sparred. This time we are sleeping in the bed, but what a night! However there is a long period of calm in the explosion of the bombs. At daybreak someone comes pounding on our shutters. Again the village is burning. All the able-bodied men to the fire if we want to save something! Emile gets dressed quickly and goes. The fire had started again at Lemarquant and there were some new hot spots in other streets and at Mr. Audouard.
Madame Urvoy and her daughters leave also. They were invited by the Gentès who kindly offered to help save more of their belongings if there is still time. An hour later a cyclist comes to ask me for the keys to our armoires, so the house is not burned yet if there is still hope to empty them! In fact, when Madame Urvoy arrived in the village it was to learn that her house was beginning to burn. The firemen opened the gable to put water on the fire. There will be more damage from water than by fire. How lucky for us if it stops there (the Duchemin house is next door). In the meantime, linen and bedding will be transported to Bosquesville. From time to time, bombs are still falling on the village. At each explosion people ask "for which house is this one?" In early morning – calm. It starts again mid-morning. Around noon Lucille Marting (18 years old) who leaves her trench to go get clothes is decapitated by a bomb. She is killed instantly under the eyes of her parents. The Trapist monk who is constantly circulating to comfort people learns about it. He is the one who will carry her on her bed while the parents are fleeing. She will be buried a few days later without a coffin.
(Page 8 of original notebook)
Friday June 23 – Death of the Priest at Val. He will be buried in his garden while waiting for the end of the war. Our dear Trapist was not there at his death. He was asked to go into the German lines at the beach of Ourville to ask them to release an American negotiator. He crossed the river bravely and never returned. They kept him. The American officer negotiator was shot. His body will be found after the Boche retreat. The American batteries are settled at Haut-de-Gris and shoot a barrage of fire on the rivers.
From Bosquesville we are very aware of the direction of the shooting. It is at the village of Rivières that Madame Sevaux and all the people of the upper end of the village took refuge. It was like walking into the lion’s den. They all slept in barns – they spent a terrible night. The following morning they will all run to St. Siméon. Madame Sevaux will stay there three weeks without getting undressed. On Sunday July 2, she will spend the day with us at our place at Bosquesville. I can say "at our place" because even though we are sharing with Madame Urvoy, we occupy the apartment of her renter who is absent. We are in a good place – a good bedroom, a small living room and a kitchen where I find all I need. Our chickens and our rabbits and even the cat have been brought here. We only have the worry of the war and the house. So we really are privileged. Madame Sevaux has also some damage at her place and like for us the roof is very damaged and many windows are broken.
What will I say of the three days when the Americans attacked Cherbourg after taking Barneville and Carteret? Portbail was left high and dry and was not liberated. According to the officials it was a "no man’s land" – we were neither in the German nor American sectors. Barneville and Carteret were not bombed – there was very little damage. Before the Americans could decide to make their advance to La Haye-du-Puits, they had to take Cherbourg. From Barneville moving up to the north of the Cotentin, La Hague was liberated without resistance. For Cherbourg, it was a continuous thunder roll of three days. We were under the impression that there would not be anything left of that city while apparently the center of the city suffered very little.
(Page 9 of original notebook)
It is rather around Octeville, Tourlavaille, and the quarter of Roule which suffered. How happy we were that Cherbourg surrendered after three days of fighting even though the Boches had not spared anything for four years to fortify it. The Place Divette had become a mountain of sand. Cherbourg had been evacuated of its population almost in totality.
Madame Lemoigne-Nielsen is one of the most disaster-stricken since her four houses in a row have burned; they are nothing but ruins. At the end of the village, her garage that the Boches had transformed into a recreation center is also uninhabitable. A suitcase full of precious clothes that she had sent to Ourville was stolen by looters. She is very courageous. She says that what she is missing the most is news from her children.
Thursday July 13 – I came back to Portbail this morning. I had left just a month ago. On the approach to the village, my heart is heavy seeing all these ruins. The village is quite animated because it was the day of distribution of bread – 150 grams per person (less than 4 ounces). It is little but the meat and the rest are not lacking. While coming into the house, I am impressed by the amount of debris of slate and tiles. The three buildings are partly uncovered and unfortunately a rain storm came to flood the rooms. It does not matter – we do not have the right to complain and I thank God it is not worse.
Friday July 14 – It is the first time in four years that I have seen the French flag floating in Portbail. Is it possible? Even Mr. Audouard raised his flag in his ruins. At 11am - simple ceremony but touching at the Memorial. Flowers deposited. Short speech from the mayor, thank- yous to the Americans, screams of "Vive de Gaulle!" even from people who accused him of being a traitor. We sing the Marseillaise. The American Captain says a few words in French. He announces a concert with American music which arrives to the surprise of the people. We hear played some French tunes – "Sambre et Meuse" – and the concert ends with the Marseillaise and the American National Anthem. It is really true that the Boches are no longer here.
(Page 10 of original notebook)
Saturday July 15 – Today I had the opportunity of hearing some news from Carentan from a young lady who took advantage of a truck to come and see her family. I asked someone to ask her if she could take a letter to my Aunt Maria. It is "yes." When I bring her the letter, I learn from her that the Aunt is probably disaster-stricken. From the post office all the way to the railroad passage, the entire row of houses has burned. The house of Madame Joyeux received a bomb. There have been many civilian victims and every day there are more because the front is only at 5 kilometers. The Boches are still sending bombs.
We had the visit of Raoul Sansom who came to take back his trunk. He has been without news from Colette for two months; the young couple had joined Mr. and Mrs. Fossey from Cherbourg evacuated to Rampan a few kilometers away from St. Lô where they have been fighting for 15 days. Raoul does not have any news from Gaby either who was picked up by Lucienne and Madeleine. He locked his house.
Denneville endured for a long time the presence of the Boches because they resisted for two weeks at Barreville and Lindbergh Plage. The village of the Rivières was the line of fire. They say that the Boches evacuated the villagers of Denneville by the south. After the retreat of the Germans, a few curious people ventured to Denneville. There was not one inhabitant. No news either of the Trapist monk. Since we have been in Bosquesville we had to go to St. Georges to go to mass. Tomorrow the mass will be said here at the Village Hall because the roof of Notre Dame has been much damaged.
Sunday July 16 – Solemn mass in the Village Hall. Room jam-packed and a lot of Americans. Coming back from the vespers I have the visit of Mr. and Mrs. Travers (sister of Madoux). Mr. and Mrs. Ledoux, who had taken refuge at her place, went back to Cherbourg right after the City was liberated. The Americans have had more losses to take La Haye-du-Puits than for Cherbourg. La Haye was taken and re-taken several times. The fighting lasted five to six days. The City is nothing but ruins. From the Cannelier Mill we could see fires every day. (Portbail to La Haye is less than 9 miles).
Tuesday July 18 – Big rainstorm this morning which showed us the consequences of a house with a partial roof; the bedroom in the back was a pond before the water found its way to the kitchen downstairs.
(Page 11 of original notebook)
Thursday July 20 – They gave us back our radio this morning but we would need electricity. For lack of it, the press releases are posted every day. We do not receive the newspaper from Cherbourg because the bus does not come anymore. We have learned about the liberation of St. Lô this morning. St. Lô is nothing but ruins according to the press release. "City martyred!" I’m thinking of the inhabitants that I know. If Gabriel Hérout comes back to Portbail, he will find nothing but ruins also – his three houses have burned to the ground and Mrs. Hérout’s house is no longer habitable. Mrs. Hérout died fifteen days ago at Canville where she was transported to the sister of Gabriel’s wife.
Saturday July 22 – The front line is stationary in Lessay so we still hear the guns. The wetlands of Lessay offer a natural separation as was the case here three weeks ago between Portbail and Denneville. I learned yesterday from Raoul Sansom that some men from Denneville went back to their homes the day before yesterday; they were said to have crossed the wetlands of Lessay thanks to the night and fog but it was too risky for women and especially for children. He thinks that Mr. Quesnel is part of the group. So apparently the family stayed in Créances with Gaby. They would still be with the Boches since Créances has not been liberated. They say that some refugees will arrive in the district. It is not Portbail who will receive a lot. Barfleur which did not suffer is said to have received 4,000 refugees from Caen.
Same day in the evening – This afternoon visit of Madame Lecouté (future mother-in-law of her daughter), pleasant surprise. She took advantage of Dr. Boisroux’s car. He was on his way to La Haye-du-Puits to offer donations from the village of Les Pieux to the refugees. She came to bring us some news of her son Jean who she had seen the day before yesterday (Jean is the future husband of Marguerite Duchemin, daughter of the author.) How happy she was! What a pity for us that he did not have the time to come all the way here. She told us at the same time of the birth of our second grandchild Michel. (Emile Duchemin, the son of the author, is the brother of Marguerite Duchemin. He was stationed in Rabat, Morocco with the French Army. He was there with Marguerite along with his wife Andrée and their sons Paul and now Michel.)
We gave her a tour of the ruins of the village. I introduced her to Madame Lemoigne that we often see rummaging in her houses where only the walls are left. How sad it is to have lost everything in such a short time. She lives in one of the houses of the Guillemin. She has only one desire – to restore as fast as possible what she calls the workshop – a small house with only one floor in the back of the garden where she would live in her ruins. What heartbreak for the family Nielsen when they learn about and "take in" the disaster.
(Page 12 of original notebook)
Sunday July 23 – Mass and vespers still in the village hall. This afternoon Emile went to Denneville to see the Quesnel. Yes it is true! Mr. Quesnel came back with a few men including his brother-in-law Mr. N… (?). The women stayed in Créances still in the hands of the Germans. The women are in a camp in the dunes. I saw Raoul this morning. I asked him if he was not going to try to go to Colette now that St. Lô is liberated. He answered it is up to the young people to come and see him. A plane just fell in flames in St. Georges. The Americans run to it. A moment later a formidable detonation – it still happens quite often. Everyone goes to their door; no one knows where it comes from. A mine that has exploded? It is better to think of that than anything else. The good weather came back but rain is on its way – Watch out roofless houses! We still hear the guns in Lessay. Our doors are shaken. I don’t like that and yet it is not even the shadow of what we have heard last month.
If the men of Denneville have abandoned the women in Créances, it is not without a motive. For several days, they had been tracked by the Boches who had warned that no man between 6 and 50 years of age could stay in the camp. They were hiding in the bushes and the women would bring them something to eat but that situation could not last. A few days later the women, who could not tolerate the situation because of the bombs, left by foot all the way to Blainville.
I found this interesting account of Port Bail on the site below
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