D-Day: The forgotten battles beyond the beaches of Normandy
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Anne-Marie Trégouët was 19-years-old when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Yet her memories of this day are of a different fight some 300 kilometres away in Brittany, where she was a member of the French Resistance.
As France prepares to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, all eyes will be turned towards Normandy. For many, it was the scene of one of the greatest seaborne invasions in history, during which tens of thousands of American, British, Canadian and French soldiers were deployed to the Juno, Omaha and Sword beaches.
Codenamed “Operation Overlord”, the battle to retake German-occupied territory, however, did not unfold only in Normandy. The same day, Resistance fighters in Brittany also launched an uprising.
At 94-years-old, Trégouët (née Perret) is one of the last remaining survivors of this nearly forgotten chapter in history. Yet she still remembers the events of that day in perfect detail.
“On June 6, people learned about the landings from British radio. News like that spreads quickly,” she recalled. “I was at my uncle’s house. He still had some champagne, so he uncorked a bottle.”
The festive mood soon gave way as the pair sprung to action against the Germans in their own region.
‘I was eager to join the Resistance’
Trégouët and her uncle, Ange Mounier, a local mover, had joined the Resistance many months before. The young woman gathered intelligence for the network. As a teacher at the Sacré-Coeur High School in the German-occupied town of Ploërmel, she was in an ideal position to observe troop movements.
“I was recruited at the end of 1943. I was eager to join the Resistance. My family couldn’t stand to see the Germans. We wanted only one thing, and that was to see them leave,” Trégouët said.
On June 5, 1944 – a day before D-Day – a coded message was broadcast on the BBC: “It is hot in Suez”. These few words unleashed an all-out assault on the Germans. In the Morbihan area, where Ploërmel is situated, Resistance fighters knew they needed to regroup before taking action.
The local head of the French Forces of the Interior (Les Forces françaises de l'intérieur or FFI) Resistance group, Colonel Morice, gave orders to meet at La Nouette farm in the nearby village of Saint-Marcel, which had already served for the last several months as a drop site for parachute operations.
That same night, Special Air Service (SAS) parachutists from the General Charles de Gaulle’s Free France (France Libre) landed in Morbihan. They had been given orders to incite guerilla warfare and sabotage German forces in an effort to slow their progress towards Normandy.
‘Fear doesn’t exist in those conditions’
Trégouët was on the ground to greet the SAS parachutists when they landed. She had joined Resistance fighters in Saint-Marcel on June 6, 1944. The energy in the air was palpable.
“People were arriving from all over at all hours of the day,” she recalled. “I started by cooking for them. We were always busy doing something in the Resistance. The parachuting began right away. During the night, we accompanied the parachutists who had been dropped to the farm. It was incredible, we’d never seen anything like it before!”
In the days following D-Day, La Nouette transformed into a veritable village. A slaughterhouse, a butcher’s and even a bakery sprung up there. More than 3,000 men and women passed through. Resistance fighters trained with the SAS parachutists, learning how to use arms, while Trégouët was tasked with carrying messages and replenishing supplies.
“There was a huge number of people bustling about. Things were going in every which way,” she said. “During times like those, you don’t really belong to yourself. Everything was happening so quickly, and in the evening we were exhausted. We slept on the ground. At night, I would even sleep outside because there wasn’t any room left in the loft.”
On June 12, Trégouët’s uncle sent her to Ploërmel to retrieve grenades for the Resistance. The young woman hid the munitions among several sacks of vegetables. On her way back to La Nouette, she came face-to-face with a German patrol.
“I had an identity card that dated back to elementary school. I looked young for my age. One might even say a teenager. The soldiers passed my photo back-and-forth and laughed, calling me ‘Miss’ and even ‘baby’. They finally let me go,” she remembered.
Trégouët did not recall feeling afraid. “I don’t know what it is,” she said. “No one talks about fear. It doesn’t exist in those conditions.”
The battle of Saint-Marcel
Trégouët did not know it at the time, but the worst was still yet to come. In the early hours of June 18, a German Feldgendarmerie unit from Ploërmel discovered the La Nouette. Fierce clashes broke out with the SAS parachutists and Resistance fighters.
“I saw the first deaths happen. The horror. I’d never seen anything like it in my life,” Trégouët said. “We were perpetually busy. I no longer know doing what exactly - running from farm to farm, sending messages, treating the wounded.”
By the end of the day, SAS and FFI forces were forced to retreat into the surrounding countryside as German reinforcements arrived. Trégouët had fled La Nouette in the early afternoon to seek refuge in a nearby town.
It was not the last fighting the young woman would see before the end of the war. She later returned to the Ploërmel area, where she continued to work for the Resistance. After another brush with the Germans, she narrowly escaped arrest again by running into a field. Her uncle, sadly, was not as fortunate. On August 4, Mounier was killed in fighting between the FFI and German soldiers while attempting to come to the aid of a comrade-in-arms.
“On the very same day Ploërmel was liberated, if you can believe it,” said Trégouët, who has never fully recovered from her uncle’s death.
‘We cannot do without the past’
Although still in mourning, Trégouët decided to fight on. Instead of resuming her teaching position after Brittany’s liberation, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Forces (Auxiliaires féminines de l'armée de terre or AFAT), which took her to Germany.
“I absolutely wanted to go there! To see these people’s homes,” she said.
Her decision to join AFAT, however, garnered criticism back home. French society at the time did not look kindly on women in the army. But Trégouët doesn’t view herself as a trailblazer.
“We weren’t easily welcomed, but my generation of women didn’t want to be at the forefront at all costs,” she said. “It is the current generation that claim that. I just wanted to provide a very normal, ordinary service to my country.”
Decades later, she regrets that this moment in history has begun to fade into the past.
“People forget,” she said. “We’ve had 75 years without war, whereas it was every 20 years before. People could be more grateful to those who fought in this time.”
She said she hopes the upcoming commemorations will serve as a reminder.
“History is what drives and shapes our existence. We cannot do without the past. There is a provincial proverb that says: ‘It’s for elders, not young people, to show the way,’” she said.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.