A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris
THE NIGHT OF ALL NIGHTS
For Normans, the invasion began with noise. Just before midnight on Monday night, the ﬁfth of June, hundreds of airplanes could be heard ﬂying south over the Cotentin Peninsula. The constant rumble of plane engines and the distant roar of artillery—these two sounds combined to create what one witness called “a ceaseless storm.” Together they awakened thousands of Normans from their deepest sleep of the night. They rose from their beds, ran outside in their nightclothes, peered at the sky, and tried to ﬁgure out what was happening. Is this it? they wondered, overcome with fear and excitement.
The sound of airplanes was by no means a novel phenomenon. In the past months, civilians had grown accustomed to planes ﬂying overhead—hundreds of them—almost every night. Allied bombing of strategic sights throughout northern France had become a common event. But this night was different; something new was happening. The aircraft were ﬂying close to the ground and reaching targets. In response, German machine guns and artillery were ﬁring furiously, contributing to the din. Soon the Norman night was ﬁlled with strange sights as well as sounds: the landing of parachutes and gliders, the dancing lights of artillery, the red glow of villages in ﬂames. These sights were terrible, frightening, but also oddly beautiful.
In her memoir, Madame Hamel-Hateau, a schoolteacher in Neuville-au-Plain, near Sainte-Mère-Église, captures the dreamlike magic of the night of June 5–6. Hamel-Hateau lived close to the village school and spoke some English. The paratrooper she meets is a pathﬁnder sent to illuminate the landing areas for thousands of paratroopers who would soon land in Normandy to begin the invasion. He is one of the very ﬁrst American servicemen to arrive in France.
In the month of June, the days no longer have an end and the night is really just a long twilight because the darkness is never complete. Around 10:00 p.m. this Monday, the ﬁfth of June, I have just gone to bed next to my mother. We are both sleeping on a daybed that we open up every night in the common room. Since the evacuation of Cherbourg, we have given our bedroom to my grandparents. The daybed faces the window, itself wide open on the night. In this way, from my bed, I am taking a moment to reﬂect on the end of this beautiful day. With sadness I think of a similar June night in 1940 when my boyfriend, Jean, had left to join the Free French. I had received news that he had landed in North Africa, so perhaps he was now in Italy? Perhaps it will be soon . . . I thought, but then refused to let my mind wander further. It was time to go to sleep.
Abruptly, the noise of airplanes breaks the night’s silence. We have gotten used to that sound. Since there are no military targets here and the railway is more than five miles away, we normally do not pay much attention. But the noise gets louder, and the sky begins to light up and get red. I rise out of bed, and soon the whole family is up as well. We go out into the courtyard. There everything seems calm. The only thing you can hear is the distant murmur of a bombardment in the direction of Quinéville. Yet there seems to be an endless number of planes mysteriously roaming about; theirengines create an incessant hum. Then the noise decreases and becomes vague and distant. “It’s just like the last time,” says my mother, “when they had to bomb the blockhouse on the coast.” And we all go back to bed.
Mama goes to sleep right away. But I sit on my bed and continue to study the rectangle of cloudless night carved out by the window. The need to sleep slowly overwhelms me, but my eyes remain wide open. It is in this sort of half sleep that I begin to see fantastic shadows, somber shapes against the clear blackness of the sky. Like big black umbrellas, they rain down on the ﬁelds across the way, and then disappear behind the black line of the hedges.
No, I am not dreaming. Grandma was also not sleeping, and saw them from the window of the bedroom. I wake up Mama and my aunt. We hurriedly get dressed and go out into the courtyard. Once again, the sky is ﬁlled with a continuous, ever-intensifying hum. The hedgerows are alive with a strange crackling sound. Monsieur Dumont, the neighbor across the street, a widower who lives with his three children, has also come out of his house. He comes toward us and shows me, hanging on the edge of the roof courtyard, a parachute. The Dumont kids follow their father and join us in the school courtyard. But the night has not yet revealed its secret.
An impatient curiosity is stronger than the fear that grips me. I leave the courtyard and make my way onto the road. At the fence of a neighboring ﬁeld, a man is sitting on the edge of the embankment. He is harnessed with big bags and armed from head to foot: riﬂe, pistol, and some sort of knife. He makes a sign for me to approach him. In English I ask him if his plane was shot down. He negates that and in a low voice shoots back the incredible news: “It’s the big invasion. . . . Thousands and thousands of paratroopers are landing in this countryside tonight.” His French is excellent. “I am an American soldier, but I speak your language well; my mother is a Frenchwoman of the Basse Pyrénées.” . . . I ask him, “What is going on along the coast? Are there landings? And what about the Germans?” I was babbling; my emotions were overwhelming my thoughts. Ignoring my questions, he asked me about the proximity of the enemy and its relative presence in the area. I reassured him: “There are no Germans here; the closest troops are stationed in Sainte-Mère-Église, almost two kilometers from here.”
The American tells me he would like to look at his map in a place where the light of his electrical torch will not be easily spotted. I propose that he come inside our house. He hesitates because he fears, he says, in the event that the Germans unexpectedly appear, he will put us in danger. I insist and reassure him: “Monsieur Dumont and my old aunt are going to watch the area around the school, one in front and the other in back.” Then the soldier follows us, limping; he explains to me that he sprained his ankle on landing. But he would not let me care for him; there are many things more important. . . . In the classroom, to which Grandmama, Mama, and the Dumont children follow us, he takes off one of his three or four satchels, tears off the sticky little bands that sealed it, and takes out the maps. He spreads one out on a desk; it is a map of the region. He asks me to show him his precise location. He is astonished to discover how far he is from his targets: the railway tracks and the little river called the Merderet bordering the Neuville swamp toward the west. I show him the road to follow in order to arrive there, where he is supposed to meet his comrades. He looks at his watch. Without thinking, I do as well. It is 11:20 p.m. He folds up his map, removes any trace of his presence, and after taking some chocolate out of his pocket which he gives to the children, so ﬂabbergasted they forget to eat, he leaves us. He is perfectly calm and self-controlled, but the hand I shake is a little sweaty and stiff. I wish him luck in a voice that tries to be cheerful. And he adds in English—so that only I can understand—“The days to come are going to be terrible. Good luck, mademoiselle, thank you, I will not forget you for the rest of my life.” And he disappears like a vision in a dream.
Once again, the mystery of the night deepens. We stay outside waiting for who-knows-what, keeping our voices low. Suddenly, there is an extraordinary blaze of light. The horizon in the direction of the sea lights up as if reﬂecting an immense ﬁre that has been lit over the ocean. The formidable growl of marine artillery can be heard even here, although mufﬂed by and submerged in a multitude of other inchoate sounds. The black silhouettes of airplanes arrive in the clouds and turn around in the sky. One of them passes just above our little school; it puts on its lights and releases . . . what? For an instant, we think it’s a stick of bombs. But we are only starting to throw ourselves on the ground when parachutes open and ﬂoat down like a mass of bubbles in the clear night. Then they scatter before disappearing in the confusion of the nocturnal countryside.
Another airplane passes over and releases its cargo. At ﬁrst, the parachutes seem carried by the wake of the plane; then they drop vertiginously downward; ﬁnally the silk domes open. The descent gets slower and slower as they approach the ground. Those men whose dangling legs can clearly be seen get there a little more rapidly than those who hold bags of foodstuffs, equipment, ammunition. In a few moments, the sky is nothing more than an immense ballet of parachutes.
The spectacle on the earth is no less extraordinary. From all corners of the countryside shoot bursts of multicolored rockets as if thrown by invisible jugglers. In the ﬁelds all around us, big black planes slide silently toward the earth. Like ﬂying Dutchmen, they land as if in a dream. These are the ﬁrst groups of gliders. Our parachutist had been part of a group of scouts sent to signal the descent and landing zones.
“SOMETHING UNUSUAL IS GOING ON”
The French had been waiting for days, months, years. No one knew the timing or the location of the invasion, but everyone had an opinion on those questions. There had been several false alarms, most famously the disaster in Dieppe in 1942. A small town on the northern coast of France, Dieppe was the site of an Allied invasion on August 19, 1942. On this day, a mostly Canadian force landed with the goal of occupying the town and luring the German Luftwaffe, or air force, into battle. Not only did the landings fail, but the Allies suffered an estimated fourteen hundred deaths.
Normans hoped that this time the landings would be different. Throughout the spring of 1944, the invasion was considered imminent. Yet it never came. As a result, people began to lose faith that the Allies would ever land. When the débarquement ﬁnally did occur, many Normans struggled to believe that it was actually taking place. Bernard Gourbin’s account of the morning demonstrates just how hard it was to accept that the great day had ﬁnally arrived. An adolescent at the time, Gourbin lived with his family in the village of Ferté-Macé, southeast of Caen. Although close enough to the battle to hear it clearly, the villagers would have to wait until August 14 to be liberated.
It began a few minutes before midnight: a mufﬂed, continuous noise. Difﬁcult to sleep in such conditions. Thunder, my mother thought, as she struggled in vain to stay in her ﬁrst deep sleep of the night. The mufﬂed noise lasted until 8:30 a.m. At ﬁrst, I heard nothing. Being in the fourth month of my ﬁfteenth year, I always slept soundly. But the prolonged rumbling quickly woke me up. Even after a few minutes, my parents and I were still unable to close our eyes. So we began to talk to each other from our respective rooms, their doors half-open.
“Something unusual is going on,” said my mother.
“What if they have landed?” I replied, noting that the noise was coming from the Nord, Falaise and Caen.
My father agreed. “They’ve been telling us for weeks they were coming; eventually they have to arrive,” he remarked self-assuredly.
In the street, people started to appear, their faces swollen for lack of sleep. They let out whoops of joy.
“They have landed!” declared the enthusiasts. “Do you really think so?” replied the skeptics. “Absolutely. I heard it on my radio.”
“Perhaps you misunderstood,” responded the disbelievers. “If they had really landed, that would have made still another uproar!”
In fact, my mother had been right. Something unusual and yet very real had happened. At 12:30 p.m., the BBC conﬁrmed it. At 6:00 p.m., de Gaulle declared that “the Battle of France is engaged.” After four years of occupation, it was hard for us to believe. And it was happening in our own backyard, yes, right here in Normandy! The thunder was, in fact, bombs and artillery, which had been pounding the coast—our coast—all night.
* * *
Cécile Armagnac also found herself incredulous on the morning of the sixth. At the time, she was driving an ambulance with the Red Cross in Cherbourg. Like everyone else in this town at the northern tip of the Cotentin Peninsula, she had been unable to sleep because of the noise of the bombing. When the next morning she tried to phone her superiors in Paris, she was unable to get through. Telephone lines were down all over northern France, because both the Germans and the Resistance had been disabling the telephone network. But Armagnac was in for an even bigger surprise.
1:20 a.m. Alert; ended 1:30 a.m.
2:45 a.m. Another alert; ended at 7:30 a.m.! Throughout the period, unusual noises: repeated and signiﬁcant groups of airplanes passing over toward the east; machine gunning and anti-aircraft ﬁre close by; uninterrupted droning and humming toward the distant south; mufﬂed rumbling—perhaps bombs; a halo of light, not unlike at dawn, in the direction of the bay du Grand Vey. Distant ﬂashes and streams of light from the same direction. Several times, we three found ourselves on the terrace trying to ﬁgure out what was going on. Apparently, nothing in the immediate proximity of Cherbourg, and no call for an ambulance.
7:30 a.m. As soon as the alert ends, I call the post ofﬁce to put through a call to the rue Octave-Feuillet in Paris. The operator responds:
“An indeﬁnite wait, mademoiselle; it’s impossible to reach Paris at the moment. Will you hold the call?”
“But it’s important, even urgent! If you can’t get through via Caen, could you try Rennes?”
“I have already tried for the sous-préfecture; it didn’t work.” “Okay, please hold on to the number and call me as soon as you get it.”
“I believe you will have to wait a long time! Don’t you know the news? It appears that the Americans and English landed last night.”
“Oh, sure . . . how long have we been waiting for that?!”
“I agree, but this time it happens to be true: the invasion is taking place between Caen and Sainte-Mère-Église . . . they’re saying that the entire southern part of the region has been cut off.”
“Not possible! Are you sure?”
“That’s what I was just told! In any case, for the moment I can’t even get through to Saint-Lô.”
“Well, that really is a piece of news! The Cotentin isolated from the rest of the world? . . . I will call you again in an hour to see if that is still the situation.”
It was, in fact, true. The débarquement, this myth so greatly hoped for and awaited during four long years, had in fact taken place that night. The presqu’île de la Manche was indeed cut off from the continent, occupied and defended by the Germans, our enemies; bombed and invaded by the Americans, our allies—as fantastic and paradoxical as that situation might seem to be. . . . As for we three ambulance drivers in Cherbourg, we found ourselves penniless and cut off from our administration and all the other drivers . . . and for how much time?
* * *
Like so many other people, Suzanne Bigeon, a nurse at a hospital in Cherbourg, conﬁrmed the news of the landings by listening to the radio. Even if someone didn’t own a radio, someone else in the neighborhood did. Bigeon’s account suggests not only that many people did not believe in the landings, but also that not everyone was thrilled when they came.
People no longer really believed the landings would happen. The day before June 6, my block chief said to me in a discouraged tone: “Do you really believe in the landings?”
Despite my own doubts, I put up a good show: “Absolutely, they will come.” And he treated me like a crazy person.
The evening of the ﬁfth of June at sunset—and by the way, I don’t agree with those who say the Germans did not know what was going on—the sky in the Val de Saire lit up with orange rockets. The number of alerts that night was impressive. I went to the window, since no one could sleep, and I saw armed German soldiers marching single ﬁle alongside the houses, crouching so as not to be seen. Simple coincidence?
The morning of June 6, we heard the distant bombing, which never seemed to end. The radio, camouﬂaged in the armoire in our living room, informed us of the landings, but also of the destruction of Valognes and Saint-Lô. This caused a great deal of consternation, because many parents and friends were refuged there, for the very purpose of avoiding the bombings. . . .
When I went to do errands, those who remained in the city, after having called out to the Americans for help for many years, were now almost hostile: “They are killing civilians; there is no more work, and no more money. They should either hurry it up or go away altogether!”
Bigeon and her family were surprised to hear that Valognes and Saint-Lô were bombed, because Normandy generally had been spared bombing in the weeks just before the invasion. In response, many refugees from Paris and other cities had moved to the area for safety.
Doubt about the débarquement was even more common in areas farther away from the coast. Here the radio was the only reliable source of information. Twenty-year-old Michel Béchet’s diary reveals what the day of the landings was like for people farther south in Gorron, near Rennes.
Tuesday, June 6, 1944
The Allies have landed! The news began to circulate as early as this morning, but at ﬁrst I could not believe it. For four years, we have been promised this day; for four years every good Frenchman from Normandy to Alsace has impatiently awaited it. While London, New York, and those who represent free France all proclaim that the famous “D” day has ﬁnally arrived, I—and many others— remain incredulous! No! It’s unbelievable that the landings happened today, simply because it is too beautiful to be true. However, the news has been spread by persons who were able to hear it on the radio early this morning.
I say “early this morning” because for several days, our electricity has been cut off. Only for a very short period in the morning, at noon, and in the evening do we have a little power. Throughout the morning, then, everyone waited impatiently for noon to listen to London. Noon came and went, but the electricity did not come back. So instead there was idle chatter. It appears that the Allies have landed in the Nord and Normandy. Everyone is holding their breath. There are still many who are incredulous, but in general the people of Gorron believe that the landings have indeed taken place. Something extraordinary hangs in the air, and there is a sense that today is not like any other. No doubt that is the result of all the gossip in the town—the chitchat taking place on every corner. Who knows, but I do feel my heart ﬁll suddenly with joy. Yes, this day could be one that will decide the destiny of France.
5:30 p.m. Counter to custom, the electricity and lights ﬁnally go on, and we have a chance to turn on our radios. Those who don’t have one go to a friend or neighbor’s house, where they listen, their hearts in their throats, as the rumors circulating since this morning are ﬁnally conﬁrmed. “The landings took place last night,” declares the speaker. There is ﬁghting in the streets of Caen, and . . . good news! . . . According to the dispatches coming from London, the Allies are not meeting the resistance they expected.
Hundreds and hundreds of airplanes pass over Gorron. They are Flying Fortresses, and they cause large crowds of people to gather in the street in order to see these large ﬂocks of giant birds. Some people think they see parachutists being released. There’s doubt about that, but one thing is for sure: there are bombardments; you can hear them really well from here.
Like many Normans, Béchet was getting false information. It would be weeks before the Allies reached the city of Caen. The Germans had been told by Hitler to ﬁght to the last man.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 7-17 of D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944 by Mary Louise Roberts, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)