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A sign from the skies

For many civilians in Normandy, the night of 5th June 1944 brought unexpected activity and uncertainty; the French had endured more than four years of occupation but for those in the allied paratrooper landing zones, the longed-for liberation was not far away.

Marcelle Hamel-Hateau, a young French teacher in the town of St Mere Eglise remembered the increased activity and her first encounter with an American soldier, an experience which signalled a new dawn for her and her family was on its way.

Abruptly, the noise of airplanes breaks the night’s silence. We were used to that but as 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, yet there seems to be an endless number of planes mysteriously roaming about; their engines 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, sombre shapes against the clear blackness of the sky. Like big black umbrellas, they rain down on the fields across the way, and then they disappear behind the black line of the hedges.

“The sky is filled with a continuous, ever-intensifying hum; the hedgerows alive with a strange crackling sound.”

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 alive with a strange crackling sound. Monsieur Dumont, the neighbour 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 neighbouring 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”.

M. Hamel-Hateau, Des Memoires d’une petite maitresse d’ecole de Normandie: Souvenirs du Debarquement de Juin 1944

The Stories of D-Day

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