National Geographic : 1943 Aug
The Coasts of Normandy and Brittany BY W. ROBERT MOORE D AY AFTER DAY, night after night, squadrons of United Nations' planes sweep over the ancient French prov inces of Normandy and Brittany, where old friends welcome deadly bombs aimed at Nazi targets. American Flying Fortresses and British bombers have dropped thousands of tons of high explosives on U-boat pens at Lorient, St. Nazaire, and Brest. Shipping and docks at Le Havre and Dieppe, factories and rail way yards in Rouen and Caen, and power stations along the many-castled Loire have been blasted to bits. Facing England across the Channel, Nor mandy and Brittany stand at the front gate for a direct frontal invasion of Europe. Until the German armies, in the summer of 1940, swarmed over France with the sud denness of the equinoctial tidal bore surging into the funnel-like mouth of the Seine River, the two provinces were peaceful, smiling lands. On Norman dairy farms cattle content edly scythed arcs in deep clover where they were tethered. Milkmaids went to and from the pastures swinging pails. The brown earth curled in precise furrows behind plows drawn by huge, sleek Percherons. Apple orchards, after spraying the spring time countryside with fragrance and color, set new fruit, which in ripened fullness pro vided Normandy with its chief beverage cider. Gemlike fishing ports along the coast bustled with activity as bright-colored fish ing fleets came and went. Sun-bronzed, salty seamen worked with their nets. Vacationists thronged the beaches at Deauville, Trouville, and other resorts in the summer months. How different now! Nazi Troops Fortify Beaches Gray armies, not gay holiday crowds, oc cupy these coastal towns. If there are tripods and easels in the narrow Old World streets and along the water fronts, they are the kind that hold map tables and machine guns rather than cameras and canvases. Beaches are strewn with barbed wire. Big guns also stud the chalk cliffs and shores, to guard against counterinvasion. This is not the first time that war has come to these historic provinces. Witness their very names. Normandy, land of the North men, gained its title back in the 10th century when the hardy Norse adventurer, Rollo, set up a state here. Brittany is a lesser Britain. Its people still retain a strong Celtic strain, such as is found in Wales and Cornwall. Crisscrossing threads of fortune and strug gle have woven an intricate tapestry of history. Its pattern is in every village and at every turn in the highway. But in the daily life of the people there is remarkable continuity. Centuries ago Normans and Bretons farmed the soil and fished the sea. Centuries hence they will probably be doing the same. Homeland of William the Conqueror Before war locked their gates I rambled through Normandy and Brittany and sam pled their charm and hospitality. Along high ways and byways I visited medieval cathe drals, intimate old half-timbered houses, thatch-roofed cottages, attended religious pil grimages, and talked with the hardy farm and fisher folk. They arrested the eye and caused a surge in the heart. "How like an English countryside!" I once heard an English traveler exclaim as a Paris bound train sped across Normandy. "Yes, 1066 and all that, you know," an other replied. Deftly, with a single date, the error was rectified. If the spirit of William the Con queror hovered near, as it must have at that moment, it no doubt smiled approval at the retort courteous, for he, William, had helped make England look like Normandy! This was William the Conqueror's home land.* At Falaise stands the much-recon structed old castle where he first saw the light of day. Villagers were keen to point out the very window where Robert the Devil stood when he gazed down into the gorge below and first caught sight of Arlette, the tanner's daughter, washing clothes. Romance was kindled. In one of the rooms in the thick walled stronghold William was born. At Dives-sur-Mer, now a sleepy village a mile back from the sea, William assembled his ships and soldiers for his conquest of England. Not since that year, 1066, has that "tight little island" been successfully invaded. Back home in Normandy after the Con quest, William, to stop raids on his duchy, burned Mantes to the ground. While riding *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "France Farms as War Wages," by Howell Walker, February, 1940; "Normandy, Choice of the Vikings," by Helen Churchill Candee, May, 1936; and "Land of William the Conqueror," by Inez B. Ryan, Janu ary, 1932.