Dedicated, not to war, but to peace

The British contribution to The Memorial of the Battle of Normandy

Introduction by Admiral Sir Desmond Cassidi GCB, Past President

After the Allied Landings on D-Day, 6th June 1944 and the consolidation of the bridgehead, Caen became the Anvil of the Battle of Normandy. General Montgomery’s objective was to draw the Germans onto his sector of the battlefront so that the American forces to the West could extend and expand; as a result of the fierce battle the City of Caen was virtually destroyed and some 15,000 inhabitants killed. The Battle for Normandy raged for some 80 days with about 3 million men engaged of whom 253,000 lost their lives.

The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles was the first to enter Caen and with the Canadians liberated the city. Their Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel (later to be Lieutenant General Sir) Ian Harris CB DSO.

When the City of Caen decided to build a magnificent museum – The Memorial of the Battle of Normandy – it was dedicated, not to war, but to peace.

International support was given to the museum, especially by America and Canada. There was some concern however that the British contribution in the Battle for Normandy and, in particular, the liberation of Caen, should not be overshadowed. General Harris therefore initiated the British Support Committee which resulted in many suitable artefacts and records being obtained to demonstrate the role played by the British Forces.

During the operations in Normandy Lieutenant Colonel Harris met and subsequently married a French Lady – Anne Marie, and Lady Harris has worked tirelessly to promote the British contribution. Having provided the initial British presence in the museum, the Support Committee turned its attention to the idea of a British Memorial Garden adjacent to the museum.

This involved much detailed discussion with the Caen authorities in which Lady Harris took the lead. General Harris wished very much that the Garden should represent not only those involved in the liberation of Caen but also all those in His Majesty’s Forces and civilians who were concerned with the war effort.

The garden is about the size of a football pitch (130 metres long), leased from Caen authorities for 90-years.

Some Personal Memories by Lady Harris

Before I tell you about the British Garden, I should explain how we got involved with Caen.

My Husband, Lieutenant-General Sir Ian Harris, was the Colonel commanding the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles in Normandy, landing on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Their objective, like that of many other units, was to reach Caen as soon as possible – indeed, they were issued with bicycles so that they could pedal to Caen! Bad weather, congestion on the beaches, delays in transport and strong German resistance prevented them from reaching this objective.

Instead, the battalion took part in a fierce battle in Cambes-en-Plaine to dislodge part of the 12th SS Panzer Division, which was established in the village and nearby woodland. The initial attack on the 7th June was repulsed. After driving the Germans out, the Battalion had to make sure that the village was not recaptured. It achieved this on 9th June, and remained there until 7th July, when General Montgomery ordered it to resume it’s advance towards Caen. The battalion moved through Lebisey and entered Caen on 9th July, closely followed by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and other units.

Monty only kept then there a short time – they spent their first night in the cellars of the Bank of France! They were then ordered to clear the area around Troarn and the Bois de Bavent, and so moved on to the next stage of the battle.

After the war my husband frequently returned to Normandy and Caen, with or without his wartime comrades. It was purely by chance, however, that the city of Caen discovered which unit had entered the city first. Tommy, as my husband was called in the Army, never claimed the honour for his battalion, but on one occasion my brother’s wife mentioned to an official at the City Hall that my husband was in the British Army and she believed he had been in Caen, though he never spoke about it. During our next visit to Normandy, my brother asked my husband about this, and Tommy replied that he and his battalion had indeed been in Normandy.

“I remember Cambes, the village which has become so peaceful but which in 1944 was a horrific centre of death and destruction. I remember the farm at Mesnil near Cambes and a religious service going on in the barn. I remember being on my knees looking up through the shattered roof at bombers and fighter planes circling, waiting to be called up. You could also hear the shriek of shells passing in both directions above our heads.” Cyril Rand (who was with General Harris in 1944).

Founding of The British Friends of Normandy

There was a good deal of correspondence between Tommy and the Caen City Hall, and in 1985, during a visit by members of the Regiment and their wives to Caen, we were invited to attend a meeting of the Council. We sat at the back, but my husband was invited to sit next to the Deputy Mayor, Dr. Frank Duncombe. He was then told that it was the unanimous decision of th Council that he was to be made and Honorary Citizen of the City of Caen. This was a great day for the Regiment and for those who had entered Caen in 1944. The bonds which Tommy had formed with his comrades became even closer, and they made many visits to the area where they had fought together.

When the City of Caen decided that a Museum should be founded in the city to commemorate the events of the war, the Mayor of Caen, Senator Jean-Marie Girault, asked the help of the British Ambassador in Paris, who passed the request on to General Sir John Mogg, who had been the Deputy Supreme Commander in Europe in the 1970s.

The mayor, with some of his deputies and staff, came to London to a meeting at the Imperial War Museum, to which Tommy and I were invited.

Tommy became keenly interested in the project, and when we returned home he asked me to help him to take part in it. I had a special reason for joining in, because I am French, and I met Tommy after the Battle of Normandy in September 1944. He actually asked me to marry him with the help of a dictionary, as my English was no better than his French! So I have a personal link with the events of the war; and also I was glad to do something to express my thanks to the British, who liberated us.

Shortly afterwards, General Mogg invited my husband to become the Chairman of the proposed association, under the name of the British Friends of Normandy.

 

memorial-of-caen

Tommy gathered together a valuable  group, whose names are listed here.

At the Ministry of Defence, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, was invited to assist us. The Ministry of Defence provided an office in Lillie Road, Aldershot; Brigadier David Webb-Carter dealt with some of the administration; and Tommy and I travelled from Ireland to attend the monthly meetings.

Our purpose was to ensure that the British role in the liberation of Caen should be properly recognised, and suitable artefacts and exhibits secured for the new Memorial.

Our main problem was raising money, which was largely achieved by writing to many military associations and veterans, asking for donations. As usual, the response was wonderful, and we soon raised a large sum. £50,000 was invested in non-profitmaking shares in the future Memorial, which secured a seat on the Board of the Memorial, and the right to veto any proposals by the Board which might affect its British section.

A further sum of money was used to donate a Typhoon fighter, to be displayed in the Memorial.

The British Garden

The Mayor of Caen, Senator Jean-Marie Girault, turned his eyes to the wide stretch of ground (about 40 acres in all) surrounding the Memorial, and conceived the idea that the Allied countries whose forces had taken part in D-Day should be represented there by a memorial garden.

The Americans, British and Canadians were all approached, and supported the idea. On the question of a site, the Americans and Canadians favoured the valley below the Memorial, but Tommy was unhappy with this suggestion, because he did not want visitors to have to cope with flights of steps or take a lift. He asked the Mayor to place a garden on the plateau, close to the Memorial itself, and after some delay this was agreed. A Committee, with my husband as Chairman, continued to meet twice a year to pursue the project and accumulated some £40,000.

Meanwhile the Mayor, on the advice of the Director of the Memorial, Mr Belin, took up the idea of extending the Memorial by adding an ‘observatory’ to illustrate the present international outlook and the need for world peace. This project was beyond the means of the Board and the City of Caen, but assistance came from the French government and the European Commission. From these combined resources, a sum of 90 million francs was provided, and the extension went forward.

By this time, the British Committee had prepared plans for its garden, and a ceremony to lay a foundation stone, in the area which had been envisaged, next to the Memorial. Nothing could be done on the ground while the extension to the Memorial was being built, because the site of the garden was being used for building work, but the Committee continued to meet to plan the details. Very sadly my husband died, and at the next meeting I suggested the Committee should be headed by a senior officer if I was to continue to help. All members asked me to carry on as Chairman, and Admiral Cassidi agreed to become President. I found it very touching that the loyalty of the members to my husband was extended to myself, and I deeply appreciate it.

In June 2002 there was an important meeting in Caen with the technical staff. Mr. Reg Maxwell, who had designed the garden along with my husband, was able to free himself from his busy schedule to attend this meeting with me. All plans were examined at the meeting, and Mr. Maxwell was able to answer all the queries which were raised. The result was a conclusive approval for the scheme.

At an earlier stage, it had been hoped to employ labour provided by Farset, an organisation in Belfast to help people who were out of work, to construct the garden, but unfortunately this option was no longer available. At the meeting, it was decided that French labour should be used to prepare the garden, except for the structures. Special thanks are due to Messrs. Taggart & Co. in Belfast, who did all the plans for the upper structures free of charge; wonderful financial support for the project.

The garden site is about the size of a football pitch (130m long). It will remain the property of Caen, and will be maintained and insured by them, but will be leased for the use of the British Garden for 90 years. The City of Caen agreed to level the ground, put in water and draining, and provide a huge quantity of topsoil, as well as to preparing the different areas for the entrance, the fountain and the Naval monument, and to rest the foundation stone, which is now the Royal Air Force monument. Work on the garden started in 2002 and was finished by autumn 2003. The garden opened officially in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of D-Day, in June 2004 – a fitting climax to the project.

Memorial-Garden

Hope for the Future

Described by Air Chief Marshal Sir Lewis Hodges KCB CBE DSO DFC, a past Trustee

We must now face the question of how to raise another £100,000 to conclude the project, and that is why the Committee has commissioned a booklet first then this website. Of course, any further contributions will be gratefully received!

The task of preparing the garden has been lengthy, and in the course of it many friends have left us, particularly my husband and the Vice-Chairman, John St. John Cooper, who fought with him in Normandy and lost a leg in Cambes Wood before entering Caen. They were such good friends and I hope that wherever they are they will be pleased with what we have done. I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every minute of the work involved.

I do hope that in years to come the British Garden will become a centre for reunions and concerts, and that future generations will appreciate its beauty. The battle of Normandy took place many years ago, but it is right that we should remember those who fought here for the liberation of France, and that the events of war should be commemorated in the peace of a garden.

I would like to end by thanking Madame Le Brethon, Mayor of Caen, and the City Council for their generous contributions to the scheme. Without their help the garden could never have come about. I must add a particular word of thanks to the technical staff for their co-operation. I hope that in years to come the whole Caen Memorial will benefit from the British Garden.

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM