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D-Day

'The first bomb was for us': civilians remember Normandy invasion

Colette Marin-Catherine and Arlette Varin-Baudin, two women from Normandy with very different stories of life during the Second World War..
Colette Marin-Catherine and Arlette Varin-Baudin, two women from Normandy with very different stories of life during the Second World War.. RFI/Mike Woods

The Allied invasion of Normandy in summer 1944 saw an end to the Nazi occupation of the northern France. It also resulted in the death of 20,000 civilians and left deep scars. Two women share their tales of survival.

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Colette Marin-Catherine, 90, joined the French Resistance to German occupation with her family when she was a teenager living in the town of Bretteville-l’Orgeuilleuse between the cities of Bayeux and Caen.

Arlette Varin-Baudin, 85, was a child in the city of Lisieux and barely aware a war was going on, owing to her parents’ efforts to protect her and her brother from what was happening around them.

Both survived the precarious war years, and both lost older brothers: one was executed at the hands of the Gestapo, the other perished in an Allied airstrike.

“June 6 [D-Day] was a beautiful day in Lisieux,” Varin-Baudin says. “We brought our toys down to play in the big back yard, and there were no problems. Unfortunately the problems started around 8 o’clock in the evening.”

Allied airstrikes killed up to 20,000 civilians

Knowing that the area they lived in might be targeted, her parents prepared to flee into the countryside, but were held back waiting for her grandmother.

“That kept us back by 20 minutes, just long enough for the bombs to come,” she recalls. “We found ourselves under the rubble of our house. The first bomb was for us.”

Her grandmother and older brother Serge were two of the estimated 20,000 civilians who died in Normandy in the summer of 1944.

Most of those deaths were due to Allied airstrikes, which marked the period even for survivors.

“From the instant we saw the bombings, we knew it could happen to us, at any moment,” Marin-Catherine says. “Sometimes there was fear, but it’s not really the right word, and that time was so turbulent. But we were always very nervous.”

Growing interest in civilians

Today, Varin-Baudin and Marin-Catherine live in the city of Caen and have seen growing interest in civilian side of the Battle of Normandy. During this 75th anniversary season, they keep busy schedules to testify to their wartime experiences.

For a long time, collective memory naturally focused on those who fought off the occupying forces.

“It was always about the glory of the liberating armies, or the French army, or the Resistance,” Marin-Catherine says. “It was almost automatically about glory, and the tributes were justified.”

Varin-Baudin agrees, citing Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces, as the country’s liberator. But the joy of liberation often hid deep wounds.

“I never saw my parents cry. They had so much dignity,” she explains.

“Today my brother’s life is honoured,” she continues. “Now, I see people paying more attention to the civilian victims, and that makes me happy.”

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