June 17, 1940, in La Manche …

by | 16 Jul 2020

June 17, 1940 in the English Channel
Should we consider that the French soldier of 1940 finally did nothing to stop the breaking and mechanized wave of the German army? That the command was often ineffective and that, sometimes, it had even simply disappeared, in the middle of the battle? This French helmet model 26, was found in 2005, locality La Basseneuvillerie, in Saint Sauveur de Pierrepont and picked up on the battlefield in June 1940. It testifies to a completely different story …

Saint Sauveur de Pierrepont and the “Drôle de guerre” of 39

Saint-Sauveur de Pierrepont was before the war a peaceful village that nothing intended to become a symbol of the battles of 1940 in La Manche. Overlooking the marshes, the small town was located at the exit of La Haye-du-Puits, on the road to Les Pieux and Cherbourg. By September 1939, the men had gone to war, as everywhere in the country, called by general mobilization. For months, we had hardly heard of the “front” since there was very little going on except for a few hands. The 14-year-olds were grumbling in their whiskers, saying that it was more like their time than in their time, “… we attacked” Les Boches “every day …”. But nothing worked, it was the “Drôle de guerre”, in other words a period where the two camps observed each other, faced each other without planning an offensive, pending a better industrial mobilization that would give the advantage. In Saint-Sauveur-de-Pierrepont, we are far from the front, the concerns are quite different. Regularly, the mobilized of the commune write that, where they are, “… nothing is happening …”.

1940, The Blitzkrieg, part of the Netherlands, advances faster than the tide to the Cotentin lands

The situation was turned upside down from the spring of 1940, when Hitler launched his armored and paratroopers divisions to conquer the Scandinavian countries. From May 10, his troops invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and crossed the Ardennes to the north of France. Surprised by a new way of waging war, based on the “Blitzkrieg”, the lightning offensive theorized by Guderian and the German generals, the French army must retreat after heavy fighting. Every day, the French soldier is machine-gunned relentlessly by the German air force, he has to travel for miles on foot, with enemy armored vehicles on his heels. Sometimes heroic rearguard battles take place, from Belgium to Dunkirk via La Meuse or the banks of the Loire river, but everywhere, an impression dominates. It’s a debacle.

May 1940, between waiting, fears and hope

On May 27, the Prefecture of La Manche announced that the department was now included in the army zone, and therefore likely to experience major military operations. However, until the beginning of June, Saint-Sauveur-de-Pierrepont finally lived far from the war, which she followed by the newspapers and the radio. There is hardly any news from the soldiers, the mail is more irregular. The Cherbourg region becomes the target of German bombers and the alerts are multiplying there, like the shots of DCA. On June 9, we learned that the Germans were in Rouen. Inexorably, the war is getting closer. The columns of refugees crossing the Channel carry the most improbable news, aggravating the anxiety. But morale soon returned to Saint-Sauveur-de-Pierrepont at the sight of the many English convoys that passed the town and fled to Cherbourg.

The arrival of Rommel and the courageous defenders

Everything changes on June 17, in La Manche. Coming from the Orne via Vire, two German armored columns crossed the south of the department, one taking the direction of Saint-Lô then Carentan, the other passing through Gavray and Coutances. These are the advanced units of the 7th Armored Division, commanded by a daring young general, Erwin Rommel. Hitler assigned him a clear objective, to take Cherbourg, which he intends to do as quickly as possible.On June 17, 1940, when everything seemed lost, when everywhere we heard “… the war is over, Pétain said it …”, a handful of hard-core soldiers still clung to the defense lines, in the Cotentin. They are sailors, artillerymen, Senegalese infantrymen, more or less aged infantrymen whom fate has placed there, on the line of defense hastily established along the Cotentin marshes. Equipped with a few cannons, with equipment sometimes dating from the other war, they alone must stop the Panzers of Rommel, to allow the re-embarkation of the English troops flocking to Cherbourg as well as French forces and all the administrations essential.
The first battles took place north of La Haye-du-Puits, on the evening of June 17. After crossing the Channel without resistance, Rommel saw his troops immobilized on the road from Cherbourg to Denneville. Night fell, the Germans decided not to extend the engagement. At dawn, the artillery was unleashed and silenced the French defensive position. Deploring the many killed and wounded, French unity resisted but had to retreat, while the Germans captured the position and resumed their march forward.

Uneven struggle and Rommel’s victory

A few kilometers away, another French point of support has experienced much the same fate, that is, that which has settled in Saint-Sauveur-de-Pierrepont. Equipped with two guns, the position commanded by the engineer of maritime engineering Ramas must slow down the Germans as long as possible. Accepting the sacrifice, these men fight one against ten, outclassed by German mechanical power. In a few minutes, the artillery pieces were destroyed, the wounded servants retreated, like the infantrymen and the Senegalese who fought alongside them. The chief of position is killed as well as two sailors, many wounded lie on the battlefield, plowed by German shells. The last bolt having given way, Rommel can rush to Cherbourg.
On the west coast, near Carentan, delaying fights also took place, but failed to halt the advance of the Panzers for a long time. The battle for Cherbourg begins then, it ends on June 19. Rommel finally holds his victory!

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