REVIEW: The Lost Paratroopers of Normandy by Stephen G. Rabe
The fateful days surrounding June 6th, 1944 have been extensively documented in histories of the Second World War, but less attention has been paid to the tremendous impact of these events on the populations nearby. The Lost Paratroopers of Normandy tells the inspiring yet heartbreaking story of ordinary people who did extraordinary things in defense of liberty and freedom.
On D-Day, when transport planes dropped paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions hopelessly off-target into marshy waters in northwestern France, the 900 villagers of Graignes welcomed them with open arms. These villagers provided food, gathered intelligence, and navigated the floods to retrieve the paratroopers’ equipment at great risk to themselves.
When the attack by German forces on June 11th forced the overwhelmed paratroopers to withdraw, many made it to safety thanks to the help and resistance of the villagers. In this moving book, historian Stephen G. Rabe, son of one of the paratroopers, meticulously documents the forgotten lives of those who participated in this integral part of D-Day history.
What perfect timing for the release of this book. I was interested in reading it because of the description of how the French villagers were such a huge part in the story. Without them and their volunteered assistance, the paratroopers who drifted down into and near their village would not have been able to hold off the advance of German forces on their way to beat back Allied control of Carentan. And if that city hadn’t been held, much could have been in doubt during the bitter fighting in Normandy in early June of 1944.
Up until then, the Germans had not occupied this tiny village although they had extracted the usual cost of their occupation – food and whatnot – from Graignes. When the off course members of the 82nd and 101st Airborne regiments floated down on their silk parachutes, the men of the village unanimously voted that the villagers would give aid, help with gathering information, and retrieve supplies while the women stepped up to take charge of getting scarce food provisions – including going down mined roads and entering into other villages then under German occupation – and guaranteeing the Americans two hot meals a day.
The hope was that the town and paras could wait until the Allied troops landing on the beaches reached them. The hope was in vain. When the SS Panzergrenadier Division arrived, they thought there was no one to oppose them. They discovered otherwise. When the US troops finally ran out of ammunition and had to retreat, everyone thought that a white flag would protect the townspeople, the injured paratroopers and the medical staff who remained. That hope was also in vain. Graignes and her citizens paid a heavy and horrible price for what they selflessly did.
The writing could have been a bit smoother and some information about the fighting that surviving Americans of the decimated Airborne regiments took part in until the end of war could have been condensed but I was in awe of what the villagers bravely took on, knowing what the Germans might do in revenge. The book is a heartfelt tribute to the aid given by the French and will also be a source of information for the children and grandchildren of the paratroopers who, for various reasons, couldn’t or wouldn’t share their wartime experiences.
“Airborne!” “Vive la France!” B-
Mayor Voydie understood that summary execution awaited those who aided US troops. He declared, however, that “since France was being liberated by the Americans, the liberated would take their chances with the liberators, and that freedom was worth the price.”