Last week I decided to clean out Laura and Elise’s old baby clothes and donate them to our local Secours Catholique (Catholic Charities). I asked my neighbor if he wanted to come with me to drop the clothes off in town and then stay for snack time with the girls. The farmer, as we’ve nicknamed him, has lived in Pleurtuit his entire life. I have never bothered to calculate his age but to give you an idea, he started school at seven during the Nazi occupation. As we’ve gotten to know him, he’s gone from being a figure of awe to a second “Papi” (Grandfather) to the girls. He can also be a wealth of information and random stories. On our way into the center of town, I mentioned how I think our local church is ugly. I know ugly, church, and small-town France are words that don’t usually go together but when you look at the church, it always felt like something was missing.
The farmer looked at me and simply said, “the Germans destroyed the steeple during the war.” Pleurtuit is home to a small airport with (seasonal to year-round) service to the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands. In addition to commercial flights, we regularly see amateur pilots out flying and enjoying the views as well. During the war, minus all of today’s construction, the church made an excellent vantage point for anyone seeking to target the airstrip–to reduce any potential threat, the Germans simply removed the steeple. The farmer went on to explain that the cross which topped the steeple along with the topmost part stands in front of the church today. I have to admit that I had never paid particular attention to the cross in front of the church, much less associated it as part of the missing steeple. We dropped off the clothes and he continued to talk about the war.
The farmer suggested a detour on the way home and started talking about hearing the bombs and feeling the explosions when Pleurtuit was liberated in 1944. It’s easy to forget that all the great campaigns of WWII were made up of countless small engagements and not just fights over big cities and important bridges. We stopped at the local battle memorial, another place that I go by regularly and yet have never stopped at. The Battle of Pleurtuit, 7-12 August 1944 was part of the Northern France Campaign. On 8 August 1944, the 121st Infantry Regiment of the 8th Division (Golden Arrow) engaged the Germans on their way to liberating Dinard and, eventually, Saint Malo. “The town of Pleurtuit had been selected as an initial Regimental objective, to be followed by the capture of Dinard as the final objective.”* The Germans had transformed the farm “la Vieuville” into a fortified position with presighted artillery and iron rail obstacles in place. The monument includes a picture of the battlefield before the American assault. Looking over the monument surrounded by its beautiful flowers, it’s hard to imagine anything violent occurring in the middle of today’s plowed fields.
Returning home, I decided to look online and see if I could find out any more about the battle. I was amazed when I discovered a 17-page document on the battle written by Major Howard L Bartholomew online! Subtitled, “The Personal Experience of a Rifle Company Commander,” Major Bartholomew’s first-hand description of the battle for Pleurtuit, Dinard and Saint Malo is a wonderful primary source and brought the battle alive from an American perspective. Bartholomew used the battle as part of a training course for Advanced Infantry Officers in 1949-50 at Fort Benning. His paper is divided into several parts: orientation, narration, analysis and criticism, and lessons. While the entire paper makes for interesting reading, I was particularly drawn to the narration of the battle. Bartholowmew walks his readers through the battle. He also deals with the wounded, rations for men and includes details like the failed attempt by some German soldiers to camouflage themselves “with pieces of grey blanket tied on their backs extending from their shoulders to their feet.”* Comparing the farmer’s brief comments and the Major’s words, I spent the rest of the day wrapped up in our local history. Pleurtuit still commemorates the liberation every August. The town remembers its past as it moves into the future….
*from Bartholomew, Howard L. MAJ, “Operations of the 3rd Battalion, 121st Infantry, 8th Infantry Division, in the attack on Pleutuit, France and Defense of an area outside of Pleurtuit, 7-12 August 1944” (Northern France Campaign). (The Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) Libraries has an online collection of WWII student papers that give the war a first-person infantry perspective. I foresee countless hours of reading in front of me!)