The Liberation of Vernon

En Francais : La Liberation de Vernon

The British Veterans - Photo courtesy of Le Democrate Vernonnais July 17th, 2004

Map by Benoit Cottereau showing the places where bombs failed on May 26th, 1944
           Click here to enlarge

First, bombings

The Liberation of Vernon on August 25th, 1944 was preceded by intense bombings. The goal of the Allies was to cut the retreat of the occupying forces by destroying the bridges over the Seine river, as well as the railroads.

On May 7th, 1944, the railway bridge that crossed the Seine in Vernon was destroyed  by seven bomber fighters P 47 in dive bombing run. It was the first time that this method was applied in Normandy, and it proved to be very effective. 7 tons of bombs only were used. No more than 5 people were slightly hurt in this air raid, 5 houses demolished.  

Unfortunately, this method was not chosen to destroy Vernon's road bridge on the Seine. On May 26th, 1944, 73 US B26 bombers dropped 146 tons of bombs over Vernon. Forced to fly at high altitude, they lacked preciceness. This bombing made 125 victims, among them 45 killed ; 50 houses were destroyed, 150 uninhabitable. The bridge was reached once only, it was still passable for pedestrians.

That is why the Allies returned to the attack on June 8th, two days after the D-Day. 23 B26 bombers dropped 46 tons of bombs. This time, the target was not reached. On the other hand 17 civilians were killed, over 20 were hurt and 50 houses were destroyed.

From April to August 44, Vernon underwent 34 air attacks. 239 houses were reached, 10 % of the population had to be rehoused. In June 40, German mass bombings had already wiped out 18 % of Vernon's lodgings. 

The Resistance in Vernon

In 1944, the Resistance fighters of Vernon united themselves. They all joined the FFI on April 10th, 1944. They had only a few weapons at their disposal, so they were busy taking in the 133 pilots parachuted in the area and gathering and transmitting information.

On August 18th, they tried to blow up the bridge with plastic explosive. It was their first public action. But the small amount of explosive they could use (7 kilos) was not enough to make the damaged pile fall.

However, this action had a psychological effect. Street fights began between Resistance fighters and German soldiers. On August 19th, about forty French fighters struggled against three German tanks and two trucks around the city hall. Eventually, German troops retreated in Vernonnet to occupy the right bank of the river. Vernon had been liberated by its own forces. They would hold the town alone for a week, untill the British soldiers would arrive.

As early as August 22nd, the Resistance fighters dismissed the town council that obeyed the orders from Vichy and set up a new one.

The road bridge of Vernon on May 26th, 1944
Private collection

Click here to enlarge

Vernon inhabitants welcome their Liberators
Rue de Verdun, DR

British troops' arrival in Vernon

According to the agreement concluded in the headquarters, the British 43rd ( Wessex) Infantry Division was designated to liberate Vernon and above all to take the bridge on the Seine.

Therefore the Us forces who had arrived at 8 km from Vernon on August 18th avoided the town. British troops entered it a week later, after they could leave the Falaise pocket of resistance.

In a three days time, from August 25th to 28th, 1944, the 1st Worcestershire Regiment achieved the 'Neptune' operation, that's to say the assault crossing of the Seine. This operation has been engraved in the military annals as a true achievement.

2000 men discreetly gathered together in the streets of Vernon's center on the evening of August 25th. At 6 pm, the artillery set off in targetting the German positions on the other bank. In 24 hours, 18 000 shells were fired towards the right bank where the German were entrenched. In the evening, a first attempt to cross the still passable bridge failed. The soldiers took a rest as they could lying in the streets or around the church.

Crossing the Seine river : a Feat

On August 26th, 1944, from 4 am on, in the dark, soldiers crossed not without difficulty the damaged bridge. At dawn, an artificial fog took over to hide the troops crossing the river on the bridge or in assault boats. The two first boats were sunk because the fog was clearing. British soldiers then made headway on the other bank with varying fortunes. Some met a strong resistance and endure casualties, others reached their target without difficulty.

At 4 pm on August 26th, the 43rd Wessex Division occupies the positions that had been set. In front of the church, 'David', the first class 9 light floating bridge built by the Engineers was finished. Thanks to it, light vehicles could cross the river to support troops.

On August 27th, after a stormy night, British soldiers went on towards Gisors, on the Tilly road. There, the infantry collided with the German 49th Infantry Division, which kept reinforcing since August 21st. Casualties were significant. The same day, the Bailey bridge was built, in 28 hours only. Its completion was decisive, heavy vehicles up to 40 tons could now cross the river. 770 British tanks would cross the Seine in three days.

On this same August 27th, the 4th Wiltshire entered Giverny. The village was entirely liberated the next day, after several hours of fighting.

Vernon after the 1940 bombings, private collection
Click here to enlarge

The consequences of the Battle of Vernon

British lost 600 men in 4 days, Germans 1600 men. 12 Resistance fighters were killed, adding to the 107 civilian dead during the last four monthes. The city had to be rebuilt, what would not be done before 1949.

But this victory was crucial. It made it possible for the allied troops to go on with their march upon the East. Montgomery crossedthe Seine in Vernon on September 1st, 1944. A street of Vernon is named after him, it is one of the numerous testimonies of gratefulness from the inhabitants of the city for  their Liberators. Military corners in the cemeteries as well as many memorial stones in Vernon and its surroundings still recall to those who offered their lives to liberate our region.

Bibliography and sources :

Talk by Benoit Cottereau on June 11th, 2004
Following books by Benoit Cottereau :
- Route de Tilly, la Bataille pour Vernon
- Giverny - été 44 : Les Coquelicots de la Libération
Newspapers articles in Le Démocrate Vernonnais August 20th, 2003, September 3rd, 2003 and July 19th, 2004

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Sunday, 11-Oct-2009 06:22:04 EDT