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History’s smallest liberation army

The liberation of Mont-Saint-Michel

American soldiers approaching Mont-Saint-Michel after the liberation in 1944 (Photo: Pinterest)

The rocky island of Mont-Saint-Michel with its abbey rising high above the sea around it, is one of the best-known landmarks and travel destinations in Normandy visited annually by around 3 million tourists. The island, lying at the mouth of the Couesnon river near Avranches, has been inhabited since at least Roman times and it’s been the home of a monastery since the 8th century AD. The idea to build the church on the islet came when Bishop Aubert of Avranches had a vision in which he was instructed by archangel Michel (“Michael” in English) to raise the monastery. It took centuries of construction to reach the current form of the monastery. According to the legend, Saint Michel created a hole on Aubert’s skull with his finger as a reminder to finish his task. His skull can be seen at the Saint-Gervais Basilica in Avranches.

Mont-Saint-Michel on the map, the D-Day landing beaches lie to the northeast (Photo: Google)
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During the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453), the fortified monastery was attacked several times by the Kingdom of England but the attacks were repelled successfully by the defenders. The reformation weakened its popularity and contributed to the fall of the number of monks. During the French Revolution, the monastery was used as a prison for clergy and later for political prisoners. In 1863, the prison was closed and renowned French architect, Édouard Corroyer was appointed to assess the condition of the abbey. As a result of his analysis, Mont-Saint-Michel was officially declared a historic monument. Corroyer and his successors started large-scale renovation works. For instance, the statue of Saint Michel at top of the spire was completed in 1898.

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A 1905 photograph of the abbey (Photo: upload.wikimedia.org)

When Nazi Germany invaded France in World War II, the Germans secured Mont-Saint-Michel on June 18, 1940, four days after the occupation of Paris. On the same day, German officers met with French officials to negotiate a peace. The first group of soldiers to arrive numbered three men and the process of occupation largely involved the three of them going shopping at the famous site. Shortly after, a radio team of five Luftwaffe servicemen established and started manning a permanent aircraft tracking station. The station was placed on top of the abbey and operated first from a car connected to the station with cables, then from a separate hut.

German soldiers with the island in the background (Photo: Pinterest)

Even though the monastery was a significant military stronghold in the Middle Ages and has withstood several English sieges during the Hundred Years’ War, its strategic importance had dwindled by the 20th century and the Germans made no efforts to fortify it. The German Armistice Commission also recognized the monastery’s historical significance. Still, the French did not trust the Germans to keep the island intact and decided to move many of the abbey’s ancient records and artifacts to the town of Saint-Lô for safety. In a tragic twist of fate, the Germans left the abbey untouched, while Saint-Lô, named "the Capital of the Ruins" by Samuel Beckett, was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombardment after D-Day, causing the loss of much of the abbey’s priceless historical heritage.

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Two French boys watching cars passing by in the ruins of Saint-Lô (Photo: Reddit)

During the years of occupation, Mont-Saint-Michel continued to remain a popular tourist destination, mainly for off-duty German soldiers. While it was technically also open to French visitors, the latter were increasingly restricted in their mobility due to German ordnances that required French citizens to have special passes to move around the country, especially into the militarily sensitive coastal areas. As a result, some 325,000 Germans visited the island in four years compared to only 1,000 Frenchmen.

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Off-duty German soldiers leaving Mont-Saint-Michel after a visit (on the left), while a French couple are having their car inspected (on the right) (Photo: warfarehistorynetwork.com

Around 1.8 million French soldiers, ten percent of the country’s male population, were captured during the fall of France and sent to POW camps. The wives and daughters of some took up work at Mont-Saint-Michel, acting as caretakers and guides for the Germans in an attempt to scrape together a meager living.
 
Things changed on D-Day, when Allied forces established a beachhead on the far eastern side of the Cotentin Peninsula. Many German soldiers fled from battle towards the southwest and used Mont-Saint-Michel as a stopping point on their way to various fortified port cities where they were to regroup. In the chaos of retreat, some of the men arrived barefoot; others got inside the walls and collapsed from exhaustion. A man in one of the last groups to pass through the abbey vented his frustration by machine gunning the statue of St. Aubert, the 8th century founder of the abbey.

Locals welcoming American forces pushing through Avranches (Photo: Flickr)

After General Patton broke through at Avranches with his armored units in Operation Cobra at the end of July, a Jeep departed from nearby American positions carrying three passengers toward the monastery on August 1, 1944. One was Private Freeman Brougher of the 72nd Publicity Service Battalion, a propaganda unit. His two passengers were British journalists Paul Holt of the London Daily Express and Gault MacGowan from the New York Sun. Everywhere they stopped to ask for directions, the locals burst out in joy at the sight of the liberators.

Private Freeman Brougher with his Jeep after liberating Mont-Saint-Michel (Photo: Twitter)

By the time they got to the island, the Jeep was carrying a bevy of hangers-on: a fireman, two priests, three women and several others. Brougher drove down the causeway connecting Mont-Saint-Michel to the shore and found a hero’s welcome. Surrounded by a crowd and being handed babies to kiss, Brougher was escorted to the mayor who made him sign the Golden Book, the island’s record of visiting nobility.
 
A few German stragglers, too exhausted to put up a fight, were arrested without any difficulties. Meanwhile, the locals went after those who collaborated with the Germans. Men were locked up, turning the abbey into a prison for the second time in its history, the first having been during the French Revolution. Female collaborators had their clothes torn off their backs and were beaten with canes until they fled to the abbey’s ramparts for refuge. Brougher and the reporters begged the mayor to calm tempers down until the authorities arrived, which happened soon after.

After its liberation, the island was declared off limits to troops (Photo: i.pinimg.com)

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Later that day, MacGowan sent off his story which appeared in the New York Sun, describing Private Brougher as “a G.I. Chauffeur for Sun Reporter”. Decades later, in 1987, Brougher returned to Mont-Saint-Michel with his family and showed them the place he liberated. Unfortunately, the mayor was away so he wasn’t able to show them the Golden Book with his signature in it. He passed away in 2003.
 
Veteran cameraman Jack Lieb also filmed the site in color after the liberation in 1944, capturing everyday GIs and celebrities like writer Ernest Hemingway or photographer Robert Capa on film. Following his return from the war, he edited the footage into a documentary called D-Day to Germany which was narrated by him in presentations around the country.

Cameraman Jack Lieb commenting on footage of Mont-Saint-Michel taken after its liberation (Source: YouTube)

Not far away, to the southwest from Mont-Saint-Michel, one can find two war cemeteries. Close to the abbey lies the Mont-de-Huisnes German war cemetery on a small hill, maintained by the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge in German). The unique circular mausoleum contains the remains of 11,956 German soldiers who lost their lives in the region and on most of the Channel Islands. Further away lies the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial serving as the final resting place of 4,404, most of whom died in the Normandy and Brittany Campaigns. It also remembers 500 missing soldiers. The cemetery is managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission, and is located on the site of the temporary American St. James Cemetery.
 
It is worth mentioning that Saint Michel is also the patron saint of paratroopers, in particular that of the U.S. 82nd “All American” Airborne Division which landed in Normandy in the early hours of June 6, 1944.

American paratroopers jumping at Mont-Saint-Michel on a D-Day anniversary in 2019 (Photo: U.S. Army)

Today, Mont-Saint-Michel has a population of 30, including monks and nuns. The difference between the highest and lowest watermarks can be even 46 ft / 14 m. A new hydraulic dam was built on the Couesnon river in 2009 to control the water and to remove the accumulated silt. The beauty and architectural achievements of Mont-Saint-Michel have inspired many artists over the centuries. The site has been on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1979. In Peter Jackson's highly successful 2003 film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gondor's capital, Minas Tirith, was also inspired by the monastery.

Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings movies was inspired by Mont-Saint-Michel (Photo: Indiegogo)

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