50th Anniversary of D-Day: RAF raid that can never be forgotten: Aunay-sur-Odon was razed by the British after the Germans had left. Steve Boggan reports

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The Independent Online
THERE will be no D-Day veterans in Aunay-sur-Odon today. No-one will lower the flags to half mast. The 'Last Post' will not be sounded.

Tears may be shed and the dead will be remembered, but those remembered most will be the people of this small town.

This is a place haunted by the memory of RAF bombing raids, of four days when death fell from the sky like rain, of an ally so anxious to obliterate the enemy that it dropped 6,500 tons of bombs in 35 minutes - after the Germans had left.

When the dust cleared and the fires stoked by incendiary bombs petered out, 165 townsfolk lay dead.

Aunay-sur-Odon lies about 20 miles south-west of Caen, almost due south from Arromanches, where British troops established the Gold beachhead. Bayeux lies to the north-west, Saint-Lo to the west and Conde-sur-Noireau and Thury Harcourt to the south and east.

As such, it was vital to German lines of supply and had been identified as a target for the advancing British forces. The allies decided the town and its roads would have to be destroyed and dropped leaflets warning the community to evacuate.

Unfortunately, the leaflets were blown off course to the nearby hamlet of Bonnemaison. They did not carry the name of Aunay and said simply that bombing raids would follow; the handful of Bonnemaison residents who took their possessions out and slept in nearby fields were relieved when, on the morning of 11 June 1944, their homes were not bombed.

Instead, while people were at mass, the bombs dropped on Aunay-sur-Odon. In the following four days, hundreds of houses, shops, hotels, bars, municipal buildings, the school and the church of Notre Dame were destroyed.

The only structure left standing was the church steeple. It was among the most intensive bombing operations of the campaign, leaving the landscape akin to Hiroshima.

In an account written at the time, Abbe Andre Paul, the parish priest, described the fourth and last raid, after midnight on 15 June. 'For 35 minutes, which seemed like an eternity, nine waves of bombers let loose a real deluge of bombs, both explosive and incendiary. Words can't describe this hallucinatory picture of hell, this vision of horror.'

Fr Paul questioned the wisdom of the destruction: 'One must not say 'It is war and its risks'. When human lives are at stake, everthing should be tried to protect them.'

Questions are still being asked today, but there is no bitterness among the people of the new Aunay, beautifully rebuilt in Caen sandstone. 'The Germans had gone, the British could simply have walked into the town,' Madelaine Cariou, 66, said.

Mdme Cariou was instumental in twinning Aunay with Holsworthy, in Devon, a region chosen for its similar surroundings. 'There is no resentment for what the British did, and we still regard them as our liberators. In wartime, military logic often seems incoherent to civilians - but we feel we paid a high price for our freedom.'

The townsfolk of Aunay-sur- Odon will mark their grief with a Mass at the restored church of Notre Dame on 12 June, but there will be nothing else to commemorate the landings.

Along the Rue du 12 Juin 1944, there are posters encouraging people to welcome their liberators, but, unlike other Normandy villages, there is no bunting.

It is significant, though, that outside the rebuilt Hotel de la Place, small flags are flying. The proprietor, Michel Boone, put them there in the spirit of reconciliation; the flags of Britain, America, France, Canada . . . and Germany.

(Map omitted)

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