Debate around Maisy’s battery

or the eventful history of a rediscovery

Une casemate modèle R621 à la batterie de Maisy, codée Stp 83 par les Allemands et installée au lieu-dit Les Perruques. Enterrée après la fin de la guerre, elle a depuis été dégagée. Photo (2005) : D-Day Overlord

A german R621 model casemate at the battery Maisy, coded Stp 83 by the Germans and installed at a place called Les Perruques. Buried after the end of the war, it has since been cleared.
Photo (2006): D-Day Overlord

In January 2006, the historical community learned through the media that a 44-hectare German stronghold, completely forgotten by historians and Norman authorities, was rediscovered by a British enthusiast, at the very heart of the Normandy, in the town of Grandcamp-Maisy (Calvados). According to the owner of the land, Gary Sterne, the elements he has observed are quite extraordinary and deserve a lot of attention. At the same time, a debate begins to rage between those who think that Sterne is a fabulator and those who defend him. Story and reflection on this rediscovery.

Immediately, the news reaches me. I am learning at the same time the existence of the debate. Indeed, the theories put forward by the English owner are astonishing, and appear to me even difficult to hold. According to him, the site would have contained a headquarters of the German army, but also a whole regiment and its role would have been significant on D-Day and during the three days that followed. Amazing for a battery almost forgotten, and which is only very succinctly, or not at all mentioned by the books on the Atlantic Wall in Normandy.

I visited during the summer of 2006 on the site, where I met Gary Sterne, the owner of the place. A few years ago, he bought a wartime card from a US veteran, which revealed the position of this German strongpoint. Intrigued, he then observes that the site is located a hundred meters southwest of the small village of Maisy (close to another seaside village: Grandcamp-les-bains), and enjoy a view impregnable on the mouth of the Vire (bay of Veys), and on the beaches of the east of Cotentin. Precisely, for some time now, he has a small apartment in Maisy where he sometimes comes to meet the historical space of Normandy. Passionate about archaeological excavations, he is a master of the art of doing business in military flea markets, and he even wrote a book about it that has become a reference in the field. If he works in publishing in England, he discovered a new passion in Normandy: the purchase of land.

Indeed, after obtaining this famous card, he went to the site. He has of course observed the three casemates of the place called La Martinière. At first, at the place called Les Perruques, there was nothing left of the German complex. But at two or three places at ground level, he spots concrete corners, black painted facades or the bare gray and cold bunker. After clearing the vegetation at various locations, he finds that the installations coincide exactly with his plan. For him, there is no doubt: the battery is still there, under his feet, submerged by vegetation or covered by the earth. From that moment on, he has only one idea in his mind: to own these fields, to dig up the battery, and to find his story.

First work, first questions

He buys most of the land from the peasants of the region, and undertakes in parallel to gather all the possible archives concerning the role played by this battery in the Second World War, from its construction until its abandonment. In September 2005, work begins. With earth-moving machines, he clears the ground, digs trenches, while following the indications of his map and some allied aerial photographs dating from May 1944. He discovers shelters for infantry, tunnels, and especially locations for parts artillery. And the work continues today. There are four tanks for guns of 155 mm (place known as Les Perruques) and 3 casemates for guns of 100 mm (place called Martinière).

On the archives side, he is assisted by American veterans of the 5th Ranger Battalion. These men stormed the battery on June 9, 1944 in the morning. They give him some curious information: during the attack, they shot down SS officers. What were the SS doing here? They also found a significant amount of money that was just starting to be evacuated when the Rangers attacked. An amount that is counted in millions of francs. Was it intended to pay the troops of the region? The fight for the capture of the battery lasted nearly five hours and the corpses of American paratroopers of the 506th regiment of the 101st Airborne were found by the Rangers. Why did the general public never hear about this before 2005? A veteran says, “Because no one has ever asked us.” In addition, all the eyes of historians and tourists are on the battery of the Pointe du Hoc, a few kilometers away and immortalized by the film The Longest Day.

After the battle, the American bulldozers covered the battery with earth, allowing the peasants to quickly find exploitable lands, gradually plunging the German fortified point into oblivion. Some enthusiasts and historians will be interested, but it has remained at a distance from the general public.

A story deliberately forgotten, according to Gary Sterne. One of the Rangers was indeed court martial after the fighting in Maisy. What happened to bring him to justice? Sterne is convinced: the battery hides many secrets. His interrogations have been published in the local and national press, and have even been broadcast on our radio stations. The answers were not long: for many historians of the period, including Jean Quellien, the drums did not play a major role in the development of the D-Day. It was not the subject of a particular attack on D-Day, contrary to the German point of support of Pointe du Hoc, and apparently did not oppose fierce resistance to the Allied forces in the days that followed. According to them, Sterne only seeks to advertise his work and his museum, by focusing on sensationalism.

What are Gary Sterne’s claims? The two coded support points Wn 83 and Wn 84 (Wn for Wiederstandnest, that is to say, “resistance nest” in German) would in fact form only one and the same battery. According to his interpretations of aerial photographs and maps in his possession, everything leads to believe it. Thus, there would not be for him two separate groups of gunners (respectively the 9th and 8th battalions of the 1716th Artillery Regiment of the 716. Infanterie-Division), but a whole regiment, transforming the two small points of support of Maisy in a central pivot of the defense of the region. Official documents are lacking on this subject and nothing can be clearly stated for the moment. But the proximity between the two batteries of the Martinière and Les Perruques (distant from each other by about 450 meters), as well as the minefield that effectively surrounds the two points of support suggest that they only formed one.

Still according to Sterne, the battery would have played a significant role during the landing. To prove this statement, he points out several elements. First of all, the site is almost intact. While all the reports of the RAF and the Allied Navy report having reduced the site to a pile of ashes in the night of June 5 to 6, 1944, there are no visible impacts of aerial and / or naval bombardments. on the bunkers. The only visible traces come from explosions of mortar shells fired on June 9, 1944 in the morning by American troops. Only a few isolated bombs (a dozen according to Sterne) would have been dropped on the site, without making irremediable damage (the remains of an American bomb found on the scene prove it).

Photos des commémorations du Débarquement et de la Bataille de Normandie Photos des cimetières militaires Visiter la Normandie et son espace historique Photos des batteries allemandes en Normandie Photos des zones de parachutages de l'Opération Neptune le 6 juin 1944 en Normandie Photos des plages de débarquement en Normandie Visiter la Normandie et son espace historique Les commémorations du Débarquement de Normandie La Normandie aujourd'hui : les zones historiques des parachutages La Normandie aujourd'hui : les plages historiques du Débarquement de Normandie

However, a radio communication station and a tunnel have been reached. But overall, the battery would have been able to open fire on June 6, 1944 at dawn.

Can guns on site have a problem with landing operations? Yes, according to Sterne. No, according to historians and some managers of websites dedicated to D-Day. For the owner of the site, the range of guns allowed to bombard the beaches of Utah Beach, about 4 kilometers away, and those of Omaha Beach (distance of nearly 15 kilometers), because reports (including the newspaper D-3 of June 6, 1944 drafted by the 29th US Infantry Division) report having undergone the fire of Maisy batteries on the morning of D-Day.

Its critics believe that this information is false: the range of 155 mm guns (French 155 SFH 414 F guns dating from the First World War) not exceeding 11.3 km, they could not therefore have been able to bomb Omaha. But this battery, almost intact on D-Day, with its guns pointed to Utah Beach, the wide and Omaha Beach, really remained silent? Did it not seek to engage the forces on Utah, the Pointe du Hoc, or the ships at sea? One thing is clear, when the Rangers assaulted the battery on June 9th, the 155 mm guns were gone. But since when? Everything was probably not written about this battery.

A forgotten attack

Facing these attacks, Sterne did not stop. In the summer of 2006, he brought veterans of the 5th Ranger Battalion to the scene of an intense battle that few people have heard of. Here is the testimony they give us.

The attack begins at the dawn of June 9, 1944. Three companies of the 5th Ranger Battalion under Major Sullivan are engaged in the action, supported by two half-tracks of the 2nd Ranger Battalion (armed with 75 mm guns) and by Company B of the 81st Chemical Weapons Battalion (equipped with 4.2 Mortar). The Rangers also have four 81mm mortars.

After the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion puts an end to its intensification of fires on the fulcrum, the Americans launch an assault on the 44-hectare site. According to the testimonies given by veterans, the fighting is extraordinarily intense, there are struggles in hand-to-hand combat, fratricidal fire… The network of trenches is so complicated that the Americans get lost several times, adding to the disorder of the battle and causing new fratricidal fire.

Five hours later, the battery is removed. But what do we know precisely about this fight? His story is yet to be written. And that’s the point of this drama, because more than 60 years after the fact, the work of historians is not yet finished.

What conclusions?

What is to be said of the debate about this battery? All his questions have their origin in a multitude of small details that have not been explained so far. Indeed, can one believe in the accuracy of the American and British official reports on the fulcrum? The British report that they put the battery out of harm’s way, first by an aerial bombardment of nearly 600 tons of bombs, then by a naval bombardment (HMS Hawkins war ship) at dawn on June 6th. But observing the battery closely, we do not find for the moment traces of complete destruction. In addition, the Americans report its activity after 8 am on D-Day. But they report it in a report, which could be just as imprecise as the British reports.

There is also the problem of the point of view. What was the importance of Maisy respectively for the Allies and for the Germans? A minor set, if one refers to the general classification of the Organization Todt, but which remains nevertheless non-negligible, in particular tactically, because it defends the entrance of the mouth of the Vire (which allows to reach directly to Isigny-sur-Mer). But was it the same for the Americans, who on June 9, 1944 sent the 5th Ranger Battalion (an elite unit compared to the conventional infantry) to seize the site, as they had sent the 2nd battalion capture the Pointe du Hoc, as the 29th Infantry Division progressed south and reached Isigny-sur-Mer)?

History, even the so-called “contemporary”, is never totally written or mastered. We must also count with the testimonies of the veterans, fact proper to the history closest to us, and which sometimes enter into competition with the writings. From now on, and this is my opening on another debate, one should be interested in the way in which history is written. We must not naively believe everything that can be said to us, nor anything that is dogmatically asserted. The study of a military historical event, and especially a battle, must thus be done as much as possible in parallel with the study of the geographical location concerned. Observations can invalidate certain writings, and lead to this asking questions to which the mere study of texts does not provide all the answers.

Maisy is certainly still hiding a lot of information that may not be important in the overall understanding of the Normandy landings. But the quest for details (in history, as in other disciplines, the devil lies in the details) allows not to transform past events into events wrongly interpreted. And it is also (or especially) that, the duty of memory: to reveal all the true details of History.

Marc Laurenceau – Reproduction subject to authorization of the author – Contact