The Buzz

Why Did America Bomb France in World War II?

By any standard, the ancient city of Rouen, in Upper Normandy, is a historical treasure. Within its magnificent High Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral (which was portrayed in a famous series of paintings by the Impressionist Claude Monet as well as by his contemporary Camille Pissarro) is a tomb containing the heart of Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199) who had been King of England and the Duke of Normandy. A few streets away is Vieux-Marché, the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake on May 30, 1432.

Unfortunately, like many French cities that felt the weight of Allied bombs during the course of the war, Rouen was particularly hard hit. The city on the Seine, which existed even before the Romans reached Gaul, was and is a tangle of narrow, winding streets lined with quaint, half-timbered, medieval homes and shops.

Many books and articles about World War II tend to focus solely on the battles, the movement of troops, and the territories won and lost. Several recent books have given us a picture of what life was like for the German people in the wake of defeat. But not many dwell on the impact of the war on the French people who, after all, bore the brunt of two invasions—the German invasion in 1940 and the 1944 invasions in Normandy and the Riviera by the liberating Allied armies. And even fewer works concentrate on the suffering caused by American and British aerial bombing.

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The Bombing of France

The British had began bombing France shortly after its capitulation and occupation by the Germans in June 1940. As French Army units pulled out of Rouen and retreated westward, they dynamited the bridges over the Seine; the German 5th Panzer Division moved in and claimed the city on June 9.

On June 11, a large fire of unknown origin broke out in the old city between the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Seine River. The Germans did not allow firemen access to the fire, and the city burned for 48 hours, destroying some 900 buildings dating from the 14th century.

Following its fall, Rouen, then a city of about 120,000, was quickly turned into a German logistics and administration center where the occupiers located numerous commands. For example, Feldkommandatur 517, the administrative headquarters for the region, was established there along with a variety of supply depots, a pay and administration center, and offices for transportation coordinators. In the western suburb of Canteleu were the headquarters of LXXXI Army Corps. Two antiaircraft battalions were supposed to protect Rouen from aerial attack.

To cross the Seine, at least two temporary bridges were built by the Germans to replace the ones the retreating French had destroyed. With its extensive harbor facilities 35 miles inland from the estuary of the Seine at Le Havre, Rouen was one of France’s most important shipping ports. In fact, Germany planned to use it as one of its springboards for launching Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain. A number of maritime repair facilities in Rouen were used to maintain Kriegsmarine vessels, and the navy’s Channel Coast Command had its headquarters there.

Furthermore, the southern suburb of Sotteville-lès-Rouen was a major regional railroad hub that enabled the occupiers to shuttle troops from Germany into France. Major telephone-telegraph lines also ran through Sotteville, making the Rouen-Sotteville area a vital communications center.

After the United States entered the war, it was decided in early 1942 to establish American air bases in Britain so that the U.S. Army Air Forces could join the British in bombing the Continent. It took months before that could happen—bases had to built, bombers and bombs had to be brought from the States, and personnel had to be trained.

Most of the targets, of course, were supposed to be strictly military: German supply bases, submarine pens, shipyards, bunker complexes, V-1 launching sites, railroads, bridges, and highways the Germans used to shuttle troops to various locations. Manufacturing plants producing goods for the occupiers in France were also targeted. But planned targets do not always translate into bull’s-eyes, and bombs do not discriminate between friend and foe.

The Americans also wanted to devote their efforts to daylight bombing—something the Royal Air Force had already tried and abandoned due to unacceptable losses in aircraft and personnel. The Americans were confident that they could succeed at daylight raids, thanks to the Norden bombsight and the more heavily armed B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators.