Rebuilding After World War II: The Experience of Saint-Lo, France

By David Langbart.

Scholars are increasingly writing about the physical destruction visited upon friendly European countries during World War II’s campaign to free Western Europe from Nazi domination.  Recent books such as Keith Lowe’s SAVAGE CONTINENT, Antony Beevor’s D-DAY, Max Hastings’s ARMAGEDDON, and Rick Atkinson’s THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT (all quite excellent and worth a read) pointedly remark on the total ruin caused by modern war.

One city in France that experienced almost total destruction was Saint-Lo.  That city was a major transportation hub leading toward the Allied beachheads established on D-Day.  As such, it was a major target for U.S. bombing missions aimed at isolating German forces near the coast from reinforcements.  American bombers hit the city with a major bombing raid on June 6 and then every day for a week.  By the middle of July, however, the city remained in German hands.  An attack by U.S. forces finally captured Saint-Lo on July 18.

Rick Atkinson describes the impact the fighting had on the city (p. 129): “Hardly a trace of sidewalk or street pavement remained in St.-Lo.”  He quotes one observer as writing: “You couldn’t identify anything anymore . . . .  The persistence of durable objects had been solidly defeated.”  Atkinson also quotes one U.S. soldier as follows: “We sure liberated the hell out of this place.”

The results of the destruction and efforts at reconstruction as it played out over the eight years from 1944 to 1952 as seen by American eyes is described in the following despatch sent to the Department of State by the U.S. consulate in Cherbourg.

Source: Despatch No. 52 from Consulate Cherbourg to the Department of State, May 12, 1952, file 851.02/5-1252, 1950-54 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.

The report mentions a Major Howie, an American killed during the fighting, as a symbol of the American liberators.  Major Thomas Howie, the new commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 116th Infantry, part of the 29th Infantry Division, was killed on July 17, 1944, during a German counterattack trying to hold off American forces.  After capture of the city, Maj. Gen. Charles Gerhardt, Jr., commander of the 29th Infantry Division, ordered Howie’s body brought to the city where it was symbolically laid on a pile of rubble that had been the Saint Croix Cathedral.

Image of: Major Howie's body was symbolically laid on the rubble of St. Croix Cathedral.
Major Howie’s body was symbolically laid on the rubble of St. Croix Cathedral.

Source:  111-SC-191896, Signal Corps Photographs of American Military Activity, 1754 – 1954 (NAID 530707), RG 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives.

Today, Saint-Lo is a rebuilt, economically thriving city that is the center of life for the surrounding area.

2 thoughts on “Rebuilding After World War II: The Experience of Saint-Lo, France

  1. A moving picture. My wife has a Great Uncle, Lowry Phillips, who was killed in the fighting for St. Lo. Thanks to documents at the National Archives, I managed to pin down the hill that his unit was involved in trying to hold (or gain) when he was killed. As you know, a huge number of Americans were killed fighting for St. Lo- there are long lists of the dead in the records.

    The document is extremely interesting. One gains a sense of a cultural disconnect between the French people, who, according to the Americans were “illogically emphasizing the importance of rebuilding public buildings.” Liked the old cliche reference to French “intransigence.”

    Nevertheless- one gains a great sense of the times in this document. I’ve occasionally thought about making a trip to St. Lo, and I do get the impression that it is still a prosperous, conservative city. Guidebooks generally do not have a lot to say about St. Lo, and I can understand why.

    As to Pvt. Phillips, his body was shipped home at the request of his parents, and buried in his home of Tilghman Island, MD. A long way from St. Lo.

    Thanks for this opportunity to ruminate on a Friday afternoon, Bud.

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