Normandy Secrets Forgotten Nazi Arms Caches a Bonanza for Historians

For decades, a vast network of Nazi arms caches and supply depots in the forest of Normandy lay forgotten. Now, research shows the extent to which the Wehrmacht sought to defend itself against the impending Allied invasion.

By Frank Thadeusz

German troops in Normandy: The area is home to vast Nazi weapons caches that have only now been studied.
Ullstein Bild

German troops in Normandy: The area is home to vast Nazi weapons caches that have only now been studied.

There are several attractions to recommend in the Normandy spa town of Bagnoles de l'Orne, including its Belle Époque Quarter and its widely renowned hot springs. But the village is also located next to a beautiful natural preserve, a forested region that looks straight out of a fairy tale.

Most visitors to the forest, however, are unaware of the leftovers from a dark chapter of history that litter the bucolic woodland. There are no plaques and no signs hinting at the intricate system of secret munitions and fuel depots that were established in the forest by the Wehrmacht, Germany's World War II army. Starting in 1943, the Nazis dug hundreds of bunkers into the floor of the Forêt des Andaines to hide vast quantities of munitions, fuel and provisions.

The German military believed the depots would be crucial in the approaching defensive battle against the Allies. And they ensured that they were well hidden. The British and Americans knew that the Germans were storing weapons in the region. But the munitions dumps were so well hidden that Alliance airstrikes were largely ineffective. In an article in the most recent issue of the International Journal of Historical Archeology, David Passmore, a physical geography professor at the University of Toronto, notes: "Postwar survival of features has been remarkably good in this forested setting. ... This likely constitutes one of the best-preserved and most extensive examples of a non-hardened World War II archeological landscape yet documented in Western Europe."

Passmore and his team have now conducted the first in-depth study of the region. People have long been aware that the Nazis once stored munitions in the forest near Bagnoles-de-l'Orne. But the extent of the facility, as well as its sophisticated organizational system, was largely unknown.

Diary Entries and Sketches

One reason has to do with the secrecy with which the facilities -- stretched out across several square kilometers of forest -- were planned. Indeed, no maps of the munitions depots have ever been discovered. In order to reconstruct the network of caches, Passmore and his team were forced to rely on diary entries from the quartermaster of the Wehrmacht's 7th Army, which operated in Normandy. Sketches, produced by those Allied bomber pilots who were shot down in the region and who managed to escape with the help of the Résistance, were also helpful. Together, they provide a picture of an extremely well-equipped military complex that even included a prisoner-of-war camp.

Map: Germany's Wehrmacht established an intricate network of supply depots in the forests of Normandy.

Map: Germany's Wehrmacht established an intricate network of supply depots in the forests of Normandy.

The individual camps belonging to the complex were given names like Berta, Martha, Viktor, Margot and Michel, but there were also myriad smaller foxholes for snipers throughout the region. Ultimately, though, it wasn't enough. On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed in Normandy, taking Hitler by surprise. Within three months, they had chased the Germans out of France.

After the war, it was primarily the defensive fortifications made of concrete, such as those built by the Wehrmacht along the Atlantic coast, that caught the eye of historians. The weapons depots in the woods of Normandy, by contrast, were largely ignored -- a fact which Passmore finds to be "very surprising." He believes that the secret stashes were more than just munitions depots and surmises that the region ultimately became the 7th Army's logistics headquarters in Normandy.

Undamaged Bomb Craters

"We believe that during the war, the danger presented by these operational depots of the Germans was underestimated," Passmore says. In addition to the large depot complex near Bagnoles-de-l'Orne, Passmore and his team found several more Wehrmacht caches in Normandy, though smaller in size.

Even 70 years after the end of the war, the region still lends itself perfectly well to archeological study, with bunkers still readily visible. Craters, too, have remained virtually untouched in the ensuing decades -- many of which were created during an American bombing offensive in the region on June 13, 1944. Their somewhat random pattern has led researchers to conclude that the Allies weren't sure exactly where the most valuable targets in the forest were located.

Indeed, the Wehrmacht's largest munitions depot in the Forêt des Andaines survived the bombardment completely untouched. That, Passmore believes, enabled Hitler's military to launch a counterattack in Normandy, known as Operation Lüttich, on Aug. 7-13, 1944 -- well supported with materiel from the arms caches near Bagnoles-de-l'Orne.

In the end, the supply depots did, though, provide some benefit to the region's population. Once the Germans had been beaten back, they plundered the immense caches of provisions, filled with up to 4,200 tons of food. The German occupiers had been forced to leave it all behind as they fled.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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drbhelthi 07/15/2015
1. money stashes
I assume that the NAZI officers secreted the money from stashes, and hid it elsewhere - or sent it to Switzerland - .
kuehnd 07/16/2015
2. story
great story, bad ending!
bwking 07/16/2015
3. Random Bomb Patterns
US air forces may or may not have known where the Normandy supply caches were located; but it's characteristic that many bombs fell all over the landscape. In post-war Strategic Bombing Survey, reconstructions determined that on some missions only one of every 1,000 bombs landed near the intended target.
Inglenda2 07/17/2015
4. Nazi Arms?
No one would wish to deny the atrocities which were committed under Nazi rule, but it is historically and factually wrong to regard the German army which fought in WW2 as a Nazi organisation. Firstly, members of the Wehrmacht were forbidden to hold a position within a political party. Secondly, most of those who were forced to take part in armed conflicts, were ( as in most other countries), conscripted. They had no other choice! A look at the last free elections, before Hitler took power, shows that less than one third of the electorate voted for him. Of these, few were party members, but rather people who had believed his promise to bring a just and lasting peace to Europe. Were we to apply the same methods of publicity, which has been used against a whole generation of Germans, to other nations, few would have a great deal to be proud of.
epiros 07/17/2015
German soldiers but Nazi arms. Why this coyness?
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