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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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