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.
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.