The visit

1st floor: civilians and liberation

Located on the first floor of the Falaise Memorial, the Civilians and Liberation area recalls the bombings preceding the liberation. Mostly perpetuated by the ally forces, the terrible bombings caused many victims among the civilian population.

When the liberation came, the enthusiasm of the Norman population was spoiled by days of shelling. The encounter between civilians and soldiers is illustrated in all of its complexity along this area of the memorial.

Many Norman towns were destroyed at more than 70% and reconstruction took a lot of time and determination. The last part of this area is entirely devoted to this challenging topic.

Exodus in 1944

The Falaise Memorial commemorates the “45 million civilians killed and 30 million civilians displaced” during the Second World War (1937-1945) and also bears witness to the fact that, for the first time in history...

The Falaise Memorial commemorates the “45 million civilians killed and 30 million civilians displaced” during the Second World War (1937-1945) and also bears witness to the fact that, for the first time in history, there were more civilian victims than there were military victims.
This exodus was one of the largest mass movements in 20th century Europe.
In 1940, millions of French people – retreating soldiers and civilians trying to escape the atrocities and repressions of war – took to the road, often on foot, with very few belongings.
There was total chaos, on the roads of course, but also on board packed trains, with fights breaking out. To meet the demands of this wave of passengers, cattle trains were requisitioned.
Although most people headed first for Paris, many civilians then travelled on to the southwest of France.
Not all returned home at the end of the war. Large towns in the “Free Zone” were full of refugees (referred to as “fugitives” by Pétain in 1941).
At this time, Lyon and Marseille saw their populations increase considerably.


The bombing of Normandy towns

On the first floor of the museum, visitors begin with a gallery on the dreadful bombardments experienced by the people of Normandy.

Allied forces landed on the coasts of Normandy at dawn on 6 June 1944. France was about to regain her freedom after four long years of occupation. This unforgettable date will remain engraved in the minds of many as a symbol of joy and great promise.

Yet this day, so bright for some, will remain, for others, synonymous with heartbreak. As “the longest day” drew to a close, bombs had already destroyed many Norman towns. Several thousand victims perished in the ruins. The following night, the next day and for days afterwards many other towns suffered the same fate.

The Normandy bombings of 1944 – which took place both before and after the Normandy Landings – were among the most violent of the Second World War. 

The Norman people took refuge under the ground, in shelters, basements and former quarries, to protect themselves from the bombs. These weeks of living in such difficult conditions were extremely gruelling and left many painful memories. 

On top of the considerable material damage caused by these strikes, between 50,000 and 70,000 victims perished, with 12,000 in Normandy alone.

The suffering of the Norman people, particularly during the bombardments, was used as a tool for propaganda.
The Vichy government and collaborationist parties exploited their suffering to turn people against the Allies. 


Civilians and soldiers in the Battle of Normandy

As you continue your visit on the first floor of the museum, you will come across poignant images that reflect the complexity of relations between civilians and Allied forces.

During the 87 days of the campaign, over 2 million Allied soldiers, more than 438,000 vehicles and over 3 million tonnes of equipment and provisions arrived in Normandy.

In total, in the liberated zones, there were about four soldiers for every inhabitant… Such a concentration of people does not go without some tension.

Despite the bombardments, which destroyed more than 75% of many Norman towns and caused a huge number of civilian deaths, the people of Normandy expressed their gratitude to the Allied troops who had come to liberate them. 

After the joy of liberation came a lack of trust and understanding.

The presence of armies on campaign disrupts the lives of civilians who try to avoid the fighting. During the first few days after the landings, Allies are welcomed carefully: civilians fear the return of Germans and think about the risks run by Allied sympathisers.

Allied forces, for their part, are also on their guard and seem to lack trust in the civilian population. They fear meeting deserters or enemy spies.

The Civilians in wartime Memorial in Falaise portrays the surprising and unprecedented nature of this civilian-soldier cohabitation.


The rebuilding

The final chapter in this exhibition space covers the long and difficult phase of “Reconstruction”.

France came out of the conflict a deeply damaged country. With 80,000 apartment blocks and 180,000 buildings destroyed, Calvados alone suffered a tenth of all the damage.

At the end of June when northern Cotentin was liberated, and then right through July, refugees who had taken shelter in the countryside, found their way home. Then in August the rapid advance of armies sped up the flow of people, which continued until the spring of 1945.
We should note that this irrepressible urge to return home could not be controlled by troops or French authorities.

Thanks to national and international solidarity, life resumed among the ruins. Temporary housing was overpopulated and unsanitary. Until 1950, when new apartment blocks and houses were finally built, the whole country suffered a severe housing crisis. 

As well as international support to help rebuild the country, the Allies handed over 765,000 German prisoners of war to French authorities. This workforce was dispatched throughout the country to work in what were often inhumane conditions.

This exhibition on reconstruction sheds a new light on the long journey France had to undergo to “get back on her feet”.


Share this page