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D-Day: French archaeologists launch research ahead of 78th anniversary

The dig at a manor house four kilometres from the infamous Utah Beach is expected to reveal more details about the behaviour of US soldiers there

A sign in the sand at the entrance to Utah Beach, one of the sites of the D-Day landings, with US and French flags flying at a memorial in the background

The manor is located 4km behind Utah beach, one of the sites of the D-Day landings Pic: Gerard Koudenburg / Shutterstock

French archaeologists have started research at a site in Normandy associated with the historic D-Day landings, just ahead of the 78th anniversary of the landmark event on June 6, 1944.

The dig is taking place at the Brécourt manor in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. The team is searching for evidence to further understand the events and actions of the day.

On June 6, 1944, around 20 paratroopers destroyed a battery of four guns used by about 60 German Wehrmacht soldiers at the manor. Four US soldiers were killed in the attack.

Read more: British soldiers killed in D-Day landings finally get fitting memorial

Brécourt manor is located four kilometres behind the ‘landing’ beach (which is itself called La Madeleine but more commonly referred to as ‘Utah Beach’).

The incident is recorded in an expedition report by its leader, Richard D. Winters. Cadets from American military academies are often taught about the mission, which has been seen as a good example of small-unit strategy and tactics in overcoming a larger enemy force

The farmland surrounding the manor, which has been used as pasture by cattle for the almost-80 years since the assault, is still covered in pieces of metal and military artefacts that researchers hope will provide clues as to more details of the day.

The operation is being managed by Alexis Gorgues, lecturer in archaeology at Bordeaux-Montaigne University, along with a team of eight people. 

The project is set to last three years.

Mr Gorgues told Le Monde: “The aim is to establish facts. This research allows us to bring together the nature of the fighting and the memory associated with it, and to shed new light on a part of World War Two.

“[The operation] will also allow us to shed light on the behaviour of the soldiers in battle.”

Stéphane Lamache, who is head of regional cultural affairs authority la direction régionale des affaires culturelles de Normandie, said he also had high hopes for the project.

He said: “The excavations will make it possible to confirm or deny certain things [we think we know].”

Family ties

The mayor of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Charles de Vallavieille, was born in 1955, but his family has owned the manor house for generations. 

The mayor’s grandfather Charles and his father Michel were present on June 6, 1944. Michel was wounded by six gunshots, and was hospitalised until February 1945. He had physical problems all his life as a result of the injury.

Mr Vallavaille said that he is following the excavations with interest. He added that when some US soldiers returned to visit the site – including Donald Malarkey and Mr Winters – “they were afraid of the French reception” and did not know if they would be welcome. The fighting had left many ruins.

However, the mayor said that there had been no ‘hard feelings’

In fact, Michel de Vallavaille (the father) became mayor of Saint-Marie-du-Mont from 1949 until his death in 1991, and greatly contributed to the town’s memorialising of the events of the attack and of the D-Day landings. This included the opening of a museum on Utah Beach in 1962.

Charles Vallavaille (the son and current mayor), told le Monde: “[I remember] that when a veteran came to visit, he forbade anyone from interrupting him [as a mark of respect].”

Movie manor

The manor has also featured in TV shows and books about the circumstances surrounding the Normandy landings, including the 1990 bestseller by historian Stephen Ambrose, called Band of Brothers.

The book was later adapted into a TV mini-series of the same name by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, which was a global success. The ‘manor’ features in episode 2 (although the actual scenes were filmed in set replicas of the house itself, in the UK, due to financial constraints).

Mayor Mr Vallavaille also remembers the day that Tom Hanks came to the manor for a viewing, and said he still regrets not having taken a photo of the visit.

78th anniversary

It comes as the 78th anniversary of the landings takes place today (June 6, 2022), with memorial events being held to mark the occasion. 

Around 20 US veterans are on a visit to the region, having arrived on Thursday, June 2. They have been taking part in ceremonies in Caen, Bayeux, Arromanches, and Ver-sur-Mer. Several communes in the area have already held anniversary events, with more to take place this week.

Read more: Black US D-Day veteran awarded France's highest honour aged 100 

The main official ceremony to mark the date will take place this year in Bernières-sur-Mer, in Calvados. 

Heads of state, or their representatives, of the nations that participated in the war were invited to attend. French Army Minister Sébastien Lecornu will also be present.

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Last chance to honour D-Day veterans

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