From Dol de Bretagne we continued on up the Cotentin peninsula towards Barfleur but as we neared the town of St Mere Eglise I thought to take a look see. I’d set off on a walk to St Mere Eglise from Carentan during my Second Europe Tour two years ago but ran out of time. Time to put that right.
St Mere Eglise is a small town on the Cotentin peninsula just 8 miles north west of Carentan. It was one of the first towns in Normandy to be liberated by the allies following the D Day invasion of 6 June 1944, with a mix of paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st US Airborne Divisions taking the town from the German occupiers. It is a fairly unremarkable little town except that it was of some considerable strategic interest during the battle for Normandy and figured prominently in the film “The Longest Day” which I had seen in the early 1960’s.
One of the more unusual features in the town is the life size dummy paratrooper hanging from a parachute and rigging on the church steeple of St Mere Eglise. This uniformed mannequin was placed there by the town as a tribute to the paratroopers who were involved in capturing and holding the town and, in particular, the efforts of trooper John Steele (505 Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne) who, after exiting the aircraft, landed on the 12th century church and became snagged up on church spire by his parachute. Shot through the foot, Steele hung there for two hours pretending to be dead before the Germans noticed him and took him into (temporary) captivity. This event was recreated in the 1962 movie ‘The Longest Day’ with Red Buttons playing the part of John Steele.
The efforts of the 82nd and the 101st (and other airborne troops involved in the D Day landings) have also been recognised in two stained glass windows that have since been fitted in the church. One of these was designed by a local artist, Paul Renaud, who was 14 years old when the paratroopers landed and 16 years old when he drew a sketch for the window which was subsequently put together by Gabriel Loire. It depicts the Virgin Mary and child, above a burning St Mere Eglise, surrounded by paratroopers and planes. An inscription below the figures reads “This stained glass was completed with the participation of Paul Renaud and Sainte Mere for the memory of those who with their courage and sacrifice liberated Sainte Mere Eglise and France”.
A second window depicts St Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers. This too was put together by Gabriel Loire.