André Bidet, still dapper and spry at 95, loves Americans. With poignant memories of living through the German occupation of France during World War II, he is one of a fast-fading generation of French men and women who think of the American soldiers who landed on Omaha and Utah beaches on June 6, 1944, as the most wondrous of “liberators.”
That alone makes his story a worthy and necessary counterpoint to the vivid tales of heroic military actions by American and Allied forces, as told by President Barack Obama, and other heads of state, at the recent celebration of the 65th anniversary of D-Day.
During the occupation, millions of French people lived in a kind of netherworld between collaboration and resistance — yearning for the day when the Germans would be driven out, yet forced to lend direct or indirect support to the Nazi war effort if they hoped to live any sort of a halfway comfortable or normal life. Living in this situation, Mr. Bidet found a quiet but most effective way of rebelling against Nazis: He supplied dynamite to the Resistance.
At the outset of the war, Mr. Bidet, a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, was pressed into service designing bomb bays for the French air corps. This was supposed to be a temporary assignment for the 31-year-old engineer. At any day, he expected to be re-assigned to his regiment in the French army as a tank commander. But then the Germany army and Panzer corps delivered a sudden and unexpected knockout punch — crushing the French army and its tanks in the opening battle between the two armies.
Suddenly, Mr. Bidet was orphaned. He found himself, as he puts it, “a tank commander with no tanks” — and, worse still, an army officer with no army after the swift and cataclysmic collapse of the whole army and government.
With a wife and one child (and six more to come — three during and three after the war), Mr. Bidet moved to Brittany’s Loire valley, where he found work as director of public works in a small town that owned a quarry. He wished for nothing more than “a place where there were no Germans,” thinking he would make a separate peace for himself and his growing family. This turned out to be delusion.
In the spring of 1942, Hitler entrusted Albert Speer, his minister of munitions, with task of building the Atlantic Wall — a 3,000-mile long string of bunkers, canons and other fortifications stretching from Norway to Spain — and all along the French coast. The wall was to serve as a shield against any attempt at a seaborne invasion along the Atlantic coast — making it impossible for Allied force to seize a major port, or to secure a beachhead between ports for any longer than it would take for the German army to rush several Panzer divisions to the spot and crush the invasion in its infancy. Speer called on the Todt construction company — famed for building the German autobahn in record time — to tackle this immense engineering exercise.
To build the wall, Todt required millions of tons of stone and cement, and needed skilled local engineers to supervise the work of blasting out rock and filling a never-ending stream of trains going back and forth from the interior to the coast. At the same time, with the help of Gestapo in instilling fear, they had to entrust some of their French helpers — people like Mr. Bidet, compelled to take part in the enterprise as a seasoned executive and engineer — with supplies of explosives. This, too, proved to be a mistake.
Even as work on the Atlantic Wall reached peak intensity, Mr. Bidet became sure that the tide had turned against the Germans. Secretly, with the news he picked up on a home-made radio, he kept a map tracking the advances that the Russian army was making against the Germans inside Russia. With his own eyes, he saw how the German army had been forced to take younger soldiers out of France and replace them with aging and infirm troops — a sure sign of increased vulnerability to an Allied invasion.
Mr. Bidet gambled with his own life. Despite close surveillance and questioning by the Gestapo, he managed to secrete more than 50 kilos of dynamite and divert it to friends in the Resistance. This, in turn, was used to blow up bridges and trains and — at the critical moment — delay the rush of German reinforcements to the invasion area.
The Allies did not attempt a head-on assault of any port along the French coast. Instead, they defeated the Atlantic Wall through the brilliant stratagem of building an artificial, floating harbor — code-named Mulberry — for the purpose of unloading hundreds and thousands of jeeps, trucks, pieces of artillery and other equipment. To create a breakwater along a wild and unprotected stretch of beach, the Allies sunk old ships and huge concrete caissons; within the breakwater, they installed pontoon piers as landing ramps. This is how Albert Speer described the magnificent feat of Allied engineering (also more than two years in the making) that trumped his wall:
To construct these defenses, we had, in barely two years of hurried work, used 13,302,000 cubic meters of concrete, together with 1,200,000 tons of steel obtained from the armaments industry. A fortnight after the first (Normandy) landings, this costly effort was brought to nothing, thanks to an idea of simple genius. As we now know, the invasion forces brought their own harbors with them, and built, near Arromanches and Omaha, on an unprotected coast, the necessary landing ramps.
Omaha Beach was well defended. The loss of 1,465 American soldiers storming the beach testifies to that fact. Nevertheless, thanks the floating harbor established at Arromanches, to the east of Omaha Beach, the Allied forces were able to sustain their beachhead and go on the attack. No one was more ecstatic about that than Mr. Bidet. Within France, news of the landing “spread like wildfire,” he says. Speaking as an engineer, he calls the Mulberry floating harbor — “sensational, extraordinaire, phenomenal.”
After the war, Mr. Bidet applied his engineering talents to the reconstruction of many of the French villages and towns that were destroyed by Allied bombing during the war. He became one of the leading executives in Richier, a French engineering company that made building cranes, cement mixers and other equipment used in the massive reconstruction effort made possible by the U.S.-funded Marshall Plan.
Just a little more than four years shy of his 100th birthday, Mr. Bidet remains physically and mentally fit. He darts about the harbor city of St. Malo (about a hundred miles south and west of Omaha beach) in his own car and he ambles happily up and down hillside parks and monuments without a cane or other assistance. I met the ebullient Frenchman on a two-week tour of contested cities and towns close to the D-Day beaches in which I sought out interviews with as many people as possible who had personal recollections of this historic event.
Along with a son and daughter-in-law, he gave me a tour of the impressive German battlements at St. Malo — admitting, ruefully, that he may have helped to quarry some of the stone used in their construction.
Late in the summer of 1944, with the German forces in France either under siege or fleeing, 300 German soldiers were holed up in heavily fortified Cézambre island in the middle of St. Malo harbor. It is a mark of how stout the Atlantic Wall was at its strongest points that these soldiers withstood a fierce Allied bombardment for three weeks. After running out of food and water, they finally surrendered. They were totally deaf, but otherwise unhurt.
A widower now for four years after 65 years of marriage, Mr. Bidet is very much the paterfamilias — living in St. Malo in the midst of adoring children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He enjoys life to the full and feels proud of his own contribution to the success of the Allied invasion.