La Varde 1944 – Opa’s Last Stand

Why does the death of my grandfather, a man I never met and my father hardly knew, fascinate me?

War is no light matter, we are all touched by it. I have been touched by it. My family a casualty of it.
War is a part of my history.

To bring war out of the history books, out of the television, the newspapers, out of one’s imagination, out of my imagination, I felt a need to retrace the final days of my grandfather’s life.

When my older brother mentioned he was going to France to find Opa’s grave, I had to go along. I wanted to make my history, my reality. I wanted to see and feel the place where the battles of Normandy freed a continent on the souls of so many men. I wanted to own the small fraction of that piece of history that was my heritage.

Opa in WWI.
Opa the soldier in WWI.

 

I don’t know much about my grandfather. He was born in Meerane Saxony Germany in 1897, a town near the Ore mountains. My father shared with me that my grandfather’s family came from many woodworkers. Some say this region is where many Western Christmas traditions came from: the Nutcracker, Christmas pyramids, and arches, and the famous smokers. He had served as a young man in WWI and received an iron cross for bravery. He was a musician and violin maker. He moved to the Netherlands during the Great Depression where he met my grandmother and settled in Den Hague. It was in Den Hague that he opened a violin shop. And it was here in February of 1943, when my father was only eight, that he was drafted at the age of 45 into Hitler’s war.

Opa the violin maker.
Opa the violin maker in Den Hague.

I wrote in a previous post, that my grandfather was in an anti-tank division stationed in the Netherlands until June 1944, when his company 657 panzerjager were sent to Normandy and deployed in St. Lo area.

In that previous post, I also stated we thought there was conflicting information about the location of my Opa’s death. A document my brother received from the German government said he died in La Varde, which my brother translated as Fort La Varde near St. Malo in Brittany.  A letter received by my step-great grandfather, in 1948, from a comrade who was with Opa at the time he died stated Opa died in a foxhole near St. Lo.

Well the mystery still remains, but I think my brother has found the best answer and that is in a small hamlet called La Varde on the Cotentin peninsula near St. Lo. This was the location of a battle located in the marsh surrounding the Taute river. Americans, under General Macon, were making their way towards St. Lo and discovered a small German stronghold on the hamlet of La Varde. American troops sludged through knee deep mud, threw grenades and fired rifles towards the ill prepared Germans in the late summer afternoon of July 17th, 1944.

La Varde, France
La Varde, France
Opa’s last stand, La Varde. La Varde is a small black box right of center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My grandfather was killed instantly when a piece of flying shrapnel from a grenade sliced it’s way across his neck and through his jugular vein. He was in France for less than a month. It was probably his first experience in combat.

His body would lay in the muck of that marsh for a few days, until the fighting stopped and the dead could be collected and brought to a proper burial place. Opa’s last stand.

Or was it…

As I walked along the beach near Fort La Varde, the morning we were to visit his grave, I said a little prayer for my Opa. I wanted him to know my brother and I wanted to pay our respects, to say thank you for his sacrifice and to let him know that his legacy continues. I think he was tickled we were there and  we were thinking of him, a person we never knew. Opa, it will take more than war to break the bonds of our family! Thank you Opa!

Last family picture.
Last family picture, my father is the seated little boy.

 

Saint Lo Seventy Years later

Disclaimer: I have been using the wordpress app on my iPhone for the blogs while on my trip. It is a pathetic application with no way to save a draft so I can work on it on my kindle after posting pictures. WordPress needs to understand that writers like all artists need a sketchbook and publishing straight away is not the best option!

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Saint Lo was mostly destroyed by allied bombing in June of 1944. It was a German stronghold due to its location. We went there hoping to find a museum with more information about the war but were intrigued that the town has chosen not to have a museum with any of this history.

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The original Saint Lo sits atop a hill and it is this area that received most of the bombing. There is a huge placard, if you will, announcing what happened in June 1944. Perhaps the city itself tells the history best?

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The rebuilt Norte dame cathedral is the only relic of the bombing. Can you tell which parts survived the bombing and which are new construction?

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The newer buildings lack the beauty of the previous buildings. The aura of the town on the cold windy and rainy day we were there wasn’t the most vibrant. Although on our way back to the car we spotted a true testament of how time heals.

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A carnival filled with laughing kids.

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The importance of remembering history is not lost on our current leaders. A sign outside a newsstand announces that Obama will visit Normandy this year.

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A grave matter?

Wednesday was the chosen day.

We packed our father’s ashes to drive them to their final resting place. The grave of his father. A reunion 70 years in the making.

From the shores of the English Channel near Fort La Varde, the last location my grandfather was stationed, we drove inland 130 kilometers towards the town of Marigny.

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A drive through the French country side in winter. The green hills, the leafless trees exposing mistletoe, the submerged agriculture fields, the blowing wind and the squalls of sideways rain and sleet. Bucolic? Not so much.

After hours of driving, at the mercy of Seri the GPS, short for “are you serious?” we finally arrived at our destination.

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The Marigny Cemetery for German Soldiers is nestled between farmland. Without the signs announcing the Cemetery one would think it was another field. The flags of Germany, France, and the EU are only visible once you arrive.

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Many of the soldiers here were originally buried in other smaller grave sites around Normandy. Their final burial place more deserving for these poor souls. Boys, men and the elderly forced to fight in a war whose end would not benefit them.

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Thousands of soldiers memorialized by small plaques, some with two names. Trios of crosses made of basalt dot the cemetery. Understated symbols of peace.

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Block 4, row 19, grave 737
It was easy to find.
Private Fritz Reuter August 4, 1897 – July 17, 1944.

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A final resting place for my forefathers. A place for descendants to visit. Proving the resilience of a family and the human spirit.

Preparing for a pilgrimage

Maps – check
Rain gear – check
Thermals – check
Cameras – check
Passport – check

I have been on countless trips, yet I still find packing a challenge. I check the weather. It will be cold and rainy, just like Seattle. I visualize the terrain, hills, beach, mud and sand. What shoes do I bring? I anticipate events, visiting cemeteries, museums, maybe a nice dinner out. What shall I wear?  Can I just wear jeans, a Seahawks knit cap, fleece and hiking boots?

Allied Invasion June 6, 1944

The focus of the trip will be part treasure hunt, belated funeral, and self discovery. The treasure is my grandfather’s grave. The letter from the German government states that his Grablage or grave location is Cemetery of Marigny in Manche within the province of Normandy, France. One of many World War II cemeteries in Normandy.  Block 4, Row 19, Grave 737 – are the coordinates we were given.

The document states he died on July 17th, 1944 at Fort La Varde near the town of St. Malo along the Brittany coast. This contrasts with information in a letter sent by a fellow soldier to my step-great grandfather in 1948. He states my grandfather was killed in Saint Lo, 137 km away.

After the D-Day invasions of June 6th, 1944, Allied forces throughout Normandy and neighboring Brittany, were charged to clean out the rest of the German strongholds such as the coastal outpost at St. Malo and their land-based outpost at St. Lo. The battles that happened in Brittany including St. Malo were to liberate port cities that were held by the German Army. The Allied forces were also concerned the Germans would demolish railroad bridges.

On July 17th, the day my grandfather died, Allied bombs ripped through the area around St. Malo, and Fort La Varde. This would corroborate the information the government sent.  On that same day in a flattened Saint Lo, having been bombarded by Allied air strikes in early July, the letter states my grandfather was in a foxhole with other German solders as Allied tanks advanced.

A flattened Saint Lo July 1944.

Both documents agree my grandfather was killed by artillery shrapnel. The letter being more descriptive, stating the shrapnel hit my grandfather in the neck, killing him instantly.

The government document states my grandfather was in a Panzerjäger an anti-tank company. A frightful job for a man who was an artist, a craftsman, a violin maker. But why was he in a foxhole in Saint Lo? Why wasn’t he in one of those Marder anti-tank tanks?

Anti-tank – tank – Marder I

Luckily, both documents agree his final resting place is the Cemetary in Marigny, location of the funeral. The days between now and the funeral, plus the days afterward will be a journey of self discovery.

Pilgrimage to Normandy

What would you do if you learned the location of your grandfather’s grave, who died during World War II, was in fact known?

For 43 years I thought my grandfather died during the D-day invasion along the Normandy coast of northern France. I also thought his body was lost to history, no grave, no cemetery.

Two weeks ago I learned from my brother that his burial place is known. He is buried in a small cemetery for German soldiers who were not involved in the D-day invasion. He died a month after that fateful day in history and before another significant but little heard of battle at St. Malo.

On Sunday I begin a pilgrimage to his grave. I will join my brother to pay respect to our family’s history, our grandfather’s sacrifice and to the memory of our father, his son, who passed away last November. A son who never visited his father’s grave.

In a few days our grandfather will receive his first guests.

Join me on my journey.

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