Thérèse Le Chevalier was just 15 years old on June 6, 1944, but she can still hear the bombs that heralded the beginning of the D-Day invasion.
“It was a harsh sound,” she recalls. “My father had dug a trench in the backyard. And so we spent the whole night lying in the trench.”
Le Chevalier grew up in the French coastal village of Bernières-sur-Mer in Normandy, on what is now Juno Beach. She and her family spent four years living under Nazi occupation.
WATCH: D-Day invasion leaves lasting impression of compassion, camaraderie for veteran Norm Kirby
“It was not easy to live, particularly because food was difficult to get,” she says.
The Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France 75 years ago marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War. But that victory came at a great cost, including to the French population in Normandy. By the time the sun set on D-Day, around 2,500 French civilians had been killed, some caught in the crossfire of Allied bombs.
Le Chevalier and other surviving French civilians who endured occupation and liberation are now sharing their stories as part of a new exhibition called In Their Footsteps. It was organised by the Juno Beach Centre, a museum in Normandy dedicated to the 14,000 Canadian soldiers who fought on D-Day.
“The Canadians who came to liberate Juno Beach didn’t come to liberate rocks — they came to liberate people,” says Nathalie Worthington, director of the Juno Beach Centre. “There were people living here; you had families who had children. And they’ve experienced all the traumas of German occupation and then the traumas of liberation.”
WATCH: From Prairie boy to aviation legend — Second World War veteran recalls D-Day
Marguerite Cassingneul still has trouble talking about those traumas. She and her husband, Remy, were teenagers on D-Day. They witnessed civilians and soldiers killed following the Allied invasion, including Canadians.
“The Canadian soldiers spoke French,” Remy says. “We had gathered together, when all of a sudden: ‘Bang!’ A Canadian collapsed right in front of us. He just collapsed. He’d been shot by a German sniper high up in the trees.
“We returned to the house and he was laid out on the table. We wanted to help but there was nothing to be done.”
Marguerite’s voice breaks and her eyes well up as she recalls seeing dead bodies on the beach, including a young German soldier who was badly disfigured. “It’s impossible to look at the sea without thinking of that,” she says. “That German soldier had parents.”
Those memories of trauma and grief are mixed with joy and gratitude. When the fighting ended after D-Day, Le Chevalier remembers crawling out of their backyard trench with her family.
“I came out into the street; it was amazing,” she says with a gasp. “We could see huge tanks and soldiers everywhere. It was absolutely wonderful.”
She says one of the Allied troops found a house with a piano, rolled it outside and started playing. “We danced in the streets with the soldiers,” she laughs. “The people in the village were so happy, so happy to be alive.”
WATCH: D-Day veteran’s harrowing tale of advancing deep behind Nazi lines
But the celebration didn’t last long. After a couple of days, she says, all of the Canadian soldiers had left, pushing deeper into Nazi-occupied territory. They had changed the course of the war, but there were still 11 terrible months left to fight.
“We pitied them, because they had to go,” Le Chevalier says.
Numerous Canadian flags now fly in the communities along Juno Beach and there are streets and schools named after Canadian soldiers who fought there. And to this day, Marguerite and Remy Cassingneul still open their home to Canadian visitors.
“We have deep respect for Canadians,” Remy says.
WATCH: Indigenous man reflects on grandfather’s D-Day sacrifice