The Wandering British Major

Perhaps the bit of fouling-up that disturbed me the most resulted from the confused orders of a wandering British major who one moment was attached to a British unit and the next to an American one. None of his reports ever reached me until it was too late for them to have any value. I was constantly making an all-out effort to get to a bombed-out building only to find that he had already been there on one of his peregrinations. One day at the request of SHAEF I made the long trip to Colleville-sur-Mer near Omaha Beach. It was a particularly trying journey and I resented the time consumed. When I at last reached my objective, a Romanesque church in need of immediate attention, I found that my friend had already administered first aid. A fine portal remained unharmed and some of the elements of the solid stone architecture had not fallen as had the tower and the vaults. My predecessor had planted a huge sign, of his own device. It looked like a billboard and warned: ALLIED FORCES: It is Forbidden to Remove Stone or Other Material from the Site of This Church. HISTORICAL MONUMENT: CIVIL AFFAIRS. The posting of a sign always gave a feeling of accomplishment (J. Rorimer, 7).

Church at Colleville-sur-Mer, 1944 (Photo JJR)

Church at Colleville-sur-Mer, 1944 (Photo JJR)

On the way to Omaha Beach today, I started getting antsy. Looking out the bust window, I could tell we were approaching Colleville-sur-Mer, and I began scanning for church steeples. I broke the silence of the somber bus tour group and requested that we stop, doing a spontaneous show-and-tell with my grandfather’s book, passing it to the tourists seated across the row. Seeing this monument today was another victory for Monuments Girl!

Church at Colleville-sur-Mer, 2014 (SSR)

Church at Colleville-sur-Mer, 2014 (Photo SSR)

My Grandfather’s First Monument

From the 18-passenger tour bus window, I scoured the landscape of the French countryside, looking for church steeples, checking my map, then reading and re-reading my grandfather’s narrative. It wasn’t long before I had announced to the entire tour group that I was “Monuments Girl.” Our tour guide Stephane was fabulously knowledgeable about all things relating to D-Day and WW II.  He and my fellow traveling companions were very patient as we made several special stops so that I could hop off the bus and snap photos of monuments mentioned in my grandfather’s book.

Saint-Madeleine, the first monument James Rorimer surveyed, near Utah Beach

Saint-Madeleine, the first monument James Rorimer surveyed, near Utah Beach

August 3, 1944
We had zigzagged for a couple of days far from the usual peacetime courses of Dover-Calais and Folkstone-Boulogne, and had landed on the bleak Normandy coast at Utah Beach, scene of the initial landing on D-Day. From there I thumbed my way to the headquarters building of Beach Operations, where I telephoned to the Advance Section Communications Zone and spoke to my new commanding officer.

While waiting for transportation I made my first notes on destruction a few hundred yards from the beach. Here was a small chapel, not mentioned in any of our lists. “Chapel called Ste.-Madeline,” I wrote. “Fr. McAvoy has posted a signed calling for daily services at 1700. Good sixteenth-century Renaissance architecture in Maison Carée style. Fragments which can be used for restoration are in and about the immediate area which is off the highway. Main portal damaged by fragmentation from the south, or west. One lierne rib damaged. Wooden roof with stones is in good condition except for minor damage.” Then I took a photograph for the record (J. Rorimer, 3-4).

As you can imagine, I was elated by today’s discovery, and I am deeply indebted to Stephane for helping me find my grandfather’s first monument!

Normandy Beach Remnants

This is a pictorial summary of the WW II remnants I saw today.  I’ll let the history books be the experts on the wartime details.  Suffice it to say that today’s tour gave me a much better understanding of the geography, scale, logistics, strategies, and landscape in Normandy.

After visiting the Normandy American Memorial Cemetary, Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, the Airborne Museum, and several other places of interest, it’s clear to me that my grandfather’s story is just one of many, many, many awe-inspiring stories, and I’m just beginning to understand all of the layers!

Also, here’s a map.  (It’s in German, but since the place names are mostly French, it doesn’t really matter.  I think the pictures are informative).

DDay Map






Et Fuga Verterunt Angli – And the English Fled

I’m staying in Bayeux for two nights, using this lovely town as my home base to retrace some more footsteps in Normandy.  Bayeux was the first city to be liberated by the Allied forces on June 7, 1944, and there are a number of painted murals and flags celebrating the 70th Anniversary of D-Day.

D-Day WindowBayeux

I am quickly discovering that traveling solo is an excellent way to learn a language, and my functional language skills are improving.  I’ve been struck by the civilized nature of the French people, and I find their politeness incredibly refreshing. How easily I had fallen into diverting my eyes from my neighbor in the concrete jungle of NYC.

So today, I went to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which is nearly 1,000 years old.  Although it was housed in the Bayeux Cathedral for 7 centuries, it has traveled around quite a bit in recent years.

Bayeux Cathedral

Bayeux Cathedral


Impressive Gargoyles on the Bayeux Cathedral

Although my grandfather did not have direct dealings with the tapestries, he recounts several anecdotes in his book.  I’m skipping ahead chronologically to the chapter on Paris because that is where the Bayeux Tapestry was located at that time.

[Jacques] Jaujard, [General Director of the National Museums], vitiated all German attempts to effect an exchange of German objects from France for French objects in Germany… For months Jaujard delayed German efforts to acquire the Bayeux Tapestry – the 850-year-old embroidered pictoral of the conquest of England by William the Conqueror – one of Europe’s most prized art treasures. Finding it impossible to procrastinate further, he finally permitted them to copy it. The Germans subsequently insisted that the original be given up to them. A week before the arrival of the Allies a special emissary came from Berlin with instructions to bring the tapestry back with him. The resourceful Jaujard contacted the Underground to learn when the arrival of the Allied troops was expected. Hearing that it might be only a matter of days, he fought a final delaying action and succeeded in keeping the tapestry in its lead box in the sub-basement of the Louvre. (J. Rorimer, 50-51)

Here are a couple snapshots from my visit to the Bayeux Museum regarding the whereabouts of the Bayeux Tapestry during WWII.

image image

In the early days following the Liberation, security was still an important factor.  We thought then that it was safer to keep many of the cultural institutions closed.  It seemed the wisest course in view of the disorganization of the directing authorities, the continuing need for caring for objects which had been stored out of the city, and the fact that Paris had not yet been declared a leave center.  Somewhat later, however, it was decided that the vast artistic resources of Paris could be made available to the soldiers… the Louvre opened an exhibition displaying the Bayeux Tapestry for the first time in Paris since 1804, when Napoleon had shown it to his generals… Jacques Duont, the clever young Inspector of Historic Monuments, made his contribution to the scheme by bicycling the 165 miles to Bayeux to obtain the approval of the city officials for the loan of the tapestry.  An embarrassing discovery was made just as the Minister of Education arrived to greet the American, British and French officials… The last line of the explanatory inscriptions on the tapestry reads, “The English Turned in Flight.”  In the interest of inter-Allied solidarity it was hastily decided that the last scenes of the tapestry would have to be artificially concealed.  A new edition of the descriptive pamphlet omitted “In fuga verterunt Angli” altogether.  (J. Rorimer, 64-65)


Bayeux Tapestry – ET FUGA VERTERUNT ANGLI (The English Fled)

New Yorker

New Yorker Cover (July 15, 1944)

And that is the perfect segue to my next post… the Normandy Beaches!


Mistaken for a Spy

The following words are taken from Chapter 1 of my grandfather’s book, “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War,” 1950. In most cases, the photos are mine.

In Normandy, with our troops waiting for the Avaranches break-through, I was able to cover most places that had not been visited by other monuments officers about to move forward. The nearer to Germany, the more I found trying to cover my sector like trying to clear the woods of acorns… With the dead to be buried, the communications systems to be repaired, and all the other “firsts,” it required the enthusiasm and perseverance of a devout lover of the arts to accomplish anything beyond the posting of signs and the recording of damage (J. Rorimer, 9).

At this point First Army had cleared the Germans from Saint-Lô and Coutances, the Third Army had cut off the Brittany peninsula before sweeping north from Le Mans around the southern flank of the Germans’ Normandy positions. I tried to contact Captain Posey, Third Army’s monuments officer, to get information on conditions in Mont-Saint-Michel…The tides, the many mines and other obstacles placed along the uncertain quicksand beaches had been sufficient bulwark to prevent an Allied landing from the sea. History had proven maritime operations in these waters to be hazardous to the extreme. The high tides, which recede for a distance of more than seven miles and roll in faster than a horse can gallop, make driving on the sands impossible… (J. Rorimer 20)

Low Tide High Tide

Low Tide / High Tide from my Hotel Room in the Rampart

I wondered if this inaccessibility would now continue to be its salvation…What if the thirteenth-century cloister, the church, the large Salle de Chevaliers, with its pointed vaulting supported by a triple row of columns, should be used for military installations and become the objective of enemy fire? … I decided that I would have to go to Mont-Saint-Michel as soon as possible.


The Cloister

Abbey from West Terrace

The Abbey Church from the West Terrace

Stained Glass

Stained Glass Windows in the Abbey Church


Gothic Ceiling with Crossed Ribs

Mont-Saint-Michel was not easy to reach. It stood about one hundred miles from our headquarters at Catz and was at the far end of Advance Section headquarters. There were the inevitable rumors that we would be moving our headquarters at almost any time, and these served to tie up transportation even more seriously than usual. I momentarily forgot Mont-Saint-Michel’s remoteness from the main road when I suggested to my new commanding officer that I could walk there from the main Avranches-Rennes highway, over which were busily moving mountains of supplies coming into Normandy at an ever-increasing rate now that the seas had subsided.

“You idiot,” the Colonel said irritably. “This is twentieth-century war. Who gives a damn about mediaeval walls and boiling pitch?” Then he momentarily relented… “All right,” he said gruffly. “Get going. But let me tell you, Rorimer, you’d better get there in a hurry and come back fast. If you get left behind…”

I had no trouble getting as far as Avranches. The roads were alive with GI vehicles…Transportation [there] was no problem by reason of its being almost non-existent. I got an occasional ride, but for part of the way I was a reluctant foot soldier. I soon realized that I would never make it before dark unless I did get a ride, and I hailed a civilian car. The driver had lost all his possessions except this car, which he had just retrieved from under a hay mound on a friend’s farm, following the long siege of Saint-Malo. The Germans had surrendered there just a few hours before. He dropped me at the end of the causeway outside of Mont-Saint-Michel.

MSM Causeway

Mont-Saint-Michel (J. Rorimer, 1944 / S. Rorimer, 2014)

I had visited this stronghold of the Middle Ages when I was a boy. I had many recollections of the small village built on the sides of the curiously isolated rock formation connected with the mainland by an almost mile-long causeway built in the nineteenth century. I walked the plank bridge over the sands leading to the unguarded gateway. Three OFF LIMITS signs were completely ineffectual. The scene was one of almost indescribable bedlam. This was the one place on the continent which was unguarded, undamaged and open for business-as-usual. Even a British brigadier had found haven in one of the rooms of the hotel for himself and his lady companion. Each day more than a thousand soldiers came, drank as hard and fast as they could, and, feeling the effects, became boisterous beyond the power of local control. The shopkeepers had at first thought that American soldiers would not loot; they had’t counted on these soldiers being drunk.


Tourist Scene in the Village of Mont-Saint-Michel

Passing beneath heavily fortified archways, I clambered toward the picturesque abbey topping the mount. Streets winding beneath the windows of the old houses led up to the final, seemingly interminable flight of steps to the Benedictine abbey. Neither time nor tourists had, until now, been able to dispel its air of serenity mixed with grimness and self-sufficient solitude. In the short time at my disposal I posted warnings, locked all doors leading to dangerous parapets, shut off some of the rooms where further damage could be done, and advised a return to the regular opening and closing hours set by the Beaux-Arts instead of the endless hours demanded by the carousing soldiers. The chief custodian of the monastery and one of the guards had been taken as prisoners to Germany. The former’s wife and one armed guard had done their best to maintain order. Among the hundreds of soldiers, the only officer I could find who might have authority to control the situation was an Air Corps MP captain who was investigating the facilities for bringing troops on pass from an airfield in the vicinity. He told me that the Air Corps had no interest in and no control over ground troops. I was to discover this was not the case when I had further dealings with him the following morning.


Hiking up to the Abbey


“Interminable” Flight of Steps

That night I stayed ad the hotel of La Mère Poulard. Before dinner I was authorized by the Sub-Prefect from Avranches, at a conference with the Mayor of Mont-Saint-Michel, to decide after further investigation whether the town should be entirely closed to troops…We weighed the matter during dinner, and just before bedtime decided that Mont-Saint-Michel with its poetic, historic and artistic atmosphere must, in spite of some good arguments to the contrary, remain open to our troops.


Hotel La Mère Poulard, 2014

Early the next morning the Air Corps MP I had met the preceding day approached me in the hotel dining room and asked to see my papers. He had obviously been dwelling on the fact that the authority I seemed to have was incompatible with my rank of second lieutenant, and furthermore, I had arrived without a vehicle. This latter fact was too much for him. He found it inconceivable that any officer would travel without his own personal transportation.

He concluded that I must be a German spy and, envisioning a hero’s reception for himself, carted me off to his headquarters where I was obliged to sign oaths and papers of every description while copies were made of my papers. It was finally necessary that we go back to Pontorson where we found a Civil Affairs officer who identified me and cleared up the matter for the disappointed captain.

That same day I arrived back at my outfit. When I reached headquarters, I found my belongings already on a truck. (J. Rorimer, 37-41)

Leaving MSM

Leaving Mont-Saint-Michel

N.B. I typed this post while traveling from MSM to Bayeux, and my train passed through Avaranches. Here’s a photo I snapped from the train window. I’m so glad I didn’t have to hitchhike or walk the way my grandfather did!


Remembering D-Day

The toughest part about crossing the English Channel last night was 1) the air conditioning, and 2) the WiFi – NOT that they were ineffective, but that they were highly effective, and as a result I was either too cold or very distracted. This, in combination with the gentle ocean swells made things challenging at times, but I had promised myself (and my readers) that I would not complain, so every time I was tempted to think I was the least bit uncomfortable, I thought about D-Day.  What would it have been like to cross the channel in one of the boats invading Normandy? What would it have been like for my grandfather, a few weeks later, sailing with French troops? Pondering these questions helped me keep things in perspective.

D-Day was extra fresh in my mind yesterday because it turns out that Portsmouth, England (the location of my previously undisclosed location) has an excellent D-Day Museum, within walking distance of the train station. I couldn’t have planned a better use of my time in port!

D-Day Museum

D-Day Museum, Portsmouth, England

In addition, the museum houses the Overlord Embroidery, which has been dubbed the “modern version of the Bayeux Tapestry.”

Overland Tapestry

Overlord Embroidery, Panel #30, July 1944

The short film was powerful and moving, and the exhibits gave me a real sense of what day to day life must have been like for the Allies gathering in Portsmouth and Southampton. For example, here are some examples of dried goods. I wouldn’t have noticed them, except that I overheard the woman in front of me as she turned to her friend and said, “Dried eggs! I hated dried eggs! Do you remember those?”

Dried Goods

Dried Canned Goods & Wartime Recipes

The folks at the museum were very friendly, and I told them about my Monuments Girl Mission. I also showed them “The Monuments Men” movie shirt I was wearing, gave them my blog address, read aloud from my grandfather’s book “Survival,” and showed pictures from the NYC Film Premiere. I was pretty excited to find a captive audience.

Thinking all about D-Day inspired me to turn to my grandfather’s letters to see if I could figure out where he had shipped from. He didn’t include details, however, because of the censors.  According to the museum docents, it’s very likely that he sailed from Portsmouth since it was the naval base at that time.  Do any of my readers know from which port exactly a Liberty ship would have sailed?

Needless to say, my D-Day envisioning strategy worked, and I made it to St. Malo safely.


Missed the Boat

It was just two days since I had been in Southampton. When I had learned that a telephone call from the office of the American High Command had prepared the way for my arrival, I began to feel that I was part of a highly fluid, well-organized army which could adapt itself to unusual circumstances. This bubble of confidence burst when I learned that the ship on which I was supposed to make the channel crossing had already sailed. The transportation officer was out, but he had left word with his corporal to take me around and allow me to pick out any one of the Liberty ships then in port. Hoping I had made a good choice, I boarded one loaded with French troops from the Italian and African campaigns who had been sent to England for complete equipping with American supplies. I had an idea that I would like to land on French soil with French troops. (J. Rorimer, 3)

Not to worry! Although my grandfather missed the boat to France, I did not… At least not yet, since my ship sails tonight. I am taking an overnight ferry, and my accommodations include a “reclining chair” and a “sleep pack (i.e., pillow and blanket).” I am in for a 12-hour adventure, and I hope that the crossing will be smooth. If it isn’t smooth, however, I certainly won’t be able to complain, since I am traveling in peace time, I am on vacation, and I purposely chose to cross the English Channel by boat. Even the roughest ride cannot compare to the voyage undertaken by the troops bound for Normandy in summer 1944. Knowing this, I am certain that I will be just fine, as long as I make it to the dock on time!

Stay tuned… if I get WiFi on the ferry, I’ll post a picture. I’m wearing my “Monuments Men” movie T-shirt today!!!

Somewhere in England…

Somewhere in England

My grandfather wrote this letter to my grandmother from his initial staging point, “somewhere in England.”  His words describe London and Oxford as his “old stamping grounds,” and it makes me glad to know that in some way, I’ve already begun retracing footsteps, since London has been my home base for the last three weeks.  The day trip I took to Oxford surely counts too.

Tomorrow, I set sail from “somewhere in England.” I will be crossing the English Channel by ferry and landing in St. Malo.  At this point, sailing on a modern ferry is the closest reenactment I can manage.

My grandfather landed in Normandy on August 3, 1944.  I will be landing on July 29, 2014 – just a few days shy of exactly 70 years ago.


The Roberts Commission & Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives

My grandfather begins his book, “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War” with the following words:

Toward the end of 1942, American educators and museum personnel became increasingly alarmed about the fate of the art in the path of the War. William B. Dinsmoor, President of the Archaeological Institute of America, Sumner McKnight Crosby, President of the College Art Association, Francis Henry Taylor, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and David E. Finley, Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, proposed to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States the creation of a governmental commission. With the encouragement of the late President Roosevelt and his Secretaries of State and War, the Department of State announced on August 20th, 1943, the establishment of what was to become the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. It has been generally referred to as the Roberts Commission, as it was under the Chairmanship of the Honorable Owen J. Roberts, then a Justice of the United States Supreme Court (J. Rorimer, ix).

I remember my grandmother, Katherine Serrell Rorimer, or K.K. as I called her, telling me about the Roberts Commission and the MFA & A on one of my visits to her New York City apartment.  She was adamant that I understand what the abbreviation stood for, and I remember how she annunciated each word very clearly, sitting across from me at the dining room table. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, also known as “The Monuments Men,” was the group of allied forces who were directed to preserve monuments and other cultural objects during World War II in France, Germany, and Austria.

My grandfather makes no mention of how he decided to join the MFAA in his book, and I wish I could ask my grandmother now. At that time, they were newleyweds, having just married in 1942.

Matt Damon and George Clooney, gave us a glimpse as to how the conversation might have gone in the 2014 film, “Monuments Men,”playing the real-life characters of James J. Rorimer and George L. Stout, discussing the Roberts Commission over drinks at a bar.

On May 26, 1944, just a few days before D-Day, General Eisenhower issued a letter that became, “the key to all subsequent instructions concerning the preservation of historical monuments and cultural objects in Europe” (J. Rorimer, x).



And here is where my journey begins!

In a few days, I will set sail, crossing the English Channel and landing in Normandy, almost exactly 70 years to date when my grandfather landed on Utah Beach.