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!