The town of Caen has a very long and complex history , its a typical city in Normandy , old buildings , picturesque look , and a nice place to visit. The town evolved throughout the ages , is almost 1000 years old and its evolution is visible in the landscape offered by the towns buildings. As with many french towns there is a mix of old medieval buildings , some classicist and finally neo-classical and eclectic buildings. Two grand abbeys built in a french classical style mark the town , Abbaye des Hommes and Abbaye des Dames . These two buildings are very imposing and sit beside the St. Ettiene church. The churches in Caen fall mostly in the Gothic architecture style , complete with vaulted arches and flying buttresses , they dominate Caen’s skyline. Most of the houses date from the 18th century onwards and create a picturesque urban landscape. Avenues and boulevards began appearing at the end of the 19th century , beginning of the 20th century. Its history stretches back to the early middle ages where it was an important city in William the Conquerors Normandy. Being situated in Normandy , Caen was besieged during the 100 years war between England and France . Along with Calais it was a strategic location and was first besieged in 1346 by english forces under Edward the III-rd . Aside from a few moments of turmoil the town lived and evolved throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century. The architecture changed throughout the ages and at the beginning of the 20th century , Caen was a large multi-layered city with a variety of buildings and monuments which formed the heritage of different moments in the history of France.
Caen in Normady as it appeared in plans before the war
Cadomus-Caen 17th century
Caen during the 18th century
Plan of Caen , 19th century.
The town itself would face complete destruction , brought on by the struggle between the allies and axis forces in 1944. Caen had become since the late 19th century and early 20th century and important road and railroad hub and was the allied target for D-Day . From here the advance would continue towards the Seine and make possible a breakthrough towards the west and Paris. On D-day Oberbefehlshaber West concentrated most of the armored reserves against this edge of the allied bridgehead in Normandy , so after beating back a counterattack by the 12th SS the british and canadian forces came to a halt around the hilly terrain surrounding Caen . Faced with increasing german resistance around the town the allied forces launched about 7 operations to try and take the town . In an effort to disrupt the german defences and prepare the attacks, the allies launched and all around the clock bombing and shelling of Caen and its surroundings. The tactic was simple , first airplanes , medium and heavy bombers would bomb the town and the hills, then ships in the Channel would open fire on city with their 18th and 14 inch guns , then divisional and battalion artillery would fire and shell the town. This was done because Caen was a road hub and all german troops arriving to defend the area would arrive first in Caen , all the headquarters , supply depots would have been there close to the train station . By july 1944 Caen was no longer relevant since the american forces managed to breakthrough in the west towards Brittany using th St. Lo – Periers road , so the eastern front of the Normandy foothold was used from july until august as a means to pin down most of the panzer divisions in 1st SS Panzer Corps.
The casualties of the battle were great and many died , civilian and soldier alike in the streets and rubble of Caen , the city was as well completely destroyed. The French government was determined after the war to rebuild and heal the wounds left by the fighting which took place in France in 1944 and began a massive plan to rebuild it which spanned 14 years , ending in 1962, but with some projects still not yet complete.
Much of the town was destroyed but the main square in Caen , Place de la Republique was the center of the old town an contained the Town hall , a marvelous building built in the XVIIth century in the french classicist style, named Hotel de Ville as all french town halls are named . The building took several direct hits that burnt the interior leaving a hollow burnt shell. After the floors burned and collapsed there was nothing left but the exterior main facade still standing intact . However this facade also took two direct hits and finally collapsed completely and with it the rest of the building. The houses around were also destroyed completely and the whole square was turned into a pile of rubble by the 7th of July when the last bombardment took place. The town hall was never rebuilt , the administration was moved in the Abbaye aux Hommes.
In the same square , within the town hall was also the Museum of Arts or Musee des Beaux-Arts de Caen, located inside the great classicist building which was leveled by the bombing, however it was restored as a separate building inside the castle of Caen museum complex. Some of the more valuable collections were saved but out of the 540 paintings and artworks housed before the war many were destroyed during the battle of Caen
However in spite of the sever shelling and bombing ,two abbeys , built over 800 years ago managed to miraculously escape the bombing , so did the two Classicist buildings beside Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames which were turned into hospitals and refuge for civilians.Unlike the abbeys , the Saint Peters Cathedral was not so lucky, situated in the center of the town , although not a target it was severely damaged by the battle. The roof burned down and extensive damage was done to the exterior decorations.As St. Pierre, the church St. Jeanne was also damaged by the bombing and shelling and would be rebuild along with the Cathedral after the war.
Unlike the town hall and the museums and houses , Carpiquet was a sure target for the allies , especially that by 1944 due to its proximity to the Channel , it was a military complex used by Luftwaffe and was the site of a vicious battle during operation Windsor. Carpiquet was the site of a fairly large airfield which was in use by the Luftwaffe and was fiercely defended by the 12th SS. Today a new airfield has been built on the spot of the old military one destroyed in world war two.
The french government quickly erected temporary shelters and buildings for use as houses or food stores, and by 1948 the complete reconstruction of the city began. Ir took 14 years to make Caen what it is today and bring back the image of the city which was lost during World War Two. Some buildings like completely destroyed Town Hall were never rebuilt and were lost forever but others have been reconstructed and renovated along with houses and urban landscape of pre-war Caen. Today it is almost impossible to believe that this city which existed since the early middle ages was turned into a pile of ruble by only two months of fighting in the summer of 1944. Its reconstruction is proof of mans will to preserve culture and history and fight against the wanton destruction of war.
Pre-War images of Caen
Place de la Republique with the Hotel de Ville , town hall in the center of the pciture, and in one of its wings the museum of arts was located.
Street leading towards the Castle complex , the Caen castle being an old fortification dating from the 11th century , it was damaged during the battle but because of its thick medieval walls it could not be leveled completely. The same cannot be said about the houses and the rest of the town . Luckily the castle was restored and turned into a museum, with the museum of art located within its grounds.
Interior of the Cathedral St Pierre
The war comes to Caen
Aerial view of city after the bombardment.
Cathedral St. Pierre in Caen during the battle.
Allied soldiers in the ruins of Caen.
The destruction brought on by the bombing on houses in the old town.
Houses in the center of the town suffered greatly from the aerial bombing and shelling.
Caen’s skyline during the the Normandy Campaign.
Most of the civilians were left homeless after the battle.
The abbey of St Etienne left standing among the ruins of the city.
Place de la Republique , thoroughly destroyed.
The allies victorious among the ruins of Caen , Winston Churchill on the left wearing a suit and cap and on the right , standing up against the window of the staff car , none other than Field Marshal Montgomery.
The Reconstructed City
A temporary construction used as a food store in post-war Caen , in 1945.
St. Etienne Church renovated.
The new Hotel de Ville inside Abbaye aux Hommes by St. Etienne church.
Place de la Republique reconstructed.
Restored details on the St. Pierre Cathedral exterior.
St Pierre Cathedral and the rest of the Caen reconstructed.
Before and After
Take note that for two moths of fighting and war , hundreds of years of history were harmed and it took 14 years to rebuild and bring the pre-war situation back.