An Excerpt from TRIUMPH OF THE DEAD by Kate Clarke Lemay

The Signal Monuments and Official Memory

As the Allied forces stormed Norman beaches and fought their way inland, they needed logistical support including food, clothing, guns and ammunition. Between June 7 and June 18, 1944, two floating harbors of British origin, code-named “Mulberries,” were assembled in the waters of Vierville-sur-mer and Arromanches in order to service their supply needs until the major port city Cherbourg was captured. Originally, each harbor consisted of roughly six miles of flexible steel roadways that floated on pontoons girded in steel and concrete, comprising about 31,000 tons of steel. The harbors were fabricated in secrecy in Britain and floated into position immediately after D-Day. Massive piers provided access to the beach, and the artificial harbors were sheltered from the sea by lines of massive sunken caissons (some which are still visible today), sunken ships, and floating breakwaters. The shelter consisted of concrete caissons (also known as “Phoenixes”) sunk in line offshore, as well as floating steel tanks of cruciform shape (“Bombardons”) moored about three miles off to sea. The uploading facilities (“Whales”) consisted of floating pier-heads, which adjusted to the ebb and flow of the tide; these were connected to the shore by roadways that were laid on floats and secured to moorings attached to anchors in the seabed.6 A violent hurricane destroyed the port off Omaha Beach on June 19, 1944, and afterwards, its still-operable parts were towed to Arromanches, to the British-operated Mulberry, which was in use for ten months. The British harbor landed 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of goods.7

View of vestiges of the floating harbor in Arromanches-les-Bains, Calvados,
Normandy. Contemporary. Courtesy of Kate Clarke Lemay.

The floating harbors figure importantly, albeit indirectly, to French memory of D-Day. In 1946, the United States government agreed to give the salvageable materials of Omaha Beach’s inoperable floating harbor to France, for the purpose of resale and profit, ostensibly to be used for France’s reconstruction. The French government instead decided to dedicate the profits to multiple projects whose goal was to commemorate D-Day. Two hundred workers operated out of Vierville-sur-mer between 1949 and 1955, eventually packing up a total of 28,000 tons of scrap metal.8 The materials were then sold off, creating a profit of 180 million francs (in 2016, $42,835,518).9 This enormous sum was placed under the care of Raymond Triboulet (1906–2006), the sous-préfet (a French political position equivalent to mayor) of Bayeux and a devoted supporter of Charles De Gaulle. Because France is around the geographical size of the state of Texas, mayors, even of small towns like Bayeux, had considerable clout.

Under Triboulet’s direction, the Comité du débarquements, or D-Day Commemoration Committee, was established on May 22, 1945, and in coordination with American, British, and Canadian governments, this committee has helped to organize most of the ceremonies commemorating D-Day in Normandy.10 Comprised of the mayors of the small villages which dot the coastline where the Allies assaulted the beaches, the committee remains to this day the longest lasting and most effective organization in France serving the memory of D-Day.11 Most importantly, the committee facilitated the preservation of the D-Day beaches by deeming them historic under the law. French law of May 21, 1947, outlined the responsibilities of the D-Day Commemoration Committee; according to this law, vestiges of the floating harbor off Arromanches were preserved as a historic site. By contrast, lacking a preservation law pertaining to the Mediterranean assault in August 1944, vestiges of the battle which was led from Toulon to Saint Raphael are no longer visible. This stretch of coastline comprises the region known as the French Riviera and has long since been developed into commercial and residential real estate.

The D-Day Commemoration Committee’s projects in Normandy began with ten almost identical Signal Monuments, the first of which was established in 1950. Another early major commemorative effort was the marking of La Voie de la Liberté, or Liberty Highway. The committee put into place hundreds of cylindrical, cream-colored, stout kilometer markers bearing a design of the eternal flame along the routes taken by the Allied forces to liberate France.12 The third early project was the posting of signs bearing names of soldiers killed on various roads, first established in 1951 and then constructed of more durable enamel and reflective material in 1958.13 In 1957, 2 million francs (then about $475,950) was allocated to the construction of eighty-six panels of this permanent signage in Manche along service routes of the landings where American soldiers were killed. The signs still exist today and most are in remarkably good condition

. . .

The D-Day Commemoration Committee was the most highly organized French effort to participate in establishing collective memory of WWII. Their projects reveal the significant role of place in D-Day memory. This is a key and defining characteristic of French remembrance; there is the sense that “you have to be there in order to understand.” D-Day memory in France, by virtue of that nation being the battlefield, is innately driven by a sense of place and the historical value of that place. The experiential quality of material culture like monuments whose messages are inherently wrapped up in their locations should not be underestimated. Before the blockbuster movies, these monuments served to remind people of Omaha la sanglante, or “Bloody Omaha,” known as such from visceral memories of the waters colored red from blood.

. . .

The Signal Monuments reflect the official, government-sponsored memory of D-Day in France. Official culture, as historian John Bodnar defines it, involves the cultural leaders and authorities in society concerned with social unity, continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo.15 Official culture relies on dogmatic formalism and the restatement of reality in ideal rather than complex or ambiguous terms. These monuments were not sufficient as places of pilgrimage for a people devastated by war. Instead, as Chapter 1 explains, Normans appropriated Allied war cemeteries as places through which to channel and understand their own traumas. Otherwise, Normans covertly dealt with their own difficult and complex war history, in the context of political and social upheaval and even interpersonal violence.


7. Chris Trueman, “The Mulberry Harbour,”

The Mulberry Harbour
(accessed June 5, 2012).

8. Thierry Houvel, quoted in La Renaissance, “On ne savait pas ce qu’il se passait,” June 6, 1994. The decision to use floating ports was made during the meeting of the members of the D-Day Commemoration Committee September 8, 1949. See “Amenagement des plages du débarquement allié en Normandie,” Archives of the Comité du Débarquement, Bayeux, Normandy, France.

9. All money conversions from francs into dollars from this point on are of 2016 standard. Inflation and money conversions were calculated using and (accessed August 11, 2016).

10. “Monuments Signaux,” Archives of the Comité du Débarquement, Bayeux, France.

11. The master list kept by the committee reveals the most important political figures and associations for the memory of D-Day; among this list are approximately eighteen other important and viable associations that have sustained effective remembrance efforts, including groups like l’Association Nationale des Enfants et Petits-enfants des évadés et Rescapés du Vel d’Hiv 16 juillet 1942 and l’Association franco-américaine des aérodromes normands de la 9e US Air Force.

12. For Comité du Débarquement and tourism, see Sam Edwards, “Commemoration and Consumption in Normandy, c. 1945–1994” in War Memory and Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remembrance and Commemoration, ed. M. Keren and H. H. Holger (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009), 76–91. Edwards attributes the initial idea for the Voie de la Liberté to French officer Guy de la Vesselais, who though the road would “pay ‘homage’ to the ‘traditional fraternity of the Franco-American armies.'” See Edwards, “Commemoration,” 78. For symbolism of the Voie de la Liberté, see Edwards, Allies in Memory, 106–11.

13. “Monuments Signaux,” Archives of the Comité du Débarquement, Bayeux, France.

15. For the role of official culture in public memory, see John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 13–20.

Kate Clarke Lemay is a historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC. Her research honors include an IIE Fulbright research grant and two grants from the Terra Foundation in American Art.

Watch Lemay’s recent book talk at the Wilson Center here.

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