The Phantom Nuns Of D-Day

There were absolutely zero nuns at the Battle of Normandy. There, I’ve said it.

History should be appreciated by directors, writers, and producers in every possible scene. If you want to honor a culture or a civilization, never trade the facts for the fanciful. But the opposite happens all the time.

The casino built for the film. Impressive, but not quite the bunker as described by historians.

A great example is Darryl Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962), a blockbuster that made Saving Private Ryan look like claymation. You’ll find all the stars in here:  Mitchum, Wayne, Fonda, Wagner, Burton, Jurgens … even a young Sean Connery. The Longest Day revolves around major parts of the Invasion of Normandy, including the attack by French commandos on a German-occupied casino in the town of Ouistreham. The original casino was destroyed by Germans prior to D-Day and a bunker was erected in its place. Filmmakers replaced the structure with an eight-story hotel. Was it worth the tradeoff? The battle scene was amazing, but combat veterans must have had a hard time explaining the difference to their families. Zanuck and his team didn’t just remake a critical point in military history. They inflated it.

The real German bunker in Ouistreham.

And then there are the nuns that never appeared.

In this scene, sisters are seen moving briskly through the crossfire. They step into a blown-out structure and start treating the French commandos for injuries. Every woman wears an expression of sheer determination. They are not afraid of bloodshed. The soldiers gawk at them. I felt like telling that anecdote to everybody, until I found out that the nuns never showed up.

Military adviser Maurice Chauvet was attached to The Longest Day project. His statement on the matter is straightforward:

“The casino was in fact a bunker from where the Germans could shoot. There has never been an 80-meters-high house or nuns during the attack.”

There were undoubtedly scores of clergy and religious trapped in France at the time of the invasion, and many who attended to wounded under horrid conditions. You can see one photo of nuns standing before the ruins of St. Malos Catholic Church in Valognes, just over an hour from Ouistreham, in this impressive World War II photo collection. Also active in Normandy were the military chaplains who landed on the coast or parachuted into enemy territory. As more and more Allied troops entered France, the spiritual needs of soldiers were handled by both chaplains and clergy alike.

I felt pretty silly after learning about this scene. I didn’t need Morpheus to tell me that I’ve been living in a dream world. I happen to own a copy of the The Longest Day. What am I supposed to feel the next time I watch 1st Commando BFM get into a firefight with the Germans? How much of Zanuck’s work was tethered to reality? Was John Wayne ever really there? Well, it wasn’t a total failure. The film did justice to the scope of the battle with a generous buffet of English, German and French subtitles. And I wasn’t about to leave this movie without an important lesson:  history and Hollywood make strange bedfellows.

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4 thoughts on “The Phantom Nuns Of D-Day

  1. By the time they found out about the Casino being destroyed by the Germans in 1942, the film replica had already been built, and they decided to use it anyway. The fault was Cornelius Ryan’s who wrote the book and worked as an advisor on the film. All the vets he talked to for the book always referred to it as the Casino bunker, so he assumed that the Casino was still there in 1944. It wasn’t.

    • Thanks for the information! Would you happen to know why the Germans build the bunker in place of the hotel? My guess was that the casino had a deeper foundation than surrounding structures, and perhaps that helped with concrete reinforcement. I’m not familiar with combat engineering.

  2. Well, there were some women who helped soldiers on Sword beach. The story of the “angel of Ouistreham” described in Martin Gilbert’s book was verified by a gentleman I met whilst visiting Sword Beach and the town in 2009. Apparently there were some nuns included among those who came to aid injured soldiers on the beach in front of the town.

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