It’s 2008, and a group of French council workers are digging up a section of road not too far from Paris. But what they don’t know is that there’s something unexpected hiding beneath the earth. And as they clear away more than 60 years of debris something huge emerges – a very special relic that dates back all the way to WWII.
The road in question was in the town of Chartres, which is 55 miles from the French capital. All that was meant to be happening on that day were some routine repairs. Of course, we all know that it’s not unusual to find World War II relics in France. But no one was expecting something quite so remarkable to emerge on this stretch of road.
The workers soon called in the experts once they realized how important their find was. In fact, they needed a mechanical digger to expose the full size and significance of the relic. This particular discovery was going to stand out even among the many artifacts from the war scattered across France.
You might come across buried guns and ammunition from WWII when you’re metal detecting in France. And it’s not uncommon to unearth the occasional German helmet, either. Sometimes, you don’t even need any detecting apparatus at all. The discoveries simply lie loose on the ground.
There are plenty of countries around the world that host wartime artifacts at the bottom of their oceans or buried under fields. WWII was the largest and most violent conflict in world history, and as we know, France was a center of the fighting during that period. As a result, it’s prone to these kinds of historical finds. That doesn’t mean they’re all on this scale, though.
World War II officially began after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, but the first few months were fairly quiet elsewhere in Europe. Yet that all changed the following year when Hitler turned his attention to Scandinavia – first invading Norway and then Denmark. In May Germany then attacked and conquered both Belgium and Holland. Their lightning conquest of Europe was in full swing, and France was now next in line.
June 1940 marked the official fall of France and the division of the country into two parts. The southern section became a puppet government known as the Vichy regime, while the northern half – which included Paris – was directly under German control. And the French capital in particular now faced a brutal four-year period of food shortages, curtailed freedom and persecution.
Every day Paris’ central street of the Champs Elysée saw a parade of German soldiers marching and showing their dominance. And each evening the Parisians had to return home by 9:00 p.m. to obey a curfew. The Germans could drive proudly round the city in their cars, but Parisians were confined to public transport only.
Thanks to German restrictions, Parisians apparently ended up using bicycles as well as the metro and bus. Some would even take to horse riding as an alternate mode of travel. Residents also had to be prepared for long queues when they were shopping, because most stores had limited opening hours.
On top of this there was strict rationing limiting what food the Parisians could buy. The majority of French produce was being diverted to support the German war effort, which meant huge shortages across the country. And to give you just one shocking example, each French adult was restricted to a mere 2.5 ounces of boneless meat every week, according to the website My Private Paris.
As you might imagine, the Parisians had to get creative to find enough food. Shortages meant that some resorted to eating cats, dogs and even rats, My Private Paris claims. And some basements became home to rabbits or even pigs that were raised to be slaughtered for their meat.
Yes, Parisians were second-class citizens in their own city. German soldiers took priority in every store and restaurant and even Paris’ legendary galleries and museums were under their thumb. Some art had been successfully smuggled out of the city before the occupation, but other valuable pieces would be confiscated.
How difficult life became was also dependent your place in society. It was also particularly horrifying for Jews, who were often banned from public places and unable to work. These individuals had to wear a yellow star at all times to show they were Jewish. And in 1942 around 13,000 of them were rounded up and subsequently deported to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
Some Parisians became collaborators and helped the Germans, whether because they sympathized with the regime or they were just trying to protect themselves. Others allied themselves with Charles de Gaulle, who became the exiled leader of the Free French. And the latter group did everything from collecting intelligence to actively sabotaging German installations.
Millions of Parisians fled their city in 1940, while others subsequently stayed and would fight the occupation. It wasn’t until four years later that Allied troops landed on the northern shores of France and began the liberation of the country. In August 1944 they finally won the six-day battle to retake the capital. Paris had been finally liberated, but the war had left its mark.
All you need to discover some WWII history in places like northern France is to take a stroll through the fields and walk the paths once traveled by soldiers. Little things like guns and ammunition can still be found next to larger objects like vehicles and bunkers. And some items still lie with the bones of the soldiers who once owned them.
The scars of war aren’t so obvious in Paris itself, which was mostly spared the kind of bombing that devastated other European cities. It’s the beaches of the D-Day Landings that tend to attract the most attention from the historically minded when they journey through France.
The legacy of WWII was again reignited in 2019 when Eurostar travelers had their trip disrupted by an unexploded bomb from the era. Again this discovery was made by engineers during construction work, but this time it was near Paris’ Gare du Nord train station. The process of deactivating the bomb proved trickier than expected and at least five trains were cancelled. Local press also reported that nearly 2,000 people nearby were evacuated before a controlled explosion could be carried out.
Yet it’s not just bombs that have been left behind from World War II in France. A German bomber was discovered in the French Pyrenees in 2013. This plane was likely stationed in the city of Toulouse and used to conduct bombing raids on Allied forces at sea. According to the BBC, locals were so afraid of a German retaliation after the bomber crashed that they threw the wreckage into a cave and maintained their silence for decades.
And did you know that there’s another Paris train station – Gare de l’Est – which has an entire WWII concrete bunker hidden beneath it? Apparently, a luggage storage room was commandeered by the Germans in case they were bombed and needed somewhere safe to direct trains back to the Reich. Up to 70 people could have fitted in the 1,300-square-foot, airtight space, where they would have been protected from gas and bombs. Though the Times of Israel newspaper notes that the bunker probably wasn’t ever used.
Naturally, the number of WWII relics increases if we expand our view not just to French land but also the country’s sea. Take the sinking of the Lancastria, which was believed to be the worst maritime disaster in British history. The wreck still lies off the Loire-Atlantique coast. Apparently, it had been carrying U.K. troops and French civilians who were being evacuated before it was bombed by German aircraft.
But boats and planes weren’t the only military vehicles that crashed in France during the war. A German Tiger II was abandoned in the face of Allied attacks in 1944 and fell into a shell hole – with its crew bailing on foot. It was discovered in around 2001 near Paris, but it wasn’t until 17 years later that the regional governor finally gave permission to recover the tank.
That brings us back to the road at Chartres and those routine repairs. You see, that Tiger II wasn’t the only tank to be rediscovered decades after its burial. The council workers had found another one, but this was even more special. It was an Allied tank that had been used in the liberation of France in 1944.
The history of tanks in warfare really dates back to WWI, although models for armored vehicles had been floating around for centuries beforehand. Even Leonardo da Vinci had tried the idea back in 1484. Yet the recent invention of cars and traction engines meant that the early 20th century had just the right technology for tanks to emerge.
The first motor vehicle to carry weapons was a so-called quadricycle developed in England in 1899. An armored version was then produced just a few years later. When WWI kicked off in 1914 the new priority was finding vehicles that could travel over the muddy, broken ground of the trenches. A year later British designers then added tracks instead of standard wheels to these armored vehicles for the first time.
Little Willie – as the first tank was named – was soon followed by its cousin Big Willie. And it wasn’t long before the British were seeing new levels of success on the battlefield thanks to their latest invention. Other countries quickly followed, with France, the United States, Italy and Germany all developing their own models.
Between World War I and WWII many countries tried to improve their tanks to make them more powerful and mobile. But which power had the largest fleet? Interestingly, this accolade went to the Soviet Union, which, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, had more tanks than the rest of the world combined. Though it was the Germans who had the most success in terms of tank strategy.
As many of you know, tanks had originally been designed to support infantry and cavalry units. Yet Germany’s tactics were different. It would concentrate armor and use it in mass formations, which turned out to be very successful on the battlefield. Britain and America were still using their tanks to punch holes in enemy lines, but then letting their infantry take the lead. German infantry, on the other hand, would clean up after tanks had already swept the field.
There was, of course, a lot of technological innovation in WWII – from advances in aerial combat to the development of nuclear weapons. As the conflict progressed the tanks got bigger overall, and so did the guns mounted on top. There were also efforts to come up with anti-tank weapons and vehicles. This also meant tactics needed to be adapted as well.
Most tanks in WWII could be divided into three tiers – with light, medium and heavy vehicles serving different purposes. Of course, you couldn’t use a single man on horseback as a scout anymore. So instead you needed light tanks that could move fast and had the armor to protect them.
Light armored vehicles also had their uses in amphibious landings that would have made heavier versions struggle. But what about heavy tanks? Well, they came with two designs for the thick of battle. So-called “snipers” had the highest velocity guns so they could assault the enemy from a distance, while still being heavily defended. “Brawlers,” meanwhile, were the densely armored tanks that took the enemy head-on.
It was the brawler tanks that had the toughest armor to withstand multiple direct hits. This meant they could help infantry push past enemy lines as well as maintaining strong defensive positions. Then, between light and heavy tanks were the medium versions that combined the best of both worlds.
Medium tanks made appearances in nearly every major battle in WWII because they had that great combination of heavy strength and light maneuverability. They could react quickly when a line was being attacked or move forward to take advantage of enemy weaknesses. The Soviet T-34 was one of the most notable medium tanks, but the American M4 Sherman is also a standout example.
Most iconic on the German side was the Tiger I, which was a heavy tank that admittedly saw more than a few mechanical failures. But this was more than made up for thanks to its formidable armor and massive gun. Yet what about the armored vehicle found close to Paris? What kind of tank was it?
Well, the remains were from an M5 that had last been seen in 1944 when it was part of the American 31st Tank Battalion, according to the Daily Mail. It had probably been on a reconnaissance mission as part of the march towards liberating Paris. Witnesses who remembered its arrival weren’t sure whether it slipped out of its tracks or ran out of fuel, but either way it had been abandoned.
Whatever the reason, this M5 was left behind as the rest of the battalion moved on. And no one came back for it when the fighting was finally done. When the war was over the local residents buried the tank and it remained forgotten for nearly 60 years. But now that it’s been found and bomb disposal experts have declared it safe, its significance can finally be recognized.
The M5 was developed to resolve some of the issues experienced by earlier American light tanks such as the M2 and M3. While the latter had enjoyed some success in the Pacific theatre against the Japanese, its armor and guns were much too weak to face the German panzers. They also had some problems with engine design that the car company Cadillac was ready to tackle.
You may be wondering why the replacement for the M3 wasn’t an M4. In reality, there was already an M4 Sherman being used in combat and U.S. planners didn’t want to confuse the two. In February 1942 the M5 was born out of two experiments with the M3. The first made it quieter, easier to maintain and more spacious, while the second strengthened the hull.
The eventual M5 had a rotatable hatch with periscope for the driver and another for the gunner. At the back was a hammer, shovel, pickaxe, crowbar and various other tools, according to The Online Tank Museum. The machine gun for the assistant driver was .30 cal and there was a 37mm for the gunner. If the tank was hit, then the lower octane fuel made it a lot safer for the four-person crew.
There were more than 2000 original M5s produced, the website added, while modified and improved versions were trialed throughout the war. The long-lost M5 is a reminder of just how important tanks could be. And it serves as a crucial reminder of a vehicle which helped bring an end to the world’s most devastating conflict.