Written By: Ben Cosgrove
In late July 1944, LIFE magazine photographer Ralph Morse was on hand for what he called, in his typed notes from the scene, the “first organized entertainment in Normandy” after D-Day. In his photos of scantily clad women (and men) performing for hundreds of battle-weary troops, Morse chronicled a small, memorable reprieve in the midst of the Allied push south, toward Paris.
(See a scan, below, of the note that Morse sent to his editors along with his film.)
A handful of Morse’s photos were published in the Aug. 14, 1944, issue of LIFE — the famous cover of which, photographed by Morse’s colleague Bob Landry, appears at left. Most of the pictures featured in this gallery, meanwhile, never appeared in LIFE.
In that Aug. ’44 issue, LIFE described the scene Morse witnessed at a “rest camp” for the troops:
“While the great breakthrough boiled southward [from Normandy toward Paris] a few U.S. soldiers were taking it easy at rest camps behind the lines. At one of the camps the men were entertained by an eager troupe of French vaudevillians called Les Grandes Tournées d’André Fleury.”
Les Grandes Tournées, it seems, had been organized in Paris three years before, while the French capital was under German control. In late May of 1944 the troupe set out for Cherbourg; on June 5, the day before the invasion, they set up in the ancient town of Carteret. When the Germans pulled in the face of the Allied onslaught, the performers were stranded, with little food or money.
So when a U.S. Army Special Service officer asked them to put on a show for American troops, they were happy to comply. “They were charging the Germans and French 30 to 60 francs,” Morse wrote in his notes. “Now they get 25 francs a head from the Special Service funds for each soldier at the showings.”
The money, by all accounts, was well-spent.
“The show is old-type vaudeville and plenty of legs,” Morse went on. “A perfect show for the battle-tired troops resting a few days. The girls not understanding English and the troops not understanding French . . . the remarks and wisecracks are terrific. Its value as medicine for the boys is tops. They are completely relaxed . . . and yell and scream to their hearts’ content.”
[Buy the LIFE book, D-Day: Remembering the Battle that Won the War — 70 Years Later]
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.