Saturday, June 07, 2014

War 1 - Peace 0

A funny thing occurred on the way to yesterday's moving 70th anniversary of D-Day. In the Wikipedia entry for Gold Beach, one of the five main landing points for the Allied invasion of Europe, a sidebar reads:

While clearly not the intention, "Result: Allied victory" makes the assault on Gold Beach at Arromanches look like a football match. D-Day was anything but.

A couple of years ago I drove out to Normandy to visit some of the D-Day sites, and the first thing that struck me about some of the beaches was just what an expanse of sand they offered the invading force.

It's hard enough running across a beach in flip-flops and a pair of board shorts, let alone wading ashore under heavy machine gun fire while carrying anything up to 40kg of equipment, and then - if you survive that - having to cover the distance of three football pitches on some of the Normandy landing's bigger beaches.

The assault on the D-Day beaches was brilliantly captured by Reuters correspondent Doon Campbell who, aged 24, was the youngest British war correspondent covering the invasion and also the first reporter to come ashore on June 6, 1944 itself.

In his book, Magic Mistress – A 30 Year Affair with Reuters, he describes the British assault on Sword Beach, near Caen:

"A smudge, brown on black in the far distance, marked our landing-area. The craft zigzagged the last mile or two, dodging the shells now coming out to meet us. There were ships everywhere, one or two smoking or even sinking, some fouling uncleared obstacles, but most of them swinging massively towards the hazy coastline that was Normandy.

For the final lap, the skipper opened the throttle, and at 09.06 we rammed Sword Beach. The ramp thrown down from the landing-craft was steep and slippery, and I fell chest-deep into the sea lapping the mined beaches. The commandos, their faces smeared with camouflage grease, charged ahead. I struggled. My pack, sodden and waterlogged, strapped tight round my shoulders, seemed made for easy drowning. But a lunge forward, helped by a heave from a large corporal already in the water, gave me a first toehold.

Ahead lay the beach. It was a sandy cemetery of the unburied dead. Bodies, some only half-dead, lay scattered about, with arms or legs severed, their blood clotting the sand. Behind me, through fountains of water raised by exploding shells from the coastal batteries, little ships were nudging into the shallows, and behind them a vast armada of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and close support vessels put down a paralysing bombardment.

It would be no good trying to bolt up the beach with the commandos, though many of them were also carrying collapsible bicycles. For me, every step was an effort under the backbreaking load of my pack. Dripping wet, like my trousers, it felt as if I weighed a ton. While the commandos surged ahead until swallowed up in the brooding woods, I edged along the protective shelter of a garden wall, crossed the pot-holed road into a field and stumbled into a ditch about 200 yards (180m) from the beach. There I stayed with the wounded.

We fought to stay alive in that shallow furrow, clawing at the soggy soil for depth that at least made us feel a little less exposed to the withering mortar and shellfire. Whether falling short or whistling overhead, it never let up. Earth spurted in with every near miss and more water seeped through our clothes. But we thanked God for that damp dirty ditch.

With every pause in fire, I was wrestling to ease myself out of the commando pack harness. When it was finally detached, I opened it almost furtively, and found my portable typewriter undamaged. I got a sheet of paper in and started pecking at the keyboard, but it was hopeless; every time I tried to type, a mortar exploded a few yards away or hit the lip of the ditch and a shower of dirt clogged the keys. So I tore a page from a school exercise book and scribbled a few lines from ‘A ditch 200 yards inside Normandy’. It never reached Reuters."

The distance of time mutes our ability to comprehend true horror. The entertainment industry has, over the years, tried to capture the scale, the challenge and the impact of D-Day, whether Darryl F. Zanuck's epic The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan or its television cousin Band Of Brothers. But seeing the faces of D-Day veterans yesterday at events in Arromanches, Oouistreham and at the Pegasus Bridge site, the memories and the bloodshed all around them etched in, the raw reality of the day, 70 years previously, was there to be seen.

Operation Overlord, the invasion and recapture of occupied Europe, may be, today, positioned as a  gung-ho Allied football victory, but that belies the terror of those first soldiers who went ashore, some killed before they'd even left the landing craft, others drowned by the equipment that weighed them down, others sliced apart by the Germans' much feared MG42 machine gun - as efficient a piece of mass killing technology as humankind has ever devised. And for those who poured ashore, having to wade through blood-red waters full of the bodies of floating comrades, whose D-Day had lasted only a matter of seconds.

Like any military operation, D-Day was an event of incredible odds, and the Allies went to extraordinary lengths of ingenuity to lengthen them. Inflatable replica Spitfire planes, trucks, tanks and troop gliders were assembled all along the British coast to trick German reconnaissance flights into thinking an invasion would take place elsewhere, such as Calais, the closest point between Britain and France. Winston Churchill, in particular, had been reluctant to commit to any invasion for fear of recreating the wholesale slaughter in the fields of France 30 years previously. As it turned out, more than 4,000 Allied lives were lost that day, more than had been expected.

But even though those odds had included the certainty that men would be cut down before they'd even had the chance to get off the beach, and a certain percentage of forces surviving would be enough to break out. But they did, and by the end of August, Paris had been liberated.

Like any war site, visiting the D-Day beaches in Normandy is a humbling experience. Looking out on these pretty stretches of sand in an equally beguiling part of the French coastline, watching joggers jog and dog walkers walk, it is almost impossible to imagine the horror of those first hours on D-Day. Like any beach, there is a placidity to the noise of seagulls and waves crashing. And yet on June 6, 1944, those beaches became the tiniest chink in the armour of the Nazi occupation and tyranny in Europe.

If you ever find yourself in northern France, or crossing the English Channel, make a detour to visit Normandy. There are plenty of monuments to war throughout Europe, but to visit those beaches and feel humbled by the sense of ultimate sacrifice that took place on that early summer's day in 1944 provides the most fitting reminder of the freedom we should all be grateful for, a freedom enabled by the events of that incredible day, 70 years ago.

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