THE FADING MARGIN: serial 7Posted: December 29, 2012
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
A Taste of Calvados
We sailed on a ship, not a landing barge. There are no group photographs, no snapshots, no tangible souvenirs of a voyage of which I recall the boredom of torpedo watches as we went down Channel, the discovery that a hammock was not at all a bad thing to sleep in, and the evening when some of us were philosophising on deck and one of our number said that he thought a man went on living after death so long as he was lovingly remembered. I didn’t know about lovingly, I said, but I’d remember him all right, since a few weeks earlier he’d borrowed my uninsured bicycle without my permission, and lost it; but I’d do my best. He was killed five months later, by which time the hereafter had ceased to be a subject for levity and I wished I hadn’t made the joke about the bike.
At Port-en-Bessin, near Arromanches on the Normandy coast, we transferred by crane and scrambling net from the ship to smaller craft and made our unopposed landing in France. It would be convenient to be able to pick and choose from a gallery of vivid images to illustrate the event; instead, one alone has never faded. At a junction of the narrow roads along which our column is heading inland, a Calvary of the kind seen all over rural France leans precariously from its stone base, the plaster image of the Saviour, thickly coated in dust, suffering not in ultimate agony at the hands of his executioners on Golgotha, but from mutilation by bomb or shell during the days and nights of bombardment that have prefaced the D-Day landings. The impersonal, remotely contrived vandalism is curiously shocking; frightening, even. “No! No!”, one feels like protesting, hands raised in a gesture of exculpation and hope of escaping Divine wrath. “No! No! We didn’t do it. It wasn’t us”.
But if there are no graphic souvenirs other than this to celebrate our arrival on the enemy-occupied continent of Europe, surely there ought at least to be imperishable emotional ones? There is nothing. If ever there was a sense of occasion (“So this is France! So at last we are about to face the enemy”…) it was lost in mundane practicalities. There is no recollection of either awe or fear.
Beginning, as it did, with the stench of death, the fear was not long delayed. Ask many a man who saw service in Normandy for his most enduring memories of the experience and likely as not his first will be the reek of decomposition. For miles inland from the beaches, the bombing and shelling that had preceded the landings had taken a dreadful toll of the countless thousands of cows that represented the largest part of the wealth of the province, a slaughter that continued until August had gone. Back from the fighting, animal carcasses could be buried by bulldozers. In the forward areas they lay where they had died, legs obscenely jutting from bodies bloated by rain and midsummer heat. Shortly after my troop had occupied one of its first gun positions, a Frenchman arrived who announced himself as the owner of the meadow and – sadly – the dozen or more dead cows that heavily contaminated the evening air. After an exchange of civilities in which, to his surprise and my considerable satisfaction, I appeared fluently to exercise my advanced school certificate French, he proffered a flask fetched out from one of the capacious pockets of his bleu de travail. I swigged, and choked. The flask’s owner laughed. What was it? I asked, gasping. Calvados: authentic Normandy brandy, he said – “la vrai eau-de-vie Normande”; made by himself from his own apples. Though prompt recovery or burial of dead men was conscientiously attended to by the enemy and ourselves, there were circumstances in which it was impossible. At that moment a sergeant called me over to ask what should be done about the grey-green body (field grey of enemy uniform; cadaverous green of flesh) lying in the hedgerow just behind one of the guns; the stench, he said, was intolerable. Indeed it was: there is a difference between the odour of animal and human putrescence and I supervised an immediate, if shallow, interment. The taste and redolence of the swig from the farmer’s flask was still powerfully with me; thus the beginning and end of my voluntary acquaintance with Calvados. Even today, the faintest smell of the digestif that at its expensive best is as much prized by its devotees as the finest cognac is to me powerfully evocative of the infamous bocage.
A DIRTY BUSH WAR
“That difficult and most characteristic Norman countryside” said the military historian, the late Sir John Keegan, writing of the terrain in which casualties were so many as critically to strain reinforcement reserves, “stands between small, thickly banked hedge rows, enclosing fields first won from the waste by Celtic farmers… and separated by narrow and winding lanes. Through over a thousand years of growth the roots of the hedgerows have bound the banks into barriers which will rebuff even bulldozers, while winter rains and the hooves of Norman cattle have worn the surface of the roadways deep beneath the level of the surrounding fields”. Bocage, said Keegan, “swiftly lost its pleasant sylvan undertones (and) came to mean the sudden, unheralded burst of machine-pistol fire at close quarters, the crash and flame of a panzerfaust strike on the hull of a blinded and pinioned tank”. In his book D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, Anthony Beevor records that the Germans described fighting there as taking part in a “schmutziger Buschkrieg” – a dirty bush war. Yet the ultimate drama of close combat was not indispensable to the awfulness of the bocage. A brooding, all-pervading menace and intimation of death lurked in every malodorous meadow, every shell and mortar-shredded coppice, every dark defile of a sunken lane.
The moment of not only recognising that one could be killed, but of fearing that one very possibly would be, was what a later age would call a tipping point. For most of us, I suspect, it was reached not suddenly, with a single incident, but with an accumulation of cogent disagreeabilities: the sight of graves marked by makeshift crosses and tin hats; the news that one of our advance party had been killed in a mortar attack; the hulks of burnt-out tanks; cautionary German notices in the form of a skull and crossbones surmounting the word MINEN; British ones proclaiming DUST BRINGS SHELLS. For a few of us an early reminder of our vulnerability came out of the blue. In an early and not particularly advanced location the relative quiet was shattered by the howl of an aircraft – obviously a fighter – arriving at tree-top height from the flank of the gun position. The Allied air forces had ensured that enemy aircraft were rare in the skies above Normandy so that my troop sergeant’s “Bloody maniac”! was more an expression of reproachful and alarmed surprise than fear. A split fraction of a second brought a comprehensive change of attitude. The presumed daredevil friend was a Messerschmitt 109, firing as he came, the din of his guns more terrifying than that of his engine. Both the sergeant and I dived for the floor of the command post excavation, upsetting the artillery board (a special sort of table for plotting gun targets) as we did so, along with the Tilley lamp, the broken glass of which caused our only injury and my lasting souvenir – a cut across the knuckles of my right hand.
It was a rude interruption of a curiously peaceful few days. Incongruously, there was time for excursions to nearby Bayeux. Evacuated by the enemy on D-Day itself, almost unscathed by Allied bombing or shelling, the historic city’s museum and Tapestry might be inaccessible but its shops were crowded with Allied soldiery, most of whom were subsisting on compo rations and had not bathed since leaving England but were eagerly spending their specially printed “invasion currency” on camembert and cosmetics to send back across the Channel. “Delightful little girl of seven called Yvette from nearby farm brings us milk”, says my diary two days after our landing; but Montgomery’s Operation EPSOM was at its disastrous height and ensuing nights were occupied with almost non-stop firing against counterattacking SS Panzers. “Dreadful sight of entire 15th Scottish infantry patrol wiped out, probably by Spandau fire”, reads a pencilled entry for the next day.
ANATOMY OF FEAR
Past the tipping point, fear was liable to be an irremediable affliction, commonly evident in the intensity of emotion expressed in letters and diaries and many a man’s enhanced attachment to tobacco and strong drink. Inevitably, its components varied. Chronologically first for many of us were snipers. Even before we ourselves had fired a round word ran like wildfire that sharpshooters were being left behind wherever the enemy gave ground. The tanks and the infantry – the true “front line” troops – were the ones who were most at risk every time they went into action; but in the menace of the sniper we in field artillery, who by comparison had a “cushy” war, in some measure shared their perils. The ground-strafing Messerschmitt had come and gone, and considering the extent of Allied air cover had most likely never made it back to base. A rare bomb or two had been perturbing (“A bit too f—–g close for my liking”!) but in no way sinister. By contrast, the essence of the sniper’s trade was the personification of deadly, personal malevolence: to strike not in passing or at random; but to lie in wait, unseen, patient, precise, selective. “Snipers were detested and feared as much for the strain that they caused to men’s routine movements in forward areas as for the casualties that they inflicted”, says Sir Max Hastings. Every reconnaissance, every occupation of a new position, every necessary excursion for even the most basic of bodily functions came to be attended by a mortal anxiety. No quarter was given to snipers who attempted to surrender.
Though sooner encountered, they came a poor second to mines in my own hierarchy of fears. Broadly speaking, there were two categories of land mines – anti-tank and antipersonnel. The first needed a pressure of 300 lbs or more to set them off, and in field artillery we seldom had to deal with them. The lightest step or the snagging of a trip wire was sufficient to detonate the second. Like the sniper, it was omnipresent, unseen and deadly. In his book, Mine Warfare on Land, the American Lt. Col. Sloan described the ‘S’ mine as probably the device most feared by Allied troops in the war. To appreciate its characteristics, think of a tin of baked beans incorporating two explosive charges – one at the bottom of the container and one in the middle, among the beans. From the top of the tin protrudes a slim, 3-pronged metal antenna, two or three inches in height. Pressure on the antenna activates the lower of the explosive charges, causing the whole contrivance to jump three or four feet into the air, at which point the central and most powerful charge explodes. Imagine, now, that the contents of the can surrounding the main charge are not beans, but steel balls, resembling roller bearings, or any scrap metal that the manufacturer of the ‘S’ mine happened to have had to hand. Picture the can lightly buried and concealed (in long grass, for instance) with the antenna standing proud, or with the detonator in the base associated with a spring-loaded trigger connected to a trip wire. When the main charge explodes, the steel balls or pieces of scrap metal scythe a circle of several metres radius at about waist height. A man in armour might survive. A man in battledress can be cut in half.
My own special fear of the ‘S’ mine was born early in our acquaintance with the bocage. Shortly after we had moved into a particularly claustrophobic, but so far unchallenged position, where the body of a dead German lay huddled within a few paces of the command post, a sudden, curiously double detonation (“slam” rather than “bang” might best convey the quality of the sound) buffeted the air. Seconds later, a jeep carrying my colonel on his rounds appeared. Relieved to find that the evidently nearby explosions had not had anything to do with the guns, he nonetheless wanted to know what had caused them and told me to take a quick look round.
Immediately beside the position, bordering a wood that stretched ahead and for a thousand yards or so back to regimental headquarters, was a sunken lane by which the colonel had arrived, its surface beyond the turn-off into the gun position strewn with leaves as a result of earlier shelling or mortaring, but sinisterly still undisturbed by wheels or feet. Timorously making my reconnaissance along it, I soon saw that on one side, in advance of where the colonel and I had been standing, was a grassy clearing among the trees, and that in the middle of it, a little apart from one another, were three bodies in khaki, two of them quite still, one moving fitfully. In the course of laying field telephone line to the battery, three regimental signallers had gone too far and, emerging from the wood into the clearing, had blundered among ‘S’ mines.
That the officer on the scene would have no choice but to go to the assistance of the men was not in doubt. For the questionable privilege of helping him, one of the troop’s most competent and popular bombardiers, together with a driver of one of the gun-towing vehicles, unhesitatingly volunteered. In single file, very slowly, myself leading, the other two carrying a stretcher; step by precise, grudging step, searching the grass with straining eyes and the aid of hazel wands, we made our way to where the bodies lay. As we went, I was occupied by a double apprehension. Another type of antipersonnel land mine known to be in use by the enemy consisted of a simple wooden box with a hinged lid which when trodden on triggered an explosion large enough to remove at least a foot and not seldom a leg. This was the German Type 42 Schu (“shoe”) mine. Wholly, if shallowly, buried, it was detectable only by probing with rod or bayonet. There was no particular reason for supposing that Schu mines had been sown among the ‘S’ mines in the present position, but the possibility that they had been so employed added an undeniable, though for the comfort of my companions inadmissible, element of risk to an already uninsurable undertaking. Twice, we were obliged to skirt telltale antennae. Though we detected no trip wires we lifted our feet and put them down with theatrically exaggerated care.
Two mines had been detonated and two men lay like mutilated khaki-clad rag dolls, past all help. The third was ashen-faced, but still breathing. With meticulous care, at least as much for our common good as for the welfare of the victim, the bombardier and the driver manoeuvred the wounded signaller onto the stretcher whilst I did nothing but watch and most earnestly hope that a benevolent Providence was in overall charge. At last, the stretcher was lifted and we started on our way back. The journey (“journey”? It can’t have been more than fifty yards) to the lane was a reprise of the earlier performance, but with even fewer temptations to laugh.
Leading the way, as before, I had by far the easiest and safest part. Behind me, the bombardier and gunner marked my footsteps as conscientiously as any page ever marked those of Good King Wenceslas; far from boldly, treading tentatively and with little choice but to trust to luck and my circumspection. At the front of the stretcher, the bombardier could at least see where I had put my feet and do his best to follow my example. The gunner at the back, his forward and downward vision blocked by the burden he was carrying, must have suffered an immeasurably greater nervous strain. Afterwards, I found that I was shivering uncontrollably, only vaguely aware of an unusually solicitous colonel and avid for very hot, sweet tea laced with rum, and a cigarette.
In the ensuing weeks the Battery Sergeant-Major, a long-serving regular with a mordant sense of humour, delighted in stealing up behind me and giving a sudden, explosive hiss in simulation of the split-second noise made by an ‘S’ mine when the jump charge was triggered. For some time after the war I was absurdly shy about walking in long grass in a woodland clearing or beside a country lane.
NEXT FRIDAY, 4th January, 2013. A Taste of Calvados, Part Two.
After snipers and mines, it was a competition between the mortar and the Spandau as to which in the armoury of enemy weapons contributed most generously to the sum total of fear……………….. …………….The two unforgettable characteristics of the Spandau were the initial, split-second stutter – an apologetic little cough – when the trigger was first pulled and the evil, demonic eagerness of the noise that instantly followed. …………. Fiendishly purposeful, it was as if the weapon itself were motivated by hate. At anytime and distance it could induce fear. Nearby, and at night, terror might not be too strong a word.