THE FADING MARGIN: Serial 11

The Winter of ’44

Part One

“Did ye not hear it? – No; ’twas but the wind,

 Or the car rattling o’er the stony street….

 On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined;

 No sleep ‘till morn, when youth and pleasure meet

To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet –

But hark – that heavy sound breaks in once more,

As if the clouds its echo would repeat;

And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before!

Arm! Arm! it is – it is – the cannon’s opening roar”  *

___

*  Byron, Childe Harold: The Eve of Waterloo

 

 

 

 

On 16 September, the day before we watched the beginnings of Market Garden, Hitler had announced to his headquarters operational staff that in spite of all reverses so far the war could be won, and that before the end of the year he would launch an offensive that as well as retaking the port of Antwerp would drive a wedge between the Americans on the borders of Germany and the British and Canadian armies in Holland and northern Belgium. Having destroyed the latter, and with his “secret weapons” (the V1s, V2s and forthcoming jet aircraft) yet to be fully deployed, he would be able to negotiate peace with Churchill and Roosevelt and devote the whole of Germany’s efforts towards the definitive defeat of Russia.

On 16 December, Code-named ‘Autumn Mist’, the promised offensive was launched by three German armies where Hitler’s panzers had overwhelmed the French defences in 1940 – the Belgian Ardennes. Falling, John Keegan has said, “like a whirlwind” on the weakest part of the entire Allied front and its “ill-fitted and unprepared American defenders”, more than eight thousand of whom surrendered in the initial assault, it was the beginning of what came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge. At this time we were still  ‘resting’ in Bocholt, Belgium, and I was writing to my elder brother, who was a pilot in  Atlantic Ferry Command, thanking him for the marvellously welcome gift of a pair of sheepskin-lined flying boots which were, I told him unoriginally but sincerely, “worth their weight in gold”.

Four days later, the gravity of the disaster and the strategic threat having been grasped by Eisenhower and the American high command, the northern sector of the ‘bulge’, nearest to Antwerp, was put under British (which is to say Montgomery’s) command, the letter-writing in Bocholt ended and a diary entry recorded “Slow move south through Malines and Louvain to position on high ground about 20 kms south of Brussels, but no firing. Later, move south again in dark to position near Waterloo.”

Sometime during the night of 21 December, in a large and picturesque thatched cottage near Maransart, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo, our arrival disturbed Jules Van Paemel, a 55-year old Belgian artist (not until years after the war was I to know how eminent he was), his wife, and their 21-year-old daughter, Denise. The Van Paemels had moved there from Brussels in 1939 and were now awakened by the noise of heavy motor vehicles in the lane that skirted the property, then of their manoeuvring on the partly open ground near the cottage. British voices could be heard, shouting orders.

It was the beginning of a novel such as might be written for those famous publishers of romantic fiction, Mills and Boon. In the morning, a young British officer appeared at the cottage, asking where the nearest water supply point might be found. Right there, if only moderate quantities were needed, Madame Van Paemel said. Otherwise, there was a well and a pump in the farmyard a few hundred yards along the lane. The young officer was invited to take coffee. Thus I met the enchanting Denise for the first time. “All right for some!”, one of my troop sergeants remarked sardonically when it later emerged that at night I would be sleeping on a divan in the cottage instead of being obliged to bed down in the makeshift command post. But his imagination ran far ahead of reality. Romance there would be in plenty, but almost heartbreaking in its innocence. We were many years and a social revolution short of Philip Larkin and the Beatles’ first LP.

A COTTAGE IDYLL

As Hitler had hoped, on the Ardennes front atrocious flying weather kept the Allied air forces grounded. Such news as we heard on public broadcasts (there was little or nothing from respectable military sources) was of continuing enemy progress and of confusion on the part of the American defenders. At regimental level we were given to understand that the division’s rôle near Waterloo was the defence of the capital and the blocking of the way to Antwerp. Histrionically  – as we assumed – rather than seriously, there was mention of the artillery’s traditional backs-to-the wall, die-where-you stand, order of ‘last man; last round’. Gun and weapon pits dug, telephone line laid, our 25-pounders in position, facing south, there was now nothing much in the way of soldiering to occupy our time.

“You’re welcome here whenever the fancy takes you”, the Van Paemels said, meaning in particular the four or five of the battery’s junior officers they now met. That they derived unqualified pleasure from our company was never in doubt. Brussels had been cleared of the enemy less than a month before and on the part of the Belgians the joy was still of liberation; on ours, literally and metaphorically, it was that of coming in from the cold. A large open hearth and a plentiful supply of wood kept the cottage wonderfully cosy. The Van Paemels insisted that we eat meals with them. Judiciously and deliciously we did. There were hot baths. Mending and laundry was done.

My troop position being significantly closer than any of the other three, propinquity, that most powerful of advantages, was on my side, and I was able to spend more time in the cottage than anyone else did. No less of a head start, and equally fortuitous, my French was a good deal more confident than that of my battery colleagues. Jules Van Paemel and his wife spoke English fluently, but their daughter’s command of the language, though unforgettably endearing, was rudimentary. Finally, as the youngest of our  junior officers,  I was nearest her in age. “You children” was how Madame Van Paemel was inclined to address us when we were together. There was an unmistakable wistfulness in her maternal affection for both of us. She had been a young woman in another war and seen other hardly-fledged young men in uniform holding hands with other starry-eyed girls of twenty-one.

On 23 December Louise, one of Denise’s many cousins and “Mac”, her unofficial fiancé, arrived from Brussels. The weather cleared. I was legitimately off-duty all day and the four of us went to Mont St. Jean and the ridge from which Wellington had directed his troops in the decisive stages of the battle on 18 June, 1815. While I strove to picture the events of 129 years ago, Allied aircraft heading for the ‘bulge’ and the devastating erosion of the Panzer invaders crowded the otherwise unblemished blue sky. Absurdly, we waved and cheered them on from the steps of the Lion of Waterloo.

Though it had never for a moment occurred to us, their new-found British friends, that the German offensive might ultimately succeed, it had been different for the Belgians. They lacked the blissful ignorance of our generation. The elders especially had adult memories of the First World War and the barbaric destruction of Louvain. They had lived through the blitzkrieg of 1940 and four years of occupation. They had not forgotten Dunkirk. Now, the sight of Allied air power flooding south immensely heartened them and that evening there was an almost palpable sense of relief as well as gaiety in the cottage. Champagne (surely the celebration wine never more triumphantly came into its own than in those last weeks of 1944) cooled in buckets on the frozen lawn and sparkled together with our eager chatter.

Next day, the troop was busy with preparations for a midday Christmas dinner to be held in a neighbouring barn. In the cottage a magnificent Christmas tree, decorations, things to eat and drink and armfuls of presents had arrived in two cars from Brussels along with an aunt, an uncle and more cousins – Christiane and Gérard. Tireless, ant-like industry, not least in the kitchen, turned the cottage into an Aladdin’s cave of colour, brilliance, and richly-scented promise. In the Ardennes, the American 101st Airborne were surrounded at Bastogne and men were dying of cold in their foxholes. A legend (powerfully to be evoked 60 years on in Band of Brothers) was in the making; but we knew nothing of it. We drank more champagne, dined convivially and superbly by candlelight, rolled back the carpet and danced to Glen Miller. Joy could never have been less confined. Denise said it was all “vachement chaleureux”.

“The German penetration having been held on the Meuse and elsewhere, the division was moved in the very early hours of Christmas Day to Dinant, where the regiment took up a position a few miles south of the town until it was relieved by the 53rd (Light) Air Landing Regiment of 6 Airborne Division. On 28 December it occupied high ground above Namur. On 1 January there was another move to the north of Marche, where the Regiment supported the Division who were attacking south on the right flank of the American 82nd Infantry Division.

In the very small hours there was a loud and urgent knocking at the cottage door. Captain G, who had drawn the short straw that had consigned him to night duty, was sorry to break things up, but the battery was under orders to be ready to move out at 10 a.m. The dancing stopped. The grownups went to bed. The “children”, energy abruptly dissipated, sprawled by the fire, too shocked and dispirited at first to talk, then sometimes murmuring the sort of endearments that are not dared among new acquaintances until high emotion overrules the inhibitions of convention. The candles burned low.

Shall I be believed when I swear that the taste of someone else’s tears is as real to me today as it was so long ago? I can hear Denise’s sobs immediately after the momentary, stunned silence that followed the arrival of the duty officer. Her cheek is against mine. With a tenderness I am glad of, and which I hope provokes no embarrassment for the reader, I can recall the scent of her hair as later she slept in my arms there by the dying fire. Lulu was sitting on the carpet, her cheek against the knees of one of my seniors. Christiane was sleeping on cushions, her head in Mac’s lap. There had been apple wood in the fire and in my fancy now I can hear it hissing. There was cognac in my glass and today the taste of cognac is remembrance of all those things.

Standing in my vehicle as we passed along the lane soon after 10 a.m., heading south, I waved at the little group gathered at the bottom edge of the artist’s steeply sloping lawn. As they waved back, Denise turned away suddenly and ran back up to the cottage. The others were still waving when a bend in the road hid them from view.

That night, we deployed the guns in a field somewhere between Waterloo and the Meuse, but were not called on to fire. Temporarily separated from my personal kit, vainly attempting to sleep in straw thickly spread on the frozen ground in the command post, I thought of the night that had just passed and the people in the cottage and wished that I could call out to tell them that we would be back. With daylight again, we moved on south, by the light of the moon during the night of New Year’s Day occupied a position not far from Namur, and in an abandoned cutlery factory warmed ourselves at a stove fuelled from bins of wooden knife handles while some of our infantry in the forest died of exposure.

WINTER SPORT

A week later, the German offensive was spent and the Ardennes front secured. Reliable casualty figures are not easy to come by, but upwards of 15,000 Americans had been killed and possibly three times that number of Germans along with the  loss of some 800 tanks and 1,000 aircraft at a cost of disastrously weakening the Russian front. The British comparatively minor, though vital participation, cost them fewer than 500 dead.

“The Division was withdrawn from operations in this area on 11 January, 1945, and the regiment went into a rest area near Liège. From there it moved to Helmond, in Holland, on 20 January to refit”.

Some of us made vigorous use of our leisure time. Skiing equipment was found in  Liège and lessons were given by the beau major on snow-covered terrain close to our billets. “An exhilarating sport and quite easy to learn as regards simple runs”, observes my diary. For “simple runs” understand pushing off from the top of the slope and stopping after a straight descent not by design but because of exhausted momentum. It was the birth of an unhealthy delusion. Subsequently, in another country, it abetted a repeat performance, and when that too was blessed by beginner’s luck encouraged a dangerous belief that boldness might be a dependable friend. The day was to come when, still untaught but not wanting to be pitifully upstaged by my younger Oxford companions, I applied the philosophy to a late afternoon run (which is to say when pistes were in shadow and icy) on a steep slope in the Vorarlberg. The following week saw me on crutches.

Whatever was supposed to have constituted the “refit” at Helmond, the process remained a mystery to my diary: nothing about the guns; a little about vehicle inspections; a note that I conducted a “short course on mines” and that I was defending officer in the court-martials of two of our gunners for alleged desertion but nothing to indicate a comprehensive renovation or replacement of our essential equipment. References to “bad stomach trouble again” and “agonising shoulder pains” suggest that a certain amount of personal refurbishment might have been appropriate, but what therapy, if any, was applied is not revealed. We seem to have had good billets (“slept well in proper bed with sheets”) and to have been well catered for (“after 2 gins and  large dinner, too sleepy to write letters”) and although there are mentions of snow there are few about being cold. Nearby was a Canadian unit that was to be involved in the forthcoming offensive. I visited it in the hope of finding an officer I had met in England, found him, and returned to billets richer for unsolicited but welcome gifts of a kerosene camp stove, winter underwear that included hugely comforting longjohns, toilet soap, cigarettes and Canadian Club whiskey.

____

NEXT FRIDAY,  1 February, Serial 12: The Winter of ’44,  Part  Two.

Advertisements

THE FADING MARGIN: Serial 10

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.

TENNYSON 

  The Great Swan

Part Two

The sunshine in which we watched the first act of the ill-fated airborne operation of Market Garden did not last long. The defeat at Arnhem marked both the end of any bright hope that the war might be over by Christmas and the beginning of what, in the far and backward view, seems to have been a drama for winter scripted by Thomas Hobbes set in a landscape by Pieter Breughel or Hendrik Averkamp, with brief moments here and there from an opium smoker’s happy dream.

With Market Garden over (subsequent minor operations were inevitably to take us on a sightseeing tour of its poignant wreckage), the Germans in the north of Holland, beyond the Rhine, were fighting with a ferocity that gave our own infantry their worst experiences since Normandy. Some of the enemy were battle-hardened German paratroopers. Some – the renowned Kampfgruppen – were the remnants of miscellaneous fighting formations largely destroyed in earlier engagements but now assembled, ad hoc, along with stray personnel even from administrative units. Enhancing the characteristic and unsurpassed military virtues of the German army was an awareness that “unconditional surrender” was the declared policy of their adversaries and that they were part of the last line of defence of their homeland.

It was a very different war from the one that had been fought in summer and a different country from the one that had been left on the far side of the Seine. The civil population of occupied Holland had suffered far worse than that of France, and although they were neither indifferent to their liberation, nor slow to recognise it, those who had delivered it could hardly fail to be aware of what they had never been conscious of in Normandy or during the great ‘swan’ after Falaise – that real hardship, or worse, was never far away.

“The crusade to liberate Europe, upon which many men of the Allied nations embarked with real idealism in June 1944, had degenerated into a series of sodden local manoeuvres”, says Max Hastings. Far from the triumphant, non-stop advance that Montgomery, yearning for the victor’s laurels, had schemed for, the months went by in a savage and relatively parochial skirmishing where many lives were lost but not a yard of Germany gained. “Mopping up” was the term most usually and most inappropriately used.

All downhill and on to Berlin? The regimental history from the start of Market Garden in September to the second week in December records the following different locations occupied for widely varying periods of time. Riethoven – Veldhoven  –  Eindhoven – Wintelre – Middelbeers – Nijmegen – Berchem – s’Hertogenbosch – Week  – Kinroy – Bree – Swartbroek – Baexam – Heijhuijzen. Fourteen moves in eleven weeks. A night or two here,  a few days there. The guns in action at this place but not in the next. A bed indoors on one night, but not on another.  Lorry, jeep, motorbike, in daylight or darkness. A few days of sunshine, but overwhelming and abiding impressions of fog, mist, rain, mud and bitter cold. Trying to rouse a recumbent sentry outside the ruin of a thatched cow byre one December dawn, I found him dead.

A TOUCH OF MELODRAMA

In our script for the closing months of the year, one scene, in Holland, comes perilously close to melodrama. In an attempt to detoxify it, let us therefore observe the junior officer as at times we observed the hard-pressed schoolboy: noting the facts but going easy on the emotion. It is an October evening in the smoke-filled, candlelit bar of Eindhoven’s Green Man Hotel. Consistent with high authority’s concern for morale (but in reality due to an administrative error, it is maliciously said) an ENSA concert party (ENSA is the acronym of the Entertainments National Services Association) has been sent unusually close to the fighting. The company in the bar of the Green Man includes numerous officers who, like our hero, have come into the city for the evening with parties of men from various front line units in order to attend the show. The candlelight in the bar is not for enhancement of the atmosphere but because of the frequent post-liberation power cuts.

The ENSA show has included a sketch from a popular revue that has been running in London and in which Nicola, our sometime ballerina, has a part. To our junior officer’s surprise and delight, there on the stage in Eindhoven is Betty, who has been with Nicola in the London production and whom, consequently, he has met before.  Her presence in the bar, along with that of another very pretty girl from the ENSA company (the soldiery whistled loudly at both whenever they came on), has been organised by tank officers from the Brigade of Guards, one of whom was at school with the junior officer, has encountered him in the cinema and invited him to join the party.

The guardsmen have brought well-deserved quantities of drink with them, and it flows. Our hero and Betty talk. She was with their mutual friend only a week or two ago in London, she tells him. Nicola had been upset at the time, having just heard that her husband had been wounded in Italy. How close a friend Betty has ever been to Nicola our hero has never enquired. Not very close, he thereafter likes to suppose, else her talking casually about a husband as though her listener already knew about him would have been worse than malicious. Afterwards, he is to recall that there had been a din of other talk in the smoke-filled room, so that Betty and he had been leaning towards one another in order to converse and he had been disturbingly conscious of the fashionable Chanel Number Five that she had been wearing. Otherwise, he remembers little except that after the remark about the husband the noise had seemed to increase to a personal assault so that he had wanted only to elbow his way out into the night.

Nothing else about the party. Nothing of what he might have said to Betty, or how long they were together, or how the evening ended. Only that he subsequently consumed the best part of a bottle of gin in a very cold barn before going out to an observation post at first light in a Bren gun carrier and that later the driver, recounting the incident, observed that in spite of the gin the junior officer seemed to have been “cold f—-g dangerously sober”. It was a defining moment; hence the 3-days-to-a-page record of self-pity and introspection for some time thereafter. But with that same detachment which permitted an objective view of the 13-year-old schoolboy, so let the post-Eindhoven condition of the 20-year-old junior officer be reported with compassion rather than disdain.  Witness a bundle of more than 100 letters written between June 1944 and May 1945, many mud-stained, sent not to any specified location, but rank, name and unit at an address that includes the letters B.L.A., which is to signify British Liberation Army. Along with sleep and cigarettes, they have for all of Normandy, and much of the time thereafter, been the most precious, sustaining thing in a dangerous world. To see the familiar handwriting on the pale blue envelope has always been instant elation. To read – and believe – the endearments, an exquisite happiness. Though the recipient will never find the courage to throw them away, he will never read them again.

Clinging to the Wreckage was the brilliant title of the late John Mortimer’s autobiography. It would serve admirably for an account of our young hero’s relationship with Nicola following the Eindhoven revelation. For a while the stricken vessel was kept afloat by a reluctance to face the pain of loss; which is to say by unrealistic hopes, by a self-deluding rapprochement and by romantic fantasies. Little by little, however, ever more vulnerable to even the least of unfavourable winds that blew, unseaworthy, unnavigable, it settled lower and lower in the water, a sad relic of what it once had seemed to be. For a while it may still show prominently on our charts but will make no great demands upon our patience. Other people’s love affairs are like their health: we are sorry if they fall ill and glad when they recover but have no wish to hear the details of the physician’s report, far less to be shown any scars.

MARKING TIME

In this our Hobbesian scenario for the last of autumn and early winter leading up to Christmas, 1944, a conscientious recital of activities would lose to boredom anything that it might gain in authenticity. When not occupied with the banalities of regimental duty, we are likely to be found reading and writing letters, reading books, sleeping, discussing matters as diverse as divorce and post-war social security, or playing cards; very roughly in that order of probability. There is a lot of card playing, nearly always for modest stakes. Not cerebral, patient, or wily enough to play any serious card game competently, in the course of one salutary evening at vingt-et-un I lose almost a month’s pay through characteristically reckless bidding. Generously, my principal creditor later tears up my IOU, but for decency’s sake, if nothing else, I rarely play thereafter and have never seriously gambled since. There is also, and increasingly, much wistful speculation about leave – the kind that will take us back across the Channel. There is no hope of it this year, but opportunities for local leave are meanwhile presenting themselves in the shape of 48-hour furloughs to Antwerp. Even without the menace of V1s, now targeted on Belgium’s premier port as well as on London, the prospect of spending two days and nights in a servicemen’s hotel or hostel in a foreign city has only limited appeal; consequently, there is no competition for passes. By contrast, I am eager. When we left Antwerp, back in September, Léon and Yvette Namier – the dentistry professor and his wife – had seemed sincerely sorry to see me go. Jacqui had cried when I said good-bye and flung her arms round my neck in a way that was as unsettling as it was innocent. “Promise you’ll come back”, she had sobbed. And as countless young men in uniform have done since war began, I had promised, but known that it was a vow I would probably never be able to keep.

Now, in the middle of November, I do keep it. From the area near Swartbroek that the regiment is occupying for a night or two, a 3-tonner lorry takes some half dozen ticket-of-leave men, myself the only officer, on a very uncomfortable six-hour ride into the city centre, where the other ranks will stay in a hostel and I in the Excelsior Hotel. After a glorious wallow in the first proper bath that I can remember having had since leaving England almost six months ago, I go shopping for luxuries that will be welcomed at home and for chocolates (which prove to be coals to Newcastle) to give to Yvette and Jacqui Namier. We all meet for tea in the hotel lounge, where an orchestra is playing and Jacqui is teased for allegedly looking at me “with sheep’s eyes”. A week or two after I had first met them, the Namiers tell me, a near miss by a V2 had made their flat uninhabitable and they were now living in a much smaller one. Not having known that I was going to turn up without warning, Yvette and Léon are not free for the evening, but hope that I will have dinner with them next day.

On this first night I dine very agreeably at the hotel with another subaltern from the 53rd Welsh Division whom I met in the bar, then go early and contentedly to bed after confiding to my diary that the Namiers “really are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met”.  Late the next evening, when we say goodbye, they insist that I come to see them whenever I get the chance. Hotel availability or not, provided I wouldn’t mind what was mostly used as an ironing room in their present flat, but that had a single bed in it, I could always stay with them.

The chance comes again after only a few more weeks, during one of which the River Maas breaks its banks, inundating large areas of the already-sodden countryside, and I am sick with a severe stomach upset. In this time, too, a forward observation post that I am occupying for thirty-six hours is targeted from a distance by a single enemy gun, and my report to our own guns of the compass bearing and time of firing, plus time of impact is accurate (or lucky) enough for the offender to be silenced by counter-battery action. All the windows in the upstairs room of the house which I am occupying happen to shatter noisily while I am telephoning the battery, greatly alarming the gun position officer and lending drama to what in truth is a routine occurrence in not especially dangerous circumstances. Thus is born a flattering (and, as I later had reason uncomfortably to suspect beneficial) reputation for steadiness under fire.

Then, quite out of the blue, or rather, out of the dreariness, comes a gift from the gods. One of my seniors is told by the colonel to have a rest and a change of scene. He, too, made friends when we were first in Antwerp and now proposes that we drive there in his jeep, which will be a considerable improvement on a 3-tonner. The suggestion is as good as an order and one that I am not slow to obey. The other officer is twenty-eight, very good looking (mutual Belgian friends will later always refer to him as le beau major) and has been described by a slightly strait-laced colleague as having “more charm than is good for him”. In Antwerp he will not be accommodated in an ironing room with a single bed but rather more sybaritically in the apartment of Simone, an independent and bounteously companionable young woman of twenty-three whose indulgent father owns one of the country’s largest breweries. I met her briefly back in September and fully understand the beau major’s enthusiasm for a reunion.

By now, Antwerp is under more or less daily attack from flying bombs and rockets. Courageously, the brewer’s daughter and the Namiers are still there, so on an evening in December I am back with Yvette and Léon, drinking champagne. My hostess is a superb cook and supper is truly epicurean. There is a potted gardenia but no sign of an ironing board in my bedroom and I am quite soon a little drunk with the joy of it all. Because of the bombs and rockets, Jacqui is now living with her grandparents in Brussels, to whose large mansion off the Avenue Louise Yvette and I go by train next day.  There is a Steinway grand in the drawing room, so that still I cannot hear a Chopin waltz without seeing Jacqui perched on the piano stool, hearing her protests about going to bed at ten o’clock (“mais ce n’est pas toujours que Nigel est avec nous!”) and wondering if I could have been falling in love with a child of thirteen.

A few days later, the beau major’s forward observation post is pinpointed by an enemy 88, fatally wounding his signaller and his driver, a V2 falls on a crowded cinema in Antwerp, killing more than 1,000 people, several hundred of them Allied servicemen, and all leave to the city is stopped.

______

NEXT FRIDAY, 25 January , Serial 11: The Winter of  ’44,  Part One.
 

 


THE FADING MARGIN: serial 9

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.

TENNYSON 

RETURN TO NORMANDY

from the Sunday Telegraph , 7th June 1964

There were two Battles of Normandy; the one on the beaches and the one inland. No single day of battle in the world’s history ever involved so great a concentration of power as the Battle of the Normandy beaches. None was more terrible. In none were men more brave. And in places none was ever better recorded or easier to read long afterwards, on the ground. Division by division, company by company, sometimes man by man, it is possible – and it is a humbling education – to see (to walk, to bathe, to lie in the sun while the larks sing) almost exactly, often precisely, where they landed and fought all those years ago.

Although there is a Guide Bleu to the area and events of the landings, and there are museums at Ste Mère Eglise, Utah and Arromanches, most of the permanent markers of the D-Day action have, mercifully, been left to speak for themselves.  Given a little knowledge upon the part of the observer, they do so at times with an accuracy and an eloquence that cancel out the years and induce a profound awe.

In the book by David Howarth – Dawn of D-Day – a description of an incident at Omaha beach reads:  “And there, half-submerged in the surf again, Haas trained his gun and laid it on the pillbox. He fired ten rounds. So far as he could see they all went through the aperture and exploded inside. Anyhow, the German gun was silent after that.”

There are several pillboxes on the high ground overlooking the sands of Omaha, and finding this particular one is a matter of chance. It is half hidden in the brambles and bracken. Other people have been there and made a track of sorts, but it is steep, and slippery when it is wet, and the brambles clutch at you in your scramble to the squat, ugly pile with its broken mouth gaping sideways at the sea. All the emplacements bear the marks of explosions inside: the walls pitted, scored, cracked; the ironwork distorted. But in the walls of this one are holes so neat that they might seem to have been drilled. At the ends of them are embedded the nose caps of 35mm shells so deep in the concrete that only a projectile of very high velocity could possibly have made them (Haas commanded a 35mm, anti-aircraft gun). The angle of penetration is such that the shells must certainly have come from the beach.

At all the landing places of the 30-mile assault front the history of that day is written in brute letters of concrete and rusting steel. Emplacements that could not fire to landwards, but could not be detected or destroyed from that direction either, still command the beaches. Look through their casements and the casualties in spite of the colossal pre-landing bombardments are in part easily explained.  On the Pointe-du-Hoc the observation forts that served the huge coastal batteries still dominate the cliffs where the American Rangers made their suicidal climb. Just eastwards of the river Orne there is a place called Merville. It is a small place; so small that it is unplaced on any but large-scale maps. The official history of the Second World War says of it: “The fifth of the 3rd Brigade tasks, and a very stiff one, fell to the 9th Parachute Battalion; it was to destroy the enemy battery just clear of the woods to the south of Merville – Franceville Plage …  The guns were in steel-doored concrete emplacements six feet thick … within a belt of barbed wire, double in places, 15 feet thick and five feet high. Mines had been sown profusely and there were about 15 weapon pits. Outside was a wired-in strongpoint with five machine-gun emplacements and  … ”

The battery is still there if one cares to look for it. The mines have gone but there are the telltale craters where some exploded. The wire has been taken for farm fences, though some still lies rusting and half-buried in the earth. The guns have gone too, but the position tells enough of the story; of the 150 men who attacked with only Bangalore torpedoes and personal weapons a few more than half survived. Earth still partly conceals the emplacements. No signs point to them. Only a rutted farm track leads to them.  But they are permanently part of the landscape, taken for granted by the villagers and the cows.

Away from the beaches and the coastal batteries it is quite another story. There are monuments, of course – “To the memory of our glorious liberators, who on the 6th day of June 1944…” – but they are merely the record of operations; not the scars. Hardly an acre west and north of Falaise was innocent of action and the marks of it that then seemed ineradicable. But trees grow tall in 20 years; villages have been rebuilt, towns replanned. In the countryside things are now as they were before the patrols came through the woods and along the hedgerows where the Spandaus spat and chattered; you cannot tell where the tanks swivelled on the weapon pits and crushed their paths through the clover and the waist-high corn.

This is Bougy, where the mortar and shell bursts stripped the trees bare, where – as in all the bocage that summer – sun and rain had no respect for the bodies of men and animals left lying where death caught them. Yet the woods are thick and green again and the air is full only of the scent of meadow sweet and hawthorn. There is no menace in the sunken lanes vaulted by the hazels, or in the meadows by the stream where the blue-black dragonflies dart above the water.  No snipers are in the oak trees; no “S” mines waiting in the grass.

The victory of nature has been so complete that one almost resents it for an act of irreverence. It is something like sacrilege to be able to sit here and picnic, to walk here in safety. This is Hill 112, taken and retaken at appalling cost; yet is there nothing but this stone to mark the fact? (The laburnum at the edge of the field where the British tanks were caught and burned was not planted for remembrance. The cross is for the Calvary that happened long before). Colville, Evrecy, Esquay, Tournay, Tilly – there must be men all over the world who say; “I”ll never forget that place. Never. We had a position…. ”

But they might search for a lifetime and not discover it. They might stand upon the very spot and not know it. On the beaches the tale of summer ’44 may never be lost; here it may never be found.

_______

   

  The Great Swan

Part One

“We moved to Gaillon, on the south bank of the Seine, near Les Andelys, to support the crossing of the river by 15th Scottish  Division and the 53rd Welsh Division.Thereafter followed a carnival procession through flag- and flower-decked towns and villages that never really stopped until Antwerp. Occasionally the enemy rearguards were encountered but this in no way upset the general feeling of an “end of the war” celebration. Guns and vehicles were filled with gifts of flowers, fruit and bottles of wine, so that one was in no shape to fight.”

If the regimental history has a touch of hyperbole it is not to be wondered at. We were all possessed by a euphoria that was compounded of relief from a fear that had more or less begun with the bocage and that was now behind us, of the realisation (the proof was in the wreckage that lined the roads of the killing ground) that the dread enemy no longer menaced us, of the illusion that the war could not have much longer to run. After crossing the Seine on the 29 August we were travelling through a delirium of liberation where it was seldom necessary to unlimber the guns from their towing vehicles, and as conquering heroes our capacity for aggressive action was indeed daily eroded by kisses and cognac and sometimes not quite ripe offerings from orchards that had escaped the devastation of those in Normandy. This was the great ‘swan’ that in ten days took us across the Somme and through the battlefield where, in 1916, 20,000 men of Douglas Haig’s army had been killed in a single day.

Béthune – Armentières – Menin. Names first heard by many of us at our fathers’ knees. Ten days to Belgium. Late at night we reached the outskirts of Antwerp and I slept in a farmhouse beside the field where my troop was parked. “Lovely fresh eggs for breakfast”, then it was on again to a position in the general area of the docks where we made ready for action but engaged in none. Or nothing military: otherwise it was a busy and happy time that proved to be a taste of good things to come.

Went into town and strolled in square where little girl shyly asked for my autograph, then took me by the hand to her house. Charming people, who asked me to lunch …  Shops in centre full of good things. Found Chanel Five and Soir de Paris and made up gift parcel to be sent Forces Mail. Met a professor of dentistry and his wife … very good dinner in their flat … .Daughter Jacqui plays piano beautifully…”

While generous hosts in Antwerp were fêting us with champagne, members of the Brigade of Guards were liberating whole cellars of the stuff in Brussels. For another week we enjoyed ourselves immensely; but ought not to have done. If today’s leading military historians are to be believed we were all unwittingly part of what Max Hastings has called “one of the gravest and most culpable errors of the campaign”. By this stage of the war, the single most limiting factor in the Allied advance on Germany was that of supplies, which very largely were still having to be transported by road from Normandy. Simply capturing the city of Antwerp was not enough: supremely and evidently urgent was the need to open up the great port so close to the enemy’s northern frontier.

Between the port and the open sea were some forty miles of the River Scheldt, the river itself mined, the banks heavily defended by German coastal batteries. Clearing the enemy from the Scheldt, therefore, ought to have come before anything else. Instead, “while the British celebrated, refuelled and rearmed, the Germans acted”, says Max Hastings. They moved across the river to the northern bank and the island of Walcheren, thus denying the Allies use of the port until November, and only after much agony and loss of life had the approaches at last been secured. “In retrospect it can be seen that the failure to clear the Scheldt estuary … was the most calamitous flaw in the post-Normandy campaign”, says John Keegan, writing of Montgomery’s generalship; “despite every warning, and contrary to his own military good sense … he determined … to leap across the Meuse and the lower Rhine … and capture the Ruhr, heartland of Germany’s war economy”.

We watched it happen. Or rather, we watched the beginnings of it. On Sunday morning, 17th September, in early autumn sunshine south of Eindhoven, we stared up at the awe-inspiring sight of the first of more than 1,000 transport aircraft – mainly Dakotas – and more than 500 gliders a few thousand feet overhead and only minutes from their objectives in the region of Arnhem and Nijmegen. It was the first act of what was not only the largest airborne operation of the entire war, but the Allies’ worst defeat. “I feel that Monty’s strategy for once is at fault”, wrote Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, wartime Chief of the Imperial General Staff, restrainedly, in his monumental War Diaries. “Instead of carrying out the advance on Arnhem he ought to have made certain of Antwerp”. Berlin? Between now and the end of the war there was to be one of the hardest winters northern Europe had seen in a century and some of the worst engagements that the 21st Army Group had known.

______

In the jargon of the time, to “swan” was to make easy, unopposed progress in some activity or other. Possibly derived from the stately, unruffled way in which a swan is often seen to move on water. 

______

NEXT FRIDAY, 18 January ,  Serial 10: The Great Swan, Part Two

 


THE FADING MARGIN: serial 8

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.

TENNYSON 

 

 CHAPTER FIVE

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 mortar was the multi-barrelled Nebelwerfer, which the British Army called “moaning minnie” by reason of the agonised ululation from a built-in siren that distinguished the projectile’s slow flight. It was a device specifically and successfully calculated to intimidate as well as kill its intended victims. There was the distant thump of the initial firing, then a pregnant silence while the bombs rose to their apogee, then the banshee wail as they descended, rising to a maniacal crescendo seconds before the swift staccato of impact.

In all the eight or nine weeks that we spent in the heart of the bocage, it was such an attack that furnished one of the few items in my slim repertoire of reliably memorable moments. At Colleville, south of Cheux (where, 36 hours before, the Glasgow Highlanders of the 15th Scottish Division had lost a quarter of their strength in some 12 hours) the battery had moved into a position where we ourselves came under intermittent enemy fire. Though the troop command post had been established in an excavation hurriedly achieved through the exercise of my elementary abilities in the use of high explosives as acquired in the Essex marshes, there had been no time for the digging of satisfactory gun pits, with the consequence that our neighbouring troop had soon suffered casualties.

The Tannoy system of communication between the gun position officer and individual gun commanders fundamentally consisted of a microphone in the command post connected to a loudspeaker beside the guns themselves. A single click on the button of the speaker reversed the flow of sound, allowing the gun commander to reply. A second click on the gun position speaker was then required to restore the normal priorities of transmission and reception, failing which, what was said at the guns continued to be heard at the other end of the line.

In the position at Colleville that morning nerves were severely strained. It was important that we maintained a brisk rate of fire and when Number Two gun was slow to acknowledge an order my rebuke was bad-tempered. The acknowledgement was quickly forthcoming, but in the heat of the moment the second click on the speaker at the gun position was overlooked, with the consequence that, loud and clear in the command post, came a voice no less irate than my own rhetorically expressing the wish that “someone would tell that f—–g little Lord Fauntleroy to get out of that f—–g great hole and come out here where the f—–g action is”.

It was the first time that I had ever heard myself invested with the character of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s best-known fictional creation. For what were little more than schoolboys to be placed in command of men, most of whom were appreciably older, and many infinitely more experienced than the junior officers themselves, was not a new anomaly in military history and one of which I was sometimes uncomfortably conscious; but so rough and so abrupt a revelation of so derisive a regard on the part of others for one’s perceived social oddity (not the least of its constituents undoubtedly being the “public school” accent) came as something of a shock. My only admonition was to say “naughty, naughty!” over the Tannoy, which was met by a vehement and shocked “f–k me!”, and a belated click.

For a while we continued firing against what were reported to be the Panzer formations facing us and more mortar shells arrived, mercifully without further fatalities. Came a lull and proper slit trenches were dug at the guns. Late afternoon brought an hour or two of blessed sleep for anyone off duty. Back in the command post in the evening, when it was time for tinned meat and veg and compo biscuits, I was shyly presented with a large dinner plate in blue willow pattern on which were roast chicken, green peas and new potatoes, all involuntarily supplied by the absent owners of the kitchen garden attached to the ruined farm close to the troop’s wagon lines, cooked by the gunners themselves. The food was delectable. Even more welcome was the information that it came “with the compliments of Number Two gun”.

TWENTY-FIVE  A  SECOND

Rivalling other contributions to the aggregate of fear was the German MG 42 (Spandau) light machine gun. Compared with mortars, it was an infantry weapon which we in the artillery were likely to meet only when employed in forward observation, or close infantry support. Mercifully, such situations did not often come a junior subaltern’s way, but the menace of the Spandau reached as far as the sound of it could carry. If the technically correct “light” conveys the slightest suggestion of insignificance it does no service to the facts. It was a weapon born of the German army’s abundantly justified conviction that the machine gun was the decisive factor in infantry engagements. Simple and comparatively cheap to mass produce, it equipped the normal German infantry company on twice the scale that the scandalously inferior Bren was supplied to the British, and at twenty-five rounds a second had the highest rate of fire of any machine gun yet made.

The two unforgettable characteristics of the Spandau were the initial, split-second stutter – an apologetic little cough – when the trigger was first pulled (after which it continued to fire automatically until the trigger was released), and the evil, demonic eagerness of the noise that instantly followed. The ripping of some sort of stiff fabric – canvas, say – might give an idea of it. A near perfect imitation can be achieved by making the tongue vibrate against the roof of one’s mouth. 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.

In Normandy, my only close encounter with the Spandau was in the broad light of day. Somewhere towards Falaise, east of the most dense bocage, came a situation in which (unusually; it was a task more likely to fall to one of my seniors) I was required to reconnoitre a gun troop position in a comparatively wide expanse of waist-high corn. Standing crops, like long roadside grass, possessed an intrinsic menace and it was less than keenly that I left the road and entered the field, tall gun markers in hand like miniature banners, an undisguisedly apprehensive warrior advancing tentatively against the hidden foe.  Except for the swish of the corn as I waded forward, it was curiously quiet until the sudden rip of a Spandau from somewhere much too close ahead had me throwing myself to the ground. If the fire had been directed at me I would have been very dead. Whatever the target, there was no reply. For a minute or two there was silence except for my own breathing and the beating of my heart. Then several more vicious bursts. A minute was an eternity. Then, almost as suddenly as the fire from the gun had started, the scream of a low-flying jet increasing in split seconds to an aimed, personal assault as terrifying as the Spandau itself, then a double beat explosion from the far side of the field, close enough for the shock wave to thrash the corn above and around me, followed by the scream again of the rocket-firing Typhoon hurtling up and away ahead. Silence again. Silence continuing. Experimentally, I got to my knees. An exclamation mark of black smoke was rising from the hedgerow on the far side of the field. Bolder now, I hurriedly placed my gun markers and retreated to my jeep.

AN EXPLOSIVE BREW

Death did not come by enemy initiative alone. Men were crushed when they went to sleep under tanks, which then sank into soft earth. There were crashes in jeeps and on motorcycles. Grenades were mishandled. Notoriously, Sten guns were accidentally and fatally discharged. Crass carelessness might also take its toll. The function of our 25-pounder guns was to project a shell of some sort, mostly either high explosive or armour-piercing, as accurately as possible against any given target. Projection from the barrel of the gun required a propellant – cordite – which in the case of the 25-pounder was contained in cotton bags inside a brass cartridge case (the sort that serves as an umbrella stand), which itself was loaded separately behind the shell and which embodied an explosive primer in the base. Depending on how fast and how far the projectile – the shell – was required to go, the amount of propellant could be varied from a full charge to a lesser one by removing the appropriate number of bags of cordite from the cartridge case before loading it behind the projectile. Normal practice was for such surplus bags to be packed into the empty steel carrying boxes in which ammunition was delivered to the gun position, and which in due course were taken away for safe disposal.

The stoutly made steel ammunition boxes had other, less orthodox uses, however: for kit; for tools; for anything that required a stout, portable container. Filled with earth, they made excellent building blocks in temporary constructions of various kinds. How it came about that such a box containing cordite was one of those used in the making of a crude fireplace for the brewing of tea in the parapet of the square hole that was Dog troop command post was never explained, or if there was an explanation I have forgotten it. Unforgettable were the consequences. The fire had been going for some time when I happened to glance up from the artillery board, at which Bombardier Howard and I were working, to see that a section of the parapet had suddenly become incandescent.

Cordite by itself only burns. Tightly confined and sufficiently heated, it ignites with explosive force. My scream, the frantic lunge I made at Howard and our meeting with the earth floor of the hole must have seemed simultaneous with the spectacular disintegration of the fireplace. A few seconds later, the bombardier was sitting up but with blood welling copiously from a throat which appeared to be slashed half way from ear to ear. I was shaken and bruised, but otherwise uninjured. The command post was a mess. Swathed in shell dressings, the ashen-faced bombardier was stretchered off to the regimental aid post, en route to England. “Silly sod’s lucky to have a head on his shoulders” was the battery sergeant major’s unfeeling comment, joining clichéd abuse to literal truth. Plied with the all-purpose restorative of cigarettes and hot sweet tea, I was spared any opinion he might have held as to my own part in the affair.

A TIMELY TYPHOON

Last, but a long way from trivial in the tally of phobias that distinguished our encounter with the bocage, was the legendary enemy ‘Eighty-Eight’. Originally designed as a high-reaching anti-aircraft weapon, its muzzle velocity of some 3,000 feet a second (“if you hear it coming, you’re dead”) together with a notably efficient field mounting, made it devastatingly effective against the infamously inadequate armoured vehicles in which Allied tank crews were required to fight. At one stage of the battle of Normandy it came close to arousing among the Allied high command the spectre of a strategic catastrophe.

It was not a weapon with which we in field artillery were often closely concerned; but like the rattlesnake, which may inspire dread without ever being encountered, its reputation reached far beyond its radius of action. Appropriately, it delivered an envoi at the close of the Normandy campaign. In early August, east of the Orne at last, we had left the bocage and were in open country on the edge of the Falaise Pocket, the thirty miles long and fifteen miles deep “killing ground” where the bulk of the German forces in Normandy were almost surrounded.

The position we had been told to occupy without a moment’s delay was on a cretaceous plateau intersected by a singularly deep, tarmacadamed road. Digging whole gun pits by hand in the chalky ground was out of the question. The day of the regiment’s explosives specialist had come again. My driver had found a track for our 15 cwt truck up the steep, almost 45 degree embankment of the road and had started digging small holes for the amanol charges, while in the back of the truck I worked on priming the charges themselves. Two small holes had been excavated and several charges assembled with detonators and fuses when we were brutally interrupted by the sharp crack of an 88 firing from inside the pocket and the almost simultaneous explosion of a shell perhaps a hundred yards to our flank. My driver flattened himself. I took a header from the 15 cwt to do the same.

Came another shell, a little closer. Together, driver and subaltern dived for the theoretical protection offered by the sunken road. Came a third shell, still on the plateau where the truck was parked, but on the very edge of the embankment. Were the Germans inside the pocket firing blind, or was the truck their specific target? Were they ‘bracketing’? Sunken road or not, if they hit the truck, the blast from explosive enough to disturb the peace of the Antipodes would have dire results for flesh and blood within a considerable radius of the position. If, alternatively, the firing was blind, then what were the chances of the next shell, or the one after, falling into the sunken road, in which case the explosion on the hard surface would send white-hot metal daisy-cutting up the bank where the driver and I lay face down, praying that Typhoons or our own counter-battery artillery would be swift in getting on to the offender.

Someone got on to it. Guns were fired from behind us. Salvoes raced over our heads. Explosions inside the pocket were followed by all quiet on the plateau until we had set our charges and lit the fuses and four more large holes had been made in the landscape. “Think there’ll be many more larks like that?” my driver asked dryly as we drove back to the battery. I said I wouldn’t have thought so: all we had to do now was to keep firing into the killing ground until the enemy had been annihilated or had surrendered, preferably the former. After that it would be all downhill; across the Seine and on to Berlin.

TUNES TO REMEMBER

It wasn’t, of course. Though its losses in the Falaise Pocket were great (300 guns, 400 tanks, 2,500 other vehicles, 90,000 men), too many of the enemy had been allowed to get away and a German army still existed beyond Normandy. It was to be a cause of bitter dissension in the Allied high command. While the killing inside the pocket came to its grisly end, and the remnants of the enemy escaped the closing of the Falaise Gap to fight another day, the British infantry and artillery regrouped and rested.

“By 21 August the operation had been completed and the regiment concentrated on high ground south-west of Falaise, where it remained at rest until 25 August while the remainder of the army flowed by to the Seine.”

Thus, the regimental history. “Hide in the Bois de St. André. Tall heather and bracken”, says my diary for 20 August. “Hot sun followed by heavy rain. Slept on and off all day. Wrote letters. Listened to BBC”. In the damp heat, the air was odorous with the bracken crushed by the wheels of our trucks and gun tractors. On the BBC wavelength of the wireless in the back of my truck the music of the moment included I’ll Be Seeing You, Amour, Amour, Amapola and A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening; all for as long as one lived to be able in an instant to evoke the summer of ’44 : the smell and the deep, ever-present fear of death; the insatiate desire for sleep and the ecstasy of oblivion; the longing for letters from home. Grossly banal, but no less enduring in memory, are the pleasures of cigarettes and tea and the bliss after a rare shower at a mobile bath unit of being clean again.

“Unbelievably quiet. De Gaulle in Paris. How long can it all last now? Pray to God not long”, says my own diary, piously. It was a prayer that went unheard or was answered by a divinity to whom time was relative to eternity.

_________

NEXT FRIDAY, 11th January.   POSTSCRIPT: RETURN TO NORMANDY

From The Sunday Telegraph, 7th June 1964

There were two Battles of Normandy; the one on the beaches and the one inland…………….At all the landing places of the 30-mile assault front the history of that day is written in brute letters of concrete and rusting steel……….Inland, the victory of nature has been so complete that it is something like sacrilege to be able to sit here and picnic, to walk here in safety. This is Hill 112, taken and retaken at appalling cost; yet is there nothing but this stone to mark the fact? (The laburnum at the edge of the field where the British tanks were caught and burned was not planted for remembrance. The cross is for the Calvary that happened long before).

Colville, Evrecy, Esquay, Tournay, Tilly – there must be men all over the world who say; “I”ll never forget that place. Never. We had a position…. ”. But they might search for a lifetime and not discover it. They might stand upon the very spot and not know it. On the beaches the tale of summer ’44 may never be lost; here it may never be found.