THE FADING MARGIN: serial 8Posted: January 4, 2013
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
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.