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

 

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