RETURN TO NORMANDY

 

 

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 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) 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 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. Look closer and at the end of them are embedded the nose caps of 35mm shells. They are 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 meadowsweet 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.

________

 From the Sunday Telegraph, 7th June 1964.

The author served in Normandy with the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division.

 

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