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To 1944 and back

This may sound a degree absurd from someone in their sixties with a general interest in military history but last week I made my first-ever research trip to Normandy as a member of a small touring group spending five days ‘doing’ the D-Day Landings and elements of the 1944 Allied campaign to take WW2 to northern mainland Europe.

Hitherto my special subject had been WW1 and so when the opportunity arose out of the blue I did not hesitate.

There were but two decades between the end of WW1 and the commencement of WW2 and when I contemplated my personal position I surprised myself when appreciating the fact that – having made the briefest of ‘fly-past’ visits to Sword Beach in 1979 on my way back from a holiday some thirty-five years after D-Day – last week’s effort took place the best part of another four decades later!

Human time flies by. The longest-lived British WW1 solider – Harry Patch – passed on in 2009 at the age of 111 and yet today the youngest surviving Normandy veterans are already in their mid-to-late nineties.

We can read all we want of the key histories and unit war diaries but the most fascinating aspect of actually touring the battlefields of long ago is how different they are in the reality compared to how one’s imagination can and does paint them even from the most perceptive and/or accurate books, maps and contemporary photographs.

Saving Private Ryan

Never mind the great movies on the subject – in this case inevitably The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) – the first thing that struck me forcibly again and again last week about the 1944 Normandy Landings was their sheer scale and the enormity of the organisational effort required to even contemplate planning, let alone mounting, them and then (against so great odds and random aspects that could and/or did go awry) somehow manage to execute them successfully in the final event.

To give but two simple examples.

Firstly, anyone with a basic knowledge knows (and for these purposes I’m here committing a major act of ‘bucket chemistry’ and ignoring innumerable complicating factors) the story of how the Brits and Canadians were supposed to take Caen within 24 hours of the 6th June landings and yet did not accomplish this until August – by which time the Americans has swept up to secure the port of Cherbourg and then much of north-west France down as far as the Falaise Gap.

D-Day – the reality

What I didn’t know, but learned from a French academic with whom we spent some time with on our trip, was the extent to which the situation on the ground shaped events as they unfolded.

After about a day and a half – such was the congestion on the relatively small amount of territory secured in the initial landings – that certain key early operations could simply not begin.

An army marches upon its stomach, as Napoleon famously said.

Although hundreds of thousands of tons of armaments and all the logistical necessities including fuel, water (they were taking that with them in case the Germans had poisoned local supplies) had been landed, they – accompanied  by the units next intended to go forward along with their tanks, lorries and other hardware now all crammed together on the smallish roads and lanes of coastal Normandy – had formed a sufficient traffic jam that many fighting units simply couldn’t physically get to their intended ‘starting off’ points.

On the back of such unexpected small factors do great things either happen, or indeed not.

Secondly, the importance of items like bridges and/or river crossing cannot be over-stated.

On the night of 5th June (before the Landings due early the next morning) a British airborne force combining parachutists and glider-delivered troops set off on near-suicidal missions to take out the Merville Battery commanding Sword Beach and secure what the world now knows as Pegasus Bridge – the latter both to prevent the Germans counter-attacking the Sword landing and also give Allied forces a means of getting over the Caen canal.

The Merville Battery mission was a near disaster.

By the time its leader – 29 year old Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway – has marshalled his troops to make the assault, he had only 150 of his original force of 700 with him.

The rest had become casualties, been dropped in the wrong places, drowned in the deliberately-flooded water marshes and/or got lost.

But in they went, killing all but 20 of the 200-strong German defending troops in vicious hand to hand fighting, after which – with another mission to complete – Otway went on with his party now reduced to just 70 or so men.

The Pegasus Bridge assault was also the stuff of legends. One glider came to rest within 50 yards of the bridge.

After a brief fire-fight, Major John Howard and his men held on until reinforced the next day by the commandoes detailed to do this who had landed on Sword Beach. Their leader the eccentric Lord Lovat duly apologised to Howard for arriving six minutes late.

One apparently true story we heard on last week’s trip was of one of the airborne Pegasus heroes, a Lieutenant Sweeney.

Another, in a different unit, was the actor Richard Todd – who ironically later played Major John Howard in The Longest Day.

Todd arrived at the bridge and walked to Lieutenant Sweeney and introduced himself: “I’m Lieutenant Todd … and they call me Sweeney”, to which the other replied “Well, I’m Lieutenant Sweeney … and they call me Todd!”



About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts