The liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation began with the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. This wartime saga has fascinated me since I read Is Paris Burning as a young man. The 1965 book, by Larry Collins and Domique Lapierre, dramatizes Paris’s narrow escape from Hitler’s orders to destroy the city as his forces fled the Allies’ approach.
I traveled to Normandy for the fortieth and fiftieth anniversaries of D-Day (Debarkation Day) seeking a better understanding of my fascination with this event, one that gave freedom to many people and took many men’s lives.
The fortieth anniversary, begun in June of 1984, saw a wave of quiet ceremonies rippling through the towns and villages of the Norman countryside, surfing the wake of the original invasion front. On August 29, sitting on the porch of our B&B in Honfleur, France, I heard music coming from the shore and followed it down. A ragtag wind band – flutes, clarinets and trumpets – stood barefoot in the surf, playing in memory of the Belgian troops, the Piron Brigade, who’d come ashore forty years before to liberate the town.
The fiftieth anniversary, begun on June 6, 1994, was likely the world’s largest block party, and saw tens of thousands of Allied Forces veterans driving through Normandy in vintage armed forces jeeps, ambulances and trucks they’d brought over at personal expense. Having heard that the landing beaches of Omaha, Utah, and Juneau would be jammed on D-Day with world dignitaries, their bodyguards, and the French police, I drove to the only other French town that would be celebrating its liberation that day, Ranville.
During the war, thousands of German soldiers trooped through this hamlet on their way to reinforcing Hitler’s front lines in Normandy. To cut this critical supply line, the Allies liberated Ranville on June 6, 1944, at just past midnight. Fifty years later, the veterans of Ranville returned to remember what some in the American press had been calling the last “good” war.
After parking on the outskirts of town, I walked towards the Ranville War Cemetery, two country blocks away. I caught up with a veteran who introduced himself as John Hammond.
“What were you doing on D-Day?” I asked him.
“I parachuted with the 6th Air Landing Brigade close by to Pegasus Bridge. The first commander with his three gliders landed at the bridge at six minutes past midnight on June 6th. His three pilots were magnificent in the execution of the job. They dropped those gliders so close to the bridge that the soldiers in them were able to take that bridge in five minutes. They cleared the explosives in fifteen minutes.
“They had to hold that bridge until the seaborne forces came in,” Hammond continued. “The first to arrive was Lord Lovat with his commandos, and they marched right across the bridge with their piper, Bill Millin. It was a simply magnificent sight.”
Like all the vets I spoke with, Hammond’s vivid recall of D-Day impressed me with how hyper-alive he had been then.
“Is this the first time you’ve been back to Normandy?” I asked him.
“No. I’ve been back three times, and the reason is this. I had a comrade, Charlie. We enlisted together and stayed together for four years. He looked after me; I looked after him. When we were on leave, prior to the invasion, he had a bad feeling. And he said to my father, ‘Pop, I don’t think I’m going to make it this time. I don’t think I’m coming back.’
“As a young man of twenty-four, I wouldn’t accept what he was saying, so I jokingly said, ‘Well if you’re going to stay there, I’ll come back and see you, Charlie.’ And lo and behold he didn’t come back. He lies in Ranville churchyard. And … ”
Hammond cleared his throat; his eyes glassed.
“ … and so I had to come back. I’ve come back a third time, and this time I went to his grave and I said, ‘I’m not coming back again, Charlie. I’m getting too old.’
“So that’s why today I can go home in the knowledge that I’ve kept a promise. It’s a nice feeling I’ll have for the rest of my life.”
And it was nice to hear him say this, to hear a man of seventy finding closure to a promise he’d made to a comrade fifty years before. His mission had been accomplished.
“John, has the world learned anything from World War II?” I asked.
“No, no. The politicians haven’t learned a bloody thing. They’re as daft as ever. They still get us into wars, from World War II to Korea, Viet Nam and Bosnia. There’s just no stopping the politicians from waging war. They’re bloody cock-ups.”
Hammond left to join the official ceremony in the Ranville War Cemetery at the town’s center, an event that was closed to the general public. I stood atop a stone mill wheel that leaned against a 12th-century bell tower just across the street. It had a panoramic view of the cemetery and adjoining church, the approaching ceremony, and the town.
Vets and young soldiers, veterans’ wives, widows and children, artillery freaks, history buffs, French locals and tourists – a crowd of Yanks, Brits, Jocks, Aussies, Kiwis, Frenchies and Canucks – were gathering. We were high-spirited and viscerally connected to a Normandy-wide feeling of excitement and anticipation on this historic day.
As the official ceremony began, this village of fifteen hundred had jammed up with over 5,000 people. Folks were handing up their cameras for me to take shots of England’s Princess Margaret, the featured speaker that afternoon. She arrived in a police convoy and took her place at a cross-topped obelisk where she gave her speech. In fifteen minutes she had finished, and the official ceremony was over.
Then the unofficial ceremonies began. The veterans and their guests walked across the street to the Town Hall where the people of Ranville were hosting them to a champagne reception, an art at which the French are well practiced. I strolled in, tossed back a bubbly, and found a couple of veterans who were two loud drinks ahead of me, a universal sign of openness to conversation. One of them, a Scotsman I reckoned, introduced himself as Alec.
“What were you fighting for on D-Day, Alec?”
“I wiz fighting for the stick, mon!” He seemed surprised by my question. “Everyone there wiz fighting for the stick.”
“The stick? What’s the stick?”
“Your jump buddies. The ten or twenty mates who jumped with you from the plane.”
“You mean you weren’t fighting for freedom, or for democracy, or for … ?”
“Don’t be daft, lad. No one fights for that. No one. You’re fighting to save your …” and here he pointed at his backside, “and your mates’. It’s the brotherhood of the stick, lad.”
“Did you see your brothers-in-arms fall?” I asked.
“Yes. But there’s nothing you can do about it. Ya don’t even stop to kiss ’em good-bye. Ya just keep on moving forward towards your objective.”
“Did you ever shoot a man face to face?”
Alec’s friend turned on his heel and walked away.
Alec said, “Maybe we had to, yes. But that’s nothing we’ll be wantin’ to talk about,” and he walked off.
I learned only recently that this question – Did you ever shoot a man? – is one you never ask a veteran.
Returning from my next trip to the bar, I found myself standing next to a pair of young, blue-beret’d British paratroopers. They were two of twelve hundred men, both veteran and active-duty, who had parachuted over Ranville the day before, June 5th, which had been designated “Airborne Day.” They were about twenty-one years old, and cocky with youth and drink.
“Did you guys get to talk with any of these veterans?” I asked them.
“These blokes here? Of course we have. We parachuted with them yesterday.”
“Well, may I ask you this then. Who is the better man: these veterans or you men?”
One of them came back after a beat: “I’d have to say they’re the better man, really: they’ve jumped into battle. We’ve read about it, we’ve studied it, we’ve practiced it, but we’ve never actually jumped into battle. They’ve jumped into battle, and that makes them the better man.”
It was big of this young man, at the height of his powers, to call an older man, one closer to end than peak, the better man.
“Tell me something then,” I continued. “I know what these vets say they were fighting for. But what do they teach you in class you’re fighting for? For democracy … freedom?”
“Listen to him talk,” the other man scoffed. “It’s the stick, man.”
“The brotherhood of the stick,” the first one echoed. “And anyone who tells you no’ is a son of a liar.”
They enjoyed a large laugh at my expense and headed off towards the party at Pegasus Bridge.
When the grounds had opened to the public, I walked into the cemetery, row on row of twenty-five hundred white headstones marking the graves of soldiers, most of them between 16 and 26 years old when they perished. Veterans from a British Royal Legion chapter arrived for their own ceremony. There were a dozen vets from various branches of the British armed services, some with wives, plus a few war widows – twenty seniors in all. They had brought a chaplain, a bugler, and a young captain with them.
Two veterans pulled on white leather gauntlets, strapped on colour belts, and inserted flagstaffs holding regimental flags into the belts’ cups. They pointed the staffs to mid-sky and stood at attention, palms away, elbows out. The young captain stood rigidly; the veterans, their bodies slouched by time, stood still as rocks. The chaplain gave a blessing and then said:
“Today we wish to thank James Joseph Adcock from Oxfordshire, England. The elders of the town can still remember you when you were a boy, James, riding like the wind down the streets in your new red tricycle and them callin’ after you, ‘Slow down Jimmy, slow down, you’ll be hurtin’ yourself.’ They remember how you married your school sweetheart, Iris, who’s here with us today. She says hello to you, James, and says how much she still loves and misses you, and how your two daughters, Caitlin and Anna, both infants when you went to war, now grown women with grown children of their own, love and miss their dad so, though they hardly ever knew you, lad. The whole town remembers you today James, and joins with us here in thanking you with all our hearts.
“Jimmy, you died so we could be here today. Thank you, very much.”
And I who was there because he had died for me as well, I whispered, “Thank you, Jimmy.”
For each of the Legion’s dozen war-dead who lay beneath our feet, the chaplain told a story that brought the man to life. This was his gift.
Then the bugler sounded “Last Post” as the bearers began a ceremony called “vailing the colours.” Each tucked the flagstaff under his right arm, and pointed it to mid sky. Then the bearers slowly lowered the staffs. They dipped them another notch, and then another until the lowest corner of the flags brushed the ground.
I’d never seen a flag touching the earth, and I flinched to watch it happen.
They lowered the staffs again, and with a flourish draped the flags over the grass, each staff’s spear-pointed finial slicing the earth. The flag that the war dead had died for, that had draped their coffins, now touched the ground they lay in.
The chaplain read the names, the widows wept, some of the vets teared up (though most had finished with that by then), the bearers stood like boulders, and the flags lay on the grass, their colours surrendered to the earth.
Each senior there had lost a comrade, friend or husband who lay buried beneath us. Their sadness flowed from them, through the bearers and flags, into the earth below us, hallowing it.
These veterans had kept the brotherhood of the stick alive in their hearts and thoughts for fifty years; they had stuck with their comrades-in-arms, living and dead. This would be their last fight for the stick. The tableau of these brave souls, grey-haired stalks huddled beside lichen-speckled headstones under a darkening day, is in my memory.
I am grateful to have been there.
When the ceremony ended, two of the veterans saw me standing tearfully at the edge of the group, and walked over.
“You’re too young to have served in this war, lad. What are you doing here?”
I told them the short story of my long preoccupation with the liberation of France and Paris.
One of them responded with British finality, “Well then, you have an affinity for this period.”
Although “affinity” may have resolved it for him, my fascination with this period was still, even after this day’s journey back in time, enigmatic to me.
I returned to the hall where the crowd had thinned. Most had headed for the festivities at Pegasus Bridge, and Alec was looking at his watch. There was one last question I wanted to ask him.
“Alec, there are some people in America who call World War II the last ‘good’ war, … you know, ‘Good’ versus ‘Evil’ and all that. What do you say to that?”
Here he whirled around on me angrily and shot back
“Bloody hell, mon. Nae war is a good war, and naebody kens it like an auld Tommy. The Second World War wiz a necessary war; we had to drive the Nazis oot of Europe. But World War II wiz no’ a good war
“Ye’ll be remembering that, won’t ye, laddie?”