To Commemorate the 70th Anniversary of D-day – Excerpt From My Novel

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To come upon a tank, a sentiment of war, silhouetting shapes in smoking metal, once a driver,gunner,husband, father, brother or son. Now all that is left of the residue of life are ID discs that would be shipped home with no possessions – possessions lingering in the skeletal pockets of death, just memories of happy faces and the embrace of final hugs and promises of return. New babies cradled and children holding onto trouser legs, misty eyes upward turned to search their father`s face as they kissed mum goodbye entrenched in a crowded platform with whistles – and steam – and tears.
Farewell wasn`t meant to be eternal and no-one prepared them for the finality of it.

omaha beach

Gary was hardened to war, after four years he had to be. But thinking of ma, as they buried them, he hoped she wouldn`t have to carry the burden of a lost child. For he knew, his tears for once defying his hard-edged heart, his ma would not harbour the weight of it.

June 4th 1944 – 70th Anniversary of Dday – 1 day to H hour – Excerpt from my novel.

Out in the Atlantic, weighty slate grey clouds banished the onset of dawn fighting for dominance over the impending sunrise. The ships of the Western Naval Task Force led by Rear Admiral A G Kirk and carrying the American infantry, rounded Lands End forging towards the Isle of Wight and `Piccadilly Circus` – the code-named assembly area.  The Eastern Task Force led by Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, carried troops covering the British sector, would arrive in the assembly area later that morning.  The rest of the flotilla carrying the second wave of the invasion, were sitting just off the south coast aboard their ships and landing crafts.  The task force would rendezvous and then wait – for General Eisenhower`s final decision to go.

 

“Gentlemen the fears my colleagues and I had yesterday have been confirmed.”  John Stagg delivered his bleak statement with a soft scottish accent that hinted at sentiment.

The SHAEF Commanders were again gathered in the library of Southwick House – the clock reading 4.14 am on the morning of the 4th June – almost twenty-four hours before the planned date of the invasion.

General Eisenhower, grim faced and weary from lack of sleep asked John, “And the forecast for the next few days?”

John`s answer was given with a slightly risen pitch of hope.  “There is a benign high detected between the low pressure areas forming over Iceland.”  But then the hope was dashed.  “But I am disturbed by the longer forecast of high winds and low disability.  However, at this stage, I cannot differentiate one day from another during the invasion period.”

“And the sea condition?”  Admiral Ramsey asked.

“The sea condition will be slightly better than at first anticipated, but according to the Dunstable forecast, there is still low cloud forecast with a 1000 foot ceiling and level 4 to 5 force winds.”

“You were optimistic yesterday John.”  General Eisenhower reminded him.  “Is there just a chance that you might be a bit more optimistic about the forecast for tomorrow?”

John Stagg gave a slight shake of his head and dropped his gaze.  “The balance has gone too far to the other side for it to swingback overnight tonight.”  His negativity cast the hearts of all seated in the library – to their boots.

For days – weeks, General Eisenhower had deliberated and agonized over the weather forecast – each forecast over the last few days worse than the other – no respite.  With the amphibious landings due to take place between 0600 hours and 0800 hours on the 5th – tomorrow – the final decision to attack had to be made at least twenty-four hours prior to this.  He needed to act decisively.

The room fell silent. Not a man in the room would have swapped places with the General.  General Eisenhower`s burden was heavy.  Millions of lives rested upon his decision.  Operation Overlord was already going in with a very slim margin of ground superiority.  If he postponed until the 19th June – the next date of correct moon and tide conditions – he would have to call the whole fleet back. which would seriously increase a major security leak – never mind the whole nightmare of unloading troops and equipment.   General Eisenhower pulled himself straight.  He had no choice.  “To cover a last minute possible improvement,” he informed all round the table, ” the remaining assault forces in port will embark and  we will convene again here at 4.15 am tomorrow.”  His next statement was the one that had haunted him for weeks, one that he hoped with all his heart he would be able to retract in twenty-four hours time – or the whole operation, planned meticulously for the past two years would be doomed to failure.  The invasion is hereby postponed – for twenty-four hours.”

 

Most of the convoy of ships, landing crafts and battleships were already positioned at Area Z codenamed `Piccadilly Circus` the rendezvous point just off the Isle of Wight.  The rest were on their way or still in the ports waiting to sail.  The incessant drizzle had turned to heavy rain.  Waves were beginning to roll, shunting, tossing men who, had the stomach to fight, but not the stomach to thwart the sea.  Most of the day’s rations had already ended up in sick bags, which didn `t take long to fill.  Then it was helmets, fire buckets, the deck or anything else that could act as a receptacle for vomit.  Cramped, wet, tired and feeling very ill, they waited.

The fleet received a signal.  But it was not the anticipate signal, the one that would signal to the fleet to sail for Normandy.

It was another pre-arranged signal – the signal to postpone – for twenty-four hours.

 

On the Normandy coast, except for the prevailing winds – all was quiet.  Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel had driven to Paris to buy a birthday present for his wife’s 50th birthday.  The forty-mile journey between Paris and the great rivers estuary – had proven an arduous one; attacks by allied bombers on the small island that linked the Seine to Paris had destroyed most of the bridges and many of the towns.  Whilst in Paris, Erwin decided to meet with Feldmarschall Karl Rudolf Gerd Von Rundstedt at his headquarters at St-Germain-en Laye.

“The allies will need at least four consecutive days of good weather to be able to mount the invasion, “Feldmarschall Von Rundstedt declared to Erwin, his statement delivered with a certain measure of decorum that masked some distaste for the man before him.  Although both Commanders had firm beliefs and strategies, Von Rundstedt secretly harboured resentment for the younger Feldmarschall Rommel who Hitler had chosen to mastermind the Atlantic Wall.  Nevertheless, Erwin did not buckle under Von Rundstedt`s obvious antagonism and continued to follow his own instincts and experience.  “I agree of course.  I have checked the weather reports,”  Erwin informed Von Rundstedt.  “Over the next few days, the reports indicate increasing cloud, high winds and rain.  The tides in the strait of Dover will not be suitable for an invasion until mid June.”

 

Jack retched yet again, this time he filled his helmet and then with deep gasps, he sucked in fresh air, tipped his helmet and emptied it of vomit over the side of the ship.  Sinking onto the deck, he sort refuge from the raging storm under a section of tarpaulin that covered a line of wagons. He ran a hand over his face, saliva filling his mouth indicating another bout of nausea.  The Empire Battleaxe lilted and dove as the twenty-foot waves tossed her.  She rode the waves as she would a rollercoaster, although there were no shouts of glee, just the sound of retching from sodden troops.  Soldiers on the rain – lashed decks glumly lined the rails of the ship trying to gain a foothold on the surface that would not yield to them.  After the news of the postponement, the fleet had turned back from their rendezvous point and were sitting just off of Portsmouth Harbour.  Those ships and landing crafts that had not already sailed before the postponement was announced, were still sitting in the harbour, the troops stuck on the boats not allowed to leave the vessels. Some one hundred and seventy five thousand men were waiting to cross the channel and the twenty-four hour `reprieve` allowed demons within their minds to cause havoc upon already doubtful territory.  Demons that taunted death – fear.  Demons that undermined positivity and strength of mind.  Holed up for thirty-six hours, they waited in anticipation of some glimmer of hope.  The weather had deteriorated rapidly and many soldiers were plagued with sea-sickness.  With open decks and hardly any shelter men on board landing crafts were wet, cold, sick and miserable.  There was no respite either for men packed together below the deck of the Empire Battleaxe.  For many, the contents of the meal issued to them earlier by the navy crew had made an unwelcome entry back into confinement of the rest areas.  Everywhere stank of vomit.  Those who were not vomiting with sea-sickness, vomited because of the stench of someone who had. Rain lashed, gales blew and the ship danced to the tune.  Feeling so ill, no-one cared anymore why they were there.  No-one cared about the invasion – the Germans – or about being killed.

“I hope the Germans put a bullet straight through my head,” moaned Mike as he slid down next to Jack.  “Shit – I feel bad.”

Jack tried to manage a smile, but it would not develop, he didn’t try to force one either in case any involuntary slight movement, facial or bodily, would set off his tumultuous stomach.  He hadn`t been sick for a full five minutes – and that was a miracle. What would be more a miracle – is that there might be anything left in his stomach to recycle.

 

“Our Father who art in heaven – Hallowed be thy name…”

Gary stood with his comrades, head bowed as the chaplain took the service.  Keeping his head down, he flicked his eyes upwards scanning the hundreds of soldiers who had gathered in the mess room.   Tables were pushed back against the wall out of bounds because of the continuous rolling of the craft.  Some men were muttering their own prayers holding rosaries. Others had their eyes tightly closed and others stared blankly in front of them, lost in their own thoughts.  For Gary, his thoughts were of his family, his ma, his dad and his baby brother Jack who would be, in just a few hours time, experiencing his first combat duty.  Gary hoped Jack would not be too scared.  He was a good lad, a good brother and a good son.  A better son, he knew, than he had been.

The chaplain, clutching his service bible, his army chaplains stole draped around his shoulders, made a sign of the cross and all said, “Amen,” in unison.  The group began to disband, some however stayed with the chaplain, probably never having been to church in their lives, now wanting to be blessed, wanting to take God on their shoulders to the battlefield.  Gary had seen it before when he had landed in Sicily and Italy; everyone had wanted God on their shoulder.  Gary did not stay but made his way back up to the deck of the Arquebus despite the storm.  They had only just set sail so were one of the lucky ships who had not been kept at sea since June 3rd, as had many.  So seasickness for them had not, as of yet, become a problem.  Gary had chosen to stay with his Bren Carrier to try to catch some sleep.  Although the deck was packed with men, they were not so entombed as the men below deck who would sleep on bunks solidly packed along the walls of the ship.

 

Lieutenant Gislason was briefing men of the 29th Division aboard LCI – L- 94.  “Make sure you study the location of the pill boxes,” he warned indicating to the huge map behind him.  “The beach will be littered with mines and booby-trap entanglements.” They had been aboard nearly seventy-two hours having set sail on June 3rd, their route from Falmouth where they had embarked being some eighty miles from their landing beach – Omaha.

“I`ve heard that the beach is defended by 2nd rate Germans.”  A young GI told Captain John Hamilton as the men dispersed.  “Old men and those who are battle – weary from the east.”

John smiled at the young lad who looked as though he should still be in high school. He had huge brown eyes and as John set his gaze on him, he could see that his eyes oozed with tears.  “I`m sure you`re right son,” John placated.

“You`re a doctor then?”  The lad asked indicating to the obvious, John`s Red Cross Brassard quite ominous on the left sleeve of his battle dress.

“Yes.”  John smiled.

“I bet you`ll see some sights then.”  His tears were now threatening to fall.  The poor boy was ringing his hands and chewing hard on gum.   “Maybe things won’t be too bad,”  John tried to reassure. ”

“Well, people are bound to get killed – wounded.”  Now a tear did escape, one which the GI swiftly swept away with his index finger.

“Maybe.  But as you said, the beach is defended by old men so perhaps we wont have such a bad time of it.”  John doubted very much if this were true, but thought better of voicing this opinion, not wanting to spoof the young guy anymore than he already was.

“Are you scared?”  The GI asked.

“Course I am.” John answered gently and honestly. “We’re all scared.”  .

“I don’t want to let the guys down,” the GI quivered.  “But I don`t know if I will be able to do it – kill people.”  His bottom lip trembled and he desperately flung his hand across his face in an attempt to hold his composure, his eyes darting around not wanting to be seen crying by his comrades.

John didn’t quite know what to say, this sort of thing better dealt with by the Padre.  But the young guy had confided in him, John being a complete stranger, maybe that it`s why he could.  “I’m sure you’ll be fine son.”  John placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Try not to think about it too much.”

The boy held his head down, tears now running abated down his cheeks.  “Will you … if I get wounded … will you look after me?”

“Course I will.” A sob almost escaped from John.  In an attempt to check himself he repeated, “You’ll be fine son.”

The young guy placed his hand on top of John`s that still rested on his shoulder. His huge pleading brown eyes cut into John`s heart. Managing  a stifled smile, the GI then went on his way.

“Son,” John called after him.  “What`s your name?”

“Abe,” he told him.  “Abe Dlan from Boston.”

John smiled and nodded.  Abe gave a half-hearted wave, nodded and was on his way again, pushing through the bodies of uniforms until he merged and disappeared amongst them.

John sighed heavily and steadied himself, his arm outstretched holding onto the ironwork of a bunk. Head deep into his chest he muttered,  “This damn war – this bloody damn war.”

 

By eleven pm on the 4th June, all of the fleet had now received an order to sail and once again the fleet made its way to the rendevous point of `Piccadilly Circus` just off the Isle of Wight where it would convene and then sail for Normandy.  It would then wait.  Sitting just off the coast –  for the final order to go.

The storm had not abated.

 

 

 

June 2nd 1944 – 3 days to H hour.70th Anniversary of Dday. Excerpt from my novel.

Winston Churchill pulled the envelope from his breast pocket.  Stuffing his cigar into his mouth, his eyes screwing from the onslaught of drifting smoke, he took the King`s letter out of the envelope.

My dear Winston,

I want to make one more appeal to you – to not go to sea on D-day.  I have, as I wish to remind you, dropped my own plans to accompany the invasion force realising the venture would be a foolish one – one that would put extra responsibilities on our armed forces and would encumber the whole mission.  If you yourself were still to go, you would place yourself inaccessible to the War Cabinet at a critical time.  Please Winston I implore you to change your mind.  Put aside your personal wishes and do not depart from your own high standard of duty to the state.

“Umph,” Winston snorted not finishing reading the King`s words, the letter quickly stuffed back into its envelope and into his pocket. “High standard of the state indeed!”

 

Group Captain John Stagg, General Eisenhower’s Chief Meteorologist, pensively replaced the telephone receiver and ran a hand through his red hair.  His conversation with General Bull had resided on a shaky consensus concerning the weather report for Operation Overlord.  The weather report for the middle of the full week of the beginning of June were, “Not good,” he had informed General Bull.  Despite all the years of meticulous planning by the Overlord Commanders – a wrong weather forecast would be disastrous and could put the whole operation at risk.  The sea had to be reasonable for the landing craft and ideally a fair wind blowing in shore to blow smoke into the eyes of the enemy.  The landings needed to be at low tide as to expose the menacing mined underwater obstacles and destroy them.  But this low tide would have to follow at least an hours daylight to permit the bombers naval guns to weaken German defences yet be early enough to permit a second wave of soldiers.  For the airborne offensives, timed to take place before the landings, a late rising moon was required.  These required conditions, needing both a low tide and a full moon – both of which could be reliably predicted, coincided in early June – the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th .  The ideal date being the 5th. Only fate would determine if the weather would oblige.

Standing, John Stagg gathered the reports collated over the last twenty-four hours.  Sighing heavily he recalled the last words General Morgan had said to him before he had departed for Southwick House.  Shaking his hand hard General Morgan told him with merry banter, “May all your depressions be little ones.”  But then the General`s expression hardened.  “But remember Stagg, we’ll string you up from the nearest lamp post if you don’t read the omens right.

 

General Eisenhower left his trailer.  Thrusting his hands deep into his pockets he hung his head low as he walked, a familiar posture these past few days.  It was always a walk he tried to do alone – these few precious minutes from his trailer to Southwick House a respite to allow his brain to mull over events. It was now just over forty-eight hours before the planned date of the invasion.  Everything was in place – the forces, army, navy and airforce were in readiness – embarkation now just hours away.  It would take at least twenty-four hours to load all the ships of men and equipment and then the hundreds of ships would have to sail from the ports to assemble in the channel before the order for the invasion given. This meant the first sailing had to be on the 3rd June – tomorrow.  It was a dire situation.  Stagg said the weather was turning, the charts did not promise a good situation – and his nerves were on edge.

The evening weather briefing was due at nine pm. Entering the library on the first floor next to the war room, the rest of the SHAEF team were seated and ready.  Sitting in an informal ring on a scattering of sofas and easy chairs were Montgomery, Arthur Tedder, Bedel Smith and Admiral Ramsey.

“Evening gentlemen,” General Eisenhower said in welcome as he entered the library, his usual broad smile returning in an attempt to dismiss his deep worries, his show to the world one of calm and reassurance.

“Evening,” came the unison reply. The tall figure of John Stagg entered the room, clutching his reports.

“Pull up a chair John,”  General Eisenhower instructed indicating to one by the window.

“Thanks all the same, but I prefer to stand.”

“What do you have for us John?”  General Eisenhower asked, anticipation reeked in his voice.

Stagg knew it was no good holding off the inevitable.  “I am afraid gentlemen the news is not good. I am afraid the likely weather scene for the next few days, as I made you aware at the last briefing, is full of menace.”

General Eisenhower`s brow creased. Stagg`s forecast of adverse weather conditions would curtail close support of gun ships and air force.

 

Sitting on his bunk still fully dressed, General Eisenhower knew sleep would evade him.  In just twenty-four hours he had to make the most important decision of his career.  A postponement of the invasion would mean that they wouldn`t have the right conditions until mid-June and if the men were loaded and waiting in the channel – this was impossible to do. They couldn`t wait there indefinitely and to bring them back, unload and load again would be too big a damn job to contemplate.   Not to mention the threat to security. All the men were now briefed – the whole thing was just a nightmare.  As though to confirm his thoughts and to validate that in fact that nightmare would proceed unduly, the rain began to batter the top of his trailer.  Tipping his head toward the ceiling, “Damn weather,” he whispered in the darkness, “damn weather.”

Dday to Master of Arts Degree. A Seventy Year Anniversary Tribute

RON HAMPSHIRECold, wet, sea-sick, shot at, blown up, hurled into the sea to fire upon an invisible enemy desperate to kill you.  Can we imagine it?

When Ronald White collected his Honorary Master of Arts Degree at Portsmouth university for book-binding, it was he says, “The proudest day of my life.”  At Ninety years old, this extraordinary man, worked from the front room of the family home.  Portsmouth university granted Ron the Master of Arts Degree for his contribution and commitment to the university and its research students.  For over thirty years Ron bound the theses of the students towards their degrees using the skills he originally acquired as an apprentice bookbinder some sixty years previous.  A great honour indeed.  But when I got this man to talk about D-day and his role played in it, another side of him appeared – unassuming and reflective.

175,00 men, 5,333 ships and landing crafts, 5,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes set sail on the 5th of June 1944 across a hundred miles of English Channel. After five years of war and with news of the atrocities in the concentration camps, England and German occupied countries were wilting under the strain and deprivations of war.  By 1943, Hitler understood that an invasion would come.  Fortification of the coastal defences in France was already underway.

Under the command of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Hitler envisaged the Atlantic Wall, stretching along 3,000 miles of Belgium, Dutch and Danish coastline and the entire coast of Normandy, to be an unbreakable barrier fortified with enough artillery to foil even a massive invasion attempt.  Thirty thousand German troops defended the area that included fifteen thousand concrete bunkers ranging from small pill boxes to great fortresses.  Rommel ordered the placement of deadly mined beach obstacles all along the French coast.  Hitler knew the invasion would determine the war`s outcome.

Operation Overlord, the code-name for the invasion of Normandy, was four years in the planning, two years in the organizing and one in the undertaking. The plan entailed the landings of nine divisions of sea and airborne troops along a fifty-mile stretch of the Normandy coastline in just 24 hours.

Ron and I reflect on his time in the war at the Golden Lion pub in Southwick, nr Portsmouth.  The pub General Eisenhower and General Montogomery frequented having secret meetings of the planning of Operation Overlord.

Ron and I reflect on his time in the war at the Golden Lion pub in Southwick, nr Portsmouth. The pub General Eisenhower and General Montgomery frequented having secret meetings of the planning of Operation Overlord.

But all did not go to plan. The invasion was originally planned for the 5th June, but the  weather, during the three preceding days of the landings, dealt the planners a vicious mix of gale force winds and driving rain. General Eisenhower had no choice but to postpone the invasion for 24 hours.  The allied troops were already aboard their designated ships and landing crafts, but because of security and the impossibility of disembarking and embarking again, the troops had to spend three days and nights aboard the ships living in terrible cramped conditions, their morales also starting to take a nose-dive.

General Eisenhower and his commanders, locked in deep conference at Southwick House near Portsmouth, spent a dismal twenty-four hours pacing the floor and watching the skies. But then Group Captain Stagg, a senior meteorologist suddenly entered the room.  “Gentlemen there have been some rapid and unexpected developments in the situation.”  Stagg forecast a window in the weather, lasting just a little over 24 hours, even though it still fell short of the minimum requirements.

General Eisenhower, sitting with hands clasped tightly, his face locked in deep concentration painfully announced.  “I am quite  positive we must give the order.  I don`t like it gentlemen – but there it is.  I don`t see how we can do anything else.”

At the 4am conference, General Eisenhower confirmed his decision with the words, “Ok – le`s go!”  The fuse had been lit.  Operation Overlord, the invasion of Hitler`s fortress was about to begin.

General Eisenhower`s message to the allied troops

General Eisenhower`s message to the allied troops

During the early hours of 5th and 6th June, allied paratroopers and glider troops silently landed behind enemy lines securing roads and bridges that were vital for the success of the landings.  Just after midnight the aerial bombardment of the Normandy coastline began.  Formation after formation of B-26 bombers and RAF Lancaster’s roared overhead pounding the enemy mercilessly.

At 5am the first of the heavy warships swept up from behind the convoy.  The firing power of the fleet was colossal.  Continuous shells tore above the armada exploding on the shore.  An orange horizon of crawling black smoke obscured the view from the ships.  As dawn broke the vastness of the fleet was apparent.  The sea was black with ships. The Germans had taken a pounding.  Deep in their gun batteries they quivered with fear as the walls and ceilings of their tombs reverberated around them.  The allies were told not to fear a heavy defence from their enemy.  They would be destroyed before they even set foot on French soil.   But the weather, although improved, was still a formidable opponent for the air and sea bombardment.  With landing zones obscured with poor visibility, the shells and bombs overshot to the maze of fields and hamlets inland.  The Germans emerged from their bunkers shocked, with the fight knocked out of them, but never the will power or desire –  they were waiting for the allies.

Out in the channel, the ships and landing crafts were fast approaching the coast. Troops began assembling in landing crafts whilst twenty-foot waves soaked them as they struggled to stay afloat in the treacherous sea.

“Everyone was being sick,” explained Ron. “Over the sides, in their helmets, on their boots.  It was terrible.  The landing craft was awash with it.  Some of the men felt so bad I don`t think they were bothered if they got shot.  They just wanted to get out of those boats.”

The boats ploughed on as German shells landed amongst them.  “The Germans threw everything at us,”  Ron told me.  “As the bullets zipped around you, you just thought, God, how am I going to survive this.”

As the order, “Ramps down!” was given, the troops perilously stumbled waist deep into the sea.  Many drowned as the sheer weight they were carrying dragged them down into the murky depths of the water.  Many died before they even got a foot out of the craft, mowed down as the enemy guns tore into them.  Landing crafts became entangled on the mined obstacles that littered the shoreline snaring them into a catalyst of hell before blowing them sky-high, torn flesh showering the living.

“Much the greatest thing we have ever attempted.” Winston Churchill. 

At 7.25am on the 6th June 1944, Sergeant Ronald White, with his regiment now known as the Royal Hampshire Regiment, led the British assault storming Gold Beach in Normandy France. The 3rd British Infantry Division along with the Canadians on Juno Beach and the Americans on Omaha and Utah, began the invasion of France.  despite the murderous gunfire, many falling, dying, but never taken prisoner, the Hampshire  forged forward finally taking the German strongpoints that had killed so many.

Ron reflects on the loss of his comrades on `Jig Green` a sector of Gold Beach, where the Hampshire Regiment came ashore on Dday

Ron reflects on the loss of his comrades on `Jig Green` a sector of Gold Beach, where the Hampshire Regiment came ashore on D-day

“I look back now and I don`t know how I came through it.  Many of my friends didn`t.  I was just lucky, really lucky  The Germans threw everything at us and as the bullets zipped around us, you just thought God, how am I going to survive this.  If anyone was wounded, we couldn`t help.  People were screaming for help but you had to leave them for the medics, we had to keep going forward.”

Ron with Madam Gondre outside the Cafe Gondre at Pegasus Bridge captured by the British 6th Airborne in the early hours of Dday - the first building to be liberated by the allies on the 6th June.  Madam Gondre was just a child on Dday and she keeps the cafe as a shrine to the Normandy landings.  The taking of the bridges was crucial to the success of the landings.

Ron with Madam Gondre outside the Cafe Gondre at Pegasus Bridge captured by the British 6th Airborne in the early hours of D-day – the first building to be liberated by the allies on the 6th June. Madam Gondre was just a child on D-day and she keeps the cafe as a shrine to the Normandy landings. The taking of the bridges was crucial to the success of the landings.

Beneath the quiet dignity that Ron exuded, he spoke very modestly about his role on D-day.  When asked about how he coped with the death and horror he saw, he quietly contemplated.  “I know it sounds harsh, but you got hardened to it.  I saw men with heads blown off, limbs torn from their bodies, stomachs hanging out.  You just thought, hard luck mate and carried on.  You had to – or how else would you have coped.”  A shadow shifted across Ron`s face.  “If anyone was wounded, we couldn`t help.  People were screaming for help but you had to leave them for the medics, we just had to keep going forward or we would have copped it too.

“By nightfall of the 6th June, some 175,000 troops had come ashore at a cost of 4900 casualties. The beaches were relatively secure, but the fight was not yet over.

The Hampshire Regiment tentatively fought their way through the laborious terrain of   Normandy countryside through the bocage country, a formidable labyrinth of numerous winding roads and maze of sunken lanes with a density of impenetrable high hedges bounded on both sides that hid the enemy.  Taking more casualties, they fought onto the Eastern Netherlands where Ron was wounded and he returned home to England.  After four years away – his war finally over.

It took many months for the allies to fight their way through the heavily defended Normandy countryside with the loss of many more men.  It took almost another year to reach and defeat Germany during the spring of 1945.

Ron and I on a visit to Falais

Ron and I on a visit to Falais

“Losing the war was never an option.  England is the best country in the world, there was no way we were ever going to give it up to the Germans.  I don`t have nightmares about the war, but it does all come back to me whenever I meet some of my old comrades of my regiment.  I think I am very lucky to have survived.  Many of my friends didn`t.  People often ask me how did you do it?  You did it because you were trained and disciplined. If you were given an order, you didn`t argue, you just did it.”

After the war, Ron went back to his trade has bookbinder at the Printers Coasbys.  After another twenty-eight years he joined Holbrooks printers and five years later in 1975, Ron had saved enough money to become self-employed as a master craftsman.  Many a student visited Ron and was rewarded by a kind and courteous man who bound their theses with the skill of a master of his trade.

Ron stands by the grave of his best friend Tommy who was killed by a sniper in front of him.

Ron stands by the grave of his best friend Tommy who was killed by a sniper in front of him.

Here was a man who had dedicated his life to books. On the wall of his workshop was a very poignant souvenir plaque that read, “It`s nice to be important, but it`s important to be nice.” Having met Ron, one quickly became aware that this quiet unassuming man had much in his life to be proud.

Sadly, my friend has now passed away.  But the memories stay with me.  The memory of escorting him to Normandy to visit his friend`s grave – Tommy, who was shot by a sniper in front of him, memories of him staying with us, meeting his family and laughing so much he made me cry. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

He and thousands like him, travelled hundreds of miles to the shores of Normandy, sixty-nine years ago, to risk and give their lives to a cause that rid our world of nazi tyranny.  Ron never wavered in his beliefs and he never  expected to live through the war.  He went on to not only be honoured for his bravery in the war, but also for his exemplary work in the art of bookbinding.

In Ron`s own words, “It`s a job well done.”

An excerpt from my novel:

But now in the landing craft, the Normandy coast fast approaching, fear took on a resounding truthfulness.  Saliva negligible, blinking eyes refusing the onset of the fast approaching inconceivable terror. Hearts beating against a breathless panic, a bladder refusing to remain intact surging unwelcome warmth upon khaki cloth already sodden from wild seas.  The word fear had not been defined to Jack – his previous definitions of the word were now devoid – depleted – misguided.  Sam cowered, head held low, a German`s bullet maybe a welcome relief from this misery.  The water, a fathom of it, a few inches beneath him, would choke him, eyes bulging, tongue protruding, lungs exploding. The assault crafts of the flotilla dipped and rolled the undulating waves that crashed over the gunwales.  Vomiting was continuous and unrelenting.  Sea spray soaked the young men who, after months of hard training, transporting them from adolescence to manhood now unashamed, desperately required the embrace of their mothers.  The stink of engine oil, the landing craft like matchboxes rolling this way, rolling that way, lifted up, smashed back down again.  Darting eyes, thumping hearts, tears and rosaries held in white knuckles.  A mighty fleet forging onward, lines and lines of ships, destroyers, battleships, landing craft, a magnitude of power carrying youth too young for death, for life, for fear – just babes trying to be men.WORLD WAR TWO SOLDIER

My novel is dedicated to Sergeant Ronald White (Blanco) who mentored me throughout my struggle to `get things right`.  I hope I have done him proud. 

May his memory and countless thousands of others who died in this campaign, live on in my work.

Link

Despite Eva`s best efforts and motherly nursing skills, Anna was deteriorating.  She needed a doctor and Eva had no idea where to find one.  She had heard that the two big hospitals in the central and western parts of Berlin had been destroyed by the allies` bombs and the local doctors had all but disappeared, either dead, sent to the front, or transferred to military hospitals.

Little Anna.  Eva stroked her sleeping face.  She was so pale; the frown now permanent across her forehead, her body hardly making an impression under the blackout curtains Eva was using for blankets, her little stark white hands protruding.  She had a sore at the corner of her mouth and her breathing was accompanied by a slight rasp and she coughed intermittently in her sleep.

 

There had been no raids during the last twenty four – hours so maybe in this lull; today she would take a chance.  Eva always put off going out until she had to, the sight outside depressing her with broken water mains, clatters of bricks piled high, cratered roads, smoking skeletal buildings teetering on collapse.  People were trying to go about their business, but look closely, and their eyes were dead, their bodies triumphant in neglect of their own humanity, such were the living conditions.  Berlin wasn’t Berlin anymore.

 

 

 

Dday to Master of Arts Degree. A Sixty – Nine Year Anniversary Tribute

RON HAMPSHIRECold, wet, sea-sick, shot at, blown up, hurled into the sea to fire upon an invisible enemy desperate to kill you.  Can we imagine it?

When Ronald White collected his Honorary Master of Arts Degree at Portsmouth university for book-binding, it was he says, “The proudest day of my life.”  At Ninety years old, this extraordinary man, worked from the front room of the family home.  Portsmouth university granted Ron the Master of Arts Degree for his contribution and commitment to the university and its research students.  For over thirty years Ron bound the theses of the students towards their degrees using the skills he originally acquired as an apprentice bookbinder some sixty years previous.  A great honour indeed.  But when I got this man to talk about D-day and his role played in it, another side of him appeared – unassuming and reflective.

175,00 men, 5,333 ships and landing crafts, 5,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes set sail on the 5th of June 1944 across a hundred miles of English Channel. After five years of war and with news of the atrocities in the concentration camps, England and German occupied countries were wilting under the strain and deprivations of war.  By 1943, Hitler understood that an invasion would come.  Fortification of the coastal defences in France was already underway.

  Under the command of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Hitler envisaged the Atlantic Wall, stretching along 3,000 miles of Belgium, Dutch and Danish coastline and the entire coast of Normandy, to be an unbreakable barrier fortified with enough artillery to foil even a massive invasion attempt.  Thirty thousand German troops defended the area that included fifteen thousand concrete bunkers ranging from small pill boxes to great fortresses.  Rommel ordered the placement of deadly mined beach obstacles all along the French coast.  Hitler knew the invasion would determine the war`s outcome.

Operation Overlord, the code-name for the invasion of Normandy, was four years in the planning, two years in the organizing and one in the undertaking. The plan entailed the landings of nine divisions of sea and airborne troops along a fifty-mile stretch of the Normandy coastline in just 24 hours. 

Ron and I reflect on his time in the war at the Golden Lion pub in Southwick, nr Portsmouth.  The pub General Eisenhower and General Montogomery frequented having secret meetings of the planning of Operation Overlord.

Ron and I reflect on his time in the war at the Golden Lion pub in Southwick, nr Portsmouth. The pub General Eisenhower and General Montgomery frequented having secret meetings of the planning of Operation Overlord.

 But all did not go to plan. The invasion was originally planned for the 5th June, but the  weather, during the three preceding days of the landings, dealt the planners a vicious mix of gale force winds and driving rain. General Eisenhower had no choice but to postpone the invasion for 24 hours.  The allied troops were already aboard their designated ships and landing crafts, but because of security and the impossibility of disembarking and embarking again, the troops had to spend three days and nights aboard the ships living in terrible cramped conditions, their morales also starting to take a nose-dive.

General Eisenhower and his commanders, locked in deep conference at Southwick House near Portsmouth, spent a dismal twenty-four hours pacing the floor and watching the skies. But then Group Captain Stagg, a senior meteorologist suddenly entered the room.  “Gentlemen there have been some rapid and unexpected developments in the situation.”  Stagg forecast a window in the weather, lasting just a little over 24 hours, even though it still fell short of the minimum requirements.

General Eisenhower, sitting with hands clasped tightly, his face locked in deep concentration painfully announced.  “I am quite  positive we must give the order.  I don`t like it gentlemen – but there it is.  I don`t see how we can do anything else.”

At the 4am conference, General Eisenhower confirmed his decision with the words, “Ok – le`s go!”  The fuse had been lit.  Operation Overlord, the invasion of Hitler`s fortress was about to begin.

General Eisenhower`s message to the allied troops

General Eisenhower`s message to the allied troops

During the early hours of 5th and 6th June, allied paratroopers and glider troops silently landed behind enemy lines securing roads and bridges that were vital for the success of the landings.  Just after midnight the aerial bombardment of the Normandy coastline began.  Formation after formation of B-26 bombers and RAF Lancaster’s roared overhead pounding the enemy mercilessly.

  At 5am the first of the heavy warships swept up from behind the convoy.  The firing power of the fleet was colossal.  Continuous shells tore above the armada exploding on the shore.  An orange horizon of crawling black smoke obscured the view from the ships.  As dawn broke the vastness of the fleet was apparent.  The sea was black with ships. The Germans had taken a pounding.  Deep in their gun batteries they quivered with fear as the walls and ceilings of their tombs reverberated around them.  The allies were told not to fear a heavy defence from their enemy.  They would be destroyed before they even set foot on French soil.   But the weather, although improved, was still a formidable opponent for the air and sea bombardment.  With landing zones obscured with poor visibility, the shells and bombs overshot to the maze of fields and hamlets inland.  The Germans emerged from their bunkers shocked, with the fight knocked out of them, but never the will power or desire –  they were waiting for the allies.

 Out in the channel, the ships and landing crafts were fast approaching the coast. Troops began assembling in landing crafts whilst twenty-foot waves soaked them as they struggled to stay afloat in the treacherous sea. 

“Everyone was being sick,” explained Ron. “Over the sides, in their helmets, on their boots.  It was terrible.  The landing craft was awash with it.  Some of the men felt so bad I don`t think they were bothered if they got shot.  They just wanted to get out of those boats.”

The boats ploughed on as German shells landed amongst them.  “The Germans threw everything at us,”  Ron told me.  “As the bullets zipped around you, you just thought, God, how am I going to survive this.”

  As the order, “Ramps down!” was given, the troops perilously stumbled waist deep into the sea.  Many drowned as the sheer weight they were carrying dragged them down into the murky depths of the water.  Many died before they even got a foot out of the craft, mowed down as the enemy guns tore into them.  Landing crafts became entangled on the mined obstacles that littered the shoreline snaring them into a catalyst of hell before blowing them sky-high, torn flesh showering the living. 

          “Much the greatest thing we have ever attempted.” Winston Churchill. 

At 7.25am on the 6th June 1944, Sergeant Ronald White, with his regiment now known as the Royal Hampshire Regiment, led the British assault storming Gold Beach in Normandy France. The 3rd British Infantry Division along with the Canadians on Juno Beach and the Americans on Omaha and Utah, began the invasion of France.  despite the murderous gunfire, many falling, dying, but never taken prisoner, the Hampshire  forged forward finally taking the German strongpoints that had killed so many.

Ron reflects on the loss of his comrades on `Jig Green` a sector of Gold Beach, where the Hampshire Regiment came ashore on Dday

Ron reflects on the loss of his comrades on `Jig Green` a sector of Gold Beach, where the Hampshire Regiment came ashore on D-day

“I look back now and I don`t know how I came through it.  Many of my friends didn`t.  I was just lucky, really lucky  The Germans threw everything at us and as the bullets zipped around us, you just thought God, how am I going to survive this.  If anyone was wounded, we couldn`t help.  People were screaming for help but you had to leave them for the medics, we had to keep going forward.”

Ron with Madam Gondre outside the Cafe Gondre at Pegasus Bridge captured by the British 6th Airborne in the early hours of Dday - the first building to be liberated by the allies on the 6th June.  Madam Gondre was just a child on Dday and she keeps the cafe as a shrine to the Normandy landings.  The taking of the bridges was crucial to the success of the landings.

Ron with Madam Gondre outside the Cafe Gondre at Pegasus Bridge captured by the British 6th Airborne in the early hours of D-day – the first building to be liberated by the allies on the 6th June. Madam Gondre was just a child on D-day and she keeps the cafe as a shrine to the Normandy landings. The taking of the bridges was crucial to the success of the landings.

Beneath the quiet dignity that Ron exuded, he spoke very modestly about his role on D-day.  When asked about how he coped with the death and horror he saw, he quietly contemplated.  “I know it sounds harsh, but you got hardened to it.  I saw men with heads blown off, limbs torn from their bodies, stomachs hanging out.  You just thought, hard luck mate and carried on.  You had to – or how else would you have coped.”  A shadow shifted across Ron`s face.  “If anyone was wounded, we couldn`t help.  People were screaming for help but you had to leave them for the medics, we just had to keep going forward or we would have copped it too.

“By nightfall of the 6th June, some 175,000 troops had come ashore at a cost of 4900 casualties. The beaches were relatively secure, but the fight was not yet over.

The Hampshire Regiment tentatively fought their way through the laborious terrain of   Normandy countryside through the bocage country, a formidable labyrinth of numerous winding roads and maze of sunken lanes with a density of impenetrable high hedges bounded on both sides that hid the enemy.  Taking more casualties, they fought onto the Eastern Netherlands where Ron was wounded and he returned home to England.  After four years away – his war finally over.

It took many months for the allies to fight their way through the heavily defended Normandy countryside with the loss of many more men.  It took almost another year to reach and defeat Germany during the spring of 1945.

Ron and I on a visit to Falais

Ron and I on a visit to Falais

“Losing the war was never an option.  England is the best country in the world, there was no way we were ever going to give it up to the Germans.  I don`t have nightmares about the war, but it does all come back to me whenever I meet some of my old comrades of my regiment.  I think I am very lucky to have survived.  Many of my friends didn`t.  People often ask me how did you do it?  You did it because you were trained and disciplined. If you were given an order, you didn`t argue, you just did it.”

After the war, Ron went back to his trade has bookbinder at the Printers Coasbys.  After another twenty-eight years he joined Holbrooks printers and five years later in 1975, Ron had saved enough money to become self-employed as a master craftsman.  Many a student visited Ron and was rewarded by a kind and courteous man who bound their theses with the skill of a master of his trade.

Ron stands by the grave of his best friend Tommy who was killed by a sniper in front of him.

Ron stands by the grave of his best friend Tommy who was killed by a sniper in front of him.

  Here was a man who had dedicated his life to books. On the wall of his workshop was a very poignant souvenir plaque that read, “It`s nice to be important, but it`s important to be nice.” Having met Ron, one quickly became aware that this quiet unassuming man had much in his life to be proud.

Sadly, my friend has now passed away.  But the memories stay with me.  The memory of escorting him to Normandy to visit his friend`s grave – Tommy, who was shot by a sniper in front of him, memories of him staying with us, meeting his family and laughing so much he made me cry. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

He and thousands like him, travelled hundreds of miles to the shores of Normandy, sixty-nine years ago, to risk and give their lives to a cause that rid our world of nazi tyranny.  Ron never wavered in his beliefs and he never  expected to live through the war.  He went on to not only be honoured for his bravery in the war, but also for his exemplary work in the art of bookbinding.

In Ron`s own words, “It`s a job well done.”

                                                An excerpt from my novel:

But now in the landing craft, the Normandy coast fast approaching, fear took on a resounding truthfulness.  Saliva negligible, blinking eyes refusing the onset of the fast approaching inconceivable terror. Hearts beating against a breathless panic, a bladder refusing to remain intact surging unwelcome warmth upon khaki cloth already sodden from wild seas.  The word fear had not been defined to Jack – his previous definitions of the word were now devoid – depleted – misguided.  Sam cowered, head held low, a German`s bullet maybe a welcome relief from this misery.  The water, a fathom of it, a few inches beneath him, would choke him, eyes bulging, tongue protruding, lungs exploding. The assault crafts of the flotilla dipped and rolled the undulating waves that crashed over the gunwales.  Vomiting was continuous and unrelenting.  Sea spray soaked the young men who, after months of hard training, transporting them from adolescence to manhood now unashamed, desperately required the embrace of their mothers.  The stink of engine oil, the landing craft like matchboxes rolling this way, rolling that way, lifted up, smashed back down again.  Darting eyes, thumping hearts, tears and rosaries held in white knuckles.  A mighty fleet forging onward, lines and lines of ships, destroyers, battleships, landing craft, a magnitude of power carrying youth too young for death, for life, for fear – just babes trying to be men.WORLD WAR TWO SOLDIER

My novel is dedicated to Sergeant Ronald White (Blanco) who mentored me throughout my struggle to `get things right`.  I hope I have done him proud. 

May his memory and countless thousands of others who died in this campaign, live on in my work.