Coward on the Beach
by James Delingpole
If you are not the right age to have enjoyed the thrills of serving in uniform in a really dangerous military campaign, the next best thing is to imagine one and write about it. That is what James Delingpole has done, very well indeed. His assiduous research, in the field, in the Imperial War Museum and elsewhere, his uncanny empathy with the officers and men of the 47th Royal Marine Commando, and his prose style, vigorous, witty and elegant, have produced a novel about the D-Day invasion of Normandy that’s a welcome corrective to the Spielberg–Hanks version and promises a lot more excitement to come. This novel is only Volume One of a projected ten-volume saga, which may well deserve the title A Dance to the Music of War.
Delingpole says he wishes he could ‘go back in time to win a DSO commanding a battalion on D-Day’. Coward on the Beach is a splendid elaboration of that Walter Mitty fantasy. The author’s fictional alter ego is Dick Coward (a distant relation of Noël), an accidental hero of mythic stature, who somehow becomes involved in many of the most hazardous, crucial actions of the second world war. Dick reminisces long after the events, in tapes transcribed by a grandson. The reader is thus comfortingly assured that the hero survives all his wartime ordeals.
Dick’s father, General Ajax Coward, who lost a leg and won a VC at Passchendaele, has announced that he will bequeath the ancient family estate, 3,000 acres in Herefordshire (motto: Semper Audax), to whichever son has the ‘best war’. The eldest son went down with the Hood. By the summer of 1944, the vain youngest son is already a major with an MC and bar. Dick, the middle son, still has only a DFC, which was awarded for shooting down three Messerschmitts in the Battle of Britain. For some reason, undisclosed in Volume One, the RAF cashiered him; besides, the general says Air Force decorations don’t count. So far, surprisingly, Dick is otherwise gongless.
He is moved by a second, even greater incentive to volunteer for death or glory on the way to Berlin. Since boyhood he has loved Lady Georgina Hermione St Clair Devereux Nevill Herbert, an earl’s daughter known as Gina, whose American mother, Dick’s great aunt, ‘owns half of Manhattan; her father, most of Monmouthshire’. She is an only child, an heiress, and seems to reciprocate Dick’s love. His slight Americanness is reinforced by having a New England maternal grandmother. In Devon, recuperating from fever contracted while fighting to the last bullet against the Japanese in Burma, Dick encounters some GIs who lost many comrades to friendly fire in training for D-Day. No New York publisher could protest that the novel is ‘too English’; the Englishry amounts to only about 99 per cent of the text.
There are tantalising allusions to future accounts of Coward at Dunkirk, in the Libyan desert, in Sicily, Crete and Holland and, mysteriously, in the war’s pivotal Battle of Stalingrad. Why is Dick’s backside tattooed with the insignia of a German regiment? We must wait to find out. In the meantime, he is challenged quite sufficiently when landing on Gold Beach, Jig Green Sector, on 6 June 1944, wearing a green beret, struggling against terrible odds to take Port-en-Bessin. In this venture, as in all the others, he is accompanied by Price, manservant, groom, batman, platoon sergeant and estate manager, who is understandably reluctant. In the Great War he suffered a battlefield orchidectomy.
Delingpole conscientiously acknowledges his official sources. Enriched by his imagination, they enable him to give an enthralling account of what it was like to be a commando in Normandy at that time. The narrative fully justifies the Boy’s Own Paper drama of Mark Thomas’s jacket illustration. Some of the novel’s juxtapositions of horror and humour reminded me of Evelyn Waugh’s great military trilogy, without its superciliousness. Jolly good show, Delingpole!