Omaha Beach, Normandy
I am standing in a German cement bunker having walked through a large gaping hole caused by an incoming shell that must have instantly killed the handful of defenders. The bunker is on the beach, about 50 yards from the sea at high tide, and an afternoon mist is rolling in from the north. The scene is eerie and chilling, and 74 years on my heart goes out to those defenders.
There are ghosts all around us. I try to put myself in the place of the very young, or old, Wehrmacht soldiers inside the bunker as they face the 6,700 or so ships that loom suddenly on the horizon. There is no time to think as naval heavy guns unleash projectiles weighing as much as two tonnes, and let up only as the landing boats are approaching. The odds are overwhelming; the defenders have been caught by surprise. They have a couple of heavy machine guns and, most likely, a Panzerfaust — bazooka — and limited ammunition. In no time the beach has been blasted to smithereens, and now landing boats are hitting the shoreline and men are charging, knee-high in water. Overhead, Allied planes are attacking the German rear. There are no Luftwaffe airplanes anywhere in sight. The soon-to-be-entombed small band fire their weapons and stand their ground, until their pillbox is blasted open and they fall to a man.
It might sound strange me writing in The Spectator from a German perspective, but fair’s fair. I asked my companions which side they’d choose, and all of them agreed that the attacking forces had a better chance of survival than the defenders. Spielberg and his ilk have shown the landing parties to be sitting ducks, but this is real history, not Hollywood bullshit. I am standing in places where long-ago-destroyed villages were surrounded by torn-up fields littered with corpses and broken machines, the earth scarred by one shell-hole after another. I hold pictures of those hellish scenes in my hand as I stand on the very same ground where they were taken.
We are a party of nine, all guests of Peter Livanos, the king of LNG (liquid natural gas) carriers, whose private jet has deposited us in Caen, a major Allied target and a town ferociously fought over. Our Führer is James Holland, a distinguished historian whose bestsellers include Fortress Malta, The Battle of Britain, Dam Busters and numerous works of historical fiction. Not only is James young, tall and good-looking; he is the brother of Tom Holland, who is also a famous historian. I was reading Tom’s book Dynasty — it picks up where Rubicon ends — when Peter called and invited me to join the group: ‘We need at least one Wehrmacht fan, for argument’s sake.’ As luck would have it, they got two. Tassilo Wallentin, an Austrian friend and the best political writer in the nicest country in Europe, backed me up when I pointed out that the disparity in men and materiel between the Allied forces and the Germans made the fight a charge-of-the-light-brigade contest.
We were billeted in the Château de Sully, where the German high command enjoyed the high life until 6 June. James Holland went through the first days of battle with the proverbial fine toothcomb. His knowledge for detail and his enthusiasm had us all fired up. By the end of that first day, we discovered, after the total, disastrous failure of German intelligence, the Allies controlled the air and the sea lanes and most of the beaches: 76,000 Germans were opposing 150,000 British, Americans and Canadian troops. But Hitler, the great strategist, was still not convinced that it was the real thing. Here’s Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt on the ‘Atlantic Wall’ that the great strategist thought impregnable: ‘The Wall was
a myth. Nothing in front of it, nothing behind it. Just a piece of decoration. A bluff aimed at fooling the German people more than the enemy. I told the Führer this in 1943, that we couldn’t hold out for more than 24 hours at best, but he didn’t want to hear it.’
Rommel wanted to stop the invasion on the beaches, Rundstedt inland. They argued their case to Hitler, who prevaricated. As it turned out, without air cover the Wehrmacht was slaughtered by saturation bombing that would have spiced up Dante’s and Milton’s description of hell, a place neither had visited.
We move on to Utah Beach, where Yankee Lieutenant Winters managed to take out the deadly German 88mm gun and establish a beachhead. The German defenders were reserve troops who had not trained in combat and had been tending their Normandy gardens for years. They were told that the obstacles put in the waters in front of them — ‘Czech hedgehogs’, ‘nut crackers’ and ‘Belgian Gates’ — would impale the charging Americans in the sea. Some impalement. What fascinates me is the willingness of the German defenders to fight when their deaths were a certainty. At first many people froze, some ran, others cried for their mother. I’ve seen what shrapnel does to the human body and it’s not pretty. But fight soldiers must, and both sides did so nobly and to the death.
Next week I will tell you about a very gracious act by the American 1st Division commander, Rommel’s decision to throw in the towel, and me falling madly in love with a waitress called Margo at the Château. And a 65-minute egg. But for now, a final word about Tom Wolfe. I met him 40 years ago and the following year he wrote the most flattering article about Jeff Bernard and me. He later wrote a foreword to a book of mine and remained a supporter and wonderful friend throughout. I once asked him: ‘Why all the kindnesses?’ ‘You let me have the house that has given me more pleasure than anything except my family,’ he said. (It was a rental that I was giving up in Long Island, and he jumped at it.) A great man and writer but most of all a very loyal friend.