Sixty years on, the crossing to Normandy was flat as a millpond, the sun shone, the helicopter from the Portsmouth to Ouistreham ferry’s British destroyer escort (there were three other destroyers, one French, one American, one Canadian) performed all sorts of clever tricks for our amusement, and our welcoming party comprised a Royal Marine and, later in the evening, a magnificent fireworks display from Omaha all the way to Sword. ‘Bet you wish it had been like this on D-Day,’ I said to George Amos, late of 47 RM commando, as we gazed over a sea rather different from the boiling, grey, vomitous, shell-ravaged killing zone which had claimed nearly a third of his unit killed, wounded or missing in June 1944. ‘Not really,’ he replied after some thought. ‘If the weather had been like this Rommel would never have gone off to his wife’s birthday and a lot more of us would have ended up killed.’
This is the great thing about second world war veterans — and one of the main reasons why I felt so privileged to be going back with a group of them. They measure their words carefully; they tell it like it was. They’ve seen the very worst the world has to throw at them and they know there’s not an awful lot of time left. Why waste it on small talk?
My party of 20 veterans was among the last remnants of a Royal Marine commando unit responsible for one of the most spectacular but surprisingly little known feats of the war — the capture of the vital strategic town of Port-en-Bessin, destination for the Allies’ oil pipeline under the ocean (Pluto). They landed bedraggled and depleted on 6 June, having lost most of their mortars, Bangalore torpedoes, machine-guns and small arms on the way in, and then had to fight their way through 12 miles of enemy lines, capturing whatever weaponry they could en route. Only then could they begin their assault.
They were the only British unit to face the same crack German division which so nearly repelled the Americans on neighbouring Omaha. The Germans were well placed between two cliffs on either side of the town, in a series of bunkers guarded with mines, barbed wire, heavy machine-guns and concealed flame-throwers. When they tried attacking these positions, the commandos discovered belatedly the existence in the harbour of two flak ships, which cut them to pieces as they tried to cross the exposed ground.
Yet at last — thanks in great part to a near-suicidal charge led by Captain T.F. Cousins (posthumously but unsuccessfully nominated for a VC) — the town was taken. General Sir Miles Dempsey, commander of the British land forces on D-Day, rated it an exploit every bit the equal of the (much better known) capture of Pegasus bridge, while Major General Julian Thompson has described it as one of the greatest feats of arms by any unit in history.
So these are the people I found myself with in Normandy for four days, and you can imagine what a humbling experience it was.
The thing you don’t realise until you’ve been on these reunions is just how gruelling they are. If you’re not listening to endless civic speeches, sitting through celebratory feasts or attending a wreath-laying ceremony, memorial service or commemorative plaque dedication, you’re probably stuck on a coach on the Bayeux ring-road trying to negotiate a security system apparently designed to resemble as closely as possible the one provided by the Germans 60 years before. I found it tough enough. For these increasingly frail men in their eighties, standing to attention in the searing heat, it must have been very testing indeed.
Yet they bore it all in good part. First because they are commandos, second because they belong to a generation taught to endure, but third because — as during the war — it’s amazing what you can achieve when borne along by a tide of camaraderie and goodwill. If France, America and Great Britain have had the odd difference of late, you would certainly never have guessed it from the joyous, welcoming and almost euphoric atmosphere in Normandy.
You get an inkling how it must have felt during the Liberation — especially since every other car is a wartime military vehicle driven by re-enactment junkies in period uniform. Time and again I overheard veterans telling their friends and family that this really had been the best day of their life. George Amos said as much to me after he’d walked down the gangplank to the strains of the Royal Marine band. His wife, Eileen, elbowed him in the ribs. ‘Apart from one day, obviously, my dear,’ he corrected himself. And even as an outsider you knew what they meant. I lost count of the number of times I found myself choked with emotion: croaking through ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ in the memorial service led by the Queen at Bayeux cemetery; the ranks of veterans shuffling forward with their regimental standards; the waving crowds lining Portsmouth harbour.
But what I came for mainly — these occasions do turn you into a bit of a vulture, I’m afraid — was to rub shoulders with these men and hear their stories and try to answer those two questions that men who have never been through such experiences almost always want to know: ‘So what’s it really like?’ and ‘How would I have fared myself?’
On the ferry a chap named Jim, who’d gone in on the first wave with the Dorsets, showed me the scar from the bullet wound he’d got in the arm the second his landing-craft door opened. He didn’t know he’d been shot until two hours later, because he felt almost no pain. ‘What did you go and punch me for?’ he’d said to the man next to him.
For the real stories, though — the ones veterans never used to talk about and are only now beginning to open up about — it’s best to wait until everybody has had a few beers. One Marine told me he had never been afraid of being killed, just ‘apprehensive’ about losing a limb or, worse, suffering the fate of a poor chap called De’Ath, who’d been emasculated by shrapnel at the age of 19. Another told me about the strange nocturnal clicking noises he’d heard near the burnt-out wreckage on the beaches. It was the sound of French women breaking the fingers or teeth of dead Germans to remove their gold fillings and rings. Then there was the group of SS corpses all found with their trousers round their ankles: they had all simultaneously been caught short after eating frozen apples and then taken out with a tank round.
As for the second question, you’re never going to know unless you’re put to the test. But when I asked my Marine friends whether the younger generation was up to it, I was surprised by their response. Their beloved medical officer, Captain (later Professor) John Forfar, MC — better known as Doc — described how impressed he had been by the determination and quality of the volunteers who had taken part in a recent D-Day-recreation TV programme on which he’d acted as adviser. ‘Five dropped out, but the 19 who remained were put through hardships every bit as great as men on the original commando training course. I’ve no doubt they were of just as high calibre.’ The former Company Quartermaster Sergeant Chuck Harris was equally sure. ‘Course you’d have done as well as we did,’ he barked in his still sonorous parade-ground voice. ‘You just weren’t around at the time, that’s all.’
From Omaha to the Scheldt by John Forfar is published by Tuckwell Press.