Max Hastings

Diary - 12 June 2004

D-Day, cigars and make-up: The BBC at its best

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I spent Sunday in the BBC TV studio in Arromanches through six hours of live coverage of the D-Day commemoration. It would never do to tell them this, but I would have done it for nothing. It is 30 years since I took part in a big outside broadcast. The cliché is true: it brings out the best in the Beeb. No one else can do anything like it. Even when vulgarity has overtaken some other bits of the Corporation, the Events department has inherited from the Richard Dimbleby era an instinctive sense of national responsibility and an infinite capacity for taking pains. I was moved by how jolly and committed the huge crew was, even the riggers dolled up in jackets and ties. The new chairman gave me a cigar — two cigars. Indeed, he distributed Cuban stogies with a generosity which I never extended to anybody who worked for me. I started life as a researcher for the Corporation and have always felt much affection for it, save during the era of the appalling Birt. If you are charitable enough to exclude my own contribution, the D-Day commemoration highlighted the case for public service television as no written submission could do. I would say that even without Gradey’s cigars.

Nothing makes me feel older than a sense that where once make-up for television appearances seemed a tiresome affectation, now I am heartily grateful for it.

Although President Putin turned up on Sunday, Russian veterans of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ have not been celebrating the D-Day anniversary. In 1944, like Stalin himself, they regarded the Anglo-American contribution to the European land campaign as too little, too late. ‘We never felt any weakening of German pressure because of what the Western Allies were doing,’ said artillery officer Major Yury Ryakhovsky when I interviewed him a couple of years ago for a book on the last phase of the war. ‘Indeed, we didn’t feel they were doing very much. Their campaign was merely a splinter in Germany’s side.’ Lieutenant Pavel Nikiforov said almost contemptuously, ‘It was a pity the Americans and British did not start fighting sooner.’ He remarked that he himself had been wounded in action three times before the first Allied soldier stepped ashore on D-Day. A Russian history which remained an official sixth-form school textbook until at least the 1990s describes D-Day briskly: ‘In June 1944, when it had become obvious that the Soviet Union was capable of defeating Hitler’s Germany with her forces alone, England and the USA opened the Second Front ...The Anglo-American forces met with practically no opposition from the Hitlerites ...For these operations the Germans had diverted only 60 divisions to the Western front, while the Hitler command maintained 259 divisions and brigades on the Soviet-German front.’ There is enough truth in this to make Anglo-American triumphalists uncomfortable. Consider a statistic: in the second world war British and US ground troops killed about 200,000 German soldiers. The Russians killed more than three million.

German sensitivities about the war remain deep and sometimes impenetrable. I like to think that I write sympathetically about their experience, especially on such issues as strategic bombing and the mass expulsions from Eastern Europe in 1945. Works about the war written by Germans are often bestsellers among their modern countrymen — especially those which suggest that every European nation has sins for which to reproach itself. Foreign writers find it more difficult to appeal to this market. Though my own book has been bought by several European publishers, a string of German houses has turned it down. Here I am not lamenting lost income. I am simply curious about which bits of my account Germans feel unable to swallow.

It seems miraculous that Winston Churchill’s daughter can share these occasions with us. I said how wonderful she looked. The Conservative spokesman for defence suggested that I should say the same about him. I responded that, however rose-tinted our view of Sunday’s events, some relationship to truth had to be sustained. Not long ago, at a dinner table at which people were discussing regrets, I heard somebody say to Mary Soames that they imagined her father would have liked to have won the Victoria Cross. She said, ‘I thought that, too, but I once asked Papa if there was anything special he wanted that he had not had. After a moment, he answered, “I would have liked my father to live long enough to see that I made something of my life.”’ Mary must hurry up with her autobiography so we can have lots more of these gems.

While working on another D-Day project, a few weekends ago we stayed with friends in a Norman house with a beyond-perfect garden. Our host, who went to war as a French cavalryman in 1940 with a horse and sword, vividly remembers the inconveniences, thus equipped, of being visited by Stukas. He possesses a courtesy verging on the oriental. He offered earnest thanks to guests for enduring his humble home and fare, while we ate food that made us wonder for the thousandth time why cheese which is cheap and delicious in Normandy is expensive and impossible to match in London. As for his chef, we say how much our food has improved in the past 40 years, yet in truth how many cooks in Britain can match a French artist on his own ground? I hoped to round off last weekend with dinner at that excellent restaurant the Manoir d’Hastings in Benouville. So tight was security, however, that we decided there was no hope of traversing the 20 miles from Arromanches and back. Our local hostelry announced that it had run out of foie gras. This gives you an idea of how tough it was over there.

While I was broadcasting, a colleague asked if I was going to mention my own experience of landing craft heading for hostile shores in the South Atlantic and suchlike. Absolutely not, I said. It is insanely impertinent for anyone who has attended any war zone since Korea to compare the experience with 1939–45. The whimperings of American Vietnam veterans are pitiful. Some British soldiers have been traumatised by experiences in the Balkans, Iraq or, for that matter, the Falklands. Yet what are a few weeks’ action in which casualties and the intensity of combat are negligible compared with the 20th century’s wars of national survival? On the ferry home, I stood in the cafeteria queue just ahead of a very old veteran whose infinitely kind female companion was discussing with him a little anxiously the price of bread rolls at 45p apiece. I asked if I could have the privilege of buying their breakfasts.