D-Day memories

By June 6, 2014History, Media

On 6 June 1944 I was nearly seven, and in 2nd class at Ainslie Infants School. I have no memory whatever of D-Day, and only cloudy memories of V-E and V-J Days in the following year. I do remember the maroon hessian covering the slit trenches around our school, the air-raid shelter in our backyard (waterlogged and forbidden to the kids) and the air-raid sirens that summoned us to assembly, and farewelled us at the end of the school day with the ‘All Clear’. The war was out there, but not visible or present. We scanned the sky for planes, and we all had the sheet showing the Japanese planes. But no ‘Betty’ or ‘Zero’ did we ever see. Kittyhawks, Mustangs and Hudsons were the ones I can remember, apart from the ever-present Dakotas.

Sixty years later I was in London, having spent the past week or so in a house at Ver-sur-Mer, in Normandy, better known to Canadians as Juno Beach, where the 3rd Canadian Division landed and slogged its way inland, losing a few hundred dead and wounded on the beach on the first day. We were with Canadian friends, with whom we had holidayed before, in France and elsewhere, sharing a house — six of us, two Australians to the four Canadians. Our house (owned by another Canadian) was in the street behind the road that fronted the beach, exactly where part of the Division landed. The Canadian General who commanded the landing took up residence in the house directly in front of us. The beaches are large, and the span of the landing beaches was 80 kilometres. It is a big area.

We couldn’t stay in our house and take part in the celebrations on June 6th. The town would be in total lockdown, given that the Queen, the French President (Chirac), the American President (Bush), the British Prime Minister (Blair), the Canadian Prime Minister (Paul Martin) and even our own (Howard) were going to be there. So, for the first time, would be the German Prime Minister (Schroeder), and German flags were in abundance with all the rest. So we left on the 5th, back to Paris and on to London.

The European theatre was given to Canada, just as the Pacific was given to Australia — though some Canadian soldiers defended Hong Kong against the Japanese invasion of that island in 1941; they were just unfortunate to be there at the time, and paid dearly for the privilege. Those Australians who had a role in the D-Day landing were in the RAF Bomber Command, So Canadians take the D-Day landing seriously, as they should. Sixty years later there were many signs of the war: concrete pillboxes, bits of the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches are there in the form of the blockships sunk to provide a harbour wall, there are number of museums, both official and private-enterprise, and numerous little memorials outside villages.

Not everyone remembers that the French themselves lost thousands of people as a result of the Allied bombing that preceded the landings and through the conflict itself. The city of Caen was almost destroyed. There is no cemetery to celebrate the lives of the 30,000 or so civilians who died there, but there is a beautifully simple one for the Canadian war dead, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, very similar, in style and harmony, to the Australian cemeteries I have visited in the Pacific theatre. The American cemetery not far away is much more showy; someone from Hollywood had a hand in its design.

Notwithstanding the visual impacts of being in Normandy itself, and seeing where everything happened, the most arresting moment for me came in London, where on D-Day television a German veteran told how he had been on watch in the defences before dawn. They had not been expecting a landing there, but further north, around Calais. As the darkness lifted he stared out to sea, rubbed his eyes and stared again. The horizon was simply covered in shipping. ‘Ach, mein Gott!’ he said. ‘This is the end.’ He raised the alarm, took part in the fighting, and survived. Seven thousand ships were used for the Normandy campaign. The scale of the operation is hard to believe.

And the six degrees of separation rule here too. Another of our Canadian friends has been on television in the last few hours because his father was the Canadian war artist who went ashore with the Canadian troops, his sketchbook over his head, found somewhere to sit, and began to draw. He drew hundreds of images in a few days. His diaries from that time have been given to the Canadian War Museum, and when they were received they still contained the sand of Juno beach.

And another world leader who was there in 2004 was Vladimir Putin, of Russia. He’ll be there today again, too, along with the Queen. The other leaders from 2004 have been replaced. It says something, doesn’t it.

[I have corrected an error. It was the 3rd Canadian Division that landed at Juno beach. The 4th came later, as reinforcement. My thanks to a few alert and knowledgeable readers.]

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