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5 Overwhelmed at Overlord

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    5 Overwhelmed at Overlord

    After the formalities at Cherbourg, we arrived early morning in the lovely chocolate box port of Honfleur, on the opposite bank of the Seine to Le Havre. Over there for the big container ships and commercial traffic including the mass-market cruise ships, and over here for the sailboats, yachts and small, boutique ships including the Journey. It’s maybe a kilometre across the mouth of the estuary but the effect is worlds away.

    We had a lovely room service breakfast of fruit and pastries served by a waiter who gave us the impression that life thus far had simply been a preparation and rehearsal for this opportunity to serve us. He reversed out of the room mouthing promises of further service mixed with goodwill messages for the day, which we may well need as this was the first of two busy days.

    We are now close to the beaches and the war cemeteries in Northern France, and what follows is really two days together, since the story is continuous and it really makes no sense any other way. Hopefully, we’ll catch up with information from and about the ship after tomorrow.

    When my old apprentice master, Bill, and I had our long overdue reckoning about ten years ago, he told me all about the D-day landings, and the thing that surprised me most was his memory for the names of all his comrades. I forced myself every time I thought of this to remember that in 1944, Bill was 24. That made him one of the more experienced of the commandos, a status he shared with two young men called William Redmond and Billy Jones who had joined up at the same time nearly three years earlier. Their small platoon was known as ‘Mother’s Despair’ by the others by dint of there being ’too many bills’.

    They went through a lot together, and Bill would often tell me stories of how he and his mates got through the war doing what young men of 20-odd years of age do in circumstances where there might not be a tomorrow. Most of the stories I blush now even thinking of, and this isn’t the place for their retelling, but there was also a jokey side which involved misappropriated rations or getting one over pompous officers that made me laugh out loud when I heard them.

    When Bill eventually told me the real story he was nearly 80, and I was in my late thirties. I definitely felt that there was something of him feeling I was old enough to hear the things he’d never shared when we were together every day, and he took such care with the detail that I feel obliged to do the same here, even though some of it is distressing. Their destination was the ‘Peter’ segment of Sword beach, the eastern most landing ground.

    His buddy, William, was on the same landing craft but the third of their small group, Billy, was on a different ship which was positioned 40 minutes behind. Bill explained that the greatest shock was as he arrived in the shallows, and saw the seawater running red with blood. He described being literally overwhelmed - his brain not properly connecting and giving him contradictory sensory feedback. He said shells from the Royal and US Navy gunships were landing close by, and the shock wave caused by their exploding was actually taking his breath away. Apparently the repeated explosion pressure waves can combine with stress to make it difficult to breathe just at the point your body needs maximum oxygen for the ‘fight or flight’ reflex.

    He explained that the noise was overpowering but muffled by the shell-shock, like listening to people speaking with your head underwater so that nothing was clear, and no instructions could be understood. It didn’t matter much anyway as his sergeant was shot as soon as the DUKW ramp opened, and their officer, a high-born young man who Bill said was a credit to a very well known Scottish family, was hit trying to help him. They both died without getting ashore.

    Bill and his mate William and some others found themselves hiding behind a tank, the turret of which had been damaged so that it couldn’t function, though its tracks were intact and it could move. By staying bent down behind it, the tank provided mobile cover for small numbers of troops to get up and down the beach, and by this method Bill and William managed to make their first objective, which was the edge of the beach, where large metal anti-tank obstructions provided cover. There were larger numbers of troops starting to coalesce in this safer area, and there were now present more senior officers and something approaching proper military organisation started to develop.

    Bill said the officers had to bellow, as their damaged hearing combined with the general mayhem to make conversation almost impossible, but by gestures and simple instructions, it was clear that the next stage was to get to, and secure, the small train track that terminated close to the beach. There was some re-allocation of groups, and Bill and William were told to move with a larger group, some of whom he knew and some he didn’t.

    He turned towards William to get and give reassurance as they prepared to leave. Bill yelled at his friend, as he was slow to respond. Still unresponsive, Bill grabbed him by the shoulder to pull him round and to tell him to pull himself together. He said he wasn’t surprised to be doing this because William suffered moments of stress that caused him to withdraw, but Bill was irritated as what they really needed to do was get moving. He pulled hard at his friend, one of a small group that had shared the last three years together and with whom he was bonded closer than his own family, only to find William was shot in the cheek, and clearly dead.

    Bill was an old-school, proud, working-class man. He was brought up to believe that real men never cried. He didn’t break that commitment to himself or his heritage when telling me the story, but he got close, and his bottom lip wobbled almost uncontrollably as he told me about the next few minutes. He gripped my hand harder than I’d imagined an 80-year old man could manage as he explained that he didn’t even have time to say goodbye or to arrange his friend with some dignity, but just moved off in a snake line with his new comrades.

    William wasn’t the only man shot, so the area wasn’t quite as safe as they’d assumed, and Bill said that within literally seconds the realisation ensured he was entirely focussed on staying alive himself. He said it troubled him now to think he had moved away so quickly, but it wasn’t a conscious choice, it was an instinct, and it was an instinct that kept him alive another day.

    Max, I'm having difficulty seeing the keys as I type this - the tears are rolling down following yet another spellbinding account. My late father was on one of those RN ships and, like many men who were present, rarely spoke of the horrors they witnessed, but what little he did impart was truly shocking and humbling at the same time. I know your blog isn't over yet, but what you have written already deserves an award. It is outstanding.

    Thank you. Jenny x


      Max, such eloquent and moving writing has me moved to tears yet again. Your accounts are so vivid and highlight the awful times these men faced...Carol


        Thank you Max for re-telling your friend's very personal account of his D-day landing. A very enlightening and moving account the impact of which is not lost over time and through interpretation. It is difficult to comprehend that his story is only one of many- so much suffering, so much dignity, so much bravery. The impact of the war on civilian life is generally well documented but personal accounts such as your friend Bill's are rare in my experience. Thank you for sharing it.


          Wow. What a powerful entry. Cruise blogs aren't supposed to bring tears to your eyes, surely?

          Next entry is, again, eagerly anticipated.
          Duncan S

          See my blog!


            This is so sad and powerful. It really brings home to us the brutal reality.


              Thank you Max for another gripping and moving episode. Your vivid account shows that for most of us, myself included, we have little idea of how horrific and traumatic it was to be involved.

              You must feel very proud to have known Bill.


                It's rare to find the kind of empathy which can appreciate an old soldier's experiences in quite this way

                It's even rarer to see them retold with such clarity and utter compassion

                Thank you, Max ... just ... thank you



                  Your mentor Bill was obviously a lot more stoic than are we! A very gripping story being rolled out here Max and thank you for relating it so eloquently.


                    Thank you Max, again. This is one of the most moving, and eagerly awaited cruise blogs ever written.



                      Extremely well written and sincere thanks for sharing this. Tears are rolling down my face and I don't often cry... God Bless
                      Queen Mary 2
                      Queen Victoria
                      Queen Elizabeth


                        So sad, but thank you for sharing it................................................ .............Carol


                          Another tear jerking episode which has obviously had a big impact on all who are following you. Beautiful sensitive writing. Thank you Max. Beryl


                            A totally absorbing read and very moving Max!


                              Max....that brings it all home....thank you so much.


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