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6 Overawed at Overlord

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    6 Overawed at Overlord

    My old mentor Bill’s second close buddy, Billy, was aboard an LCM landing craft that was scheduled to hit the beach around an hour after the first arrivals. Even though the sea state was rough, and over half the men were vomiting, many of the occupants of the third and fourth wave landing craft approaching the beaches cheered as they saw the great clouds of smoke rising from the German gun emplacements buried into the rock of the headland. It must have been an amazing feat of bravery for the specialised rangers to climb up and attack the gunners so quickly, and it gave the men confidence that they would have an easier path than the first waves of troops had endured.


    There were apparently cries of joy going up and some had to be restrained from standing and waving in their excitement by their more experienced sergeants. The huge clouds of smoke that they could see coming from the gun emplacements was welcome, but there was still danger.


    In fact more danger than they knew, because it wasn’t smoke. It was steam, from the gallons of water being poured onto the over-heating German machine guns. These heavy calibre guns were working overtime, and the Germans had done their homework on position. They had the widest possible field of fire and the elevation meant it was difficult to find any sort of effective cover. The calibre of the guns guaranteed that if you were hit, you didn’t receive the glancing flesh wounds loved by Hollywood directors, but rather limbs were torn off whole, or torsos cut in two.


    There were other dangers too. The Germans had mined the whole of the French coast, and whilst most were concentrated further along at Pas de Calais, there were still more than the allied planners had expected. By some extraordinary feat of luck the first waves avoided these mines, but some of the followers didn’t.


    Billy’s LCM hit a mine a half-mile from the shore. There were approximately 100 men on the craft, and around half died. Billy was one of them, ironically enough probably around the same time the other of the trio, William, was killed on the beach. Many of the young men survived the blast of the mines, but drowned by being overpowered by the weight of their kit combining with the shock of the water temperature. In June, the English Channel is around 12˚ to 14˚ C, or mid fifties fahrenheit.


    Bill didn’t know this of course. He knew William was dead because he’d seen it, but it was five days before he heard that Billy was missing, presumed dead. He was given the news by one of the men who’d been rescued from the same craft by the next wave of boats approaching.


    Mrs B and I discussed the capricious nature of fate over another early breakfast on the Journey following a lovely evening ashore in Honfleur.


    Yesterday and today we are visiting the war cemeteries and beaches which is the reason for the early breakfast. I’m conscious that I’m perhaps straying into areas that are none of my business, and I’ve struggled back-and-forth about what is the correct course of action. I’m not family to any of these people, but I do feel a connection. I had a bond with Bill and he told me this story. A decade later Azamara and Cruisedot have conspired to plonk us here and you’re reading about it. If you believe in fate how could it be otherwise?


    We have some friends who live in Brittany who kindly met us and drove the one hour journey to the Bayeux cemetery. The first thing to say is the French people deserve massive credit for the respect and prominence they afford these places. In Britain, I fear we would have built a Tesco’s over them. They are exceptionally well cared for and presented, and it’s done in a spirit that is at once respectful and positive. Our guide says this is the final resting place for 4,144 souls, most of whom died in June and July 1944. Around 350 of the graves remain unidentified, and the grounds include 500 or so Germans too. There is also a memorial to the nearly 2,000 Commonwealth forces who died at the same time and have no known grave.


    I had had some correspondence with the Commonwealth war graves commission in the weeks before we left, and I knew some of what I was looking for probably existed. But a big part of the power of these places is the communal, not the individual. Such care is taken and such honour bestowed on the unknown soldiers and unacknowledged graves that the search for a specific resting place seems somehow less important than I imagined it would be.


    The emotions are complex, and I don’t have the skills to adequately express them nor to do justice to the moment, but the effect was striking. For all of us, our own growing up and reaching adulthood is difficult, and we get there by the unstinting guidance of our own parents and family more than anything, but also along the way we fall under the temporary influence of others. Sometimes it’s teachers, or sports coaches or some other formal role, and sometimes it’s family friends and neighbours, and at different times possibly all of these.


    One of mine was certainly Bill. He caught me at a time when I was trying to learn to be a man. It’s a fragile time. My own dad was as fine an example as there could be and I’ll never come close to his unique generosity of spirit, but we all need external reference points too, and Bill was one such for me. In my professional life not a day passes without me doing or saying something I learned from him.


    I felt a responsibility growing on me to provide some closure to this story as we walked the tidy rows of headstones, the grass around each one neatly trimmed as if by a manicurist with nail scissors. The stones were identical, and after a while you’re scanning rather than reading such that it was with a jolt that I absorbed the words:


    William Jones
    Royal Marines Commando
    6th June 1944,
    Aged 24

    This was the final resting place of Bill’s friend, Billy. We stood for a long moment without speaking, Mrs B gripping my arm tightly. If this is how it felt for us, imagine the emotion of those families finding loved ones for the first time.


    I can’t be sure about the grave of the second of the trio of friends, William. It may be there was some error with the details, most likely the spelling of his surname. We found what may very well have been his final resting place, but there was an inconsistency that means I can’t be sure and maybe that’s how it was meant to be. If it wasn’t him, there’s something entirely honourable to be one of the many hundreds marked simply:


    A soldier of the 1939-1945 war

    Last edited by Max, Warwickshire; 9th June 2014, 05:10 AM.

    #2
    A quick word to say a sincere thank you to all of you who have left such supportive comments. It really is touching to know that people he or I didn't know are hearing my old friend's story.
    Thanks
    Max

    Comment


      #3
      Once again a very moving account of your experiences. Its sad that we in this country don't show the respect that others abroad have for our war dead. I visited with my grandchildren the war graves at Arnhem Cemetery with my grandchildren and they were amazed that each grave was "adopted" by a schoolchild who would visit and place flowers. Why cant we do that here?

      Comment


        #4
        Originally posted by homer, aberdeen View Post
        Once again a very moving account of your experiences. Its sad that we in this country don't show the respect that others abroad have for our war dead. I visited with my grandchildren the war graves at Arnhem Cemetery with my grandchildren and they were amazed that each grave was "adopted" by a schoolchild who would visit and place flowers. Why cant we do that here?
        I have visited many CWGC Cemeteries in the areas of the two world war conflicts and have been awed by the care given to their upkeep.

        I know we have many little areas in church cemeteries up and down the UK where our Forces men and women are buried, but do we have any actual 'forces only' cemeteries? Hopefully, those buried in their local churchyards will have family around who will remember their grave, and those who don't, at least have the CWGC to care for them.

        I guess one of the reasons to 'adopt a grave' at Arnhem is to act 'in lieu' of family who can't visit very often. If my husband's uncle had an actual grave, I would be delighted if it were so honoured by a school child from the area of Thiepval.

        Comment


          #5
          Oh My, I don't know any one that was in the war, watching a film about it is completely different to hearing about it from some-one who actually experienced it.

          I was really rooting for Billy, and hoping they had met up after it had all finished. It's just so sad. I really hope your friend Bill has had a good life. I'm amazed that not more of the older generation are scarred for life.

          Thank you Max............................................... ........................Carol

          Comment


            #6
            Like Carol, I too hoped that Billy survived and enjoyed a reunion with your friend. It's an incredibly sad story, and of course only one of thousands of similarly sad stories that may never be told as beautiful, or at all!

            This may get old to hear but once again thank you Max for sharing this emotional journey with us.
            Duncan S

            See my blog!

            Comment


              #7
              Hi Max
              have just finished reading chapters 5 and 6 like all the others very well written and very moving your writing brings Bills experiences back to life seventies years on. I have visited the Normandy war cemeteries on a number of occasions and still find them very moving places.
              "We Will Remember Them"

              Comment


                #8
                Max, I have read many books and watched many films over the last 70 years since Overlord took place, all of which throw up a little more information.
                However with a hand on my heart I can honestly say that your blogs and in particular Bill’s contributions rank among the finest for accurate and real description. I wasn’t there but I can cross reference your accounts of Bill’s memories with those of my late eldest brother who was there and they both run together for their realism and accuracy.
                Your blogs were not just the written word but they also brought to the senses the rancid smells of war, the deafening sounds of war and the ultimate sacrifices of war. In reading your accounts I sensed all of these and I could taste the smoke of battle.
                Producing a few blogs on a cruise ship probably is only a shortened version of Bill’s story, so please record it all in a separate stand alone document for all to read, remember and pass bown the generations.
                Well done, Max, and many thanks.
                BB

                Comment


                  #9
                  Hello Max, another evocative piece of writing, superbly done. The harsh realities of war brought home in your writing is truly amazing. I again look forward to the next instalment with anticipation.

                  Many thanks
                  Bob

                  Comment


                    #10
                    On a shelf in our dining room stands a beautiful cut glass rose bowl. Much of the time it's not really thought about, but occasionally the sunlight will strike it, reflecting its countless facets in deep and brilliant colour and leaving an impression that's hard to define

                    In such utterly skilled hands, words can do the same ...


                    Cheers,
                    Lynn

                    Comment


                      #11
                      Originally posted by Mitchell Derby, Derby View Post
                      On a shelf in our dining room stands a beautiful cut glass rose bowl. Much of the time it's not really thought about, but occasionally the sunlight will strike it, reflecting its countless facets in deep and brilliant colour and leaving an impression that's hard to define

                      In such utterly skilled hands, words can do the same ...


                      Cheers,
                      Lynn
                      Oh Lynn,
                      There's Max tearing me up and you go and add the pressure with those lovely words.
                      Ta ra,
                      Alan

                      Comment


                        #12
                        I have just caught up with your last few blogs thanks you so much it really does make you appreciate how much they gave and what a nightmare they were in. CG
                        sigpic

                        Comment


                          #13
                          Great writing, Max- I wish I could be as skilful in replying.
                          In the mining village where I was born, there were 3 graves of German POWs, cut off from the graveyard by a hedge and each marked with a simple cross. No-one would ever tell me anything about them. It is only recently that I've heard the bodies have been repatriated.
                          Jo.

                          Comment


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