A D-Day to remember
AS THE NATION PREPARES TO MARK THE 75TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE NORMANDY LANDINGS, LINDSAY SUTTON PAYS A VISIT TO WHERE IT BEGAN
YOU have to respect those who took part in the D-Day landings – and my dad was among them. Like so many of his generation, he didn’t dwell on it. Not for him, rows of medals and desperate stories of his ‘war experiences’.
He wasn’t militaristic by nature, but he knew there was a job to do, and he did it. Then, like so many, he closed the book and moved on.
The expression ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things’ was made for him and his ilk.
Bill Sutton joined up early, before he was called up officially, and became a tank commander with the Guards.
Recently, I followed in his war-time footsteps from Portsmouth, standing on the very spot where he set off across the English Channel to land on a beach-head in Normandy, facing Hitler’s Atlantic Wall defences and the waiting Panzer divisions. A Yorkshire boy from Bingley facing the might of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.
On Thursday June 6, the British people will remember what was done for them, by their own.
I know the country will show its appreciation on the 75th anniversary of the biggest seaborne invasion in history, the turning point of the Second World War. But I wondered whether, in years to come, the fourth generation on will remember the lessons of history.
Will they be able to comprehend the danger and firepower the people of my father’s generation faced?
Having visited the moving and excellent D-Day Story centre in Portsmouth, I feel a lot more confident that they will.
A British school party was joined by a group of French youngsters while I was there and their interest and appreciation was apparent.
I wasn’t happy, on the other hand, with an ‘older generation’ visitor, who was rude and ill-informed as he told everyone: “The only thing the French did was put up the white flag.” I told my fellow countryman a few home truths. He was not best pleased.
Never mind the semi-circle of French troops around Dunkirk to allow the British evacuation to take place. Or that the citizens of Dunkirk were bombed, strafed and slaughtered because their town was chosen for the mass exodus.
Or the fact that the the British Expeditionary Force had been rolled back by the Nazi onslaught, alongside the French troops.
Never mind the bravery of the French Resistance. Or the suffering of French families under occupation and during the Battle of Normandy after D-Day.
I found it heartening that The D-Day Story centre is far more discerning in its approach, telling human stories, and moving on from endless displays of tanks and guns.
Instead, it focuses on three elements – Preparation; the D-Day landings and the subsequent Battle of Normandy; and finally, the Overlord Embroidery, a magnificent piece of work, telling the story Bayeux Tapestry-style.
The D-Day Story has more than
500 artefacts and quirky exhibits to bring ordinary, everyday aspects to life. There’s the pencil that signed off the order to launch Operation Overlord, the official title of the D-Day operation.
Then there’s Betty White’s Coat, which has scores of army badges sewn on it. Young Betty collected the badges as souvenirs from allied soldiers as they walked by her Gosport home, ready to embark.
A need for anonymity was seen as vital. There’s testimony to Gustav the Pigeon, who was released with the first D-Day despatch, the aim being to keep radio silence.
The Preparation section shows how important the weather was to the operation, which was delayed because of stormy conditions.
A true-to-life, film screen briefing of officers candidly admits that the secret of success would be ‘force,’ not surprise. An aide to US Supreme Commander General Eisenhower described the operation as “the biggest gamble in history” – but it worked.
The local paper in Portsmouth didn’t pull any punches when it reported: “Out of the mouth of Hell passed tens of thousands of men who appeared doomed to destruction or to be captured.”
Although there is little glorification of war, there is room for the recollections of veterans who served there, and who survived. Recordings tell of their fear and their sea sickness, just as much as their feeling of common cause and cameraderie. One fellow says: “We shared everything we had: cocoa, laughter... and heartbreak.”
It’s all there, graphically depicted, but with a human touch.
Like the dread felt by soldier Harry Brackinsell, who flung himself down on the beach under fire, only to feel something metallic pressing into him. Thinking it was a mine, he carefully felt the object under his body, to find it was a saucepan. From then on, he used it every day to heat the water for his morning shave.
But lest we forget, another survivor says candidly: “There were 40 of us who started out. A year later, half were dead.”
I really didn’t expect to be excited by the Overlord Embroidery, but I was moved by the unfolding drama of the work, designed by artist Sandra Lawrence and stitched by members of the Royal School of Needlework. It is beautifully done, shows true professional application, and is fascinating.
Every facet of the story is included, from the receipt of call-up papers; children wearing gas masks; the horrors of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz; the Civil Defence measures; work on the land to feed the nation; the landings and the Battle of Normandy.
You don’t have to relish war to admire the human spirit behind the pivotal turning point of World War Two. The D-Day Story is well told, and I think my father would have appreciated it.
Fittingly, I stayed at Portsmouth’s Royal Maritime Club. My initial thoughts of it being very ‘stuffed shirt’ were soon dispelled. The club and hotel was originally a sailor’s home to give ‘safe, respectable comfort’ to returning seamen.
Since it is run as a charity, it is reasonably priced, has high standards, wonderful and friendly service and excellent breakfasts and dinners.
My three-day, two-night visit took in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, with Admiral Nelson’s Victory berthed in dry dock there, alongside Henry VIII’s warship Mary Rose, raised from the depths in 1982 and now painstakingly preserved.
There’s the original steam-sail warship Warrior to visit, and you must go up the sail-shaped Spinnaker Tower to take in the magnificent views of Portsmouth Harbour, Old Portsmouth, neighbouring Southsea and the Isle of Wight.
My father only once told me the unfolding story of his war – and he told me not to frighten my mum with any of it. He waited until I was 15 years old, never before mentioning the events that took him from Portsmouth to the beach at Arromanches in Normandy, on through Belgium and Holland and into Germany.
Only now do I understand the significance of his involvement – taking the bridge at Nijmegen, but being unable to reach the airborne landing troops at Arnhem; back-tracking to help cover the Americans in the Battle of the Bulge; crossing the Rhine, then racing up to Lubeck on the Baltic Sea, where his war finished.
There were elements of humanity, insight, even humour, in his story. When he told me of the push to get to Bayeux after D-Day, I asked him if he managed to see the famous tapestry. He smiled and said quietly: “No, we had a previous appointment with General Rommel and his Panzer Division in the Falaise Pocket.”
Years later, while we were enjoying ham and eggs at a Yorkshire Dales farmhouse, I asked him what was the best meal he had ever had. He told me it was a three-course meal put on for him and his crew by a liberated farmer and his wife near Nijmegen.
“Every course was apple, because that was all they had, but it was served with such love and gratitude,” he said. My dad never cried in front of his sons, but he very nearly did then.
In Germany, his brigade liberated two ‘camps’ – I worked out later that it was Belsen and Little Belsen – and he told me how he lifted 6ft-tall men onto trucks, virtually using only one hand.
He added: “If anyone ever asks you if the Jews deserve a homeland, tell them your dad says there are six million reasons why they do.”
Finally, he told me how Field Marshall Montgomery addressed them on the Luneberg Heide, south of Hamburg, with the words: “Gentleman, Admiral Doenitz is going to accept unconditional surrender, but you still have one job to do. Take your tanks, and get to Lubeck on the Danish border with Germany. Your mission is to stop our friends and allies, the Russians, from taking Denmark.”
Betty White’s coat
Spinnaker Tower looks over Portsmouth
Commandos come ashore on June 6, 1944
The Overlord Embroidery
The Union Jack flag used by the Beach Group Commander in the Battle of Normandy