D Day

An image that sticks to mind is of the phosphorous shells.

Gentle reader must imagine himself a German soldier, in a bunker or pillbox atop the cliffs over the Normandy beaches; or elsewhere in the concrete maze of their “Atlantic Wall.” He could be young or old. If the latter, he has already served on the Eastern Front, and may be missing bits of finger from frostbite. Or he is sixteen and freshly enlisted. In either case he may be suffering from some further disability: slightly retarded, perhaps, or gimpish, or entirely lacking in family connexions.

Being sent to France had seemed pure luck. Of course, any place might be paradise, compared with Stalingrad. This place had French cheeses, fine asparagus, and all the other products of the Normandy farms; and pretty French girls, strangely addicted to German boiled sweets; officers, too, a little soft in the head; and, … taverns! Weeks would pass with no indication of war. Most days, no traffic whatever on the English Channel. Sometimes, through binoculars, a lonely destroyer could be seen hugging the English shore. Sometimes the Allies sent bombers — hit or miss. Mostly miss.

The night into June 6th, 1944, was disturbing, however. No one could recall such sustained bombing: from around midnight, wave after wave. But the ominous thing was when the bombing stopped: everywhere, at precisely 5:30 a.m. That, and the fact that thousands of vessels, of all sizes but many of them huge, were gradually approaching the French shore. No one had ever seen so many ships, and it remains the largest armada in history. Some day, each German had felt in his gut, this was going to happen. Just another Dieppe, his officers told him. Evidently it was happening today.

My details are from a new German “oral history” of the Normandy landings (this one), gathered from that side. My Chief Texas Correspondent sent me a copy when it came out last March. I found it gripping.

Now where were we? Ah yes, in that bunker, in that concrete maze, staring in amazement at the approaching Allied fleet. Binoculars no longer needed.

A most amazing thing was the amphibious tanks, dropped in the water then driving out onto the shingle. Was such a thing possible? Another was the Luftwaffe — oddly missing from this scene. An aeroplane requires a lot of vital parts, and shortages had grounded all but a few, quickly shot down when they attempted reconnaissance.

The German front line was there to slow and scramble the landings; the serious defences were a few hundred yards inland. It was now that the soldier realized that his function was to die in a hopeless cause. The strafing proper began.

A phosphorous shell lands in your chamber, among a dozen or so of your recent friends. At first you almost laugh. The effect is comic. You were bracing for the big bang; this thing just splashes what looks like white paint, all over the place. But you have perhaps three minutes to live; less, if you are lucky. Those who inhale burn from the inside out; those who don’t, from the outside in.

These munitions were most likely “made in USA,” but every side used them in this Total War. I’d rather have been at Hiroshima.

Trying to surrender was a hare-brained idea: stand up and you’re instantly a bullet bag. You gave the enemy everything you had, then laid down with your ancestors. By miracle, perhaps one in twenty, or one in a hundred, survived the frontal onslaught. It depended where you were. In that case you went to a prison camp: the best fate of all.

Spin forward a day or two. German prisoner is now in Allied troop boat, ferrying to England. Like a tourist, he takes in the view.

As far as he can see, along the beaches, a carpet of British, Canadian, American, and miscellaneous corpses. And in the water, this carpet floats, for the better part of a mile offshore. Tens of thousands of them, linked together in victory, face up or face down.