As Britons take bets on how long Gordon Brown will stay in Downing Street and reflect on the success of the neo-fascist parties in the European elections, some of us in Britain, America, and the rest of the free world will stop to consider what this month meant for Europe and the world sixty-five years ago.
I have just come back from a pilgrimage to Portsmouth, England, where I met the dwindling contingent of British D-Day veterans who meet each year on June 6 to remember the thousands of their fallen comrades-in-arms.
What is less well known is that the weeks after D-Day saw staggering carnage in Nazi-occupied France and that the days after June 6, 1944, were as important in world history as the events of 1066. Indeed, the Overlord Embroidery, which adorns the walls of the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, is modeled after the Bayeux Tapestry and represents the free world’s salvation in the face of the horrors of a Hitlerian empire. The Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 was the largest deployment of an expeditionary force in human history and meant the future of mankind was in the balance. Dwight Eisenhower had a chilling speech in his pocket prepared for the eventuality of defeat.
Had he and Bernard Montgomery failed, we would not be fretting over the future life of Susan Boyle or sniggering at the British MP who charged the taxpayer for a church donation. Had the men of Normandy 1944 failed, we could have been plunged into a Thousand-Year Reich. One likes to think Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill would not have allowed this to happen.
On June 6 in Portsmouth, a city from which thousands of Americans departed for their ultimate sacrifice, I met one British D-Day veteran who was still furious with the United States even after sixty-five years. He made sure, having detected my American accent, to fulminate about Roosevelt not entering the war early enough and imposing a huge debt upon Britain that it only finished repaying in 2008. What I found interesting was his observation that America wasted no time in going to war in Afghanistan but that in 1940 it left Britain to stand up to Hitler alone for two terrible years. He was not willing to talk about this to my video camera, but said he needed to get off his chest sixty-five years of rage. He was not moved by the fact that over 9,000 young Americans lie under crosses and stars at Omaha Beach. Reasoning with him that the United States invaded Afghanistan because it had been attacked on September 11, 2001, made no difference. He was determined to paint America as almost criminally negligent in its refusal to come to Britain’s aid as soon as war was declared in 1939.
This is an accusation I have heard for the thirty-three years in which I have lived in Britain. Watching the film The Gathering Storm, one is acutely aware of the total lack of preparedness in Britain and Europe as Hitler marched across the continent and the Channel Islands. (When I was researching my book, Spitfire Girls, I discovered that Germany was training future Luftwaffe aces at flying clubs for many years before the outbreak of World War II because the Treaty of Versailles had forbidden German militarization.) The only individuals other than Winston Churchill who had a clear understanding of the hell the fuehrer was about to perpetrate on humanity were the Jehovah’s Witnesses. No one listened.
I attended the service held in Portsmouth Cathedral to commemorate the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day. The chaplain of the British Army gave the address and recounted a trip he had taken with his young children to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He said he had in recent years been asked if the huge loss of life on D-Day had made sense. He said the unspeakable atrocities in the camp, in which Jehovah’s Witnesses and political dissidents had been incarcerated, would have become our daily life had the Allies not triumphed on D-Day and in the subsequent battles.
Another veteran was moved to tears as I tried to film him telling his story. He began to sob talking about the death of his commanding officer and I ended up gripping his hand with one of mine whilst holding my camera with the other. All of the octogenarian veterans I met live the Normandy invasion as if it were yesterday. Their grief is real and searing.
The men I met in the first week of June 2009 were amongst the dwindling number of the ones who survived. The grim tally of deaths was staggering: 435,000 killed, wounded, or missing in action on both sides in just the Battle of Normandy alone. As we sit and chatter about Britain’s Got Talent, the carnage of 1944 seems so far away.
But as I walked around Portsmouth I could sense the presence of the tens of thousands of young men who never came back to this coastal city. An RAF fly-past had dropped one million poppies and they kept appearing for days — on the windowsill of my guest house, on the beach, on the ledge of the ATM machine, on the tracks of Southsea railway station … simply everywhere. As I watched them blow in the wind I realized each one represented a dead serviceman or woman. I bent down to pick one up but it seemed to get its own life and pull away from me. I then tried another but it pulled away: as if to say, “I don’t want to be separated from my buddy.” In 2004 I went to Omaha Beach and looked out at those seemingly endless fields of crosses. Somehow these poppies were even more poignant.
The ghosts of those brave and painfully young men of June hover over Britain, Europe, and the free world as we go about our easy lives. In the wake of the fatal shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington on June 10, we are reminded that extremism is still in our midst and that tyranny can come to our shores. May we never forget the sacrifice of the men of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. May we always be proud of the dynamic and free society in which we live and be ready to defend it.