Heroes of a more certain time

They went by air and by sea across the Channel to the beaches of Normandy.

>> Alan CowellThe New York Times
Published : 6 June 2019, 09:46 AM
Updated : 6 June 2019, 09:50 AM

Beyond the cinematic re-enactments of noise and chaos and bloodletting, it is hard for subsequent generations raised on Europe’s expectations of peace — or, at the most, on the menace of the Cold War — to imagine how a truly hot war might have been.

Only a handful of veterans, now in their 90s and beyond, survive to recall how it was to spill from steel-sided landing craft into chilly seas to advance neck-deep in water toward beaches enfiladed by German snipers and machine-guns, strewn with land mines and bodies and barbed wire. Or to spring into the night from low-flying aircraft to secure bridges inland.

Photographs from the era of soldiers waiting their nervous turn with clenched jaws and flinty eyes seem to offer a definition of valor itself.

“It was quite a mess, but you just had to keep going,” Ken Peppercorn, now age 97, told The Observer newspaper in London, reflecting the stoicism of his generation in his account of wading ashore under fire and scrambling to find a smidgen of cover in a crater hewed from the dunes by shellfire. “I was so hungry that the first thing I did was get my rations out and make porridge.”

That memory — a foot soldier’s blending of the commonplace and the terrifying — encapsulated a turning point in the war. After months of planning, deception and preparation, D-Day symbolized the moment when the Western Allies began to establish the bridgehead from which to begin their advance on Germany, even as the Soviet Red Army moved in from the East.

Finally, in May 1945, Germany formally surrendered.

The immediate purpose of this giant pincer movement was the liberation of Europe from Nazi domination. But as the armies fought their way toward Berlin, they were also tracing the outlines of the Continent’s future, divided by what Churchill would come to call an Iron Curtain between the competing ideologies and power structures of East and West.

These days Normandy is still freckled with the cemeteries of war and the graves of soldiers of many nations, a reminder of a common purpose against Hitler’s onslaught.

A photo provided by the US Army of American troops helping others whose landing craft was sunk off the coast of France on June 6, 1944. Photographs from the era of soldiers waiting their nervous turn with clenched jaws and flinty eyes seem to offer a definition of valor itself. (US Army via The New York Times)

Normandy has made a modest industry of visitors and their pilgrimages to the markers of a make-or-break military campaign. Here, still, are the beaches where the soldiers came ashore with their code-names: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Here are the inland bridges secured by paratroopers from the United States, Britain and Canada — with a small but symbolic representation of Free French soldiers — in the early hours of June 6 before the landings across a broad front claimed somewhere between 2,500 and 4,500 lives. Here, too, are the memories of chaos and error — paratroopers landing in the wrong places; some landing craft hopelessly off course; heavily laden troops dumped into too-deep water to drown.

With the years, the number of surviving veterans has dwindled and there is a creeping sense that the broad visions of the wartime allies and their successors have narrowed. The American umbrella that successive administrations spread over Western Europe seems frayed and fragile. The European Union, which has prided itself on cementing the peaceful order coaxed from the Allied victory in 1945, is challenged from within by vocal nationalist and populist minorities.

Old pillars of trans-Atlantic certainty, and possibly complacency, have begun to tremble.

The shifts have seemed to accelerate in recent years. Since the last major D-Day commemoration five years ago, the leaders of France, Britain and the United States have changed. For Barack Obama read Donald Trump; for François Hollande, read Emmanuel Macron; for David Cameron, read Theresa May — and she is set to step down soon after the hoopla of this week’s anniversary to be replaced by an as yet unidentified successor.

In recent European elections, rightist and euroskeptic groups prevailed in Britain, Italy, France and Poland. Far from seeking the continent’s liberation, Britain is now in the throes of a tortured and toxic debate about leaving the European Union altogether.

Just as D-Day marked a turning point in history some now question whether this moment is equally portentous.

“Someone could ask under their breath ‘Is this perhaps the end of a 70-year adventure?’” Pope Francis said the other day.

Historical moments, of course, rarely if ever erupt out of nowhere and so it was with D-Day.

Since June 1941, when Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin, the Soviet leader, had been pressing the Western allies to open a second front against Berlin.

The British were in no mood to respond. In May and June 1940, German advances forced Britain and its allies to evacuate more than 330,000 of its own and allied troops from the French port of Dunkirk. Two years later, an Allied attempt to stage a lightning raid on the French port of Dieppe ended in disaster. In February 1942, surrender to Japan in far-flung Singapore became known as the largest event of its kind in Britain’s long, military history.

At the same time, Allied forces were fighting major campaigns in North Africa and the Mediterranean. But arguably the greatest restraint lay under the chilly waters of the Atlantic, where German U-boat submarines preyed on the convoys of merchant vessels bearing critically needed supplies from North America.

Two factors contributed mightily to the course of what became known as the Battle of the Atlantic.

A photo provided by the US Coast Guard of A memorial to a dead American soldier somewhere in Normandy, France, June 1944. Photographs from the era of soldiers waiting their nervous turn with clenched jaws and flinty eyes seem to offer a definition of valor itself. (US Coast Guard via The New York Times)

In Britain, the secret code-breakers at Bletchley Park north of London, including the mathematician Alan Turing, broke the Enigma system of encryption used by the German navy. And, in the skies, American long-range B-24 Liberator bombers were diverted from other theaters to extend air cover to the mid-Atlantic.

When the battle turned in the Allies’ favor, military planners could finally begin the business of moving huge numbers of soldiers and huge amounts of equipment to southern England — the launchpad for D-Day.

At the Tehran conference in November 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill told Stalin that Operation Overlord, the bloody campaign that flowed from the D-Day landings, would be launched in May 1944.

By the time the invasion took place, delayed by a day because of bad weather, some 2 million foreign troops were stationed in Britain. Between 1943 and 1944, 1.4 million soldiers from America alone had arrived, according to Britain’s Imperial War Museum, and in the first half of 1944, 9 million tons of supplies and equipment crossed the Atlantic in the buildup.

At the same time, British intelligence agents launched their own extensive campaign of disinformation to cement Hitler’s belief the invasion would center on the area around the French port of Calais, the nearest point to Britain. Whatever the thoughts of the soldiers on the landing craft, some in the top brass had doubts.

“I am very uneasy about the whole operation,” said Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff. “At the best it will fall so very far short of the expectations. At worst, it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war.”

Soaked and shot at, the troops on the beaches decided otherwise.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher