This summer, towards the end of a most enjoyable French holiday, I visited the Normandy invasion beaches for the first time. I had read a great deal on the battle, and I knew that a cousin, a tank driver, had died in the fighting and was buried there. It was a good opportunity to pay my respects to him.
We had booked a couple of nights in the Grand Hotel, Cabourg, or Balbec as Marcel Proust renamed it. I had not realised that Cabourg lies only six miles east of the British landing beaches, just beyond the estuary of the River Orne. The town has the charmingly unreal perfection of all good seaside resorts, much nicer and cleaner than its British rivals. The Grand is a wonderful hotel, and though altered since Proust’s day, it is not hard to imagine Saint-Loup, Charlus and Albertine going through their extraordinary evolutions there. Indeed, our stay was enlivened by the unexplained appearance on the promenade of hundreds of people in Belle Epoque dress.
My wife Fiona suggested that on our last full day she devote herself to the beach and Marguerite of Navarre’s Heptaméron, while I went alone to investigate what she drily termed les scènes de carnage. The day before, we had crossed the famous Pegasus Bridge on the road to Cabourg, but as I headed there after breakfast I diverted to the site of the Merville battery, only three miles from Cabourg and the site of a little-known but even more desperate action.
The Merville battery consisted of four heavily fortified German gun emplacements ideally positioned to command the British landing beaches from Ouistreham to Arromanches. It had proved impervious to bombing, and thus the whole 9th battalion of the Parachute Regiment, some 700 men, had been detailed to seize it in the hours of darkness before the beach landings. The commanding officer, 29-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, had trained his men exhaustively on a mockup of the battery in Berkshire. The defences were formidable, with triple belts of wire, minefields and 120 heavily armed German soldiers inside the bunkers.
The operation began disastrously, with the paratroopers scattered over a wide area, some drowning in flooded fields. Otway could muster only 150 of his men, with little equipment other than their weapons. Desperate improvisation was called for, with paratroopers clearing paths through the minefields by hand. When Otway ordered them, as he recalled, to “Get in! Get in!” they did just that, and captured the battery in 20 minutes of ferocious combat. At the end, only half of Otway’s men were on their feet, while more than 100 Germans were killed and wounded.
The open-air museum at Merville explains it well. The re-creation of the final assault inside one of the bunkers is terrifying in its noise and intensity. On this little patch of ground, barely the size of a football pitch, 100 men died in a few minutes.
At this point, I had seen all that I wanted of les scènes de carnage. Merville had taught me what D-Day was really about: the Allies had to get ashore and establish a beachhead, and all up and down those 50 miles of coast, highly trained and motivated assault parties achieved their objectives despite chaos, confusion and tough opposition. There was no going back.
For me there was no going back so early in the day to the Grand Hotel and the ghosts of Proust, and I decided, without much definite purpose, to drive along the beachhead. I passed Pegasus and its no doubt excellent museum, and an hour later found myself on the gorgeous expanse of sand known forever as Omaha Beach — “Bloody Omaha”, an immortal feat of American arms. It is rightly well-provided with museums and memorials, as well as the great American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, where nearly 10,000 GIs are buried. Like Otway’s men at Merville, they had no choice but to “get in, get in”, whatever the cost.
And yet for me Omaha was a revelation and a liberation. Across that vast expanse of sand, holidaymakers played, picnicked, built sandcastles, swam and windsurfed. It was the perfect holiday beach, and utterly peaceful. This was, after all, what they fought for.
Normandy itself, where upwards of 20,000 French civilians died in the crossfire, is gently prosperous, its agriculture flourishing alongside high-tech industry.
I meandered back through the lovely Norman countryside, stopping at Arromanches to see the remains of the Mulberry harbours — a reminder that war is not all about slaughter — and came across a laconic British memorial at the little village of Creully.
In proud memory of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards
who lived or died in the fight for freedom
Landing in France September 1939
Withdrawing through Dunkirk June 1940
Returning to Normandy to assault King Beach
La Riviere H-Hour on D-Day 6th June 1944
To liberate Creully later that day
And in due course to assist in bringing the fight
To a successful conclusion
By June 8, Field Marshal Montgomery had established his forward headquarters in the Chateau de Creully, which still gazes down from its bluff on the Dragoon Guards memorial.
On the day of our departure, after a gratifyingly packed Mass at Cabourg, we drove to the Canadian cemetery at Bretteville, southeast of Caen, where my cousin John is buried. He is one of 80 British servicemen who lie there, along with 2,800 of their Canadian comrades killed in the later stages of the battle for Normandy. Like all Commonwealth War Cemeteries, it is a beautiful and peaceful spot. As we drove up, several elderly Canadian veterans and the local mayor were finishing a memorial service.
We found John’s grave in the same row as three of his comrades in the Sherman. They died in the early hours of August 8, 1944, at the beginning of Operation Totalise, part of the drive to close the Falaise Gap and trap the German army in Normandy. We know exactly how they died, as Lieutenant Colonel Alan Jolly, the commanding officer of 144th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps, told the story in his book about the battle.
In an attempt to avoid the heavy tank losses which the British had previously suffered advancing over open ground in daylight, Jolly infiltrated his regiment into position during the hours of darkness. As British infantry passed through them to eliminate bypassed German strongpoints, Jolly pulled his tanks up into leaguer (formation) to await the dawn. However, after 20 minutes, “there was another of those now all too familiar showers of sparks and one of the tanks in the leaguer began to burn. This is perhaps the worst moment of all. We were a perfect target huddled together in the field, the black outlines of the tanks clearly visible in the moonlight. The shot had come from behind us so perhaps some enemy tanks, unseen in the dark, had trailed the column. We waited in suspense and one wondered, selfishly, whether one’s own tank would be next to be hit. But there were no other incidents and we never solved the mystery of that last shot. It is even possible that it came from a tank of a neighbouring allied column, lost in the darkness and mistaking us for enemy tanks. Whatever the explanation, four of our men were killed — Corporal A. Skinner and Troopers T. Parker, R. Smith and J. Heren. Trooper Sid Moore was wounded but escaped.” Quis separabit?
Trooper John Heren was 21. On the base of his headstone his parents had chosen the inscription: “He died that others might live in peace.” Amen.