On Anzac Day, after a morning in which I drank coffee watching the sun rise over our peaceful beach - then sat by as my children went surfing - I reflected on the part my grandfather played in WW2. My Grandad won numerous medals but these have been lost, sadly. I am one of the world’s privileged ones, as my morning demonstrates. I’ve had no experience of war.
My dad lived in peacetime too, but was a paratrooper in the Airborne Division in England during the sixties. He died before I got the chance to ask him about his experiences. Dad loved to read, and would return from the library with eight books, mostly about the WW1 and WW2 soldiers who served for our freedom.
Maybe my interest has come from dad, but on my own book shelf is this book – Voices From D-Day, Eyewitness accounts of the Battle for Normandy. It was edited by Jon E. Lewis but written in the words of the soldiers themselves. I’ve doggy-eared the page by BBC war correspondent Chester Wilmot, who was attached to the 6th Airborne Division.
There are many stories in this book that are moving, but this one resonated because of my dad’s years as a paratrooper. What hit me was the occupations of the men who were thrown into this indescribably traumatic burden of responsibility to defend in the name of freedom.
Great journalism is hard to come by these days. So on Anzac Day in 2018, this is not about the ANZAC soldiers, but it is journalism that paints a picture surely worthy of a moment of our time.
By Chester Wilmot, BBC War Correspondent of 1944
On the evening of 5 June 1944, as the last glow of twilight was fading from the western sky, six R.A.F Albermarles were drawn up on the runway of Harwell airfield. Gathered around them, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, were 60 men of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, pathfinders who were to guide the 6th British Airborne Division to its landfall behind the Atlantic Wall near Caen. Their faces and equipment were smeared with brown, black and green paint, and over their uniforms they wore camouflaged jumping smocks. Every man was a walking arsenal. They had crammed so much ammunition into their pockets and pouches, so many weapons into their webbing, that they had found it difficult to hitch on their parachute harnesses. Grenades were festooned about them; they had fighting knives in their gaiters and clips of cartridges in the linings of their steel helmets. No man was carrying less than 85lb; some more than a hundred, and in addition each had strapped to his leg a 60lb kitbag containing lights and radar beacons with which to mark the dropping and landing-zones for the rest of the division.
These men were the torchbearers of liberation. Like all paratroops they were volunteers, and they had been specially picked and trained for this responsible task, but otherwise there was little to distinguish them from the rest of Montgomery’s force. Beside the leading aircraft were the ten men who were due to land first. At the point of the invasion spearhead, a Berkshire hod-carrier and a toolmaker from Kent, a bricklayer from Edinburgh, a Worcestershire kennelman and a lorry driver from Dumfries, two ‘regulars’, a deserter from the ‘army’ of the Irish Free State and a refugee from Austria, led by a young lieutenant, who, when was began, had been in the chorus of a West End musical comedy. Three of them had been at Dunkirk, one had fought in Africa, but the rest were going into battle for the first time. These pathfinders were the vanguard of the force that had the most vital role in the Neptune plan – that of seizing and holding the left flank of the bridgehead – the open flank, against which the main weight of German counter attack was likely to fall as the Panzer divisions moved in from their garrison areas south-east and east of Caen. If 6th Airborne were to rail, the whole bridgehead might be rolled up from this wing before the seaborne divisions could become firmly established. The nearest of these divisions, 3rd British, was to land on Sword beach just west of the Orne. This river and the canal which runs parallel to it from the sea to Caen, eight miles inland, provided a naturally strong flank position. Montgomery wanted not merely to secure the line of these water obstacles but to hold east of them a base from which to expand the Allied bridgehead south-east of Caen into open ground where Rommel’s panzer divisions might be profitably engaged. The seizure of this base was the responsibility entrusted to the commander of the 6th Airborne, Major-General Richard Gale. Tall, spare and ramrod-straight, Gale looked a ‘Poona colonel’ every inch, but this first impression was misleading. When he spoke, the power of his blunt but lucid words revealed a man who could both devise a plan of daring originality and imbue his men with the confidence and courage to carry it out…At ten to eleven the aircrews went aboard. The pathfinders drained their tea mugs, adjusted their harnesses, stubbed out their cigarettes and clambered aboard. The door slammed behind them. The engines spoke up. A signal from the control tender and the six Albermarles roared down the runway in quick succession, lifted, circled above the sleeping, unsuspecting countryside, their red and green navigation lights twinkled like fireflies. Soon after 11.30am the swarm of lights moved in formation over our heads and faded into the southern distance.
Lest we forget. (Below far right, Grandad Cyril Smith during WW2).
If you're spending a lot of your day in bare feet, then chances are you have found the kind of balance that Hook & Arrow writer Alison Smith has found in life.