Five Best D-Day Memoirs: “There were half-concealed airfields and meadows that hid tanks and jeeps”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Peter Caddick-Adams headlined “Five Best D-Day Memoirs”:

London War Notes, 1939-1945
By Mollie Panter-Downes
Edited by William Shawn

“Living on this little island just now uncomfortably resembles living on a vast combination of an aircraft carrier, a floating dock jammed with men, and a warehouse stacked to the ceiling with material labelled ‘Europe,’ ” wrote the English-born novelist Mollie Panter-Downes on May 21, 1944. It was 16 days before D-Day.

When World War II broke out, the New Yorker magazine contracted Panter-Downes to cable a 1,500-word weekly letter of wartime impressions from London. Her writing proved so popular that the relationship lasted 45 years. In her early observations, she noted of the coming second front (as the invasion of France was known in 1944-45) that “every day the papers carry enough prophecies, hints and rumors to make Allied plans perfectly plain to Berlin” and that “every Londoner’s fidgety and completely uninformed chat is of moons and tides.”

Later: “The traffic on the streets seems thicker than usual, most of its liveliness being contributed by American jeeps and glossy staff cars.” On June 11, just after D-Day, she reported: “One could sense the strain of a city trying to project itself across the intervening English orchards and cornfields, across the strip of water, to the men already beginning to die in the French orchards and cornfields which once more had become ‘over there.’”

Pogue’s War: Diaries of a WWII Combat Historian
By Forrest C. Pogue

By the time he was drafted and assigned to serve as an official historian for the U.S. Army, Forrest Pogue was already a college professor—an experience whose influence is ever present in his own richly detailed war diaries. Of the English countryside, he noted in April 1944: “Tanks, not built for maneuvering in such cramped space, had knocked out pieces of corner buildings as they attempted to make sharp turns on a little street that had never been expected to cope with anything worse than a coach and four.”

Later he watched the assault troops heading to their ports in southeast England. “Below us thousands of trucks, jammed with men and equipment, moving to the south. . . . There were half-concealed airfields, meadows that hid tanks and jeeps, and hedgerows harboring piles of shells. The little towns, still filled with century-old quaintness, looked out of place as troops streamed through in a floodtide toward the sea.”

Other Clay: A Remembrance of the World War II Infantry
By Charles R. Cawthon

“The weather was of that ‘un-rare’ English June that threatens both fair and foul, ready to go either way,” noted Charles Cawthon, impatiently waiting for D-Day in southern England. A journalist and editor at the Charlottesville Daily Progress-Express before the war, Cawthon joined the Virginia National Guard in 1940. Four years later he was leading a company of the 116th Infantry, known, after their Civil War antecedents, as the Stonewall Brigade.

Of Omaha Beach he reported coming to a stretch that was “vacant of men and quiet except for the wind, waves, and beach birds that were swooping and crying.” He went on to recollect that “smoky brush fires had swept up the bluffs and screened one of the first penetrations.” He observed: “Whatever else was accomplished by the naval cannonade that preceded H-Hour, nothing could have exceeded the value of those brush fires that it had started inadvertently. In fact, they demonstrated that a few smoke shells would have served us better than all the weight of high explosive

Flesh Wounds
By David Holbrook

“The long coil of hollow little oblong boats—the long winding queue of the Armada—it was all here, crowded in a thick huddle offshore, like a packed boating lake. . . . It was too much to take in the hugeness of the fleet.” So wrote Cambridge-educated David Holbrook, an officer in a British tank battalion, of the invasion flotilla off Normandy on D-Day. “Destroyers, cruisers, battleships, minesweepers, dark turrets and grey hulls galore, were scattered over the bright choppy sea, hulking over the crammed small assault craft.”

Written in 1966 and published as a novel, “Flesh Wounds” is a barely fictionalized account of the author’s officer training and D-Day experiences. It’s distinguished for its intimate observation. “The small open boats like shoe-boxes, were coming back out. One passed close . . . with great jagged holes driven through the superstructure, and old junk of shell-cases, ropes and tarpaulins thrown about in violence. The sailors’ faces were now grey and singed with explosives, and they were now but limp sacks of men, from exhaustion and shock.”

Panzer Commander
By Hans von Luck

“The evening of 5 June 1944 was unpleasant. Normandy was showing its bad side; during the day there had been rain and high winds,” noted Hans von Luck, who commanded a regiment of German vehicle-borne infantrymen behind the British beaches and earlier served under Erwin Rommel in North Africa. Luck recalled that German morale was high, “since Normandy spoiled us with butter, cheese, crème fraîche, and meat, as well as cider.”

Minutes after midnight on D-Day, his men were attacked by British paratroopers. His commander pleaded with those higher up. “General, I have just come back from Paris and I’ve seen a gigantic armada off the west coast of Cabourg, warships, supply ships and landing craft. I want to attack at once with the entire division.” The superior officers, weighed down by indecision and bureaucracy, were unmoved. Luck notes bitterly that “clearance was strictly denied. . . . So the tragedy took its course. After only a few hours, the brave fighting units in the coastal fortifications could no longer withstand the enemy pressure, or else they were smashed by the Allied naval guns; while a German panzer division, ready to engage, lay motionless.”

Speak Your Mind