“And now – over to Normandy…”

BBC War Report 2
(my copy of the BBC War Report, published 1946, collecting front line dispatches from BBC reporters from D-Day to the fall of Berlin, full size pic on my Flickr)

Seventy one years ago today, on the beaches of Normandy, ordinary, everyday blokes from Britain, America, Canada, France, Norway, Poland and more walked into legend. Not some semi mythic great heroes like Achilles, these were regular men, bakers, plumbers, butchers, bank clerks, called on to do something extraordinary, while behind the lines who knows how many Resistance fighters fell, vanished in the dark, shot down during vital sabotage missions to help the landings, or worse, taken alive to face certain torture and only then death. Ever since I first read about it as a wee boy I’ve never been able to quite grasp the sheer bravery and desperation and terror of that day – impossible for us to really imagine what it was like to be in a small landing craft, rolling in the waves, men throwing up, seasick and also terrified at what was to come, shells and bullets exploding, the metallic clank as they hit the sides of the ship. Then the thump as the craft hits the sands, the large, flat bow door falls down, exposing the men within to withering fire from concrete gun emplacements, and they still run forward, into that fire, some of them never even making it out of the water, more would make it, some marching into battle under the sound of the bagpipes, like something you’d make up for a film or book, but it actually happened.

BBC War Report 1
(my copy of the BBC War Report, published 1946, collecting front line dispatches from BBC reporters from D-Day to the fall of Berlin, full size pic on my Flickr)

And I’ve never been able to imagine what it must have been like on the other side – for every die-hard Nazi zealot there must have been a dozen men who were there because they were made to be there, and as with the Allied side many wouldn’t even really be men yet, just boys really, who hadn’t tasted life but had been shoved into the endlessly voracious war machine (you’ve barely lived yet but you’re old enough to die, son, get out there for the glory of the fatherland). Imagine being an eighteen year old recruit drafted into the army, waking up early, yawning, looking out of the slit of your pillbox and seeing the largest armada in history, sitting right off shore, the massive guns of US Navy and Royal Navy battleships pointing right at you. Imagine firing, firing, firing, the smell of cordite and fear in your enclosed fortification, the raw horror of knowing that those bullets chopping into the soft bodies of men bravely advancing up the beaches are being fired by you, you are sick with fear and horror at what you are doing but you can’t stop, and neither can they, and they keep coming, and you’re screaming inside your skull because you don’t want to die like that, please, god, mother, father, don’t let me die like these poor men I am shooting down, please make it stop, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to kill them, why am I here, how did this happen…

And then, away from the bullets and shells and blood, but never away from the fear, the home front, the families. Where is my son, my father, my uncle, my brother, my husband on this day? you know they are on active service but they can’t tell you where – loose lips sink ships – and you wonder if they are among the thousands storming the blood-splashed shores of Occupied Europe? Are they among those brave men? Did they make it, did they fall, are they alright, are they horribly injured? And you simply wouldn’t know, trying to go through the daily routine but your mind elsewhere in worry all the long, long day, your heart skipping a beat every time you see a post office messenger coming towards your street, no, please, not that telegram, not for us, please no. Imagine living with that day in, day out, but especially on that day, and knowing you could do nothing about it, you couldn’t help your loved ones on the front, you couldn’t protect them, you could only hope and get on with life here, do “your bit” on the home front because that helps those at the sharp end of the spear. And on the other side, imagine the mother in Hamburg or Cologne, who had thought her young lad safe in his French posting, at least he’s not on that awful Russian front, then hearing of the invasion and her heart skipping like the mothers on the other side in horror and terror, my boy, what about my boy, is my boy alright…

d-day robert capa

(photo from one of my photographic heroes, Robert Capa, taken under fire during the D-Day landings)

We remember the big events like D-Day, the unbelievable heroism and acts of valour that were committed for the benefit of every generation that came after, and so we should. But we should always, always remember those events were made up of individuals, every one of them with hopes, dreams, fears and every one with someone back home in Berlin or Glasgow or Chicago or Toronto who lived in constant fear and hope for them. Some of them given the relief of a loved one returning home finally, when it was over, others that awful, awful telegram, “I regret to inform you…”. And the men and women who did come home, always marked by it, never the same, always bearing guilt because they got to come home, to marry, to have kids, to live, to grow old, and their friends never did. And they know their mates would want them to live that life, but still they’ll feel that guilt till the end of their days. And these ordinary people doing extraordinary things are what shaped our world, preserved our freedoms, so many individual people each doing their bit to create something enormous and world-changing. There are fewer now, each year, time slowly finishing what the war didn’t and claiming them, but those women and men who remain will be thinking on those friends who never came back today.


Today is June the 6th; to a boy who had seemingly endless amounts of Warlord, Victor, Action and Commando war adventure comics to read growing up it’s a historic date drummed into the memory: D-Day. Despite what criticisms a modern reader could heap on those old comics they did impart a fair chunk of familiarity with major events so that when you came to them in history lessons in school you realised you already knew some of it. D-Day for me has always remained in my mind since first reading about it as a lad, an unbelievable effort by thousands by land, sea and air on a daring but desperate attempt to breach Fortress Europe and drive the vile evil of the Nazis back to their own bombed out ruins of their homeland. It’s passed almost into myth now, decades on, the vast armada of Allied ships appearing off the coast of France in the morning mist, like the fabled thousand ships of Homer’s Odyssey arriving on the shores of Troy. A lot of mostly young lads wouldn’t last through that day.

Of course as I got older I learned more about that history and found out that well before the thousands of British, Canadian and American troops stormed the shores of Nazi occupied France that day many other very brave men had risked – sometimes lost – their lives to make it possible. Not just the veterans of the Dieppe raid, but smaller, quieter missions, often carried out in secret, in the dark of night – French Resistance members risking capture and torture before death on missions to disrupt German lines or supply information to D-day planners, Commando or SIS members sneaking ashore to take samples of a beach to see if it could support a landing, masses of men, tanks… More than a few would vanish into the dark night and never be seen again, dying somewhere alone, unknown, to try and make that day possible, while others orchestrated astonishing projects of disinformation, stage magicians designing the greatest illusions of their lives, entire fake regiments of tanks and men made of mannequins and inflatables to fool the German aircraft into the Allied intentions. The sheer effort that went into planning the entire thing even before the actual landing is Herculean and it is astonishing to look back at a time when everyone just simply got on with ‘doing their bit’ for the greater good in a way that seems amazing to today’s far more selfish me-me-me society. And through it all these amazing photographs by one of my great photography heroes, Robert Capa, running ashore at bloody Omaha with the troops, terrified, fingers fumbling to reload his film… He shot several roles, escaped the beach and returned to London only for the developer to rush the film and ruin most of them – only a handful of shots, blurred, survived, first hand images from the beaches of D-Day, the day the Allies started to change history and roll back the Nazi menace with a mixture of cunning intelligence use, amazing engineering projects and sheer, naked courage (think of the Scottish regiments marching ashore under fire defiantly playing the bagpipes, like something from a movie scene and yet it really happened) and quite enormous cost. A cost paid for us, for the right to live in a free, democratic society. It should always be remembered.

And there is the legendary Robert Capa himself, having a ciggie break between combat coverage. Hard enough to imagine having to rush ashore into withering fire as you carry your rifle and pack, but imagine rushing ashore between machine gun fire and shells exploding, mines underfoot, and you are armed only with a 35MM camera. And yet Capa and others did and because of them we have these visual images to remind later generations of the debt that was paid for the future generations to come after them, a debt of blood paid so we would grow up never having to do what they had to. No muscled superheroes or supersoldiers like Captain America, just ordinary blokes from the streets of Glasgow, London, Cardiff, Toronto, Chicago, New York and many others, ordinary men doing extraordinary things…