In Dennis Sullivan's photograph above, a landing craft from HMCS Prince Henry carries Canadian troops toward Juno Beach in the early hours of D-Day. Many years ago, I spoke to someone who'd been aboard the Prince Henry's sister ship, HMCS Prince David, who talked about the subtly different dynamic among the guys on those landing craft. The Royal Canadian Navy men at the front are concerned to make their rendezvous on time: They're in the middle of the mission, and they want to complete it. The infantrymen behind them are waiting for theirs to start. As the Prince Henry recedes behind them, they know they're leaving the best-laid plans, and that what awaits them on shore is about to go agley.
A lot went wrong, but more went right - or was made right. A few hours before the Canadians aboard the Prince Henry climbed into that landing craft, 181 men in six Horsa gliders took off from RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset to take two bridges over the River Orne and hold them until reinforcements arrived. Their job was to prevent the Germans using the bridges to attack troops landing on Sword Beach. At lunchtime, Lord Lovat and his commandos arrived at the Bénouville Bridge, much to the relief of the 7th Parachute Battalion's commanding officer, Major Pine-Coffin. That was his real name, and an amusing one back in Blighty: simple pine coffins are what soldiers get buried in. It wasn't quite so funny in Normandy, where a lot of pine coffins would be needed by the end of the day. Lord Lovat, Chief of Clan Fraser, apologized to Pine-Coffin for missing the rendezvous time: "Sorry, I'm a few minutes late," he said, after a bloody firefight to take Sword Beach.
Lovat had asked his personal piper, Bill Millin, to pipe his men ashore. Private Millin pointed out that this would be in breach of War Office regulations. "That's the English War Office, Bill," said Lovat. "We're Scotsmen." And so Millin strolled up and down the sand amid the gunfire playing "Hieland Laddie" and "The Road To The Isles" and other highland favorites. The Germans are not big bagpipe fans and I doubt it added to their enjoyment of the day.
There was a fair bit of slightly dotty élan around in those early hours. I knew a chap who was in the second wave of gliders from England, and nipped out just before they took off to buy up the local newsagent's entire stack of papers - D-Day special editions, full of news of the early success of the landings. He flew them into France with him, and distributed them to his comrades from the first wave so they could read of their exploits.
But for every bit of dash and brio there were a thousand things that were just the wretched, awful muck of war. Many of those landing craft failed to land: They hit stuff that just happened to be there under the water, in the way, and ground to a halt, and the soldiers got out waist-deep in water, and struggled with their packs - and, in the case of those men on the Prince Henry, with lumpy old English bicycles - through the gunfire to the beach to begin liberating a continent while already waterlogged and chilled to the bone.
The building on the other side of the Bénouville Bridge was a café and the home of Georges Gondrée and his family. Thérèse Gondrée had spent her childhood in Alsace and thus understood German. So she eavesdropped on her occupiers, and discovered that in the machine-gun pillbox was hidden the trigger for the explosives the Germans intended to detonate in the event of an Allied invasion. She notified the French Resistance, and thanks to her, after landing in the early hours of June 6th, Major Howard knew exactly where to go and what to keep an eye on.
Shortly after dawn there was a knock on Georges Gondrée's door. He answered it to find two paratroopers who wanted to know if there were any Germans in the house. The men came in, and Thérèse embraced them so fulsomely that her face wound up covered in camouflage black, which she proudly wore for days afterward. Georges went out to the garden and dug up 98 bottles of champagne he'd buried before the Germans arrived four years earlier. And so the Gondrée home became the first place in France to be liberated from German occupation. There are always disputes about these things, of course: the French historian Norbert Hugedé says the first liberated building was in fact the house of M Picot. But no matter: the pop of champagne corks at the Café Gondrée were the bells tolling for the Führer's thousand-year Reich.
Arlette Gondrée was a four-year old girl that day, and she has grown old with the teen-and-twenty soldiers who liberated her home and her town. But she is now the proprietress of the family café, and she has been there every June to greet those who return each year in dwindling numbers:
That's the late Bill Bray and the late John Woodthorpe with Mme Gondrée on the seventieth anniversary. The Bénouville Bridge was known to Allied planners as the Pegasus Bridge, after the winged horse on the shoulder badge of British paratroopers. But since 1944 it has been called the Pegasus Bridge in France, too. And in the three-quarters of a century since June 6th, no D-Day veteran has ever had to pay for his drink at the Café Gondrée.
There were five beaches: two for the Americans, three for the British Commonweath. The Yanks, under General Omar Bradley, got Utah and Omaha; under Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey, the UK got Sword and Gold, and the Canadians Juno. But there were all kinds of other forces to hand, too. President Reagan caught something of the sweep of it in his marvelous Pointe du Hoc speech thirty-five years ago on the fortieh anniversary:
All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore; the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland's 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England's armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard's 'Matchbox Fleet,' and you, the American Rangers.
And there were others: the Royal Australian Air Force, and their Kiwi cousins in the Article XV squadrons, and the dispossessed peoples of a continent reduced to a prison camp - the Free Belgian forces, Free Dutch, Free Norwegian, Free Czech...
They were young, but they were not children. Five years ago, I listerned to President Obama explain from Brussels that the deserter he brought home from the Taliban in the days before the D-Day anniversary was just a "kid". In fact, he was 28 years old. I remember walking through the Canadian graves at Bény-sur-Mer a few years ago. Over two thousand headstones, but only a handful of ages inscribed upon them: 22 years old, 21, 20... But they weren't "kids", they were men.
Above, two years before his death, Daniel Galipeau of Huntingdon, Quebec, a sapper with the 16th Field Engineers, signs an autograph outside the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada House in Bernières-sur-Mer, opposite the beach where he landed seven decades earlier. There is a street named after him in Huntingdon.
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