Archive for the ‘Wartime Memories/Normandy’ Category

When I started my first school, at the age of five, Dad seemed very excited to hear that I had been placed in “Churchill” – one of  four houses our tiny school was divided into for Sport’s Day events or collecting merit points. The houses were each designated a colour and I was to wear blue webbing bands which, because blue was – and still is – my favourite colour,  pleased me more than its name which at that time held little significance.

The houses were named after famous local residents – and Winston Churchill had his country retreat less than five miles away. As children we drove past the place often; were taken there for outings; were told stories of a great man who had lived there.

During the war Dad was a despatch rider for the Royal Signals. He would regularly make trips to Chartwell to deliver documents or papers and of course always held Winston in very high esteem. He got to know that part of the countryside pretty well and it is probably part of the reason  he decided to buy the virtually derelict house he did in the 1950’s which was to become our family home for over thirty years.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death. Time, then, to revisit.

Chartwell sits behind a high stone wall down a narrow winding lane with far reaching views across the Kentish Weald. Winston bought the place in 1922 and it provided a sanctuary for him, his wife Clementine and their children away from London and matters of state.

When World War Two ended in 1945 the Churchills were not confident they could afford to keep the place going but a consortium of friends got together and shored things up for them with the proviso that the property  be bequeathed to the National Trust on the deaths of Winston and Clementine. The Trust is now custodian of this quirky yet highly personal house and its magnificently sweeping gardens and I’m pleased to say that I was able to gain free entry for two using my marvellous National Art Pass.

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Our walk started with a gentle stroll down towards the lake where black swans can be spotted if you’re lucky. Following a rough path around the water’s edge brings you to a small clearing where a sculpture of Winston and Clementine Churchill is situated showing them sitting together looking towards their beloved house. The art work is by sculptor Oscar Nemon and was unveiled by the Queen Mother in 1990.

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Carry on past the sculpture and you reach wild woodland to the south-east edge of the estate. The path here winds uphill through beech and bluebell woods to where a unit of Royal Canadian Engineers camped out during World War Two. These troops set about camouflaging Chartwell, hiding the swimming pool, draining the reservoir and disguising the lakes with brushwood, keeping the place safe from possible aerial attack. Apparently Winston was mightily relieved that his precious goldfish were not in immediate danger.

image Returning downhill from the site of the Canadian camp, the house comes into view across the fields and sloping lawns.

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Inside, the house is a delight – the rooms have been maintained almost as they would have been when the Churchills were in residence: some personal things remain – Winston’s slippers, for instance. Sadly, photography is not allowed, but you can click here to view interiors from the National Trust’s website.

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According to the National Trust’s blurb the house is ‘of little architectural merit’ having been added to and changed over the years by various occupants – Churchill included. When he bought Chartwell he opened up some of the darker rooms by installing large casement windows, making the most of its position overlooking some of Britain’s finest green and pleasant land. It was this view that enticed him to Chartwell in the first place and one of which he never tired.

“A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted.” (Winston Churchill)

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This view point overlooks the miles of  rolling countryside stretching towards the English Channel that fired Churchill’s fierce resolve to keep Britain safe from  invasion. In the centre of the photograph is the wall around the kitchen garden which he helped to build – at a reported two hundred bricks a day.

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Through the arched gateway  is Winston’s art studio, left as if he has just popped out for an amble around his garden.

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He spent hours here painting, finding the relaxation it derived a perfect antidote for the famous depression he suffered and  which he referred to as his ‘ black dog.’ One of his paintings, of his goldfish pond, sold at Sotheby’s for £1.8m last December. Now, having seen his collection of paintings in the studio  (sadly, no photos allowed here either), while they are the dedicated work of a very enthusiastic and prolific amateur, I’m not sure the price the painting fetched at auction is justified, other than the fact it is by Churchill. Here’s a photographic representation of his painting, as near as I could get …

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So much has been written about Churchill: his policies, political leanings, the crossing twice of the House of Commons from Conservative to Liberal and back again, his failures and his triumphs, his family, his speeches and most of all his determination to never surrender to a Nazi invasion. Without his dogged and ruthless determination to plan and implement the Battle for Normandy, which the French will be commemorating this weekend, the course of the war would no doubt have been different. And while we cannot forget the tremendous sacrifice made by  Allied troops on D-Day – 6th June 1944-  and in the days following – perhaps a silent salute to Winston wouldn’t go amiss.

Enjoying your freedom? Thank a veteran.

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Last Saturday we went to the Tower of London to view the much heralded installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, commemorating one hundred years since the start of the First World War.

This extraordinary art work by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, in collaboration with stage designer Tom Piper, has captured our nation’s imagination and as we emerged from the underground station at Tower Hill it was apparent that we would not be alone. The place was heaving but well organised, good natured and almost quiet. As we stood on the steps gazing at the spectacle I was able to take a few snaps which I later edited to remove the tops of people’s heads in front of me.  During the summer and until today, 888,246 ceramic poppies have been planted in the moat – each one commemorating a British life lost in the conflict. Now complete, hardly a blade of grass can be seen between this ceramic sea of red: it’s a wonderful yet sobering sight.

The poppies were sold, raising millions of pounds for British service charities, and will later be distributed to their owners once the installation is removed. Originally it was due to be dismantled the day after Armistice Day on 11th November but it’s now rumoured that because of unprecedented public interest part of the display will remain until the end of the month.

Later on the same day, once home and in front of the television, we watched the annual Remembrance Service from the Royal Albert Hall in London. Included this year was a folk song, written and sung by Jim Radford, a veteran of the D-Day landings. Jim was a fifteen year old galley boy on 6th June 1944.  His song is a poignant reminder of the terrible events of that day seventy years ago which helped to turn the tide of war.  It sums up the whole theme of remembrance and is well worth a listen, if you can spare seven minutes.

 

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Today is 6th June, the 70th anniversary of D-Day – one of the most significant dates which would change the course of World War Two. On this day the Battle for Normandy began. The American Airborne Division parachuted in ahead of  thousands of British, Canadian and American troops who arrived on the five landing beaches, many of whom made it no further. Thousands died on that first day alone, in a bloody battle which was to rage all summer.

With Son away this week in Normandy taking part in the commemorations and celebrations which occur every year to mark this event, I grabbed my chance and re-introduced a duster to his room. As he is generally responsible for the state of his chamber I very rarely venture in. It’s amazing how dense dust can get within a year. Was it Quentin Crisp who said: “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”  I can see what he meant.

Anyway, as I was polishing along a bookshelf I came across a tiny sticker with the words:

“Enjoying your freedom? Thank a veteran.”

I was reminded of our extraordinary encounter last year with Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, a contact and friend of our son – an American Airborne veteran who stayed overnight with us while retracing his wartime steps through Europe. Son had taken him back to the English village where he had been billeted in 1943, to Stonehenge and to Bourne Woods in Surrey where “Band of Brothers” had been filmed before escorting him across the Channel to Normandy. Jim, age 92, astounded everyone by running some distance up hill, re-creating his tough training program in America before being shipped to England in 1943.

Some of you will remember that I posted a short film of his run last year. Here it is again, slightly longer to incorporate a second run he did when he got back to the States later that year: he ran up the original Currahee mountain in Toccoa, Georgia. It’s worth a second look. Make sure you have your sound turned up.

Son will meet up with Jim again in Normandy, over in Europe again to pick up an award. Thank a Veteran? Most definitely. Thanks to Jim and all those other young men who fought to give us all our freedom. May we never forget.

If you’d like to read more about Jim’s war, you can do so here, on my original post.

 

 

 

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At last, with much pride and an unashamed streak of nepotism, I can announce that Son has published his first book, an historical account of the 101st American Airborne’s time spent in our green and pleasant land prior to the D-Day landings of June 1944. ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

After three years of extensive research which has taken him from the wilds of Wiltshire in southern England to the American Wild West and from Normandy to Holland and back again, he has pieced together archive photographs, anecdotes and interviews with veterans, the aim being:

“… not only to tell the history of this famous division during an often overlooked part of their service but to give an insight into how their relatively short period of time in England has left its mark nearly 70 years later.”

The division was made famous in 2001 when the miniseries Band of Brothers hit our screens and it was from a fascination with this that Son began his quest to discover as much about the whole division as he could. His goal was for the book to be ready to coincide with 6th June this year – the 70th anniversary of the historic Normandy invasion which was the turning point of WW2. After a few close shaves with proofing and the fine print, his book is finally published and for sale on Amazon.

You can check out his book here for UK readers and here for America.

Son will be over in Normandy for the celebrations in June – they are always extensive but this year promises to be even bigger and better as the Queen, Prince Phillip and President Obama will be in attendance. As I did last year, I will be writing some Normandy related posts in the run up to the 6th  of June and re-blogging the wonderful video of Son’s 92 year old veteran friend running up the mountain he first ran in 1942.

Where to next, I wonder …

 

 

 

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This is Veteran Jim “Pee Wee” Martin.

He is ninety-two years old. 8944021905_2cc4329064[1]

He arrived in England from Ohio, America, last weekend to begin his three-week Trip of Remembrance through Europe, visiting the places he encountered during WW2. He is travelling with his companion, Doug Barber, a history teacher, also from Ohio. Our son (the Sofa Loafer), met them at Heathrow and drove them to Wiltshire, where they revisited places Jim remembers from 1943. He had a reunion with Rosemary, a young girl he met in the village of Ramsbury, where he was billeted prior to the Normandy Invasion.  They have corresponded ever since, know all about each other’s lives and families, but this was their first meeting in almost seventy years.

One of Jim’s ambitions was realised when, on the way back to Surrey to stay over at Chez Pellett, they made a detour to take in Stonehenge. After walking all around the site it was back in the car to a final stop at the Bourne Woods, Farnham. It was here that the HBO miniseries, “Band of Brothers” filmed the Currahee Mountain sequence and Jim had been impressed that the location used was sympathetic to the real Currahee – which he had run up and down many times during training at Camp Toccoa. He amazed everyone when, after almost two hours in the car, he got out and sprinted up the hill. Doug managed to capture it on a short video. You can watch it here.

They arrived at our house in the early evening after a brief stop at a typically English pub. I expected him to be travel weary, jet-lagged, even. I would have been. But Jim is an extraordinary man and we feel very honoured and privileged to have made his acquaintance. We had a light supper and talked till late in the evening, S-L showed us a DVD of Jim taking a tandem sky-dive at the age of eighty-nine – another of his ambitions was to jump out of a plane again. Very early the next morning, they set off for the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry. The Sofa Loafer delivered them to mutual friends in Normandy who will look after them while there. After four days they head to Belgium, Holland and Germany.

Tonight there will be fireworks  to celebrate the 69th anniversary of D-Day. There will be parties and lighting of beacons all along the coast. They’ll all be there and I have a feeling that Jim will be the last man to bed. As he said when we were watching the sky-dive video – “Life is not a spectator sport.”

A moment of quiet reflection

A moment of quiet reflection

All Photographs courtesy of Doug Barber.

Below is a brief description of Jim’s war.

Jim’s war began in 1942 when he signed up to the 101st Airborne Division and trained with the 506th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment), at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, moving to Fort Benning for their jump preparation before being shipped to England in 1943. His G Company was based in and around the beautiful village of Ramsbury where further training was undertaken until the start of Operation Overlord – the Battle for Normandy.

In the early hours of 6th June, 1944, Jim, aged twenty three, was one of over 13 000 American paratroopers who crossed the Channel in a C47 and was dropped by parachute into Normandy. He landed safely near the small village of St Cȏme Du Mont, near Utah Beach. Thousands of his compatriots didn’t: the Germans had flooded the drop zones and many troops drowned, unable to stay upright in deep water, the weight of their chutes and supplies dragging them down. Jim went on to fight in Normandy for thirty three days before returning to England in July.

 By September 1944, Jim had jumped again, this time into Holland where his Company fought to secure “Hell’s Highway” in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. After seventy days of fighting in the Netherlands, Jim’s unit camped out in France until they were sent to Bastogne in Belgium to take part in the Battle of the Bulge during a bitterly cold December. After Bastogne, Jim took part in the Rhineland Campaign and ended his war at Hitler’s mountain home, “The Eagle’s Nest” in Berchtesgaden in 1945.

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My mother was ten when war broke out in 1939. She and her family lived in the countryside just south of London, at Addington Palace Hotel, where her father was  manager. He had worked in the catering industry since leaving the army in 1918 at the age of twenty, having served in the First World War for four years. Mum remembers clearly the family gathering around the wireless in their sitting room to hear the grave news that war had been declared.

At first, life at the hotel went on as usual and then the departure of many local school children to more rural locations began. My grandfather would not consent to my mother and her sister leaving; the hotel seemed safe enough, he wanted to keep the family together and there was very little news from Europe until the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940. Some of the rooms at the hotel were commandeered by the British army for officers; troops were stationed in tents along the driveway leading up to the Palace. The toll house was used as a guard-room.

In July 1940, the family were able to witness at close range the planes fighting in the Battle of Britain. For over three months the skies above the hotel buzzed with the sound of aircraft. Addington is within a few miles of Biggin Hill, one of the many small airports used.

By 1942, the army had moved on but the village was thrown into great excitement – the Canadians were coming! Troops were billeted in houses all around the village, and again, rooms at the hotel were used for senior officers. The Mews, a separate part of the hotel, was also taken over for accommodation with a canteen and there was to be a parade ground. Everyone at Addington Palace now really felt part of the war.

The Canadian soldiers were only too ready to make friends in the village, organising games for the children – football and races on the village green.

My mother is far left, sitting on the windowsill

My mother is far left, sitting on the windowsill

Christmas 1942 was the most memorable of the war. The soldiers arranged with my grandfather a children’s party at the hotel. All the village children were invited, entertainment was provided. The soldiers dressed up in fancy costumes; there was a ventriloquist act and a film show. With food now being rationed, as good a tea as possible was provided.

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The party was talked about for a long time afterwards – my mother remembers it vividly and still has the autograph book containing the signatures and messages of some of her favourite soldiers. She has particular reason to have such fond memories of the Canadians. In 1943, her father died suddenly. The sympathy and kindness shown to her and her mother at this time by the soldiers was overwhelming, in particular by the Canadian chaplain, Norman Sharky, and Colonel Bell-Irving.

Later the same year, the Canadians moved on – one day they were there, the next they had gone and my mother never saw them again. It remains her greatest regret.

Post script.

My Sofa Loafing historian has since discovered that his Grandma’s Canadians were from the 2nd heavy ack-ack regiment and left Addington to protect the British coast at Dover. Col Bell-Irving was awarded the OBE when his regiment shot down enemy aircraft during their first engagement.

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The Juno Beach Centre, in Courseulles-sur-mer, (east of Arromanches on the way to the port of Caen at Ouisterham), is a very informative museum dedicated to Canada’s contribution in World War Two. The centre houses several rooms, each devoted to a different area of the war. We spent a morning there a couple of years ago with a french-speaking Canadian history student who guided us outside onto the beach to explain the Canadian assault on Juno. She lined us up in regiments and explained how fourteen thousand Canadian troops landed on 6th June facing heavy machine gun fire as well as mined obstacles.

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In front of the Centre is this beautiful memorial to the fallen.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that you hadn’t crossed the Channel when you arrive in Arromanches, nestling between cliffs on the north Normandy coast. There is a distinct English atmosphere, underpinned by the permanent flying of union flags alongside the tricolour and it evokes, for me, an amalgam of childhood seaside towns. The place bustles with a constant stream of tourists ready to fill the plethora of bars and cafes, or, if you feel like a treat and want to splash out, the hotel on the seafront serves fantastic plateaux de fruits de mer. There are souvenir shops selling Calvados; crepe stands and ice cream parlours; shops selling all the usual beach paraphernalia – buckets, spades, flip-flops, sun lotion and postcards. In the corner of the small car park is an old-fashioned Carousel, which whirls around all day, tinkling out fairground tunes. Arromanches–les-Bains, to give the town its full title, appears to be a typical seaside town.

Sunset over the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

Sunset over the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

But look out to sea, over swathes of flat golden sand rippled by Channel tides and you cannot fail to notice the huge concrete monoliths, strewn in the shallows like a pod of beached whales; lasting souvenirs prompting a visual reminder that this modest little seaside town has an extraordinary history. These benign marine sculptures are remnants of the Mulberry Harbour, built by British engineers, creating a port to facilitate the supply of weapons and ammunition to troops during the battle for Normandy, code name: Operation Overlord.

Nick-named Port Winston, the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches was one of two artificial harbours towed across the English Channel in pieces and put together off the Normandy coast, after 6 June, 1944 – D-Day. (The other was further west, off Omaha Beach). Port Winston, off Gold Beach, was fully operational by 18 June and was capable of moving 7000 tonnes of equipment each day via six miles of flexible steel roadways floating on steel or concrete pontoons.

The construction of the Mulberry Harbour has been heralded as one of the greatest feats of engineering during WW2 and can be studied in detail at Le Musée du Débarquement* in Arromanches, right on the sea front, opposite the Carousel. With plenty of information and artifacts, it is well worth a visit.

With your appetite for historical knowledge well and truly whetted, it is but a brisk walk up the easterly cliff road to Arromanches’ 360 Cinema. Perched high on the cliff top this is a cinema like no other: it shows a film called The Price of Liberty, screening real war-time footage interspersed with how the battlefields look today. Viewers stand in the middle of nine massive screens as the film unfolds all around them. The film runs on a loop lasting thirty minutes and, I would say, should be compulsory viewing for all.

So, Arromanches is a seaside town with an incredible recent history.  Its people are welcoming and willing to talk about their town with pride. The celebrations that go on here to mark the D-Day anniversary are echoed right along the coast, with firework displays that go on after midnight.

21 years ago, on Gold Beach at Arromanches, the Mulberry Harbour in the distance. Who would've thought?

21 years ago, on Gold Beach at Arromanches, the Mulberry Harbour in the distance. Who would’ve thought?

This year marks the 69th anniversary of the day that changed history. Our son will be there, somewhere, watching those fireworks. The first time he stepped on to Gold Beach at Arromanches, he was fourteen months old.

Now, is that destiny?

 

 

 

*For anyone considering a trip to Normandy, I’d recommend purchasing the Normandie Pass which allows visitors discounts on Museum entry fees. It only costs 1€ and can be purchased at the first place you visit. It lists all the participating partners and any seasonal promotions being offered.

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