Posts Tagged ‘Battle for Normandy’

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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)

image

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.

image

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

image

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 …

image

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Don’t get me wrong – the tapestry is fabulous – all 230 feet of it and well worth a visit. (Especially if it’s raining, which, believe me, it will. Normandy wouldn’t be Normandy without the rain – it’s what makes it so beautiful and green). Displayed under glass in the Grand old Seminary in the heart of Bayeux, the tapestry depicts, in scenes woven on linen, the Norman invasion of Britain and has survived almost intact for nine centuries. The French do museums and exhibitions with typical style: there is a good audio guide to accompany the tour which explains events scene by scene.

Bayeux Cathedral from the British cemetery

Bayeux Cathedral from the British cemetery

However, if you cross over the river Aure, towards the cathedral (also worth a look), and head south you will come to the British Military cemetery: a complete juxtaposition of historical events within a ten minute walk.

Bayeux was the first town liberated by the allies on June 7, 1944. Over 4 500 commonwealth soldiers are buried in the cemetery; a further 1800 are commemorated on a memorial opposite the regimented rows of white gravestones. Along the frieze of this memorial is an inscription in Latin which translates as

“We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.”

The grounds are kept in immaculate order by the war graves commission; all the white crosses have floral tributes. It is a sobering experience to walk along the rows, read the ages of the dead and contrast that with our own offspring, who at around the same age, are enjoying their gap years.

Opposite the cemetery is the Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie. This is probably one of the best places for a comprehensive overview of the Normandy invasion. Easy to understand, with an archive film in both French and English, there are displays of military vehicles, maps and strategies, uniforms, and lastly, a room dedicated to the work of the photo-journalist.

Outside, next to the museum, is a small, peaceful garden, dedicated to foreign correspondents all over the world, killed in the course of duty since 1944. Called the Reporter’s Memorial, it contains over 2000 names, chiselled by decade onto large white remembrance slabs. New names are added every year and, since 1994, the town has hosted the Bayeux-Calvados prize for war-correspondents.

The Reporter's Memorial Garden, Bayeux

The Reporter’s Memorial Garden, Bayeux

Wander along the winding path between the upright steles and some names may be familiar: Robert Capa, famous for bringing images of the allies arriving on Omaha beach and who died, aged 40, in Vietnam; Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident who worked for the BBC and who was mysteriously and fatally stabbed in the thigh near Waterloo Bridge in 1978; the Irish cameraman, Simon  Cumbers, shot in Riyadh in 2004 – the same attack that left the BBC reporter, Frank Gardner, in a wheelchair.  Journalists are often regarded with the same disdain afforded to estate agents or tax collectors: those that go out to report global combat should be set apart; they are not given military training, they put themselves in mortal danger to send the rest of us news and pictures that we are at liberty to switch off in the comfort of our living rooms. The Reporter’s Memorial in Bayeux is a fitting tribute.

Robert Capa's image, capturing the allied advance on Omaha Beach

Robert Capa’s image, capturing the allied advance on Omaha Beach

As Robert Capa said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Read Full Post »