I Was There! - Today Where Our Invasion of Europe Began
Early in June, Stanley Baron, News Chronicle War Correspondent, flew over the Normandy landing-sites where a year ago Britons and Americans gave new glory to the world. Here he describes the desert-like scenery and the remains of our magnificent Mulberry Harbour
I flew yesterday afternoon over the D Day beaches. The sea, dully gleaming like a pewter dish, lapped on the edges of an empty shore. In 50 miles from the entrance to the channels leading into Carentan and Isigny to the Rade de Caen, a handful creatures to be seen on the sands, and what they where doing I do not know. The scene of the most titanic enterprise of Western Europe's military history which began a year ago today has become a desert.
Rainwater gleams in the open shell and bomb holes. Where a patient farmer has filled them in poppies redden and fill in the outlines. Mulberry Harbour, amazingly durable, though partially dismantled, glows with rich yellow, orange, reds and soft lichenous greens. Rust has painted in thus. Oil still leaking from the half-sunken ships so skilfully laid bow to stern to form the breakwaters makes its pretty pattern of mother-of-pearl on the slow swell.
Nothing is as it was in this perishing memorial to the Britons and Americans who cave new glory to the world a year ago. I flew out from an airfield hard by Chalgrove Field in Oxfordshire, in a two-engined plane piloted by Lt. Otis Taylor, of Paragould, Arkansas. It was hard, so much has happened between, to put the mind back the 12 months. Even the wind, which looked as if it was going to reproduce last year's conditions had abated.
The mind's eye peopled the water with thousands of ships of that other June, but yesterday there was nothing. Not until we made our landfall over Pointe de Barfleur, taken by the American First Army before Cherbourg fell, and flown down over the beaches first at 1,000 feet, then at treetop height, did we see so much as a sail.
Now we could peer into the ruin of the houses. Now we could see the first of the actual landing beaches. One above all which no American will ever forget. They called it Omaha. In nine months with the great American First Army I Have learned to know and love Americans. This was the place at which they came ashore, most of the seeing Europe for the first time. Here many died. They were buried in the sands. The sea has washed over their resting-places.
The rusting hulks of landing barges and ducks and here and there a merchant ship which has been blown ashore are their only memorials. Their comrades went on, and many of them where friends of mine. I looked down on the beach and inland towards St. Lo, where the First Army cracking the German defences began the great run which was not to stop until Germany was reached.
Remembering the breaking of the Siegfried Line the capture of Aachen, the drive to the Rhine and the taking of Cologne, the triumph of Remagen bridge and the great break-out which brought the men of this army to the Elbe, it seemed though all these scenes were telescoped into one, and that for ever memorable.
Mingled Skeletons of Landing-Craft
The plane swung lower still, edging over the Normandy hedges of ill-fame and down again to the beach level. Now we were flying below the rim of ochreous cliffs against which winter storms had flung the wrecks of three and four thousand tonners, mingling them with the skeletons of landing-craft of every size.
We saw the German defences, the pillboxes smashed and powdered, some with the tatters of camouflage netting draping them yet. Here we were in the British sector. We flipped over a village. “Arromanches,” said the pilot—a dead place now with no one in the streets and the shot-up houses on the front still unrepaired. In a tight half-circle the plane bent out to sea, nearly grazing a line of huge concrete caissons of Mulberry Harbour.
Red rust streaked their sides. The huge girders which had carried men and materials in such vast quantities in to shore have now been wholly dismantled. Down the sands and under the sea only to be seen from the air runs the steel trackway which was the lifeline up which the troops, tanks and vehicles of Britain had poured. How magnificent was this job! Mulberry Harbour could be used still. The seas of many, many winters will batter vainly around it before it is entirely destroyed. It should be a place of pilgrimage for thousands who would understand how great was the blow which was struck for liberty.
Out to sea lie merchant ships which were sunk by mine or bombing. Others lie broken on the beaches. We flew down low over one named Yewdale. the men who sailed in her will like to know she is in superficially good shape still, apart from her smashed stern wedged at right-angles amidships of another vessel of the same size.
At the mouth of the River Orne we thought we would vary our pilgrimage by flying up the canal to Caen. Three times we circled over the city, for one flight is not enough to appreciate the price paid by France in those days of suffering and splendour. There were more people here in a single street than we had seen on the whole beaches. How they are living in this desolation of grey dust it is difficult to tell Green weeds are spreading among the ruins of the Gothic and classical glories. Yet some survive, a challenge, surely, to build and create again.
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