Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring

by
31 May 2019

For the 75th anniversary of D-Day, David Winter reflects on a memorable year

TPX/Prisma/Superstock

D-Day invasion map, Operation Overlord

D-Day invasion map, Operation Overlord

IN THE spring of 1944, like tens of thousands of other evacuees, I returned to my home in north London. I had spent the wartime years with my grandparents in a small village in rural mid-Wales — peaceful years, in a glorious environment.

Now, I made the transition from a grammar school in Machynlleth to one in war-torn London with its bomb sites and nightly blackout. The evacuees were returning because of a widespread belief that the war was effectively over. The RAF ruled the sky; air raids were no more; everywhere, the enemy forces were falling back. So, children like me, who had been moved out of the big cities, were on our way back.

But, sadly, times changed. That summer, Hitler played his last card: two secret weapons — V1 missiles (commonly known as “Doodlebugs”) and V2 rockets. The V1s were pilotless planes, loaded with high explosives and designed to cut out over densely occupied areas, falling to the ground and exploding with enormous force. They were bad enough, but at least you heard their engines and got warning of their approach.

The V2 was a foretaste of the future: rockets carrying deadly explosives, which were launched in Belgium, Holland, and France, but whose targets were British towns and cities. Unlike Doodlebugs, the V2s fell without any warning. There was no cuddly nickname for them. They seemed to be the ultimate weapon — one against which there was no defence. Could it be, people asked, that, after all, Hitler would use these weapons to force the Allies to sue for peace? Was victory to be snatched from our grasp?

 

I CAN remember the mood very well, reflected in one of the great national days of prayer which the King himself had called since Dunkirk, in 1940. Our usual congregation of 20 or 30 became a jam-packed church — literally standing-room only. The prayers, as usual, were for victory and peace, but there was an element of extra tension this time. There was also, I noticed from my seat in the choir stalls, prayer for the liberation of Europe.

That summer, I was actually in the grandstand at Lord’s when a Doodlebug groaned its way over the grandstand and its engine cut out. The spectators hid under their benches. The players, I noticed, laid themselves on the pitch. In fact, the missile cleared the ground, falling to earth and exploding a few streets away, in St John’s Wood. We all got back into our seats, and the players dusted themselves down and resumed the match (after all, we were British). The very next ball was struck by Jack Robertson into the grandstand for six.

While all this was going on, my brother Geoff — who was 19, and serving in a radar unit of the RAF — had gone mysteriously silent. He was always a regular correspondent, and the letters had stopped. We were baffled and worried.

 

ON 6 June, my brother’s silence was explained. For many weeks, a vast Allied military force had been assembled on the south coast. Encamped with probably 100,000 others, Geoff was being secretly drilled in the tactics of what would be the greatest seaborne invasion in history. The official code name of the enterprise was Operation Overlord. So comprehensive was the secrecy, and so meticulous were the plans, that what emerged soon became known as D-Day. It was a surprise not only to the people at home, but also to Hitler.

Among the vast invading army, waiting to drive his truck under enemy fire, carrying colleagues and priceless radar equipment, was my teenage brother.

The Germans were taken completely by surprise. They had expected an eventual invasion across the shorter sea-routes to northern France, but not the longer, more exposed route to the beaches of Normandy. The Allied force included British, American, Canadian, Belgian, French, and Dutch soldiers in a huge armada of ships, including specialist landing vessels, as well as ships from the Norwegian navy and civilian boats.

British, American, and Canadian troops were transported to the beaches of Juno, Gold, Sword, Omaha, Utah, and the headland Point-du-Hoc. Within hours, these troops established bridgeheads for others to follow. There were setbacks, and some objectives were not achieved on the first day; but the initiative had proved effective, and Allied troops soon took control of several small towns.

At the same time, airborne divisions dropped troops — who also faced heavy opposition — behind enemy lines. The story of their courage and effectiveness was told in the 1962 film The Longest Day. Among them was the American parachutist John Steele, whose parachute became entangled on the church steeple of Sainte-Mère-Église, one of the first towns to be liberated.

 

EVENTUALLY, my brother’s truck made its way inland, and was greeted in every town and village by cheering residents. He told me that, when they finally crossed the border into Germany, it was much the same — although, ever the realist, he put it down to the fact that they were not Russians.

On holiday long after the war, I remember reading a plaque on the seafront of Ver-sur-Mer which commemorated the Allied landings in 1944. It noted simply that, in the course of the liberation of Europe, the Allies had incidentally liberated their small community. “Liberated” was the word on every lip: freedom, after more than ten years of occupation.

In 1947, when I was 16, Geoff took me on my first overseas holiday: a visit to a family in a village near Amiens, where he had been billeted for several weeks. It was a mind-blowing experience to travel by train from Calais to Amiens. As we moved inland, we observed the devastation of war. Amiens itself had seen many battles. I had seen Blitz damage in London, of course, but not the whole of a once beautiful city in ruins. Our host, M. Deladier, had been witness to four battles for Amiens — in 1914, 1918, 1940, and 1944 — and it looked like it.

 

IN DUE course, men — and many women — were “demobbed”. My brother was among them, largely unscathed by his wartime experiences, although he suffered from nightmares for several months. These he attributed to the week when he was required to bury scores of those who had been killed. The nightmares passed without any medical or psychiatric help, and he reverted to a “normal” life, including marriage and a family.

As those Normandy veterans looked back, I suspect that few realised the enormous significance of their victory. Seventy-five years is a long time, and veterans of D-Day are now in their nineties. But memory is a strange thing. A woman told me recently that she vividly remembered her mother assuring her, “If you can hear a Doodlebug’s engine, you’re all right!” She was three years old at the time.

My memories are of those deadly missiles falling on us, out of the sky; and of the mixture of anxiety and pride with which I followed Geoff’s involvement in these historic events.

Ultimately, of course, this liberation of Europe led to NATO, the UN Security Council, the Iron Curtain, the unification of Germany, and, finally, Churchill’s vision of a Western Europe permanently free of war — a vision that has lasted for 75 years, as has the UK’s alliance with the United States, whose soldiers played a great part in the events.

Yet, oddly, my most vivid memory is not of missiles or alliances but of that Day of Prayer, 75 years ago. I learned a lesson that day that has stood the test of a lifetime: in times of anxiety and fear, the answer is not panic, but prayer.
 

Canon David Winter is a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.

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