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It’s a great pleasure to invite you to join me on the National War II’s museum’s Soldiers and Spies tour, a unique and truly immersive experience that takes you back in time to many of the extraordinary places featured in my best-selling books, from the bloodiest sands in American history where the Bedford Boys landed to the grand avenues of the City of Light. I believe it’s the most inspiring journey you can make, one that honors the warriors who gave us everything – by making their stories truly personal and memorable – and celebrates their joyous liberation of the most beautiful and romantic city on the planet. We follow in the footsteps of the first wave of Americans to land in Normandy, paying our respects where 19 young men from one small town actually fought and died, also visiting other key sites on D Day such as St Mere Eglise and Utah Beach. After breaking out of Normandy, we explore the most sinister yet exclusive streets in all occupied Europe and then sample the eternal delights of a city that charmed even the most sadistic of Nazi occupiers. And we do it all in high style, staying in grand hotels, experiencing French hospitality at its most authentic and charming at the extraordinary Chateau Brouay, enjoying great wine and cuisine at my favorite restaurants, savoring stories of heroism and sacrifice that will stay with you long after you’ve sipped your last glass of champagne.
I’m very excited and truly honored to be your host. I hope you’ll accompany me on this wonderfully inspiring and deeply moving journey.
To mark the anniversary of the death of Captain Waskow, killed near San Pietro on 12 December 1943, I am posting Ernie Pyle’s deeply moving account and a beautiful letter that Waskow had upon him when he died – it was for his family and captures the immense nobility of man who gave his life for and in service to others….
CAPTAIN WASKOW BY ERNIE PYLE
In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Captain Henry T. Waskow, of Belton, Texas.
Captain Waskow was a company commander in the Thirty-sixth Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and a gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.
“After my father, he came next,” a sergeant told me. “He always looked after us,” a soldier said. “He’d go to bat for us every time.” “I’ve never known him to do anything unfair,” another said.
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down.
The moon was nearly full, and you could see far up the trail, and even partway across the valley below. Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden packsaddles, their heads hanging down on one side, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other, bobbing up and down as the mules walked.
The Italian mule skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies when they got to the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself and ask others to help. I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and you don’t ask silly questions.
They slid him down from the mule, and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half-light he might have been merely a sick man standing there leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the stone wall alongside the road. We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.
Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more; the dead man lay all alone, outside in the shadow of the wall. Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain.
The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. “This one is Captain Waskow,” one of them said quietly. Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally, there were five lying end to end in a long row. You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zones. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody comes after them. The unburdened mules moved off to their olive grove.
The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, close to Captain Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear. One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, “God damn it!” That’s all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came, and he said, “God damn it to hell anyway!” He looked down for a few last moments and then turned and left. Another man came. I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the dim light, for everybody was bearded and grimy.
The man looked down into the dead captain’s face and then spoke directly to him, as though he were alive, “I’m sorry, old man.” Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said, “I sure am sorry, sir. Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the captain’s hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face. And he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there. Finally he put the hand down. He reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.
The rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line end to end in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.
LETTER FROM WASKOW
“If you get to read this, I will have died in defense of my country and all that it stands for – the most honorable and distinguished death a man can die. It was not because I was willing to die for my country. … I wanted to live for it …
“To live for one’s country is to my mind to live a life of service. To, in a small way, help a fellow man occasionally along the way and generally to be useful and serve. It also means to me to rise up in all our wrath and with overwhelming power to crush any oppressor of human rights. That is our job, all of us, as I write this, and I pray God we are wholly successful.
“Yes, I would have liked to have lived – to live and share the many blessings and good fortunes that my grandparents bestowed upon me. A fellow never had a better family than mine, but since God has willed otherwise do not grieve too much dear ones. … I was not afraid to die. … I prayed that I and others could do our share to keep you safe until we returned.
“I made my choice, dear ones. I volunteered in the armed forces because I felt it my duty to do so. I thought that I might be able and might do just a little bit to help this great country of ours in its hours of need – the country that means more to me than life itself. If I have done that, then I can rest in peace, for I will have done my share to make this world a better place in which to live.
“Try to live a life of service …”
WWII’S GREATEST US REPORTER – ERNIE PYLE
NOT LONG AGO I CROSSED DOG GREEN SECTOR OF OMAHA BEACH – THE BLOODIEST SANDS OF D DAY AND INDEED IN AMERICAN HISTORY. THE IMAGES SHOW MY GROUP RE-ENACTING THE FIRST ACTIONS OF THE BEDFORD BOYS AS THEY LINED UP READY TO ATTACK THE GERMANS.
THE BEDFORD BOYS
By Alex Kershaw
Bedford boy Lieutenant Ray Nance, 28, managed to get a few hours’ sleep. He awoke at 2am, dressed in full combat gear. He had not even removed his boots. Nearby were five fellow officers from Company A. By lunchtime, three of them would be dead.
In the non-commissioned men’s berths, a few dozed fitfully. Most sat in silence, alone with their thoughts. Other Bedford boys lay in bunks writing last-minute letters home. Nance knew that some would not live to write another. He felt responsible for them all. He had grown up with these men, trained them to be first-class soldiers, censored their love letters to girls he knew back in Bedford. The men under his command were family.
As Nance was getting up, 21-year-old British Sub-Lieutenant Jimmy Green was being woken by an orderly and told that his flotilla commander wanted to see him urgently. Green was second-in-command of the flotilla, but in full command of the first wave of boats that would land Company A in France.
Green’s commander told him the boats would have to leave earlier than planned because weather conditions in the English Channel were so bad. Green grabbed a cup of tea and a ‘bite to eat’ and then drew his weapons from the Empire Javelin’s store. He had no illusions about what lay ahead. There would be heavy casualties. In his last shore briefing, he’d been told to expect to lose a third of his men and his boats.
After breakfast, Ray Nance gathered his kit and climbed up a gangway. A heavy canvas curtain stopped light seeping on to the deck from below. Nance stepped through and into pitch blackness. He went to the rail and looked out at the dark waters, swelling ominously. Suddenly, he noticed Captain Fellers at his side. Fellers had, like Nance, grown up on a farm outside Bedford. The two were cousins.
Twenty-nine-year-old Fellers was tall and thin, with a prominent chin and rolling gait. He was suffering badly from a sinus infection and looked tired and concerned. Before embarking for France, Fellers had confided in Nance, telling him that very few would come back from France alive. Fellers had studied the Allied intelligence and countless aerial shots and concluded that Company A was being sent to face certain slaughter.
Fellers and Nance both looked out to sea.
‘We stood there awhile,’ recalls Nance. ‘We didn’t say a word, not a single word to each other.
I guess we’d said it all.’
An anti-aircraft gun broke the silence, tracer bullets spitting through the sky, and then a searchlight caught the blaze of an exploding plane. ‘That brought it home to me,’ remembers Nance. ‘This thing is real. It’s not an exercise.’
A loudspeaker called the British naval crew to its stations. The troops knew they would be next.
‘Now, hear this! All assault troops report to your debarkation areas.’ As 34 Bedford boys emerged from below into the cold darkness, Nance touched every one of them lightly on the arm. ‘It was a gesture, a goodbye,’ he says 60 years later. ‘They were the best men I have ever seen in my life.’
The men included husbands, three sets of brothers, pool-hall hustlers, a couple of highly successful Lotharios, a minor-league baseball player destined for great things, and several Bible-reading, quiet young men who desperately missed their mothers and dreamed of home cooking.
The Bedford boys checked weapons and kit, exchanged scribbled home addresses ‘just in case’, wished each other good luck, and tried to bolster others who suddenly looked terrified.
‘This is it, men,’ a loudspeaker blared. ‘Pick it up and put it on, you’ve got a one-way ticket and this is the end of the line.’
REST IN PEACE LYLE
To commemorate the passing of Lyle Bouck, commander pf WWII’s most decorated US platoon, I am posting an extract from THE LONGEST WINTER and several photos.
Chapter 7: The Last Sunset
Lanzareth-December 16, 1944
At 4:03 p.m. precisely, at regimental headquarters in Hünningen, a radio operator received the last transmission from James Fort: “We are holding our position. Enemy strength 75. They are moving from Lanzerath west to railroad.” The message had been sent at 3:50 p.m.
Above Lanzerath, Lyle Bouck passed the word that the platoon would soon withdraw on a signal of three short whistle blasts. Twenty yards away, Bill James finished removing the distributor cap from the last of the platoon’s six jeeps. The Germans would not be able to make use of a single vehicle.
James clambered back into the dugout.
Bouck looked grave.
“What’s wrong, sir?” asked James.
“When I blow the whistle, you go with the others. I’ll stay.”
“Like hell,” said James, “you’re coming with us or we all stay.”
“Okay, you win,” Bouck finally replied. “I’ll go.”
No one would be left behind. The platoon would leave as they had fought-together. But not until they had the cover of near darkness. There was perhaps time for one last attempt to get help. Bouck called for Corporal Sam Jenkins and Private First Class Preston. “Sam,” Bouck told Jenkins. “You and Bob take off down the Buchholz Station road and go to regiment in Hünningen. See if you can find Major Kriz, get us reinforcements or orders to pull out. We can’t hold much longer.”
Jenkins and Preston quickly left their dugout. They had gone fifty yards when they looked back, only to see three mortars land smack on the top of their hole. They hurried on, following a logging trail that led to the position’s rear.
Dusk settled quickly.
Down in Lanzerath, villagers could hear an incessant moaning as dozens of wounded paratroopers were laid out in homes converted into aid stations. Behind the Schur farmhouse, fifty yards to the west of the Café Scholzen, Sergeant Vinz Kuhlbach pleaded with 9th Fallschirmjaeger Regiment officers not to send his last few men to their deaths by attacking straight up the hill toward the Americans’ foxholes. Surely it was time to outflank the American position? Several officers nodded their agreement.
Kuhlbach and fifty other paratroopers gathered in the backyard of Adolf Schur’s house. In the growing darkness they moved into wooded areas leading to the platoon’s right flank. There were precisely eight hours and five minutes of daylight that day. Sunset arrived at 4:35 p.m.
Lyle Bouck knew he had only a few minutes before nightfall. The men would benefit greatly from what was left of the light as they retreated through the deep forest to the rear of their position. Bouck prepared to blow his whistle.
At that moment, Germans were crawling into the rear of the position. Slape and Private Milosevich spotted several among the fir trees, their mottled uniforms blurring into the mist and dusk.
The two had resolved to fight to the very end. Slape was as “scared as hell” but still believed he would somehow live, even with the odds so heavily stacked against him and his men. “About dark, there were Germans all over the area, inside the perimeter,” he recalled. “I told Milosevich, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ and I started out of the bunker by the rear entrance and a German shot a hole in my field jacket (still no blood). He was about twenty yards to the left rear of the bunker. There were three of them. A grenade handled the situation nicely.”
Slape dove back into his dugout where he and Milosevich started to fire their last M-1 rounds. With less than a handful of bullets between them, every shot counted.
“Krauts in the woods to the left!” someone shouted.
Then another of the platoon’s last remaining men yelled that the Germans were also infiltrating from the right. Lyle Bouck saw three, perhaps four, figures. He pressed the trigger on his carbine, sprayed the silhouettes, ducked back down, and checked his gun. The two magazines he’d had welded together were empty.
“Did you get anything?” asked James.
“I think so.”
In his dugout at the center of the position, Private John Creger came under machine gun and mortar fire. As he fired back, he heard the puttputtputt of a V2 rocket. He looked up to see it pass over and crash into the woods behind him. To his surprise, it did not explode.
There was a lull in the firing. To Creger, it seemed as if the entire war had stopped momentarily. “I crawled out of the fox-hole to see what the hell was going on,” he recalled. “I spotted this German soldier sneaking up behind us with a hand grenade, and when he saw me, he instinctively threw it at me. The only thing I could do was to hold my head on the ground. Luckily, the grenade was evidently a concussion one and failed to do much damage except for filling my eyes with dirt and rock. I then jumped back into my fox-hole.”
In the nearest dugout to Creger’s, radio operator James Fort peered into the darkness and saw gray figures infiltrating the position in all directions. “One of them fired a long burst from a burp gun,” he recalled. “He hit the radio receiver-transmitter type SCR-284. That took care of destroying it before we surrendered.”
Frantically, Fort removed the bolt from his M-1 and threw it into the snow to prevent the Germans from using it. All he could do now was detonate the grenades he had hung in surrounding trees.
As the Germans closed in, Fort pulled on several wires. The fragmentation grenades exploded all around, but still the Germans kept coming. Then Fort heard a German shout for him to come out of the dugout. It was all over.
Fort slithered out of the front of the dugout with his hands clasped behind his head. A young German paratrooper stood before him, quivering with fear and rage, his finger on the trigger of a burp gun. The German was shaking so much that Fort feared he would fire by accident. The German stepped forward and stuck the gun’s muzzle against Fort’s belt buckle.
“Kamerad?” he screamed.
“Kamerad,” replied Fort.
“Raus, raus!” (Out, out!).
The German led Fort away.
In their dugout, Bouck and James could hear sporadic gunfire and Germans yelling.
Suddenly, the muzzle of a burp gun appeared through the rear exit to the dugout. Bouck instinctively pushed the barrel away from him. There was a huge roar. Brrrrp! Brrrrp! Brrrrp!
James felt himself “floating upward and backward” from the force of impact of the burp gun bullets. Then he slumped to the bottom of the dugout, littered with empty M-1 cartridges and shell casings. “Bill, you’re hit!” cried Bouck.
A flashlight lit up the hole.
Bouck briefly saw James’s face and winced. It looked like his head had been shot off.
“Mein Gott!” cried the German with the flashlight.
Perhaps ten seconds later, two Germans reached into the dugout, grabbed James’s body, and pulled him out.
The Germans then yanked Bouck out. He saw James’s body lying in the snow.
James had taken five or six rounds in the face at close range. He had lost an eye and most of his right jaw. Fragments of bone and bullet were lodged in his brain.
“Wer ist der Commandant?” (Who’s the commander?), shouted Sergeant Vinz Kuhlbach.
Bouck raised his hand.
“Why your men still firing?” asked Kuhlbach.
“They aren’t. They must be yours because we’re out of ammunition.”
A nearby German officer asked for Bouck’s name, but before Bouck could answer a burst of fire hit the officer and then Bouck. They both fell to the ground beside James.
Bouck had been hit clean through his calf. He looked down at his leg. He was bleeding “like a stuck hog.” He somehow managed to get a tourniquet on the leg.
Meanwhile, the Germans seized hole after hole.
Lieutenant Warren Springer and his two fellow forward artillery observers, Technician Fourth Class Willard Wibben and Sergeant Peter Gacki, had used every last magazine for their carbines. Springer had only a couple of bullets left in his Colt .45.
A German yelled into the back of the dugout: “Come out, or we throw grenade in!”
Springer climbed out, convinced that the Germans would soon shoot him and his men. But if he was going to go, he’d rather have a bullet in the back of the head than be maimed by a grenade.
To Springer’s astonishment, his captors held their fire. “When I saw they weren’t going to shoot I said in English and fractured German: ‘Wo ist Dein Hauptmann? (Where is your captain?). We must take care of our wounded.’ I repeated this several times, and one of the Germans who seemed to be the leader came forward and said in English, ‘Be quiet-we are taking care of them.’ He directed Gacki, Wibben, and me to help a wounded German, and at his command the soldiers around us motioned with their rifles and made it clear that we were to get going.”
Private First Class Milosevich and Platoon Sergeant Slape watched as the Germans pulled other men from holes.
“Come out!” other Germans cried. “Hands up! Come out!”
Milosevich spotted a decorated German officer holding a Mauser pistol. He quickly had him in the sights of his M-1 rifle. There were still a couple of rounds in the magazine.
“I’ll get a big medal for shooting this bastard.”
But then something told him not to shoot. He had killed so many young Germans already that day.
Slape picked up his M-1.
“What you doing?” asked Milosevich.
“I’m gonna shoot the Germans!”
Milosevich grabbed the rifle from Slape.
“They’ll kill us all. Don’t.”
Then the burly figure of a German paratrooper appeared in front of their dugout and pointed his burp gun at Slape.
“Go ahead and shoot you son-of-a-bitch,” said Slape.
“I won’t shoot,” replied the German. “I’m a soldier.”
Two more Germans pulled Slape out and began to pat him down. Slape had hidden a hand grenade in his pocket. One of the Germans quickly found it and threw it away.
At the far northern edge of the position, Private Louis Kalil and Sergeant George Redmond were also ordered out of their dugout at gunpoint. The Germans hauled them through the narrow slit at the front, and then Redmond was told to carry Kalil down the hill.
The German captors lined up the able-bodied survivors just inside the tree line and stripped the men of personal valuables and rations. Then several of the Germans raised their burp guns.
This was it. Now they were going to be executed.
Suddenly, a German officer rushed over.
“Nichts! Nichts!” he shouted.
The paratroopers lowered their guns a few inches. The platoon had been spared, for now at least.
A German sergeant walked over to where Bouck lay bleeding in the snow beside Bill James.
“Get up!” he shouted.
Bouck staggered to his feet. The German then ordered one of his comrades to help Bouck carry James down the hill.
Bouck went to James’s side.
“You’ll be all right, Bill,” Bouck soothed. “I’ll get you out of here.”
“Raus mit du!” (Get moving!), cried a German.
Bouck and a German paratrooper lifted James to his feet and began to stumble down the field leading to Lanzerath. It was strewn with so many shell cases and pieces of shrapnel that the metal crunched under foot in the cordite-gray snow.
James briefly regained consciousness.
“Bouck, let’s take them,” he whispered, figuring they could use the German propping him up as a hostage. Then James heard the German cry out: “Ach, Meinen Kameraden!” (Ah, my friends!).
James saw the man’s friends littering the hillside.
“My foot dragged over one of the bodies, face up, a blond kid, his eyes staring that blank stare, his lips parted,” recalled James. “He had no visible mark on him. No blood. But he was dead. My thoughts went to the mothers of these boys and the worry they were enduring at the moment and the anguish they would suffer when they received the news that their sons were dead. Could I but tell these mothers that their boys died brave men-attacking. My heart was crying for these mothers and all humanity when suddenly I thought of my mother.”
If Bouck made it through, he must get in touch with her.
“Bouck, Bouck,” added James, “tell my mother when you get back that I love her and that I didn’t suffer.” Then he lost consciousness. Bouck noticed a German toting a burp gun following behind. They crossed the fence that bisected the hillside. It had been so badly damaged in the battle that they were able simply to step through a gap. Dead Germans were clumped against it.
The German with the burp gun stuck its muzzle in Bouck’s stomach.
“St. Lo!” the German shouted. “St. Lo!”
“Nein! Nein!” grunted Bouck.
The German was referring to the fierce month-long battle for the strategically vital Norman town that summer. By July 11, 1944, when St. Lo finally fell, his 3rd Fallschirmjaeger Division had lost more than a third of its seventeen thousand men.
The German suddenly pulled the trigger.
Bouck heard it click.
“It’s all over,” he thought. “I’m dead. I don’t even know it. How easy it is to die. It’s not too bad.”
Bouck saw the German’s face, contorted by rage, a few inches from him and realized he was still alive.
It was now pitch dark. The German was even more incensed because his burp gun had failed. He picked up a rifle and stuck it in Bouck’s back. “Oh, no,” thought Bouck. “I’m gonna still get it.”
But there was no click.
“Rausen!” (Get going!), shouted the German.
Bouck struggled to carry James down the hill, now thinking every step might be his last. Then they exited the field through a gate, walked along a road, and entered the Café Scholzen.
Inside, a single paraffin lantern provided light, casting a flickering shadow over a small bar, a cluster of old wooden chairs and tables, and a cuckoo clock mounted on a wall.
“Setz dich!” (Sit down!), ordered a German.
Bouck slumped down, exhausted, on a bench just inside the café, propping James up beside him.
Back at the position, the able-bodied survivors from the platoon were ordered to help carry the German dead and wounded off the hill. Lieutenant Warren Springer watched as the men began to pick up German bodies.
“Pick up that machine gun,” a nearby German officer commanded.
“Nein! Ich bin ein Officier” (No! I’m an officer), said Springer.
The officer glared and then told one of his own men to pick up the machine gun. Springer would not retrieve weapons for able-bodied Germans but was willing to help with the wounded. “I had nothing against them once they’d been shot,” he recalled.
Some of the platoon began to use their mackinaws as litters. It was back-breaking work given the quantity of German wounded and the distance-around two hundred yards-that they needed to be carried into the village.
James Fort grabbed one end of a mackinaw. Milosevich held the other end, and they began to lug two of the German wounded down the hill. Fort was so soon so exhausted that he felt close to collapsing. “Risto, I can’t go another step. It’s too heavy.”
“On three, drop them,” said Milosevich.
On three, they dropped the makeshift litter and collapsed in the snow. The wounded Germans screamed.
A German paratrooper rushed over.
“Up!” he ordered.
Milosevich and Fort got to their feet. As soon as the paratrooper had moved away, they dropped the litter again.
When Lieutenant Warren Springer reached the village, he was ordered into a room adjoining the Café Scholzen. A German officer stood waiting to interrogate him.
Springer calmly placed his gloves on a nearby table.
“I’m only going to tell you my name, rank and serial number.”
“I’m not going to press you,” replied the German in English. “I already know who you are. You’re from the 371st Artillery Battalion.”
Springer did not reply.
There was a long silence.
“How long do you think the war’s going to last?” the officer finally asked. “Maybe three or four months.”
The officer looked bored.
“You can go,” he said, motioning for two of his men to take Springer away. Springer looked over the side-table. His gloves had disappeared.
“Hey! Meine Handschue, meine Handschue!”
The officer snapped at a couple of his men, and Springer’s gloves reappeared. Springer was taken next door into the main café. As he entered, he saw Bill James seated on a bench beside Bouck. James had been patched up by German medics. Only one eye and his nose were visible through brown paper bandages, which the Germans used instead of gauze. Springer joined his men in one corner.
Sometime later, Lyle Bouck noticed blood seeping through his field jacket. He checked inside-a bullet had grazed his upper body. He looked down at his leg. The wound was not too severe: he had been able to hobble to the café from the position without the pain overwhelming him.
Outside, meanwhile, members of the platoon had been lined up against a wall. “Even though they [the Germans] were our enemies,” recalled John Creger, “they showed their respect for our gallant stand against them. One said: ‘Amerikaner is very good soldier.’ . . . A German officer took my cigarettes and offered each of us one and then kept the rest of the pack.”
One by one, Private Creger and his buddies were then brought into the café. Bouck watched as Sergeant George Redmond carried in a wounded man: as with James, only his nose and eye were visible because of the extensive bandaging.
Bouck suddenly realized it was Private Louis Kalil.
Sergeant Redmond laid him down on the floor. Others from the platoon walked over to check on him, wanting to know how bad the wound was. “I was just looking out of my right eye and that was it because the rest of my face was covered up,” recalled Kalil. “They didn’t realize how bad it was. Neither did I.”
Kalil had still not been given any morphine. His embedded teeth caused him maddening pain. But he was glad to be alive, amazed that he had not been shot. Thank God their captors were not SS. They were in the hands of the German army. Perhaps that was why they had not been executed.
Then the Germans brought in Private Joseph McConnell. His field jacket had been cut away, and he had a bad gash in the shoulder. He was placed near some wounded German paratroopers. The café now seemed like a strange combination of a command post and an aid station. Bouck asked a German who looked like he had some authority if James could be allowed to lie down next to Louis Kalil. It was exhausting having to prop up James, whose blood was now soaking Bouck’s shoulder, and James would be more comfortable if he was laid down. The German conferred with another officer and then agreed.
Private First Class Milosevich watched as James and the other wounded men from his platoon were placed together. It filled him with pride to watch his buddies endure their pain so stoically. “They were really hurt. Boy, they were hurt. James, at least three bullets in his face; Kalil, a grenade in his face; McConnell hit in the shoulders. But they never said a word. There was no crying. Downstairs, they had more German wounded, and they were screaming. The super race was screaming.”
Bill James drifted in and out of consciousness. “Lying there bleeding all over the place, I thought I was dying. There was this clock hanging there going tick, tick, and every fifteen or thirty minutes the little gong would ring. The clock got into my brain. Whatever was left of my brain, the clock was working at it, trying to keep me focused on life.”
JIMMY GREEN’S ACCOUNT OF JUNE 6 1944
This was provided by Kevan Elsby to the BBC in 2003. A fantastic account by the Brit who landed the Bedford Boys in exactly the right place – Dog Green – at the right time, 6.32am H Hour, June 6 1944.
[The photos are by Robin Kershaw of Alex Kershaw showing where Jimmy Green looked that morning as he surveyed the German defenses…]
I was born on the 4 July 1921 in the city of Bristol, England. It had a long association with the sea for the Cabots sailed from Bristol in 1497 and discovered Newfoundland. Bristol was also involved in the triangular trade — providing workers for the plantations in Virginia in return for the tobacco that the local manufacturers W D and H O Wills turned into the Woodbine cigarette so popular with British servicemen in the two world wars.
Seeing ships from all over the world in the centre of Bristol gave me a longing to go to sea. My family spent their holidays in the 1930s at Weymouth and it was there I saw the British fleet and went on board HMS Hood on a Navy Day.
As soon as war broke out in September 1939 I volunteered for the Royal Navy, but there were no vacancies. It was not until after the Fall of France in 1940 that I was able to join the Fleet Air Arm as a trainee pilot. I was fortunate (though I did not think so at the time) in not passing the course, as most of those cadets who became pilots did not survive the war.
I was given the option of staying in the Fleet Air Arm as observer or joining the executive branch as a potential officer. I spent most of 1941 in HMS Bulldog, an old destroyer on North Atlantic convoys. In May 1941 we captured U-110 with its Enigma machine and code books intact. I was on deck behind the 3.5-inch guns when U-110 was captured. A British sailor who could speak German took my place in the boarding party. The German prisoners were told of the invasion of Russia, which we heard over the ship’s radio, but they would not believe us, saying it was British propaganda.
I spoke with one of Goebbels’ propaganda officers, who was at sea for the first time. We spoke in French. He would not believe me.
Life aboard HMS Bulldog was dreadfully uncomfortable. Above deck, waves as high as houses would crash down. I was often very cold, spending endless hours staring out to sea. Below deck, there were too few hammocks, so I had to sleep on a locker, tossed and turned by every movement of the ship, with seawater sloshing around everywhere. It was the worst year of my life!
After being commissioned as a sub lieutenant in February 1942 I opted to serve in Combined Operations and joined 24th R Boat Flotilla. I was a keen sportsman, playing rugby, cricket and football. Being part of an assault flotilla allowed me to indulge my interest in sport more frequently. We were assigned to Lord Lovat’s 4th Commando and took part in the Dieppe Raid and lost our Flotilla Officer when we ran into a German convoy.
Early in 1944 I joined 551 Landing Craft Assault (LCA) Flotilla at Plymouth as its Divisional Officer (otherwise known as Executive Officer, 1st Lieutenant or second in command, and generally known as ‘Jimmy the One’.) I joined the navy as George and came out as Jimmy.
551 Flotilla was based in HMS Ceres, an old cruiser permanently anchored in Plymouth Sound to protect the dockyard and city from German raids. The Luftwaffe flattened the centre of Plymouth in 1940 and 1941, but the dockyard was virtually untouched.
The German air raids ceased in 1941 so life on board HMS Ceres was peaceful. Our 18 LCAs were moored close to Ceres and we were able to carry out exercises and use dockyard facilities to bring our craft up to operational standards. We also managed to play an occasional game of football against local opposition.
We were really awaiting the arrival of SS Empire Javelin (our mother ship) recently built in the USA and converted to a Landing Ship Infantry (Large). It was manned by a Merchant Navy crew and had davits equipped to hoist our LCAs on board. The Javelin spent a few days in Plymouth where we worked out operational procedures for hoisting and lowering the LCAs with mixed RN and MN crews.
After a short stay in Plymouth, SS Empire Javelin sailed to Scotland and anchored in the Holy Loch north of Dunoon. Here we came under the orders of a Commodore of the US Navy. The Javelin carried a Royal Navy Lieutenant as Liaison Officer between the US Navy, Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. He was the Senior Naval Officer Transport and known to all of us, unfortunately, as SNOT. He had received from the US Navy two manuals entitled ‘From Ship to Shore. Volumes 1 and 2′. He passed them to the Flotilla Officer, Lt Freddy Grant, who passed them on to me to read, learn and inwardly digest. The books detailed the procedures for taking troops on the landing craft, which circled off the troop ships until such time as they were called in to load their passengers from scrambling nets. We took part in a couple of exercises using these procedures with limited success.
The LCA had a crew of four — a coxswain, two seamen and a stoker in the engine room responding to a telegraph and voice pipe operated by the coxswain. The LCA had two petrol engines fuelled by 100 percent octane, which it gobbled up rapidly giving a comparatively short range. It was also not designed to go round for a long time in circles and I was made aware of the discontent of the crews, particularly the stokers who had bells constantly ringing in their ears as coxswains tried to maintain station. I wasn’t particularly happy circling around the rear of a transport waiting for my number to be called.
I conveyed my criticisms to the Flotilla Officer and SNOT, having doubts about the system working in the English Channel in the night and in a possible gale. My arguments were accepted and it was decided to invite the Commodore to lunch aboard the Javelin to discuss our problems. I assembled a colour detail complete with Bosun’s whistle to pipe the Commodore aboard. He duly arrived on time, acknowledged the presentation of arms by the colour party and greeted us with a ‘Hiya Boys! Where’s the bar?’ He later agreed to our method of having troops loaded on board the Javelin, loading them into LCAs at the davits and lowering them into the water. We found that troops normally preferred this method rather than using scrambling nets.
We continued our training in Scotland, exercising with troops both by day and night. The Javelin did sail south to take part in Exercise Fabius on Slapton Sands. Live ammunition was used in this exercise and my first wave had little time after the ceasefire to make for the shore. At the given time the bombardment ceased and we made full speed for the beach. As we neared the shore about ten minutes after cease fire we were straddled by a salvo of 14-inch shells from USS Texas, which missed our craft but soaked most of the occupants. Observers reported that we were all sunk, which gave rise to rumours over casualties. There was of course another action off the Isle of Wight during the earlier Exercise Tiger with the landing craft for Utah Beach, when E-Boats got amongst the convoy of troop ships making for Slapton.
Early in June the Javelin arrived at Portland and we took on board from Weymouth harbour the 1st Battalion of 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division along with other support units. They were a friendly but shy bunch of fresh-faced country lads who must have felt at home in Ivybridge — a small town in Devonshire, where they had trained for the invasion.
There were a series of briefings at the Pavilion in Weymouth and I had a separate briefing for my particular assignment. I was the leader of the first wave and it was my task to land A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment at Vierville sur Mer at 05:30 on 5 June. We were referred to in the flotilla as ‘The Suicide Wave’, something that we felt with pride represented the danger we faced rather than the prospect of casualties. We had trained day and night, including fog. Many of the men in 551 Flotilla had taken part in earlier landings in the Mediterranean. Like so many men on D-Day, we felt we simply had a job to do and that we were ready for it — ready for the war to end and ready to get on with it. When troops were aboard the Javelin, it was very cramped and the bar was closed, so we were ready to get the troops off the ship too.
I had six craft of 551 Flotilla under my command plus two LCAs from HMS Prince Charles carrying two platoons of C Company 2nd US Rangers. They were to come to the Javelin and tag on to my right column then come into line abreast on my signal so that we all landed at the same time 05:30 on 5 June.
The officer commanding A Company 116th Infantry Regiment was Captain Taylor Fellers who I believe served in the National Guard at Bedford Virginia. He was a very serious, thoughtful officer who seemed a lot older than our sailors who were in their late teens or early twenties. It was his objective to secure the pass at Vierville sur Mer, which led off the beach between the cliffs. It was my task to put him and his Company plus the Rangers on the beach at the right place and at the right time. For as far as I could see on D-Day in both directions, Captain Fellers was the first American soldier to set foot on Omaha Beach in front of the Vierville sur Mer draw. The beach was empty, apart from the beach obstacles laid by the Germans.
Taylor Fellers spoke to me of his concern that this would be the first time that he and his Company would see action and asked me to give them every support. He sought me out on the Empire Javelin. I assured him that if we saw any Germans we would certainly open fire with our Lewis guns. In the event, we were unable to do so. We landed about 100 yards below the beach obstacles soon after low tide and hundreds of yards from the edge of the beach. It was dull, grey and overcast. Like so many, we could not make out a single German. We knew they were there, but we could not see them. With the LCAs rocking up and down on the surf, we were in more danger of shooting down the American troops in front of us.
The Javelin sailed from Portland harbour on the evening of the 4 June 1944 in the teeth of a gale. A few hours later we were recalled to Portland harbour as the invasion had been postponed for 24 hours. H Hour was amended to 06:30.
I turned in at about 22:00 hours on the night of the 5 June with instructions for a call at 04:00 as we were due to launch at 04:30. I was shaken at about 03:30 by Able Seaman Kemp who combined his duties as Captain of the Heads (toilets) with looking after the officers — I don’t think there was any reason why he combined both tasks. He asked me if I would be good enough to report to the Flotilla Officer as the launching time had been changed. At first, I was annoyed at being woken early. The ship was bouncing around in the heavy seas — little different from the previous day. Freddy told me to get the first wave launched as soon as possible as I could not make my planned rate of knots in these conditions. My craft LCA910 was on the starboard side of the lower deck with LCA911 behind me followed by the LCA coxed by Leading Seaman Massingham.
Captain Taylor Fellers and 31 of his men were waiting at the davits opposite LCA910 and were soon taken on board to be launched in the pitch dark into unfriendly sea. The lowering into the water was a bit of a nightmare as the heavy block and tackle was moving around and had to be secured against ones body before the hook could be released from the ring of the LCA. The after hook had to be released first while the LCA maintained position until the forward hook (my responsibility) could be released. My coxswain was Leading Seaman Martin of Newfoundland (How I blessed those Cabots from Bristol for discovering a land which produced such an excellent seaman). Instead of my normal sternsheetsman (the sailor at the back) I had been given at the last minute Signalman Webb to work a brand new signal set — also given to me at the last minute.
Webb was delighted to be given the opportunity to see action instead of manning the signal station in the Javelin. As LCA910 was being unhooked we were hit in the stern by LCA911 and the stoker told the coxswain through his voice pipe that we were taking in water in the engine room. I had to clamber through the troops to the engine room only entered through the stoke hole on the after deck. After a discussion with the stoker and Webb we thought we could keep afloat if Webb, sitting at the open stoke hold, used a hand pump at its maximum.
After this minor diversion we found the American patrol craft, which was to escort us part of the way to Vierville. We set off in two columns of three, like Nelson at Trafalger, with LCA910 at the head of the starboard column and my second in command Sub Lieutenant Tony Drew at the head of the port column. There was no sign of the two LCAs from HMS Prince Charles, so we set off without them. In fact, they were close behind us on my right flank, but I could not see them in the dark. I had been aboard the US patrol craft after Exercise Fabius and had seen its radar, which was far more accurate than my magnetic compass.
It was heavy going in the rough seas and we were shipping water over the bows. However we were on course and on time. About five miles from the coast we parted company from the US patrol craft with mutual signals of respect.
A few minutes later we came upon a group of Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) wallowing in the heavy seas and making about half our speed. I muttered something like ‘What the hell are they doing here!’ Taylor Fellers, who had been sitting on a bench with his men, joined me and told me the LCTs were carrying tanks scheduled to land before us and lead A Company up the beach. This was a complete surprise to me but it didn’t make much difference, as they had no hope of getting there on time. We left them in our wake and never saw them again.
It was beginning to get light and the bombardment by the battleships and cruisers had ceased. I could vaguely make out the French coast through the gloom and noticed puffs of smoke moving along the top of the cliffs. Dismissing the thought that it was the USS Texas emptying its gun barrels, I believed that it was a steam train puffing its way along the coast to Cherbourg.
It was approaching the time to form line abreast and make our dash for the shore. I turned round to see how the other craft were coping. I was just in time to see the bow of LCA911 dipping into the sea and disappearing below the waves. I believe 911 had been damaged during the collision with 910, whilst lowering the boats from the Javelin.
All the crew and soldiers had life jackets and I could only hope they would keep everyone afloat until I returned. It goes against the grain for a sailor to leave his comrades in the sea, but LCA910 had no room and our orders were explicit that we were to leave survivors in the sea to be picked up later. It was essential to land on time.
A few minutes later as we neared the shore I picked out some nasty looking pill boxes and hoped they were not manned. A group of LCT(R)s — tank landing craft carrying rockets on their decks — came up behind me and launched all their rockets woefully short. Not one came anywhere near the shoreline. The heavy swell must have played havoc with their range finding. I remember shaking my fist in anger.
I then gave the signal to form line abreast and told signalman Webb to stop pumping and take cover. Martin pulled down the cover over his head and was guided by me through slits in his armour-plated cockpit. I was watching a particularly menacing looking pillbox at the mouth of the Vierville sur Mer draw in my binoculars and thinking that if it was manned we were going to be in trouble.
There was a loud bang in my right ear and I turned to see a LCG (Landing Craft Gun) blazing away with its 4.7s and scoring direct hits on the pillbox. I wished it could have stayed longer but it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. I had no idea we were getting support from other landing craft. One of the LCAs in the left flank was hit by an anti-tank bullet, passing through the armour plating on both sides of the boat and catching one of the American troops, who was vary badly injured.
Now we were alone, at the right beach at the right time. Taylor Fellers wanted to be landed to the right of the pass and the other 3 boats in the port column just to the left of the pass. We went flat out and crunched to a halt some 20 or 30 yards from the shore line. The beach was so flat that we couldn’t go any further so the troops had to go in single file up to their waists in water and wade to the shore through tidal runnels. Taylor Fellers was gone as soon as the ramp was lowered before I could wish him luck, followed by the middle file, then the port file and the starboard file as practised and in good order. They all made the beach safely and formed a firing line at a slight rise. At this time there was a lull in the German firing. They had been plopping mortar shells around us and firing an anti-tank gun but suddenly they ceased fire. A German veteran told me recently that they had been ordered to preserve ammunition. They had been ordered to wait until they had a clear target within range.
The beach was very wide. About 100 yards from the shore line were some obstacles. We knew the beach was mined and this was why we landed at low tide. About another 200 yards further on from the obstacles were the dark cliffs where the Germans were in their prepared positions. In my briefing I was told that the beach would be bombed the night before and there would be craters where the advancing troops could shelter. The beach was flat as a pancake with not a crater in sight.
The landing took quite a time and I was itching to return to the survivors of LCA911 hopefully still afloat about a mile offshore. I looked to my left and saw Tony Drew up to his neck in water around the stern of his LCA and obviously in some sort of trouble. He told me much later that he had reversed off the beach into a tank, most probably from the US Navy LCT(A)2227, which landed immediately to our left.
I was intending to see if I could help Tony Drew, when my coxswain told me that there were some of our lads on the beach. I thought it unlikely but he was right. The two craft with the Rangers on board had landed just behind us and to our right. The crew of one of these craft were waving frantically at us and wanted us to take them off. I thought twice about it, with Tony Drew and the survivors from LCA911 in mind, but I couldn’t leave them on the beach so 910 went into the beach again, grounded and picked up the crew. One of them was wounded and had to be supported by his shipmates. They told me that they had been hit by 4 mortars on landing which destroyed their LCA and killed a number of the Rangers. There was no one else nearby so I assumed the Rangers had looked after their own casualties.
Tony Drew was still up to his neck in water around the stern of his LCA. He told me that his rudder had jammed, but he could fix it. This LCA made its way ten miles back to the Javelin without steering, using the twin engines to steer the boat.
It was about this time that I remembered to send a signal reporting our landing. I looked round for Signalman Webb who was on the after deck sweeping off the remains of our smoke float which had probably been destroyed by a near miss from a mortar or anti-tank shell. He obviously enjoyed his role as a seaman — much more exciting than relaying signals in the Empire Javelin. We sent a signal to the effect of, ‘Landed against light opposition.’
We formed up again and set off to find the survivors of LCA911. They were still bobbing around in the heavy swell. I was told that the crew of 911 had been picked up by a patrol craft, which then made off at speed with Petty Officer Stewart hanging on to a rope. (His arm was later amputated and he was invalided out of the Navy). We managed to get everyone on board with some difficulty as an exhausted sodden soldier carrying a vast amount of kit is very heavy to lift. I had to use my sailor knife to cut the straps releasing the kit before being able to lift survivors aboard, leaning over the side of the boat and being held by my legs. In some cases I had to lower the ramp and lift exhausted soldiers in over the bow. No one was left in the water. Years later, I was informed by survivors from A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment, which the signalman had downed, weighed under by his signal equipment.
The survivors asked about their comrades and I told them that they had landed as planned. Many wanted to be taken to the beach, but they were in no fit state to take any further action. I handed round my ships Woodbines (made by W D and H O Wills of Bristol from Virginian tobacco) and apologised for not having any American cigarettes.
We returned to the Empire Javelin and took several shots at hooking on. The Javelin had to up anchor and make a lee, the conditions were still so rough. We had never set sail in such seas. Martin was hit by a swinging block which threw him from one end of the boat to the other, splitting his forehead open to the bone but we eventually made it and handed our survivors over to the waiting medical staff.
I have absolutely no idea what I did when I returned to the Javelin. There is a gap in my memory and my next recollection is of entering Plymouth harbour the following day to an amazing reception. Plymouth sound was full of ships waiting to depart to Normandy and they recognised that we had come from there as our six empty davits revealed our losses. The surviving landing craft were badly shot up. As we came to anchor we were greeted by all the ships sounding their sirens as a signal of their respect. It was a very moving and rare experience. We were the first vessel to enter Plymouth harbour from the invasion. 551 Flotilla formed up on deck. We had been told to expect one-third losses and in respect of the landing craft, the planners were right. We returned with 12 out of 18 LCAs, with many of the remainder badly shot up.
The second and third waves of LCAs from our flotilla had landed between 0700 and 0800, by which time the tide and reached the beach obstacles and the Germans had them within machine gun range and subject to more accurate mortar fire.
One sailor from our flotilla, Bill Wheeldon, was killed on Omaha Beach. One of our crews had called to him from the water’s edge, but Bill continued to cross the beach with the American troops and was shot down. Many of our flotilla were injured and invalided out after D-Day.
All of the American troops on LCA911, including the CO Captain Taylor Fellers, were killed on Omaha Beach. Many other troops transported on the Javelin and landed by 551 Flotilla were killed. It was a long time before we discovered the extent of the casualties.
The last time I saw the troops of A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment, they had been in conference at the water’s edge and were forming an assault line parallel to the water line, like a scene from The Somme. I expected them to run off in various directions, like the commandos we had trained with. Having completed our task, our attention turned to getting back to the Javelin and away from the beach. Captain Fellers had discharged himself from hospital to lead his men on D-Day.
It is not widely known, but there was a substantial Royal Navy presence on Omaha and Utah Beaches on D-Day. On Omaha Beach, four battalions of American troops were landed from seven British transport ships and LCA Flotillas. Both of the 2nd and 5th the US Ranger Infantry Battalions were with the Royal Navy, as were the 1st Battalions of 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division and the 1st Battalion of 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division.
Some of our sister flotillas, including 550 Flotilla on the SS Empire Anvil at the eastern, Colleville end of Omaha Beach, suffered higher casualties. A number of British sailors were killed on Omaha Beach. Many other landing craft, amongst them LCTs for example, were British.
We had to replace and repair our craft at Plymouth and take on fresh crews as quickly as possible so as to make many more trips to Normandy, ferrying men and equipment until suitable harbours could be opened. In November 1944 our services were no longer needed and we left the Javelin at Fowey where we moored our craft in the river there. Shortly after leaving SS Empire Javelin we heard that she had been sunk by a U Boat in the Channel off Cherbourg, where she still rests at the bottom of the sea.
551 Flotilla was earmarked to take part in the recapture of The Channel Islands — the only part of Britain to be captured by the Germans. The reception given to us by the Channel Islanders was rather different from the one we received in Normandy. We were the first into harbour, with the Germans still at their stations. We enjoyed several days of celebration then rounded up the German Garrisons and took them back to Southampton to POW camps. I remember being driven around Jersey in a car that had been hidden in a haystack for the duration of the War.
The flotilla then sort of disintegrated. We were destined for the war against Japan but VJ Day arrived as we were embarking for the Far East. The officers’ postings were cancelled but the crews were sent as far as India where they remained for several months before return to Britain for demobilisation.
I buried my wartime memories for over 50 years and it was not until I became a widower in 1995 that my thoughts returned to my old shipmates. I joined the Landing Craft Association and through them discovered that my flotilla had been holding reunions for a number of years. They had tried to contact me but I had joined the Army after taking a history degree at Bristol University and spent several years in territories throughout the world linked to Britain. I left the Army Education Corps as Lt-Colonel in 1976, so I had flown, sailed and also served in the army during my military service.
I eventually made a reunion in 1997 and once the initial reticence was overcome became shipmates again. There was however an underlying rancour directed at American writers, which had escaped me as I had no desire to resurrect old forgotten nightmares. However, when I read these accounts written by S L A Marshall and Stephen Ambrose, I could see why our veterans were angry. These two writers had no idea what occurred at 06:30 on D-Day so invented some cock and bull yarns to cover their ignorance. According to these writers reluctant British coxswains had to be persuaded at the point of a Colt .45 to land their soldiers on the beach, including the boats under my command. If these two writers had bothered to study photographs of LCAs they might have noticed a box shaped turret ‘forard’ on the starboard side (up front right). This armour-plated turret enclosed the coxswain where he controlled the LCA — well clear of any Colt-toting mutineer intent on assuming command.
I can personally shoot down another flight of fancy dreamt up by Marshall and repeated by Ambrose, who describe how the lead craft (mine) with Captain Taylor Fellers and 31 men aboard was struck by a German weapon (A V3 perhaps) which ‘vaporised’ the LCA and all of its occupants before it could reach the shore. As Taylor Fellers and his men all landed safely and were later killed on the beach one wonders how Ambrose could write such fiction. The body of Taylor Fellers was found on the beach and brought back to the USA and buried in Bedford Cemetery. I laid a wreath on his grave on behalf of 551 Flotilla when I was privileged to attend the dedication of the Memorial gate at the magnificent D-Day memorial.
A bare minimum of research was all that was required to find out how Taylor Fellers died and where he was buried.
Matters were hardly improved by the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’. I have no objection to the film as such because it wasn’t a documentary and Spielberg can use his remarkable talents to portray a story. But when asked by a BBC interviewer why he did not show any British involvement, he replied ‘This is a film about Omaha Beach. There were no British on Omaha. There is no role for the British.’ Spielberg also claimed that ‘Historical accuracy is the bedrock of films such as Saving Private Ryan.’ He follows the tradition of Marshall who wrote in an article ‘Normandy was a great American victory.’ Perhaps it was all a bad dream and I was not there.
‘Saving Private Ryan’ depicted C Company of 2nd Ranger Infantry Battalion landing on the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach. Their two British LCA landing craft and the six LCAs carrying A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division of the Army of the United States of America came under my command at that exact point and time. I was British then, as were all of the hundreds of other British sailors landing American troops on the morning of D-Day. Denying the presence of the Royal Navy on Omaha Beach or dishonoring them was a gross injustice.
On a more serious note, Omaha deserves a place in American history.
Those who died bravely at Omaha deserve to have their death recorded accurately. We who survived owe it to them. We owe it to those who served in World War Two to remember their stories, like mine, and we owe it to them to remember them accurately, as they actually happened.
As Lieutenant Ray Nance, a veteran of and second in command of A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment put it ‘We were with the British. They were the best.’
BETTY WILKES – A BEDFORD GIRL
I interviewed Betty Wilkes several years ago, after I had published The Bedford Boys. I recently found the transcript having learned that she had passed away. She lost her husband, Master Sergeant John Wilkes, on D Day, 6 June 1944. He was killed on Omaha Beach with 18 other men from the community of Bedford, Virginia.
How did we get word that the boys were finally shipping out to England? One of the boys must have gotten a telephone call through to Bedford, and we got word of it. My friend Viola, whose husband Earl Parker was in Company A with my husband, called me and said: ‘Well, do you want to go to New York?’ I said: ‘Well I guess so.’ Her dad brought us to the station in Bedford. We caught a train out, in the evening, the next week. It was crazy. But I had said I would see John any way I could. Of course, we couldn’t get a call through from our hotel in New York. We tried and tried. The next day we decided to try to go back to Bedford.
I lived in Bedford with my sister Mildred. We had an apartment together. She was very important to me. We worked together. She was five years older than me. I was 21 when John was killed. When I found out about his death, I didn’t want to go back to work. After I got the telegram, about a week later, my sister said: ‘I’m not going back to work until you go.’ I guess that pushed me. I didn’t want her to lose her job on account of me. I didn’t want to lose mine either. Having to do something helped.
Viola Parker, who also lost her husband Earl on D Day, was close to me. We talked probably about every night. Viola would always talk about Earl, saying: “when he comes back…” She would not accept that he had been lost. I just listened and didn’t want to tell her he wasn’t coming back. She went to see [Lieutenant] Nance [who had been on Omaha Beach] and he told her Earl had been killed and then she finally accepted his death. She was trying to keep hope alive and I didn’t want to stop her having that….
I was with Viola the night that Danny [her daughter with Earl] was born in 1943. Her mother was over at the hospital and called me. Viola had taken a pencil and paper with her when she went to the hospital. They brought her back to her room in the hospital after she gave birth. I was there. She was soon looking for a little draw in the bedside table. She brought out this paper and pencil and she tried to sit up and write to Earl, just a few hours after she had given birth. We tried to get her to go back to sleep.
I went to Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984. I met a medic, Cecil Breeden, who had landed in the first wave with my husband, John. We met at Dulles airport first, boarding a flight. He helped me with my luggage. He wanted to know where I was from. His eyes popped out when I said I was from Bedford. In Normandy, he took me down onto the beach and showed me where he had found John’s body. He said John hadn’t suffered – he was shot through the forehead.
I had John’s body brought back to Bedford in 1947. I felt better because I knew he wanted to come home. There was some closure there. I had brought him home. His mother and father are buried right behind him now. His sister is too. When we saw the coffin, his father said to me: ‘I feel sure that’s him, don’t you?’ I replied: ‘Oh yeah.’ We could not be certain because we were not allowed to open the coffin.
I still have John’s ring [over sixty years later]…the wedding ring. It’s in a necklace that I wear. The photo shows me near a waterfall. It was a Sunday, on our honeymoon, in 1941. I was eighteen.
AVENUE OF SPIES Q AND A
AVENUE OF SPIES
A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and
One American Family’s Heroic Resistance
in Nazi-Occupied Paris
Crown; August 4, 2015
Q. How did you first come to hear about the remarkable Jackson family?
A. I had been in Paris, my favorite city, and was determined to find a way to write about it so I could return as often as possible—at least for a couple of years! I considered writing about the liberation of the city in August 1944, but then I came across an interview with Phillip Jackson online. I was astonished by his story—the son of an American doctor who had joined the resistance. When, after a year of research, I discovered that he lived so close to the most murderous Nazis in France—his neighbors on Avenue Foch—I knew that I had a fabulous narrative. In telling the story of the Jacksons and their neighbors, I could tell the story of Paris under the Nazis, and indeed of any place where evil resides beside heroism. In the darkest of places—Avenue Foch in WWII—there was still a source of light, of hope and inspiration.
Q. You spent a great deal of time in Paris, searching through archives and records, and even interviewing Phillip Jackson and individuals who lived through the Nazi occupation there. Can you tell us a bit about the experience?
A. It was an experience I never wanted to end. I spent weeks wandering around Phillip’s neighborhood, visiting his childhood haunts, his old school, the places where he grew up. I explored the darkest corners of Nazi Paris: the restaurants the SS ate in, the addresses they used as torture chambers. I walked up and down Avenue Foch dozens of times, looking up at the top floor windows at number 84, where so many brave British spies had been tortured. I stood on the terrace at the American Hospital in Neuilly, where Dr. Sumner Jackson, Phillip’s father, had stood in 1940 as the Nazis approached Paris. I sat in the living room of Francis Deloche de Noyelle, the man who recruited the Jacksons to the resistance. I was also able to interview American airman Joe Manos, who, more than seventy years later, was still immensely grateful to the Jacksons for hiding him at their home and helping him to escape back to England. I was very much aware that I was in a race against time and that these key characters in my story might not live too much longer. And last but not least, I drank and ate as much as I could at Phillip Jackson’s favorite restaurants, a stone’s throw from Napoleon’s tomb. I’m still very sad it had to come to and end and I had to actually write the book!
Q. You’re an acclaimed World War II author and historian who has covered so many facets of the war; what drew you to Paris for your new book?
A. The romance, the utter beauty and sophistication of the place … the wonderful memories I had of the city and country as a child, at my happiest. It makes the heart sing. It is such an extraordinary place to be in, let alone write about. I have at times been able to truly live in the moment through my love of the French language and culture. Ever since reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, I’ve wanted to base a book in the most sensual city on the planet. I count myself very lucky to have been able to spend three to four years of my adult life reveling in my great love of France. I think my passion for the period and the city comes through in the book.
Q. While you’re so well versed in the history and events of World War II, was there anything you discovered in the course of your research for AVENUE OF SPIES that you found particularly surprising or poignant?
A. Yes, many things surprised me. That people went insane because of the stress involved in being in the resistance. That cultured and educated men could so gleefully become mass murderers. That the British were so amateurish when it came to running spy networks in Paris. I was astonished at the level of sacrifice by those French who dared to resist, amazed that so many Jews could be rounded up in plain sight, in the heart of the most civilized city in the world, by French police and then sent to their deaths. And I was so profoundly moved and inspired by the heroism of the women of the French resistance—such wonderful, powerful, beautiful reminders that all that’s best about humanity is often revealed in the darkest times when the few resist even as the vast majority look the other way in the face of atrocity and injustice.
Q. AVENUE OF SPIES features an incredible cast of characters—diplomats, socialites, spies, SS agents. Can you tell us a bit more about some of the individuals you encountered?
A. On one of my visits to Phillip Jackson, now 87, the only child of Sumner and Toquette Jackson, who lived at number 11 Avenue Foch, I was able to have lunch at the hospital of Les Invalides, where he now lives. I suddenly realized I was in the same room as ten men and women who had fought so bravely, and paid such a high price, to defeat Hitler—the crème de la crème of the French resistance. I also spent a wonderful evening with Fritz Molden, high in the Austrian Tyrol. He died a week after I met him, and was feted in Austria as the country’s greatest resistance hero. He had been a close friend of a spy who had tried to save Toquette Jackson and many others from deportation, and he was a wonderful, brave, cultured man—a giant of the last century. There were many others, so many powerful experiences.
Q. The year 2015 marks the 75th anniversary of the occupation of Paris. What is life like today on the famed Avenue Foch? What has become of the Jackson home at number 11? And who now occupies the notorious number 72, where the Gestapo set up their base of operations?
A. The avenue is perhaps even more exclusive than ever. No Nazis that I know of, but there are a number of billionaires and several well-guarded embassies. I was asked to stop taking photos by a security guard outside one mansion. The Jacksons’ home at number 11, on the outside, has not changed at all. The black railings are still there. Number 72, the last time I looked, was empty and shuttered. Whoever chooses to live there in the future should perhaps not care too much about history or believe in ghosts!
Q. Is there a message you hope readers will take away with them after reading AVENUE OF SPIES and learning about the heroic efforts of the Jacksons?
A. Always resist oppression, no matter the price. Always fight back, no matter the cost. There are times when we have to take a side. The world will always be grateful to those who combat terror and extreme prejudice. I certainly am.
AN EXTRACT FROM AVENUE OF SPIES
By Alex Kershaw
23 JUNE 1940
It was just after dawn when Hitler’s Storch rumbled along the runway at Le Bourget airfield. A giant cloud of oil fumes that had hovered over Paris since June 1, had miraculously disappeared, just in time for the Führer’s visit. Five large Mercedes sedans were soon cruising along empty boulevards with their leather roofs rolled back, their occupants dressed in smart uniforms, heads bobbing in unison whenever they went over cobblestones.
At 6:35 a.m., Hitler’s convoy circled the Arc de Triomphe twice and then set off down Avenue Foch, the wealthiest street in all of vanquished Europe. The fifty-one-year-old Führer was soon passing the street lamps and elegant black iron railings designed by Gabriel Davioud that fronted the Jacksons’ ground floor home at number 11 and other buildings along the avenue.
To Hitler’s right, on the north side of the avenue, which was totally deserted, stood a white memorial to Jean-Charles Alphand, the chief engineer responsible for the avenue’s construction during the reign of Napoleon III. Alphand purposely made the promenade extra-wide so that wealthy Parisians in their open-top coaches could pass directly from the center of the city to the Bois de Boulogne. Named Avenue Foch in 1929, many of the elder residents still called it by its popular name during La Belle Époque: Avenue Bois.
Hitler was not impressed. He looked bored by the neat gardens with exotic flowers, the riding paths, the crisscrossing alleys, and the honey-colored mansions. Perhaps it was simply the name that displeased him. For the first time, Hitler seemed to lose interest in his surroundings. The motorcade made a sharp right midway along the avenue and headed south, toward the Seine.
By 9:00 a.m. the tour was over. Hitler would never return. “It was the dream of my life to be permitted to see Paris,” he told Albert Speer later that day. “I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today.”
That evening Speer met with Hitler in a room in a village in northern France. Hitler was seated alone at a small table.
“Wasn’t Paris beautiful?” he mused. “But Berlin must be made far more beautiful. In the past I often considered whether we would not have to destroy Paris. But when we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow. So why should we destroy it?”
Hitler was lying. When the time came, he would destroy anything that suited his sadism. But Paris would be looted first—carefully—and the best of its portable wonders brought to him. In Mein Kampf, his autobiographical manifesto published in 1925, Hitler had clearly stated his true views about France. It was a great rival, its capital full of Bolshevik Jews, its people the “mortal enemy” of Germany. In his masterpiece of fascist and racist cant, one theme had dominated: his hatred for the Jews. Once Helmut Knochen and his colleagues—Hitler’s most loyal servants—had purged the city of these and other degenerates, Paris would enjoy a true golden age—a National Socialist “Belle Époque.”
SEVENTY YEARS AGO TODAY IN EUROPE
BY ALEX KERSHAW
Having accepted the German surrender, Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent a message to the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington:
THE MISSION OF THIS ALLIED FORCE WAS FULFILLED AT 0241, LOCAL TIME, MAY 7, 1945, EISENHOWER.
THE FOLLOWING DAY, 8 May 1945, the world learned of the German final surrender. There were intense and prolonged celebrations in many capitals to mark the end the most destructive war in human history.
While civilians embraced, kissed total strangers and took to streets around the globe in euphoria, many infantrymen in Europe, brutalized and broken, sat alone with their grief or paced their rest areas in mournful silence. “There is V-E day without but no peace within,” wrote the war’s most decorated US infantrymen, Audie Murphy, of the 3rd Division.
Europe lay in ruins. The human cost of the conflict was beyond comprehension. In one Berlin suburb, women now outnumbered men by over ten to one. Over five million German dead littered the battlefields of a devastated Europe, especially in the East. Ninety percent of all German combat deaths had in fact occurred fighting the Soviets who had suffered an astounding 65 percent of all Allied fatalities.
Barbarism had been defeated. Civilization had been preserved. The men of evil, Winston Churchill told the British nation, “are now prostrate before us.”
Later that afternoon of 8 May, after having lunched with the King at Buckingham Palace, Churchill was driven to Whitehall. When he stepped onto a balcony at the Ministry of Health he could barely hear himself speak, so loud were the cheers of the crowds.
“This is your victory,” he shouted. “It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this.”
Finally, I would like to address the WWII veterans with us here, today, seventy years after the guns fell silent in Europe. I was born in England twenty years after the war ended. I grew up in a united and mostly prosperous Europe – one that you set free.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for allowing mine and other generations to enjoy the longest period of peace in Europe’s history, on a continent scarred since the beginning of time by war.
Now, seventy years later, we can agree with Churchill absolutely. He was right. Indeed, in all our long history, we have never seen a greater day than VE Day – thanks to you. It is still your victory – the greatest the world has ever known.