Thursday, June 05, 2014

Another way of looking at D-Day

It's the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings tomorrow and already the BBC is getting itself in Greatest Generation mode, as is the style nowadays.

I wonder what my dad would say if he heard the awed tone today's broadcasters adopt when they get to touch the hem of some veteran's garment. Not that my dad exactly went ashore with the first wave. He was a lowly private in the R.E.M.E. and as such was probably changing a fuse somewhere in Catterick on June 6th 1944. My mother was catching rats in Lincolnshire with the Women's Land Army. My uncle Joe was in his second year in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, having been swept up in the fall of Singapore. The rest of my aunts and uncles were in reserved occupations, teaching or farming their way through the war, in most cases far away from the bombs. One aunt had a short period in the Wrens but suffered from sea sickness. At least that's what she would say.

None of them talked about it as I was growing up and nobody talked about anyone being a hero, not even when they were talking about Ernest, who worked for my dad and had been in the Desert Rats. This wasn't because they had seen things so terrible they didn't wish to be reminded of them. It was because they had a variant of survivor's guilt. You might call it survivor's embarrassment. They'd never fired a shot in anger. They wouldn't have known how to. Even my uncle Joe, who was taken prisoner, was in the Signals.

I was talking to Mark Ellen recently about his dad, a young paratrooper who lost a leg thanks to an enemy mortar in Normandy.  Even brave young men like him were acutely aware that they spent most of the war safely in their barracks before making a brief contribution to what we would nowadays call "defeating fascism", the value of which is impossible to weigh and the impact of which was entirely personal. Again, survivor's mild embarrassment.

Most people who served in the war, on whatever side, didn't crack codes or storm cliffs or fly Spitfires. They just served. It was boring and entirely inglorious but it was service. That should be enough to deserve our respect.

I just heard an interviewer poke a microphone at a veteran and ask him what it was like on the landing crafts. "My generation can't imagine that, " she gushed. Actually, I think maybe we can. What we really can't imagine is the service.


  1. My great uncle (now in his late 90s but still sharp as a tack) participated in the D-Day landings but is completely indifferent to the anniversary celebrations.

    After the war he threw all his medals away. He says they were meaningless to him.

  2. my Dad was in the navy and spent the night before the landings bombarding the French coast. As they, hardened by 3 years service, came back they saw the anxious raw recruits getting ready for the big day, and teased them...'you don't want to go over there, mate, it's blowing a storm, big guns out there'.
    He'd told my Mum that, he never uttered a single word to me about it. He wanted to forget, not remember

  3. My dad was in a landing craft and arrived June 7th. His craft was sunk and he boarded another. He never spoke about it and I only found out after he died. He was 20 years old in 1944. I honestly can't imagine doing anything like that.

  4. D-Day was and is certainly the turning point in WW2. At that time, my Dad was enduring his fifth year as a Japanese POW, having been captured when Singapore fell on 15 Feb1940, the day after he arrived, having recently recuperated from his wounds sustained at Dunkirk It was around D-Day, however, that my Dad's family found out he was still alive, thanks to the Red Cross letter he got out.

    He would continue to be a POW until 22 August 1945 when the Americans released him and his fellow surviving POWs from their hell, departing Kinkasai Copper Mine slave labour POW camp on 4th September 1945. He would not return to England for a further year after that and was eventually repatriated to England on 6 Aug 1946.

    When it came to celebrating dates, his main one was August 15 - VJ Day.

    I'm pleased some D-Day veterans are still around to celebrate 70 years - I can see why the authorities didn't wait until the 75th anniversary. Indeed today marks the end of the D-Day Veterans Association, due to dwindling numbers, as I understand it. I'll raise a glass to them today.

    But I'll also raise a glass on August 15, as I do every year, in thanks for his survival.

  5. This is a passage from a much longer letter, available on my blog (, written by my father (Huw Wheldon) to his father, towards the end of the war. He was with the 6th Airborne Division. "One thing emerges, to me, pretty clearly: and that is that despite all evil, we are all bound up in a tragedy which is to a large extent commonly shared, and that sitting back and blandly condemning Germans is as idiotic , as it is reprehensible. Raising pious thanks to God because Berlin is now just about annihilated as human habitation is ludicrously irrelevant. War, like peace, is indivisible."

  6. I think one of the reasons people didn't talk about their war experiences is because it was very much a shared experience for that generation. They didn't really need to talk to each other about it. To an extent they got out of practice and then forgot to tell us.