“I like a man who grins when he fights.” Winston Churchill
So it is now 70 years since the famous D-Day landing in Normandy, the re-invasion of mainland Europe, and I missed it. If I had been a couple of years older, I would probably have been one of those too many unfortunates who died that day. I’d have probably been blown to pieces on the beaches, on the English Channel or in the air. At the time I was unhappy not to have been there.
On many an occasion in later years, when I was teaching and the subject of war arose, the inevitable cry went up from my students, “Oh! You wouldn’t have got me there, no way,” and then I would have to explain.
During a war, there is madness in the air. The pressure is on the young men to go and fight. In my days, it was the press and the radio that hammered at our impressionable heads. All day long we were told that it was our duty to get into uniform and fight – there was no mention of the blowing to bits stuff. We were immortal.
In my day as a spotty youth I knew that, very soon, I would turn 18 and be called up. We were informed that we would have to choose between the army, the navy, the air force or the coal mines. Well, I and my friends all knew that, of those choices, the really dangerous option were the coal mines. A lad could get seriously dead there and, besides, uniforms looked more impressive to the girls than did miners’ dirty outfits.
For two or three years I strutted about in an air force cadet uniform, cap rakishly aslant. I had a good time, learned a lot of astro-navigation and aircraft recognition, caught flights with trainee airmen, crashed a glider or two but, I’m sure, did not impress the fair sex except, perhaps, my mother.
But then D-Day happened and I missed it. The radio announcers were jubilant, the newspapers were full of it, pictures were shown at the local cinemas and everyone rejoiced, except of course my 16-year-old companions and me. We’d missed it.
However, I don’t think I missed scrambling up those never-ending beaches at low tide or dropping out of a plane and hoping that my chute would open. I didn’t rue the fact that I’d not been bobbing about on the English Channel that day, probably throwing up. No, I’d always imagined myself as a pilot, a fighter pilot in a ‘spitfire’, but I missed my chance, dammit.
The first thing to go ‘poof’ in war is the truth. We reluctant civilians were never told, for example, that it had been the famous Erwin Rommel who had organized the defence of the Normandy beaches, nor that Churchill had a less-than-exemplary reputation as a warlord; so many things had gone wrong with his plans.
We never really knew what it was like in the armed forces. Once they had you in uniform, they put you in the charge of non-commissioned officers who, apparently, had the I.Q. of earth-worms. These fellows bullied you into submission by means of ridiculous drilling, yelling abuse at you and embarrassing you to follow them into hell, and never to let your buddies down. That’s how it works.
You don’t fight for glory, or King and Country. You face all sorts of terrors and spend your time trying not to become a casualty and looking after your new-found friends. You are not going to become an Erroll Flynn nor a John Wayne, as they were portrayed at ‘the pictures’ — we used to love to sit in the back row of the movies and jeer at Hollywood’s interpretation of war – because, as were the Germans who also had mothers, wives and children fretting about them, we’d been conned.
Anyway, I missed D-Day and, although I rued the fact, I am positive that Mum was very happy that she and Dad had started on me two years too late.