One night in early June, sixty nine years ago, I lay awake in bed and heard the thunder of hundreds of aeroplanes flying over my home, hour after hour, all through the night. I was six years old, and I lay there frozen with terror, thinking that Hitler was coming to get us.
My mother was not home as usual, so it was my job to get my younger sister and the baby downstairs and into the air-raid shelter when I heard the warning siren. On this occasion, there was no air raid siren, which totally baffled me, and I lay there petrified.
Reading Anthony Beevor’s study of D-day recently, I learned from it that that night was June 5, when a great armada flew across the channel ahead of the landings at dawn. Beevor described people all over the southern England in their night clothes, standing out on the warm June night gazing up at the sky, and watching with astonishment this stupendous aerial army, wave after wave, hour after hour, flying overhead. They knew that the long-awaited invasion was beginning.
Only as an adult did I realise what an anxious, nerve-wracking day that was for the whole country. Europe had never been invaded across the Channel and the men who were attempting it were facing a fortress bristling with weapons, skilled warriors and impregnable fortifications. Western civilisation was hanging in the balance, and with it the lives of unknown millions in Europe. As the army mustered in the ships and then stood in the landing craft, some smoked, some prayed, and if they were American, some chewed gum, then an unknown invention in England. Some read the Bible and some officers recited Shakespeare’s words on St Crispian’s day:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian. …
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours…
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin‘s day.
Many of these young men had never been in combat before, while the battle- weary British troops who’d been fighting for the previous five years, were now somewhat reluctant heroes. My father told me much later, that he felt his courage had ran out in Italy.
They had breakfast while they sailed into the dawn, the Americans enjoying steak, pork, chicken and ice-cream, the hard-up British, corned beef sandwiches and a tot of rum. On one ship the sailors made sure the Canadian Scottish regiment had two hard boiled eggs and a cheese sandwich to take with them… and thus fortified they all went into battle.
Back in England, every-one was on tenterhooks, knowing what a huge gamble it was. Churchill was in agony, knowing what failure meant, in terms of the dead and their families, with his experience of the carnage of World War One. He was also worried about the French civilians. 15,000 had been killed, 19,000 wounded in the bombings before the Invasion. Roosevelt had rejected his pleas to concentrate on the Luftwaffe. (One wonders if Roosevelt would have been so gung-ho about that number of American women and children dying in their homes. I also wonder if there are memorials to these dead, as well as to the soldiers who died.)
If everyone else was on tenterhooks, I wasn’t. No-one told a small girl what was going on back then. One just snatched at clues, and tried to piece things together. One of my earliest memories was of the Battle of Britain. I remember standing with my mother and a couple of other women, as they gazed up into the cloudless blue sky in the Dorset country-side , saying: “There’s another dog-fight”. I craned to see these dogs fighting in the sky, but all I could see were silver crosses diving across the blue space with white lines trailing behind them.
I was two then, I couldn’t talk, but I could understand what adults were saying. Later, I remember people promising that in Peace-time we would have sweets, and toys, and clothes. I thought Peace-time must be like Christmas, only better. At Christmas we had an orange at the bottom of our sock, a once a year treat.
I used to peer out of the window looking over the quiet street where we lived, watching the big girls I admired, roller-skating past. I was six and they were twelve. They didn’t know I existed as I peered through the small diamond shapes on the window which was criss-crossed with wide, sticky brown tape to stop the glass shattering if a bomb fell. This was at Weymouth, and the American soldiers who fought at Omaha left from Weymouth Bay.
As long as I could remember, the beach had been covered in thousands of khaki camouflaged vehicles, surrounded by barbed wire. There was just a tiny corner of the beach where we could use the golden sands. And in the sea were lines of cruel metal spikes sticking out of the waves to stop the Germans coming. I thought all beaches were covered in barbed wire and protected by rows of big black spikes.
And then one day they were all gone – troops, vehicles, barbed wire and spikes. No-one told me why. I was an adult before I managed to piece the story together. Today, every child knows about war. It comes into their homes every night on the TV screens. They must feel that war is normal. But my war was different. It was a monstrous aberration which we all longed to end, everyone hanging out for peace. When it came, nothing much changed for us, rationing went on into the fifties, hardship was part of our daily lives. But at least we thought we had won the peace.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
A friend gave me this recipe, which she had gleaned from another friend. It’s supposed to be for four lamb shanks, but I used it for four chicken breasts. Brown them, and gently cook a large onion until soft. Put the chicken and onion in a casserole with four chopped spring onions, six tablesp of peanut butter, four slices of fresh ginger, three cinnamon sticks, three star anise, 80 grams of dark brown sugar or palm sugar, three tablesp of dark soya sauce, three tablesp of Hoisien sauce, and three tablesp of rice wine. ( I didn’t have any rice wine, so used a medium/sweet sherry instead).
I poured three cups of boiling chicken stock over it all, and put it in the oven at 80 degrees for twelve hours. It is melting when it’s ready. I served it with the kumara puree and parsnip and carrot puree.
Food for Thought
There really seems to be only one hope for man: not to change the world and others, but in some degree to change and improve himself. The salvation of the world rests secretly upon those who manage to do so.