In the car going home, putting all the pieces of the last few days together. Where to start? I knew this trip would be interesting, but the way it’s opened my eyes isn’t something I expected. I also didn’t realise how much I would learn about my Grandfather. All I’ve ever known is that he was in the War, and that he died in the War. Because so little was said I assumed he wasn’t there for long, but I know it’s for more personal reasons and my Dad’s recent want to understand and know. And now I actually know what he did in the War. I stood on Sword beach where he landed. I stood on top of Hill 122 that he and his unit captured and drove through the houses and on the roads he walked through and seen the graves of his fallen comrades.
I know he wrote to my Grandmother each day. I know my Great Uncle went to see his grave. I know a fellow soldier wardmate in the Brugge hospital wrote to my Grandmother after he died, trying to explain how he had passed away and express his condoloenses. He told her he would visit in the letter, and pass on some jewellery that he’d gone to buy for Freddie to give to Eve (on his rreturn from the shop he had died) and only this weekend my Dad found out that he did visit years later, complete with the charm bracelet.
I met two Veterans. Both such wonderful men. George, the most amazing 90 year old. Never touched a drop of alcohol, fought for 4 years, married for 70 years and his wife died a few months ago. Always laughing and joking; running about with his walking stick with son behind “Dad, slow down…. Dad!!!” He too landed at Sword Beach and worked on PLUTO (underground oil pipeline).
Wilf, of the Royal Ulsters, a very quiet man, who we later found out hardly spoke since the death of his wife 4 years ago, came out of his shell this weekend. We went to graves of his comarades, we went to places where he had been engaged in combat. His son, visably moved/upset. Wilf, always standing proud. In his way to Caen in 1944 his regiment’s orders were suddenly changed. It wasn’t until this weekend he found out why. It’s been bothering him for 66 years. I loved talking to them, hearing their stories. George especially took a shining to me, giggled when I wanted a photo of the two of us, then took one himself to show the others at his coffee club! (so said his Dad), But really the pleasure was all mine. An honour.
I also realised how little I knew of World War II. My focus of knowledge has always been on the Holocaust and though I knew bits and pieces there was too much lacking.. The stories of engagement, of individual valour and courage. Of the mass killings, and of all that went wrong and the seemingly little, but hugely important things that went right. . As Colonol Newbould said, with the friction of war, even the mediocre is an achievement. The scale of everything to do with D Day and the allies winning the war really is too much to comprehend; all the deaths – how does one understand or picture 6000 people dead on one beach? (Omaha). Many of the French in Normandy were not happy to see their “liberators”, happy enough to get on with a peaceful life under occupied Germany. Obbiously not the case for all, but when you think that in Caen just before the liberation more civilians died, (due largely to Allied bombings) than those that died during the whole war in Britain you can understand why. Soldiers were surprised at this and generally wasn’t until they moved in land that they were greeted with excitement and gratitude.
I know I say it in every post, but how can I not. Thank you all. Thank you for me being able to visit France this weekend. To sit here on my MacBook, typing away whatever thoughts pop into my head. Thank you George for operating Pluto. Thank you Wilf for neutralising key areas. Thank you Great Uncle George for securing the areas that paved the way for Wilf, and finally, thank you Grandpa Captain Freddie Coulcher for taking control of the hugely important Hill 122 I can only pray I never have to be as courageous as all of you.