Friday, June 06, 2014

La liberté vint de la mer

The Normandy American War Cemetery and Memorial,  Coleville-sur-Mer (2006)
On the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I have to think of two members of my family who were, to varying extents, involved.

In going through some of my parents' war-time correspondence not that long ago, I ran across the following in a letter from my uncle George--who was serving on a US Navy warship--to my father, who was in the army.

In October 1944, George was filling his brother in on what he'd been up to that year. He got to talking about Normandy:

"Then 6 weeks of Normandy--from D Day until days later when the sea lanes were cleared--we had all the excitement I could possibly want. Our ship got several commendations and quite a bit of publicity for our part in the operation. The miraculous fact that we weren't even hit still amazes me. Bombs hit the water so close to us that spray showered our decks, seven torpedoes were thrown at us all missing from 200 yards to 25 feet, 88mm shells narrowly missed us a dozen times but [our] luck held out. Our salvoes knocked out many a shore battery that was holding up the army's advance on the beach and it was a swell feeling to know that we were saving some of those soldiers. Those Nazis were pretty tough in Normandy." 

By the time the letter arrived, my father's unit--the 316th Army Station Hospital--had been relocated to Glasgow, but from the autumn of 1943 to the summer of 1944, he was near the Devonshire coast. On 6 June 1944 he was, therefore, not all that far away, geographically speaking, from where his brother was having what sounds like a pretty harrowing day.  (Though he wouldn't have been aware of this fact at the time.)

(My mother's main memory of that day was wondering where all the Yanks had suddenly disappeared to.) 

I recently ran across a fairly detailed unit history online (it seems to take a while to load, but the link should work), and the section for D-Day is interesting.

Having heard SHAEF’s official communiqué about the Invasion, the Hospital was now ready to fulfil its particular mission in the grand-scale assault on “Fortress Europe”. It was not however until the first casualties from the D-Day landings arrived on 11 June 1944, that the unit was confronted with “real” war! They were 23 German Prisoners of War, accompanied by armed MPs! The unit was now temporarily acting as a Transit Hospital. Five days later, it was 7 July 1944, the first Hospital Train filled with American battle casualties arrived at the nearby Heathfield Station of the Great Western Railway, and the Hospital settled down in earnest to its real war job. The top number of patients occupying the installation was reached on 30 July, when the Registrar had 819 patients listed. 

We're fairly often in Normandy--though in a different part than where the landings took place--but a few reminders of the war are still very visible.

It's not, really, all that long ago.

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