Heroes for a day.
Memorial Day has just gone by in America and we’re on the seventieth anniversary of the D-day landings in Normandy which happened on the 6th of June 1944. Nearly a hundred and fifty thousand frightened young men, mostly in their early twenties, came ashore as part of an ambitious endeavour the success of which was far from sure, but they and the Red Army from the other flank went on to liberate Europe and crush Nazi Germany within a year.
Over four thousand of them would die that day and about twice that number become casualties.
For so many of them, things would end, the candle would flick out for good. All that zest of youth would be gone in an instant.
The lucky ones; phut, zip, thump and that awful tiny terrible little puff of dust coming off the breast of a uniform as they dropped. Clean, nice checkout, gone. Losing your life is actually as simple as that. It’s nothing more important than a puff of dust out of the front of you and the lights going out forever. A few grammes of soul aspirating towards Heaven, an impulsive pecky kiss by death, an afterthought as it almost passed you by. Nothing more. Death; it’s easy, appallingly easy and indifferent to who you were or any great plans you might have had. There’s no particular rhyme or reason about which one it chooses.
The not so lucky; you get to go out the hard way. It’s fundamentally brutal, violent and just plain ugly. There is no grace to it, there is no honour to it. It’s just the terrible business of dying, little images seared into your head. Maimed, big gaping terrible wounds, staggering around, burning alive, dying and crying out for their mother to take them away from the hurt; cuddle me, hold me, please god, Momma, take me home, help me Jesus, help me help me help me, hail Marys full of your useless fucking graces and the Lord is not with me on this day. Broken young men crying like little boys.
There is no shame in any of that, none of it, not one single bit of it.
That’s the bottom line of what happened on that day, the very human part of it as opposed to the big picture history you’ll be hearing about. Those ordinary young men from Britain, America and Canada knew there was a distinct chance they were going to die but they still did their duty anyway. That made every single one of them a hero.
The last public engagement that the Supreme Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower had before D-day was meeting American paratroopers who were going to be dropped behind enemy lines the night before the invasion.
The newsreel footage shows him laughing and joking with them, and it’s a measure of his humanity that those were the last men he absolutely insisted on seeing before the whole thing kicked off. Off hand, I think they were 82nd or 101st, I don’t know which and it really doesn’t matter, because whichever they were, he knew something they didn’t – he’d already done them a grievous harm.
You see, he’d been told that the airborne forces, both British and American, were expected to suffer 75% casualties and that being the case, the decision to use them or not had been escalated up the line to him for the final say. Given that number, it was a political decision, rather than a military one.
To be fair, the immolation of the German paratroopers in Crete had not gone unnoticed; that was so bad the Germans never again contemplated another mass parachute drop; it ripped the heart right out of Kurt Student’s Fallschirmjäger. On getting their coveted paratrooper wings, they could still climb up the sides of the alps to collect their own individual Edelweiss to wear with pride, but after the gutting in Crete, they were going to be infantry for the rest of the war.
The allied paras might still possibly succeed, but there would be an awful blood price. Their role of securing bridges and interdicting or at least just slowing down reinforcements to the beach defences was vital, so he made the decision to proceed. Twenty thousand men. Worst case scenario, they’d slow up the slaughter on the beaches if everything went catastrophically wrong. They’d buy some time to get the survivors out of there.
To use that hard military phrase, he was going to spend them. That is the job of a military commander.
A man of conscience, I think he wanted to put real human faces to that decision he’d made, which he knew would probably haunt him for the rest of his life, no matter which way the day turned out. He was making sure they’d never just be anonymous statistics to him. You tee up the torture for yourself because you have to pay your own price for not going down into the darkness with them.
You will remember that ludicrously young nineteen year old red-haired kid from Nebraska with his peg teeth and belief we were simply going to do it. He’s it, the one. That’s it, the freckled face, it’s nailed into your memory, you will never forget him and you keep that little hope alive he might have been one of the lucky ones. You know his name but you will never check out what happened to him.
It’s the behaviour you’d expect of a man of honour who knows for sure he’s sending men he’s responsible for into harm’s way. It’s the oldest rule of leading a body of soldiers. First the mission, then the men, and then on the arse end of it all, you have to find a way to live with the consequences of your decisions.
As it turned out, the Airborne’s casualties were high, but nowhere near the feared 75% estimate. That scale of hurt was reserved for Arnhem and those damned bridges. When you think that conventional military wisdom says that a unit suffering 10% casualties can no longer function effectively and should be withdrawn, those brave young men suffered 30% casualties but still took and held their objectives until relieved. All honour to them.
There was of course a great sense of mission in everyone taking part. It was about liberating Europe, restoring democracy and freedom. Unusually for a war, that was in truth what the day was all about, but the on the ground reality is never about such aspirational aims.
Soldiers, as ever, always end up fighting for the same thing – each other.
But in fighting for each other, they’re in reality preserving the ordinary things that are important to them. A pint in a pub of a Sunday lunchtime, sitting in the bleachers as a kid with your Pa watching your favourite team, the Leafs skating to victory, the ordinariness, the day to dayness, the fun, goofing off in your favourite diner with your friends, your little unimportant backwater community nobody’s ever heard of and which you never thought you could miss so badly, the smell of your mother’s fried chicken on Sunday morning.
In fighting for those small inconsequential things, they changed history.
You see, they’ve got something those who lay abed on St. Crispin’s day will never have; a brotherhood born in innocence, kicked into shape by old rock-hard veterans who knew exactly what those children were heading into and tried their best to prepare them for it, the fire, the blood, the shock and grief of seeing family die; but something so much more than any family could ever be. You’ll never get closer to another bunch of human beings for the rest of your entire life, and that’s a big part of the loss. You will never have anything like it again.
Let’s remember those ordinary heroes today.
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