High life

Dispatch from Pegasus Bridge, Normandy

26 May 2018

9:00 AM

26 May 2018

9:00 AM

Pegasus Bridge, Normandy

 

We’re taking morning coffee at the Café Gondrée, which skirts the bridge. It still belongs to Arlette Gondrée, whose family owned it on D-Day. She was a girl at the time and she now stands, old but erect and schoolteacher-like, looking us over as we have breakfast and try to imagine those brave Brits who took and held the bridge so long ago. Our Führer-teacher James Holland called it the greatest piece of flying ever. The gliders managed to land in the dark less than 50 yards from the bridge on a grassy strip not much wider than a tennis court and three courts long. (The very same pilots had messed up in Sicily one year before, but this time they got it more than right.)

What every Allied commander feared was the ten armoured divisions of the Panzergruppe West, commanded by General Geyr von Schweppenburg, with its 170,000 men and 1,500 tanks. Schweppenburg was a commander who knew that by keeping his army inland he could mount a massive counterattack and wipe out the Allies. The taking of the bridge by Major John Howard and his 6th Airborne commandos was imperative. It was the sole passage from east to west and would allow the invading forces to join them a few hours later.


We move to Gold and Sword beaches, assigned to the Brits as revenge for the Dunkirk and Dieppe humiliation of four years earlier. I look over Lord Lovat’s bust, a ramrod-straight man I saw once at his son’s wedding where I was an usher. We arrive at a small farm where a young boy told Company Sergeant Major Hollis that some Germans with a Panzerfaust were hiding behind a hedge 50 metres away. Hollis attacks it with three men, but fails to move it. He retires but nonetheless receives the only Victoria Cross awarded on D-Day, for earlier having attacked and taken out the first bunker blockhouse on the beach. (The bunker had taken out six British tanks, but Hollis, of the Green Howards, blew it up single-handed.) As James finishes the story, we see a very old man tending the garden. He’s most likely the little boy who signalled to Hollis.

James’s theory about the claim that the Allies advanced much too slowly is that democracies do not force men to advance at gunpoint whereas dictatorships do. I’m not so sure. Men don’t fight for ideas; they fight for their company, their squad, their buddy. Nowadays people worry about self-help bromides, their insecurities, sensitivities, their shopping. They worry about their encroaching mortality. Not so on the front line, where men function like athletes: you don’t think, you follow orders and look out for the next man. The sense of camaraderie is all.

That evening, fired up after those battle stories, we order some very good wine. A wonderful and very humorous friend, John Moore, orders a 65-minute egg, which arrives after 65 minutes and is microscopic. As we are waiting, I notice our waitress, not a particularly pretty girl but pure and innocent-looking, my type, with prominent glasses. I am very taken with her and ask her to dine with me the next day. She blushes — a blush in 2018 is as rare as a real Fabergé in an Arab souk — and tells me it’s impossible because she’s engaged and is to be married next week. This drives me mad with desire and I insist. She resists. ‘Don’t be so middle class,’ I advise her. Then I sort of blow it by reminding her that if the French army had resisted like this in 1940, we wouldn’t all be here in the first place. The news that I have German blood and am married to a German hasn’t helped, but I get some encouragement from the concièrge who — Iago-like — whispers to me to keep trying. ‘Margo, Margo,’ I howl into the night like some lovelorn werewolf.

At Point 103, overlooking Tilly-sur-Seulles, 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division tanks finally engage the Allies. Panzer-Lehr has come up from Le Mans posthaste to join the fight. Tank warfare is not like in the movies. Tanks are deathtraps. They operate in total darkness, the fumes are choking. Molten bits of metal fly against each other, the kinetic energy blowing up tanks full of men who are then scraped out in tiny bits, nothing resembling a human being left inside. No man can take more than four days of tank fighting.

The battle rages on, back and forth. The great German tank commander Michael Wittmann is killed. Seventeen-year-old paratroopers without any training are walking up from Le Mans, and Wehrmacht Lieutenant General Lüttwitz receives a message from an American commander that he has captured German nurses and is willing to send them over. Lüttwitz rings up Rommel, who tells him to accept the nurses and thank the Americans as ‘I will most likely throw in the towel because Berlin is lying and sending us nothing’ — or words to that effect. Lüttwitz tells the Swabian that he will follow him whatever he decides. The next day Rommel is machine-gunned from the air as he’s travelling in an open car with his marshal’s insignia for all to see.

We visit the cemeteries and our mood turns very dark.

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