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Underdog at Overlord

At dawn last Tuesday, 5 June, 1984, D-Day Anniversary Minus One, I was at Waterloo station with all my equipment — notebook, two felt-tips, spare socks — and looking for my train to Portsmouth. A British Rail man in one of those caps that look so like the head-covering of a Second World War German NCO carefully loaded me on to the train for Bournemouth.

Panicking just in time, I was directed by another BR man on to the train for Weymouth. Finally, I was on the train to Portsmouth, and arrived in time for the day’s first Townsend-Thoresen ferry to Cherbourg. It was full of sane old soldiers dressed as civilians and insane young civilians dressed as soldiers.

In contrast to the way it had behaved forty years earlier, the sea was calm, but as we headed south on that historic route, my stomach was in a turmoil. A media man on the anniversary of a big battle runs only one risk, but the risk is great: that he will mistake the tone. He wants neither to be hangdog at the farce, nor to giggle at the funeral. The old Americans had paunches, white shoes, low-slung pink tartan golf slacks, globular wives and funny caps. But the funny caps said 29th DIVISION ASSOCIATION, meaning the men wearing them had been at Omaha Beach, the abattoir of the invasion, where too many of those who got ashore stayed young.

You had to be careful about the angle at which you smiled while these doddering survivors, loudly and without listening, addressed one another concerning junk food and heart failure, two phenomena whose intimate connection they seemed unable to detect. ‘The nurse comes in, she’s got my chart, it’s peaking at seventy beats per minute, so they put my pacemaker back on the machine... ‘Where did she get that Diet Coke? I didn’t see where she got it. Where did you get that Diet Coke?’ ‘It’s not Diet. It’s regular. It’s regular Coke.’

Once they had been young GIs. Looking at them with sidelong glances of envy were a lot of young GIs who turned out to be British. Members of the Military Vehicle Conservation Group, or MVCG, they each wore immaculately pressed US Army surplus clothing. Down on the car-deck were the jeeps and trucks they had refurbished. A storeman with a computer firm had spent £150 on his uniform and £2,000 on his jeep.

In the critical regard of today’s warlike British youth, the fighting services of their own country rate low for glamour, not just because of the low-quality cloth — in the Second World War the American other ranks were far more snazzily dressed than our officers — but because of the paucity of accessories. As an ordinary GI in the MVCG Surplus Army you can wear dark glasses and chew gum. Even if you were dressed as General Montgomery, the most you could add to the dreary old battledress would be a pipe and a stick.

As if to prove this point, some veteran British cavalry officers were present, talking quietly together. Red berets were their only tribute to the past, and these, I was told, were the wrong colour, having been purchased at the last minute. These men rather gave the impression that any incipient urge to dress up and play silly buggers had been knocked out of them some time previously by their repeated encounters with the 12th SS Panzer Division.

We reached Cherbourg with no casualties except one diabetic American veteran who was so drunk he couldn’t remember whether he had taken his insulin. As the jeeps and trucks rolled down the ramp for the re-invasion of France, I teamed up with some media types on the wharf and shared a taxi to the Press centre in Bayeux, where we were to receive the essential accreditation without which it would be impossible to move on the roads next day, because the French CRS, with seven Heads of State to protect, would have the whole area shut down.

Rommel had once tried to do the same but failed. On the highway heading east through the bocage country, it began to seem likely that it wouldn’t work this time either. Every road and lane was stiff with the long-obsolete but magically spanking wheeled transport of the all-American Surplus Army. There were military ambulances with the canvas tops rolled up so that you could see the wounded lying bravely there inside, a Lucky Strike gummed to the lower lip and a bloodstained bandage around the forehead. A halftrack went past us going the other way with the driver’s eyes blacked out behind dark glasses. He had a Steve McQueen haircut and was chewing a cigar. Surely all these people couldn’t be British?

They weren’t. A convoy of jeeps had Dutch number plates. One of the trucks had German number plates. There was, of course, no particular reason to think that the teenage Germans now riding around in old US vehicles were of the same stamp as those cold-eyed young beauties who had once crewed the Panther tanks of the Hitlerjugend SS Panzer formations. That lot had admired Adolf Hitler and Sepp Dietrich, whereas this lot had plainly awarded their allegiance to George Segal and Ben Gazzara, pending the time when age and experience would make them plausible imitators of Robert Mitchum. Doppelgänger is, after all, a German word.

At Bayeux, I picked up my ID tag and was assured that for journalists there were no beds left in Normandy. In expectation of this, I had brought a sleeping bag, but what I needed was a floor on which to spread it. As an old media man, I was aware that in this scale of operation a journalist ranks lower than the infantry. The television units get all the facilities. BBC Breakfast Time was based down on the coast at a pretty house in Arromanches. I got there to discover the next morning’s D-Day Dawn edition of Breakfast Time in an advanced stage of planning.

Selina Scott, looking military in a sand-coloured jacket and sensible shoes, was interrogating some veterans. Frank Bough was test-riding a British infantryman’s collapsible bicycle. The back-up personnel moved purposefully between chattering visual display units linked to London. David Dimbleby, duplicating maps on a Gestetner 2002R, said, ‘It’s a weapon we’re very glad to have.’ Presumably he was on attachment to Breakfast Time for the big day. Breakfast Time is the Beeb’s spearhead unit. It goes in ahead of everything else. It goes in ahead of the cornflakes. It goes in ahead of the orange juice.

The BBC had everything except a stretch of floor for a mere journalist. They didn’t even have room for one of their own, Guy Michelmore, who gave me a lift to Caen so that I could look for ITN. Dodging past columns of Surplus Army conserved vehicles, Michelmore — second generation media, born to this sort of campaign — dropped me off at the Novotel, where ITN were supposed to be based. But they had moved out, swamped by the influx of old soldiers.

It looked like being a cold night under a hedgerow until Jacqueline, the organiser for Townsend-Thoresen tours, took one look into my war-weary eyes and offered me a room, but I would have to share. You can imagine that I was quick to smile my assent, and not long afterwards I was sacked out beside Georges, a French bus driver who snored like a sick horse.

Dawn on D-Day was H-Hour for BBC Breakfast Time, transmitting live from the Arromanches esplanade with the ruins of the Mulberry harbour in the background. With the sound of Georges still ringing in my ears, I went back down that beautiful winding road, now remarkably free of conserved vehicles, and hit the beach just in time to see Vera Lynn and Selina Scott profiling together against the pale blue cyclorama of sky and sea, Selina in a black cape arrangement as modern as tomorrow and Dame Vera in complete wartime kit right down to the khaki stockings and the silk scarf of the Dutch Airborne. There they were, the finest of British womanhood from two generations: Why We Fight. And there were the conserved vehicles of the Surplus Army, all down on the beach lining up to file past the BBC cameras on cue: the jeeps, the trucks, the half-tracks and, unbelievably, a Sherman tank.

‘Everything’s going according to plan,’ said producer Rachel Atwell. ‘But we haven’t got autocue.’ There was a lot of talk-back radio traffic between the technicians. ‘All the veterans are in position.’ ‘Has Selina got that bit of paper?’ ‘She’s got it and she’s happy.’ The vehicle convoy started to move. Three DUKWs came in from the sea, firing pink flares at the beach. One of the flares hit a French spectator, who was carried to the infirmary: the first casualty of the D-Day anniversary, not counting the paralytic diabetic on the ferry.

The hiccup was smoothed out by the Gang, whose piano was in position on the same spot it had occupied when they came ashore on D-Day + 16. ‘We were the first electric guitars ashore in France,’ explained one of the Cox twins, either Fred or Frank. Cardew Robinson did a stand-up routine that made me laugh so hard some of the French onlookers laughed too. They didn’t understand, but they trusted us. It was generous of them, considering that one of their number had just been shot. ‘Why are we doing the thing that we do?’ sang Vera Lynn, and the heart of every man listening held the unspoken answer: to keep the world safe for you and Selina.

Just as Dame Vera and the British veterans got started on ‘We’ll Meet Again’ (Selina joined in as if unsure of the words, the way Harold Wilson used to sing ‘The Red Flag’ at the Labour Party Conference) I was speeding across country to Caen railway station, where a train was due to leave for Carentan. A luxurious all-first-class express laid on free for the media — France can afford such gestures, even under Mitterrand — it carried hundreds of calmly drinking journalists westward behind the beaches, while the morning sky thickened with police helicopters supervising the roads, the hedges, the corn fields and the ruminating cows, any one of which might be Colonel Gadhafi in disguise.

From Carentan there was a fleet of buses to Utah Beach, where there was a Press tent featuring open-door pissoirs and an opportunity to buy a sandweej or an ert derg. With an ert derg in each hand I trudged over the dune to be gently dazzled by a sea as flat as unrolled silk with one fold about twenty yards out and the dove-grey silhouettes of warships painted on it at the far edge.

But an old media campaigner doesn’t waste time admiring the view, until he has taken his position and dug in. I got right up against the front fence of the Press enclosure, with an angle on the dais, so that I could see the row of little gold chairs on which the seven Heads of State would be sitting. There was a staircase of terraced sand leading up to it from the beach. In preparation for the feet of Mitterrand, the Queen of England, Ronald Reagan and the rest, some men were assiduously sweeping the staircase, but sweeping sand free of sand is never easy. Security frogmen were operating off the beach in case Yasser Arafat attacked from under water.

A French Army officer was doing the bilingual commentary. His French was Neo-Classical, his English impressionistic. ‘You can see in the offing about three or four nautics...’ Hundreds of media people from every nation including Germany, Italy and Japan were now in the enclosure or the camera tower beside and behind me. A short Arab reporter tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate my position. The Red Devils dropped from a C-130, but I had seen something more impressive at ground level.

It was Paul Callan of the Mirror, leapfrogging through from the Irish campaign in which the President of the United States had rediscovered his Irish ancestry — a remake of The Quiet Man with Reagan essaying his greatest role, that of John Wayne. Callan was sick with flu and fatigue but still on his feet. The Mirror had laid on a whole house for its eleven people, but ten of them were photographers who had booked themselves into hotels so as to ensure bar facilities. This had left Callan sole occupant of a château whose walls were dripping with Monets and Cézannes.

Parachutists of all nations kept on coming down, blown about by a breeze now freshening. Ranged along the beach, the military bands of the seven nations successively uncorked their party pieces. Of the twenty-eight soldiers from the seven nations standing in readiness at the flagpoles, twenty-seven were men. The only woman was in the French colour party. She fainted, perhaps in ecstasy at the music made by the French band. One of the many stretcher teams moved in and took her away. A camera crew leaned in over my shoulder to get the shot. It was ITN!

A cluster of helicopters dropped from the sky, and one of them disgorged Mitterrand. This was the big moment. You could feel even the most experienced journalists tensing up. The Japanese wire service reporters restrained the impulse to wrap white scarves around their foreheads, but I saw with my own eyes an American girl radio reporter brushing her hair. Mitterrand approached the dais, followed by our Queen, President Reagan, Pierre Trudeau and the King or Queen of Belgium, Norway or the Netherlands — few of us were sure which and it was hard to concentrate under the opaque gaze of the American Secret Service, who were now standing everywhere and looking at us through their dark glasses. One of them had his fawn mackintosh folded over his right arm with the hand hidden, meaning he had an Ingram sub-machine-gun under there. It seemed misguided at the least to be putting the hard stare on a pack of media while the countryside was stiff with nutters driving their own tanks.

Also an old media footslogger is hard to frighten. As the crowd of journalists stood transfixed, I saw Peter McKay of the Mail infiltrating effortlessly from behind. A Taiwanese reporter carelessly moved aside from his position on the fence and McKay was in. Today the British media were showing the world.

So were the British aircraft conservationists. A Lancaster, a Spitfire and a Hurricane paraded slowly past overhead. Slower still came a Swordfish torpedo biplane, watched with appreciation by our Queen. Seated beside Mitterrand, she turned to him and made a rotating movement with her finger, as if telling him what a propeller was, or else saying, ‘We sank the Bismarck with one of those. Where were you?’

But Mitterrand was in the Resistance. Everyone up on the dais was a veteran, no one more so than Ronald Reagan, who was in army movies, air force movies, submarine movies: Combined Operations. His military training shows in the way he puts his hand on his heart when the national anthems are playing. All the Heads of State stand straight, but Reagan stands straighter, practically taking off backwards while his right hand says, ‘Look! No pacemaker!’ Once again you can see how the British play things down. The Queen, even while they are playing her song, does no more than look thoughtful and feel her own pulse while the handbag dangles. Reagan has a handbag too, but it is carried by an officer and can start an atomic war.

The Alphajets of the Patrouille de France come in low from the horizon, trailing tricolore smoke. They do a bomb-burst breakaway in front of the dais. The Duke of Edinburgh, seated in the second row today because he is not a Head of State, likes this bit and takes a quick shufti through a little pair of binocs. But now Mitterrand speaks. He speaks well, generous even about the Germans, l’ennemi redoutable. Perhaps the Germans will be invited next year. But not this year, with the security aspect such a nightmare. The CRS in their dark glasses are already worried about the US Secret Service in their dark glasses. A bunch of old Waffen SS men in their dark glasses would have been too much.

Mitterrand having concluded, the Heads of State move down the swept-sand staircase to inspect the honour guards and shake hands with the actual D-Day veterans camped almost out of sight, along the sand in both directions. Mitterrand points out the abundance of sand to the Queen. He seems very proprietorial about the sand. His gesture says, ‘This is our sand.’

And suddenly it was all over. The Heads of State dispersed into the sky like bees quitting an old hive. The veterans would stay on until the next morning, but for the media it was time to get out. Threatened by another night of bunking up with the stertorous Georges, I cadged a lift with Tim Graham, Terry Fincher and a couple of other photographers from the old outfit which had covered the Queen’s amphibious tour of California. Typically the boys had a four-seater private plane waiting for them at Caen airport. At the price of helping them talk their way through the CRS roadblocks, I could tag along.

The job made fierce demands on my rudimentary French, but the great secret in dealing with a detachment of CRS is to realise that there is always one guy they don’t lobotomise, so that he can tell the others who to hit. ‘Nous sommes,’ I explained, ‘les photographers personales de la Reine d’Angleterre.’ At never less than 100 mph, we zoomed along back roads that had once cost a life a yard. At Isigny, the famous butter factory is now owned by the Germans. At Caen airport, it turned out that not even the faithful Jacqueline had been able to talk my bag through the roadblocks.

My team had to be back in England with their film before last light. Their plane left without me. Then my bag arrived in its own taxi. First a plane but no luggage, now my luggage but no plane. An Andover with the Queen on board taxied out, but they didn’t offer me a lift.

Then Max Hastings turned up. To celebrate publication of his excellent book Overlord, he had been touring the battlefields with his publisher, his agent and two beautiful blondes. This was a media command unit, outstripping for cachet even the Selina Scott First Airborne, which had already gone back to England, but on a plane serving only BBC coffee. Max’s little twin-engined Cessna had champagne and cigars.

Poised on my rolled-up sleeping bag between two seats, I looked down at the beaches as they retreated into the distance. And into the past, despite all that the toy soldiers of the Surplus Army can do to hold back time. They were still down there, pretending to shoot one another, pretending to be dead — a pretence true to every detail of the reality except its essence. Half-way through a cigar, I started to remind myself of General Patton, so I stubbed it out.

(Observer,10 June, 1984)