With this being Memorial Day in the USA, I thought it would be appropriate to bring us up to date on what was happening 70 years ago today in the UK. D-Day, The Normanday Invasion of France by the Allied Expeditionary Forces, is only two weeks away now - but the "ground pounders" are still in training and/or holding patterns; just getting read and more ready and more ready to "jump off" across the English Channel to France.
Down south, in Italy, we are already fighting a desperate war against the Nazis. They have a place called Cassino, an old fortress that is now a monastery that totally resists any kind of aerial bombardment. So we decided (today) to go around and hit the Anzio beachead. My dad was one of the guys in the First Special Service Forces (precursor to the Green Berets) who were being pinned down. See the movie "Devil's Brigade" to catch up on what they did there. My Dad says that it is fairly accurate but still a lot of Hollywood. (Mostly it does not show the true horror of war.) The following is a quote from General Mark Clark who was in charge of this maneuver:
On 22 May I moved permanently into the forward echelon of my head-quarters at Anzio in preparation for the break-out. . . . Almost every inch of space at Anzio was crowded with men, guns and ammunition in preparation for the attack. Any time the enemy ﬁred a shell in our direction it was almost certain to hit something, but we had taken what precautions were possible, and most of our supplies were protected by mounds of earth.
Before dawn on the morning of 23 May I went with Truscott to a forward observation post on the Anzio front, where just before six o’clock some ﬁve thousand pieces of artillery opened up on the enemy, whose positions were concealed by a morning haze.
The smoke and haze hid our movements, but in the next hour or so we could hear our tanks moving forward to the attack, and there was a dull rumble of aircraft overhead as bombers began to pour their bombs on the German positions. The beleaguered Anzio garrison was about to break out, with the town of Cisterna their ﬁrst objective.
The timing of the attack from Anzio again caught the enemy off-guard. As the artillery ﬁre suddenly ended our tanks drove through the smoke, followed by swarms of infantry that caught the enemy outposts unprepared. Some of the Germans in dugouts had to be dragged out with only part of their clothes on, completely unready for battle.
Our artillery had previously been aimed at speciﬁc enemy centres, which were heavily shelled, but the morning haze interfered with the German artillery observation and gave us an opportunity of making considerable progress before meeting firm resistance. The Germans were never able to recover from this initial setback, and their later counter-attacks were weak and poorly organized.Also, lest we forget, on this day in 1943, 71 years ago today, "The Great Escape" actually happened. This later became a great Steve McQueen movie by the same title. This was the greatest escape in history where 76 men escaped. All but three were recaptured. A couple of things about the movie: The "tunnel rat" played by Charles Bronson was actually a Canadian RCAF pilot from Toronto named Wally Floody. Three other notable Canadian escapees were Flying Officer Hank Birkland from Spearhill, Manitoba, Gordon Kidder and Albert Wallace. Albert is 93 and still alive today.
But, back to the UK. I would that I were a true writer in the mold of Molly Painter Downes who wrote the following:
Living on this little island just now uncomfortably resembles living on a vast combination of an aircraft carrier, a ﬂoating dock jammed with men, and a warehouse stacked to the ceiling with material labelled “Europe.”
It’s not at all difﬁcult for one to imagine that England’s coastline can actually be seen bulging and trembling like the walls of a Silly Symphony house in which a terriﬁc ﬁght is going on. The ﬁght everybody is waiting for hasn’t started yet, but all over England, from the big cities to the tiniest hamlet, the people, at least in spirit, seem already to have begun it.
There is a curious new something in their expressions which recalls the way people looked when the blitz was on. It’s an air of responsibility, as though they had shouldered the job of being back in the civilian front line once again. It’s evident in the faces of women looking up thoughtfully from their gardens at the gliders passing overhead, in the unguarded faces of businessmen wearily catnapping on trains on their way home to all-night Home Guard duty, in the faces of everybody except the young ﬁghting men themselves.
The troops look unfailingly cheerful and lighthearted, as though they didn’t know that anything unusual was afoot, and it is obvious that they are in wonderful physical shape. Life is reminiscent of the blitz in other ways, too, for now, as then, people are keyed up to withstand something which they have often imagined but never experienced, and there is the same element of uncertainty about what is coming.
The ordinary civilian seems far less worried, however, about possible bombs, long-distance shelling, or gas attacks than about such problems as how the dickens he is going to get to and from work if transport is seriously curtailed. It has already been announced that trains may be suddenly cancelled without warning, but there is a vague promise that motor-buses for essential workers will take their place wherever possible.
Stay-at-home Britons seem resigned to the probability that their second front will consist mainly of humdrum hardships, including more inconvenience, fatigue, and doing without. The idea that London, during the invasion, will come in for heavy air attacks seems to have faded away, oddly, and there is even less worrying over any secret weapon that may be up the German sleeve for D Day.
It is plausible to lots of English that the Germans may stage a token inva- sion or series of parachute raids. This would mean that, since the Army’s attention would be engaged elsewhere, the Home Guard would be expected to take charge of the situa- tion. Already, in the country, the milk and the mail arrive late, delivered by a somewhat bleary-eyed milkman or postman who explains that he has just ﬁnished standing his watch with the all-night guard, which once more has been established.
The shadow of the second front falls across day-to-day happenings in even the smallest community. One country-dwelling lady who recently decided that she must have some urgent plumbing repairs done in her home was warned by the contractor that he and his plumber’s mates were all Home Guards. He pointed out that if anything happened (there isn’t a village in England which doesn’t proudly imag- ine that it’s all-important to the Nazis), the boys would just drop her new water tank smack on the lawn and she would be left bathless until the ﬁghting was over.
It is often in just such a ridiculous way that English families begin to realize what it may be like to have the battle of Europe right on their doorsteps, involving not only big and historic issues but also small and homely ones like baths, trains, the morning paper, and the day’s milk.But, I'm not and I can't so I shan't. :-) Anyway, today, this weekend, remember that in 1944 England had already been at war since 1939. They have already sacrificed several hundred thousand of men to the Nazi war machine both in Europe and in Africa. We just joined up less than three years ago (Dec 7, 1941) when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, NOT because we wanted to help out our English allies. By this time we have been fighting in Africa, Italy and all over the Pacific. But right now, all of our attention is focused on that tiny island called Great Britain and the million-plus men getting ready to charge into certain death.
More next week. For this week, celebrate Memorial Day, think about our troops now and then, and maybe watch "The Great Escape" because it happened 71 years ago today.