Planning for the operation had begun a year earlier and much military deception was used to disguise the actual day of the invasion which had to occur within the brief time span of a few days each month to match the most suitable phase of the moon that would best facilitate the landings of soldiers and heavy artillery to coincide with the right tide. The amphibious landings on the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword were preceded by extensive aerial and naval bombardment and an airborne assault and the landing of 24,000 U.S., British and Canadian airborne troops shortly after midnight. Allied infantry and heavy armoured divisions began landing on the coast of France at 06:30 across a 50-mile stretch (80 km) that covered the five beaches of assault.
The men landed under heavy fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches, and the shore was mined and covered with obstacles such as wooden stakes, metal tripods, and barbed wire, making the work of the beach-clearing teams difficult and dangerous. Casualties were heaviest at Omaha, with its high cliffs. At Gold, Juno, and Sword, several fortified towns were cleared in house-to-house fighting. It took over a month before all five beachheads were eventually connected.
German casualties on D-Day have been estimated at 4,000 to 9,000 men. Allied casualties were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead. Museums, memorials, and war cemeteries in the area now host many visitors each year.
Having been born in Southern Ireland, I had no close relative take part in this historic landing of June 1944. I have, however, learned much about this time through my interests and studies of 20TH-century British history. I recall when studying for my History ‘A’ Level interviewing a man who had taken part in the ‘D-Day Landings’ and I read many books about this time in British history. In my adult years, I had the opportunity to speak with many veterans of the ‘Second World War’, along with many women who told me what it was like to be a civilian during those years, working in the munition factories and even surviving on food rationing and other war constraints.
I had a close friend called Etta (Henrietta) whom I visited and talked daily with between her 82nd and 94th year of life. Etta (who had never married) and I, effectively adopted each other as mother and son. One week before Etta died, she told me the story of her secret war romance with a soldier called Bill.
She was the only daughter to her parents and had one older brother who never married. Etta’s mother was an invalid, who became bedridden when Etta was a seventeen-year-old girl who worked in a nearby textile mill. Etta had to give up her job (which represented the only freedom she got) to look after her mother until she died. She then kept house for her dad and brother until her father died, and then kept house for her brother Stanley until he died. She had been a permanent housekeeper for her family between the ages of 17 years and her mid-sixties and never considered herself free to do what she wanted to do until she was of pensionable age.
Etta came from a strict Methodist household, and after she was obliged to leave the mill, she was also removed from the daily contact she ever had with a young man called Bill whom she was fond of and had started to feel love for. The only way that the Etta and Bill could continue to see each other was if Bill met Etta at a secret location when she was supposed to be at the home of a friend’s house. Her friend, Mary Milner (who’d got married at the age of 18 years and lived nearby) was happy to provide Etta with a cover story if ever required. Etta was permitted one outing per week; to visit her old school friend’s house before the evening Methodist Chapel service.
When the 'Second World War' started, Bill was called up to serve in the army and was posted abroad to take part in the fighting. He and Etta would exchange letters, using Mary Milner as the ‘go-between’. Etta knew that her parents would never approve of her seeing anyone, let alone a soldier. Etta was too valuable an asset within her parent’s house ever to be lost to another in marriage. She was needed at home to look after her invalided mum and father and brother.
For three years, Bill and Etta exchanged letters that were sent from and received at her friend’s home address. The couple planned to marry on Bill’s return and have their own family. Etta held this dream close to her heart and only her friend, Mary knew her secret. When Bill was killed in the trenches during 1942, Etta only got to learn of his death through the kindness of one of his army buddies who wrote to Etta via her friend Mary’s address. Etta was heartbroken but had to shed her tears in the privacy of her own bedroom. Being unmarried and not even engaged, she could not speak of her romance, less the news of it got back to her parents and brother who would have most certainly questioned her morals in having met a lover in private when she was supposed to be visiting a friend. Not being a relative, she couldn’t visit Bill’s grave abroad after the war and became one of those single women during the war whose soldier sweetheart died in battle; a woman whose broken heart would never be given to another man and whose grief went without public recognition.
I lived in Etta’s house the week she was dying, to attend her night and day. One night after I’d settled her in bed, Etta asked me to get her a book out of the bookcase in her lounge. I found the requested book and being too weak to open and hold the book, Etta asked me to open it at a certain page number. When I did, I saw between the pages a pressed flower that Bill had once given her before he went abroad as a soldier. The pressed flower had rested within these pages for 76 years (Etta was 94 when she died). It was that night when Etta told me the story of her and her sweetheart soldier. Until that moment, only Mary Milner (who had died many years earlier) had known of the secret love between the couple.
Being the executor of Etta’s Last Will and Testament, I arranged her funeral and ensured that the pressed flower given to her by soldier Bill was placed in her hands when she was laid to rest in her coffin.
I was so moved by this love story. I knew that Etta would have been only one of many women at the time who faced similar circumstances. In memory of Etta and all such women, I wrote a poem entitled ‘Arthur and Guinevere’ which I had published. That poem can be readily accessed from my website or: http://www.fordefables.co.uk/arthur--guinevere.html
Etta’s story is but one of many individual stories that people who lived through those war years had to tell. There are thousands of stories told about the bravery, community spirit, the ‘get up and go’ and ‘mend and make do’ attitudes of the civilians left to survive the war in the towns and cities all over England which testify to their courage and bravery as bombs rained down on them during the Blitz, Civilians witnessed bomb raids smashing their homes to smithereens and killing babies in their mother’s arms. They saw friends buried alive beneath dirt and rubble and other scenes of human disaster that eyes were never meant to see.
I have read about the firefighters who put out blazing cities with gas main explosions and flooded pipes going off around them as bodies were retrieved from the rubble of bombed buildings. One man told me that he was an ambulance driver who took the wounded to hospital as London continued to be bombed. He reported how he would drive through collapsing buildings to his front and sides as he dodged and negotiated his ambulance through rubble and fire. The one memory that forever haunted him though was running from a bombed house with a baby that had been taken from his dead mother’s arms, and running towards the ambulance; only to find that the baby had died in his arms. He told me he still cries whenever he thinks upon this unforgettable incident.
So many of our young soldiers who landed on Normandy 75 years ago, would never reach middle or old age. Many aged little more than 18 years, and who’d never seen action before in their lives, forged their way across blood-stained and body-strewn sands of the Normandy Beaches as their friends fell fatally wounded all around them while they advanced into the face of German gunfire spitting out certain death. There was no time to stop and hold your dying comrade’s hand in his last moments of life as he fell beside you. ‘Goodbyes’ would have to be said another day, if you were lucky enough to be one of the few remaining alive to say them. Tears would need to be damned and kept, to be released in silent memory droplets over the rest of one’s life. Stories of one’s own bravery would be suppressed from family and friends and only revealed by other soldiers whenever war was spoken of. One veteran told his younger friends after the war, ”We weren’t brave. To be brave, one has to do something dangerous that one is not asked to do. To us, it was no more or less our duty. It was expected of us.’
Today, we remember the courage and bravery of all those who took part in, supported and assisted the Normandy Landings on the five beaches. To them, we owe a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid. We should never forget their courageous deeds and the freedom they fought and died for, and which we enjoy today.
A shame on any English man or official who objects to the flying of the British flag on British soil, be it in the grounds of a large home or even in the common allotment of an old man’s pleasure. We must never forget: ‘They did not boast. They did not fuss. They served!’ (quoted by Prime Minister, Teresa May today in a commemorative speech in France).
In memory of these courageous warriors, I dedicate today’s song ‘We’ll Meet Again’ that my good friend, Vera Lynn,sang to troops abroad during the ‘Second World War’ years.
Love and peace Bill xxx