Tuesday, 5 March 2013

D-Day : Mollie Panter-Downes

Here is the rather stunning column that Mollie Panter-Downes wrote in London War Notes 1939-1945 about D Day:

(image source)

For the English, D Day might well have stood for Dunkirk Day.  The tremendous news that British soldiers were back on French soil seemed suddenly to reveal exactly how much it had rankled when they were beaten off it four years ago.  As the great fleets of planes roared toward the coast all day long, people glancing up at them said, "Now they'll know how our boys felt on the beaches of Dunkirk."  And as the people went soberly back to their jobs, they had a satisfied look, as though this return trip to France had in itself been worth waiting four impatient, interminable years for.  There was also a slightly bemused expression on most D Day faces, because the event wasn't working out quite the way anybody had expected.  Londoners seemed to imagine that there would be some immediate, miraculous change, that the heavens would open, that something like the last trumpet would sound.  What they definitely hadn't expected was that the greatest day of our times would be just the same old London day, with men and women going to the office, queuing up for fish, getting haircuts, and scrambling for lunch.

D Day sneaked up on people so quietly that half the crowds flocking to business on Tuesday morning didn't know it was anything but Tuesday, and then it fooled them by going right on being Tuesday.  The principal impression one got on the streets was that nobody was smiling.  The un-English urge to talk to strangers which came over Londoners during the blitzes, and in other recent times of crisis, was noticeably absent.  Everybody seemed to b existing wholly in a preoccupied silence of his own, a silence which had something almost frantic about it, as if the effort of punching bus tickets, or shopping for kitchen pans, or whatever the day's chore might be, was, in its quiet way, harder to bear than a bombardment.  Later in the day, the people who patiently waited in the queues at each newsstand for the vans to turn up with the latest editions were still enclosed in their individual silences.  In the queer hush, one could sense the strain of a city trying to project itself across the intervening English orchards and cornfields, across the strip of water, to the men already beginning to die in the French orchards and cornfields which once more had become "over there."  Flag sellers for a Red Cross drive were on the streets, and many people looked thoughtfully at the little red paper symbol before pinning it to their lapels, for it was yet another reminder of the personal loss which D Day was bringing closer for thousands of them.

In Westminster Abbey, typists in summer dresses and the usual elderly visitors in country-looking clothes came in to pray beside the tomb of the last war's Unknown Soldier, or to gaze rather vacantly at the tattered colours and the marble heroes of battles which no longer seemed remote.  The top-hatted old warrior who is gatekeeper at Marlborough House, where King George V was born, pinned on all his medals in honour of the day, and hawkers selling cornflowers and red and white peonies had hastily concocted little patriotic floral arrangements, but there was no rush to put out flags, no cheers, no outward emotion.  In the shops, since people aren't specially interested in spending money when they are anxious, business was extremely bad.  Streets which normally are crowded had the deserted look of a small provincial town on a wet Sunday afternoon.  Taxi drivers, incredulously cruising about for customers, said it was their worst day in months.  Even after the King's broadcast was over, Londoners stayed home.  Everybody seemed to feel tat this was one night you wanted your own thoughts in your own chair.  Theatre and cinema receipts slumped, despite the movie houses' attempt to attract audiences by broadcasting the King's speech and the invasion bulletins.  Even the pubs didn't draw the usual cronies.  At midnight, London was utterly quiet, the Civil Defence people were standing by for a half-expected alert which didn't come, and D Day has passed into history.

It is in the country distracts just back of the sealed south coast that one gets a real and urgent sense of what is happening only a few minutes' flying time away.  Pheasants whirr their alarm at the distant rumble of guns, just as they did when Dunkirk's guns were booming.  On Tuesday evening, villagers hoeing weeds in the wheat fields watched the gliders passing in an almost unending string toward Normandy.  And always there are the planes.  When the big American bombers sail overhead, moving with a sinister drowsiness in their perfect formations, people who have not bothered to glance up at the familiar drone for months rush out of their houses to stare.  Everything is different, now that the second front has opened, and every truck on the road, every piece of gear on the railways, every jeep and half-track which is heading toward the front has become a thing of passionate concern.  The dry weather, which country folk a week ago were hoping would end, has now become a matter for worry the other way round.  Farmers who wanted grey skies for their hay's sake now want blue ones for the sake of their sons, fighting in the skies and on the earth across the Channel.  Finally, there are the trainloads of wounded, which are already beginning to pass through summer England, festooned with its dog roses and honeysuckle.  The red symbol which Londoners were pinning to their lapels on Tuesday now shines on the side of trains going past crossings where the waiting women, shopping baskets on their arms, don't know whether to wave or cheer or cry.  Sometimes they do all three.

16 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting that, I hope that someone will bring the book back into print.

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    1. I really hope so, too, Karoline. It's such a useful, beautifully-written book.

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  2. Hello Simon! Thanks for sharing this column. We ought never to forget how it was in June 1944. Being Austrian I probably wouldn't have the slightes idea when D-Day was, if I weren't born that day 26 years later ;).

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    1. What a coincidence! My Mum was born on the anniversary of the day England went to war (Sept 3)

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  3. What an elegant and beautiful summary she managed to achieve, thanks very much for sharing.

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    1. Isn't it wonderful? This was the most moving entry in the whole book.

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  4. She does write beautifully, Simon - thanks for this!

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    1. You're welcome! She really is fantastic, isn't she?

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  5. I had this home on an inter-library loan a couple of weeks ago. Why, oh why, hasn't it been reprinted? I was only able to dip in and out with other things going on but the last page describing the crowds in Piccadilly was fabulous!

    As for those American bombers flying overhead, Simon. We are lucky enough to have a Lancaster bomber at a Heritage Warplane Museum in the city next door. A couple of years ago it flew over our house - you've never heard such thunder, it was both exhilarating and chilling all at the same time.

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    1. Gracious! I can't imagine the noise.
      And I can't imagine how you let this slip out of your hands unread, Darlene! I hope you get another chance to read it thoroughly :)

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  6. Wow. Towards the end, starting with "Farmers who wanted grey skies for their hay's sake now want blue ones for the sake of their sons, ..." and on to the end...that got my mommy heart. Can't imagine. It's excellent! Must.Be.Reprinted. (Are you publishers out there paying attention??)

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    1. I KNOW! I'm obviously not a parent, but that sentence gave me goosebumps. I really, really hope someone reprints this.

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  7. Wonderful, Simon. What a fine piece of reporting this is. I have been to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy and this brings back memories of just how still and sad the white crosses look stretching out to the sea. Quite a moving experience.

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    1. Isn't it good? She manages that line between reporting and emotive writing so beautifully.

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  8. A great post. It caused me to think of my Dad, who was a part of the D Day landings.

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    1. This must be especially poignant for you then, Aguja.

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