The Normandy Landings: Angels guard over him - On 6 June 1944, a young English private died in a Normandy farmyard. It took almost half a century for the farmer's wife to find out his identity, and for his sister to learn how he died

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Indy Lifestyle Online
This is the story of one ordinary French village, of a British soldier who fell in battle and of two elderly women whose memories of D-Day are inextricably linked, even though they have never met. It may be just one story among thousands but it has a curious, tragic, resonance.

By the summer of 1944, the 300 people of Colleville-sur-Orne had come to expect the worst. Their village lay just inland from Hitler's defensive Atlantic Wall. German troops tramped up and down its narrow main street, which rejoiced in the name of the Grand Rue, and billeted themselves in the old houses around the church and graveyard.

'The sword of Damocles was always above us,' recalled Suzanne Lenauld, who was 22 that year. 'We lived from one hour to the next.'

For years, few had dared to lay flowers at the weathered war memorial, on which were inscribed names of those Morts pour la Patrie who had gone forth from this typical Normandy village to fight for the honour of France.

Three sons of Colleville fell in the Crimea in 1854. In the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, Jules Brisset was among those from the village who were killed. During the Great War of 1914-18, four more men of the Brisset family - Charles, Alfred, Germain and Eugne - gave their lives so that France might avenge the Prussian triumph.

Men from Colleville fought and died at the Yser, in the Dardanelles, along the Danube, at Salonika, on the Italian front and on the soil of France's ally, Serbia. It was a village proud of its patriotic traditions. But by June 1944 it had been humbled.

'We were constantly under watch. The Germans threatened to evict everybody and move them south of Caen if there was any trouble,' recalled Madame Lenauld. The advance guard of the Wehrmacht had first marched through Caen, the nearest big town, four years previously, a few days before the final collapse of the Third Republic and the French armistice with Hitler on 22 June 1940.

Since that day, Colleville had lived with the shameful compromises familiar throughout Occupied France. If there was no overt resistance, that was because the village was always full of Germans, building and manning the coastal fortifications. If there was collaboration, it was sullen and passive. 'They were tough,' recalled Marcel Aumont, the village baker. 'You went around in fear. We had to struggle even for supplies of flour because they requisitioned so much.'

Some Frenchmen fought wherever they could, like Madame Lenauld's young cousin, Jacques Poirrier, 20, a lieutenant in the Resistance. He was caught in central France by the Germans and shot. He, too, is buried in the churchyard at Colleville.

Bitterness, deprivation and hope all tugged at people's emotions as it became clear that an Allied invasion was certain to fall upon the French coast. The mayor hid a radio inside a great stack of firewood and would emerge to whisper the latest news from the BBC. Caen was heavily bombed on 10 February 1944. Resistance leaflets predicted doom for the Boche and relayed the grand pronouncements of General de Gaulle. The villagers noticed that German soldiers were leaving for the beleaguered eastern front to be replaced by strange, Oriental-looking Russians press-ganged into service for the Reich. They called them 'the Mongols'.

On 2 June, the people of Colleville had their first taste of what was to come when 36 American bombers struck a German fort codenamed 'Hillman' just south of the village. In the next few days they heard distant air raids and bombardments along the coast. 'The veterans of the First War could tell the daily bombardments were getting worse,' recalled Madame Lenauld. The villagers built shelters and the veterans, remembering their training, dug trenches reinforced with stout Norman timber. Many people left Colleville, fearing its proximity to the coast. Three members of the Eveno family headed for what they thought was the safety of Caen. But Colleville, in those days, was a poor place and most of the folk who tended the fields and cider orchards of Normandy treasured a fierce attachment to their land and their animals.

'Life broke down,' recalled a villager who stayed. 'The Germans got very nervous. We all felt it was coming.' The French service of the BBC broadcast its famous coded message to alert the Resistance, the poet Verlaine's lines which evoked the sobbing violins of autumn, 'lulling my heart into monotonous languor'.

'At sunset on 5 June - a glorious summer evening - we heard a ceaseless rumble of guns,' recalled Suzanne Lenauld. 'From two in the morning on the 6th, the earth shook, the air seemed to shiver and to the north the horizon seemed one great glowing brazier.'

All night they huddled in the shelters. At dawn the incessant artillery subsided and they heard the rattle of small arms, shouted orders in German and the roar of motorised transport as the men of the 21st Panzer Division retreated through the village towards the 'Hillman' strongpoint.

'We couldn't bear it any more,' she said. 'Sometime, it must have been about 7.30am, we just had to come out of the shelters - and there they were]' Men of Lord Lovat's 1st Commando Brigade, who had come ashore at Sword Beach, were racing through to link up with British paratroopers who had dropped inland. With the Commandos came men from the Suffolk Regiment and the Middlesex Regiment.

The Germans fought briefly with machineguns on the Grand Rue, then fled. The villagers rejoiced. 'We were delirious,' said Madame Lenauld. But German mortar rounds and shells began falling around the Grand Rue. The first casualties were brought to a makeshift dressing station in the village school. Some did not make it that far.

'Suddenly a group of British soldiers came into our courtyard carrying one of their young comrades,' Madame Lenauld recalled. A mortar round had landed in the middle of the advancing men.

'We could see he was badly wounded. My husband - my fianc at the time - cradled the boy in his arms while they did their best to save him. But he died . . . he died there and then.'

The British troops moved on and the Lenaulds hurriedly buried the young man's body behind the house. In the noise and confusion they failed to get his name, and one day they awoke to discover that an army burial squad had exhumed the corpse for reinterment in a military cemetery.

The Suffolks fought a vicious, costly battle to win the 'Hillman' strongpoint but, according to some military historians, the Germans had resisted long enough to deny General Bernard Montgomery the advance into Caen he had planned for D-Day itself. The 21st Panzer Division regrouped brilliantly and it took more than a month of fighting, including heavy Allied air raids, before Caen fell. Among those who did not survive its agony were the three members of the Eveno family from Colleville, who were burnt alive. All three lie today in the village churchyard, their tomb, too, inscribed Morts pour la France.

In 1945 the local council voted to rechristen their village Colleville-Montgomery, the name by which it figures on the Michelin map today, a pretty commuter's retreat of about 1,450 people, most of whom work in the prosperous light industries around Caen and the port of Ouistreham.

The mayor of Colleville, Guy Legrand, is proud of its renaissance, proud too that like many Norman towns, Colleville has not lost the political instincts that spring from its modern memory.

'I hope with all my heart that one Europe will be built,' he said. 'Let there be nations, let there be disagreement, but there must be dialogue, meetings, discussions. We Europeans have to live in one community.'

In the chemist's window on the Grand Rue there is a sombre poster showing the now familiar silhouettes of shattered towns in Bosnia. 'Mostar-Sarajevo: Caen cannot forget you' it reads. The region is organising aid and funds for the people of Bosnia. 'We have to educate our youth about our past and why this anniversary is so important - especially now,' said Mayor Legrand. A contingent of Suffolk Regiment veterans will be his guests for the commemorations this weekend.

And there will be one especially honoured visitor to Colleville among their party. For almost 50 years, Suzanne Lenauld and her family never knew the identity of the young British soldier who died before their eyes on the morning of 6 June, 1944. But after the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Madame Lenauld became determined to find out. It was not until 1992, with help from Les Perry, a Suffolk Regiment veteran, that she learnt he was Private Edward John Holmes, number 6847434, of the 2nd Battalion the Middlesex Regiment, from Bow in east London. He was 25 years old when he was killed.

Through Mr Perry, Madame Lenauld contacted the only surviving relative of Pte Holmes who could be traced, his sister Rose. It turned out that from 1944 to 1992, Rose Holmes, too, knew only that her brother had been lost but had no idea of where, or when. 'I very, very much want to see her,' insisted Madame Lenauld. 'She ought to know that her brother did not die like all the others. He died in somebody's arms.'

Rose Holmes still lives in Bow, high in a tower block, looking out across the tracts of the East End laid flat by the Luftwaffe. She has been in poor health, suffers from arthritis and rarely manages to get out.

'I saw Ted about three weeks before he went off on D-Day,' she recalled last week. 'He had such bright blue eyes. He was such a cheerful boy. They sent back his wallet, his pipe and his papers, but all those years I never knew what had really happened to him.' She has never been to Normandy and, although she and Madame Lenauld correspond, they have never met. But this weekend she will go with the Suffolk veterans to see her brother's grave for the first time and to meet the formidably determined Frenchwoman who has kept his memory fresh for half a century. Miss Holmes says that, like many of her generation, she got through the war by telling herself 'don't let what's inside you show on the outside'. She is not so sure if she will be able to keep that up, but says she will try.

She will find Pte Holmes buried with many others in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Hermanville, a tranquil and immaculately kept place to rest. His headstone is inscribed: 'Not lost but gone before.'

There has been a steady stream of French and foreign pilgrims to the cemeteries ahead of the D-Day anniversary.

Last week a French visitor drove up to Hermanville from Caen to see the serried ranks of gravestones. He wrote a message in the book provided. Les mots me manquent, it read. Words fail me.

The Normandy landings, page 26

(Photographs omitted)

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