On D-Day-plus three, Major Bob Orrell of the Royal Engineers set off to destroy or capture a German strong point near Ouistreham on the northern coast of Normandy, a 60ft-high concrete tower with an entrance below ground, which was sealed with a solid steel door. Amid a sandy field of dead British commandos – shot from the same ominous giant pillbox – Bob, along with a military crane driver and his mate, blew up 7lb of explosives on the door hinges – to no avail – and then, with equally little effect, tried to lift the door off with ratchet jacks. More explosives did the trick.
Bob put his nose round the door. He was greeted by a voice which shouted: “Come upstairs, Johnny, it’s all right!” Bob refused. “Bugger that, you come down!” he replied. And two German officers, one speaking perfect English, arrived with 53 other German soldiers. Bob and his chum marched them off to captivity, the two of them guarding 55 German troops, “under the muzzle of my Sten gun”, Bob was to say later, although he admitted: “I had never fired a Sten gun in my life.”
Bob Orrell also captured a piano; it accompanied his men all the way through Holland – and Arnhem – to Germany, undamaged by explosives or shellfire, which could not be said for his Bailey bridge-loading soldiers or Sergeant Estie’s mine-clearers. “One day I saw a pall of smoke in the sky,” Bob was to write. “I knew some of our chaps were out clearing mines. ‘Oh God,’ I thought, ‘that’s Sergeant Estie.’ And it was.” Estie’s men had encountered mines with an unusual fuse, and it killed them.
Bob Orrell’s bunker still exists, a museum now and much visited by its Second World War liberator for many years, until his death in 2004, just a month after his last trip to the D-Day beaches. But it was his life after the war, a soldier trained to kill turned into a soldier for peace, which marked the man out – and prompted the late Tony Benn, only months before his own death, to write the foreword to the book about Bob Orrell’s life, which his family has just published under the almost Hollywood title, The Regimental Piano. I’m a sucker for privately published books – this one is by Tim Parker and brought out by HOP Publishing if readers want a great, unusual read with lots of pictures.
I knew the Orrells because Bob and my father Bill were both local government officials in post-war Maidstone – Bob was borough engineer and my Dad was borough treasurer – although they must have had a few arguments when Bob became a nuclear disarmer. My father had no time for CND (let alone Tony Benn) but Bob, after seeing the banned BBC nuclear-war docudrama The War Game – which deeply impressed me when I was a student at Lancaster University – became a campaigner against nuclear weapons. His wife, Nancy, whom Bob married during the war, was arrested at Greenham Common and imprisoned at Holloway; she would not let her husband pay her fine. Bob befriended George Mizo, the American peace campaigner who, wounded three times in Vietnam, refused to return again to a war he regarded as immoral. He was imprisoned for two years for disobeying orders. Mizo’s troops were all killed in Vietnam. He himself died young, poisoned by the chemical Agent Orange.
Bob Orrell’s family was in the cotton trade, mill owners who took, to quote Tony Benn, “an Owenite approach to the care of their workers”; the 19th-century utopian Socialist Robert Owen ran social welfare programmes in his cotton mills in Lanarkshire, opening an infant school and building affordable housing for his workers. It was a suitable inspiration for the man who would care so much about his soldiers as they fought their way into Germany in 1945.
But the bravest thing Bob Orrell ever did (at least, he thought it was) was to return to Sword Beach on the 40th anniversary of D-Day carrying a home-made placard which read: “CND – HELP SAVE THE WORLD I FOUGHT FOR”. He stood there on the beach throughout the ceremonies, his hands shaking for fear that his old wartime comrades would abuse him.
“Then it was all over,” he recalled, “and, to my amazement, I was surrounded by friends… ‘Very nice to see you.’ ‘I reckon your boys saved my life’. ‘CND is the only hope for us,’ said a Royal Naval officer in uniform, who squeezed my shoulder. ‘Your boys got me off the beach…’ I had been accepted and a surprising number of those I spoke to were prepared to talk about what the nuclear age might bring… And later in the day a high-ranking Army officer took me to one side and whispered over an impressive row of medals: ‘You are absolutely right you know’.”
I wonder why he “whispered”? Because serving soldiers are not supposed to protest about their craft, their art, their duty, which is – if necessary – to kill, often on the orders of a government which goes to war on a foundation of lies. “Millions of men perpetrated against one another,” wrote Tolstoy of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, “such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries … and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being ... crimes.” That’s war for you.
Bob Orrell was not the only man who took his courage to the ends of the Earth (in his case to Vietnam, the then-Soviet Union and New Zealand). Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Mitchell – “Mad Mitch” to my admiring Dad and the Sunday Express – bashed his way into the heart of the rebel Crater area of Aden in the last days of empire, but in 1988 co-founded the charity Halo (the Hazardous Areas Life-Support Organisation) and travelled to Afghanistan, Mozambique, Pakistan and Cambodia to see the horrors of war “up close”, as his recent biographer Aaron Edwards puts it. Would that more soldiers wore the uniform of peace.
Mission accomplished! Only 58 dead, at cost of $18bn
In Canada, I open a copy of the Toronto Star to find Eugene Lang, the former chief-of-staff to two of his country’s defence ministers, telling us that the Canadian Army’s 12-year mission in Afghanistan was not the disaster many people suppose.
Sure, there were “sacrifices” – 58 Canadian dead, more than 2,000 wounded, up to $18bn (£11bn) in costs. But these were “full-spectrum operations” (stabilisation, reconnaissance, counter-insurgency, reconstruction, special forces ops, etc) and “today, Canada’s military is the most operationally experienced we have had in this country in over half a century”. So mission accomplished!
But what about the Afghans?