I was sent to do some shopping. At the steep corner outside Struthers, the grocer's, I ran into Maisie. She was my sister's teacher at St Columba's. I remember the wind and the sun in her yellow hair, her pink cheeks and the happiness in her face as she said to me: 'Did you hear? Isn't it wonderful news?'
For months before the Normandy landings, which we called oddly 'The Invasion', the tension had been rising. It became almost impossible to travel by rail. The sidings were blocked by long trains of tanks and artillery swaddled in tarpaulins, waiting. The expresses stopped on the main lines, giving way to endless, crawling troop trains packed with British and American soldiers moving southwards towards the Channel ports. Bloody Bill, the chief maths teacher at Eton, was recruited to help plan the intricate rail movements; from his bullet head, the problems of x trains of y carriages travelling at average speed z intersecting with n-to-the-power-of-12 other similar trains flowed out into a lucid flowchart of times and routes.
For civilians, but especially for children like me, 'The Invasion' seemed something perfect. The whole mood of wartime Britain had become a religion of common exertion, of faith in the power of mobilised and planned war effort. They, we thought we knew, were stronger and certainly more cruel. But we were more intelligent and more united. The Normandy landings, with all their improvised feats of engineering - the Pluto pipeline, the Mulberry artificial harbour - brought this faith to a culmination. It sounded like unqualified triumph.
We did not know, and did not bother to imagine that morning, what was really happening. Men were dying by the thousand, caught in the crossfire on the beaches, crushed in collapsing bunkers, struggling to knock out gun positions on the cliffs, drowning in tidal barbed wire before they even reached land. The success was a near thing. It was true about the genius of Anglo-American engineers. The moon landings, 25 years later, were less imaginative and bold. The spirit of wild technical innovation was never to find such freedom again until the computer age got going in the 1980s.
But we were wrong when we supposed that the war in Europe was almost won. The great culminating slaughter - the annihilation of the German armies on the Eastern Front, the final stages of the Holocaust, the Warsaw Rising which began in August 1944 and cost a quarter of a million lives, the carnage of Dresden, the death of at least a million German civilians during their expulsion from Poland and Czechoslovakia, the vengeance of the partisans in Yugoslavia - all that was to come.
The 50th celebration of the Normandy landings is three months off, but it is already turning sour. German statesmen have not been invited. Displeased, Chancellor Kohl has ordered German diplomats not to attend any military commemorations wherever they take place. But this is not the first time that Normandy ceremonies have led to international bad temper. There was another, if less spectacular shambles at the 40th anniversary in 1984. In that year, the organisers committed the appalling blunder of not inviting the Poles. They snubbed the first country to resist Hitler, which had stood in the Alliance from the first day of war to the last and lost a fifth of its population. Polish warships and aircraft took part in the landings; a little later, the Polish First Armoured Division stood alone to block the retreat of the enormous German force trying to flee from the Falaise 'pocket'. But the Polish government was not invited because it was Communist, and the Polish government-in-
exile in London was not invited because diplomatically it was not rated a 'real' government. Heroes of Normandy like General Stanislaw Maczek (who is still alive in Edinburgh, aged almost 102) stayed at home that day.
It is a depressing fact that monuments get bigger as memories get dimmer. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Brezhnev and his successors were erecting war memorials whose tops vanished when the cloud-base was low. In the same way, the rather unrepresentative old fellows who lead organisations of veterans grow even more warlike as their following begins to thin out. The mess over inviting the Germans is mostly their fault. Most ordinary people who went through the war now find it interesting and even moving to meet Germans who were on the other side in the same battle. The Mayor of Caen, whose town was almost totally ruined, wants the Germans to be there. But the leaders of the French Resistance veterans are against it, and so are some of the British groups. Weakly, governments gave in to them.
There is no excuse for this. It is right to commemorate the landings, to praise the brave and mourn the dead. But if a victory is being commemorated, then it was a victory over Hitler, and democratic Germany has the right to give thanks as well. If it is simply a battle, then the Germans - who lost 65,000 dead in Normandy, twice as many as the Allies - are entitled to be there. If it is the liberation of Europe which is being honoured, then to exclude the nation which has been the centre and the motor of European unity for over 30 years reduces the whole occasion to absurdity.
The Queen will be there on the shore, and President Clinton and President Mitterrand. There will be anthems and flags and bugles and presenting of arms: all the paraphernalia of orchestrated national hatreds. But the trouble about military ceremony is not that it is warlike - it is not warlike enough. The real thing is chaotic; a mad assortment of noise, effort, contradictory orders, dirt and discomfort in which people are too busy or too frightened to hate. Command usually disintegrates and soldiers, trying to keep their heads down, do their own thing.
That is what the ceremony should really be like. A disordered mass of veterans and visitors from every country, combatant or not, should be unloaded on the beaches and left to form their own impressions, to make their own contacts, to pray or weep or remember or simply stare around as they please. If presidents, queens and field marshals wish to wander about in the mob or picnic among the concrete bunkers, they should be free to do so.
Not far away, at Bayeux, there still grows a Tree of Liberty, planted during the French Revolution. It has survived all regimes and wars, even the Normandy campaign. If that stormy June morning was about anything, it was about liberty - as the Poles say, 'for your liberty and ours'. Some of the D-Day visitors, if they are as indisciplined and generous as real soldiers, might find their way to that tree and dump their wreaths in its shade. That would be the best ceremony.Reuse content