The (Shockingly Wet and Windy) British Days of Normandy



Dear Old Bolds, Family and Friends,

I’ve been working so much lately on my book that it’s been some time since I’ve taken a break for anything.  But tonight is the opening of Dunkirk at the local IMAX theater, and I’m giddy with excitement. I bought my ticket days ago, and can’t remember the last time I went to opening night of a film. The reviews about the movie have been so over-the-top that I hope it can live up to all the acclaim.

This summer Charley and I stopped at Dunkirk on our way across France.  It is, like so many other battlefields in northern France, a place haunted with the spirits of the young men who suffered and died there. There is truly something about France that makes this so – whether it be the 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War, World War I, or World War II – or even the wars of the last centuries.  But there is something ancient, mystical, and otherworldly – to use the Hawaiian concept of “mana” would be about right – there is an aura of energy about these sacred places which resonates profoundly. With their sensitive and deeply emotional souls, the French feel this eddy of power.  And so, for the most part, they do keep these places free of too much modern building and interference.

On Gold Beach, the German bunker which stood in the way of the Sherwood Rangers’ entry into Normandy still stands sentinel.  On that spot this June 6th , the Sherwood Rangers dedicated a plaque to the tankers who fought and died to take this beach. In the middle of the ceremony, storm clouds broke open and lashed us all with pelting rain and wild winds. Unlike the British, who are quite used to this type of weather, and being outside in it on occasion, I am not. It’s not just that I still consider myself a southern Californian.  It’s that my wardrobe is still southern Californian. While our friends, for the most part, seemed quite snug in appropriate waterproof and fleece-lined rain wear (on the 6th of June!  June!!), I discovered for the first time that the rain jacket I wore so rarely for over a decade in San Diego is not actually waterproof.

In any case, we had a lovely reception afterwards with the people of the village during which we did our best to dry off.  Our lunch there was followed by an interesting visit to the D-Day Academy, a center point for young people to learn more about what happened here in 1944 complete with vehicles, airplane wreckage, and machine guns to play with (unloaded, of course).  If you are looking for a tour of the British sector, or are bringing children with you to Normandy (or 90-somethings who like to play like children), these are the people to talk to: http://www.ddaca.com/en.

The 7th of June started with our usual visit to the Musee de la Bataille de Normandie, where the Sherwood Rangers and Essex Infantry are celebrated annually for the liberation of the town in 1944.  This was followed by a visit to a British cemetery in Tilly-sur-Suelles, where Sherwood Ranger and famous poet Keith Douglas found his final resting place, and German soldiers are buried in a corner tucked in the back. A ceremony at the small farm where beloved officers of the Regiment were killed was our next stop, and then, as the sun moved lower in the sky, we gathered with some other British regiments to commemorate the fighting around the town.

Two very long days, full of rich remembrance so personal to our beloved Sherwood Rangers.

On the 8th of June we set off for the Paris Marriott Rive Gauche, where I had engineered a devious surprise for my charges. Although we arrived thirty minutes late, we had a large reception circle of staff who cheered our arrival. Graham and Charley were offered champagne and warm welcoming handshakes.  We were upgraded to suites, and as I directed the unloading of our luggage from the car, the boys were swept up as VIP’s to the rooms on the 18th floor, where sweeping views of Paris awaited them.  While he napped, welcome gifts of wine and chocolate were brought into Graham’s room, with a handwritten card full of appreciative sentiments.  Everywhere we went in the hotel, Graham was fawned over, thanked for his service, and pampered.  It was exactly as it should be.

Although we had to leave Graham at Orly the next morning, we were of course very sad to see him go. Every moment of the time together was precious to us, and I shall always be grateful for the privilege and pleasure of accompanying him to the places that have such deep meaning for him, and for Charley.

Let us hope we may repeat the experience next year.

With much love,

Heather

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The German Day



Dear Old Bolds, Friends and Family,

Day 2 in Normandy was a very different day.  A German one. This day was about Hans Poelchau, a friend Charley had lost and now found after 80 years.

Charley was born in Annaberg, a Saxon mountain town close to the Czech border. As the years passed, his father’s severe head and facial injuries from World War I brought continuing health problems that partially incapacitated him.  Then Charley’s mother became deathly ill, and had to enter a tuberculosis clinic. At the age of ten, Charley was sent to Hamburg into the care of his grandmother.

It was there that he met next door neighbor Hans Poelchau, a productive partner in crime.  Hans was a wild child, with a beautiful mother and a father who had been a naval officer. Hans’ mother’s mother was American, and Jewish, and had married a prominent member of the Jewish business community in Hamburg.  They baptized and raised their daughter as a Lutheran.  When Hans was born he was baptized Lutheran as well.  The two generations of conversion to Christianity meant nothing to the Nazis, who had just taken power.  In 1935 the Nuremberg laws declared Hans’ mother as 100% Jewish, he received the ugly designation of “Mischling”, a half-Jew.

To the boys, Charley, and Hans, and their neighbor Harald Koelln, this naturally meant nothing. They did what all bands of bored adolescent boys do, ran through the neighborhood sowing mischief. Their favorite game was playing soldier, and Hans was the fiercest of them all.  They threw sharpened spears at one another, barely fending off serious injury with homemade shields. Like many small boys, Hans had a deep love of fireworks and made use of them to attack his friends. They were lucky to survive.

Then one day, Hans and his family disappeared. No one knew where they had gone, and no one knew what had happened to them. Hans had never said good-bye. Charley missed his friend, and had no way of finding him. The mystery haunted him but events started overtaking his world – school, planting and tending food gardens, the Hitler Youth, being bombed fairly regularly, and eventually being called to serve his country.  When Charley returned home in 1947, he tried to find his friend or the family but none of his attempts were successful. The rumor was that Hans had died during the war in the Germany army.

We recently started looking for Hans again.  We found his sister had died last year – we were painfully late.  We found a friend of hers, who told us of the persecution of the family during the Nazi regime.  Hans had been whisked away by the Gestapo to one of their foul jails for four weeks in 1942 for the awful crime of listening to swing music, which he had – naturally – passionately loved. After he was released, he succeeded in joining the German army, but as a half-Jew this was no easy task, as it was forbidden, and we don’t know how or why he managed it. Perhaps it was in a desperate attempt to shield his mother, who was forced to take the name Sara, wear the star, and endure repeated interrogations by the Gestapo. She lived under the constant threat of deportation. There would be no help for them elsewhere – as baptized Lutherans they were most likely turned away by committees set up to assist the Jewish community, although why they did not escape to the US with their American family member is a mystery. By the end of the war, the stress, grief and anxiety about his family had nearly killed Hans’ father.

We turned to the office responsible for keeping track of the fate of all German soldiers during World War II. They told us Hans had died as a lance corporal in an artillery unit in Normandy.  Further research indicates that his regiment was on the front line at the Falaise Gap in mid-July and was virtually wiped out by the initial heavy Allied bombardment.  Hans was mortally wounded, and brought to the Chateau de Sassy, which had been turned into a military hospital by the Germans.  He fought hard for his life – he was just 19, and had a pregnant wife at home.  On August 4, 1944, Hans succumbed. He was buried with many of his comrades in the hospital cemetery 100 yards behind the chateau. After the war, his body was disinterred and reburied in La Cambe German military cemetery, not very far from the famous American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

Charley has visited the cemetery for decades, without knowing Hans was there.  This time, our visit was for him. With Graham in tow, we entered the somber stone-hewn gateway into the cemetery.  A vast green landscape is interrupted only by large trees and a series of thick, squat stone crosses, grey and foreboding, with a mound in the middle, a dark stone cross at its peak.  There are no headstones.  The rough red stone markers are in the ground.  The German boys are buried two or more to a marker – the Allies in general throughout the world being unwilling to give the Germans enough land so that each could have his own grave.

While waiting for our French historian friends, we visited famous tank ace Michael Wittman’s grave. As we then wandered towards the center-point of the cemetery, we had two surprising encounters.  The first was with a French family – a mother and several children – seeking autographs. In the German cemetery.  This was unusual enough, but it was followed by a German reporter, part of an international team of journalists, who, with my video camera already rolling, did what came naturally to him – he started asking Charley a series of deeply penetrating questions. His interest was startling, because Germans and their media generally have little, no, or hostile interest in their own veterans.  This gentleman represented a mainstream outlet. His open curiosity was exceptional.

When we reached the center peak, Charley insisted on climbing the two flights of stairs to have a birds-eye view of his friend’s grave. Although Graham’s gammy leg prevents him from being an enthusiastic stair-climber, he was not to be outdone.  My pleas to both of them for a modicum of restraint fell on (intentionally) deaf ears, and I could not shepherd both, as Charley, typically, had already bounded off. Luckily, friends and strangers volunteered to hover and offer a hand to both when needed while I filmed their ascent and descent.

When we had safely returned to the earth, we made our way to Hans’ grave, where we spent silent moments contemplating the difficulty of his short life, in grief that he had not had the fortune to survive the war and see his child and a better world.

After a short rest at the hotel, we drove the hour south – south of Falaise, south of Argentan – to Chateau de Sassy.  Chateau de Sassy’s exterior is gorgeous and sumptuous in the way of the best French chateaus. What a beautiful, horrible place to die, embraced by its splendor. We toured the house before we viewed its stunning gardens.

It was crushing to think of the wasted young lives on both sides. We wished, and we still hope now, that we will not be the only ones to think of Hans, to remember a life that deserved to be lived, and not persecuted and then lost before he’d had a proper chance to experience the joys of it.

Our return was a silent one. Storm clouds rolled in when we arrived in Bayeux, as did busloads more American tourists, who flooded the restaurants.  After being turned down at two (the French indifferently tell you they are full, and don’t take waiting lists, even for WWII veterans), I left Charley and Graham in the drizzle to run to a third, where I just got the last table. After I had retrieved them, and we had settled down with local cider and deliciously prepared local food, we contemplated the day as the rain passed through.

What would our next two days, English ones, bring?

With much love,

Heather

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Party in the American Sector



Dear Old Bolds, Friends, and Family,

Travelling is much more of a challenge these days.  Charley’s health is more fragile, and medical supplies and medications fill additional suitcases, which need to be packed, unpacked, and sherpa’ed at each new location along with the professional video camera, my suitcase and backpack full of electronics. Time to write?  Only now, in the aftermath.

Where were we?  Ah, Belgium, then Dunkirk, and Paris.  After picking Graham up from Paris, we settled in our secluded, beautiful, and modest chateau B&B just outside of Bayeux, and started our Normandy tour.

The First Day was the American Day.

As usual, we laid flowers with our French friends on the graves of B-24 TROUBLE crewmembers. The staff at the American cemetery is always so kind as to bring us out with a small golf cart, a pail full of Omaha Beach sand, and a wet sponge. As our escort filled in the engraved names with the sand and carefully wiped away the excess, the sunlight turned the sand into gold, gleaming against the white marble. Arnaud and I laid the flowers down together, and Graham and Charley honored our men with salutes.

When we had fulfilled our solemn and heartfelt obligation, we drove nearly an hour towards Utah Beach, out to a field in the country where we could watch young paratroopers from America, England, Germany and France jump from airplanes into nearby meadows. We then joined them in Ste. Mere Eglise under the hot sun.

In the British sector, there are commemorations, ceremonies, and remembrance.  In the American sector, we have those.  But it also gets a little wild here. Ste. Mere Eglise unleashes a massive party, including the reenactors camped out nearby.  The city blocks off the entrances to the center square, smoke from roasting meat rises from restaurant stands arrayed around the church, and parking demands creativity and imagination. We finally found a spot almost a kilometer away from the center of town, but neither Charley nor Graham would consent to be pushed in the wheelchair. As we made our way laboriously towards the town, a boisterous crowd grew.  Scouts found us and brought us to our HQ, a table outside the Spot Bar held by our Belgian friends. To refresh ourselves after our march, we partook of adult beverages and chatted with new British friends while watching paratroopers flirt with pretty girls.  I wondered for a while if it might all be too much for the veterans, but they fed on the energy, especially Charley, who was in his element.  Inside the bar, an American veteran reigned supreme, surrounded by a group of enthralled young American servicemen.

After everyone was sufficiently quenched and fed, several authentic WWII running Sherman tanks and other era vehicles pushed through the streets. Such a scene would be unimaginable in the US, where safety regulations, police cordons, and other litigation-avoiding precautions would prevent people from reaching out and touching the tanks.  Not so in France, where you can experience these beasts up close and personally. The crowds were so packed, we smelled them and heard them, but we could barely see them or get near them for the cheering masses on all sides.

While attendance at events in the British sector seems to be waning, the numbers of people coming to the American sector for D-Day is exploding. Call it the Band-of-Brothers Effect if you will, but 16 years after the release of the mini-series the enthusiasm, gratitude, and appreciation only seem to be increasing.  The mood is invigorating, to put it mildly. Even though we possess a dislike of crowds and a certain amount of faint cynicism, we were swept away and thrilled by the moment despite ourselves.

This was pure, unbridled basking in the glory, and none of us could resist it, not Graham, and certainly not Charley.

We slowly made our way back to the car, and to a restaurant on Omaha Beach for dinner. Later at our lovely hotel, as I descended into sleep, I wondered if we would be back next year.  If we do go, we may decide to stay in the American sector instead of Bayeux.

The 93-year-olds want to be where the action is.

Sending you much love,

Heather

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