He wrapped himself in the cloak of his remembered world, hoping he would be safe in it where no shells or bullets could reach him.Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?
Sometimes it can be a safe place, somewhere to escape to when happiness and comfort seem unavailable in the present and the past instead offers a chance to relive a familiar feeling of peace.
At other times, what is meant to be a stroll down memory lane can turn into a desperate effort to get out of the swirling, churning undertow of past pain and back into the serene hindsight of the present.
Reading through my memories of our trip to Juno Beach in November of 2015 was an example of the latter.
Fair warning, this is a long one.
This stop on our tour of the Beaches (how disturbingly quaint to refer to touring the sites of so much chaos and death) was the one I was most worried about. This was the point on the coast where so many of our boys were slaughtered and yet still managed to break through…with incomprehensibly heavy casualties.
It took a while to find the centre, with the signs taking us in what seemed like the most roundabout way possible but finally we saw our flag waving proudly in the breeze and we knew we had made it at last.
Though the initial old guns guarding the now-empty beach didn’t affect me too much, despite their historic purpose, the tears started flowing freely once I read the descriptions of the battle in front of a ridge that separated where we were from the actual sand itself.
The orders the men were given didn’t make any sense to me. But then again, I am most certainly no soldier.
They were told that the second the front of their craft opened into the water they were to run like devils to overtake the Germans who would be thickly defending the beach. Additionally, they were implored to stop for nothing, not even to help a man who had fallen beside them, even if he was their best friend. The medics would get to them eventually. Instead, continue to fight until you can’t fight anymore.
Before I knew it, tears were streaming in rivers down my face and I was shaking all over. My head was filled with the images of men shivering in their boats, knowing they could be going to their deaths in only a few minutes’ time. How did they go through with it? How did they feel in their last moments of relative security?
And what about the ones who survived? How did they fight past the sight of their best friends, their brothers, being mowed down in front of them like so many blades of grass. It defies all comprehension.
I regret to admit that at this point I got a little short with my Dad. It may have been the emotional exhaustion, I’m not sure, but I definitely got snippy. I had asked him what he thought “Juno” stood for, why they had decided on this name for the Canadian beach, and he responded that he thought it was a name chosen entirely at random. He referred, logically, to a common practice taken by security services even today where code names for operations are randomly selected using a computer program so as not to give unfriendly minds anything to go on.
For some reason, this struck me as wrong. I can’t understand why. Nor do I get why it upset me so much when he kept insisting he was right and suggested I not think too hard about it. Somehow, my gut told me there was more to the story.
Sure enough, there was!
Random historical fact #21
When planning Operation Overlord, the landing portion of which being called Operation Neptune, it was suggested that the beaches to be stormed by the British and Commonwealth soldiers should be named after fish. The two British beaches were dubbed Goldfish and Swordfish, their names shortened to just “Gold” and “Sword” in order to remove any reference to water (and thus not tip the Germans off that an aquatic invasion was being planned). Inexplicably, when it came time to name the beach the Canadian soldiers would be landing on, British Commander Montgomery suggested Jellyfish. Now, I don’t know about you, but I feel there are many MANY more frightening sounding fish names he could have gone with. LIONfish perhaps? Maybe even Buffalo Fish? What about Triggerfish? Ok, that last one might be a little too military for a secret code name. But, still. JELLYFISH? When shortened, this would have meant the site of horrific Canadian casualties would have forever been dubbed “Jelly beach”. Now that’s an image. Thankfully, saner minds prevailed and a Canadian Wing Commander named Dawnay suggested his wife’s name, Juno, instead. This name was not only in no way related to water but it also happens to be the same name given to Mars’ daughter in Roman mythology. Mars being the God of War, this makes perfect sense.
As Winston Churchill himself ordered his staff, they were not to choose names, “that are not suitable for operations in which a very large number of men could lose their lives”. Jelly, in my humble opinion, could hardly have been considered suitable. Thank you for your service, Commander Dawnay.
Oh, and in case your wondering, Wing Commander Michael Dawnay would survive the war but tragically died in an accident in Vienna in 1946. He was 33 years old.
This disagreement about the story behind Juno beach’s name, however, would not be settled until later in the day when I again had access to internet. Instead, impatient with my Dad’s stubbornness in the face of my own, I decided to walk away as I realized I was overwrought with the sense of death and destruction still radiating from the place. I needed some space.
I made my way down to the beach through a narrow opening in the grassy ridge, and walked all the way down to the ocean – which was quite far considering it was low-tide. I reached down and touched the cold water breathing in the salt air and looking behind me to see a quieter, safer version of the view that greeted those men in 1944.
The disparity between their reality and my own was overwhelming to the point that I felt dizzy. Taking a deep breath, I focused instead on the task I had set out for myself of collecting some sand in two little vials I had brought with me. One for me, and one for Mom and Dad.
Standing in the sand that once ran red with the blood of so many young men, young volunteers, I wanted to bring something home with me, something tangible, to say I was there. And that the place and people they had given their lives for was now at peace. The machine guns they had run towards, ever onwards until they were cruelly cut down where they stood, have been dismantled. The defenses are long gone. The beach itself has been cleared gradually by decades of tides.
We remember though the landscape has largely forgotten, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. Only mother nature can indiscriminately forgive us for all our horrible mistakes.
If I’m being completely honest, just writing this much and taking myself back to these moments of immense grief and morbid confusion has been enough to cause me to cry all over again.
I know I promised this series on the beaches would be finished in 3 parts but I think, for my mental stability, I’ll have to stop here for now.
For me, these memories are not a comforting cloak of my remembered world with which to wrap myself in a sense of safety. Instead, they are fraught with sadness and anger – two emotions I can only fully embrace in fairly small doses.
So, dear reader, if you can remain patient I will return in a few weeks’ time with my continued series on the Beaches of Normandy. I have no idea how long this will run in the end, but I hope you’ll stick with me to see it’s conclusion.
Until then, whether your memories are a safe haven or a portal to despair, I hope you’ll remember.
Life, itself, is beautiful.