We shall fight them on the beaches…?
In 1994, one of my parishioners asked me whether I would consider accompanying himself and his friends to France on June 6th. His ‘friends’; turned out to be his old Second World War comrades: the ‘Hallams-Fontenay Club’. These old pals, formerly grocers, steelworkers, newsagents and such like, had found themselves drafted into the York and Lancaster Regiment close to the beginning of the end of the war, and became foot soldiers who entered the Normandy invasion in the first week. They saw and experienced many horrors: the massed bodies of some Canadian soldiers in a street corner who had been massacred by the Nazis being most notable. They soon found themselves in a small village north east of Caen called Fontenay le Pesnel; here they dug into their slit trenches and remained under enemy fire for weeks and months. My parishioner, Arthur, had the dread duty of driving a supply wagon to the soldiers at the Front. One of his pals had been killed on the road he used and each day he had to drive over his body; for war does not protect the living let alone the dead. After some months these ordinary lads beat back their unknown enemy (it was only later that they discovered they were a crack Panzer division) and the long slow march to Berlin began.
I was privileged to become their unofficial chaplain, and accompanied them many times on the visits to Normandy with its landing beaches of Sword, Juno, Omaha, Utah and Gold. The ‘mulberry harbours’, floated on barges to create a makeshift haven, are still there to this day as are the many graveyards which mark the last resting place of young boys who simply went to war in their naievity, enthusiasm and fear. They never counted themselves ‘heroes’, it is we who have made them so, and rightly. Many things stand out in my mind about those visits: the first in 1994, when the streets were filled with 1940s vehicles and young people dressed in the uniforms and day clothes of the time. Thereafter, taking another parishioner, whose brother had been killed in Normandy, and whose grave he had never seen. Standing at the side of the grave some 50 years after the soldier’s death with his weeping septuagenarian sibling-still feeling the pain of loss. Happening, for the first time since the war, upon a cemetery where ‘Hallams’ were buried. Discovering their white grave markers and one of my companions saying: ‘I was with him when he was shot’ and, for me, time conflating as I looked at the inscription on the grave which said ’18 years old’ as I stood beside his eighty year old comrade in arms. What could have been and what was not? To this day, when I find myself in Caen, I visit the Commonwealth cemetery there and go and say ‘hello’ to ‘Knocker’ Lees, a doughty old sergeant and boxer in civilian life, who befriended a small, frightened young soldier. ‘Knocker’ was killed in the first few hours on French soil and he died at his young friend’s side. That young friend was amongst our party in 1994 and made me promise that, should anything happen to him, I would visit his mentor and protector whenever I could.
However, two incidents stand out for me as very important: once, when returning home from France, we got into Portsmouth and, whilst we sat on the coach, witnessed an Asian port attendant being racially abused: one of our men shouted out ‘oi-no racism!’. Another time, I conducted a memorial service in a cemetery which contained both British and German dead. I chanced my arm, and nervously suggested that we pray for the enemy dead as well as our own, in the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer. As one man almost, they whispered: ‘of course, we must’. These were the real heroes of the Second World War and they adequately demonstrated the values for which they fought and would havedied and which the BNP and others tell us we must recover. The values and the Britain they fought and died for were those which accepted and honoured the stranger, the foreigner and the different into their midst rather than set them in concentration camps. The values they fought and died for were forgiveness and the desire for the peace and unity of humanity-exactly opposite to those values the BNP dress up as virtues. The election of BNP members to the EU is a blemish on the conscience of the British people and it is a slur and an insult to those men of the Hallams Fontenay Club. Perhaps now the real battle for the soul of the nation begins?