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Sunday, May 28
Sonia d'Artois jumped, and the slipstream caught her, pulling her sideways. Then the parachute snapped open and she was floating free in the moonlight. The roar of the aircraft's engines faded rapidly into the distance. The flannel skirt and heavy sweater she was wearing under her special overalls had kept her warm in the unheated plane, and her old hobnail ski boots would protect her during the landing. Suddenly the shapes of trees appeared out of the gloom, the land rushed forward to meet her, and she flexed her knees just as she'd been trained. "Don't look down," they had warned her, "or you'll get tangled in the cords." But she couldn't help herself. She was still wrestling to free herself when she hit the ground hard and landed painfully in a ditch, wrenching her shoulder.
Then she heard voices in French as the reception committee rushed out from behind the trees to help her. "My God," she heard one say, "one of them's a woman." But all Sonia felt was happiness and relief. She was back in France at last, behind enemy lines, and in time for D-Day.
Peter Moen stood on his narrow prison bed and furtively removed a small tack from the blackout curtain of the cell's only window. Then he took a sheet of the rough, grayish-brown toilet paper handed out grudgingly by his guards each day. One by one, with painstaking care, he pricked out the letters onto the paper until he had a word,.then a sentence, then a page. It was slow and laborious work, but writing the diary kept him sane. Only in this way could he make sense of his suspended life. Prisoner number 5842 was now beginning his hundred and fifteenth day of incarceration. Early in the morning, when the guards were busy, he would peer through the window at the street outside and see the sun striking the local church, watch the cars swinging around the traffic circle and glimpse the blue dot of a city tram jogging up the hill in the distance.
The violent contrast with his own confinement inside was hard to bear. His head still hurt where he had been hit squarely across the face the day before for not responding quickly enough to a guard's command to stop playing cards. "If that is an example of the Herrenvolk [master race]," he spelled out, "I prefer to be a slave."
When he had finished, he rolled the paper up tightly and pushed it through the cross-patterned grille of the ventilation shaft on the floor behind the cell's solitary table. There it would be safe. He had to be quick, though. Once, a guard had confiscated a page of the diary before he'd had time to conceal it. Fortunately, there had been no follow-up.
A hundred days before, Moen had written these words: "It is only those who are under the Gestapo's whip, with the death sentence as an ever-threatening danger, who completely understand what victory means."
Glenn Dickin gazed out through the barbed-wire fence surrounding his holding camp in England and thought of his family on the Canadian prairie thousands of miles away. He was cooped up inside a tent in a camp dotted with a myriad of similar canvas roofs housing thousands of troops, one of the hundreds of makeshift bases that blanketed the British countryside. Fringed by a suburban scene of redbrick duplex houses and rows of small stores, the camp lay only a few miles from the English Channel. His regiment had been here for almost two months and from here he had taken part in all the major landing exercises. The last one had been a full dress rehearsal that lasted six days. The sea had been rough, and he'd been forced to use his vomit bag. He'd returned exhausted but exhilarated.
Since then he'd endured a constant round of briefings, distribution of new clothing and equipment, small-arms exercises and the assignment of waterproofed vehicles to spaces on the individual ships that would carry them across. Otherwise, life consisted of waiting for the big day they all knew was coming. The camp had been sealed off from the outside world for three days. No one was allowed in or out. Beyond the barbed wire normal civilian life continued. He could see housewives shopping, children going to and from school, and the occasional public bus.
Dickin, a blue-eyed and fair-skinned lieutenant in the Regina Rifles, was twenty-two years old. Like most young men far from home, he kept up a facade of insouciance and constantly told his mother not to worry. Before the camp was sealed-and all correspondence to the outside world halted -he wrote to her that every day he watched fleets of heavy bombers pass overhead from their bases in England to pound the enemy. "It is a beautiful sight to see," he enthused. "They are certainly making a nice job of softening up for the invasion troops." And he finished by promising that he'd do his best to be home by next spring to help with the house-cleaning.
But the next day he carefully asked his sister to let his girlfriend in Canada know if anything happened to him. She was not next of kin and therefore not on the official list of those entitled to be told of the missing, the wounded or the dead.
Just a few miles to the west of the tented camp, blue-eyed, nineteen-year-old Veronica Owen sat in a garden in her sunglasses, enjoying the glorious spring weather. It was Whit Sunday, or Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter in the Christian calendar. It was still only nine o'clock, but, up early at dawn, she had already taken High Communion at the weathered old Saxon church just down the road. Like Glenn Dickin, she was mesmerized by the fleets of bombers passing overhead in the blue spring sky. "Steel birds," she called them. She, too, was writing home to her family. "My Darling Mummy and Daddy" began her account of the weekend. Although she would have relished a game of cricket even more, the day before she'd played tennis with a girlfriend on a private grass court lent to them by a kindly neighbor. Despite being out of practice she had enjoyed it. The neighbor's wife had brought them welcome glasses of lemonade made out of ice and-a rare luxury-fresh lemons. In the evening another girlfriend had bicycled over for an hour's visit.
By now, on the fourth page of her letter, the heat was curling the pages and her sweaty hands were beginning to smudge the ink, so she signed off with a "God Bless." Later that afternoon she read more of Lawrence of Arabia's letters, which she'd begun a few weeks before.
Then she attended evensong and had a late supper. It was a rare and very welcome day off from work for her. Normally she spent most of the day and night deep underground. Veronica Owen was a Wren, a member of the Women's Royal Naval Service, one of more than seventy thousand women on land and sea working as dispatch riders, radio mechanics, teleprinter operators, radar detection finders, map plotters, movie operators and typists. Her special task was to code and decode ships' messages.
Every third night she was on watch from seven o'clock (1900 hours in the naval parlance she'd had to learn) to eight-thirty (0830) the next morning. Then she was free until 1300 hours the next day. Recently the work had become particularly heavy, and the issue of shifts like hers, lasting thirteen and a half hours, had even led to questions in Parliament. She also kept a small pocket diary. Here Veronica recorded the stresses of her work and the moments of relief that came all too rarely.
Lemonade also proved welcome to a thirsty young German soldier stationed in France, on its northern Atlantic coast. Walter Schwender, too, was enjoying the glorious Whitsun weather. Today he'd managed to get hold of a typewriter and, like the Wren, was writing home. Letters and small gifts brought his family closer. He'd sent them a package of cucumber seeds, and sometimes he sent back his ration of cigarettes. But he would have to gorge on the abundant strawberries himself. "Dear All," he began, and then stopped to have some wine. But the weather was too hot, so he poured himself a lemonade instead.
On duty he worked in an army repair shop, mending anything that needed fixing, from bicycles to typewriters, which is how he'd managed to get his hands on a machine today. Sometimes he just answered the telephone. The day before, he and his comrades had been given cigarettes again. But because these days he didn't trust the mail very much, he might have to smoke them himself instead of sending them to his father. Frustrating news had come of yet another delay in the mail from Germany. He, too, found it too hot to write for long. After a page he signed off, explaining he wanted to go to the beach to swim. Like all soldiers at the front, he knew the mail he sent home was censored. But he did manage to convey one piece of significant news -all leave for the troops had been canceled. "Oh well," Walter added optimistically, "I hope that all this will be over soon."
That same day, in a sweltering and occupied Paris, a middle-aged man, caged in a tiny room on the sixth floor of an apartment building on the rue des Ecoles, worried frantically about his children. For Albert Grunberg, the Allied "steel birds" were certainly welcome allies against the Germans. But they might also destroy his family. The man was a Jew, and he had been in hiding in this room, measuring just nine feet by seven, for a year and a half. The Germans had arrived to deport him in 1942 and a friendly concierge in a neighboring building had smuggled him away. Since then he'd kept in touch with events by secretly listening to the BBC on a hidden radio. His wife, who was not Jewish and so relatively secure, brought him food. Their two sons, now grown up, were living and working on the edge of the French Alps, in Chamb?ry. But only this morning he had heard that Allied planes had bombed the city's strategically important railroad marshaling yards.
Grunberg, too, was keeping a diary. As it did Peter Moen, it gave him comfort, providing more than just a record of daily events. To pour out his feelings, to relieve the pain of the bad times and to record the good moments restored his balance. He'd found a hiding place for the diary on top of the toilet tank in the corridor outside his room.
That afternoon his wife came to see him, trudging up the six flights of stairs. She found the heat stifling, despite her husband's best efforts to dampen the floor with cold water, and didn't stay long. Later that evening, he scribbled in his diary, they were still frantically trying to get news. Would the liberators free him, but in doing so kill their children?
The insides of the Allies' "steel birds" were all too familiar to the bony-faced American paratrooper lying on his cot cooped up in a tent with eight other men at an American holding camp in the lush green fox-hunting countryside of England's Midlands. Unlike the Canadian rifleman Glenn Dickin, Bill Tucker was already a battle-hardened veteran. The year before, aged twenty, he'd made his first combat drop over Salerno in Italy. He'd volunteered after seeing newsreel movies of German and Russian paratroopers back home in Boston and figured it was something he didn't need a college education for.
His canvas city lay within the perimeter of the old stone wall of a country house just twenty miles from Sherwood Forest. Outside lay a picture-postcard little town where the church bells rang in the evening and social life revolved around the friendly pubs. Molly, a blonde from Nottingham, was good fun for movies and dances and the occasional picnic. She was a test pilot for Stirling bombers, checking the instruments when they came out of the factory; but unfortunately she had a husband, a Royal Air Force fighter pilot serving in Malta. Still, Tucker enjoyed her friendship.
Bill Tucker, too, had just learned that from now on his camp was sealed off. No more sneaking off to the fish-and-chip shop. Training and waiting were now the order of the day. No more practice drops either. He was glad, given the tedious journey by truck to the nearest airfield and the frequent cancellations because of fog.
An occasional game of football and endless rounds of cards relieved the tedium. Anything was better than crawling in his underwear through a pit of dead animals, as he'd done during basic training in Georgia, or shivering with the malaria he'd caught because he couldn't keep down the pills that were given to him to fight it off, or squatting for hours racked with dysentery over a stinking latrine, as he'd had to do at some fly-ridden base in the North African desert. The new boys fished out the flies from their food with a spoon before they ate it. The old hands just squashed them into the gravy till they stopped struggling and swallowed them down with the food. At least, that was the joke.
Waiting was also the name of the game for Andre Heintz, a lithe young French schoolteacher, as he bicycled home that evening to Caen, the ancient capital of Normandy and favored city of Duke William, the eleventh-century conqueror of England. Dominated by the huge citadel begun by the Duke in 1060, Caen lay just ten miles from the Channel, linked to its port of Ouistreham by the River Orne and a canal. He'd spent the day with his father helping to plant beans in their small community garden plot on the out-skirts of the city. It was one of the few small ways they could supplement their meager weekly ration of food, and they bartered the vegetables for butter at a local dairy farm. His father had even given up smoking to save money.
Andre Heintz lived with his parents and sister in a large house in the center of the city. Just a hundred yards away lay the heavily guarded military headquarters of the German 716th Division. To reach their house they had to pass through a barrier and show their identity documents. Every evening, after curfew, German troops rolled out a barbed-wire cordon. The previous night he'd heard heavy bombing along the Channel coast and there had been several air-raid warnings in the city itself.
Unknown to his parents or sister, Andre was actively working with the local Maquis, or Resistance. Mostly he helped forge identity cards for anyone in trouble, such as men evading obligatory labor in Germany or members of the Maquis needing a new identity or Jews on the run -although by now not many of them were left. More risky was his role in collecting intelligence about German military installations. He bicycled around the city twice a week noting any changes in the composition of the German garrison or the arrival of new military equipment, and then passed on the information to his contact. This was an older man who lived on the coast and had clandestine ways of getting the material to London. Earlier that month another man had come from Paris and asked him to step up efforts to find more agents for such intelligence work and to recruit as many young people as possible for an active Maquis group that would spring into action on D-Day.
Excerpted from Ten Days to D-Day by David Stafford Copyright © 2005 by David Stafford. Excerpted by permission.
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|Map of Southern Britain and Northern France|
|1||What victory means : Sunday, May 28||3|
|2||It can't be far off : Monday, May 29||32|
|3||Hit the beach hard : Tuesday, May 30||67|
|4||Rumors get around : Wednesday, May 31||99|
|5||The hour of combat is coming : Thursday, June 1||132|
|6||Soldiers in very good heart : Friday, June 2||167|
|7||The nadir of strain : Saturday, June 3||200|
|8||One hell of a mess : Sunday, June 4||234|
|9||OK, we'll go : Monday, June 5||263|
|10||It must be the landings : D-Day||295|
|Epilogue : what became of them?||334|
|Acknowledgments and sources||346|