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Channel crossing
Apr 25, '13
16

LANDING.

Green and luscious fields in the Garden of England (Kent) were transformed with muddy trails to service a whole host of non existent military vehicles that ranged from rows of bicycles to lorries and all manner of support vehicles including full size inflatable tanks. In addition acres of bivouacs were erected with mannequins giving the impression of human occupation. Rows of fighter aircraft and bombers were rolled out to supplement active fighter squadrons on airfields such as Manston, Headcorn and Hythe all being no more real or solid than Hitler’s declarations of peace back in 1939.

Substance to this ploy was vividly visible in the theatrical personality of General George Patton touring the area in convoy and being greeted by an elated, admiring populace in local towns and villages. Popularity complimented his military status and rank that added significant credence to the belief that a massive army was being amassed at the nearest crossing point to the English channel in readiness for the much expected amphibious assault via the Pas de Calais.

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With air raids diminishing fast with redeployment of large segments of the 'Kampgeschwader' of the Luftwaffe being posted to the Eastern Front this released additional allied anti aircraft batteries to offer vigorous defence of the whole area when enemy aircraft were seen probing and exploring the landscape. At the same time, any protected inlet or harbour played host to countless barges and transport ships that were no more real than the tanks.

Whilst further around the coast beginning with Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight, Southampton and the coast of Devon was concealed the real armada and hopes of liberation that it conveyed, cleverly concealed from the attention of the Luftwaffe. Whereas the German navy or Kriegsmarine were viewed as a fast diminishing threat notwithstanding the maritime disaster at Slapton Sands 'Operation Tiger' in April 1944, costing the lives of 946 U.S., service personnel, engaged by German E boats intercepting a small allied flotilla conducting rehearsals for the anticipated assault on Utah beach, where further casualties were suffered during the live firing exersize when US soldiers crossed into an area being shelled with live ammunition by the heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins causing a further 308 casualties, the whole death toll being greater than the actual invasion itself. That sad blunder was held in secrecy for years to come and American Mothers were told that their sons had perished like brave soldiers fighting for freedom and rest assured their loss was worthy.

Thus with great trepidation crossing the channel after a night at anchor on board ship was welcome relief to the cramped accommodation and stench of human sweat that permeated the air on an ocean liner now converted to a troop ship. R.M.S. Otranto was built by the Orient Line, c.1927., and the second to bear that name, the first having sunk in October 1918 after a collision at sea and a cost of 431 service personnel, mostly American.

Nervously a window presented itself in the weather forecast that had been dangerously unsuitable for such a major undertaking and at 5.30am., the command to set sail was nervously issued by high command. The greatest seaborne invasion in history, Operation Overlord was underway as all manner of sea worthy vessels embarked upon the short but perilous trip across the English Channel in June of the fifth year of war in Europe.

Cargo were British infantrymen including many that had served in successful campaigns in North Africa and Sicily in 1943 heralding Italian capitulation and allied armed forces gaining the first foothold on the continent of Europe. Now, after a short spell of well deserved leave in Blighty their presence implied such victories were contagious and experience a bonus rather than a bitter and awful memory and with stoic resolve they settled in cramped comfort to the mammoth task ahead.

Modest sea conditions made the journey that little bit more tolerable if you were lucky enough to be stowed upon deck to welcome the breeze and spray of salt water, but this light relief was tempered by the constant loud drone of multi engined aircraft that flew eastbound in great swarms. Such numbers and incumbent might of this mighty armada left any that bore witness, in awe and admiration that could not fail to evoke a deep appreciation of pride, augmented by a perceived sense of fear.

Moderately safe within the bowels of each vessel an army list-fully rested amidst the disgusting odor of coal fired steam and diesel powered exhaust, further confused by the chaotic sound of heavy metal as ships engines roared into life, pulsating like a heartbeat and humming gently yet audible amidst the chaos and constrained confusion. It was virtually impossible to determine any single source of sound, yet there remained one certainty in that each individual factor or element was enough to cause the stomach to wretch violently and sweat to pour freely from ice cold brow of distantly attentive soldiers.

Strong senses were challenged with the stench of burning coal and additional oil to fuel jet black smoke omitting from tall, upright funnels on top of troop ships. Engines bellowed as much smoke as could be contrived to add to the concealment of over 2,700 ships running under their own steam and a further 2,600 contained in the bowels of massive holds, all bobbing quite labouriously upon white crested waves of the English Channel.

Awe struck, every man on deck cast eyes to the land mass to the east of where the ship, a very small part of a massive armada had dropped anchor. Yet very little of what they saw was discernible earth, soil or greenery, it was more a mass of bellowing, rolling smoke, with shock waves and impact flashes preceding every explosive tower of high explosive that tore soil from earth and roots and undergrowth wrenched crudely out of the ground.

Overhead the air filled with screaming minnies or multi rocket salvos seeming endless, plus a strange rumbling sound that compounded itself in multitudes of volumes, as the calibre and explosive propulsion launched salvo of heavy shells from all manner of battleships and warships. It seemed every form of floating gun platform had been assembled and belched flame and thunder at the coastline with apparent intent to obliterate the very country called France.

Meanwhile the softer texture of human flesh contorted with pressure waves on every gaping face that gazed landward refreshed momentarily by salty, fine sea-spray. Incomprehensible the perceptible pressure each man felt was shock waves from the explosive delivery blasting the sea-shore so very far away.

On seaward side ship cranes lifted crates of munitions, jeeps, light vehicles, bren gun carriers, water bowsers, oil bowsers, and radio trailers onto large maritime transport vessels, whereas on the other landward side, safety rails were removed and rough thick rope nets hung affixed over the sides to allow egress of human cargo.

The first nervous commitment to disembark was taken with a backward step supported by queuing comrades to secure the first handhold on embarkation nets. Individuals hesitated and fumbled seeking foothold to clamber downward to the rough bobbing craft that heaved aggressively below, crashing loudly into the ships hull, with engines roaring to maintain closeness and safe passage to the transferring troops.

Personal webbing snagged the coarse netting, firearms slung upon backs delivered a rough clonk to comrades helmets and equipment both right and left and the further down the net a person went, the greater the pressure on fingers as the net thrust heavily into the steels hull, then away in unison with the rocking ship and the human movement with progress so painfully slow.

Hands sometimes crushed by hob nailed boots from above, or snagged against the side of the vessel grasping desperately to secure physical control, whilst eyes cast downward and forward to the dull view of gun metal paint adorning the ships hull. Hands crossed hands and feet stumbled heavily descending with searching movements seeking stability of balance between two heaving steel masses, all swaying wildly with humans struggling and concentrating on their own downward journey.

Knuckles bruised even bled as the wash of the sea dispersed its stinging salt on minor scuffs and injuries, then at last, breathlessly feet were guided the last few tread holes until the steel hull of the craft offered meagre comfort as each man gratefully reached the corrugated floor of troop landing craft. Where space in which individuals assumed positions was just another aspect of previously rehearsed manoevres.

Above, regular and frequent deep, throaty cracks of explosions was confused by the whining sound of shells hurtling through the air, many sounding like a heavy train rumbling through a tunnel and leaving a wash of shock wave in its wake. Bodies rocked and inadvertently ducked when the wheeze of bullets rained overhead, or the whitewash of an explosion erupted from the sea sending a torrent of water down upon the assembled soldiers.

Labouriouslly and finally, the craft was fully laden and after what seemed like an eternity the mighty engines roared into life and the vessel surged forward like a rearing beast and lurched heavily starboard and away from the mother ship toward the French coast. All this time the air resonated to the sound of whining missiles in deafening roar above the heads of those now seaborne. Heavy guns of the battle fleet belched clouds of jet black smoke and pure yellow flame that launched heavy shells in the direction of the mainland. Barrage after barrage screamed skyward from every point of the vast armada, whilst custom built ships, laden from stern to prow with missile launchers screamed in clusters and rows, where the flash of detonation simply engulfed the hulls that shuddered and shook protesting against the severity of compaction against its watery host.

Overcrowding quite possible with the sheer number of vessels was carefully averted by planned and rehearsed manoeuvres each cox'n was trained to employ. The greater majority of varying sizes of troop transporters from American DUKW that could mount the sand with its cargo and drive across both sea and land, to large and small landing craft full to the brim with human passengers, along with great square vessels transporting tanks and heavy vehicles to cope with any eventuality when engaging the foe, all weaved and spun in great circles to await positioning in designated flotilla.

If onlookers were able to comprehend the visible insanity of this major undertaking it was further confused by the image of great concrete oblongs defying logic and floating in tow from conscripted harbour barges weaving and steering strange patterns to locate themselves in pre-determined locations. One after another followed designated routes to race and secure their tow to each other like a long concrete serpent which transformed each independent unit into a mobile, floating dock or harbour. War being a recognised master of invention had created a floating disembarkation platform to increase the speed and capability to offload required munitions and supplies to service the great invasion.

On the horizon, or at very least, as far as the eye could see, were battleships, support vessels, aircraft carriers and destroyers blasting respective loads toward the French coast whilst in the skies above were fleets of aircraft droning heavily in the same direction. Squadrons of defensive fighter aircraft ensured the skies were clear of enemy aircraft while bombers followed close behind in the upper stratosphere creating white trails that merged with clouds. Below flew DC3 troop transporters carrying parachutists at the same time as towing gliders bearing a deadly load of highly trained airborne troops. Under them, but only for a limited predetermined time soared more fighters and fighter-bombers in close support to respond to fire control orders as required or seek and destroy enemy convoys, on both land and rail to deny reinforcement to enemy ground troops about to face a rising tide of allied might that nothing earthbound had any chance of possibly repelling.

Meanwhile steel studded boots crushed comrades toes in the quest for solid footing on landing craft floors, to seek scant psychological comfort of safe location, compensating for the sure knowledge that most individuals experienced the same fears and sheer terror as a common denominator on this mammoth crusade to restore freedom to those beleaguered in war torn Europe.

Ironically the distinct smell of diesel oil radiated little comforting heat to quell the shaking, shivering bodies as if it were a freezing day rather than a fear filled journey to hell and even possibly back. Where landing craft offered cold comfort came to some that had pre-rolled tobacco in hastily squeezed cigarettes of erratic shape and size, which were denied combustion due to the proximity of explosive and combustible substances. A few chewed tobacco or spearmint gum to offer just a hint of relaxation that the heaving hull of the vessel denied and a toffee nosed young officer, barely out of nappies turned ashen white and held awkwardly onto his stomach, then with embarrassed face thrust his left hand across his mouth as he wretched violently and scrabbled to locate his helmet under his chin to use as a captive bowl. Uncontrollably he wretched painfully into its dome with little or nothing leaving his body outside of bile and acid. However hard he tried, he could not dispel more fluid or digested food as his stomach was void of content being unable to eat in advance of this excursion. His upper class accent was much stifled as he asked a private for a length of rough hemp rope with a lopp at one end and at a toggle at the othert that he had over his shoulder, with which he looped the toggle trhou loop and lobbed it over the side into the sea where it was dragged ingloriously through the crafts wake until suitably clean of content.

One chap fumbled awkwardly with his webbing cross strap that crossed his breast pocket as he freed the button and manoeuvred free a tatty and well viewed photograph from his pocket. Smiling at it, and then giving it a tender kiss he showed it to one of his close comrades who showed polite, but distant interest then turned away uncomfortably and let his mind wander back to another time and another place.

From somewhere on the boat came a continuous chatter of one individual whose voice like the staccato of a woodpecker seemed unintelligible because of its speed, where the pitch demonstrated intense nervousness and quite clearly this person occupied his mind with some far distant subject or theme as a means of escape from the reality of where he was now. Not knowing from where the sound came nobody made any attempt to answer or respond to his speech and after a few short minutes the voice to fade and disappear into a myriad of sound that was subdued by the heavy roar of diesel engines and a background sound of havoc and bedlam.

Thankfully new to this most perilous experience human heads shrunk down into shoulders as the whining sound of ships artillery fired overhead. Shockingly low and risking destruction from its own armed forces swept isolated aircraft that nosed speedily toward the coastline to unload its deadly cargo of rocket propelled missiles or free falling bomb that detonated explosively amidst the erupting earth thrust skyward by the barrage from the sea.

Directional impact of air-bound ordinance aimed toward them was impossible to determine and the only account an individual could make of where and what was the shrill whistling sound of bullets that pinged on the walls of the vessel as the staccato of sound dispersed against the crumping impact of explosions and towers of water that reached for the sky and dropped surprisingly heavily into the surf filled seas and floating armada of men.

It seemed incredible that seagulls seemed oblivious to the violence or form that flew through the air occasionally obliterating one of them yet having no impact upon the screeching, cawing sound of the rest that flew purposefully seeking food with there only concern being the hollow in their stomachs. Equally as puzzling, or seemingly out of place were the shoals of dead fish that bobbed lifelessly upon the waves knocked senseless and dead by the sea-bound explosions.

Several soldiers betrayed their innermost fear by displaying nervous twitches or simply chewed their nails, whilst some clever folk went through stripping procedures with their weapons to keep minds industriously occupied and suitably distracted from the German shells and mortars that were landing quite erratically around them. Clever souls told jokes or fidgeted with a pack of cards asking compatriots to choose a card and then simply shuffle it back into the pack and simply forget the trick or magic and offer the same experience to yet another who displayed little or no interest, with minds set fast to the task. More than one was seen to check his dog-tags and ensure envelopes placed in top breast pockets were duly addressed and sealed ready for delivery to loved ones. Some trembled with fear and thrashed arms across bodies slapping sides to convince onlookers their demena was caused by the cold and quite a few expressed concern in premonition of doom and that they would stop a bullet or become a casualty to any number of evil devices the Germans had set up on the beaches to deter landings and destroy those that tried.

The stench of salt mixed with diesel fumes opened all kinds of human, physical reactions. Vomiting was commonplace, the only dilemma was where, or upon whom did it land. The wild rocking of the vessel and the powerful surge of its twin 4.5 Perkins diesel engine made it virtually impossible to aim ones spew with any consideration for other people who might well be prompted to follow suit had their comrades offered a cue. Other natural body functions were put to the ultimate test with some men failing at the sheer exhaustion and tension that accompanied the pandemonium around them. Urine flowed across the floor as one frantic soldier struggled frantically at his khaki trousers to perch his backside over the side of the craft, clawing desperately at the straps of a comrade to prevent simply rolling off the boat and with great relief, spewed forth diarrhea that sprayed thankfully away from the ship as the wind took the fluid to dispersal at sea. The man wrenched his net scarf from round his neck and wiped his backside vigorously, then releasing it seaward he re-clothed himself and took his place back with the men taking some care to avert their gaze as his embarrassment was clearly visible.

Someone began to chatter incoherently to be silenced by a single word barked out from amidst the throng ‘Taylor’ Another cocked his rifle eagerly and was ordered to engage his safety catch following the words “Who told you to load that rifle?”, several were seen to clear, or rub their eyes as if to improve vision but in truth was more like to remove welling fluids that fear instigates without concession.

From somewhere very close, above and behind came the thunderous clatter of a heavy cannon blasting shells toward enemy strongholds and sending red hot brass cartridge cases bouncing and ricocheting around the containment area of troops.

Someplace amidst the throng of soldiery came a frivolous whistling tune, seemingly reaching a pitch it became unable to sustain. Stopping abruptly the soldier coughed clumsily as if to conceal his inability to maintain the song, then returned to the tune at a lower tone causing it to fade gradually and simply vanish from the competition of sound competing with sound for supremacy of airwaves. Another whispered the Lords prayer with a conviction that caused others to follow suit and air the words with great reverence and doleful belief.

Almost pigeon stepping the mass of manpower nudged steadily toward the gaping hole where the ramp fell heavily into the whitewash of thrusting waves. The first men fell like puppets with their strings cut, others leapt to the sides and heavily into the deeper waters than depth prescribed in rehearsal. And steadily, from the back, the whole human cargo edged forward, paused momentarily in anticipation of being able to lunged gainfully into the fast changing colour of the briny waves of the shoreline.

Senses reeled, vision impaired by individuals whose gaze fixed fearfully to the front fidgeting impatiently, awaiting space to stride forward and disembark onto the perceived comfort of sandy beach. Bobbing from side to side individuals competed for just a glimpse or fleeting glance that would indicate their turn would soon arrive. Whilst most at the front of the vessel fell lifeless and cut down by the swathes of enemy bullets that greeted their arrival. Others laden with equipment struggled through the tidal rush and onto firm ground then onward and suddenly there seemed a full panoramic view to the front that was in stark contrast to the image just moments before. A fleeting delay and mild confusion were quelled by a loud barking order from the rear as each person was ordered to disembark and head for the sand dunes further inland.

Stumbling at first a lurching soldier simply dropped lifeless and without ceremony or sound and disappeared in the rolling waves. Clearly dead another dropped like a stone and lay still in oblivion and denied the luxury of identifying casualties whether it were a close friend or comrade; it didn’t matter, they were an obstacle that had to be overcome, and without ceremony stepped over, with an automated, apologetic nudge of a heavy boot momentarily snagging on lifeless forms.

The cold mid summer sea offered a shock of refreshment and a strange immersing weight that bore down on the body and its heavily burdened load. With weapons raised above head, the upper torso thrust and heaved to lunge body weight forward and push aside any that stood in its path. Waves crashed against extinct humans, forced by tidal sway alongside man made wash as the small armada crashed heavily onto the coastline. Some vessels sank unceremoniously to become a metallic graveyards of the future, whilst an increasing number spilled their load and turned about to reload shuttle in more of the nervous, fearful cargo.

What a strange concept was the belief that an individual could duck below the waves and effectively hide from the incoming ordinance that was so dreadfully, bodily destructive. Of course the sea was no shield and absence of vision was no guarantee of safety with such a volume of air bound, generalized direction of enemy fire.

Yet fear makes no reference to common sense as hysteria is only managed and contained by the firm imposition of discipline and a weird sense that defers personal fear by extending comfort to that demonstrated by others. On the other hand adrenalin removes all sense of care and allows a body to charge forward with renewed vigour that is no less shocked when cut down by enemy fire. Those that survived that experience would boast of reveling in the fact that it enjoyed the very prospect of danger without restraint, but in reality fear prevailed and few denied its existence.

Initial contact with sea came as a physical shock of its coldness and the brine tasting water that immersed clothing, whilst the impact of knees landing absorbed the weight to regain posture and full height. To one side a mans body thrust leftward, with right arm swinging wildly toward its left side as if searching for something that should have been there. The gesture was one of panic and confusion that seemed placated when engaging with a lump that bobbed around in the sea at waist level and when raised, was only slightly attached to his body by the strong and time proven khaki serge that was a sleeve. As if in recognition of ones own body part, the rest of the human frame shrunk into the rolling waves changing their colour to crimson before being grabbed wildly and dragged ashore by a comrade who had witnessed the mutilation in shock and horror.

Dumped ingloriously on the sodden sands the mans face ashened and gaped in disbelief. He made a stupid attempt to replace the arm as if it would relocate by simply touching its bodily host, then recognizing this futility; he dropped it to the floor, rolled it over and tugged back the buttoned cuff to see if his watch was still working. As if reassured, he struggled to his feet, picked up a rifle from a fallen comrade, grasped the threaded material of his battle dress sleeve and staggered up the beach holding the stump of his arm in search of help and medical aid.

Some men had gotten snared upon the rolls of barbed wire rolled out below the sea-line. Their quest to escape frustrated by every rolling wave preventing escape or freedom of movement. Many succumbed to the sea having rolled and thrashed amidst the unrelenting wire that ensnared and trapped them to their death. Others presented easy targets to the single fire rifles that the enemy trained down upon them. No small number staggered ashore with savage lacerations to their torso and limbs, slashed beneath the waves by sharpened, steel stakes aimed at an angle seaward, but the most sorrowful and futile number that made the shore simply floated. Many were uselessly sacrificed to bad, or over eager judgment on the part of crafts coxans to discharge their load and return for another having been discharged in water far too early and simply dragged beneath the waves by their personal equipment.

Fast realization that whatever cut down a man, it seemed like an imperceptible scythe and its invisibility left a sense of incredulity and more often shock of injury suppressed pain and simple curiosity as to the scientific term ‘cause and effect’. ‘What on earth caused that?’ Or, ‘where has that gone’ and then agony, as if visual testimony was required to inform the brain that it was now expected to respond in registering pain? But the mind is kind, anesthetized by injury, shock and disbelief the body continues to function as if all was well and intact.

Sight and sound both deafening and invisible presented harsh reminder of the peril it announced but compensated little for the realization that sudden warm splatters of fluid on faces, were intestines, or vital organs of men that simply vanished into a thousand pieces of body explosion. Harder clumps might well reflect human limbs but the greater threat was in anti personnel shrapnel that scythed through the air and penetrated flesh without impediment or obstruction and more often than not maintained its momentum to claim a second victim.

Tidal line to dunes seemed like a marathon of an obstacle course, with transit much hampered by the thick serge uniform material being sodden right through and equipment in various states of disorder and weight dependent upon deployment of task or role. Weaponry too caused major impediment of movement which by this time had not been put to use, whilst groups of men awaited orders to issue lines of fire, or locate gun groups to support professional practitioners such as engineers or demolition experts clearing obstacles to the front. Medical teams in particular scanned open ground in search of the slightest hollow or safe zone where treatment areas could be created and the injured placed with just a modicum of cover and concealment. Traffic control centres were established with captains visible and employing the essential need of conveying a fast moving traffic and directing operations within their own designated zones.

Few allied tanks made successful landing as custom built floating dinghies that wrapped around the steel body of tanks were largely useless and sank beneath the pitching waves taking crews and weapons to eternity. Churchill and Sherman tanks that did make the shore were converted to carry circular drums on the front with flailing chains to detonate landmines, whilst others had drums of segmented roadways that could be rolled out over poor, or soft ground and create carriageway where absence might prevent access. Some had hydraulic bridge segments that lumbered up the sands to allow river crossing or atop tank trap ditches and on one beachhead Britain’s vain attempt to mimic the German heavy tank, (the Elephant) simply sank into the soft sand and lay for the duration lobbing shells in the general direction of the foe in bold gesture, as if defiant in embarrassment that structural design was so flawed that they became nothing more than assault guns and museum pieces.

The air assault had to be launched with a tactical sense of precaution. Too much too soon might warn the enemy of the pending invasion yet crucial targets existed that required a measured attack in such a fashion as to not raise suspicion. One such raid unfortunately cost the lives of 186 soldiers of the British Reconnaissance Corps taking cover in the town of Melville-Franceville-Plage that was bombed in a raid by Lancaster bombers attempting to neutralize a German artillery battery. A similar unfortunate incident occurred with the bombing of Drop Zone 'V' where the British 6th Airborne Division lost 78 persons and another 65 were injured.

That withstanding in the bright blue sky above the naval armada rotation of twin engined propellers made aircraft vibrate steadily as the roar of the engines permeated the atmosphere and to some extent muffled the sound of explosives occurring on land. Only upon reaching the French coastline did aircraft lurch to one side or other due to shock waves, in response to the first anti aircraft fire, whilst others dropped drastically when hitting a natural air pocket as nature contrived with the enemy to obstruct the airborne assault. However the element of surprise served allied planners well and it took prescious minutes for enemy defenders to respond efficiently as the naval bombardment would allow in an attempt to repel the invasion.

Airborne troops responded well to training and discipline and presented an outward impression of distance, as if their minds were concentrating on something far away, perhaps family and home and the truth was, such mental diversions were probably the best way to cope with being penned up in the fuselage of an aircraft with an increasing number of the German army trying to shoot you down. Some found themselves air sick and made prolific use of sick bags provided to retain spewed content. In all many suffered like their counter parts at sea due to the loss of equilibrium and sense of balance both forms of transit was prone to induce. A couple of men simply snoozed with woolen cap comforters drawn over their eyes to create an illusion of darkness. Whilst some perked up their spirits with the shrill sounds of whistling, or another humming a tune to themselves.

All were faced with an entirely different dilemma, and coping with it was a purely personal and very intimate thing, albeit they all had one factor in common, their lives could be extinguished in thrice as the Dakota DC3 transport aircraft carried its human cargo seated down both sides of the fuselage and if it seems an advantage, its passengers were denied visual contact with either progress, threat, damage or even personal injury in the poor light the enclosed body transmitted. Partial respite was gained as the central aisle enjoyed a strangely mild breeze omitted from the single door on one side of the fuselage, yet however slight it was, it still offered a cooling element to balance the natural exchange of human heat transmitted by close proximity of seating.

Men sat quiet and unresponsive, unable to move, think, or defend themselves, death would strike without warning and individuals simply waited for it as if queuing for a loaf of bread. Some slumped forward, motionless for all time as holes appeared in the fuselage that became visible with the flash of an anti aircraft shell that illuminated them.

Aerodynamics of normal flight was roughly interrupted by explosions of anti aircraft shells bursting at gradually adjusting heights expelled by the legendary German battery weapon, the versatile 88mm; turbulence was much exaggerated by explosive compression and shock wave of the shells, sending shards of deadly shrapnel in every direction to pierce thin aluminum fuselage and human flesh indiscriminately and without obstruction. Swathes of light would appear in erratic lines as bright gleaming sunlight penetrated where machine gun bullets or shrapnel struck the plane and oft time its passengers.

An aircraft struck by an explosive shell might simply disintegrate and spill its human cargo to free fall like rag dolls. On the other hand, wing damage, engine failure, rudder failure, aileron malfunction, would result in unresponsive mayhem within the aircraft. Human beings would be tossed from side to side or nose bound as it goes into a dive with men frantically clambering over compatriots to attempt exit through the single door. Then of course there was fire, the fuselage would burn like a furnace and any soft tissue within would simply melt with death coming as scant relief when the aircraft plummeted to earth, buried itself deep into foreign soil and disintegrate into oblivion.

Lives were lost at an alarming rate; direct hits on aircraft or gliders in tow would claim dozens of lives at once. The sky itself seemed full of tumbling helpless humanity that had been roughly spilled from different means of transportation. Whilst flying craft in a multitude of shapes and conditions would clash and drag down escapees that were trapped in flaming airframes. Those few that did find means of escape eagerly scanned for tracer trails or plummeting aircraft and if sighted making desperate, frantic attempts to steer in any direction that might prevent collision, albeit knowing that evasion had no consistency or measurable course of travel that was actually any safer.

Given that a transporter would reach its appointed destination, bearing in mind such task was fraught with technical problems as well as human, a red warning light would show within the fuselage and with no small sense of relief, the human cargo would raise to their feet, clip on to the parachute release cable and stand front to back to fellow paratroopers facing the tailplane. Only then could a full appraisal of casualties be made, the dead could be identified because they simply didn't stand up. Regardless survivors rose, clipped up and looked stoically to the front, averting the dry lifless eyes of those that remained on benches with body fluids responding to gravity to pool within the deceased human frame at its very lowest point.

Then a green light cast its glow on those nearest to the open door offering strange relief that the time had finally drawn near and the process so frequently rehearsed started; step forward, stop, step forward, stop, step forward, cold air rushing against open cheeks offering relief and cleansing of sweat beaded faces, step forward and jump, increased cold air rushing past to contort fadial expression, rushing, rushing, rushing, then a ★★★★ under arm pits and groin thrusting legs forward with shock of the suddenness of the halt in physical plummeting. Then floating gently down in a quirky, total silence and then relief, relief in the knowledge that soon, after floating so very helplessly in space, with bullets whizzing through the air like wild bee's, soon would yield welcome relief with Mother earth embraceing human form and cold comfort as reassurance and relief.

Time seemed to stand still as the harness and canopy supported the gentle sway of human cargo that dropped at regulated speed where distance to ground once infinite suddenly rushed toward two booted feet awaiting the coil of a roll when landing on Terra-firma. Awe struck an individual could gaze across the massive vista at the sheer number of men dropping freely into the fields on the French landscape that spat flame or spewed smoke and explosions. Something majestic in the gentle sway benefited greatly by natural breeze giving opportunity for the mind to simply exclude the ugliness of canopies that did not open or lifeless forms that dropped to earth; the whole passage presented itself like mental surrealism and individual minds and thoughts wandered to better times and places.

There seemed something graceful in the gentle curve and winding passage of machine gun fire displayed by every third round being tracer. The white hot phosphorous transit could be seen leaving the ground and arching with the wind into the deep blue skies above or across turmoil filled landscape. Its passage gave indication of the mixed feelings of sheer panic and concentrated resolve that overwhelmed the man who pulled the trigger below. His aim and measure of concentration was measured by the width of spray or concentration of fire upon given targets. The only halt in the sad passage of this pretty firework was when it struck a target be it metal or man. The impact and destructive power of the missile, however small, left little doubt as to mal-intent of the scything spray of one thousand two hundred rounds per minute.

In essence whatever mode of transport carried human beings toward such hell; they were forced to endure their vulnerability without chance of defence or retribution. Utter, abject helplessness could not tolerate or perhaps compensate for such intense fear and trepidation, regardless of age or past experience was of little benefit to human psyche. The best that could be hoped for, in the event of being struck by any of the multitude of missiles that were air-bound, was that contact would be severe, terminal, quick, destructive and fatal. Speed of demise and probable absence of pain would accompany a direct hit, anything less could result in the most horrendous of injuries and that in turn would require numerous individuals to deal with medical aid, care and treatment, to say nothing of physical repair and hospitalization. Death was welcome release!

Adjustments to personal equipment and clothing eased discomfort when first taking a seat that may well persist the whole journey due to absence of space to move, but at long last limbs could be stretched and the human frame given that much more air room to expand itself and then relax, relax that is if you could maintain the ongoing attitude of mental distancing from the chaos that rained down from every direction.

One of the few certainties that this day heralded, was that the continent of Europe would never be the same again and the irony was, that as death rained from the skies omitted by allied bombers and shells looped through the air toward enemy strongholds, French citizens would also fall victim to a number measured in excess of four thousand, the freedom this great invasion brought them was eternal.

Ironically, word has it that one day you will be able to cross the channel in fast moving trains through tunnels underground. I think I will wait til then, even though I may be expected to show my passport upon arrival!

Apr 25, '13
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