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D-Day: – and + 1

65 years ago tonight, my husband, S C Wright, was the radar officer in the code room on the HMS Apollo.  He decoded the message that announced the June 6 commencement of Operation Overlord.  The Apollo lay in New Haven, a port in Wales.  They were told to sail for Portsmouth.

The Apollo, a fast light mine-layer, was chosen as the headquarters ship for General Eisenhower.  They left Portsmouth the night of June 6 and reached the Normandy coast early on D-Day +1.

My husband, a 20-year-old naval lieutenant, had grown up in Vancouver, BC.  His parents were both British, and from an early age, my husband was navy mad.  When war began, he was afraid it would end before he could serve and wanted to join at once, but my mother-in-law insisted he finish his BA.  He went to the University of British Columbia and studied day and night and graduated in 1942 with a BS in physics.  Canada had agreed to supply the Royal Fleet with radar officers, and my husband was seconded to the Royal Navy, where he served until 1946.

 

My husband in 1944 in his naval dress uniform

My husband in 1944 in his naval dress uniform

 

When they reached the Normandy coast, early on June 7, the seas were rough.  British warships fired shells overhead at German redoubts; the men on the Apollo could see the shells as they went over.  Unfortunately, the Apollo went aground.  My husband had the dubious privilege of being on the bridge when one of her screws caught in the ground and the mast began to tilt.  He was a few feet from General Eisenhower, who was both dismayed and angry–and was quickly removed to a back-up command ship.  The Apollo limped back across the channel at 2 knots to Newcastle.  They were lucky not to be sunk–submarines underneath, dogfights above, and no ability to dodge either.  The first V-1 rockets were fired that night, and as they slowly rode back to Newcastle, the crew could hear their ominous engine rumblings without knowing what they were.

Like many of the so-called “great generation,” my husband went on with his life–to a distinguished career in high energy physics–without dwelling on his war experiences.  About a decade ago, he finally decided he wanted to revisit Normandy in peacetime.  We arrived on a day of bright sun, calm seas, no guns and made the solemn pilgrimmage to Utah, Omaha, Point d’Hoc.  It was at Point d’Hoc that my husband’s composure broke down.  The monument there, to the Rangers who lost their lives scaling those cliffs, is a monument to America–every nationality is represented in those names.  And to stand there, knowing that he lived a whole life denied to these youths, shook him, and me.  Like most other visitors, we could only weep.

Every French person we encountered, from the youngest teen to the oldest shopkeeper, when they learned about my husband’s service, treated him with extraordinary respect.  That someone would come from overseas to save their country is a sacrifice none of them every forgets.

 

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

 

 

I admire my husband and respect the sacrifice of every person who has ever died or fought.  As a Jew, I am grateful a thousand times over for those who saved a tiny remnant of my family from death.  I somehow can’t bear the thought of Barack and Sarkozy making publicity out of Normandy, though.  What goes through my head tonight is that Wilfred Owen poem:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood  

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,  

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,  

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 

To children ardent for some desperate glory,  

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est  

Pro patria mori.

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  • Idzan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

    Lucky you to have a husband with such distinguished services.

    And handsome too.

    May you have many more happy years together.

  • Great post, Sara. To get witness accounts from well known moments like D-Day is really very interesting. And I’ve never thought about this date from the French point of view, for some reason. I’ve always ‘been’ on the boats in my mind.

  • Sara, thank you for this post, even though it made me cry!

    My dad was in the RCNVR, serving as a communications operator on a corvette protecting the North American coastline. He never mentioned specifically where he was on June 6, but every year he made sure we took a moment to remember what happened this day.

    He passed away several years ago, but I always stop for a moment on June 6 to remember him and the sacrifices so many young men made for our freedom.

  • Thanks for sharing in this moment with me, and with my husband. And in memory of everyone who fought then. And yes, Idzan Ismail, I’m most fortunate in my marriage.

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  • Kit

    To think of how scared they must have been, knowing that the fate of Europe was resting in their hands. What brave men. beautiful entry!

  • Tina Stuart

    I was thinking of my Dad on Saturday as well for the anniversary of D Day. He was in the 101st Airborne, and they jumped the night before. He was captured on June 8, and was a POW for the remainder of the War in Europe. I lost my Dad in 2007, and hold dear to my heart the anniversaries that meant so much to him. He too went to France, in 1994 for the 50th Anniversary, and was very graciously honored by the people there, indeed, all over Europe. Thank you to your husband for his service and the sacrifices that he made for all of us.

  • Simon Baines

    My Grandad Raymond W Baines also serve on HMS apollo .I always like to here the story of when HMS apollo ran a ground,And also the other stories he still tells of the time he spent on HMS apollo.

    These men were so brave.

    Thanks Sara for this great post.

  • I’m glad your dad is still with you to tell you the story. The poor captain was court-marshaled for going aground and my husband had to testify. The court marshal was convened in a wormy old ship and the men from the admiralty sat hearing testimony with their swords on the table–just like some movie. The captain lost his command–I’ve always thought that was terribly unfair.

  • ab

    I cried when I read it.

    My grandfather, captain of a Norwegian cargo ship, was torpedoed in 1941 and lost his life. Only a few years ago did I learn of the German submarine commander who did it – a 26-year-old thinking it was exciting. My grandfather has been dead all those years, lost on the ocean floor, leaving wife and a son, and this youth ordered the fire and lived on.

  • ab, thank you for telling us that story. I’m so sorry to stir up painful memories for you, but grateful to you for letting usr ead them.

  • ab

    Not at all, Sara. I was moved by your story and cried for all the people lost in the war, and I am grateful to them. And it made me remember my grandfather, whom I never met.

  • Keith

    Thank you for your comments on D-Day. I’ve read a lot about it and am familiar with bwhat you wrote about. My uncle was in the 35th Division which came ashore a few days later and fought across Europe, the Battle of The Bulge, and Germany. He was wounded in Germany. He rarely would talk about his war experiences. He did say what he remembered most about the Battle of The Bulge was always being so cold and hungry.

  • John Kerry

    My dad, stoker 2nd class Norman Kerry, served on the HMS Apollo and also tells the story of being grounded off omaha beach. His favorite story is when, just after the war ended, the crew stole the Aussies beer enroute to to the aussies anchored in japan and nearly started another war. He remembers fondly his time serving on the Apollo.

  • saraparetsky

    Mr. Kerry–Thanks for posting your dad’s experience on the Apollo–and my husband loved the story about the beer! I hope your dad is still good for a few more rounds.

    And Keith, thanks for putting in your father’s the Battle of the Bulge experience– a horrible battle–although I have friends (both sadly now dead) who met there–she was an ambulance driver and he was an infantryman. They met the day after the battle ended, fell into each other’s arms, and then Jane hotwired an abandoned German staff car and the two of them went AWOL for 3 days to newly-liberated Paris. They rejoined their respective units without reprimand, which was lucky for them, and were married for 63 years.

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