I remember I was off-duty, asleep in the cramped quarters inside the bunker, when my sargent burst in and shook me by my shoulders quite roughly.
“Wake up, Franzo, they are everywhere!” he screamed into my ear.
Dazed, I managed to blurt out,”They? Who?” And immediately I understood. I slapped on the pants of my tunic as fast as I could and wearing just an undershirt, I stumbled out into the bramble bush that ringed the pillbox.
Looking out across the Channel, I could not believe my eyes. Ships – horizon to horizon – just ships, all sizes of ships. So many, that you couldn’t even begin to count them. The little ones, the landing crafts, were the closest and they were already disgorging personnel. Enemy soldiers were leaping into the surf, their rifles above their heads and scampering up the sand.
The previous month, Rommel had visited Sector-E. He had come into our bunker and I clearly remember him looking out at the waters of the Channel through the slit in the concrete and saying half to himself,” Dieser Strand ist ideal für eine Invasion” (This beach is ideally suited for an invasion). I wonder why no one seemed to have taken heed. Reliable accounts of the happenings within the High Command at the Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg around the same time in early 1944, suggest that Rommel had indeed warned Hitler about this.
I hurriedly jammed myself behind the Panzerbüchse, checked that the ammo belt was fed in and locked and I let loose. The Panzerbüchse literally spewed out lead, at 240 rounds per minute and I swept the beach in a wide arc and watched as the advancing men stumbled and sprawled in the sand. But they just kept coming and coming, wave after wave.
The last thing I remembered was being hit across my helmet with something hard, probably the butt of a gun and being knocked unconscious. Something told me at that moment that, for me, the war was over.”
The above first-person account was narrated by ex-Wehrmacht Obergeifreiter Franz Rollman, 78, when he was recalling for Le Monde in 2004, the D-Day landings on Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes, more famous as ‘Omaha Beach’, one of the five sectors on the French Channel coastline. On June 06, 1944, 160000 Allied troops landed there, along a 50 mile stretch of the Normandy coast to begin the invasion of Europe and the ultimate defeat of Germany.
It is now 70 years since that extraordinary battle which I would have dearly loved to watch unfold in front of my eyes.
Obergeifreiter Rollman said something that stuck in me. “They kept coming and coming, wave after wave.” What makes soldiers defy all odds and resolutely scramble up a gentle slope in the sand through withering machine-gun fire, knowing full well that they had one chance in ten, making it over the ridge beyond the enemy pillboxes?
I think the exemplary courage that the world saw that day came from a passionate belief that they were doing the right thing, fighting a just war. Descendants of the same brave men fought a very different war, just 20 years on, in Vietnam, and we all know what happened in the end there.
The legendary Roman General, Scipio Africanus (236-183 BC), took great pains in speaking to his troops before a battle, charging them up with the burning passion that comes with knowing you are doing something for a sacred cause. He used guile to trick Hannibal into believing that the bulk of his forces were somewhere else, when they were actually gathering at a spot behind the Carthaginian General.
History repeated itself 2100 years later, in 1944, on the beaches of Northern France.