Tag Archives: D-Day

Poems at War

When I began reading French literature I came across Paul Verlaine. Alphonse de Lamartine too became a favourite. I would take especial pleasure in intoning the line from Villon: Ou sont les neiges d’antan. I was in my late teens and easily moved by the dramatic declarations of doomed love. I had no idea that poetry had been used in the war until I returned to studying French after my retirement. 

The D Day Landings

Slapton Memorial

The organisation of the D Day Landings (Operation Overlord) was an amazing achievement. The engineering solutions to the problems presented by moving the combined armed forces from several nations across the sea were stunning. All this had to be coordinated with the resistance fighters in France. The deceptions to keep secret the destination of the invasion were intricate and labyrinthine. And the preparations, especially along the south coast and in the South West, were enormous. Some of these can still be seen. No one can walk along Slapton Sands without becoming aware of its role in preparing and rehearsing the troops. One poem played a small but significant part in all of this.

Chanson D’Automne by Paul Verlaine

On the 1st June 1944 soon at 6.30 in the morning, Radio Londres transmitted the first three lines of a poem by Paul Verlaine. 

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne

It means, roughly, the long sobs of the violins of autumn. It was a coded message. It was heard by many, and you can still hear it here . The sonorous vowels, sound portentous. The message was a warning to one branch of the French resistance fighters. It indicated that within the next two weeks Operation Overlord would be launched, the long-awaited invasion of France by the Allies. It was an instruction to stand by for the next three lines which would signal that they should begin sabotage activities on the railways in France. These were designed to disrupt German transport routes.

Commemorative plaque of Radio Londres in the cemetery of Asnelles, Calvados by Wayne77 via Wikicommons

The second three lines of Verlaine’s poem were broadcast in the same way four days later on 5th June. 

Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Arthur Symonds translates this as My heart is drowned/In the slow sound/Languorous and long.

This second message indicated to the French resistance that the invasion would begin within 48 hours and that they were to initiate sabotage activities on the railways immediately. The parachute landings began just hours after the message was sent out.

The broadcasts were intercepted by German forces. On hearing the three lines in the second of the messages the German Security Service reported to the German High Command, and the army was alerted that an invasion might begin within 48 hours. There had been many false alarms so the Seventh Army took no action. They were responsible for the area in Normandy where the landings were to be made.

The D Day landings began on 6th June. The German effort to respond to the invasion by redirecting troops was severely hampered by the damage from sabotage of the resistance and allied bombing to the French railway lines. 

Paul Verlaine

CHANSON D’AUTOMNE

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure.

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Paul Verlaine (1866)

Poem Codes

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) in its communications with operatives in France originally used well-established poems, but gradually they began making up rhymes which would be less easy to decipher. Some of these were rude and sexual. The most famous, which is neither rude nor sexual but moving, was probably written by Leo Marks, the codes officer, and begins

The life that I have 
Is all that I have 
And the life that I have 
Is yours

I sometimes think that literature should not serve armed conflict. It offends my pacifist instincts. But I do find myself moved by the story of Verlaine’s poem.

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26 Steps: Walking and Writing (2)

Writing and walking are closely connected for some writers. I explored some connections in a blogpost in August: Steps to Improve Your Writing. In this post I explore a project in which I participated which explicitly links writing and walking. It was an homage to John Buchan and his novel The 39 steps.

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26 Steps in 62 words

In March I agreed to contribute to a project called 26 steps, part of an on-going collective writing programme, hosted on the 26 steps website. Writers undertook a walk, wrote about it, drew a sketch map and added a B&W photo. The walks were linked by the letters of the alphabet: the first walk was from a place beginning with A to another beginning with B, then the 2nd writer walked from a place beginning with B to another starting with C and so on. My route was Stoke Fleming to Torcross: S-T. The distance was about six miles and followed a section of the South West Coastal Path. I usually plan circular walks, so this required organising a taxi from Torcross to Stoke Fleming so that I could rejoin my car at the end of the walk. My plans were not helped by storm damage to the sea wall at Torcross just before the scheduled walk in March, and by several stormy days.

Version 2

Walking and writing are not things you can do simultaneously. But I always carry my notebook. And my camera. And my map. I finally chose a day when the clouds were high, there was a chance of sun and I was a couple of weeks into a fitness programme.

St F to Torcross

Slapton Sands

The route took me along Slapton Sands. It is impossible to live in the South West and not know that something happened at Slapton Sands, an event that was rarely spoken about immediately after it happened, and only exposed by the campaigning a local resident, Ken Small. He finally obtained permission to dig up an M4 Sherman tank that had been buried in the sand and it was placed in Torcross car park in 1984, a memorial to the men who died on Slapton Sands.

287-tank

The story begins in the 1940s when the US joined the war effort, and plans were made for the invasion of the Normandy coast. Elaborate plans to persuade Hitler and his generals that the invasion would happen nearer the Straits of Dover were successful. There were decoys to distract attention from the huge number of troops and equipment being moved to the South West coast, ready to cross to the beaches of Normandy.

Slapton Sands were selected for rehearsals because its coastal bar resembled ‘Utah’ Beach. The local inhabitants moved out. On Slapton Sands there is a granite stone, put up by the United States Army Authorities. It has a long inscription thanking the people of the villages in the area who moved out of their homes and farms to make way for the troops in order that rehearsals could take place.

Version 2

A tragedy

On 27th April 1944 a rehearsal went very badly wrong, resulting in the deaths of 946 American servicemen by ‘friendly’ fire. Signals had not been coordinated to the same frequency. Some ships were delayed and the information was not received by some participants. Men, large numbers of men were killed by their own allies.

Among the missing were ten BIGOTs, officers who knew the details of the invasion plans. Until all these were accounted for it was impossible to be confident that the plans hadn’t fallen into German hands. Until all ten were accounted for, the Normandy Landings were at risk.

Aftermath

The armed forces do not celebrate their mistakes, and after 1944 other events captured people’s attention, such as the end of the war in Europe and the final stages of the war in Japan. For these reasons, it seems, the whole incident was ‘conveniently forgotten’ in the words of Ken Small.

It is impossible to walk along the Sands without this knowledge, of the war, the preparations, the Normandy Landings and the cover-ups. Not much of it reflects well on humans. The story is present even while people enjoy the beach, watch the wild fowl on the freshwater lake that lies behind the Sands, fish, bathe and go naked on the naturists’ beach.

I tried to capture all this in my 62-word description of the walk. This is what I wrote:

Stoke Fleming to Torcross

Sea is constant, caressing the sand, careless of leaping dogs, naturists, anglers, the granite monument of gratitude from US forces, walkers, sea wall, and Operation Tiger in 1944, when almost a thousand men were rehearsing and killed by friendly fire, jeopardising the D-Day landings. The Allies went to Normandy and I walk along the sands in sun, liberty and knowledge of this.

Related website

You can find all the contributions – A-Z – to the 26 steps project on the website here together with other projects undertaken by the group.

There have been several fictionalised accounts of the events. Among them are:

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo, adapted as the play 946.

The Night of the Fox by Jack Higgins

An episode of Foyle’s War called All Clear (2008) also drew on these events.

 

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Filed under Books and Walking, Writing, Writing and Walking