Growing up as a child, I was absolutely fascinated with the bravery, resilience and innovation of the British armed forces throughout World War 2; largely due to the fact that my godfather, Alfred George “Joe” Martin, was a member of the Royal Marine Commandos.
Joe was an extremely humble man with a dry wit, unlike any other that I have known in my lifetime. He was a beautifully generous and affectionate man who seldom spoke about his wartime exploits; save perhaps for the occasional quip regarding exaggerated Hollywood war films or about members of the British Royal Family. I loved how he scathed the wannabes who paraded around displaying “more un-earned medals than they had brain cells”. I remember him being particularly cynical about Prince Philip (Queen Elizabeth II’s husband) who must have fought in every single conflict, ever, to earn the medals he carried on remberance day.
I often used to sit with Joe and relentlessly pressed him for information about his time in Europe during the war. My favourite ‘story’ told of his part in the D-Day landings at Normandy, and of how his unit were sent in early to knock out German gun emplacements and fortifications.
As part of the 1st Special Service Brigade, No. 4 Commando took part in the Normandy Landings in June 1944. Landing on Sword beach 30 minutes before the rest of the brigade, their first objectives were to capture a strong point and gun battery in Ouistreham. After the commandos eliminated these positions they rejoined the brigade, reinforcing the 6th Airborne Division at the Orne bridges. Before the invasion the brigade had been informed that they would stay in France for only a few days. The commando remained there for a further 82 days, protecting the beachhead’s left flank. During that period, No. 4 Commando endured over 50 percent casualties. Finally withdrawn to Britain in September 1944, they were reassigned to the 4th Special Service Brigade for the assault on Walcheren island. At the end of the war No. 4 Commando became part of the occupation force in Germany, but together with all other army commando units were disbanded in 1946 (Joe’s Naval discharge papers show that he was discharged in March 1946).
I can still remember the sadness in his eyes as he recounted the experience of riding through the waves in the amphibious landing craft before wading into the sea and trudging onto the beach; only to be greeted by German sniper rifles and machine gun nests. I was fascinated as he described the much feared dive bombing Stuker (he could still remember the screaming sound as the aircraft dived to attack) and distant sound of Panzer tanks being pushed back towards Caen. Or as he described it, “hell”.
It was always my ambition to visit the beaches of Normandy and pay my respects to all those who took part in the name of freedom; the opportunity finally came when my beloved Amy and her younger brother Brett told me they would be coming over to visit; Brett also had a lifetime dream of going to Normandy (after reading so much about the history of dubya dubya 2). So plans were made and off we went!
It was only fitting that we boarded an overnight ferry in the City of Portsmouth; the very place where the Allied forces left to invade France. As we headed off, we passed by so many of the decommission British warships that I remembered seeing on a visit to Portsmouth as a child; it certainly set the tone! The accomodation on the ferry was surprsingly comfortable, bunkbeds and a shower felt like luxury when I pondered how those brave souls must have crossed the English Channel!
We arrived into the port of Caen (Ouistreham) at around 6:45am local time; dawn. I spoke to a very helpful woman in tourist information who politely encouraged us rethink our plan to visit Utah and Omaha beaches (U.S. forces landing sites) due to the fact we’d need to rent a car! Brett really wanted to go to both sites and I really respected the way in which he accepted the disappointment of not being able to do so. I expect this to be ‘part 2’ sometime in the future!
After much deliberation, we decided to go for a walk along Sword Beach (British forces), Juno Beach (Canadian) and Gold Beach (British forces). To prepare, we had a traditional continental breakfast in a local restaurant in the port town of Ouistreham before getting a cab to the Canada Hotel in Hermanville-Sur-Mer (cheap, clean and highly recommended), dumped our stuff and off we strolled.
I felt genuinely taken aback by the sight of the calm sea once we had made it through the vast array of different French houses that adorned the beachfront. Dozens of morning joggers and cyclists wished us “bonjour!” as we sat around taking everything in. I stood watching a local fisherman as Brett filled a bag of sand to take back home for a U.S. WW2 veteran that he knew; we both took off our shoes and socks and walked in the shallows of the bitterly cold water.
We eventually reached Gold beach at 11am, when all of a sudden the sea swelled dramatically and waves started to crash in; I managed to get a little of this on video (below) before running to higher ground (ha!). A local man came over to me and told me in French how the sea would do “battle” like that each morning at that time for all of ten minutes before returning to the serene calm that we had seen before it’s arrival.
I was genuinely touched by how friendly the locals were and of how grateful they were for the liberators; it reminded me of how warm I found French people to be towards us in Cassel (Flanders) and also how Belgians were towards us in Ypres when I was a kid. A stark contrast to my experiences of Parisians.
Our stay at the Canada Hotel was great value for money, that night we made a rustic meal after a visit from the local supermarket; the salami definitely disagreed with Brett!
We checked out the following morning and walked down from Juno Beach to Sword Beach and I felt complete knowing that I had finally retraced the footsteps of my Godfather; it was a humbling spiritual experience and one that will remain with me always.
Joe passed away on January the 14th, 1993; I still treasure all of the wartime momentos, medals and keepsakes that he entrusted to me when I was about 11 years old. He was my own personal hero and inspired me to write the lyrics of ‘The Otherside’ when he died.
This entry is dedicated to his memory, and for all those who gave our lives securing the freedom so that I can waste my own life in the manner of my choosing.