JOHN STEELE, son of a Mississippi riverboat captain, was 31 and the oldest member of his paratroop company on June 6, 1944. Many of the rest were in their teens. Steele was the company barber.
There was a lot going on that day. But Steele’s part in it remains very much known in the small Normandy town of Sainte-Mère-Église.
The town itself, about the size of Grundisburgh, owes its place in history to that same momentous day – D-Day. Lying just inland of the most northerly of the famous “Normandy beaches” along which the Allies invaded German-occupied France, it was the first town in Europe to be liberated from the Nazis.
It was not an entirely glorious affair, however.
While more than 200,000 troops landed on the beaches, and naval guns pounded the German defences from the Channel, Steele’s company – F Company of the US 82nd Airborne Division – was supposed to be dropped by glider on the main road beyond the town.
Two plane-loads of parachutists, however, were dropped by accident right in the town square itself – where, also by accident, a house had been set alight by a stray incendiary bomb.
The Germans in the town were easily able to see the descending parachutists by its light. Easy targets, 12 of them were killed, wounded or captured as they landed.
Steele, hit in the ankle by a piece of shrapnel, battled desperately to avoid landing in the flaming building itself. In so doing, he hit the steeple of the church, where his parachute became entangled, leaving him dangling from the tower.As he tried to cut himself free, he dropped his knife. So there he hung, for two hours, unable to do anything but watch the carnage below. Eventually the temporarily victorious Germans cut him down and took him prisoner.
Two days later, as the fighting went on, he was able to escape and rejoin his company.
Today, somewhat surreally, a lifesize effigy of a paratrooper dangles from a parachute on the church tower in Steele’s memory. Where the burning house was there is now a rather fine museum commemorating the parachute regiment and the battle.
Among the collected war memorabilia – much of which resembles similar collections housed in small museums across Suffolk – one of the most poignant items is a simple handwritten letter.
It is from one of the three German soldiers who were stationed on the church tower that night. It tells how he might have shot Steele had he not thought he was dead already.
And it recounts how one of his two comrades was shot dead. And that he never saw the other again until 20 years later at a reunion in Sainte-Mère-Église, where Steele also returned and was much feted by the townspeople.
According to Wikipedia, Sainte-Mère-Église was “significantly involved” in the Hundred Years War of the 14th and 15th centuries and the Wars of Religion in the 16th. But it is the events of D-Day and the days immediately following that now dominates everything in the town. It is as if nothing had happened there before, and very little since except commemoration.
You might think there was nothing terribly significant about a 68th anniversary, yet Sainte-Mère-Église was full last week – largely of American and British visitors, and French people weirdly clad in American pseudo-military attire.
I was there by chance, not design, but I can only assume that the fancy-dress parade takes place every June.
And not just in Sainte-Mère-Église but also on the beaches and at the nearby German batteries at Azeville and Crisbeq.
Now partially restored as rather sombre but absorbing museums, the batteries are colossal concrete constructions from which the Germans’ big guns attempted to fight off the invading Allies.
Here too are extraordinary poignancies. While just a few miles away Steele dangled, a shell from a US warship missed a German canon by inches, burst through a metre-thick reinforced concrete wall into a room full of soldiers, bounced and exited through another wall as thick – and all without exploding.
The shockwave of its passing instantly killed all 15 Germans in the room, though. And the holes in both walls are there to be marvelled at still.
All these years later, with fewer and fewer of the participants to keep the direct memory alive – John Steele died of cancer in 1969 – the war still exerts a fascination. Its sheer scale remains overwhelming, the enormity of what the Nazis did and tried to do still shocking.
But it is the accretion of details that really gives pause.
Steele was one man among millions. His extraordinary story one among millions.
The ordinary Germans – men probably not much unlike John Steele, or you, or me – wiped out by that one non-exploding shell were 15 among millions. Each might have had a story to tell.
As might each of the Russian prisoners whose under-fed muscle-power largely built those great concrete gun-emplacements.
Or each of the common soldiers – Norman and English – whose deaths in the Battle of Hastings are graphically commemorated on the Bayeux Tapestry, which I also saw and marvelled at last week.
One invasion of England from Normandy, one of Normandy from England, nearly 900 years apart. Both hugely significant historically. And in a rather gruesome way not all that different.