England’s Imperial War Museum recounts British D-Day stories
May 27, 2004
In the British telling of the story of D-Day, one of the heroes is Lt. Col. Terence Otway, commander of the 9th Parachute Battalion of the 6th Airborne Division.
It was his task in the early hours of June 6, 1944, to drop into Normandy and put out of action heavy German guns known as the Merville Battery, which could have wreaked havoc on the beaches where Allied troops were to land.
“I was told personally by [Gen. Bernard] Montgomery and by [Prime Minister Winston] Churchill that I had to . . . neutralize those guns,” Otway said recently at the opening of a D-Day exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London. His story is among the many told in the exhibit, which will remain open until May 2005.
Otway jumped with 750 men for the mission, landing five minutes past midnight. The paratroops were scattered across Normandy and some drowned in the marshes. Otway was forced to attack the well-defended gun position with barely 150 men.
“There was a minefield. Then there was an apron fence — a barbed wire fence,” recalled Otway, who will turn 90 in June. “Then there was another minefield. Then there was coiled wire.”
His success is the stuff of legend in British military history. Although the guns turned out to be French 75 mm instead of the 150 mm thought to be there, the problems they could have caused were substantial.
“It was all over in 30 minutes,” Otway recalled. “When I came out, we were 65 [men] standing.”
The exhibit that opened in April is designed to personalize the historic invasion. “It’s about the preparation and planning of D-Day, plus the events [of the day] themselves,” said Penny Ritchie Calder, the head of the exhibit.
Among the stories it tells is that of an engineer who helped build the Mulberry harbor that made reinforcement of the initial assault possible.
Another is of Fanny Gore Brown, who was on duty at a planning headquarters of the day of the invasion, plotting the movements of German ships and submarines.
Other tales are told from the perspective of those who were there or had a distant seat, from a double agent to an army chaplain.
“Even a pigeon,” said Calder.
Gustav was a pigeon issued by the Royal Air Force to a Reuter’s correspondent. Gustav delivered the first report of the troop landings from a ship off the coast of Normandy, flying 150 miles back to his roost near Portsmouth in five hours and 16 minutes.
The exhibit includes the Dickin Medal that was awarded to the bird.
Among other items are Montgomery’s handwritten notes for the invasion. Another is a diary from a British soldier who landed on Gold Beach. His entry for June 5 says, “D-Day tomorrow, everybody quite excited.”
American participation is well-represented. The Medal of Honor presented to Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. is there, along with a letter he wrote to his commander asking for permission to join the landing party.
Helmets, entrenching tools and other medals are part of the American exhibits. So is a sea-sickness bag, a reminder that many soldiers were so sick on the rough water of the English Channel they said they preferred the dangers of the landing beaches.
The German defenders, too, are represented in the extensive collection. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s collar patches are on display, as are several weapons used by the Germans on D-Day in their effort to stop the invasion.
There are some touching artifacts, such as the letter that stops in mid-sentence. It was being written by a soldier’s sister when she was interrupted by the telephone call informing her he was missing.
The invasion of France is a well-known story, Calder said, but the personal tales give a visitor a closer glimpse of the famous day.
“It was a momentous day,” she said.
Monica Littleboy, who was also present for the press day that opened the exhibit, will never forget it. Now 82, she was an ambulance driver with the First Air Yeomanry stationed at the Isle of Wight on D-Day.
She helped move the first wounded from the ships to the hospital. It is a sight she still remembers.
“What sticks in my mind are the burns,” she said at the exhibit opening. “That and the great loss of blood.”
It was a busy time. The first casualties arrived that night and they seemed to come in a never-ending stream.
“I don’t think we sat down for three weeks,” she said. “It just went on and on and on. There were only six of us.”
Thinking about the day is painful to this day, but she has a unique perspective.
“It was horrible,” she said. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
Jean Irvine was 19 and in on the secret. She was a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service and working as a filing clerk in charge of more than 800 top-secret files about the invasion. For more than a year before the invasion, her work put her inside the planning, sometimes working 80 hours a week.
“There was an enormous procedure for keeping track of every piece of paper,” she said.
She said the date of the invasion was never written down. It was always referred to as D-Day.
She would have loved, she said, to tell her stepfather how wrong he was with his predictions of when and where the invasion would take place. But she could not.
When American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow broke the news of the invasion on radio the night of June 6, 1944, Irvine said her first reaction was surprise.
“He was telling everything we had been keeping secret,” she said.
Imperial War Museum details
Where: The Imperial War Museum is on Lambeth Road in southeastern London. It is reached from Underground stops Lambeth North, Southwark, Elephant & Castle and Waterloo.
Hours: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except Dec. 24-26.
Cost: None, admission is free. However, you might spend money at the bookshop and café in the museum.
More information: At its Web site, www.iwm.co.uk.
— Ron Jensen