D-Day – June 6, 2014 marks the 70th Anniversary of the Normandy Landings and the Liberation of Europe.
With the 70th Anniversary of the D Day landings upon us, towns and villages across the country have been remembering. Last weekend, Saturday 31st May, we visited the nearby village of Droxford, where the 12 Century Church is hosting its own D Day exhibition. We read original letters and accounts from June 1944 and pored over fascinating photographs.
I had not realised that the village had played such a vital part in the operation. On 2nd June 1944, Churchill made camp on the Royal train at Droxford station, meeting members of his war cabinet, President Eisenhower and the French leader Charles de Gaulle, the Canadian President William Lyon McKenzie King and the South African leader Jan Smuts, as he waited in the sidings. According to historical sources, there were tens of thousands of troops already camped throughout the area, preparing for the invasion of France.
The Meon Valley Railway was used in the weeks preceding the invasion to transport men and supplies, including tanks, to the south of England.
The ancient Forest of Bere, the place where Flossie and I take our walks, provided cover for thousands of troops.
Armoured vehicles and troops passed through Droxford and through our own village of Shirrell Heath on their way to the coast. What must it have been like to witness that?
As a child in Essex, I used to play on Hornchurch airfield before they built houses on part of it and turned the rest into a National Park. (My parents bought one of the first houses that were built there, so I lived on the airfield for a while too). Before that, we children hid in the gun turrets and played “Bulldog” on the grass runways.
I knew the airfield had played a vital part in the Battle of Britain. What I didn’t know was that it ceased to play a part in the offensive in May 1944, with its squadrons being moved to Selsey and bases further south. The threat of the V-1 Flying Bomb and the need to construct local defences, had made flying from the airfield too hazardous.
My older sister was born a scant four years after the war ended, my middle sister and I, a little later. Our games were often heavily influenced by the wartime events that were still regularly shown on television. I remember hiding beneath a large umbrella, in our hallway, while my sisters pretended that we were in an air raid shelter and bombs were raining down on us. What did we really know?
Later, living in Hornchurch, we were used to unexploded bombs being found near our homes. Hornchurch had been bombed heavily in the Second World War. My father, demobbed from the army when war ended, became a policeman. He once drove home with a small, unexploded bomb sitting in a bucket of sand in the back of his police car. Health and safety back then, was not what it is now!
The BBC has been busy. Film archives have been trawled and footage, never before seen, unearthed.
It is a time to reflect on what was and what might have been. Anyone who has visited the war cemeteries in Normandy, as we did a few years ago, cannot fail to be moved by the sight of those neat, yet lonely graves.
There is one story, however, that is unlikely to be told by anyone other than I.
It is a story told to me by my mother and I feel quite privileged to be allowed to re-tell it here:
In photographs of my mother, taken in 1944 when she was just eighteen, she is petite and pretty with dark, carefully curled hair, tumbling to her shoulders. She was, as she is today at 88, fashionable and always ‘perfectly turned out’.
My mother was adept with the needle and her wardrobe, like those of many, greatly extended by the transformation of pre-war, pre-rationing clothes into smart and up to the minute costumes. An avid dancer, well into her eighties, she knew how to make that tired old dress fit for the dance floor.
In June 1944, my mother and several girl friends from the “War Ag” (Essex War Agricultural Committee) where they worked as shorthand typists, attended the “War Ag.” dance. Held in the County Hall, Chelmsford, it was quite an event and attendance was by invitation only.
So, when two American airmen strode in, they were quite surprised. Either the airmen had been specially invited or they had wowed the doorman and been ushered in as special guests.
Mum, standing on the far side of the hall in a group of eight or nine girls, was even more surprised when one of the young airmen, walked towards them. She was quite shocked when he stopped and asked her to dance.
Finding they got on well and had a lot in common, the young man offered to walk my mother home and arranged to take her out to dinner a few days later.
Mum’s elder brother was impressed by what he saw of the American lad, when he saw them walking through the town together.
“He looks like a Greek God!” he told my grandmother. It was true, my mother has often told me, he had blonde, curly hair, blue eyes and a perfect, straight, nose.
After the date at the restaurant, the young airman, whose name was Chester Eisermann, asked my mother if she would join him at the Officer’s Mess for dinner, on the American base the next night. Naturally, my mother agreed.
He told her that he hailed from Pennsylvania where he lived with his mother and his sister Dorothy. He was 20 years old and a 1st Lieutenant in the 9th Army Air force. She told him her name was Patricia and she lived with her parents and two brothers not far from the base. They parted, fully expecting to meet the next night.
The following day, Mum waited for Chester to call for her. When he failed to appear, her mother suggested she telephone the base to find out where he was.
The operator who answered her call, was unaware of the finality of her words or that they would be remembered with such poignancy, all these years later.
“I’m sorry, there’s no one here now. They’ve all gone,” she said.
The date was June 6th, D Day. Everyone had flown out that morning, under Operation Overlord, amidst great secrecy. The base was deserted.
My mother did not hear from him again.
Over the years, my mother has often wondered what happened to Chester Eisermann, the young American airman, and what might have been…
I have made some attempts to trace him myself, just to see if he survived but to no avail.
My mother, of course, met my father soon after and they were happily married until his death, 37 years later.
My father was wounded on D Day and ended up in a French hospital with shrapnel wounds to his arm and leg. Thankfully, he survived or where would I be now?
Here is my father: Denis E. Tyler:
…but what of Chester Eisermann? Perhaps we will never know…
**The 9th US Army Air Force together with the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force (2 TAF), provided overwhelming air power as the Allied ground forces forged ahead.