A D Day Journey in the Spirit of A. J. Liebling
When, on the evening of June 5, 1944, troops set out from the south coast of Britain for what would be a decisive assault on the European mainland the following morning, A. J. Liebling, a writer for The New Yorker who had been among those covering the war in France and elsewhere, was among them. Liebling was aboard an infantry landing craft designated LCIL 88, along with thirty-odd members of the “ambiguous farce,” as the amphibious force, with an impressive taste for wordplay, referred to themselves. He observed them impregnating their shoes with grease to counter the mustard gas they expected to meet on the other side (“First time I ever tried to get a pair of shoes pregnant, sir,” one called out to him); played poker in the officers’ wardroom while waiting for auspicious weather conditions; and, once the ship had made its way to the French shore, watched the troops descending the ramp, heading into the shallow waters and their fate beyond, while an officer urged them to move along “as if he were unloading an excursion boat at Coney Island.”
In his account of the events of June 6th, D Day, which ran in the magazine in three installments soon thereafter with the understated title “Cross-Channel Trip,” Liebling did not identify his point of embarkation, referring only to “a certain British port,” which reminded him of Sheepshead Bay, in New York, with all its fishing boats. Eleven years later, liberated from the necessity to keep war secrets secret, Liebling wrote a follow-up piece about revisiting the site—revealed to be Weymouth, Dorset—from which he had set off to become one of those who were, if not first on the ground, at least first on the wave on June 6th. The notion to go back to the coastal town came to him, he wrote in June, 1955, while walking around St. James’s Square, in Westminster, in the sultry early-summer heat. While sneezing at the pollen from the square’s several mulberry trees, he noted a sign on the façade of Norfolk House identifying it as the place where General Eisenhower and the other Allied commanders had planned the invasion in which he had participated. “With my sneeze, but without causal connection between them that I can trace, came an impulse to go down to Weymouth again and see what it looked like,” Liebling recalled.
I grew up in Weymouth, where, mostly from relics around the town—like the defused mine dredged up from the bay and displayed on the seafront near an amusement arcade—I garnered a vague but ill-formed notion of the town’s important role in D Day. (A larger historical presence in my consciousness was King George III, who popularized sea bathing there after losing the American colonies, and who is commemorated in a statue on the seafront that is luridly painted in the manner historians tell us was the practice with marbles in ancient Greece and Rome.) Many years later, having long been transplanted to New York City, I discovered Liebling’s essay about my home town, in which he described the “prodigiously long row of gaunt lodging houses and hotels with nobody in them, staring out to sea across a beach encumbered with barbed wire”—a spectacle hard to reconcile with the town of my childhood, its festooned sweep of Georgian terraced houses fronting the sandy beach, where stalls sold chips or candy floss, and shivering, frolicking paddlers braved the cold, lapping English sea.
A Report from June, 1944
Read A. J. Liebling’s classic D Day coverage from Normandy.
The idea of revisiting Liebling’s revisiting of Weymouth came to me on June 3rd, while travelling in a bus from Stansted airport, outside London, to my home in the north of the city. I had just returned from a weekend in Salzburg, Austria, with my husband and my thirteen-year-old son. We had driven to the mountains—which are closer to Salzburg than Stansted is to London—where we had marvelled at the Alpine scenery, and also discovered, somewhat to our relief, that the Nazi Party’s local mountaintop retreat, known as the Kehlsteinhaus, or the Eagle’s Nest, was not yet open for the season. “We open on June 6th,” a dirndl-clad lady in the gift shop told us, when we inquired. (The shop itself was open, selling “Kehlsteinhaus” T-shirts in child and adult sizes.) Upon landing at Stansted, which hosts budget airlines offering quick, cheap flights to European destinations, and was filled with British tourists taking advantage of our E.U. passports while we still have them, I discovered that I had only just missed a more illustrious arrival: Air Force One, bearing President Trump, for a three-day state visit, during which he was to meet with both the outgoing Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the perpetually enduring monarch, Queen Elizabeth. Trump would also attend a commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of D Day, to take place on Wednesday, June 5th, in Portsmouth.
Scrolling through Twitter for news of the visit—and cursing my perennial preference on planes for the aisle seat, which meant I had failed to glimpse from above an anti-Trump protest mounted by an enterprising local resident, who had mown into his lawn the words “Oi Trump,” along with a large image of a penis—I recalled Liebling’s essay, and experienced a sensation perhaps not dissimilar to his sneeze-induced inspiration in St James’s Square. What if I went down to Weymouth sixty-four years to the day after Liebling’s follow-up visit—seventy-five years after LCIL 88 set off for France—to see what it looks like now? “I am fond of anniversaries, although I do not believe in letting them get the better of me,” Liebling had written in 1955. I was not entirely sure what he meant, but I was quite sure that I agreed with it.
On June 5th, 1955, a rail strike was under way, and so Liebling engaged a driver, one Mr. Biggs, to take him to Weymouth. Their journey was leisurely; there were fewer cars on the road then, and, judging by Liebling’s account, far more motorbikes, which were “buried under a superstructure of humanity and tea things.” They stopped in the cathedral city of Winchester for a cup of tea, and again in the market town of Blandford, for a lunch of cold meat and brown soup at the Crown Hotel, where, Liebling noted, “the gentlefolk at the other tables looked peculiarly depressed, as if they had all come down into the country to hear the wills of relatives who had left them nothing.”
On June 5th, 2019, the trains were running, although my departure from Waterloo was delayed by ten minutes. This was either on account of a train door not closing properly or of there being too much other traffic on the line: the conductor couldn’t quite keep his story straight. We drew out of the station, the Houses of Parliament on the opposite bank of the Thames just visible between the new apartment buildings that have been built up alongside the railway, with their big windows and their small balconies, on each of which seemed to be parked a carbon-frame bicycle.
Once the train has passed beyond Clapham, in southwest London, the route to Weymouth is a pretty one, cutting through the same countryside that Liebling had observed from the passenger seat of Mr. Biggs’s car. As one got further away from London, he noted, “the country looked less carefully tended, less self-consciously old, than the Home Counties. It has been there so long there is no need to call attention to a post-Arthurian horror like a thirteenth-century cottage.” From the vantage point of a train window, at least—where one can see neither highway nor contemporary shopping plaza—not much seems to have changed. Dairy cows grazed in meadows as if posing for the illustration on a milk carton. The occasional low tower of a Norman church, or peaked gable roof of a seventeenth-century farmhouse, poked out from behind huddled green copses, and wildflowers were growing in the gravel between the train tracks.
Upon his arrival in Weymouth, Liebling had noted the grim, dilapidated condition of the guest houses, where weather-beaten stucco and paintwork “advertised the dankness within.” He would not recognize them now, decked out with fresh paint, their window boxes and hanging baskets overflowing with flowers. On the seafront, where Biggs and Liebling had parked the car and begun their walk into town along the Esplanade, the long line of Georgian town houses turned bed-and-breakfasts seemed to me to be nudging one another gleefully, like a line of proud, excited middle-schoolers taking their bow at the end of a school performance.
Any appearance of more than superficial prosperity is misleading, however. In common with other English seaside towns, Weymouth is hardly thriving economically. A recent report stated that thirty per cent of children in Weymouth and Portland—the peninsula which lies immediately to the south of the town and has been joined with it for administrative purposes—are living in poverty, and another report ranked the local area as offering the lowest possibility of social mobility in the country. Work is seasonal, and ill paid. The white-collar industries that, half a century ago, attracted people like my father, a civil servant with the Ministry of Defense, down to the coast, have gone; the naval base at Portland closed in 1996, a victim of the end of the Cold War. The high street offers a wide array of thrift shops and cell-phone stores, but, honestly, not much else. In the Brexit referendum, sixty-one per cent of voters in Weymouth and Portland were in favor of leaving the E.U.
When Liebling visited, there were families were making a day of it on the beach, which arcs in a semicircle around the bay. “The conflicting music of competing roundabouts down on the sand supplied a background to the shouts of children, who yell more and louder when they are by the sea than anywhere else, keeping in touch with one another in the face of bravely imagined dangers,” he wrote. There were not so many children on the beach when I visited, though I noted several small clusters of mooching teen-agers, shouldering along the seafront in their Adidas pants and hoodies. I guessed that they had the afternoon off school after sitting one of their G.C.S.E. exams, the qualifications that British kids take when they are around sixteen. Their results might determine whether they got out of Weymouth—to go to college, to get a decent job—or didn’t. Having myself mooched for many teen-age hours on the seafront while waiting for my own opportunity to escape, I could relate.
Liebling had stopped to watch a Punch-and-Judy show on the beach—thanks to the violence of which, he noted, onlooking children “howled so hard with laughter that mummies and nannies had to drag half of them away to public lavatories.” The puppeteer’s booth, striped in red and white as it has been since Victorian times, endures, as it did in my childhood, although the chalkboard on which the next showing was to be displayed was blank—the season proper doesn’t kick off until the school holidays, in late July. A painted sign urged disappointed would-be viewers to “like us on Facebook.” Liebling had also noted the work of a sand artist, who had half-completed a replica of Westminster Abbey by sculpting wet sand with a trowel, and to whom passersby tossed coins of appreciation. When Liebling passed it again sometime later, he noted that the builder had got no further with his work: “He knew from experience, I suppose, that if he completed the job, no further appropriations could be expected.”
When I was a child, a sand artist called Fred Darrington was a fixture of the beach; among his best-loved works, which he would repeat season after season, were a sculptural relief of blue-painted waves cresting into white-maned horses, and on more than one occasion he fashioned a sandy interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Darrington’s grandson, Mark Anderson, took over the pitch in the mid-nineties. (He also opened a larger, commercial venue—Sandworld—in another part of Weymouth, which costs about eight dollars to enter, and thrives on the rainy-day desperation of families with a week-long reservation at a local holiday camp or caravan site.) To deter vandals, the sand-sculpture area on the beach is now encased in what looks like an enormous, squat pumpkin, with a opening for viewing. Perhaps following the canny business strategy of Liebling’s sand architect, the principal sculpture—I think it was Shrek, though it could have been some other semi-anthropomorphic cartoon character I did not recognize—was incomplete. There was, however, a finished model of a soldier from the Second World War, with his tin helmet and his oilskin cape left in unpainted sand, clutching a painted bunch of poppies, standing behind a shield that read “Lest We Forget.”
Just beyond the sand sculptures, near the defused mine, was an amusement arcade and fun fair. There I spotted a large, animated group of teen-agers who were, I realized, speaking German. One young man with a crewcut and an open expression was watching half a dozen of his peers: they were strapped into a sudden-drop ride, scaring themselves Scheisse-less. I approached and asked if they were on a school trip. Yes, he told me, in impeccable English: his school offered an annual visit to the U.K., which included a fun outing to Weymouth. “So, nothing to do with D Day?” I asked. The young man looked puzzled. “D Day?” he said, politely. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Having not stopped for lunch in Blandford, or anywhere else, it was time to eat. In my experience, fish and chips served in a paper wrapping is a better bet in Weymouth than any attempt at fine dining. But, in honor of Liebling’s celebrated gourmandism and his love of France, I had made a reservation at a place called Les Enfants Terribles, on Custom House Quay. I had called the night before and spoken to the chef, Eric Tavernier, requesting for a table for 1 P.M. “For me, twelve-forty-five is better,” he had said, and I had imagined that Britain’s food revolution had finally reached that sleepy southern coast. Upon arriving to find only one other diner at the place, I realized the truth: that twelve-forty-five was better for Chef Eric because it meant he could shut up shop for the afternoon a little bit earlier.
The other diner was my mother, who still lives in the house that was my childhood home; she had forgone her afternoon art class—but not her morning Pilates session—to join me. We ordered in Lieblingesque proportions: half a dozen excellent local oysters followed by a trio of small, elegant fish cakes topped with caviar for me; a fish soup and steamed sea bass for my mother. The bass was served in its folded tinfoil envelope, and, when my mother opened it, an arrangement of orange slices and julienned carrot, leeks, and fennel lay atop it, disconcertingly like a floral tribute on a coffin.
My mother was born in 1931, and grew up in Ealing, in West London, where her father was a skilled panel beater; he spent the war years making the tail fins for Spitfire planes. As we ate, I asked her about those years, and she talked about her memories of the beginning of the war—when she and her friends would play a game called “Being Evacuated to America,” which involved pretending to pack and to get on a train. “Rich kids were being evacuated to America,” she said. She remembered the war’s end, too: the surrender of the Axis forces in Europe, on May 8th, 1945, which happened to be the eve of her fourteenth birthday. There were parties on the street, and her mother took her out dancing until after midnight. “There were some Canadian soldiers, and they pulled our legs and told us that they thought we were sisters, which flattered both of us,” my mother said. She described, in great detail, the dress she had been wearing that night: it had been made from artificial silk, with a low-cut V neck and a tight bodice that tied at the back, and a skirt as full as fabric rationing would allow. It was olive green—not a very nice color, she allowed, explaining that it was a hand-me-down, and had been dyed from its original color. “It was my best frock,” she said. She didn’t remember what her mother had worn, but since her mother had only owned two dresses—one blue, with a pattern of clouds and pink blossoms, the other green, with a white-and-black floral print—it was probably one of those.
After lunch, my mother and I walked along the harbor, where LCIL 88 had been moored seventy-five years earlier. A fisherman was unloading enormous net sacks of whelks onto a wooden pallet, having dredged them up from Lulworth Cove to the east. The whelks made a rattling noise when they hit the pallets, soon to be descended upon by hopeful gulls. “Where do the whelks go now?” I called to the fisherman. “A lorry comes and picks them up, and I don’t know after that,” he said, with an accent as broad as that of a character actor in an Ealing comedy. A well-dressed yachtsman, in port for a day or two as he and his party sailed down the coast in their Bermuda sloop, was also watching the catch being brought ashore. “The English don’t eat them, but the French and Spanish love them,” he told me. “It’s funny, there used to be huge amounts of whelks eaten in the olden days, Victorian times.”
Liebling had boarded LCIL 88 on June 1st, spending five days waiting for the launch. After a few days, he wrote, “The port didn’t look like Sheepshead Bay now, for every narrow boat was covered with men in drab-green field jackets, many of them wearing tin hats, because the easiest way not to lose a tin hat in a crowd is to wear it.” Upon returning, in 1955, Liebling had found the spot hard to recognize. The planks that had been laid down along the dock were gone, revealing concrete underneath, and boats bringing potatoes from Jersey and tomatoes from Guernsey to supply the market at Covent Garden, in London, were tied up to the harbor’s edge. “Biggs and I walked back, I by this time beginning to feel silly about the whole business,” Liebling had written. What was he going to do if he did find the exact spot, he wrote—put a plaque there, like the one on Norfolk House, commemorating three men among thirty on his ship who’d died in action, and whose first names he could no longer remember? “We walked down to the tomato boat just the same, and I said it looked like the place alright, but of course it didn’t, any more than the racetrack at Saratoga looks like a battlefield.”
My mother couldn’t remember D Day, she told me at first. All her memories, she said, were of things she’d later read or heard or seen on television—like how sick the young lads were when they took to sea, and how so many of them had never seen combat before and wanted no part of it now. Then she stopped herself: there was one thing that she remembered, after all. For a few days in the spring of 1944, the roads around her part of London had been jammed with military vehicles heading down to the coast. “I took the bus to Ealing Common to get to school, and when you got off the bus you had to cross the road,” she said. “There were so many vehicles, you couldn’t get across the road.” It went on for days, or so it seemed to her now—a slow cavalcade of armored vehicles and open-backed trucks loaded with soldiers who waved to the schoolgirls as they passed. Later, she realized where they had been going, and why.
The afternoon was drawing on, and I needed to get home. Liebling had ended his stay in Weymouth with an ice cream consumed in a deck chair on the end of the dock, looking out over the arc of the bay, his back to the harbor, and ended his story with an observation from Mr. Biggs: “The grimmest things, afterward, in the course of time, are softened, aren’t they, sir?” Fresh from Chef Eric’s table, I decided to skip the ice cream, and headed back along the Esplanade to the train station, pausing briefly at the sober D Day memorial, a kind of obelisk on a plinth that I had missed earlier when distracted by the activities of teen-agers, English and German. Wreaths of red poppies had been laid at its base, and a few handwritten notes were attached to them: “Your courage and sacrifice will never be forgotten,” one read.
Seated on the 4:03 departure to London, I saw the last glinting sliver of sea slip from view as I fielded texts from my son, who was just out of school for the afternoon and wanted to hang out with friends, and I looked for news of the official D Day observations, down the coast in Portsmouth. There, President Trump had read a prayer that F.D.R. had first delivered in a radio address on June 6, 1944. Theresa May, in her antepenultimate day as the Conservative Party leader, had read an emotional passage from a letter—“Although I would give anything to be back with you, I have not yet had any wish at all to back down from the job we have to do”—written by Captain N. W. G. Skinner, who died on June 7, 1944. Looking out of the window at the familiar, precious landscape, I thought of my mother at thirteen, the age my son is now, and pictured her standing on the edge of Ealing Common, watching the fleets of soldiers passing by. I thought about the mystery of seeing history being made before your eyes, and not knowing what you are seeing—of only later being able to look back and say, Yes, that was the moment when the world changed.
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