On 5th of June 1944 at 2100hrs, the 9th Parachute Battalion of the 6th Airborne Division left the Broadwell transit camp, where they had been secreted in high security lock-down for more than a week. At 2300hrs they took flight from Harwell airfield.
Destination: the Normandy coast.
Tonight, 76 years ago, was the beginning of the end of the Second World War.
I get goose bumps every time I think of it. The heroics. The horror. The fear. The imminent Allied victory.
My husband’s uncle and his cousin were two of the brave young men who parachuted into Normandy in the early hours of 6th June 1944. Their names were Private Ceiriog Josue Henri Sebire - more commonly known by his second name, Josue - and Private Alcwyn Reginald Thomas.
They were two of the 600 men sent on a mission to disable the Merville Battery.
Two of the 150 men that survived the drop and made it to the rendezvous.
Two of the 75 that survived the battle and won.
My mother-in-law, Elaine, introduced me to her brother Josue four years ago through his many letters written home during the war. Josue’s letters are where the idea for my book first sparked to life. Elaine is a wonderful story teller, and has regaled many snippets of her family history over the years. Although my novel is a work of fiction, I have taken some inspiration from Josue’s life and times as told to me by Elaine, and by his letters.
In November 2019, in honour of Remembrance Day, I was asked to speak to the year 6 children in my son’s school. His teacher was aware of my D-Day research and asked me to share something memorable with the class. I wrote a dramatization, of how I imagined Josue and Alcwyn would have experienced the drop into Normandy, which I read aloud to the class before instigating a discussion. I would like to share it with you here to commemorate the 2020 D-Day anniversary. Please remember this has been written with a 10/11 year old audience in mind.
“Five minutes to the Drop Zone! Everyone on your feet!” A commanding voice booms over the drone of the engines.
Those that have managed to doze off for a few precious minutes are nudged awake by their neighbour, and everyone aboard the Dakota is on full alert. Scrabbling around in the dark they climb to their feet and feel for the taught wire above their heads, quickly attaching their parachute deployment hooks.
They stand uneasily; adrenaline and fear quickening every pulse.
At the front of the line, the CO heaves open the heavy exit doors and pins them against the inside of the aircraft. A draft whips in through the opening and every man standing on the edge catches his breath. The night is dark, but with eyes accustomed to the dusk from the light-less flight, they can see the Normandy coast far below.
Josue waits in line behind his best friend and cousin, Alcwyn, taking deep breaths and trying to focus every thought on the mission. Just ahead of Alcwyn, Glenn the para-dog is barking and straining against his lead, dragging his handler, Jack, towards the exit. Jack struggles with the enormous German Shepherd, trying frantically to attach the dog’s parachute to the line. None of the other lads are allowed to handle Glenn, he must obey only Jack. They stand and watch him struggle to attach the over-excited hound.
The red light flashes on over their heads. They have only seconds before the light will change to green.
Their window to jump.
The boys shuffle forward, feeling a jumble of terror and excitement - eager for action.
The plane jerks suddenly - left then right - dodging the anti-aircraft fire coming at them from the Germans below. No one is prepared. The soldiers stumble and trip, grabbing each other for support. They are unnerved by the sound of bullets slamming into the plane, denting the fragile exterior.
The light turns from red to green. They are above the drop zone. Time to jump.
“Go! Go! Go!”
The plane is still jerking to avoid the flak and tracer bullets screaming past. There is no time to lose.
The pilot will head straight back to England on his next turn.
It’s now or never.
One by one, they jump into the abyss - a clumsy procession - unbalanced by the rocking of the aircraft and their heavily loaded bodies. Bags and straps catch on the way out. Men are caught drowning in the slipstream before help from a comrade releases them - and they fly.
The line moves quickly. Josue braces himself by holding onto Alcwyn’s parachute bag, edging ever closer to the drop.
Flashing, racing gunfire is visible through the exit doors. Glenn the dog is having second thoughts, frightened by the unrehearsed movements of the plane and the noise of the flak. He cowers under a bench, looking to his handler for re-assurance. Jack grips the dog firmly by his harness, drags him from his hiding place, and hurls him out of the aircraft. Jack immediately jumps after him. Both are sucked into the slipstream and are gone.
Dear God, Josue thinks as he and Alcwyn reach the front. We are jumping through these doors into hell!
Together they jump.
Gripped by the rush of air caressing the belly of the Dakota they tumble into the night. Josue’s parachute opens and he is dragged skyward.
The chaos pauses.
The descent begins.
Josue takes a moment to study the surreal sky. It has become a theatre; countless aeroplanes and parachutes dancing gracefully to an orchestra of gunfire giving light and sound to the striking display.
Josue twists and turns, looking around for his cousin. All the other Para’s look identical; bulky silhouettes floating to the ground. Some twisting and animated - like him. Others lifeless.
Struck by bullets on the way down.
Below, Josue can see a landscape of fields flooded with water - one of the defences designed by the Germans. Soldiers, unable to change course in time, land heavily and submerge, held under the relatively shallow water by the extreme weight of their kit. They panic trying to detach from their heavy baggage.
Some manage to escape.
Others are not so lucky.
This was well received by the children and prompted many questions and a lively discussion, including lots of stories of the children’s own relatives who fought in both world wars. I was elated to know that these stories are still being told and remembered through the generations.
Lest we forget.
Below is a poem Josue wrote after landing in France. No more words are needed today - but always remember - for our tomorrow, they gave their today.