The ruins of Norwich have given way to the scarred villages of rural Normandy this week as I chart the progress of ‘Doc’ Harden for my new book, Commando Medic.
As a member of 45 Royal Marine Commando he had undergone his baptism of fire on the D-Day beaches, braving mortaring and shelling to help wounded to safety before joining in one of the longest marches of the ‘longest day’.
His unit covered some 12 miles, linking up with the airborne troops at Pegasus bridge before striking through enemy territory to secure the left flank of the allied bridgehead.
Over the course of the next few days, the commandos captured and then clung on to villages freckling a ridge east of the River Orne. These small French settlements suffered appallingly in the weeks that followed. They became ghost villages, with homes reduced to hollow shells.
The story of the commando defence is an epic of the Normandy campaign that I knew little about until I came to research the story of this ordinary, everyday sort of bloke who went on to show extraordinary courage the following winter in an action that would cost him his life and earn for him a posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.
What has struck me most about his remarkable story, however, is the incredible qualities of the ‘hostilities only’ recruits who left their civilian jobs and, through dint of determination and bloody-minded defiance, won through to help defeat Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Their endurance, their stoicism and their lion-hearted courage in the face of great adversity has inspired me.
Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate enough to meet and speak with some of the survivors of this incredible ‘band of brothers’; men who fought alongside ‘Doc’ from Normandy to Holland and on into Germany. They are simple, straightforward men who did great things. Just like ‘Doc’ himself.
Within days of the landing in Normandy, he was squirming his way out of a cornfield in a desperate escape back to the commando perimeter. He made it by the skin of his teeth and went on to endure weeks of relentless attacks and bombardments before being relieved after one of the longest continuous spells in the line of any unit in the entire war.
Like most of the men he served alongside, he did his level best to play down the horrors and the privations, but in a strange sort of way that same understatement merely seems to add to the potency and poignancy of a saga of selfless sacrifice that retains the power to awe me and move me all at once.
From the midst of the smashed villages where ‘Doc’ and his mates held the line to help ensure the success of the allies’ invasion, he imagined a brave new world and a future he would not live to see. Just thinking about it all is enough to move me to tears.
I just hope that I can do justice to his heroic memory…