As you don’t need me to tell you, today’s the 72nd anniversary of D-Day and the commencement of Operation Overlord, the largest seaborne invasion in history and the beginning of the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. 160,000 British, American and Canadian troops crossed the English Channel that day, with 10,000 killed, missing or wounded by nightfall. And in the middle of all that, aged twenty-nine, was my dad, Walter William ‘Wally’ Carver, a Corporal in the Pioneers.
When I was a kid, I remember schoolmates mostly not believing me when I said he was there. I mean, I grew up in the sixties and most of my mates’ parents were boomers, but my father was nearly fifty when I came along, having been born in the Raj in 1915, the son of a Regimental Sergeant Major. He was apt to downplay it as well, having always felt that the (later) Royal Pioneer Corps was somehow the poor relation of the Royal Engineers, and nothing to brag about, even though he survived the first wave on June 6, and then slogged it through all the main engagements in France, the Lowlands and Germany, all the way up to the final assault over the Elbe, losing a far few friends and his brother along the way.
To him it was a very commonplace sort of bravery, and with his characteristic sense of low self-esteem and under-achievement – put in him by my grandfather, who I never met but was by all accounts a violent drunk – he was more likely to just say, ‘The yanks got the worse of it,’ and leave it at that. It was notable though, that when Saving Private Ryan came out he wouldn’t go and see it with my mother, and similarly avoided all memorial celebrations, even going so far as to flog his campaign medals in the seventies when he and my mother were trying to buy a house. He survived, he was demobbed, he went back on the tools, voted Labour and was happy for the council flat he ended up in and where I was born. Apart from a couple of holidays in retirement, he never left England again. Years later, when he was nearly ninety and obviously dying, my mother already gone five years from cancer, the subject of Normandy came up again. His squad, apparently, was divided alphabetically between two landing crafts. One got ashore, the other didn’t. Looking at the Corps’ official war diaries, I subsequently found the following entry:
‘170 Company. June 6, 0825 hours. First serials landed on Nan sector, White and Red Beaches. Landing craft struck a mine on landing. Some opposition, particularly heavy sniping on Red. Some isolated pill boxes still holding out. These were eventually silenced by guns of landing craft.’
My instinct is that this was it, although I cannot ask him now, as he died in March, 2005, just after his ninetieth birthday. At the time, all I could get out of him after he let that slip was that dark, sardonic laugh of his and the comment, ‘Be grateful our name begins with a C.’
And I am. And for that simple reason my big sister exists, and her kids and their kids and me and my kid, who never met my father and has, at the age of four, only the dimmest idea that I might have even had a dad, let alone a dead one. And thus the world chaotically turns, with none of us able to do a damn thing about it.
I got to know Wally quite well after my mother died. He was a complex, disappointed man, and not the easiest dad to grow up with, but I respected him for his artisan skills, his autodidactic intelligence, and his love of music and challenging art. I learned to read, and draw and understand the high modernists because of him, in much the same way that mum taught me all about the ghosts of the gothic. And as with mum, I picked up another very important message: education was the way out.
He was dealt a bad hand in life, even for a working class man of his generation, taken out of school by his father and set to work as a labourer, despite a keen intellect and an aptitude for art and music. Some of the family got to study and enter some sort of profession, the less-favoured, like my dad, got their hands dirty. That made him bitter, and the only time I think I ever saw him truly happy was when he was conducting a Lad’s Club band, which he didn’t do all the time, being only the deputy. But he was my dad and I loved him, and I’m proud of him and I miss him, and I never forgot about D-Day, even though he obviously wanted to. So while we remember all the poor, brave bastards that fought and lived and died on both sides that day and in the days that followed so we could live a life free of fascism and horror, I’m thinking most about my dad, who loved the music of Bob Dylan and Henryk Górecki, the paintings of Van Gogh, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Norwich City, Cricket, and Morecambe and Wise, and who didn’t think landing on that bloody beach seventy-two years ago today was anything particularly special.