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Group History

D-Day Memoir

By Leonard J. Rosenfeld
Splasher Six Volume 32, Spring 2001, No. 1
Cindy Goodman, Editor

In June of 1944, I was a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, stationed at an airfield amid the farms of Norfolk, England. I was in charge of loading and fusing the bombs on my squadron’s planes, the B-17s, the great four-engined "Flying Fortresses." But on June 6, 1944, I was in London, en route to a special assignment at Eighth Air Force Headquarters. By chance I had met Captain Henry Longhurst, a conservative member of parliament, at the London Officers club the night before, and arranged with him to visit the House of Commons the next day.

I had visited London many times before, on leave. I knew, all too well, London buttressed with heavy timbers. At night, returning to my lodgings by the Undergrounds, I saw, and learned to accept as normal, the double bunks, all occupied by huddled sleepers, lining station walls. The sleepers still sought safety there from the few bombers the Luftwaffe managed to send over each night. But the bombings were mild irritant to Londoners; they had withstood the Blitz of 1940 and ’41.

Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Houses of parliament dominated the London skyline. The Abbey and St. Paul’s had miraculously escaped bomb damage; bombs had damaged the Houses of Parliament, but Lords and Commons regularly met there.

When I first arrived in Britain, in the spring of 1943, the Americans I saw on leave were mostly Air Corps, but now, all through the winter and spring of 1944, I saw more and more of our infantrymen, light blue piping on their overseas caps; tank drivers identifiable by their yellow piping; Rangers and airborne troops with rakish berets and combat boots; all wearing the colorful shoulder patches of their divisions. American amphibious vehicles, which were promptly dubbed "Ducks," swept past on the roadways. Tanks clanked by. It was clear to everyone that the Allies were steadily building up to the critical cross-channel invasion of Nazi-held France. I fervently hoped that we could begin to think that the war would have an ending, and that Hitlerism would end with it. But it was also a time of anxiety and tension: when would the assault come; where in France would it fall? The Germans, of course, knew it was inevitable; they had heavily fortified the whole northern coast of France. All Britain was a coiled spring, compressed, day-by-day, hour by hour.

As I headed for the familiar pile of pseudo-Gothic buildings on the Thames, the streets of London, the wartime Londoners hastening through them, the city, seemed almost normal. To me, it was a day like any other in wartime London. But I, so keyed up at the prospect of seeing Commons in session, failed to note that most of those passing were civilians; the khaki uniforms had disappeared.

I entered the rotunda, I was filled with awe: I felt as thought I were walking into history. There, in the bright haze, amid the hum of the milling Members, I saw handsome Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary; Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party and a member of the Coalition Cabinet; that redoubtable lady Labourite Edith Summerskill; and even snowy-maned David Loyd-George, who had been Prime Minister during the First World War! I wondered if I would see Winston Churchill.

Then, out of the crowd, Captain Longhurst materialized; as a Member of Parliament, he wore not uniform. He might have stepped out of a drawing by John Held, Jr., in the old Life magazine; he had a compact, but trim figure, a round face, dark eyes, black hair slicked back, parted in the middle. His smile, as he walked toward me, was a bit toothy.

"You’re in luck, Leftenant," he said, handing me my pass, "the Prime minister is scheduled to address the House at noon, on the fall of Rome."

I soon found myself sitting in the Visitors Gallery, next to an American colonel. There were the Members, a full House, ranged in long, sloping rows, facing each other across a great center aisle. At the head of the aisle, to our right, the Speaker, the only wigged and robed Member was enthroned in Parliamentary majesty.

A period of interrogation preceded the Prime Minister’s entrance; members questioned ministers, and ministers responded. At one point, a woman Member rose and asked a minister who, I suppose, was Secretary of the Army, "When, pray, are you going to get rid of those awful peaked caps that the ATS "gels" are wearing, and replace them with berets?" The answer was swallowed up in general laughter.

Promptly at noon, Mr. Churchill entered the chamber to enthusiastic applause by the House and those of us in the gallery. I was thrilled to see the great man, the one who held the fort while Britain and the Commonwealth stood alone in the world and faced the might of the Third Reich.

As predicted, Mr. Churchill announced that Rome had at last fallen to the Allies and, for ten minutes or so, he described the Italian campaign. Then without skipping a beat, and without placing any emphasis on his word, he continued.

"I have also to announce to the House that, during the night and early hours of this morning, the first of a series of landings in force upon the European continent has taken place. In this case, the liberating assault fell upon the coast of France."*

There was silence, and then the House erupted. Members were on their feet, shouting and cheering. We in the gallery were jumping up and down. What Churchill had just told us; what we, and Parliament, and all of London, had not even suspected, was that the cross-channel invasion, the Great Crusade, was under way. Eisenhower had released the coiled spring, and with it, the tension; the Second Front had at long last opened.

* This quotation is taken from Churchill’s own account as set forth in his history of the Second World War.