As many of you know, I recently finished Mollie Panter-Downes' London War Notes. I was deeply impressed by the account of day to day life in London. In honor of today's anniversary of D-Day, I wanted to share the post she wrote that week about how England responded. Here it is, thanks especially to my friend Simon, who shared this a few months back, inspiring me to seek out the book for myself. So worth the read.
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For the English, D Day might well have stood for Dunkirk Day. The tremendous news that British soldiers were back on French soil seemed suddenly to reveal exactly how much it had rankled when they were beaten off it four years ago. As the great fleets of planes roared toward the coast all day long, people glancing up at them said, "Now they'll know how our boys felt on the beaches of Dunkirk." And as the people went soberly back to their jobs, they had a satisfied look, as though this return trip to France had in itself been worth waiting four impatient, interminable years for. There was also a slightly bemused expression on most D Day faces, because the event wasn't working out quite the way anybody had expected. Londoners seemed to imagine that there would be some immediate, miraculous change, that the heavens would open, that something like the last trumpet would sound. What they definitely hadn't expected was that the greatest day of our times would be just the same old London day, with men and women going to the office, queuing up for fish, getting haircuts, and scrambling for lunch.
D Day sneaked up on people so quietly that half the crowds flocking to business on Tuesday morning didn't know it was anything but Tuesday, and then it fooled them by going right on being Tuesday. The principal impression one got on the streets was that nobody was smiling. The un-English urge to talk to strangers which came over Londoners during the blitzes, and in other recent times of crisis, was noticeably absent. Everybody seemed to b existing wholly in a preoccupied silence of his own, a silence which had something almost frantic about it, as if the effort of punching bus tickets, or shopping for kitchen pans, or whatever the day's chore might be, was, in its quiet way, harder to bear than a bombardment. Later in the day, the people who patiently waited in the queues at each newsstand for the vans to turn up with the latest editions were still enclosed in their individual silences. In the queer hush, one could sense the strain of a city trying to project itself across the intervening English orchards and cornfields, across the strip of water, to the men already beginning to die in the French orchards and cornfields which once more had become "over there." Flag sellers for a Red Cross drive were on the streets, and many people looked thoughtfully at the little red paper symbol before pinning it to their lapels, for it was yet another reminder of the personal loss which D Day was bringing closer for thousands of them.
In Westminster Abbey, typists in summer dresses and the usual elderly visitors in country-looking clothes came in to pray beside the tomb of the last war's Unknown Soldier, or to gaze rather vacantly at the tattered colours and the marble heroes of battles which no longer seemed remote. The top-hatted old warrior who is gatekeeper at Marlborough House, where King George V was born, pinned on all his medals in honour of the day, and hawkers selling cornflowers and red and white peonies had hastily concocted little patriotic floral arrangements, but there was no rush to put out flags, no cheers, no outward emotion. In the shops, since people aren't specially interested in spending money when they are anxious, business was extremely bad. Streets which normally are crowded had the deserted look of a small provincial town on a wet Sunday afternoon. Taxi drivers, incredulously cruising about for customers, said it was their worst day in months. Even after the King's broadcast was over, Londoners stayed home. Everybody seemed to feel tat this was one night you wanted your own thoughts in your own chair. Theatre and cinema receipts slumped, despite the movie houses' attempt to attract audiences by broadcasting the King's speech and the invasion bulletins. Even the pubs didn't draw the usual cronies. At midnight, London was utterly quiet, the Civil Defence people were standing by for a half-expected alert which didn't come, and D Day has passed into history.
It is in the country distracts just back of the sealed south coast that one gets a real and urgent sense of what is happening only a few minutes' flying time away. Pheasants whirr their alarm at the distant rumble of guns, just as they did when Dunkirk's guns were booming. On Tuesday evening, villagers hoeing weeds in the wheat fields watched the gliders passing in an almost unending string toward Normandy. And always there are the planes. When the big American bombers sail overhead, moving with a sinister drowsiness in their perfect formations, people who have not bothered to glance up at the familiar drone for months rush out of their houses to stare. Everything is different, now that the second front has opened, and every truck on the road, every piece of gear on the railways, every jeep and half-track which is heading toward the front has become a thing of passionate concern. The dry weather, which country folk a week ago were hoping would end, has now become a matter for worry the other way round. Farmers who wanted grey skies for their hay's sake now want blue ones for the sake of their sons, fighting in the skies and on the earth across the Channel. Finally, there are the trainloads of wounded, which are already beginning to pass through summer England, festooned with its dog roses and honeysuckle. The red symbol which Londoners were pinning to their lapels on Tuesday now shines on the side of trains going past crossings where the waiting women, shopping baskets on their arms, don't know whether to wave or cheer or cry. Sometimes they do all three.