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HITLER VISITS AVENUE OF SPIES

AN EXTRACT FROM AVENUE OF SPIES

By Alex Kershaw

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23 JUNE 1940

It was just after dawn when Hitler’s Storch rumbled along the runway at Le Bourget airfield. A giant cloud of oil fumes that had hovered over Paris since June 1, had miraculously disappeared, just in time for the Führer’s visit. Five large Mercedes sedans were soon cruising along empty boulevards with their leather roofs rolled back, their occupants dressed in smart uniforms, heads bobbing in unison whenever they went over cobblestones.

At 6:35 a.m., Hitler’s convoy circled the Arc de Triomphe twice and then set off down Avenue Foch, the wealthiest street in all of vanquished Europe. The fifty-one-year-old Führer was soon passing the street lamps and elegant black iron railings designed by Gabriel Davioud that fronted the Jacksons’ ground floor home at number 11 and other buildings along the avenue.

To Hitler’s right, on the north side of the avenue, which was totally deserted, stood a white memorial to Jean-Charles Alphand, the chief engineer responsible for the avenue’s construction during the reign of Napoleon III. Alphand purposely made the promenade extra-wide so that wealthy Parisians in their open-top coaches could pass directly from the center of the city to the Bois de Boulogne. Named Avenue Foch in 1929, many of the elder residents still called it by its popular name during La Belle Époque: Avenue Bois.

Hitler was not impressed. He looked bored by the neat gardens with exotic flowers, the riding paths, the crisscrossing alleys, and the honey-colored mansions. Perhaps it was simply the name that displeased him. For the first time, Hitler seemed to lose interest in his surroundings. The motorcade made a sharp right midway along the avenue and headed south, toward the Seine.

By 9:00 a.m. the tour was over. Hitler would never return. “It was the dream of my life to be permitted to see Paris,” he told Albert Speer later that day. “I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today.”

That evening Speer met with Hitler in a room in a village in northern France. Hitler was seated alone at a small table.

“Wasn’t Paris beautiful?” he mused. “But Berlin must be made far more beautiful. In the past I often considered whether we would not have to destroy Paris. But when we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow. So why should we destroy it?”

Hitler was lying. When the time came, he would destroy anything that suited his sadism. But Paris would be looted first—carefully—and the best of its portable wonders brought to him. In Mein Kampf, his autobiographical manifesto published in 1925, Hitler had clearly stated his true views about France. It was a great rival, its capital full of Bolshevik Jews, its people the “mortal enemy” of Germany. In his masterpiece of fascist and racist cant, one theme had dominated: his hatred for the Jews. Once Helmut Knochen and his colleagues—Hitler’s most loyal servants—had purged the city of these and other degenerates, Paris would enjoy a true golden age—a National Socialist “Belle Époque.”

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VE DAY SPEECH, 8 MAY 2015

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SEVENTY YEARS AGO TODAY IN EUROPE

BY ALEX KERSHAW

Having accepted the German surrender, Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent a message to the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington:
THE MISSION OF THIS ALLIED FORCE WAS FULFILLED AT 0241, LOCAL TIME, MAY 7, 1945, EISENHOWER.

THE FOLLOWING DAY, 8 May 1945, the world learned of the German final surrender. There were intense and prolonged celebrations in many capitals to mark the end the most destructive war in human history.

While civilians embraced, kissed total strangers and took to streets around the globe in euphoria, many infantrymen in Europe, brutalized and broken, sat alone with their grief or paced their rest areas in mournful silence. “There is V-E day without but no peace within,” wrote the war’s most decorated US infantrymen, Audie Murphy, of the 3rd Division.

Europe lay in ruins. The human cost of the conflict was beyond comprehension. In one Berlin suburb, women now outnumbered men by over ten to one. Over five million German dead littered the battlefields of a devastated Europe, especially in the East. Ninety percent of all German combat deaths had in fact occurred fighting the Soviets who had suffered an astounding 65 percent of all Allied fatalities.

Barbarism had been defeated. Civilization had been preserved. The men of evil, Winston Churchill told the British nation, “are now prostrate before us.”

Later that afternoon of 8 May, after having lunched with the King at Buckingham Palace, Churchill was driven to Whitehall. When he stepped onto a balcony at the Ministry of Health he could barely hear himself speak, so loud were the cheers of the crowds.

“This is your victory,” he shouted. “It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this.”

Finally, I would like to address the WWII veterans with us here, today, seventy years after the guns fell silent in Europe. I was born in England twenty years after the war ended. I grew up in a united and mostly prosperous Europe – one that you set free.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for allowing mine and other generations to enjoy the longest period of peace in Europe’s history, on a continent scarred since the beginning of time by war.

Now, seventy years later, we can agree with Churchill absolutely. He was right. Indeed, in all our long history, we have never seen a greater day than VE Day – thanks to you. It is still your victory – the greatest the world has ever known.

LIBERATING HITLER’S BEER HALL

Captain Anse Speairs, left, of 157th Infantry Regiment, set up his unit's first command post in Munich in Hitler's famous beer cellar.

Captain Anse Speairs, left, of 157th Infantry Regiment, set up his unit’s first command post in Munich in Hitler’s famous beer cellar.

AN OVERVIEW OF THE BEER HALL PUTSCH

By The United States Holocaust Museum

“On November 8–9, 1923, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party led a coalition group in an attempted coup d’état which came to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch. They began at the Bürgerbräu Keller in the Bavarian city of Munich, aiming to seize control of the state government, march on Berlin, and overthrow the German federal government. In its place, they sought to establish a new government to oversee the creation of a unified Greater German Reich where citizenship would be based on race. Although the putsch failed—and Bavarian authorities were able to prosecute nine participants, including Hitler—the leaders ultimately redefined it as a heroic effort to save the nation and integrated it into the mythos of Hitler and the Nazis’ rise to power.

PLANNING THE PUTSCH

Throughout Germany, the first four years of the Weimar Republic were marred by economic woes, trauma at the loss of World War I, and humiliation at what many considered to be the excessively punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty. In this climate of national instability, both left and right wing political movements, whose paramilitary formations swelled with unemployed veterans and rebellious youths, had attempted and failed to overthrow the fledgling democracy. By the time Hitler and the Nazis prepared their coup attempt in 1923, the movement counted over 50,000 members, the majority of whom had joined with the express hope that the party would take action against the democratic republic. Inspired by Mussolini’s successful “march on Rome” that brought the Fascists to power in Italy in October 1922, Hitler planned to make his move, including a parallel “March on Berlin” to seize control of the national government.

Members of the Bavarian state government were agitating for change at the same time. Protesting Berlin’s decision to halt passive resistance against Franco-Belgian occupation troops in the Rhineland and the Ruhr, the Bavarian government had declared a state of emergency, putting Minister President Gustav Ritter von Kahr in charge as a General State Commissar together with his associates Armed Forces General Otto von Lossow and State Police Chief Hans Ritter von Seisser. This “triumvirate” publicly advocated a nationalist march on Berlin but secretly calculated that others in the military and civil service in Berlin would do the dirty work, sweeping away the hated Republic and establishing an authoritarian regime. The Bavarians could then enjoy the fruits of the putsch without taking its risks and simultaneously maintain their autonomy in Bavaria. However, as it became clear to the triumvirate that they had miscalculated, they contemplated taking action against Berlin on their own. They met on the evening of November 8, 1923, in the Bürgerbräu Keller on the east side of Munich to discuss strategy.

Meanwhile, the radical and völkisch nationalist coalition, including the Nazis, had united in a formation that they called the Kampfbund (Combat League). The völkisch leaders grew increasingly impatient and pushed for a violent overthrow of the government in Berlin. Hitler, who had dubbed himself the “drummer” for the movements associated with the Kampfbund, feared Bavarian Minister-President Kahr more than any other leader as a potential rival. Having heard of the November 8 meeting, to which he was not invited, Hitler and his fellow conspirators planned to crash it and announce the Bavarian and federal government as deposed, forcing the triumvirate to legitimize his movement. Von Lossow and von Seisser would be made to order Bavarian troops out on to the street in support of the government of “national renewal,” and, in conjunction with the paramilitary units in the Kampfbund coalition, to seize crucial administrative and military buildings. Once the coalition had secured Bavaria, its leaders would march on Berlin under Hitler’s inspiration and leadership.

THE PUTSCH

At about 8:30 in the evening on November 8, Hitler’s personal bodyguard detachment, the Stoßtrupp Adolf Hitler, arrived at the Bürgerbräu Keller to join the Storm Trooper units which were preparing to surround the beer hall. Having slipped inside the facility, Hitler took the arrival of the Stoßtrupp as the signal to begin the putsch. He fired his pistol into the ceiling, interrupting Kahr’s rally, and declared that the “national revolution” had begun. Surrounded by armed guards, Hitler pushed his way to the front and briefly addressed the crowd. He then ordered the Bavarian triumvirate—von Lossow, von Seisser, and von Kahr—into an adjoining room, where he bullied them at gunpoint into backing his putsch. Believing he had secured their support, Hitler and the three Bavarian leaders returned to the main hall and addressed the crowd. They declared their solidarity in Hitler’s movement and announced the new government’s key appointments.

Once they launched the putsch, however, the conspirators made a series of crucial mistakes. First, its overall success depended upon the seizure of state offices and communications centers and the use of the triumvirate’s authority to bring in the military and police. While the rebels temporarily took over some offices, including the municipal headquarters of the Reichswehr and Munich police headquarters, they failed to secure other key centers. Worse still, Hitler left the triumvirate in the custody of von Ludendorff, who yielded to their entreaties to leave the Bürgerbräu Keller, supposedly to take up their designated roles in the putsch. Once free, however, they promptly denounced the overthrow and ordered police and military units to suppress it. As the conspirators had failed to secure communications in the city, the triumvirate was able to call upon suburban police forces and troops from nearby bases.

The conspirators were too disorganized to take advantage even of the short window of confusion that might have favored their success. After he heard of the triumvirate’s betrayal, Hitler equivocated for several hours before deciding to go ahead with the march on Berlin anyway. The indecision gave the Bavarian authorities time to organize and defend Munich. In a last ditch effort to rally citizens and soldiers, Hitler led around 2,000 Nazis and other Kampfbund members in a march to the Feldherrnhalle on the Ludwigsstrasse. Munich law enforcement clashed with the marchers as they reached the Odeonsplatz. The shootout left 14 Nazis and four police officers dead and put a final end to the coup in the city. Two other Nazis would die in other localities. Hitler had relied on the paramilitary Kampfbund to carry the day, but the lack of support from the police and locally stationed military units doomed the enterprise to failure.

TRIAL

A five-judge panel chaired by Georg Neithardt presided over the trial of Hitler and the other putsch leaders in March 1924. Like the majority of judges during the Weimar period, Neithardt tended, in cases of high treason, to show leniency towards right-wing defendants who claimed to have acted out of sincere, patriotic motives. Wearing his Iron Cross, awarded for bravery during World War I, Hitler took advantage of the judge’s indulgence to pontificate against the Weimar Republic. He claimed the federal government in Berlin had betrayed Germany by signing the Versailles Treaty, and justified his actions by suggesting that there was a clear and imminent communist threat to Germany. Although the judges convicted Hitler on the charge of high treason, they gave him the lightest allowable sentence of five years in a minimum security prison at Landsberg am Lech. He served only eight months. While Hitler did have a base of support, left and right-wing newspapers criticized the leniency of his sentence, and a prominent legal professor published a paper outlining many of the trial’s most egregious errors. Bavarian government officials were equally displeased with the verdict and the sentence but they had to act with restraint to avoid giving the impression of trying to influence the affairs of the Bavarian Justice Ministry.

During his short time in prison, Hitler led a pleasant lifestyle for an inmate. Prison authorities allowed him to wear his civilian clothes, to meet with other inmates as he pleased, and to send and receive a voluminous number of letters. Prison authorities also permitted Hitler to utilize the services of his personal secretary, Rudolf Hess, a fellow inmate, also convicted of high treason. While in prison, Hitler dictated to Hess the first volume of his infamous autobiography, Mein Kampf.

LEGACY OF THE BEER HALL PUTSCH

The Beer Hall putsch had several ominous legacies. Among those who marched with Hitler to the Odeonsplatz on November 9, 1923, were men who would later hold key positions in Nazi Germany: Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher, and Wilhelm Frick. Four out of these five men would stand in the defendants’ dock at the trial of the major war criminals in Nuremberg in 1945; the fifth only escaped that fate by committing suicide.

The aims of the putsch leaders were equally foreboding. They sought to smash internal political opposition and annihilate those who resisted, to establish a dictatorial state with citizenship restricted to Germans of “Nordic” stock, to exclude Jews from political life, and to pass emergency legislation that would allow the “removal of all persons dangerous to security and useless eaters” who would be incarcerated “in concentration camps [Sammellager] and, where possible, turned to labor productive to the community.” When Hitler and the Nazis seized power in 1933, they achieved each of these goals within two years.

Hitler drew important practical lessons from the failed putsch. First, he understood that the Nazi movement could not destroy the Republic by direct assault without support from the Army and police. Second, he understood that success depended upon the Nazi Party as the undisputed leader of the völkisch movement and Hitler as the unequivocal leader of the Nazis. Finally, the experience taught Hitler that an attempt to overthrow the state by force would bring forth a military response in its defense. Henceforth, he was committed to taking advantage of the Weimar democracy to subvert the state from within by seeking to come to power by means of the popular vote and by using the freedoms of speech and assembly guaranteed by the Weimar Republic to influence that vote.

In the wake of the putsch, the federal and Bavarian government banned the Nazi Party, its formations, and its newspaper. But Hitler’s public commitment to coming to power legally induced the authorities to lift the ban in 1925. A careful organizational restructuring of the Nazi Party under Hitler’s absolute control between 1925-1929, rendered necessary by the dissolution of the Party in 1924, would show its first significant result in the Nazi electoral breakthrough in the Reichstag elections of 1930.

Hitler and the Nazi Party leadership cultivated the memory of the Beer Hall Putsch, giving it a special place in narrative of the Nazi movement, and eventually in that of the German State. After Hitler consolidated power, Nazi Germany celebrated November 9 as Reich Day of Mourning (Reichstrauertag). The Odeonsplatz, the city square where the conspirators had clashed with police, became an important memorial for the Nazi Party. Only after World War II did authorities of the German Federal Republic dedicate a plaque memorializing the four police officers killed on duty in defense of the Weimar Republic.”

TRAGEDIE FRANCAISE

How France sent its greatest chronicler of the Nazi occupation to her death.

FRANCE - IRENE NEMIROVSKY

The great Jewish writer, Irene Nemirovsky.

TRAGEDIE FRANCAISE

By Alex Kershaw

“In life, as on a shipwrecked boat, you have to cut off the hands of anyone who tries to hang on. Alone, you can stay afloat. If you waste time saving other people, you’re finished.”

Irene Nemirovsky, author of Suite Francaise.

On 11 July 1942, 39-year-old Irene Nemirovsky walked alone through beautiful countryside near Issy-l’Eveque, a village in the Bourgogne around two hundred miles south of Paris. Her home was a large building near a former livestock building in the village, just a short walk from the local police station. She had a wonderful view of the Morvan hills. Her husband, Michel, grew beetroot and other vegetables in a large garden nearby and so she and her two daughters had not gone hungry.

The Russian-born writer was a striking woman with large, highly intelligent eyes, her dark hair usually pulled back from her broad forehead. That day, she felt unusually carefree, her sense of dread and doom having abated. She had been forced to write these last months in minute lettering because of a shortage of paper and was near completing what would be her masterpiece, to be titled Suite Francaise. But as a Jewish author she could no longer publish her work and she had little hope, if any, of ever seeing it in print. Nor could she ride a bicycle or take a train to her beloved Paris, which she had fled in 1940 just ahead of the German advance.

She had recently been reading the journal of the writer Katherine Mansfield and had noted certain lines that matched her own mood: “Just when one thinks: “Now I’ve touched the bottom of the sea – now I can’t go down any lower,” one sinks deeper still. And so on for ever.” But she did not feel that way today, 11 July 1942, as she walked in the woods near her home. Pine trees towered above her as she down on her blue cardigan, which she had laid on a dank blanket of rotting leaves. She had a copy of the novel Anna Karenina and an orange in her bag. She listened to a steady drone of honeybees. Later that day, she would pen her last words in a letter to her editor in Paris: “I’ve written a great deal lately. I suppose they will be posthumous books but it still makes the time go by.”

Two days later, on Monday 13 July, the weather was again superb. It was around 10am when a car stopped in the Place du Monument aux Morts in Issy-l’Eveque. There was the sound of footsteps then a knock on the door. Two French policemen had a summons with them. Irene’s two children were with her and her husband. One was called Denise. She heard her parents go into their bedroom. Irene asked her husband to do all he could to secure her release through contacts with important people in Paris, those with connections to the Germans, especially high profile collaborators. There was a “dense silence”, recalled Denise, and then the gendarmes allowed her to kiss her mother goodbye. Irene threw a few things into a suitcase. Her voice frail, she told her children she had to go away for a while. Denise looked at her father. He was clearly very upset but he did not cry. Finally, Denise heard a car door slam shut and then the “dense silence” returned.

Irene was taken to a police station at Toulon-sur-Arroux, ten miles away. The next day, Irene wrote to her husband: “If you can send me anything, I think my second pair of glasses in the other suitcase (in the wallet). Books, please, and also if possible a bit of salted butter. Goodbye, my love!” Before they could be arrested, Irene’s children, Denise and Elizabeth, were taken to a safe house. They would miraculously survive the war. Meanwhile, Michel contacted anyone who might be able to help him secure Irene’s release. He was convined that some of his contacts, such as Rene de Chambrun and other “influential friends”, would exert pressure and save his wife.

The following evening, 14 July, Paul Epstein, Irene’s brother in law, had a face-to- face meeting with a prominent collaborator, a corporate lawyer called Rene de Chambrun, in Paris. It was Bastille Day but there had been no national celebration. Two days later, Epstein was in turn arrested. Andre Sabatier, Irene’s editor, tried to contact Rene de Chambrun, calling him urgently on the phone several times. It is not known if Rene returned any of the calls.

Paul Epstein was one of thousands caught up in the mass arrests that came to be known as the Grand Rafle, which began on the night of July 16 and lasted well into the following day as 13,152 Parisian Jews, including 4000 children, were arrested and around half of them taken to the Vel d’Hiver, a large velodrome beside the Seine. The round up, carried out with great efficiency by the French police, was the only thing people all over the talked about, it seemed, in every food line, office and hospital ward. The screams of Jews committing suicide pierced the terrible quiet in some quartiers. The famous German writer, Ernst Junger, serving in Paris, noted with matter of fact precision in his diary that he had heard “wailing in the streets” as families were literally torn apart, with adults being separated from their young children.

The medical conditions at the Vel D’Hiver, it was soon learned, were utterly atrocious. There were no lavatories. There was only one water tap for over seven thousand people. According to one account: “It was a rafle conducted in keeping with the best of French conditions, for at noon the policemen returned to their posts to have lunch while higher-ranked and better paid set off to nearby restaurants. Only after the sacred dejeuner could the manhunt continue.”

Women’s cries could soon be heard throughout the Vel D’Hiver. “On a soif!”

“We’re thirsty!” they called out.

Only two doctors were allowed inside the Velodrome, equipped with little more than aspirin. After five days, those incarcerated were transferred in cattle trucks to camps at Pithiviers, Beaune-la-Rolande and Drancy, a modernist high-rise development built in the 1930s also known as La Cité de la Muette – the City of Silence.

A young Parisian called Annette Monod watched a batch of young children, who had been separated from their parents, as they were taken by French police from the City of Silence: “The gendarmes tried to have a roll call. But children and names did not correspond. Rosenthal, Biegelmann, Radetski – it all meant nothing to them. They did not understand what was wanted of them, and several even wandered away from the group. That was how a little boy approached a gendarme, to play with the whistle hanging at his belt: a little girl made off to a small bank on which a few flowers were growing, and she picked some to make a bunch. The gendarmes did not know what to do. Then the order came to escort the children to the railway station nearby, without insisting on the roll call.”

On 27 July, Irene Nemirovsky’s husband Michel wrote a letter to German ambassador in Paris, Otto Abetz: “I believe you alone can save my wife. I place in you my last hope.” To make sure the letter was delivered to Abetz, Michel sent it to his wife’s editor in Paris, asking him to pass it on to Rene de Chambrun for forwarding to Abetz. The next day, Irene’s editor duly sent the letter to Chambrun who may or may not have passed it on.

Meanwhile, along Avenue Foch and elsewhere, trucks loaded down with furniture and other Jewish possessions could be seen after deported Jews’ homes were ransacked. The looters belonged to the Einsatzstab Rosenberg, actually headquartered on Avenue Foch. Eventually, according to the Nazis, this looting saw 69,619 Jewish homes, 38,000 of which were in Paris, “emptied of everything in daily or ornamental use.”

At the end of July, after over 14,000 Parisian Jews had been rounded up, the Catholic Church in Paris made a belated appeal to Pierre Laval on the children’s behalf. But the Vichy premier was adamant: “They all must go.” And they did. Less than four percent of those sent to the east returned. Not one was a child. Those responsible for this genocide later claimed they had no idea that the deportations were in fact to death camps, not some mythical Jewish haven.

It was a shameful time for France, especially for those who had actively collaborated with the SS and Gestapo. Their new German friends were part of something monstrous – the mass murder of their fellow French citizens. It was impossible to pretend one did not know what was happening. Indeed, those with the best connections to the Nazi regime found themselves begged by relatives and others to do something given their influence. At the height of the deportations, Josee Laval, the wife of Rene de Chambrun, was fully aware of the tragedy. She received two letters asking her to help save Jewish friends of friends. Yet she remained utterly self-involved. On the first day of the round up, she had complained in her diary that her beloved father, Pierre Laval, the head of the Vichy regime, was “too busy” to have dinner with her. She did not mention why.

Her husband was as guilty of inaction as Josee. He had been begged in person to help save Irene Nemirovsky. He had the power to do so given his close connection to German ambassador Otto Abetz who had allowed the Vichy official Fernand de Brinon’s Jewish wife to avoid deportation in 1941. Indeed, with the right connections, it was possible to buy or trade anyone’s release. And he knew it. Rene also counted the smooth-talking Rene Bousquet, head of the French police, as an old friend, having belonged to the same rugby team in his youth. Yet there is not a shred of evidence to indicate that Rene took take up Nemirovsky’s case with either Abetz or Bousquet.

It was later learned that Nemirovsky, listed as “a woman of letters”, was deported from France on 16 July 1942 along with 119 other women. Her train had left promptly at 6.15am and arrived on 19 July at Auschwitz. Aged just 39, the author or the finest novel of the German occupation, Suite Francaise, breathed her last after just four weeks at the death camp. Two months later, the US government offered to provide refuge to a thousand Jewish children whose parents had, like Nemirovsky, been deported. Pierre Laval insisted that only “certified orphans” could leave for the US. Since nothing was officially known of the fate of the deported parents, the children were not allowed to go to the US. Most would die in the gas chambers. Nemirovsky’s husband, Michel Epstein, fared no better. He was arrested on 9 October 1942 and sent to Auschwitz. As with 77,000 other Jews in France, he would never return.

GOODBYE BOB

GOODBYE BOB.

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By Alex Kershaw

I didn’t try to choke back a sob when I learnt that Bob Sales had passed away on 23 February, aged 89. I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the years with some truly amazing veterans, but none whose company I enjoyed more than Bob’s – he was a very funny man, or at least I thought so. This was all the more remarkable given that he didn’t have a lot to laugh at – at least not in WWII.

Sales landed on the bloodiest sands for any American of the 20th Century, perhaps in all history – Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach, around 7am on June 6 1944. A proud Virginian, he belonged to Company B of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division, having joined the National Guard aged 15 by lying about his age. Three years later, aged eighteen, he was the only man from his landing craft to survive the worst carnage on D Day. In fact he was my main and most reliable eyewitness as to what happened to the Bedford boys who had landed just minutes before him and had been quickly slaughtered, whose bodies he saw as he tried to get across the deadliest sector of any beach in Normandy at the deadliest possible time, indeed as German machine-gunners killed any man who so much as twitched as the wounded lay frozen, the tide lapping at their heels. Death surrounded him, goaded him, haunted him, for another six months in France as he killed and watched so many more young men die before he too, inevitably, became a victim.

Sales was a good-looking son-of-a-gun, as he might have put it, a horny teenage “Yank” on a last weekend pass in London before the invasion. In his home in Lynchburg in 2002, in view of the memorial to his fallen comrades he had built in his backyard, he answered me honestly when I asked him what was the moment he felt proudest to be an American in WWII. It was when he heard Tommy Dorsey and his band start up, at the Covent Garden Opera House, some dreary day that spring of 1944. He loved the jaunty tempo, the heady upswing, the feeling he had when he stood up and moved toward the packed dance-floor in his crisp uniform, wearing polished leather shoes and a tie – those English gals thought he looked like a mighty fine officer, a gentleman, not a lowly private, just as it should be for a charming southern boy with a cheeky glint in his eye, whose unit traced back to the Stonewall Jackson brigade, legends of the Civil War.

He loved England, my place of birth, all his long life. He wrote to friends there for decades, kept in touch with a people who’d dubbed his division “England’s Own” because it was based there for so long – from late 1942 to June 6 1944. He had risked his life beside Brits – he never, ever forgot to mention the heroism of the British naval crews who took him and his buddies onto Omaha. It enraged Sales when false stories appeared, spread by Americans of all people, about his commanding officer having to put a gun to a Tommy’s head to make him land Company B on time and in the right place.

Sales loved to dance, especially with English girls. “Churchill had Covent Garden opera house converted in to the biggest dance hall you ever saw in your life,” he told me, a big smile on his face, a wry lilt to his Virginia drawl. “They had two bands there. One would play for a while then the stage would rotate and another would start up. If you were dancing with a girl you didn’t like, you waltzed over to the stag line and got another. Wrens, Wacs, always two hundred standing waiting to dance. They loved to dance, those English girls. Man, it was as close to heaven as you could get.”

If Bob and his buddies didn’t get lucky in Covent Garden, there were plenty of “Piccadilly commandos.” He didn’t miss a beat as he reminisced, my tape recorder flashing red, capturing his every word: “Half a pound, occasionally a pound if she was real good looking. It was just unreal when it came to that…There was also a Red Cross hostel where you’d spend the night for nothing. A bunch of girls from Spain worked as maids there. They’d sing, carry on, and laugh as they made our beds. When you were screwing one of them, the others would sing so the supervisor wouldn’t catch on. It was the darndest thing you ever seen. Then you’d slip them two shillings.”

That little confession came back to haunt both of us. It was May 2003, at a Walmart in Lynchburg, where my book the Bedford Boys was being launched. I was stunned to see well over two hundred people turn up for a signing. Suddenly, from nowhere it seemed, a portly man in a wheelchair was at my side.

“God damn, Kershaw, you put it all in the book! I mean all of it, man!”

For a moment, I was worried he might slug me, teach a cocky limey a thing or two. But then I saw the big smile on his face and heard the chuckle and the laugh. Thinking back to that humid day in a Walmart on Memorial Day I now have tears, as I write, in my eyes. I realize now I loved Bob for his honesty and wit and because he made the war real and romantic and terrible to me, born twenty years after he finally came home.

He survived the very worst. As a radio operator, he was beside his commanding officer just before 7am on June 6th. Captain Ettore Zappacosta, Company B’s commanding officer told Sales to “crawl up on the edge and see what you can see.” The beach was a stone’s throw away but Sales couldn’t see anybody from Company A fighting – the Bedford boys belonged to Company A and had landed at H Hour, 6.32am. Of the 19 men from Bedford County, Virginia, who died that day, most were already dead, their corpses strewn across the beach ahead of Sales.

“Captain,” shouted Sales, “there’s something wrong. There’s men laying everywhere on the beach!”
“They shouldn’t be on the beach.”

A British bowman said he was going to drop the ramp. Sales ducked down. Zappacosta was the first out. MG-42 bullets riddled him immediately.

“I’m hit, I’m hit,” he called out.

Every man who followed met the same fate, caught in a relentless crossfire.

Sales would have been hit too but he stumbled as he exited, lost his balance, and fell into the water off the side of the ramp. He was still wearing his radio. He struggled in the water to release it; if he didn’t get the damned thing off his back, he knew he would never fill his lungs with air again. Sales finally ripped the pack free and surfaced. He was several yards in front of the craft. The machine guns were now enjoying open season. Men were still exiting, still dropping the instant they appeared on the ramp.

“Those German machine guns,” Sales told me, “they just ate us up.”

A mortar exploded, stunning Sales. Some time later, feeling “very groggy”, he grabbed onto a log that had been part of a beach defense. A live mine was still attached to one end. Sales used the log as cover, pushing it in front of him, his face pressed to the wood. Finally, he got to the beach, where he spotted his boat’s communications sergeant, Dick Wright, who had jumped off after Zappacosta. He was badly wounded and had been washed ashore. When he saw Sales he managed to raise himself up on his elbows to tell him something but before he could utter a word a sniper hiding in rocks along the bluff shot him.

“It looked like his head exploded,” Sales recalled. “Pieces just fell about in the sand. And I lay there, just figuring I’d be next. I said to myself: “That sniper done and seen me, too.” And evidently something distracted him, another boat maybe, a bigger target, because he didn’t get me. I buried my head in the sand as far as I could, put my arms over my head, and I just waited. I reckon I lay there thirty minutes.”

“I’d seen a wall, maybe 150 feet away. I thought: “If I can get to that wall, I got a little protection. So maybe I can get another gun or some thing.” I had fifty yards to go – a long way especially when you’re expecting a man to kill you. So I started using dead bodies. I would crawl to one and then real easy I’d move to another. That was the only protection.”

Sales inched forward. The corpses of Bedford boys and others dotted the beach, every ten yards or so. Some faces were familiar. They’d smiled at him across bars. They’d passed him on cold parade grounds. “I never seen a living soul from Company A that day,” Bob told me. “But I saw their bodies. I don’t remember the names. I was so scared to death. But there were quite a few of them. It was definitely A Company I crawled around – there was nobody else that could have been dead that quick.”

Sales saw another Company B man, Private Mack Smith, by a cluster of rocks – at the base of the wall. Sales crawled over. He’d made it. Smith had been hit three times in the face. An eyeball lay on his cheek. Sales gave him a “morphine jab”, popped the eye back into the socket, and then bandaged him.

“Them’s failed, man,” said Smith. “We gotta get off this beach. They gotta send boats in for us.”

The pair stayed at the sea wall, both in shock, for what felt like an eternity. Sales would be taken off the beach that afternoon but would return before nightfall after persuading a doctor to allow him to rejoin a launch going back for wounded on Omaha. ‘There wasn’t a man off my boat who lived, except me. Not one.”

Sales fought on through Normandy. “D-Day was the longest day, there’s no doubt about that,” he told me, “but for those who survived it was just one day. I had a hundred and eighty to go. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many men right beside me got killed. The average infantryman survived a week, if he was lucky.”

Sales told me every day was worse than the last, a gradual degradation of the mind, body and spirit. “You never got used to combat. Every damn morning, you got up wondering if you were going to live through the day.”

That last day took a long time coming. At 4am on 18 November 1944, Sales was ordered to take up position on the other side of a field before dawn. As he crossed the field, “the Germans lit it up with flares like you could play football on it and then opened up on us with tracer fire from a machine gun. When dawn came, I crawled back and then took a tank along a road. We got a German gun. I tapped the tank and hollered: “Okay! Let’s get out of here.” The tank turned and then they hit us with an antitank rocket. There were balls of fire rolling out of my eyes. I couldn’t find my gun, nothing. I was hit in both eyes with shrapnel, blood was pouring out of my head from a cut, where my head hit the side of the tank. That finished me. I stayed in hospital a year and a half, lost an eye. The other one is not the best in the world but a hell of a lot better than nothing.”

Sales’ actions on 18 November earned him a Silver Star. Like so very many, he deserved far, far more. After the war, he became a successful businessman, working as a land developer and pulp wood dealer. He retired as the proud owner of his own company: the Sales and White Timber Company. In 2014, he was one of six World War II veterans who were afforded the great honor of being made a knight of the Legion of Honor. To the day he died, he flew the Stars and Stripes at his home, was intensely proud of his fellow Virginians from the 116th Infantry regiment and indeed all of the 29ers who sacrificed so very much on D Day. 375 men from his regiment were lost on bloody Omaha. He had listed all the names of his buddies who died on D Day on the memorial he erected in his own backyard.

Sales never felt prouder to be a “Yank” than that day in London April 1944 when he heard the siren call of a big band, perhaps the greatest of all time, and saw the English gals look his way.

And what about his proudest moment in combat, I had once asked him. What did he remember with greatest pride from his six months of fighting to liberate Europe?

“I never killed a prisoner,” he told me, deadly serious for once, “and I never sent one back when I thought a man would kill him.”

Thus spoke my greatest hero….. Goodbye Bob. I know you will rest in peace. None have deserved it more.

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