The Longest Day
D-Day: 0000 – 0016
"Has the Major laid his kit yet?" Parr bellowed from the aft of the Horsa. Everybody laughed but, this one time, nobody had gotten sick.
"How about this one!" Parr began singing again, leading all 28 of them in another song, to the tune of stamping, hooting, and in between chain-smoking Player's:
It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long way to go.
It's a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know!
Gliders 2 and 3 were one minute apart behind them, and the other three behind them. The stormy Channel was beneath them.
Peter snubbed out the fag and hummed along. Glancing fore, he saw Major Howard reach into his jacket. He was probably carrying a good luck token. Most of them had something hidden away.
Peter wasn't carrying anything. He'd already seen the Lion's paw in the battle plans hanging on the wall of that Nissen hut back at the base.
Your will Aslan, not mine.
Somebody knew the alternate chorus, and that one sounded even better:
That's the wrong way to tickle Mary,
That's the wrong way to kiss.
Don't you know that over here, lad
They like it best like this.
Hooray pour Les Français
We didn't know how to tickle Mary,
But we learnt how over there.
Hooray pour Les Français, Farewell Angleterre.He was sitting far enough fore that he could just make out a strip of white beach and crashing surf.
The glider suddenly jerked around them. Peter looked at his watch. It was 0007 and they'd cast off from the Hali. The drone of the bomber's engine faded and with it, the song.
They were alone, in the dark, and gliding into France. The only noise was the whoosh of air over glider wings, 28 men breathing and, from the cockpit, the co-pilot, Ainsworth, counting out by stopwatch.
With a nod from Major Howard, Brotheridge shrugged out of his safety harness and stood. The Major and Sergeant Ollis grabbed Brotheridge's gear and Danny leaned forward to open the glider's door. The door slid smoothly back up into the roof and Ollis and the Major hauled Brotheridge back onto the glider's bench.
The clouds of Calvados passed below them. First man to prang out of the glider would win fifty francs. Peter didn't know how anyone would be able to pay, since Bailey and Parr had won all their money.
They were blind. Peter couldn't see anything, not the Bridges, the river, the canal, not even the town of Ranville that surely they were flying over. Nothing. Wallwork was flying by compass, airspeed indicator and Ainsworth's stopwatch.
They all tensed and braced as Ainsworth suddenly said, "'Now!" Wallwork threw them into a hard, full right turn, which meant they were now heading west, over the River Orne.
Peter heard Wallwork whisper something, sounding worried, but Ainsworth was an absolute brick. "Well, we're on course, anyway," Ainsworth said bluntly and loudly and then he began counting down, "5,4,3,2,1." Wallwork threw them into another hard right turn, now heading north, in theory, straight up their landing zone, and straight into the Caen Canal Bridge.
At 0014, Wallwork shouted, "Ready!"
"Link arms!" Brotheridge ordered. "Feet up."
Given that the Horsa was made of plywood, glue and spit, the whole floor could disintegrate on a hard landing, which this surely would be. They were badly overloaded and probably still going over 100 miles per hour.
Suddenly the clouds cleared the moon. The bridge was straight ahead and through the open door the trees were whipping by beneath them at 90 miles per hour.
The Horsa dropped. Everyone tensed and the wheels slammed down, hard, ripping out dirt and sending rocks and turf everywhere. Surely, coming in this fast, they'd go straight over the embankment. But if they didn't get far enough up the LZ close to the Bridge, gliders 2 and 3 behind them would run up their back and crush them.
Wallwork yelled, "STREAM!" and Ainsworth hit the button and the great parachute billowed out behind them. There was a tearing sound and the glider lurched, probably losing wheels and skidding forward on the struts.
Peter could feel the glider shuddering and shaking; it was breaking apart around them. What good was flying in silently when the glider landing sounded like a bomb going off? There was no surprise here. They were landing in the middle of German tank divisions and infantry garrisons. They were going to crash into a bridge rigged for demolition and defended by a tank gun, machine guns, and fifty soldiers.
But they did slow. "Jettison," Wallwork called and the parachute detached altogether.
They bounced and banged down again and a cloud of sparks and fire shot out all around them.
"Tracers!" someone yelled. They'd been spotted, they were being shot at and they'd die, still strapped into their seats.
There was an almighty crash. Peter was flung forward, his head smashed into a strut and it all went black.
They had been too excited to go to bed. They'd all toasted the success of the invasion. Then, Madame Vion turned off the radio and it was time to get to work. The invasion could come anywhere within two hundred miles or more over the next 48 hours. There were two separate jobs – the care of the patients and the work of the Resistance. They had to be ready for both.
They filled all the basins with water, stocked batteries, and found the candles. Susan was folding bandages in the supply room with Lebourgeois when Desvignes came in.
"Jeanne, do you hear that?"
Susan listened, trying to tune out the clip of Madame's heels on the floor as she joined them.
"Low flying bombers," Susan said. "They sound like Halifaxes."
"There aren't any drops scheduled," Madame Vion said, entering the room. "It is very odd."
"We've never had that many at once, either," Lebourgeois added. "Could it be paratroopers?"
"The invasion? Here?" Madame Vion asked sharply. "Not Calais?"
Susan shook her head. "If they were dropping paratroopers ahead of an invasion, there would be more of them."
"So too many for a drop, that is not scheduled, and not enough for an invasion?" Desvignes asked. They all stood quietly, listening.
"I think they are headed to Caen?" Madame Vion both said and asked.
Susan set the bandages down. "We should go up to the roof."
"Would the invasion come so soon?" Madame Vion said as they hurried to the grand staircase. "The message came barely four hours ago."
They hurried up the stairs and the hum of the overflights grew louder. Madame Vion opened the roof door and they went out. In daylight, the Château de Bénouville roof gave a good vista of the whole area of Bénouville, Le Port, and Ranville, both bridges, and all around for several kilometres.
Susan scanned the sky; it was very dark and there was scant light from the cloud-covered moon.
"They aremoving toward Caen," Monsieur Desvignes said, listening to the rumbles moving west. "I didn't think there was much left to bomb there."
Flashes of anti-aircraft guns and tracers lit the sky of Caen, followed a moment later by the sounds of artillery. The bombers were beginning their run. Desvignes was right, though. There wasn't much left in Caen. It was a very target poor city and what was there, the tank regiment, the Allies probably wouldn't try to hit at night.
A diversion? What had the – there had to be at least four – Halis dropped besides bombs?
Unless… She shaded her eyes and searched the sky eagerly. "Look for something big, black, and moving fast. And silently."
And then the cloud rolled back and a huge shape cut across the moon, blacker than the night sky, slashes of white on its wings and tail, silent, like a huge Gryphon of Narnia, or a mythical dragon, but so much bigger. The sky above Bénouville was filled with these great, soundless things.
Madame Vion gasped as the shape soared, silent and very fast, right by them on the roof, just on the other side of the canal, heading north.
"It's a glider," Susan said. "Probably a whole…"
And then there was a thunderous, exploding boom. Showers of sparks and flashes of fire burst from the ground just north of them, right at the Caen Canal Bridge.
The glider had crashed within a few meters of its target.
D-Day: 0017 -0027
Peter blinked awake to the sounds of groans, which meant he could hear. Someone's elbow was in his ear, and someone's gun poked him in the ribs, which meant he could feel. Major Howard was jammed up in the roof of the glider and Peter couldn't even see the pilots – they and their seats had been thrown out of the cockpit like stones in a slingshot.
How long had they been out? Peter glanced at his watch which was miraculously still working. 0017. It felt much longer than a minute or two. No one said anything, but everyone was looking around, waking up, and that was that. They were rats in a trap. They had to get out or they would be killed where they sat, still strapped to their seats. What was left of the Horsa wouldn't stop bullets or a mortar. And gliders 2 and 3 would be landing any moment, right on their tail, assuming they weren't lost or shot down.
There was jostling and muffled swearing and there was so much equipment in the way. But everyone was moving. The opened door was closest. Peter shrugged out of the harness, fell in with the other four of the brotherhood and hopped out. His feet hit French soil and barbed wire.
The pilots had managed to run the glider on top of the barbed wire. There wasn't anything for them to cut and break apart.
He wondered who would win the fifty francs and if that person would be alive to collect it by morning.
The east end of the Bridge loomed over their heads. It took Peter too long to realise the shocking fact.
No one was shooting at them. There was no activity at all. The sparks had not been tracer bullets – they must have been caused by the friction from hitting the ground so hard and fast. Had they really managed complete surprise even with that god almighty crash?
No time to question their incredible luck. Brotheridge motioned to Bailey. "Get moving."
Bailey and two others peeled off and headed across the road to the other side of the Bridge. They had to take out the pillbox with its anti-tank gun and the switch that would detonate the whole bridge out from under them. The rest of Glider 1 was to clear out the machine gun pits, trenches and barracks on the far, west, side of the canal. Glider 2 would come up behind them and clean up the east side. That meant he and his platoon had to cross the Bridge, not have it blow up under their boots, and make it across before being mowed down by the machine guns on the other side.
Brotheridge was leading.
Their five sappers were already sliding down the embankment. Even if Bailey couldn't blow up the triggerman, the sappers would hand-over-hand under the Bridge and remove the charges and cut the explosive wiring – assuming the whole thing didn't first explode into so many pieces there wouldn't be anything left of their platoon to send back to England.
"Come on, lads," Brotheridge whispered. Peter hefted his gun and began running for the Bridge, following Danny, Parr and the rest of his team.
They rushed the Bridge, guns at the hip, still meeting no opposition, when there was the sound of another crash and bang in the LZ. Glider 2 must have just touched down. A shot echoed behind him.
Peter kept going, faster.
Surely that would wake up the enemy? Two gliders crashing into the Bridge? Gunshots? Someone was sitting with a finger on the trigger. The bridge could go at any moment, he'd never know it…
And then there was the thud and bang of grenades. Bailey and his team had just killed whoever was inside the pillbox and taken the trigger with 'em.
Peter felt a surge of adrenaline and heard beneath him, under the Bridge, not crackles of fire and detonations, but the sounds of the sappers knocking charges into the water.
This just might work.
A lone sentry emerged on the Bridge. The child turned to face the twenty of them who emerged out of the dark like avenging angels, with blackened faces and bristling with weapons.
The sentry yelped and ran, calling, "Fallschirmjager!"
Now, Peter saw another guard on the Bridge. The guard pulled out a pistol, shouted, and shot off a flare that lit them and the Bridge.
Hell opened up.
Brotheridge shot the sentry with a full clip. The man fell.
Fire erupted from the pits on both sides of the Bridge and they were running straight into it, Brotheridge leading. They kept going, running, dodging machine gun bursts right and left. Peter felt something whiz by his cheek and he hoped it didn't find a home in one of the men behind him.
Brotheridge pulled out a grenade and tossed it into the machine gun pit on the north side. Gardner and Gray lobbed grenades into the trenches on the south side. The Sten steady at his hip, Peter pulled the trigger and sprayed bullets, low, into the smoke of the pits.
There was a new burst of fire. Peter was already running by it and he remembered now the sound he'd not heard since Narnia – the sound of a fast moving, hard projectile hitting soft flesh.
It wasn't his own and he kept moving.
Parr charged left with Gardner and Peter followed. Their job was to take out the bunkers on the south side. From behind, Peter heard "ABLE ABLE ABLE" and that meant Bailey was running across the Bridge with his men to join them. There was no need for silence now; they had to avoid blue on blue and killing their own. They all took up the chorus, shouting "ABLE ABLE ABLE," and ran off the Bridge. Parr exploded, "COME OUT AND FIGHT YOU SQUARE-HEADED BASTARDS."
His mind registered a low courtyard wall he had seen in the model back at Tarrant Rushton.
More answering shouts of "CHARLIE CHARLIE CHARLIE," which meant Number 3 glider had landed and Smith's team was tearing across the Bridge to join them.
"Come on," Parr said, pointing with his gun. Peter nodded and followed him and Gardner to the bunkers where the Germans were living, sleeping, and where they would die.
"You alright?" Parr asked.
"Let's go," Gardner said, already moving to the bunkers.
"Fine, boss," Peter said, appreciating what Parr was really asking. They'd already seen a few of their fellows slinking off or staring ahead blankly, unable to do what even the very best training could not teach – the will to kill another man.
There were more shouts, the sound of a grenade going off, and windows breaking.
"I throw in an egg, you shoot anything still moving," Parr said.
"Got it," Gardner replied. Peter nodded.
The bunkers were dug into the embankment, parallel to the Canal. They ducked into the first one. Parr yanked open the door, tossed a stun grenade into the bunker, and slammed the door again. They heard shouts, panic, and an ear-shattering bang. Peter threw open the door and he and Gardner sprayed bullets into the smoke and fire.
There was a low moan. Peter fired off another round into the bunker. It went silent.
They moved to the next.
And then to the one after that, throwing a grenade into the dugout, and shooting the men who survived.
The three of them came back up above ground hearing "ABLE ABLE ABLE" and "CHARLIE CHARLIE CHARLIE."
"We're supposed to meet Danny at the Café," Parr said. "We're setting up the command post there." They trotted across the road. They met up with Lieutenant Smith and his Lance Corporal in front of the Café.
The flesh on Smith's right hand was a bloody mess and torn to the bone. "That bastard did it with a potato masher," he said, nodding toward a German soldier, dead, slumped over the low wall. Potato masher was their slang for a stick grenade. "At least my trigger finger works."
They heard noise above them, from inside the Café. Smith raised his gun and fired a round into the building, shattering the window.
Peter remembered the Café's owner was a member of the Resistance who had told them where the trigger was for the Bridge. He hoped Smith hadn't just killed the man.
"Where's Danny?" Parr asked, looking around. It was near impossible to see through the smoke from the phosphorous bombs.
"Haven't seen him," Gardner said.
"Not since we came across the Bridge," Peter said.
With a muttered oath, Parr took off, running around the Café. "He must be here somewhere."
There was another burst of gunfire from the pits across the road. They all ducked and Gardner lobbed a grenade into the trench.
"Cut that out, Gardner!" Parr yelled. "Don't throw another of those bloody things. We'll never see what's happening.
From the other side of the canal, there were more bangs, smoke, and shouts of "BAKER BAKER BAKER," the codename for Wood's platoon. Number 2 Glider was supposed to take the east side of the Bridge and clear the pits and trenches.
In the momentary lull, Peter allowed himself to think the incredible – had they done it?The Bridge wasn't blown. Was there any opposition on it left? The creeping elation was a feeling he remembered well – in the confusion of battle, you concentrated on one enemy after another and lost the view around you. You had no way of knowing if you won until there was nothing left to kill.
Parr and Bailey appeared out of the smoke, carrying a limp body between them.
Oh Aslan, no.
Peter jumped forward and helped them move Den Brotheridge over to the modest protection of the courtyard wall.
Their Lieutenant had taken a bullet through the neck. He was staring up, glassy-eyed; blood was everywhere.
Peter knew a fatal wound when he saw one.
The man had a baby coming any day now who would never know her father now.
From the Bridge and on the other side they heard shouts of "Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam."
Peter looked at his watch. 0026. In barely ten minutes, they had control of the Caen Canal Bridge. Gliders 4, 5, and 6 must have taken the River Orne Bridge, intact.
Ham and Jam. They'd done it.
Den Brotheridge was dying.
They'd all run downstairs for helmets and dark clothing, then dashed back up to the roof, staying in the shadow of a wall, trying to learn what was happening by sound alone. Allies were attacking the Caen Canal Bridge. Had they attacked the River Orne Bridge, too? They didn't know.
The din from the Canal Bridge was terrific. There had been one crash, an explosion, a flare, and then two more crashes and shooting. Mostly Stens and Brens, Susan could tell from the sound. There was some German fire, MG 34s and Schmeissers, but not much. This meant, she hoped, that the British – she assumed they were British from the guns and not American or Canadian – had quickly obtained the upper hand.
There was shouting too, over the staccato bursts of machine gun fire.
"What are the saying?" Madame Vion asked, pushing her too-big helmet out of her eyes.
"I think they are call signs for recognition," Susan said. "'ABLE, BAKER, and CHARLIE' so they recognize each other from enemy in the dark. There are probably three platoons down there."
"Did they do it? Did they take the Bridge?" Lebourgeois asked. He had a pair of binoculars they were taking turns using but it was too dark to see anything but the flashes of fire.
"I've not heard anything sounding like the Bridge exploding?" Desvignes said, both question and statement.
"I do not want to raise our hopes, but I think we would know what an explosion of that size would sound like."
"And then there is whether they can hold the Bridge they seized," Desvignes said ominously.
Taking the Bridge was one thing. The Caen Canal Bridge garrison was weak and ineffective, mostly foreign conscripts who probably ran at the first sign of trouble. Major Schmidt was in Ranville tonight with his girlfriend. It was the counter-attack that they needed to think about now. Two regiments of the 21st Panzer were out there, surrounding the Bridges to the east and west, and the most capable, Von Luck's 125th, was only a few kilometres away.
"Surely there must be reinforcements coming?" Lebourgeois said.
New shouts rose from the Caen Canal Bridge. "What is that?" Madame Vion asked.
Susan listened closely. "Ham and Jam?" she repeated, in both French and near forgotten English. "I don't know what that means. More code phrases, probably."
Desvignes sharply inhaled. "Listen!"
It was the unmistakable sound of bombers for the second time that night. This was low, loud, and growing louder. And not the few of before. Dozens, scores, a hundred, bombers were in the sky above Bénouville, probably C-47s and Stirlings from the engine noise. They were all flying low, maybe 125 metres, the altitude for parachute drops. East, across the Caen Canal and River Orne, toward Ranville, flares lit up the sky. Allied pathfinders were lighting the way and signaling drop zones for incoming paratroopers.
Sirens came on instantly and searchlights in every village clicked on. Tracers and anti-aircraft mortars rocketed into the sky, brilliant, terrible, killing streaks of fire and light. Yellow, orange, and red lights split the black night and illuminated men dropping from the sky and floating down on parachutes. The scope, the size, the breadth was incredible. The sky was full of criss-crossing bombers and fire, and in the midst, gently falling paratroopers of what had to be an entire division.
For the first time, Susan considered the incredible. Peter was in the Glider Corps, in the paras of the 6th Airborne. Could he be among the hundreds of men now invading France?
"There are your reinforcements, Lebourgeois," she told the old man.
In a night of strangeness and uncertainty, another new sound split the night. Someone at the Bridge was blowing a whistle, Dot-Dot-Dot-Dash. V for Victory.
She smiled. "Those are British paras," she said, confident that only an Englishman would be blowing "V for Victory." "The whistle is their locator, to help orient the paratroopers and bring them in to the rendezvous."
How many though would make it? There were hundreds of paratroopers blotting out the night sky east of them. And many of them would die. How large was the drop zone? There was so much danger. There was nowhere safe to land out there.
Echoing her thoughts, as he often did, Desvignes said, "Rommel flooded the fields between here and the River Dives; there are patrols everywhere. They may never make it."
"We should go, try to find them, bring them in," Lebourgeois said.
It was insanely dangerous. They could as easily be killed by German as by touchy Allied fighters in the confusion.
"Take the ambulance," Madame Vion said. "Wear red cross armbands. Take rope, torches, do what you can. Notify the others in the network, if you can find them."
"The paras are probably supposed to meet at the Bridges. Direct them there and how to follow the whistle."
Susan kissed both men good-bye. Aslan watch over you, my brothers.
The lights and sirens created an incredible spectacle. The paras were so vulnerable. They could be dead before they landed or could land in a tree, a well, or a flooded field and die without ever being free of the chute. Still, after so long, they were not alone anymore. The Allies were coming. The Allies were here.
There was an ominous, clanking roar, not of aircraft, but of heavy treads on a road.
"Tanks!" Madame Vion said. "In Bénouville, heading toward the Canal Bridge."
"The 21st is on the move," Susan said grimly. "They are going to counter-attack and try to retake the Bridge."
Peter was camped out in an abandoned machine gun pit on the west side of the Bridge. He could hear the dreaded rumble of German tanks on the road between Bénouville and Le Port. He had his grenades all lined up, his Sten, and plenty of ammunition, but none of that would work against a Panzer. They needed the Piat, the platoon's anti-tank gun, or a gammon bomb.
From the pit, they did have a good line of sight. They were a little elevated, sheltered by the Bridge and the darkness, and could see straight ahead to the crucial road juncture, 30 yards away. Any armour the Germans threw at them from the west, and he could hear it coming, had to come through this bottleneck first. Any armour coming from Caen to the beaches would have to pass through this same T-junction. The paras were dropping all around them and with Major Howard tooting that infernal whistle, their reinforcements should be arriving any time. Until then, D Company could probably pick off whatever came at them, assuming they weren't rushed and overrun by an overwhelming force.
"ABLE ABLE," came a voice behind him and Gray jumped into the pit with him.
"Goddamnit," Gray muttered.
"What? Any word on Brotheridge?"
"Dead," Gray said flatly.
To the many he had known who were already gone, Peter silently asked, My Friends, welcome a good man among you who will be sorely missed. With the ease of much practise, he shoved his grief aside for later.
Gray lined up next to him in the pit, pulling out his gun and setting it on the sandbag. "All three Lieutenants on this side are down. Danny's gone and Smith and Wood are both injured. And we've still not heard from Captain Priday and Hooper's platoon."
Glider 4 was supposed to be at the River Orne Bridge. "So the whole glider never made it?"
Gray shook his head and had to shove his helmet back up as it slipped down. "Still missing. We've taken both bridges but we can only hold for so long. If those paras don't start coming in soon and reinforce our positions, we could lose 'em."
The rumbling of treads on the road grew louder, and closer. "So who's going to lay the gammons?" Peter asked. "What about the Piats?"
"Parr couldn't find the gammons in the glider. And we've only got one working tank gun. All the other Piats broke."
Peter uttered an oath that had Gray laughing at him. "You still sound like your mother's listening, Pevensie."
"So what are we doing, besides waiting to get run over or shot by a Panzer?"
Gray nodded. "Look there."
Out of the dark, a pile of equipment trotted over the Bridge.
"Who the hell is buried under all that?" Peter asked. Whoever it was had his own pack, grenade bag, a rifle, bandoleers of ammunition strung across his chest and the Piat anti-tank gun on his shoulder.
"It's Thornton with our one working gun."
"The Major's ordered him to shoot the first tank that gets in range."
"Better not miss," Peter said. The Piat was rubbish. It jammed, had really limited range, and if you missed, you'd never get a second shot because it was so slow to reload. Never miss with a Piat. Never, ever miss. Because if you did, it was the last mistake you'd ever make.
"There it is," Grey whispered.
It was dark, but they could hear it, coming around the corner, not fifty yards from them.
"Fuck," Gray whispered.
They saw the gun poke out first, and the bulk of the tank followed, huge and deadly serious. The long cannon barrel swiveled about, as if sniffing the air cautiously, like a large carnivore before making its kill. All the Germans knew was that the Bridge had been taken and that hundreds of paras were landing all over the area. They didn't how many of them were at the Bridge. They didn't know how weak and vulnerable D Company really was, here in the dark and how few their numbers. They didn't know that D Company had one gun to fight the armour the hardened veterans of the 21st Panzer could throw at men seeing their first combat tonight.
Peter's finger itched to pull the trigger.
"Don't," Gray said, softly.
Their bullets were useless. Their grenades were useless. Firing now would reveal their positions and their inexperience and bring that tank down on top of them.
The only one who stood a chance was Sergeant Thornton, standing alone, to the side of the road, under a pile of equipment and only the cover of darkness. There was one chance to fire a single bomb at a monster.
The tank slowly began to turn, to come toward them and the Bridge.
Thornton fired, hitting the tank square in the side.
"Goddamnit, beautiful shot!" Gray crowed.
The tank froze, shuddered, and all hell broke loose. Fireworks, the likes of which Peter had never seen, exploded from within the tank. He and Gray had to duck down into the pit as bullets and shells ignited in the tank and whizzed and ricocheted around, smashing into anything in their way. Brilliant colours of red and orange flew out. The tank was on fire from the inside. Four men leaped out of the top and were shot dead scrambling for their lives.
One man could not escape the tank. Even the screams of the German driver with shot off legs did not drown out the sounds of the other tanks slowly slinking back the way they had come.
The racket and fireworks from the explosion down at the Bridge went on for over an hour. It was spectacular, as stunning as the tracers going up all over Caen at the planes overhead and paras coming down. Susan had, at first, been sick with worry that something terrible had happened at the Caen Canal Bridge. From their vantage on the roof, though, they could see that the fighting was not spread out but concentrated on just one big, burning thing in the middle of the road.
"A tank, maybe," she told Madame. "Perhaps it was carrying ammunition that ignited."
"If it is disabled at the junction, it is going to keep the Germans from moving in that area."
The explosions and commotion were finally dying down, which seemed to confirm that this was not widespread and ongoing fighting but some single catastrophe that had, temporarily, intimidated the Germans.
"Have you decided what you will do, Jeanne?"
"I am not sure where I would be best deployed," Susan replied, wrapping her arms about her. "It is difficult to be up here, watching, and not down there. I am worried about Georges and Thérèse. The unit at the Bridge surely knows the Gondrées are friendly but I want to make sure. As much I would like to, I cannot interrupt an ongoing military operation to satisfy my curiosity."
"Dawn is not that far away. With morning, I think things will be clearer." Madame Vion patted her arm. "I will need to stay here to care for our patients and any wounded who might be brought in. Given that our roof is the highest point in the area, I am going to have to beat back the Germans come dawn and make sure that they see nothing but our hospital operations. And if the unit at the Bridge thinks we are not a hospital, we will have problems with them, too."
"I pity the Germans who dare to cross you, Madame," Susan said. "As for the Allies, they should know better. If they start shooting at us, I'll get over there and reprimand their CO."
Madame Vion smiled, rare for her. "Thank you. You may convey to him my thanks and compliments. And if he shoots at a hospital he is neither an officer nor a gentleman." She turned to return back down the stair. "And Jeanne?"
"Congratulations. If the Allies took the Bridge this night, it was due in no small part to our intelligence work."
Susan was embarrassed to admit the thought had not occurred to her. "And to you, Madame."
There was no uncertainty at dawn. Anyone who might have slept through the firefight in the night woke to artillery barrages coming from the sea. The ground was shaking beneath their feet. The windows of the hospital rattled and dust and spiders billowed from the rafters. The noise was terrific. Huge shells flew overhead; they were so large it was as if the naval guns were hurtling jeeps and boulders into Calvados.
It was controlled chaos in the hospital. The women were terrified and clutched their crying babies to their breasts, who could not sleep or settle with the racket and debris. What had already been difficult became near impossible. Even before the invasion, there had not been enough of anything to ease anyone; not enough food, water, soap, alcohol, clean linens, or medicine. With food so scarce, they had had to replace the lost calories with wine so that mothers could at least survive and nurse their children. Madame Vion and the staff, however, had become concerned with how the change to more wine seemed to affect the babies.
Five pregnant women, already under stress, began premature labour. People in the community, injured during the night, limped into the hospital with broken bones and bandaged heads, not daring to attempt the trip to a doctor in Caen.
Susan was sure it would only get worse. She did what she could. Care of the frightened and wounded was not something Mrs. Caspian or Jeanne Lambert knew. So it was Susan Pevensie who had survived the London Blitz and Queen Susan the Gentle who moved among the patients, assisting the professional staff, trying to prioritize who needed help the most, and separating the critically ill from those who were frightened and uncomfortable but could endure a long wait. She held hands, wiped brows, handed instruments to the doctor and nurses, rocked the babies, and spoke soft words of reassurance.
It was not what she had trained to do in the SOE, but it reminded her of why the battle raged outside the hospital walls.
In the midst of the misery and need, Lebourgeois and Desvignes returned, gray with exhaustion and tightlipped. Susan went into the garage and helped them remove the bodies from the ambulance. The men had managed to squeeze in six, four British paras and two German soldiers. Together, one by one, they carried the corpses to the cool cellar.
Susan took charge of the dead. She had seen corpses before and these were no less and no more. They could not spare linens to cover the bodies. Susan carefully copied the men's names from their ID tags and removed their weapons. All of them carried tokens: there were pictures of wives and children, a baby shoe, unsent letters, a pressed flower. She remembered what it had felt like to remain at home while others she loved rode off with her tokens in their armour and bags. She carefully labeled the items and set them aside, next to the body of the man who had once carried them, so that these small things of immense weight might someday, some way, find their way back to those who were not forgotten. There would be so very, very many more before the day was over. Surely there would be arrangements for respectful disposition of the dead and return of personal effects.
Once they had washed up, they met in the office and Susan poured the men a strong, fortifying wine and gave them some biscuits received from a Lysander drop.
"The fields are littered with dead paratroopers," Desvignes said wearily, sinking onto Madame Vion's couch.
"Dozens, hundreds." Lebourgeois took a steadying drink of wine. "We did find some alive. They were wandering about in the dark and listening for that damned whistle. They were supposed to rendezvous in Ranville so we directed them there."
"And what of…"
An explosion rocked the building and shook the walls. They could hear glass shattering and falling to the ground outside. Women screamed.
The three of them bolted up and hurried into the hall. Plaster and dust were raining down. They followed the cries and panicked shouts to the foyer just as another explosion hit. Pictures fell from the walls and shattered.
These weren't bombs. This was shelling. Someone was targeting the hospital.
Susan pushed her way into the crowded reception area, squeezing by the harried staff trying to cope with panicked patients.
Madame Vion was at the front doors. With arms outstretched, she blocked the hospital entrance with her body, furiously defying three German soldiers trying to push her aside.
With paras coming in all night, Major Howard was able to pull D Company back from the west side of the Bridge. Peter was ordered to the pillbox with Parr, Grey, Bailey, and Gardner to guard the anti-tank gun.
The roar coming north from the beaches meant the incoming force was landing. The smoke, explosions, and mortars flying overhead were like nothing they'd ever experienced. It was an earthquake that never stopped.
"Glad I'm not one of those poor buggers," Bailey muttered as the ground shook beneath their feet. The ships were moving closer to shore and raising their barrage inland, right over their heads.
That was all the good news. The bad news was that with dawn, snipers on the west side of the canal had them all pinned down. Moving around was bloody dangerous. There was plenty of cover for snipers– there was a big building just south of the Bridge, a water tower, and heavy tree cover. The snipers could be anywhere and they were very good. The five of them were protected in the pillbox but it was ugly business outside. The snipers had targeted even their doc's aid station set up in a trench. Snipers had shot at both Lieutenants Wood and Smith who had been wounded and were in the trench with the doc. Their company medical orderly had taken a hit to the chest from sniper fire.
D Company had been pulled back for reserve to hold the area between the River Orne and Caen Canal bridges, but the paras were seeing some pretty hot fighting on the west side, in Bénouville and Le Port. D Company had trained in urban combat, so Peter thought they'd be sent over, assuming they could get across the Bridge without the snipers picking them off. Reinforcements were due to come up from Sword Beach by noon, and they really needed them.
Air operations had begun, too. A wing of Spitfires flew overhead and Major Howard had them lay out a signal that all was well and the Bridge under control. Given that none of them could move without possibly taking a bullet to the head from sniper-fire, the Major was probably a little optimistic. It was terrific to see the three Spitfires, with the white bars painted on their wings, fly over the Bridges and do victory rolls.
"Looks like they dropped something," Peter said, peering out from the pillbox. Major Howard was already ordering a patrol out to see what it was.
Dodging snipers, the chaps came back with bundles that sure weren't worth the risk. The Spitfire had dropped the day's early Fleet Street papers. Lot of good it did. There was nothing about the second front, or D Company and everybody started fighting for the Daily Mirror so they could read Jane. Well, you didn't really read Jane. You looked to see what new, ridiculous circumstance would contrive Jane to remove her clothing and reveal a shapely body in nothing but a brassiere, towel, curtain, or bedsheet.
Gray handed him the paper with a grunt of disgust. "You'd think after today Jane would strip to skin just for morale?"
Peter glanced at it – Jane was blonde and had nice legs – and passed it along. "Parr, you want Jane?"
"I'm a married man, Pevensie," Parr replied, not even looking up from the big gun he'd been tinkering with since being assigned to the pillbox. Parr kept poking at it and had made them take the breech out and bring up the mortars from the bunkers below them and he really wouldn't leave off.
Gardner nudged him in the ribs. "Hey, Pevensie, Gray, what do you make of that?"
He pointed out into the landing zone where their glider had crashed. Two little, shabby men were running around in the field, waving shovels and shouting at one another.
Bailey looked up over the Daily Mirror. "Thornton and Fox caught them this morning. They're Italian, from the Todt. They wouldn't leave, said they had to be here. So, the Major gave them a biscuit and let them go, figured they were harmless."
"What are they doing out there?" Gardner asked.
One of them picked up one of the big poles that was on the ground and was teetering around with it, nearly taking out the other when he swung it around.
"Impossible," Gray said. "They aren't? Are they?"
"Sure looks like," Gardner said.
"I don't believe it," Peter added.
They watched, beyond shocked, as the poor man tried to plant his unwieldy pole into a hole in the ground. His co-worker ran forward and frantically shoveled dirt around the pole to keep it steady.
"Guess we won't be taking off in the gliders from here, right?" Bailey said.
They all started laughing. The morning of the second front, over 100,000 men coming ashore, thousands of planes overhead, three crashed and broken gliders at the foot of the Caen Canal Bridge, and two Italians were trying to plant the dreaded glider poles.
"So where's the trigger?" Parr asked, breaking up the laughter. "We got it loaded. I've got the gun pointed at where those ruddy snipers are hiding. How do we fire it?"
There wasn't much room in the pillbox and there were only so many levers and buttons that could be the trigger on a 75 mm anti-tank gun.
"What's this?" Gardner asked.
In a night and day of the biggest explosions imaginable, this one near burst Peter's ears. A shell screamed out of the cannon in the direction of Caen.
The gun shuddered and belched a huge case out the back that sent them all scrambling to be clear of it.
They were all silent for a moment and Peter couldn't have heard anyone anyway for the ringing in his ears.
Parr grabbed the gun and spun it around, south. "We'll get those square-headed bastards now."
"You're a bloody lunatic, Parr," Bailey said.
"The snipers are on the roof of that big building down there. They're not going to get any more Tommys today. Let's see if we can't bag us some Nazi sniper bucketheads."
This time, Peter put his fingers in his ears when the gun went off and stayed clear of the heavy casing that spit out the back. It'd break bones if it hit you.
The next mortar sailed south, straight and right into the uppermost floor of the big fancy Château down the canal. They all whooped it up – it felt great to shoot something big at people who were trying to kill them. Parr was grinning like a maniac.
The next was a brilliant, beautiful shot. The accuracy on the gun was incredible, nothing like the Piat.
Major Howard suddenly stuck his head into the pillbox bellowing loud enough to rival the gun. "For Christ's sake, what in blazes are you doing? Parr! Are you shooting at a maternity hospital?"
"Madame Vion, we must go to the roof. It is the tallest…"
"You may not, Lieutenant Hoeller. This is a hospital. A women's hospital with newborns. You cannot. I won't permit it."
Susan had seen Lieutenant Hoeller at the checkpoints. His French was passable. He was with one of the Panzer Grenadier Regiments quartered in Bénouville. She took her place by Madame Vion. Lieutenant Becker was with him, probably for the language support, and a Sergeant she did not know. Becker kept trying to catch her eye. Susan ignored him. The Sergeant and Becker were both carrying rifles with sniper sights and Susan felt her anger cool to hardness.
"Madame Vion, please, this is very dangerous," Lieutenant Becker said. "We must survey the area. Our communications have been sabotaged and…"
"Your defence is not my concern," Madame Vion countered.
"This is the tallest…" Hoeller repeated and Madame cut him off.
"Climb the water tower up the road! You can see from there!"
With a jerk of Hoeller's head, the Sergeant stepped forward and firmly pushed Madame Vion out of the way. Becker and Hoeller sprinted for the marbled staircase.
"This is outrageous!" Madame Vion spat, and ran after them. Susan followed.
By the time they made it to the roof, Becker and Hoeller were already there, with binoculars, speaking rapidly in German and pointing north in the direction of Bénouville and Le Port.
Madame Vion pushed right by the Sergeant who tried feebly to block her way through the door onto the roof. "Lieutenant! What is it! Tell me!"
"We cannot get into Bénouville," Hoeller began.
"The resistance in the streets is too great," Becker put in more fluently. "We have snipers, but we must get some high ground, set up our batteries…"
"Here?" Madame Vion shrieked. "You will not. I forbid it."
Madame Vion's furious rebuke died in the making as another shell hurtled into the side of the Château. They all staggered and even so far up and away they could hear from below the women screaming and the piercing wail of infants. Susan grabbed onto Madame's arm, keeping them both upright.
Madame shook herself off and marched up to Hoeller and Becker. She had to shove her helmet out of her eyes to stare up at them.
"Get off my roof or I'll push you off. You are endangering my patients and their babies, many of whom, I'll remind you, are your babies." She poked Becker in the chest with her finger.
They all flinched as a single shot rang out from somewhere close, followed by the pinging ricochet of the bullet off the Bridge.
"The Allies are shelling us because you are here!" Madame Vion cried. "This is your fault. They think we are shielding snipers! And if you put a battery here, they will level us." She took a step forward and both men took an alarmed step back. "I will not evacuate my hospital, my patients, and your babies for a war your Führer forced on us."
Another shell smashing into the corner of the Château decided the matter. The force of it shook them all. She and Madame Vion both fell to their knees, Becker nearly pitched over the edge and the returning sniper fire intensified.
The stalwart Sergeant helped Madame Vion off the roof and Susan found that somehow Becker had managed to both recover his footing and take her arm.
Hoeller rushed back down the flights of stairs, protected by the Sergeant and berated by Madame Vion the whole way. He surely could not understand more than a word in four of Madame's furious French. Susan tried to hurry after her but now Becker had her arm and at the landing pulled her to a stop.
"A moment, Mademoiselle."
It did not matter the time, the place, or the language. Susan recognized the situation immediately and felt impatience that this time she was not going to graciously hide.
"Only a moment, Lieutenant."
He was an attractive young man. So earnest, very well-meaning, certainly not naïve, and wholly committed to the wrong cause.
"Mademoiselle Lambert, Jeanne, please, would you accept our protection? Might you use your influence to convince Madame to do so? I worry that you might be injured."
How many times had she heard this before? His touch to her arm was gentle, not overbearing at all. It was still most unwelcome. Susan stared at his offending hand on her arm and, with a disapproving quirk of her brow and imperious frown, he quickly removed it.
She straightened. "Thank you, but no, Lieutenant. We will take care of ourselves. We only need protection because your Führer chose to destroy Europe with his insane notions of Aryan purity. The sooner you are gone, the safer we will be."
Hoeller was calling for Becker and Susan turned and marched down the stairs. He was not the first young man whose unfounded hopes she had dashed and she felt no guilt over it.
Becker followed, looking crestfallen. At the bottom of the stair, he tipped his helmet. "Good bye, Mademoiselle. God keep you safe."
"I hope that the Allies treat you honourably, Lieutenant."
Madame Vion was holding the front door open and the Germans waded through the foyer of crying babies, terrified mothers, and bandaged old men.
This misery you have wrought. Aslan save us all from the intelligent, well-meaning men of the enemy.
An armoured car was waiting for them in the drive. The Germans all looked up as a wing of Spitfires roared overhead coming in from the beaches and they could all hear, but not see, strafing in the direction of Caen.
Madame stood in the doorway, putting her body between them and the hospital, just in case they changed their minds. They did not. The two Lieutenants got into the car, the Sergeant took the driver's seat, and they roared off.
They both sighed in relief. The moment of peace was shattered with another shot from a sniper's rifle. The sound bounced between the walls of the Château and the trees.
Madame Vion turned on her heels and grabbed Susan's arms. "There must be a sniper here, in the hospital. It's why they started shelling us. He might have snuck in during all the chaos of this morning."
"One of the upper floors, one of the wings we aren't using?"
"Yes, on the north side facing the Bridge, the east wing. They seemed to have stopped shelling us, I pray to God they have. But Jeanne, you must find him. If the Allies think we are shooting at them we can expect them to shoot back."
She nodded. "I know. I will find him."
"Do what you must. Then go to the Bridge. Tell them our situation."
Madame clasped her shoulders and kissed her on both cheeks. "You are a brave girl. Go!"
Susan ran to her room, pulled out the drawer in the bottom of her dresser and removed its false bottom. She quickly strapped on her knives, put the knuckle duster and garrote wire in her pocket. She didn't think she would need them, but who knew?
She ducked under her bed and carefully slid her Little Joe Crossbow out from among the slats. She left the hollowed out quarrels – she wouldn't be loading any explosives in these. A fleeting regret – she wished she had her old quiver, gifted by Father Christmas.
More explosions and the windows rattled again but these were more distant. Perhaps a bombing run or a Panzer column being strafed by Allied fighters. Surely that was part of the plan. The Allies would harry and attack the tank columns by day and keep them from reaching the beaches so that the landing forces could disembark and bring their own heavy equipment ashore.
Susan put the speculation aside. The landing was not her concern. Now she fully understood what Colonel Walker-Smythe had done, and Major al-Masri, and even Tebbitt. They had known all along the invasion was coming here. They had all misled her. She understood, bitter though it was. She felt some grudging admiration. They all respected her, Tebbitt loved her, and still they had been the loyal spies, surely an oxymoron, and lied to her.
She was shoving the hard quarrels into a shoulder bag when the burden of the task hit her.
Killing a dumb deer in a pen in Inverness-shire could not begin to prepare someone for this. Susan sat down on her bed, closed her eyes, and tried to shut out the sounds of the crying babies and gunfire and the feel of plaster and dust swirling everywhere.
She hated death yet had been steeped in it: the families killed in the Blitz; the brothers, fathers, and sons who would never return home from Italy, Singapore, Libya, or Dunkirk; the thousands who would surely die today. To protect the Bridges and the men guarding them, to protect the Allied advance to liberate and secure France and then the rest of Europe, to protect the women and children caught in the literal crossfire, she must be prepared to kill.
Aslan? Aslan? Forgive me. I may send brothers to you today. Greet them for me? Comfort their loved ones who will not see them again?
The Lion did not speak to her, not directly. She was not Lucy and it was hard to hear him in a moment like this. But she felt a breeze stir her hair and delicious fragrance very far from the odours of fire, blood, antiseptic, and sour wine.
She was wild with longing: for Peter who knew what it was to kill cleanly and magnificently, certain of his righteous cause; for Edmund who understood just and unjust death and spoke the words of forgiveness in both cases; and for fearless Lucy who loved and cried with her after.
Susan did not fear her death today. She loathed the death war made it necessary for her to dispense. Which of her selves must she call upon? Susan Pevensie who had survived bombs raining down upon London? Queen Susan the Gentle, the greatest bowman in Narnian history who ran with the wolves and had killed, at need, to save herself, her loved ones, her country? Mrs. Caspian, who had bludgeoned a murderer with a pot and would have finished the job with a letter opener? Jeanne Lambert, who was rat and wolf? Today, this moment, she was all of these, the culmination of all her selves.
Father Christmas had been so very, very wrong. Battles were not made any more ugly when women fought in them. Were not the women's hospital, all of England, and all of France the proof that war was a woman's business, as much as a man's? Women fought as surely as the men, for all that they might do it differently. All battles were ugly, no matter who fought in them, for they all died the same way.
Slinging bag and bow over her shoulder, she was going a-hunting.
Susan avoided the crowded foyer and went to one of the back ways that they had used for hiding the Allied fliers, men avoiding conscription, and the weapons. Dust choked the area, broken mirrors dangled from cracked walls. Susan climbed the staircase, picking her way through the debris, listening closely, moving as her Wolf-Guard had taught her, silent and alert. A sniper would be in the northern part of the building, with the best views of the Bridge.
The shelling had stopped, so that made it feel safer and easier to listen. The hospital noise disappeared entirely. In between the thunderous artillery barrages from the beaches there was the occasional crack of a German sniper rifle.
She loaded a quarrel, cocked the bow, brought it up, and carefully climbed the last flight.
At a landing on the upper most floor, she paused, turning her head this way and that, wishing for the pinpoint hearing of a Wolf or an Owl, or the scenting of a Hound who could tell her if someone was near.
Down one hallway, she could see, through a haze of smoke, a gaping hole in the wall and rubble. It was possible the shelling had taken out the sniper, if he had even been here. It was a predator's instinct, but Susan didn't think that had happened. He was here and was still here. She waited, listening so hard she could sense the dust settling.
There was another rifle shot. The noise reverberated inside the hall, stirred the air, and echoed on cracked black and white marble. Location revealed, Susan stalked her quarry, as surely as she had targeted the deer in the pen, and hunted with the Wolves of Narnia. She heard noises she knew well, a body shifting and a small cough, a gun scraping on wood, a casing rolling on tile, fingers manipulating bullets, and the mechanical snaps of a rifle being loaded.
A room facing north and the Canal was just ahead, its door ajar. Susan crept forward, eased to the doorway, hefted her crossbow, and waited until it sounded as if the sniper was settling again at his post, his attention not here, but on the Bridge and her countrymen.
As she slipped into the room, the door creaked, ever so slightly. Her mind registered the back of a German uniform and the butt of a German rifle. The man started, spun about, trying to bring his rifle to bear. Her training held, first in Narnia, then honed to a finer edge in the SOE. She reacted, without thought or hesitation, before the gun was even clear of the window. Susan fired, felt the surge as the quarrel left the bow and knew her shot was true, straight through his vulnerable neck.
His body snapped with the force of the quarrel's blow and the momentum pitched him backwards, out the window. He didn't even cry out but she heard the hard crack of a helmet hitting the ground and the clatter of the rifle. Susan ran to the window, reloading as she went, though her hit was surely fatal. She looked down.
Feldwebel Müller, the kindly checkpoint Sergeant who had shown her pictures of his wife and three children, who had slipped sausage and batteries into her wooden box, would not see his family again.
She pulled away from the window, shaking and heart sick.
Thank you, Aslan. Thank you for making this so terrible.
Susan never wanted death to be easy. Killing the bad, the evil, and the cruel could be justified and excused. Killing the good man doing his duty to your enemy was something Susan wished never to become accustomed to.
She stepped back into the hall. The wolf patrolled the corridor, checking all the empty, dusty rooms on the floor, but it was all empty. Satisfied, she ran back down the stairs and out the back door of the Château. The wolf would now hunt a sniper in the water tower.
In the pillbox, they all hunched and winced at the sound. "For God's sake, I wish they'd shut up those Moaning Minnies," Gardner muttered.
The Minnies were a rocket launcher attached to the front of the German light armour that had mobilized in Bénouville and Le Port west of the Canal Bridge. The things made the most god-awful racket and were deadly accurate. The mortars were making life hell for D Company at the Bridge and the paras battling house by house in Le Port.
They were all feeling the pressure. If relief didn't come up from the beaches soon, it would be too late.
"Parr's right," Gray said, staring up at the water tower. "There's someone up there and he's spotting for the Minnies."
"That maniac just wants to shoot the gun again," Bailey griped. "I never did get a cuppa, thanks to him."
Peter looked out from the pillbox and he was sure he could see someone climbing the water tower. "They might be on the Château roof, too. Or maybe after we shelled it, they moved to the water tower."
There was another rifle shot and Parr came running across the road and darted into the pillbox.
"Major says we can try the water tower."
Bailey was right, though. Parr looked like a fiend an especially gleeful fiend.
"Now, we're going to do this proper, hear me, chaps?"
"Sure thing, boss," Peter said. Who was he to get between a madman and his 75 mm anti-tank gun?
"NUMBER ONE GUN!" Parr roared so loudly in his broad Cockney accent he was nearly as deafening as the gun itself. "LOAD ONE ROUND."
Rolling his eyes, Bailey opened the breech and they loaded the shell in with mutters of "Yes, sir, right away, sir."
"NUMBER ONE GUN, LEFT 5 DEGREES!"
Gray got that job. He swiveled the telescopic sight and aimed the gun, dead to center, on the water tower. "Yep, you can see 'em. There are at least two up there. One's on the tower and there's another one climbing the ladder on the far side."
"NUMBER ONE GUN, PREPARE TO FIRE!"
They all moved out of the way so that Parr could do the honours. There was a curious, quiet lull. It seemed that even the shelling and street fighting had stopped to observe the bloody lunatic of a London Cockney shoot the NUMBER ONE GUN. Peter was sure everyone could hear Parr's booming voice from the River Orne Bridge all the way to Le Port.
Peter clapped his hands over his ears.
"NUMBER ONE GUN, FIRE!"
Parr pushed the button. The gun roared and the shell hurtled off. It hit the water tower straight on, beautiful shot.
They all hollered and cheered. Men on both sides of the Canal threw their helmets into the air, then scrambled to get them back on because of the snipers.
"What the fuck?" Gray said. "It didn't blow?"
"The water tower is just leaking. It didn't explode."
The shell had gone in one side of the water tower and out the other. Peter supposed the sniper might be drowned or forced off by the water spouting out the sides.
Parr swore under his breath. "It might be the shell. It's armour-piercing." He shrugged. "Nothing for it. Let's do another."
"NUMBER ONE GUN! LOAD ONE ROUND."
Parr shot hole after hole through the thing and all he did was drain water from the tank. And maybe wash the snipers off the tower in a cascade.
The whole bridge was shaking with the pounding of the anti-tank gun. The snipers kept it up so Parr started aiming at the trees on the west bank, figuring the gunmen might be hiding there.
Between the roaring of both Parr and the NUMBER ONE GUN, Peter didn't think he'd ever hear normally again.
In a pause, they heard Major Howard yell out from his command post in the trench, "'For Christ's sake, Parr, will you shut up! I can't think! Keep that bloody gun quiet!"
"But sir!" Parr yelled back. "They're snipers in the…"
"Only fire when necessary, and that doesn't mean at imaginary snipers. Keep quiet!"
Parr was visibly deflated. "Nobody told me it was going to be a quiet war."
It wasn't a quiet war, but it was quieter, broken by the sounds of the fighting on the west side, the fighting going on at the River Orne Bridge, and the crack of sniper shots. Peter wondered if maybe they should try again with a cup of tea. A lot of the men were sagging under the fatigue. He knew from long Narnian campaigns that he still had plenty in reserve. He'd been saving the ration chocolate and biscuits, which were disgusting but would keep him going.
Gray, who had been dozing, standing up, stirred and cocked his head. "What's that noise?"
Peter listened. With all the ringing in his ears, it was hard to hear anything but this was…
"Does Jerry play bagpipes?" Bailey asked, looking out of the pillbox, shielding his eyes, and looking west across the Bridge.
"I don't think so," Peter replied.
"Bagpipes? What are you talking about? You must be bloody nuts."
Except that Bailey was right. It was bagpipes, coming from the west. They piled out of the pillbox and tore across the Bridge toward the sound, and even the snipers were too shocked to put up much resistance.
A bagpiper, in a kilt, marched along the tow path, playing Blue Bonnets Over the Border. A bugler stood up from a trench along the Bridge and sounded a call.
Behind the madman piper marched a tall man, the commander, in green beret and a white sweater, carrying a walking stick. Behind him, a long column of commandos, all marching smartly. And in case anyone might think they were merely on a brisk exercise in Scotland, behind the soldiers was a Sherman tank.
At 1330, contact had been made between the invasion force at the beaches and the paras of the 6th and D Company at the Bridges. Their relief had arrived – Lord Lovat, his green berets of the 1st Special Service Brigade, bagpiper, tank, and a draft horse pulling a cart with the men's gear. The effect seemed oddly Narnian, in a way, though Peter had never seen or heard bagpipes in battle before.
It all became even more oddly Narnian when a man hurried from the Gondrée Café with a tray, glasses and a bottle of champagne.
It was too much for Parr.
"Blimey, I could use some of that!" Parr ran up to the man, who must be Monsieur Gondrée, and shouted, "Oui! Oui!"
Peter was very glad to see Monsieur Gondrée alive – he'd wondered if Lieutenant Smith had killed the man by mistake last night.
A woman burst out of the Café. She was covered in sooty black all over her face, arms, and clothes. Her state was explained when she threw her arms around Parr before he could even get his glass. Madame Gondrée was expressing her joy at being the first home liberated in France by kissing all of the Allied soldiers. Since they were all still wearing their camouflage paint from the night before, the black soot was rubbing off on her.
With the champagne corks popping, Peter decided he should take a glass, too.
He had to shift the Sten from one side to another and push his helmet out of his eyes. He got a very nice hug and a kiss from Madame Gondrée; tears were leaving muddy trails down her face.
She was babbling in French and Monsieur Gondrée was thanking him in English.
He was just reaching for his glass when a voice shrieked, "Where is that lunatic with the gun! I'm going to kill him!"
Wait. Peter knew that very harsh, very angry, and very feminine tone. It had been directed at him before. He spun around.
His sister ran to him and threw her arms around him. Everything got fouled in his gun and grenade pouch and smock, both their helmets, and her … crossbow?
Peter picked Susan up and hugged her. She was so thin, so light. And sopping wet.
"I don't believe it," he whispered.
"I don't either. Praise the Lion."
"Were you the Rat who signed the reports? I saw the drawings. I didn't dare even hope, but…"
She nodded against his neck. "I wrote them. Some of them. I wondered, when I saw the gliders last night… I can't believe it."
Susan choked on a dry sob.
He set her down. "I'm getting black camo all over you. Why are you wet?"
She regained her feet and said something over his shoulder to the Gondrées in French.
Monsieur Gondrée replied and Madame Gondrée said something, gesturing to her blackened clothing and the three of them laughed.
Then his sister turned back to him with a look that made a man who had pranged from a glider, been shot by soldiers, tanks, and rocket launchers, and taken and held a bridge for the last 13 hours in enemy territory shake in his boots.
"Where. Is. The. Lunatic. With. The. Gun?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Peter saw Parr slowly edge away, glass in hand.
"Were you under the water tower?" Peter asked, wanting to divert his wrathful, vengeful sister.
"I was climbing the water tower to take out the sniper and then someone tried to kill me!" She lapsed into irate French, shrugged the crossbow off her shoulder and brought it to bear, pointing it in the direction of the retreating soldiers.
"It was one of you, wasn't it?"
Monsieur Gondrée stepped forward with glasses of champagne on his tray. "Will you drink? To celebrate? " He blew some dirt off the tray. "I have had this champagne buried in the garden since the Nazis arrived!"
His sister softened to a smile and she nodded. "Merci beaucoup."
"Thank you, Monsieur," Peter said.
They both took a glass from the tray.
Susan bit her lip and moved closer, putting her head at his shoulder.
"I killed today, Peter. I killed two good men."
"I killed today, too, Susan. And someone I loved very well died last night during the fighting."
So many men and women had already died. Den Brotheridge had been the first tonight and many more would die before France and the rest of Europe was free. He and Susan had done this before. They had fought, won, lost, mourned the dead, comforted those who remained, and drank the parting cup. As surely as they had been summoned to Narnia, now they were called to do the same here.
There was a comforting familiarity to the old Narnian ritual Susan began as she solemnly raised her glass and her eyes to his, and said, "To our dead who are home."
Peter spoke the response. "Until we meet again in Aslan's Own Country."
"Do not let our grief keep you from your journey home," Susan replied, concluding the rite.
But Peter did not drink. "And now to our other home, my sister. V is for Victory. Cheers!"
Susan raised her glass. "Santé, my brother. V is for victory."
The moment was very sweet. The champagne, thankfully, was not.
Rthstewart April 2012
At 1330 on June 6, 1944, Lord Lovat's commandos, who had come ashore at Sword Beach that morning, and led by bagpiper Billy Millin (in kilt) joined up with D Company at the Caen Canal Bridge. Shortly thereafter, D Company marched off to rejoin the rest of the Ox & Bucks battalion and returned to regular infantry. Thus, this is where the story had to end. What happened next to D Company was about the long slog of war in the hedgerow to hedgerow fighting that characterised the weeks after D Day. D Company took heavy losses - by September of 1944 only 40 of the 181 who took part in the raids on the bridges were still fit for active duty. The Battle for Caen raged from June to August, destroying most of the city of 60,000 people By the end, only 15,000 remained.
This moment then, the reunion at the Gondrée Cafe, the first house liberated in France on D-Day, drinking champagne Georges Gondrée had buried in his garden when the Germans invaded, to the tune of Blue Bonnets over Scotland, is all true and is the high water mark.
Links to the research, photographs, and maps are in my Live Journal. The film, The Longest Day, includes a recreation of the meeting between Lovat and Howard and the bagpiper. In the film, Major Howard is played by Richard Todd who was himself a member of the 6th Airborne and landed in the area around Benouville and Le Port after midnight on June 6.
My full research notes are all in my Live Journal at http:/ rthstewart. livejournal. com/ 70277. html (just omit the spaces) The incomparable Heverus did beautiful art for the story. The link is in my Live Journal.
Thank you to those who have put the story on alert and added it to favorites. Again, I do hope you will at least let me know if it worked for you and what you thought of this foray into historical fiction. Now that it's all done, I'd very much like to hear from you.