Whenever the anniversary of D-Day rolls around, I have to remind myself that my role in Hitler's downfall was actually quite minor. The vast Allied armies could have done it by themselves, or any one of hundreds of Britain's women soldiers (or ATS -- short for Auxiliary Territorial Service) could have taken over from me.
In the beginning the Army and I didn't get on too well. My inability to tell my right foot from my left grated on military sensibilities. And I could never quite believe that our drill sergeant (a stern British guardsman who had confidently expected to spend his whole life transforming callow boys into smart automatons) really meant me to stand in a mud puddle. After all, Private Marsh on dry land would have made only an ever-so-slight bulge in the iron-straight ranks of women rookies. And when the last private to fall in on parade had to polish the coal bucket, guess who learned the magic properties of Brasso: the same reluctant soldier who "volunteered" to give the commanding officer a hand with her smelly dog. It was all excellent material for my cousin Tony, a budding artist in the Navy, who insisted I was the Sad Sack of the women's forces.
It was unfortunate that my head was too big for traditional Army headgear and that I found tying a tie nearly impossible. Nor did the fact that I had swapped the brass buttons on my tunic for plastic ones add to my soldierlike appearance. But polishing nine brass buttons every day was more than I could endure.
The reason the Army had to have me at all was that we were in the middle of World War II and every woman was drafted into one of the three services (or went into industry or onto the farms).
In my outfit an alarmingly large number of women -- the Pentagon may like to know -- delighted in learning how to form threes, slow-march and right-wheel. They were so keen on looking the part that some of them even set fire to the polish on their brass buttons to give them the fashionable old-soldier look.
The Army itself could be a surprising mixture. It had its chivalrous moments. No woman, for instance, could actually fire a gun. They could man it (if that is the right word), target it -- but never actually fire it.
And then, I am grateful to say, there's the Army's whimsical streak. It prompted the powers that be to give my war a fantastic twist, plucking me from the wilds of a hideous, unbelievely uncomfortable Army camp in the north of England and depositing me in London, in an elegant office building.
"It's a branch of the Treasury," the inquisitive were told.
It wasn't. It was the headquarters of COSSAC (Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Commander), soon to change its name to SHAEF when the Americans arrived, providing me with some new officers to work for and my cousin with another subject for a cartoon: They brought with them of course the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary force, General Eisenhower.
I arrived there, was summoned into the chilling presence of a very high-ranking, very military officer, and given such a grim warning in such portentous tones that it still has power to frighten me. The force of a centuries-old military tradition filled the room.
"Have you heard," hissed this super-officer dramatically, "of the second front? That's what we are planning here." One careless word about the plans to invade France, one word even that secrets were being hatched in that building, could spell disaster.
It was an extraordinary assemblage of men (and a very few women, in very lowly jobs) from all three services who were preparing for one of modern history's most dramatic moments.Ramrod-rigid professional Army officers in Britain's elite guards regiments found themselves teamed up with delightfully vague scholars drafted into the Intelligence Corps. (It once heard two very splendid officials having an aristocratic quarrel. One boomed at the other in tones that would have gone well in Wellington's army, "Spoken like a fascist, sir." A major in the Intelligence Corps, on the other hand, used to wander absent-mindedly through the corridors muttering, "And so it all goes on, so it all goes on.")
We were supplied with poets, too -- one of them would write verses to fit the news ("King Boris of Bulgaria, That shady Balkan area" proved a popular item).
Any marching skills I had acquired went to waste. I was installed at a typewriter in an office.
There were reports from spies in France to be typed, a list to be kept of telltale signs that could betray the time and place of D-Day and the precautions taken to hide them.
It's well-known stuff now, but in the can-we-can't-we-win-this-war days of 1943-44 it was desperately, nail-bitingly exciting. It was easy to believe that Hitler had a man under every bed. Perhaps he did. How could we keep him from finding out the target for D-Day? His eyes would be on every obvious port on the French coast.
So COSSAC picked an unobvious one -- one that had no adequate harbor. But how could an invasion force land without a harbor? One could be built -- an artificial one. Ah, but when Hitler's men spot it they will deduce all. So disguise it. Build useless railroad lines on it and then take it out into the channel and sink it, ready to be brought to the surface again on D-Day (those were the now famous Mulberry Harbors).
Gasoline -- the invasion forces would need vast quantities of it but huge storages tanks would be a dead giveaway and a tempting target, too. So construct a Pipeline Under the Ocean and call it PLUTO.
The most dramatic precaution of all was the cover operation dribbled out oh-so-cautiously to double agents. It was all under the control of one of England's most brilliant, delightful, and eccentric geniuses. He had mapped out a full invasion plan, comlete with troop movements and wireless traffic, and arranged for bits and pieces of this fake plan to leak out to enemy agents. When Hitler put the pieces together he would be completely misled.
It was not all such high-level stuff. There was for instance, the interesting case of the corporal-who-wanted-to-tell-all. He knew some of the secrets of the invasion plan and felt called to spread the news, stop the operation, and thus, he explained, save bloodshed. The obvious solution was to pop him into prison until the invasion was over.
But the SHAEF officers could not bring themselves to punish anyone for good -- if misguided -- intentions. Their solution was a painless one. He was sent to a unit in the isolated north of Scotland where only his colleagues would hear his secrets and where, because of highly important ship movements, all mail was censored. Threats to security cropped up in unexpected ways. A sheet of almost-new carbon paper blew through the window -- useless if it hadn't borne the imprint of a list of ship movements.
Looking back it is hard to take seriously the part of W/209921 Corporal Marsh , P., in Hitler's downfall. And at this distance it's easy to make light even of the bombing, the fear of bombing, the dreadful burden of secrecy, the constant partings, the hideous discomfort, inconvenience, homesickness. Those are not the moments that flash back in full-color, full emotion. Such vivid memories belong to moments like D-Day itself.
From the center of London we had moved to the outskirts and had continued to plot in horrible little Nissen huts under a vast camouflage net, with our barracks a short country walk away.
Every June 6 I am back there in Bushey Park. It's 1944 -- three ATS are walking to work. We are close friends, all aware that at long last this is the day that will change Europe one way or another, but we are forbidden to discuss it even with each other.
It's an early dew-soaked, blossom-filled morning that should belong to the poets, but the war has taken it over. A heavy endless droning fills the whole sky as wave after wave of planes heads toward Europe. The mightiest armada ever is on its way.
And then suddenly, stirred up by the sound, every meadowlark in Surrey, it seems, start a thin, triumphant accompaniment to the monotonous throbbing overhead. . . .
And then we went on to do a normal day's work.
At least that is what must have happened, for if the mood under the camouflage net had been more dramatic, the thread of my memory wouldn't have snapped so abruptly. Besides, the beginning of a battle is no time for celebration. The insignia we wore on our right shoulder was the now-familiar SHAEF shield (designed by an ATS, By the way). On a black background (oppressed Europe) a bright sword (the Allied forces) was drawn. Over it all hung the rainbow of promise. It would be many months of blackness, and the rainbow was a long way away. And the sword, even the sword of liberation, is a terrible weapon to unsheath.
Right up until V-E Day there were secrets to guard, plans to be made. And as the troops advanced so did we -- always well behind them. Some of my friends got to Normandy, I didn't join them until the Germans had been driven out of Paris and the headquarters had moved to Versailles.
Rheims and the signing of the peace treaty is another story.