The Longest Wait

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Many American units found themselves in British barracks, even, ironically, in the old red-brick quarters in Winchester normally occupied by the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, which sometimes called itself (in memory of its foundation on Governors Island, New York, to deal with the rebel colonists) the 60th (Royal American) Rifles. Others, in villages and towns not garrisoned, trailed about with a sergeant and a policeman, being allotted in ones and twos to private homes. When Pfc. John J. Kenney of Wilmington, Minnesota, got to his billet the rain was dripping from his cap and his duffel bag was sodden black. The policeman knocked politely on the door and a gaunt woman opened it. She looked at Kenney and said “Oh, dear!” Not one to miss a nuance, John Kenney resolved that his behavior would be impeccable as long as he stayed in that house. It was. Before long Kenney joined the thousands of soldiers who, as members of the family, sat in front of the fire to listen to the B.B.C.’s nine o’clock news and explain why there was no ham in a hamburger, or to pop corn sent from home while their adopted mothers bustled about with tea and cookies.

There was not much food. An Englishman got two chops a week for his meat ration, two eggs if he was lucky, and a piece of cheese half the size of a pack of Lucky Strikes. Onions were as rare as pineapples. But many an American woke up on a Sunday morning with a plate of bacon and eggs by his bedside and toast made out of what was called “beetle bread.” The bread was made from whole grain to save shipping space, and contained pieces of chaff from the wheat, which the G.I.’s darkly imagined, having been raised on the pure white blandness of store-bought loaves, were the wings of insects. The more imaginative soon homed in on the fish-and-chips shops whenever they were open and tarried off greasy packages of newspaper smelling strongly of vinegar. Others made occasional attempts to live off the country: George Marshall and some friends were recruited by the village kids to shoot rabbits, the children offering to act as beaters. “We took a chance,” Marshall recalled. “They did scare up two of them and we blasted away with our M-1’s at them, but no luck. I wish you could see the looks on those kids’ faces when we missed.”

The children were not the only ones to be dubious of the martial expertise of their allies. Winston Churchill had watched the first field exercises of the new divisions in North Carolina and asked the opinion of one of his aides, a general. “To put these troops against continental troops would be murder,” the general said. Churchill, nevertheless, sensed the power of this raw material and guessed how quickly they would learn. Later, his judgment justified, he wrote: “Certainly two years later the troops we saw in Carolina bore themselves like veterans.” But it took time to make a soldier. As Time Goes By , a slow, dreamy melody written eleven years before, was resurrected and seemed oddly appropriate. As Private Albert A. Turner put it, “The uncertain days stretched into uncertain weeks.” Elsewhere, the plans to end the uncertainty had already been made.

The plans were given the code name Overlord. They were based on an American concept, and everything that happened in England was directed toward their execution. Overlord was the reason why the southwest of the island seemed to be sinking under the weight of foreign troops and foreign supplies; it was held up, people said, only by the barrage balloons. Though no one mentioned the name, Overlord caused hundreds of English families to leave their homes without knowing they would never see them again—by the time they were allowed to return, the walls had been pounded to rubble by American shells. Men like Colonel Robert T. Finn of La Jolla, California, moved in, building at Slapton Sands, three miles from the little port whence the Mayflower sailed, replicas of Omaha and Utah beaches so exact that later in Normandy a soldier could say to Finn: “Colonel, do you remember the damaged rowboat on the beach at the assault center? Well, I fell over the same damn boat last week during the real landing.”

By May, Overlord had ground almost to its consummation. Opposite the French beaches the units were drawn up from east to west along the south coast of England in their order of battle, British on the left, Americans on the right. The assault troops had been funnelled into special camps called “sausages,” a macabre term in connection with an operation some said would be like a meat grinder. Churchill himself was doubtful, remembering Passchendaele and the Somme and Gallipoli. “It still seemed to me, after a quarter of a century,” he revealed later, “that fortifications of concrete and steel armed with modern fire-power, and fully manned by trained, resolute men, could only be overcome by surprise in time or place, by turning their flank, or by some new and mechanical device like the tank.” The British had in fact offered some of their new devices (armored bridge layers, flame throwers, and flails for the mine fields—collectively known as “the Funnies”) to the Americans; but the latter to their cost used only amphibious tanks, which in the event mostly foundered in deep water.