June 6, 1914 marks the beginning of Operation Overlord, the battle to liberate France from Nazi occupation. After the dramatic landing on the Normandy beaches, the Allies continued to battle inch by bloody inch across France. In an effort to secure the Seine and pursue the retreating German army, the Allies launched Operation Paddle on August 17, 1944.
My uncle, Bertie McCombe, was a member of Britain’s 12th Parachute Battalion. On the night of August 18th, the Battalion received orders to take the little village of Putot-en-Auge from the occupiers. Under heavy shelling, they reached a hill where they could shelter until they could cross the canal. As the morning sun burned off the mist that had been giving them shelter, they realized that they would soon be fully visible to the enemy. They made their way to the village through punishing mortar fire.
Upon their arrival, they were ordered to take Hill 13. Mortars and machine gun fire from the neighboring town of Goustranville were joined by two hidden machine guns that cut the men down. Then German reinforcements arrived. Barns functioning as field hospitals quickly filled to overflowing with casualties. Medics ran out of water and had only Normandy cider to give to the injured men. Despite German reinforcements supported by field artillery, by the afternoon, the Allies were able to capture the summit of Hill 13. The village of Putot-en-Auge was liberated, but 21 year-old Lance Corporal Bertie McCombe was among those who were fatally wounded. He is buried in the cemetery of the village church in Row C 1.
The story that made him real to me took place in my mother’s village of Whiteabbey, Northern Ireland. It was August 26, 1944, my mother’s 13th birthday. She was waiting for the postman to arrive with birthday greetings. With her was her brother Bertie’s dog, Lynn, a beautiful liver and white Springer Spaniel. Lynn, a gentle dog, had been acting strangely for a few days. When the postman arrived, Lynn went berserk and wouldn’t let him in the gate. “You know me, Lynn,” said the surprised man, but Lynn would have none of it. My mother took the mail from him and brought it in the house. There was no birthday celebration that day, for the mailman had brought the notice of Bertie’s death.
Today marks Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, or Armistice Day in many countries of the world – a time to remember all of those who gave so much. Qu’ils reposent en paix (keel ruhpoze ehn peh). May they rest in peace.