History@Portsmouth

University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Fear of the Unknown: An investigation into individual experiences of the D-Day campaign

Cameron Meeten, third year History student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on the research he and his fellow students undertook as part of a final year group research project. Along with fellow final year students Ian Atkins, Dom Coombs, Patrick Kelliher and Chris Kyprianou, Cameron looked at the ‘fear of the unknown’ felt by D-Day combatants in June 1944. As well as presenting their findings as part of the unit’s assessment, the students also gave a public presentation at the D-Day Story, Southsea. The final year group research unit is co-ordinated by Dr Rob James, Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social History at Portsmouth.

For our Archival Research Project in the final year of our History degree we worked alongside the D-Day Story to research the personal experiences of those involved in D-Day in 1944. The aim of our research was to uncover and analyse the notions of fear experienced and expressed by the allied personnel who were directly involved in the campaign. The D-Day Story has a vast array of personal sources, such as letters, diaries and interviews, that provided us with a wealth of material to facilitate our research. The lack of research into the individual emotions and experiences of Allied personnel participating in D-Day ensured that this project was a unique experience, deviating from the typical historiographical perspective that often just provides a narrative of the military aspects of the campaign. Following the completion of our research, we were given the opportunity to present our findings to the public at the D-Day Story in Portsmouth. This allowed us to provide a fresh perspective on the personal experiences of D-Day combatants to the people who attended.

Cameron Meeten (left) presenting at the D-Day Story, Southsea, with Chris Kyprianou, Ian Atkins and Dom Coombs

A key theme we came across in the archives was the notion of British stoicism. We found that combatants rarely wrote about their feelings, instead favouring narratives of events which avoided the subject of individual emotion. For example, stoicism is demonstrated in the account of Elliot Dalton when he stated that he was wary of the spread of fear, so didn’t share his thoughts with his fellow combatants. However, he admitted that he confessed such feelings to his younger brother. [1] The negative stigma surrounding the expression of fear ensured that it was mentioned infrequently, and was downplayed in letters. This is demonstrated in Radio Mechanic Ainslie Hickman’s letter to his parents which likened the journey across the English Channel to a ‘pleasure cruise’. [2]

From our research we found that fear was – perhaps predictably – more significant prior to the invasion of Normandy. On 5 June, just a day before the invasion, Gunner E. Brewer not only stated that he and his fellow combatants ‘had well and truly had it’, but he also admitted to not being confident that he would see home again. [3] This contrasts significantly with the archival material which was written following the landings. Diaries and letters written after the landings were generally far more optimistic and portrayed experiences of excitement and adventure. For example, Lieutenant George Wildman expressed the excitement and adventure in his discovery of a bottle of brandy and a stash of Franks. [4] This suggests that fear was tied to personal success, as demonstrated through the interview of Ted Hunt who commanded 15 Rhino tanks on D-Day. Hunt stated that while he was obviously scared from time to time, the campaign was not as terrifying as Norway which he described as ‘terrible with no success’. [5]

Our research into the archives also gave us a unique opportunity to see what coping mechanisms were utilised by soldiers. Two of the most interesting of these that we discovered were smoking and drawing. Drawing as a coping mechanism is evidenced in Sergeant John Jenkins’ rough sketches. [6] Interestingly, the drawings we found in the archives do not portray any conflict, but menial daily tasks – such as washing – which acted as a distraction from the war. Smoking was almost a universal coping mechanism for Allied soldiers following the Normandy landings. Private William Oatman noted that his backpack contained more packs of cigarettes than food, and he said that he went through all of them in the first two nights of the campaign. [7] From this we can see that drawing and smoking were utilised by soldiers to keep busy as a distraction from the war.

Sketch by Sergeant John Jenkins. Courtesy of D-Day Story Archive

The contrast of the fear expressed between ‘bloodied’ and ‘unbloodied’ soldiers – those who had experienced combat and those who had not – was a key discovery of our research. Bloodied soldiers such as Ted Hunt were far less jubilant regarding the prospect of invasion due to their previous experiences in the war; this contrasted with the positive outlook of unbloodied soldiers such as Roy Clarke, who claimed that the ‘excitement was beyond anything he had experienced in his life’. [8] This demonstrates that previous experience ensured that bloodied soldiers knew what horrors to expect, making them less optimistic than their inexperienced counterparts. Therefore, for the more battle-worn soldiers, previous combat experience served as a significant cause for the fear surrounding D-Day.

Our experience working alongside the D-Day Story has been very enjoyable. Gaining access to their archives provided us with a rich variety of sources which aided our pursuit of finding a new perspective on the soldiers’ experiences of D-Day. This project allowed us to research the combatants’ unique personal experiences, and we uncovered stories and experiences about the campaign which may have otherwise gone unheard. Presenting our research publicly at the D-Day Story was a memorable experience and allowed us to share our findings with visitors to the museum, providing them with a new perspective from which to think about the experiences of the many people who took part in the D-Day campaign.

NOTES

[1] 2003/2245/1, Diary of Elliot Dalton, dated October 1944. D-Day Story Archive, D-Day Story, Southsea.

[2] 2014/403, Letter by Ainslie Hickman, dated 12/06/1944. D-Day Story Archive, D-Day Story, Southsea.

[3] DD 1990/536/12, Letter by Gunner Brewer E., dated 28/05/1944. D-Day Story Archive, D-Day Story, Southsea.

[4] DD 1990/544/2, Letter by Sub-Lieutenant George Wildman, dated October 1944. D-Day Story Archive, D-Day Story, Southsea.

[5] ‘Ted Hunt-Fear’, Legasse: The Veterans Video Archive, https://www.legasee.org.uk/operation-overlord/the-archive/ted-hunt/, last accessed 25 March 2019.

[6] DD 2015/53/6, Drawing by Sergeant John Jenkins sent to his daughter, dated 1944. D-Day Story Archive, D-Day Story, Southsea.

[7] 2014/252/31, Diary of William Oatman, dated June 1944. D-Day Story Archive, D-Day Story, Southsea.

[8] Lance Goddard, D-Day: Juno Beach, Canada’s 24 hours of destiny, (London: Dundurn, 2004); p. 44.

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