On the morning of June 6, while Theresa May, President Macron, and elderly veterans attended the unveiling of the new British Normandy Memorial in the little village of Ver-sur-Mer, I was 20 or so miles away in the depths of the French countryside on my own – long overdue – D-Day pilgrimage.
This was to visit the Château de Fontaine-Étoupefour where my grandfather, Captain Paul Cash, of the Wessex Wyverns and Royal Artillery, had been killed in action on July 13 after winning the MC a few days before for bravery in holding a critically important defence position known as Hill 112. This vantage point between the valleys of the River Odon and Orne gave whoever commanded it a critical advantage in the battle for Caen.
In the memorial that now stands to this battle for Hill 112, a plaque describes the fierce fighting between our Cromwell tanks (which my grandfather commanded) and the SS Panzer tanks to being “just like Verdun”: one of the worst scenes of slaughter in the First World War.
Standing in the sunshine 75 years later, and looking out across the vast expanse of wheat fields, it was almost impossible to imagine the carnage as the soil had rumbled with the deafening artillery assaults from our British 25-pounder field guns engaging with the German tanks; there was also hand-to-hand bayonet fighting.
As Jack Hayward, a sergeant in my grandfather’s regiment wrote in a letter: “The guns became so hot that the paint started to peel off. It was at this time that we were told that our Troop Commander, Captain Cash, had been killed. We had lost a great leader, a wonderful officer and a real gentleman.”
Another fellow officer wrote to my grandmother from an officer’s convalescent hospital: “During an attack, we got into a very sticky place. Paul was in a tank but had to abandon it when it got too hot. During that battle Paul was magnificent, although I know he realised, as I did, that it would be a miracle if we survived.”
My father was only four at the time and I am sure the emotional scar of losing his war hero father defined much of his future life. Before I left for France (he was there as part of the government party so we went separately), he told me that he could still vividly recall the awful news arriving. “I opened the door. Then a huge man, some sort of policeman, handed my mother the letter. She collapsed. I then remember going up to her bedroom where she was in a terrible state and saying: ‘Don’t worry, Mummy, I’ll look after you.’ ”
When I arrived in the village of Fontaine-Étoupefour, a bizarre thing happened. As I parked my car, I looked up towards a digital Informations Municipales sign and saw my grandfather’s name being flashed up. It turned out that the local community centre had – in 2014 – been named the Salle de Paul Cash. When I visited it, I was amazed to find a memorial to my grandfather with a photo of him in his officer’s uniform and an account of his actions in helping to liberate the village.
This was all thanks to a former teacher called Andre Nove – now 82 – who was seven at the time of D-Day. After unearthing the story of the battle around the local chateau, the mayor had honoured my grandfather by naming the centre after him. They had even copied his signature and laser-engraved it above the door.
The 15th-century moated chateau, with a lovely turreted gatehouse, was strangely peaceful. Such moated paradises are where you retire to live an Arcadian existence after a full life. They are not places you associate with artillery fire, destruction and death.
The elderly count who owns the chateau welcomed me and showed me the little private museum (complete with a photo of my grandfather’s original wooden cross grave by the old stable) that he has put together to commemorate the Bataille de la Cote 112. On the wall, were various photos of my grandfather, along with accounts of the battle. Below, under a sheet of plastic, were a selection of German and British machine guns, grenades and rusty helmets. Handing me a heavy machine gun, the count said: “We found all the weapons in the moat when it was drained in 1960.” He then handed me half a German grenade. My grandfather was killed by mortar in a wood next to the chateau.
It felt very strange holding various 1944 weapons just as a few hours later I found myself walking barefoot on Gold Beach with Andre showing me the spot where my grandfather would have landed. What was chilling is that a German machine gun bunker is still intact and you can go inside and see the eerie view that the Germans would have had as they mowed down the arriving Allied troops. More than 2.5 million landed to liberate France in 1944.
But the most poignant moment of all was visiting the immaculate and strangely beautiful war cemetery where my grandfather is buried. To my shame, I’d never been before – despite driving through Normandy countless times on holidays. Andre had tied up a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers – including red and white roses – from his garden as we laid them at the bottom of the grave.
I reflected that war cemeteries are the most important and saddest places on earth when you see the ages of those killed. My grandfather was just 26. His car had a painted sign over the number plate which read: “To Hell With Hitler”. It was a proud and emotional day, and I will definitely be returning.
@williamrpcash is chairman of the Catholic Herald