Rehearsal for D-Day

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Today in Normandy there are several large-scale and almost 300 local ceremonies to commemorate the D-Day landings 75 years ago. A total of 156,000 Canadian, American and British soldiers landed on the five beaches Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah.

Quite some years ago I saw an edition of the BBC TV series Coast. It was about the preparation for D-Day: it was very moving to see the black-and-white film of farms being emptied, civilians leaving their homes, lost tanks retrieved from the seabed. The programme also mentioned losses through mistakes.

The resulting poem Standing in for Utah is in sonnet form. The first stanza came quite easily, but I struggled to get the second stanza to fit the form. The sonnet typically has a volta, or “turn” after the first eight lines. I liked how I managed to include a physical turn in the second stanza! The poem was subsequently awarded the 2012 RedPage Sonnet Prize in an annual competition.

(Photo credit: Th G Koehler)

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Standing in for Utah
They were given six weeks to pack and leave.
Round and oblong tables stowed in a van:
Hannaford the Butchers. Empty farms grieve
for cows, sheep taken by women and men.
Forty-six square miles behind Slapton Sands,
gravel, dunes, the flooded marshes of Lyme Bay.
A cold, still, grey hinterland that stands
in for Utah, the rehearsal for D-day.
Three thousand people, animals, the year
before sent to live in another place.
Now American boys are sheltered here
and dodging live ammo with sudden grace.
How small, the blue Heritage Coast dots on the map.
Distant that April night when Start Bay was a trap.

Operation Tiger was the code name.
One Tank Landing Ship keeled over and sank
in just six minutes, the wheelhouse aflame.
That boat spewed burning gasoline from its flank.
German Schnellboote fired the torpedo.
Rusted-up lifeboat tackle abandoned;
never told how to use life belts, below
seven hundred and forty-nine men drowned.
This is my ship and I am going back,
Lieutenant John Doyle, skipper, who turned,
against orders. Picked up shapes limp and black;
clinging on to charred life rafts, men who’d burned.
Destiny is shaped by random things, often small:
wrong frequencies, second chances, the place where you fall.

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