Posted by: cousindampier | 5 June 2014

The Way Home, Day 9

Overlooking Portsmouth

Overlooking Portsmouth


As anniversaries go, 2014 is an incredibly important year in the United Kingdom. The nice, round number of importance is 100. A century ago, World War I began, leading to 60,000 British dead at the Somme in one day (July 1, 1916), artillery in France loud enough to be heard in Dover, and at the end of the war everything had changed, though the Allies tried desperately to pretend nothing had.

It is also the 70th anniversary of the landings in France – D-Day. While perhaps not quite as symbolically important as World War I, few survivors will make it to the 80th anniversary.  November 11 will be an emotional and important day later this year, but the beginning of June belongs to the landings in France 70 years ago.

Driving through the southern coast brings back stark reminders of this anniversary. While the World Cup may begin in just over one week, the flags hanging from doorways and in small towns are not the red and white flags of the Three Lions, England’s soccer team. They are the more familiar red, white, and blue flags of the United Kingdom.

I spent the day in Fareham, near Portsmouth. In the afternoon, my friend Sophie’s mother and I drove out to the hills overlooking the city. There are a string of fortresses along England’s southern coast, some now converted to museums, and some to military bases. Cities with historical meaning back to Sir Francis Drake and Captain Cook, such as Portsmouth and Southampton, may be modern – but it is easy to see why they were settled and why they grew into major shipping centers many centuries ago.

Portsmouth seems to lie on a flat peninsula underneath a commanding hill with two old fortresses nearby. To the west and the east of the city are large harbours with numbers of small inlets and bays (the eastern side has a few more channels; the west is more contained). It is easy for one to imagine the ability of ships to stop and unload, or simply rest in the vast bay before moving on. A number of small craft and one warship laid at anchor in the harbour. Earlier in the day, I was told, a vessel set out towards the French coast with a number of World War II veterans on board, escorted by tugs and fire ships which drenched anybody nearby with streams of water.

Far out to the south and southeast of the city were a number of massive tankers at rest, sheltered from the sea by the Isle of Wight.  The Isle is the largest island in the United Kingdom and provides a second harbour for Portsmouth, shielding ships from storms running up the English Channel from the Atlantic side.

Portsmouth holds a special place in terms of the Second World War, and the invasion of France specifically. It was bombed heavily during the Blitz in 1940, became a major embarkation point for soldiers headed across the English Channel, and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters were just north of the city. The city contains the only museum dedicated to the D-Day landings.

The military history of England and the United Kingdom is long and colourful, but the flags hanging outside shop windows around Portsmouth are telling. England has not won the World Cup since 1966, and though the German Bundesliga may be rivaling the English Premier League in terms of talent, the EPL is still the world’s dominant soccer league.  The World Cup is a huge event here.

But, for one weekend before the games begin, the flags are not of England, but of the United Kingdom. And Australia and New Zealand and Canada, and the other provinces and principalities which took part in the Second World War. And while the American view may be on the landings at Omaha Beach, where President Barack Obama will visit in June 6, the British will forever look towards Gold and Sword as the beginning of the end in 1944.


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