"If I don't come home": letters from a D-Day captain

The heartfelt diary of a captain written during the 1944 Normandy invasion has just been published.

Captain Alastair Bannerman, who features in tonight's ITV documentary If I Don't Come Home - Letters from D-Day, recorded his thoughts and emotions before, during and after the invasion. His diary, which is from tomorrow available to read as an ebook, charts the building suspense in the run-up to D-Day, as well as the unforgettable "colours" and "sounds" of the day itself.

 Captain Alastair Bannerman of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment

A 30-year-old father-of-two, Bannerman's diary reads like an extended love letter to his wife. In it he describes his longing for "your understanding, your quiet love and your gentleness", and his frustration that "duty and barbed wire, destiny and man’s madness have put thousands of miles between us".

Bannerman's notebook was confiscated when he was taken prisoner by the Germans on 7 June 1944. Having narrowly escaped death, and survived the ordeal of a prisoner of war camp, Bannerman returned home to his wife and sons in April 1945.

Extraordinarily, some years later a German translation of his diary was returned to him, and is now available to read. The book accompanies the ITV documentary If I Don't Come Home - Letters from D-Day, in which Bannerman features.

Here, we have selected five highlights from the book (reproduced courtesy of ITV Studios Global Entertainment):

1st June

To-day we have come into a new camp from where we shall embark and so there is only a last bastion between us and the fight in front of us. I have to admit I am not a hero and I have never wished for a free bath in the Channel! Nor have I been impatient because of the long delay.

Now it seems that the day approaches us with the speed of lightning and just now I met Rowland who admitted to me that he was really afraid! He doesn’t know where we go but when we looked at a map of France we have – independently of each other – come to the conclusion that it could be Calais...

James Henderson, gunner major, is asleep; he saw his wife to-day, the lucky man; his name is on a special list and he can go wherever he wishes to. My darling, how very much I long for you, to put my arms around you and to be embraced by you.

It is torture not to get any letters and to feel that very likely you do not get mine either with this 100% censorship. At least I can imagine how you are sleeping now in our familiar and dear nursery, and this is a true blessing. 

2nd June

To-day we learn that tomorrow we will march to be allo-cated to landing craft. So the play is on.

To-day I had rather a hectic time. I have been running about testing the sights of my guns, obtaining replacement parts, arranging everything in the sequence of loading, distributing rations for 24 hours, tinned meat, cookers, pills against sea-sickness, paper bags, chocolate, cigarettes, tablets to disinfect the water...

This little book becomes rather fragmentary as I have to write it often at the end of the days, which have been crammed with work, and, being tired, I cannot write my best. I expect I often repeat myself. But it is only a notebook and may at least tell the outlines of things.

It is now cool evening, the mess has closed, and the time is late when the camp is preparing for its rest, and probably this will be the last night on English soil for ages. Tomorrow I have to get up early, so I have to shave tonight. I feel rather like Father Christmas with all the parcels I have to carry with me...

Tomorrow we shall have to go into our different boats and will not meet each other again for some time, not before we have reached our destination for action. I have already spoken to all of them and bade them good night and now I have to read them three orders of the day, one from the C.O., one from Monty and one from Eisenhower.

Much depends on our gun but I cannot do any more. God be with them and all of us and may it be His Will that we end this horrible thing soon.

5th June

There is still a sharp wind blowing but soon after breakfast we raised anchor and sailed out of the harbour entrance. The chalk cliffs gleamed in the sunshine and hung like white curtains along the flat green coast. The white fleet of armoured landing craft and supporting boats with their silver balloons, and the motor torpedo boats which stirred up white foam, made a lovely picture in blue, white and silver. A part of England’s armada; and it looked like a regatta.

A signal was given: “Open envelope 007!” We opened it, the enterprise had begun. Operation Overlord begins tomorrow or the following day provided nothing unforeseen happens. Another message from an M.T.B:10 “Departure is 12.30”.

So tomorrow must be D-Day. If that is so, H-hour11 is 7.25 and we land at 11.35. D.V. James is mad with joy. We have made up a list of the things which we now have to pack. I am not allowed to open anything yet, not before we are actually sailing. We have to arrange measures dealing with fire, the use of life-saving apparatus, the arrangement of air-raid precau-tions and for sleeping and eating for tonight...

The sea is still terribly rough but there it is, my darling, it seems now that we’re off.

6th June. D-Day

It is now 03.00 hours in the morning and I have just been up to the bridge. It is rather light because the moon is shining, though heavy clouds cover her. One can see the row of small ships and of darker balloons silhouetted in front and behind us against the grey sea.

We are still rolling a little but the wind has subsided somewhat, thank Heaven. The captain and his first officer are on the bridge. They make sure where we are and look for the coloured lights which should guide us through one of our own minefields.

You, my angel, sleep gently in the nursery, I hope. Your thoughts have helped me so much. They have given me real strength. I can imagine how you listen to the news at 9 o’clock and think of me with love. I hope that Andrew’s golden head rests gently and quietly upon his small pillow and that Richard is nice and comfortable lying in his narrow little carry-cot...

With me sleep three officers: James, Raf and a special navy officer who is really only a travelling observer. How childlike and natural we all look when we are asleep. I slept almost from 10–2 o’clock and must now go back to the bridge if I am not going to fall asleep again in this stifling and sticky atmosphere... James relieves me at 4 o’clock and then I have a few hours to myself before dawn breaks. I have wakened James.

A long line of flares hangs over Cherbourg, or I suppose it is Cherbourg, and a few anti-aircraft tracer shots go up in the air above the immediate front line. Funny to imagine that there Germans run around their guns. I would like to know what they are thinking. The whole Channel between us and Cherbourg is filled with little ships which all quietly and efficiently sail towards France. The British, Canadian and American fighting forces on the war-path...

I heard that our C.O. has also landed, therefore our infantry must be there by now. God bless them and good luck to them. I do not believe that I can now write for very long. We can now see the French coast and very soon we will have to play our part. I must go now and look for the landing markings with my binoculars to ascertain our landing points. So, my darling, on we go! I know that you are with me. Come on the Bannermans! Let us be gay. Au revoir, God bless, I love you!

7th June

D-Day is over. It was a day which I can never forget. What pictures, what sounds! An accumulation of extraordinary emotions when one fantastic adventure followed the other.

When we came in close we could see that the beach was completely choc-a-bloc with vehicles. We had to steer over to the east and to look round for a bit. There was very little beach because it was high tide. Occasionally, a mortar exploded in the sea but otherwise there was little going on.

We at last touched ground in France! Down with the landing ramp and when, after long last, the S.P. gun was off I got my two guns out. The waves were running high, but our waterproofed carriers made it safely. There were no ready-made beach exits anywhere but finally I got hold of a bulldozer which brought our gun and carrier up a dune and then we had to wait and actually queue up to move inland.

The houses along the coast were only shells and it was a terrible experience when I saw for the first time dead bodies, first a German soldier and afterwards quite a few of our own soldiers. I can never forget all this or somehow forgive.

 

If I Don’t Come Home: Letters from D-Day is now available to buy for £1.49 from a number of ebook retailers. Extracts courtesy of ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

The dramatised ITV documentary If I Don't Come Home - Letters from D-Day, which follows four Allied soldiers as they pen what could be their last letters to the people they love, airs tonight at 10:35pm.

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