Thursday, April 09, 2015

H - Honfleur, France 1944

Four generations: Three continents: Two world wars: One village   
 These are tales spanning four generations spread across three continents in between and after the two world wars of people who set forth under different circumstances from one small village called Agaramangudi.   

The story line traverses through different time lines, locations or incidents with no particular order. The only order being the alphabetical one – A to Z meant purposefully for the A to Z challenge. These posts can be read as standalone posts, but would be best comprehended if you read them along with their prelude provided as a link.

Click here for prelude F-Florence 

Honfleur, France 1944 

Lieutenant Colonel Preston had his eyes glued on the footprints that trailed along the banks of river Seine.

Laying a mine near a receding water source was a sure way for the enemy troops to scare away and slow down the marching army.  Also when a mine would blast away near a bridge it could cut off communication across the land that lay ahead, paralysing the advancement of the marching army.    

The Trees on the banks of the river Seine seem to have hosted human inhabitation not very long ago. Some branches were pulled down for fuelling the fire. This was a time when the war had ensured that all women and children had retreated to safer havens escaping the blitz, gun shots and bombs from the war. It was apparent that the retreating enemy troops had camped here not very long ago. Harpal and Kittu set out to trace the footsteps formed by heavy shoes, tyres imprints from the jeeps and trucks as the traces that the enemy troops had left behind.

It was not the enemy that they were searching for. It was the traps that the enemy troops had laid out that they needed to be clear, before a battalion of British Commonwealth soldiers could march ahead and conquer the territory. Unless the course was clear, it never made sense to risk the entire battalion, because then, the loss of life would be huge. 

Essentially Kittu, Harpal and others under the command of Preston were piloting the trail and combing the territory for bombs and mines.  And this landscape showed a lot of promise of such a danger lurking around. 

It was a sunny afternoon when Kittu and Harpal were ordered to set out to trace the end of the trail along the river bank underneath the bridge. When they would spot the mine, they would get to clear the contours around the place and set forth to defuse them.

Since morning their platoon had identified a dozen of them and had already defused three of them.  Each mine was carefully concealed under rocks, pebbles, branches of trees and over the iron and steel structures of the river bridge.
Defusing a mine involved not just mastery over the all the ingredients and design that go on to making a land mine,  but also the double whammy or triple whammy that it could throw up while getting defused. Earlier during the war, the retreating troops would plant mines singly all over the landscape. Of late they realized that the defusal squad had gotten too familiar with their modus operandi and therefore they would lay across a double whammy.

A double whammy would be laid in such a way that when one mine was in the process of getting defused by a squad, it would trigger off the mine a few hundred metres away. The explosion would distract the soldier working on defusing the mine and the nearby mines would be left undefused. Clearing up a landscape filled with such double whammy and triple whammy mines required deft handling, shrewdness and above all courage and conviction.

It is in times like this that every soldier’s grit and determination was tested to its core. Deaths, maiming of limbs, blasted bodies were a common sight.  Prayers were said before they set out to defuse mines. It was a sacrifice the sappers and miners undertook in order to make way for the rest of the army to march ahead.

There had been many deaths in the last few weeks as they went about clearing the mines. The morale was low and the courage and conviction that the sappers and miners were trained for, was withering away. 

Harpal worried about his loved ones back at home. He particularly worried about his newly wedded wife whom he had left behind in Lahore with the promise that he would return home a hero. Kittu was not exactly worried about his family that he had left behind, but definitely longed to meet his cousin Subbu.  In the dark recesses of the night when they lay star gazing the clear Tuscan sky, he would sleep in the comfort that Subbu would be watching the same stars back home.  He worried for him. He wondered what had become of him. He was not sure if he had returned to Agaramangudi or had moved on elsewhere.           

Kittu and Harpal would tell each other the tales of the families that they had left behind. Tales of love and longingness that their uncertain lives and the fear of impending mortality was rekindling in them.
It was in times like those that they questioned the purpose of the war.

Whom was it being fought for?
And why were they where they were? 

As the next day dawned, they would brush aside every strain of the heart and bravely march along with Preston to clear the mines ahead.   

It was a warm day.  In peace time, the south of France would be enchanted with that kind of a warm sunny weather.  But the lovely weather was of no consequence in the war torn Europe of 1944. The Sappers marched ahead along the River Seine crossing over from Italy into France. 

When it was fairly certain that the mines were defused, the sappers now dwindling in numbers assembled across a bailey bridge to reach the other side of the harbour for the Jeeps and the vehicle carrying the soldiers and ammunition to march in.

It was then that Kittu spotted an intriguing piece of furniture, perhaps a broken back bench or a table that was floating ashore on the river. It would normally have not attracted the attention, but then in war time every instance of unusualness could be magnified multiple times. It was a piece of furniture that came away floating from one of the dilapidated villas that was destroyed by the blitz. As Kittu jumped into the river and swam across to reach the middle of the river to survey the piece of obtrusive furniture, Preston and Harpal, were busy surveying the tensile strength of the Bailey bridge that they had successfully laid for the vehicles to cross over.

As Kittu swam along the piece of floating furniture, he called out for Commander Preston’s attention, indicating a mine camouflaged inside the contours of household furniture. He had to save it from floating too close to the newly laid bridge. They had to defuse it after securing it to the river bank. He signalled Harpal to get him the defusal kit so he could get on with the job. Meanwhile he would navigate the floating piece of furniture to the shore as far away from the newly assembled Bailey bridge.

Two hours later he successfully managed to defuse the wires of the mine when he noticed that the wires were longer than expected.  They ran longer and deeper than what was obvious to the untrained eye.  The end of the furniture was tied to a wire that was sealed to protect from the water and ran across the river bridge. It was the light wooden furniture that had kept the camouflage floating.
It took Kittu a split second to comprehend this enemy trap. The piece of furniture was just a distraction. The real danger lay not in the mine that he had just defused, but somewhere deep in the waters across the bridge.
Kittu screeched with his whistle and signalled Preston and Harpal to retreat. It was the first time he was giving commands to his commander. But this was not the time to follow the protocol.
This time it was not a double whammy or a triple whammy. The enemy had laid out a multiple whammy across the bridge. There was no time to waste. Kittu swam to the shore and ran along the river towards the bridge.

He had to save his friend and his commander.  The two were neck deep into tightening the nuts and bolts giving the final touches to the Bailey bridge.
The multiple whammies could blast away anytime.  As he ran across the river shore the mine exploded. The bridge blew up into two pieces, throwing away Preston’s body on to the other bank.   Harpal landed on Kittu’s side with a broken arm and ribs torn apart. Clearly he was in intense pain. 

Kittu dragged him away to safety fearing multiple explosions alongside the river bank.  There was no way he could reach across to Preston. The bridge had blown over and all the work of the last few weeks of clearing the mines was lost in just one clever bait laid by the retreating troops.
But it was his friend Harpal that he needed to care for right now. They say lightning does not strike twice. He was not sure about the enemy troops.
This was too shocking a moment for him to think about his survival and mortality.  He dragged a wailing Harpal to safety. He was not sure how he could comfort a man with an arm blown up and ribs broken apart as Harpal  cried out loud writhing in unbearable pain.   

Harpal signalled to him in between his spasms. By now he had stopped wailing. There was no energy left in him. He was bleeding profusely and it was clear he would soon pass out. Kittu held him in his arms to comfort him. Harpal reached out into his trouser pocket and pulled out a wallet with his unbroken hand. He cried out in between his spasms and tried telling something to Kittu.  Kittu was too devastated, to comprehend the impending loss of yet another friend. He had seen too many deaths at close quarters by now, but this one was like losing a part of his soul. Harpal still resting on Kittu’s arms opened his wallet, pulled out a photograph and put it on Kittu’s hands.

Please ... he pleaded and pressed his hands hard.
Parminder, forgive me, he cried out loud, for one last time. 
It was a few minutes later that Harpal passed out and fell unconscious. Later in the evening as the sun was setting across river Seine, Harpal breathed his last.              

Kittu looked up the wallet and the photograph.
That was the first time he saw what Parminder looked like.
He had made a promise to his  dying friend. 

To be continued 
I - Indian Independence - 1947 


  1. Mines are scary. They lie buried all across our globe and are still maiming people today from wars long since been waged.

    Stephen Tremp
    A to Z Co-host
    Twitter: @StephenTremp

  2. I thought the war was over and was feeling bad. But then to my surprise it came back again. Very thrilling and interesting account of events.


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