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15 October 2014
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My Fiancée Saved my Life at Falaiseicon for Recommended story

by Philip Leslie Sternberg

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Philip Leslie Sternberg
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Philip Leslie Sternberg
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12 April 2004

Several months after the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944, we found ourselves outside the town of Falaise in Normandy, where Rommel's army was in the process of being annihilated. This was known as the Falaise Gap.

On the banks of the Orne

We were entrenched on the banks of the River Orne and awaiting orders to cross, which we expected any time. Up to this period it was very heavy slogging - when the Germans were retreating they would quite often counter-attack, throwing in their elite Panzer Grenadiers. It was hand-to-hand bayonet fighting, but we repulsed them time after time.

Each time we halted and rested we had to dig for our lives - to be above ground was courting death, as the shelling and mortaring was intense and often fatal. In other words, above ground you were a dead man, so when we weren't fighting, we were digging slit trenches.

Every night, patrols were sent out to capture Germans and bring them in for interrogation. When these Germans were taken prisoner with their hands clasped over their heads, they shouted, 'Ich bin nicht ein Deutscher', meaning, 'I am not a German'. They claimed to be Romanian, Hungarian, or members of the Balkan countries.

A chance conversation in London

I must now pause and return you to London, to my then fiancée, the lovely Jessica, who is now my wife of nearly 57 years. She had a friend named Rochelle, who mentioned that she had a cousin, Alie Colman, who was serving in the infantry, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, fighting in Normandy.

'That is a coincidence,' said Jessica, 'My fiancé is also out in Normandy with the Royal Warwicks.' Rochelle said that she would write to Alie and tell him about me being in the same regiment.

A more comfortable trench

Back to the slit trench in Normandy, where I was sitting reading the magazines Jessica used to send me. She had also informed me that I should look out for Alie Colman, a cousin of her friend Rochelle.

Suddenly a soldier looked down into my slit trench and said, 'Do you happen to know a Private Sternberg?' I replied, 'I am Sternberg. Who wants me?' He introduced himself as Alie Colman. He had a letter from his cousin asking him to look out for me. We exchanged pleasantries, and I invited him to join me in the trench to read some of the magazines.

After a while, Alie said, 'This trench is not too deep.' My reply was that I could not go any deeper because of the rocks and boulders. Alie said, 'My trench is much deeper. Bring the magazines and your rifle into my trench and leave all your other items.'

We settled down in Alie's trench for about 15 minutes, when suddenly the Germans opened up with everything they had - intense shelling and mortaring. It was so ferocious that the force of the impact of the shells and mortars would tighten the helmets on our heads.

The bombardment lasted for an hour or two. When it finally stopped, I retrieved my magazines and rifle and bid Alie good luck. I proceeded back to my slit trench. To my horror, I saw a huge crater where my trench had been, with all my belongings gone.

If I had stayed there during the bombardment, I would not have been penning this article. Jessica's conversation with her friend had inadvertently and luckily saved my life.

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