Tapestried Tales
of Two Rough Channel Crossings

Smithsonian, May 1994

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2) see also

In 1066 the Normans took England; in June 1944 the Allies landed in France; both battles can be memorably revisited - as needlework.


Crammed to gunwales, William the Conqueror's ships sail for England
in the Bayeux Tapestry.


With Spitfires flying low-level cover, a vast fleet heads for France
in Overlord Embroidery.


ANYONE WHO COULD defy gravity and the local ordinances long enough to stand on the topmost spire of the great cathedral in Bayeux would command a sweeping perspective of land and sea and history. Scarcely five miles away, a curve of sand stretches left and right for 50 miles from the Cherbourg peninsula to the city of Caen. Beyond it is a body of water whose deep, powerful tides and contrary winds have for ages figured in, and often frustrated, the warlike ambitions of ambitious men. The practical French call it La Manche - after the sleeve it somewhat resembles. The British, with a global assurance that Gauls find galling, have convinced most of the world it is the English Channel. Whatever you call it, the history of the place is an ideal corrective to the view that man is the master of the physical world or that war is bad because nobody really wins.


From the vicinity of Bayeux, just under ten centuries ago, an unimaginably large army and fleet - 8,000 men, 2,000 horses, 450 ships - assembled with a view to sailing over and seizing Britain. For weeks the prevailing west wind pinned them to the coast of France. But finally, on September 27, 1066, it began to blow out of the south­east and carried them cross-Channel to the town of Pevensey. From there, with fire and sword - and remarkable cruelty - they occupied England, changing it and a good deal of future history besides.

In England, exactly 50 years ago next month, an unimaginably large army and fleet - 176,OOO men, 9,500 warplanes, 600 fighting ships, 4,000 transports and landing craft - stood poised opposite Bayeux in towns like Poole, Weymouth and Shoreham for a momentous assault on the French coast. And had to wait while, in a war room outside the city of Portsmouth, their commander agonizingly weighed changeable winds and tides that threatened to cancel, and perhaps put in permanent jeopardy, the great cross-Channel attack. The code name of the operation was Overlord. As everyone knows, though the weather was bad, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower (otherwise known as "Ike") took a chance. "OK, let's go," he said. And they did. But as thousands of men would learn on D-Day, the 6th of June, 1944, the winds and waves and tides of the Channel had not done with them yet.

Every summer along the shoreline before Bayeux where the Allied forces landed, a scattering of French families now happily take what sun there is. Children swim or play in tidal pools, or fly kites on long shallow beaches near towns with names like Vierville, St. Laurent, Colleville, Arromanches and Lion-sur-Mer. This June there will be more of a crowd, however. Both in the French towns and beaches - and across the Channel in English harbors from which the great invasion force sailed - legions of old soldiers and sailors, pilots and paratroopers will be on hand, along with patient wives and families. Together they will commemorate the comradeship, the pain, the sacrifice and the victory won when men struggled across a sleeve of troubled water, fought their way ashore past buried mines, barbed wire, pillboxes and German machine gun nests to change the fate of a captive continent and the future of Western Europe. They knew these beaches by the names Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.

It is unlikely that even the youngest who fought on D­Day will pass that way again. They are now pressing on toward three score years and ten. Partly because of that, elaborate plans for their last return have been in preparation for months, even years. Urged by travel agents, unit reunions, and nostalgia, they will come from all over the world, some of the many from America traveling by actual Liberty ships taken out of mothballs just for the occasion. England and France are alerted. Poised on both sides of the Channel, like the Allied and German armies in 1944, are a clutch of new and refurbished museums, most notably in Bayeux and Caen and cross Channel in Portsmouth, crammed with D-Day relics, memorabilia and astonishing film footage.

Launched in the dark over Ste. Mère Eglise

In a theater in Caen's huge memorial museum, two giant screens, hinged in the center at a slight angle, like the two panes of an old car windshield, offer simultaneous side-by-side, black-and-white film documentaries of what was happening on both sides of the Channel just before and during D-Day. As Germans brace along the Atlantic wall, Allied forces mass in England. As the French underground blows up a German train spilling a load of tanks down a hill, paratroops are suited up for a launch in the dark over St. Lô and Ste. Mère Eglise. Finally, as the assault begins - and falters on Omaha Beach - to the deafening shock of heavy guns at sea and the crunch of bombs falling, you can see the foundering tanks and landing craft, the death and courage on the fire swept beaches, even a young Luftwaffe pilot strafing a crowded beachhead, the actual images provided from the wing cameras of a fighter plane.

Today, along those beaches, there is no shortage of weathered memorials or of broken German battlements and shell holes half overgrown with grass ready to be tramped over. Close to the water near St. Laurent, a modest French plaque reads: " ... the Allied forces landing on this shore, which they called Omaha Beach, liberated Europe on June 6,1944." Hard by is the tiny "Brasserie L'Omaha, Bar et Cocktails." Farther east on the road above, where the Germans fired from, and where you park to walk down to see a spire raised to the dead of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, a French sign warns tourists, "Don't Leave Valuables In Your Car." Still farther away on that high ground an old soldier can shoot 18 holes at the Omaha Golf Course, or visit the cemetery where a silent legion of gleaming white crosses stands at permanent parade rest over the graves of 9,380 of the 13,959 American soldiers killed during the Normandy Campaign.

How to hold on to the past has always been a puzzler; we tend to rely on the human heart and on museums - neither totally accurate or reliable. Besides, the experience of combat takes place inside each individual man and lodges there, almost impossible to communicate to others. Those who fought their way ashore and across Europe, who will meet in Normandy next month, still carry the battle with them.  But D-Day, and all that flowed from it, will soon slip from living memory beyond their grip, and ours, over the edge of history. Even if you did not fight there but have lately walked the beaches, it is easy to wonder how what happened there will be brought to mind a hundred years from now. Five hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? Moth and rust corrupt. Paper rots. The nitrate of old film decomposes. Those crumbling pillboxes may one day be dusty archaeological finds. And thus far, history does not seem inclined to guarantee the continued preservation of even the highest of high-tech societies.

Wanted: "a Bayeux Tapestry in reverse"

It is possible to imagine that the most enduring record of D-Day, not to mention one of the most eye-filling displays available for 50th-anniversary visitors, is very low­tech indeed. It is 272 feet long, 3 feet high and made of bits of cloth. It was put together by 25 women of the Royal School of Needlework, working for four years, and was dreamed up and paid for by a pioneer conservationist, a generous, irascible, dog-loving, stag-stalking, fox-hunting English lord. His aim was to commemorate Operation Overlord, D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. His explicit inspiration was another illustrated piece of cloth, 224 feet long, which tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England and has preserved it for nearly a thousand years. What Lord Dulverton wanted, he said, was "a Bayeux Tapestry in reverse."

The parallels and contrasts are clear and illuminating.  Two cross-Channel invasions, both successful, both of enduring international significance, their outcomes balanced on the knife edge of threatening weather. The Bayeux Tapestry (which no one should miss who puts foot in Normandy this or any other year) is not only what scholars might call a seminal historic document, but an artistic marvel as well. Its inexpressibly expressive narrative elegantly blends stylized primitivism, medieval sophistication, raw history and raw propaganda, with a kind of haute comic book panache.

Given as much, the remarkable thing is that what Lord Dulverton got can hold a candle to it. For in its way it too is a marvel. Occasionally lumpily populist, it is often powerfully affecting in ways that 20th-century public art almost never manages to be. The Overlord Embroidery is less an action story - with bodies of individual men and horses kinetically flying every whichway in battle, as they do in the tapestry - than a prolonged pageant. Done in broad strokes and astounding colors, it draws the imagination into vast scenes of sky and seascape filled with ships and planes and men.

There are 34 horizontal panels each more than eight feet long and three feet high. They are housed in Portsmouth in an elegant, circular seaside museum designed expressly for it. The beginning presents England at war, with hot yellows and oranges as London burns, and silvery searchlights stabbing deep into night skies filled with German Heinkel 111 bombers. The Allied buildup follows, and the Germans - led by Field Marshal Rommel - shoring up an Atlantic wall bristling with pillboxes, barbed wire, mines and wicked, black "hedgehogs," which look like giant children's jacks tossed into the surf, to smash landing craft. And so to the crossing itself. American and British paratroops dropping in darkness to east and west to protect the D-Day beachhead. Fleets of bombers and warships softening up the enemy. The landing, the fight on the beaches and some of the fighting afterward. It ends with a column of British troops marching along a poplar-lined road east of Caen. By the side of the road a little group of French peasants is mourning a dead man. The accompanying commentary notes that the Germans sometimes shot civilian prisoners as they retreated.

The style is a kind of rough-hewn, impressionistic realism. When reproduced on a printed page some panels seem flat. But brightly lit in their dark museum, the scenes glow and deepen in perspective like flora and fauna in some huge tropical fish tank.

Compared with these posterish effects, the figurants in the Bayeux Tapestry (like Overlord, it is in fact not a tapestry but an embroidery because it is not woven) seem like marvelous miniatures. Anyone who moves attentively along beside it in its new setting in the Bayeux museum dives into the minutiae of the medieval past: planting and foraging and the carpentry of shipbuilding, and so on into battle equipment and battle itself with warhorses, swords and battle axes (used mainly by the English), chain mail; cavalry charges and deadly flights of arrows (shot mainly by the French).

Less than half of its 224-foot length is devoted to the actual battle and crossing in modified Viking ships loaded with armed men and skittish horses (they had to warp the boats in sideways to get the horses off). The decisive event, of course, is the fight near Hastings between William, duke of Normandy, and Harold Godwinson, the brand-new king of England. The story goes back some years before the battle to an oath of fealty that William claimed Harold once made to him during a trip to France. (Significantly, Harold, driven ashore by contrary winds and tides, may have landed in France by mistake.) Partly because of that oath, when Harold became King of England, a title William laid claim to, William got the pope's approval for his assault on England. It was a diplomatic coup. Overnight William's cause became a quasi crusade as an international army of knights, intent on land-grabbing and pillage under the papal blessing, flocked to his flag.

A Norman slant, but English stitching

The Bayeux Tapestry is blatantly a Norman document. For hundreds of years it was thought to be the admiring work of Matilda, William the Conqueror's queen, who supposedly had it run up by the ladies of her court to honor her husband's crowning as king of subjugated England in December 1066. Only recently have experts decided (on the basis of the stitching work and the spelling of place-names in the Latin captions laced into its surface) that the Bayeux Tapestry was made in England by English hands. Because he appears prominently, the best guess is that Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the Conqueror's clerical half-brother, had it done to curry favor with William when he felt he was falling out of favor. William was a ruthless man as well as (literally and figuratively) a bastard, the son of Robert, duke of Normandy, by a beautiful tanner's daughter. Falling from favor with him was not a good thing.

Some creative genius clearly did the drawing and design. So one has to imagine Odo putting up the money and laying down the story line: "Be sure to put me beside William in the pre-battle dinner. And don't forget the moment when I ride up and rally the troops when they begin retreating." William inevitably appears to advantage, too, as a brave and resourceful battle leader (which he was). Despite its bias, when the story takes up the actual fighting it seems to do justice to the English army - and to what we know of the battle. After all, the more English there were and the more fiercely they fought, the greater the Norman victory would seem.

One could hardly expect Normans to explain that on October 14, the day of the battle, Harold and many of his foot soldier army had reached Hastings dog-tired.  They had just defeated an invading army of Norwegians at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, then dashed back to Hastings more or less on the double. In an all-day fight, William's cavalry and archers finally wore them out. Arrows, aimed high, began to rain down upon them. In the tapestry Harold is shot in the eye. After driving back a Norman charge, the English foolishly break ranks and plunge downhill in pursuit, only to be cut off.

The tapestry itself and the brief running captions laced into it are the source of much of what the world knows about the battle. The Overlord Embroidery has no captions sewed into it. Most of today's viewers, however, know much more about what happened on June 6, 1944, than they do about the goings-on of October 14, 1066. Besides, the D-Day assault was on a scale so immense that coverage of the details of action would be impossible - except in a tapestry stretching the 25 miles from Dover to Calais. One Overlord panel presents American soldiers debarking from landing craft, some in good order. This occurred at Utah Beach, where casualties were low. The tide had carried the landing craft a mile southeast of their intended target to a point where there happened to be little German opposition. Many men, tossed by heavy seas and winds, were seasick that day, but at Utah the small craft bringing the U.S. 4th Infantry Division ashore were somewhat sheltered in the lee of the Cherbourg peninsula. Calmer seas meant that a number of the floating tanks that were to come in with the men actually reached shore to protect the infantry on the exposed beachhead.

Landing craft crammed with seasick soldiers

Thirty-five thousand men of the U.S. 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions hit Omaha Beach, between Vierville and Coleville, and that was a different story. The Overlord Embroidery also shows wrecked landing craft and American dead in dark waters, smashing up against the black hedgehogs, while others plunge and struggle onto the beach. It would have taken a tapestry as long as this one just to begin to tell the Omaha story. Because of bad navigation and heavy German shore fire, the small landing craft, crammed with seasick soldiers, were cast loose nearly 6,000 yards from shore in seas far heavier than off Utah. All but two of the floating tanks sank in the swells almost instantly, so that when the first wave of men reached the beach they had no protection or rallying points. They burrowed into the sand, or flung themselves back into the sea to keep from being cut down in withering fire. Later waves of infantry got ashore but could not clear paths through minefields fast enough. For hours the issue hung in the balance. More than 1,000 American soldiers were killed, and more than 3,000 wounded. But by nightfall the 1st Division had fought its way up off the beach and a mile or so inland.

The Overlord Embroidery is emphatically English. But the team that Lord Dulverton assembled to produce it made a concerted effort to celebrate Allied cooperation and be evenhanded in dealing with the different forces and various branches of the service involved. A general, an admiral and an RAF air chief marshal, known in the project as the "Three Wise Men," reviewed each panel and worried about balance. They had all fought in World War II, and they saw to the accuracy of such things as makes of tanks and aircraft, and military insignia.

Along with Dulverton, they also decided which leaders and generals should have their images included. Obvious starters: Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery, King George VI and Lord Louis Mountbatten. One who did not make the cut: Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the imposing leader of the Free French and a man not exactly renowned for cooperation. Anglo-French relations have always been delicate. But historian Stephen Brooks, the author of a book on the Overlord Embroidery and now curator of the Portsmouth D-Day Museum, discovered that Anglo-American sensibilities are still easily aroused too. Recently changed in view of the 50th anniversary, the soundtrack of the film shown as an adjunct to the embroidery had said "the Supreme Commander was an American - there were more of them." Americans were outraged, Brooks reports, because the phrase suggested Ike got the nod (over Britain's brilliant and famously turf-conscious General Montgomery) for reasons of statistics rather than skill. British viewers, surprisingly, were outraged, too, because, they said (correctly, it turned out), more British Empire soldiers, sailors and airmen took part in D-Day than Americans. The earlier version also repeated the famous British crack, circa 1942, about the Yanks being "overpaid, oversexed and over here." Brooks found that many British viewers objected to this, too. "The Yanks we knew," they said, "weren't like that at all."

When it came to the work of actually painting the scenes for the embroidery, various celebrated and more or less realist artists came to mind. But Dulverton eventually realized that such figures would not have the time to take on the immense amount of work required - and would, to put it mildly, be loath to take corrections and suggestions. The one who finally got the job seemed, even to herself, one of the most unlikely candidates imaginable. She was 22-year-old Sandra Lawrence, then studying classical drawing in Florence and supporting herself as an au pair in an Italian family. Ironically, in her spare time she dabbled in Surrealist art.

Her name came up quite by chance, and the English affection for amateurism encouraged Dulverton to let her show what she could do. Her first worked-up drawings were rejected, but she tried again and this time got the job. "I had just spent eight years as a rebellious student in a convent school," she recalls. "My own paintings were deep blue and full of wavery dark shapes." She knew very little of World War II but with disarming candor admits that the thought of doing vast pictures of men struggling in the Channel intrigued her. She was also the daughter of a brigadier. "In a way," she says, "I wanted to prove to him that I wasn't what he thought, some social parasite down there in Florence just doing daubs." Besides, if her work made the grade, she was astonished to learn, Lord Dulverton was willing to pay her by the week. Substantially more, she says, than the "fiver a week" she had been living on in Florence.

The haunting ghosts of famous photographs

Sandra Lawrence never saw the Bayeux Tapestry. Instead, armed with a rough outline of D-Day events done by Col. Ben Neave-Hill, she plunged into war histories, and sheaves of photographs from London's Imperial War Museum, most particularly the images in Purnell's Illustrated History of the Second World War. Anyone familiar with the time will find the embroidery haunted by the ghosts of famous photographs past, including Robert Capa's chilling, blurry vision of soldiers in the water on Omaha Beach. Week in, week out, for four years, she worked. The first steps were 6-by-16-inch pencil sketches. If they were agreed to, she moved on to posterish water­color cartoons the same size as the embroidery panels.

As each was approved, often after emendation by Lord Dulverton or the Three Wise Men, she ran it down to 25 Princess Gate in London, where 25 seamstresses of the Royal School of Needlework took over. Founded in 1872 under the aegis of Queen Victoria to keep the ancient art and skill of sewing alive in Britain, the school was naturally overjoyed at such a commission (Lord Dulverton eventually paid £36,000 for the 34 panels) and one that made use of classic techniques, some of them 400 years old, among them a process called "pricking and pouncing."

Each panel began as two layers of linen stretched tight on a frame and stitched together to prevent slippage. A full-size replica of Sandra Lawrence's cartoon was made on tracing paper. A seamstress with a special needle pricked tiny holes in the paper following Lawrence's design. Then the tracing paper was fixed over the linen frame, and "pounce," a dark powder made of ground cuttlefish and charcoal, was sprinkled along the holes, creating dotted lines on the cloth below. With the cartoon original hung up to serve as model and color guide, the dots were linked, exactly defining not only the major shapes of things but the shapes of different colors, even the shapes of the shadows that appear under the eyebrows on a human face. Most shapes are single patches of cloth.

The figures in the Bayeux Tapestry are sewed into its linen background with eight different colors of wool, as in crewelwork, or the kind of samplers that little girls used to prepare. Around them, most of the tapestry remains the color of antique linen. But the entire surface of the Overlord Embroidery is covered with colored cloth sewed precisely over the pricked-and-pounced shapes, and fitted exactly together like the pieces of a king-size jigsaw puzzle.

Sandra Lawrence had a lively palette. The needle­workers strove mightily to find materials to match her colors and create contrasting textures. Some of the stuffs listed: sateen, crepe, rep, corduroy, barathea, serge, silk, velvet and burlap, 350 yards of cord to edge the pieces of appliqued material, and braid to create special effects, among them some astonishingly effective two-tone barbed wire. The three-dimensional look they sometimes create is stunning. In all, 50 different kinds of cloths and textures were used to reproduce a surprising array of objects and surfaces: Channel waves; the wings of Spitfires and Flying Fortresses; landing craft, beaches; the faces of men blackened for night fighting; combat clothes of all sorts.

A major task involved finding actual cloth from uniforms of World War II military units, as well as prolonged consultation on, and sewing and re-sewing of, tiny details like combat ribbons and military insignia. Since the shapes were interdependent, it was hard to make changes once most of the pieces had been sewed into place. Notes on panel 20 include: "We have crammed in a Mustang," a reference to the long-range U.S. fighter that flew cover for daylight bombing missions.

Some small changes were fairly easy. The handlebar mustache of a pilot in one panel was removed (it apparently looked too insouciant). A French civilian's hair curlers were replaced by a hair net when it was pointed out that in 1944 French women didn't have hair curlers. But attempts to render General Montgomery's physiognomy required six revisions. (Looking at panel 28, an American viewer feels that Ike's face could have used some fine-tuning, too; in one panel he somewhat resembles Prime Minister Harold Macmillan).

Some mistakes were let go as too difficult to fix or not significant enough. One was discovered, and corrected, after the completed embroidery had gone on public display at a ceremony attended by the Queen Mother. It involved one of a handful of non-celebrities identified in the embroidery: Bill Millin, a piper in Lord Lovat's Scouts, an elite, green-beret-wearing commando unit originally recruited from Scottish deerstalkers. Millin landed on Sword Beach with Lovat's Scouts, their aim to link up with British paratroops dropped to secure bridges over the river Orne and a canal near Caen. He created one of the memorable war stories of Britain's D­Day by imperturbably piping his way across a bridge ahead of his unit while bullets whizzed around him. The embroidery showed Millin with bagpipe and a standard camouflage helmet. But in fact he had that day worn only the Scouts' green beret with silver insignia. Painstakingly the Royal School of Needlework gave the green beret its due.

After working on the embroidery, Sandra Lawrence recalls, "one stopped looking inside oneself and began looking outside at the world."  She went on to a successful career painting portraits and still-lifes, and precise, bright-hued studies of plants, birds and animals. The small Overlord sketches are now on loan to the Portsmouth D-Day museum. Dulverton had given her a half interest in her spectacular cartoons, and eventually arranged for them to be sold to a charitable trust in Britain. There is hope that they will find a place to be displayed, perhaps in the New World sometime during this anniversary year.

Lord Dulverton died two years ago, after presenting the completed Overlord Embroidery to the nation. Since not everyone has room for a 272-foot-long cloth pageant, it had no home until the present Portsmouth museum was built around it. How long it will last no one can tell, but if its cross-Channel counterpart is any example, Dulverton's "Bayeux Tapestry in reverse" may prove indestructible. The Bayeux Tapestry disappeared from the world's notice shortly after it was created, and did not reappear in history until 1476, when records show it was being kept, folded up most of the time, in the Bayeux Cathedral, but once a year hung all around the nave to celebrate the Feast of Relics of Saint John.

Having miraculously survived for seven centuries, it was scheduled to be cut up and made into wagon covers during the French Revolution, when Republican zealots tried to destroy religion by confiscating church property, smashing fonts, altars and stained glass, and temporarily turning churches into civic centers. A town official hid it, however. In 1803 it was exhibited in Paris and studied by Napoleon, who then had plans for the invasion of England.

Experts think the last ten feet, which may have shown William being crowned King of England, grew frayed and were cut off for neatness. The line of kings descending from him endured long enough to make England less insular, a cosmopolitan country with holdings in France and an increasingly international role to play - including the shaping of an alliance to overthrow Napoleon, and another to break the iron grip of Adolf Hitler on the people of Europe.

Sadly, Charles de Gaulle, who did not find a place in the Overlord Embroidery, may have the last word on D­Day. Near Omaha Beach a plaque quotes him as follows: "'Weapons have both tortured and shaped the world. Shameful and magnificent, their story is the story of man." Happily, that story can sometimes be recorded with a needle.


Additional reading:

  • The Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings by Mogens Rud, Christian Eilers. (Copenhagen) 1992
  • The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan, Crest Publications. (Greenwich, England) 1959
  • 1066: The Year of the Conquest by David Howarth (Viking Penguin) 1981
  • The Bayeux Tapestry in Color by David Wilson, (Knopf) 1985