The Battle of Normandy (French name: Normandie) – the largest seaborne invasion force in history – was “the most difficult and complicated operation that has ever taken place”, in Churchill’s words. It was not only the scale of the operation, with a total of nearly 3 million personnel, 11,000 aircraft and 7,000 ships involved, and 156,000 troops and 20,000 vehicles in the first wave. Its complexity, its ingenuity and imagination and its decisive effect on the war in Europe make it unique, in quality as well as scale.
The historian Ambrose observed that the Battle of Normandy was four times greater than the Desert Storm Operation in the Gulf War, and it was carried out when there were no GPS, computers, fax machines and photocopiers, and documents were typed with several carbon sheets.
There have been numerous documents on the D-Day – 6 June 1944 when Allies troops landed on Normandy beaches and paratroopers jumped far inland – and even recently there are more documents providing new information. This article compiles latest information available in order to present the big and truthful picture to the extent possible.
There are two key terms that have been used in unconsistent ways. They are as follows:
- Operation Overlord was the overall plan for landing British, American and Canadian troops in Normandy in June 1944. It covered not only the landing itself, but also the build-up of Allied troops in the beachhead and the initial stages of the fighting in Normandy. It started on D-Day and lasted until the Allies troops crossed the Seine Rivre on 19-Aug-1944.
- Operation Neptune was the code word for the naval operations to convey the assault troops across the Channel and to land them on the D-Day beaches. It lasted until 30-Jun-1944.
The landing on D-Day is often called Operation Overlord, but in fact it was only a small segment of Operation Neptune, and it was even a smaller segment of Operation Overlord.
In this article, the term “Battle of Normandy” comprises dropping British-American-Canadian paratroopers inland, and landing of Allies infantry on the Normandy beaches. The scope is confined in the preparation steps and the first 24 hours of the battle.
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During the 8th and 9th centuries, attracted by the riches of the province with which they had often traded, Vikings ventured down in their long boats each summer from their Scandinavian homelands to raid the monasteries and towns, reaching Paris in 845. After a few years they began to over-winter in the region, and by 911 the Viking “jarl” or leader Rollon, Count of Rouen, was powerful enough to force the French king to sign a treaty ceding part of the province to him, from which it took the name of Normandy, the country of the Northmen. In the following century and a half, Rollon and his successors, now converted to Christianity and nominal vassals of the French king, expanded their domains by conquest until they covered roughly the area of today’s Normandy.
If the German had known that Normandy was an area of choice for invasion and for beachheads, they would have defended the area better. Then the Allies invation would have faced with difficulties, even failure. On the first day of the battle, the Allies could transport only 8 infantry divisions to Normandy beaches and drop 3 airborne divisions on land, whereas Germany had more than 60 divisions in France.
On 18 October, 1942 Hitler, irked by tiresome sabotage attacks by seemingly silent and invisible forces, issued a “Commando Order” to his officers. The order was in response to the high levels of success commandos had been having behind German lines, and required the immediate execution of all commandos on sight, irrespective of uniform, rank or whether they were trying to surrender.
This understandably reduced the life expectancy of captured allied commandos significantly. Field Marshal Rommel, the Desert Fox, however, was humane and a genuine military man who cared little for the whims of his pint-sized, mass-murderering superior. This turned out to be rather beneficial to a young British officer who had managed to become compromised on the French coast and was captured by Rommel’s men. Born Lanyi Dyuri in 1915 in northern Hungary, George Lane was the son of wealthy landowners. Towards the end of the First World War the region of Hungary where the family resided was relocated to what then was Czechoslovakia, meaning that Lane effectively became a refugee. They moved to Budapest where he was educated, before he moved to England in 1935 to undertake studies at the University of London.
While he was studying in London, the Second World War escalated into a full scale conflict and Lane volunteered for the army. The initial response was mixed: the Grenadier Guards accepted him right away, but the Home Office adopted a different approach – they served him with a deportation notice.
While in the UK, Lane had frequently been a guest of Lady Baillie at her home, Leeds Castle, in Kent. Here he had met Anthony Eden and, more importantly, the government’s chief whip, David Margesson. It took him a year of doing manual labor in the Alien Pioneer Corps, but with the help of his influential friends the deportation order was eventually withdrawn. Lane then began a demanding training course with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), learning skills such as weapons and explosives, parachuting, unarmed combat and small boat handling.
It was for his role in the reconnaissance of German mines that Lane made his name. D-Day was imminent and the RAF was flying missions along the French coast. One particular fighter, carrying a camera, picked up what appeared to be underwater explosions, leading to the theory that the Nazis had developed a new type of beach mine. Lane was picked to lead the mission, a tricky mandate which involved almost two miles of approach work in to the enemy’s camp. His first foray discovered the Nazis’ ploy – Teller mines attached to stakes. These would be submerged when the tide was high and would explode on impact when in contact with any landing craft. However, this was a crude solution to the problem of a water-bound assault as the mines had no waterproofing and had corroded. They had only exploded and been captured on camera when the RAF fighter had fired its rockets and fallen short. They were set off by the rockets, not because they were an advanced type of mine.
Lane’s superiors were thrilled at the news, so thrilled that they didn’t believe him and sent him back the next night, and the night after that, this time with a mine expert. Due to the secretive nature of the mission, he was not wearing a uniform or carrying identification. They found plenty of Teller mines, but nothing else of any interest. While photographing their evidence the sky lit up and the pair were suddenly under fire from two patrols. Lane and his partner, Roy Wooldridge, were trapped in the dunes, having been separated from the rest of the mission. Their colleagues, fearing the German patrols, had returned to their boat, leaving Lane and Wooldridge with a dinghy. Once the firing ceased they ran for the dinghy but were spotted and collected from the water.
The order had already been given and they would be handed over to the secret police and executed. First, though, they were interrogated for days by military officers trying to ascertain the purpose of their mission. Blind-folded, he was taken for a long drive, escorted into a house up a staircase, and when the blindfold was removed he found himself facing Field-Marshal Rommel. He invited Lane to join him for tea where, after an initially apprehensive introduction, the pair relaxed and engaged in a long talk, albeit with Lane speaking with a Welsh accent, just in case. George was given a cup of tea, and then sent to prison in Paris, and deported – not to a concentration camp as might have been the case, but to an officers’ prison in a castle at Spangenberg.
He should have been dead several times over but, as he explained later, he was quite sure Rommel had insisted his life be spared. The prisoners were moved as the Allied forces drew near and Lane made a dash for it, hiding in a tree. He was spotted by a German solider, who thankfully turned out to be a deserter and possibly in more trouble than Lane himself. The German pointed Lane in the direction of a hospital where he gained the confidence of the on-call doctor to avoid the SS searches. When the Allies liberated the hospital, Lane headed for his brother-in-law’s home in Paris, dreaming of a hot bath. On his arrival he received bad news: he could have champagne or vintage wine but sadly there was no hot water. Few things in wartime had almost caused Lane to shed tears but this was the final straw.
As for Roy Wooldridge, he had been sent a telegram ordering him to report to his unit just three days after his wedding in 1944. He was also blindfolded and taken to a chateau where he was ordered up a flight of stairs.
“I opened the door… and there standing behind the desk was Field Marshall Rommel, so I gave him the courtesy of standing to attention. I respected him as a clean fighter, under his command there was no atrocities by the German troops.”
As the interrogation was coming to an end, Rommel asked Lt Wooldridge if there was anything he could do for him. He replied, “I’d like a single ticket back to the UK, a pint of beer, a packet of cigarettes and a decent meal.”
To his astonishment, his wish was granted when he was ushered into Rommel’s mess where all three items were waiting for him, with the exception of the ticket back to the UK.
He later recalled:
“I was taken to the officers’ mess, where a waiter in white dress adorned with a swastika gave me a jug of beer, a packet of cigarettes and a meal. From memory it was meatballs, or faggots, with potatoes and sauerkraut.”
He ate the food, drank the stein of lager and smoked the German cigarettes, but kept the empty packet as a souvenir.
He asked the German soldier who sat next to him: “I am only a British lieutenant, why have a been brought to see General Rommel? He said, “because General Rommel is always interested in meeting people who are doing something a bit unusual.”
He was later taken to Fresnes Prison in Paris and interrogated by the Gestapo.
He said later:
“There’s no doubt my life had been in danger. Every time I was in solitary, I used to argue with myself and say look, nobody knows what’s happened to you and they could take you out and shoot you and nobody will be any the wiser. But then I’d think, surely if they’ve taken you to Rommel they won’t shoot you now.
“When I got to the Prisoner of War camp, a German guard who spoke English said ‘you’re a very lucky man, if you hadn’t been to see Rommel you would have been shot as a saboteur’.”
Lieutenant Wooldridge spent the rest of the war in the camp, before he was freed by Americans in May 1945. The Germans had begun marching his father and other prisoners towards Eastern Europe when they were overrun by the Americans.
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The village was silent in the damp June morning. Its name was La Roche-Guyon and it had sat undisturbed for nearly twelve centuries in a great lazy loop of the Seine roughly midway between Paris and Normandy. the only distinct feature here was a castle, just thrusted in the rock. This was the seat of the Dukes de La Rochefoucauld. It was this castle behind the village that had brought an end to the peace of La Roche-Guyon.
Behind its pastoral front La Roche-Guyon was really a prison; every one of the 543 villagers, in and around the area there were more than three German soldiers. The reason: the castle was used as Rommel’s headquarters and its caverns as barraks for his troups. To Rommel, life in this chateau was a far cry from the dry and barrent North African desert. But he was burdened with more worries, and so perhaps he did not care, or had time, to enjoy the landscape outside that could be seen through the windows.
Garden of Chateau La Roche-Guyon seen from family room
Beyond the cities, particularly between Caen and Cherbourg, lay the hedgerow country: the little fields bordered by great mounds of earth, each topped with thick bushes and saplings, that had been used as natural fortifications by invaders and defenders alike since the days of the Romans. Dotting the countryside were the timbered farm buildings with their thatched or red-tiled roofs, and here and there stood the towns and villages like miniature citadels, nearly all with square-cut Norman churches surrounded by centuries-old gray stone houses. To most of the world their names were unknown – Vierville, Colleville, La Madeleine, Ste.-M`ere-eeglise, Chef-du-Pont, Ste. Marie-du-Mont, Arromanches, Luc. Here, in the sparsely populated countryside, the occupation had a different meaning than in the big cities. Caught up in a kind of pastoral backwash of the war, the Norman peasant had done what he could to adjust to the situation.
At Chateau La Roche Guyon on the River Seine Field Marshal Erwin Rommel bid farewell to his staff. The weather was miserable and it looked as if the Allies under General Eisenhower would be forced to postpone any invasion of France for several weeks. Rommel, who had been constantly at war away from his wife Lu and son Manfred for most of the preceding five years decided to take a few days of leave, after all June 6th was Lu’s birthday and he decided that he would spend it with her. He had even purchased a pair of shoes in Paris to give as a gift. He would go by car; because of Allied air superiority in the West, Hitler had forbidden his senior commanders to travel by plane. Rommel disliked flying anyway; he would make the eight-hour journey home, to Herrlingen, Ulm, in his big black convertible Horch.
His Chief of Staff, General Hans Speidel bid Rommel, his aide de camp and driver farewell as they drove off. Of course it was the correct decision. The weather appeared completely unfavorable to an invasion, however the Germans, deprived on long range weather forecasts for the loss of ships and weather stations in the Atlantic and Greenland did not know that the Allies had discovered that the weather would moderate for about 24 hours beginning the night of the 5th and morning of the 6th. Eisenhower made the decision to invade on the 6th of June. The Germans, continued normal planning and training in anticipation that the long awaited invasion would not occur for two to three weeks. Many other German commanders were either on leave or involved in war games and exercises away from their headquarters.
Rommel was quite confident that he could leave his headquarters at this time, such that he had even set a deadline to the Seventh and Fifteenth Armies for the completion of all anti-invasion obstacle programs:
“Every possible effort must be made to complete obstacles so as to make a low-tide landing possible only at extreme cost to the enemy … work must be pushed forward … completion is to be reported to my headquarters by June 20.”
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In November 1938, Gerd von Rundstedt retired with the rank of Colonel-General (Generaloberst), second only to the rank of Field Marshal. Just short of his 63rd birthday, he was not in good health and missed his family – he was now a grandfather. But his retirement did not last long. In May 1939, Hitler approved Rundstedt’s appointment as commander of Army Group South, to invade Poland.
In March 1942, Hitler appointed von Rundstedt Commander-in-Chief West (Oberbefehlshaber West, or OB West). In fact, this was the second appointment. In October 1940 Hitler had made a similar appointment, after rejecting von Rundstedt’s request for retirement. So von Rundstedt returned to the comfortable headquarters in the Hotel Pavillon Henri IV in Saint-Germain, which he had occupied in 1940–41.
Von Rundstedt authority did not commensurate with his title. Hitler did not give him real authority, seeing him as a dignified figurehead. Although he was commander of the German Army in Western Europe, the military governors in Paris and Brussels were not under his direct command, and he had no control over the Navy and Air Force who reported to their Navy and Air Force Commander in Chiefs, respectively. He also had no control over the SS and Gestapo operations in France; they answered only to Himmler.
Rundstedt had become almost a figurehead of the army and nation. Rundstedt’s dismay over Hitler’s disastrous conduct of the war had turned into a lethargic cynicism. He showed little interest in the theory of panzer tactics and held himself aloof from the fierce debate over the best way to fight the invasion. This was conducted mainly between Rommel and General von Schweppenburg, commander of Panzer West.
Directly under Rundstedt was Erwin Rommel, Field Marshall since 1942. When Rommel was appointed commander of Army Group B, Rundstedt was angered by this decision. He knew from his colleagues that Rommel was notoriously difficult to work with and would mostly be able to ignore Rundstedt’s authority thanks to his patronage by Hitler. In fact, Rommel was the only field commander that had direct access to Hitler.
For Rommel, the first three years of the war were spectacular. He had risen from the obscurity of a mere division command (one among approximately 140) to an army command with the rank of field marshal (one in 16 Army field marshalls in the whole war). His leadership of the 7th Panzer Division during the blitzkrieg in France had contributed considerably to his rapid promotion through the command hierarchy. One recent German account of the invasion of France asserts that Rommel played an even more important role in the breakthrough on the Meuse – which led to the Allied collapse – than Heinz Guderian did.
Thanks to his performance as Commander-in-Chief of the Army Group Afrika, Rommel was among only 27 recipients in the entire war for the second-highest Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.
After the Campaign of France, Erwin Rommel is appointed commander of the German military forces Afrika Korps in North Africa where he develops his military spirit and imagines a large number of strategies and defenses that will be reused by some German general officers throughout the Second World War. On the field of operation, in the Allied and German headquarters, its reputation is great and the military world now knows it as the “Desert Fox”.
Most Western military leaders and analysts regarded Erwin Rommel as the war’s greatest German general. But that was not how most German military leaders felt. Instead, in their memoirs they argued that Rommel was at best an adequate tactician and not a bad leader of small units, that he had been an adequate division commander, but his command of corps, army and army groups was often flawed. Rommel, they asserted, had involved himself too much in the day-to-day details of the tactical fight and not enough in the operational and strategic issues that must concern those at the highest levels of command, and he paid too little attention to matters of intelligence and the enemy’s order of battle. Thus, his German critics allege, as the commander of the Afrika Korps, ‘the Desert Fox’ had won some spectacular victories but willfully ignored problems of logistics. In fact much of his fame was due to the propaganda of Josef Goebbels who exploited Rommel’s military success in Africa.
In the fall of 1943, von Rundstedt, responsible for the defense of all Western Europe, had asked Hitler for reinforcements. Instead, he got the hardheaded, daring and ambitious Rommel as Commander-in-Chief of the Army Group B. Hitler also appointed Rommel Inspector General of the Atlantic Wall and then to report directly back to him. Shortly after his arrival, Rommel formed a team of professionals to accompany him in a whirlwind inspection and assessment of the Atlantic Wall. This was an extensive system of coastal defense and fortifications built by Germany between 1942 and 1944 along the coast of continental Europe and Scandinavia as a defense against an anticipated Allied invasion. The fortifications included colossal coastal guns, batteries, mortars, and artillery, and tens of thousands of German troops were stationed in its defenses. The Atlantic Wall was to defend some 3.200 kilometers long, of course it could not cover such length entirely.
The most impressive – and therefore a special case for propaganda – was the Lindemann Battery in Sangatte, west of Calais. This enormous coastal battery consisted of three massive gun emplacements. The standard shell for these guns weighed 1 ton, and could be fired up to 42 km away. A second type of round weighed 600 kg, and could be launched up to 56 km. This massive battery survived the war until the 1980s when plans were made to start the cross channel project, the Channel. The engineers needed a place to dispose of the millions of tons of sand and channel debris called spoil, the location to dispose of this spoil sadly was chosen at Sangatte at the very location where the Lindemann Battery stood. Today there is a man-made lake and beneath that lake lies tons of channel debris and the 3 massive casemates of the Lindemann Battery. By 1944, these guns had fired some 2,226 shells at Dover.
What Rommel saw appalled him. His inspection quickly revealed that Josef Goebbels’ impregnable fortress existed only in the overactive imagination of the propaganda minister. In only a few places were the massive concrete and steel fortifications along the coast completed: at the principal ports and river mouths and overlooking the straits, roughly from above Le Havre to Holland. In some places work had not even begun.
Rommel made recommendations to Hitler for improvement of the Wall. Hitler approved Rommel’s plan in general, and from then on Von Rundstedt became merely a figurehead. Rommel executed von Rundstedt’s orders only if they agreed with his own ideas. To get his way he would frequently use a single but powerful argument. “The Feuhrer,” Rommel would remark, “gave quite explicit orders to me.” He never said this directly to the dignified Von Rundstedt, but rather to OB West’s chief of staff, Major General Blumentritt.
The most immediate need was to energize the forces along the English Channel and quickly marshal the resources necessary to build an effective system of fortifications along the coastal regions. For the next six months, he spent much of his time and energy pushing everyone within his area of responsibility to build field fortifications and bunkers, lay barbed wire, dig trenches and emplace beach obstacles between the low and high tide limits. By the end of 1943, although the wall was far from finished, over half a million men were working on it and the fortifications had become a menacing reality.
Under Rommel’s direction, the Germans also embarked on a massive program of mine laying. By 30 May 1944, more than 4-6 million mines had been installed – the numbers varied between the reported and the real: many solders installed faked mines to fulfill the assignment, hoping that Rommel would not be too elaborate in his inspection! Reports also mentioned Rommel’s desire for 50-60 million mine for the Wall, and his aim was to have 12 to 15 million mines in place before the Allies landed. Also, at the beginning of June, only three of the six rows of obstacles Rommel wanted had been placed along the Normandy beaches. This lack was due in part to a shortage of material.
Rommel immediately ordered obstacles to be placed in four separate strips along all open beaches; layering the defenses in this fashion insured their effectiveness at all tide levels and conditions. Within five months, half a million obstacles and over four million mines covered the beaches as part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Barbed wire entanglements and mine fields were interspaced with scores of reinforced concrete pillboxes, bunkers, and fortifications. Strategically placed at various points along the coastline, coastal batteries were also constructed and camouflaged as a precaution against naval or air attack. To counter the increasing threat of an airborne assault, rows of stakes, nicknamed “Rommel’s Asparagus,” were placed in the open fields, and all low-lying areas of farmland and tidal areas along the coast and inland waterways were flooded. By the summer of 1944 Normandy was rapidly becoming the fortress that Rommel had envisaged.
In a few short months Rommel had changed the whole picture. On every beach where he considered a landing possible he had ordered his soldiers, working with local conscripted labor battalions, to erect barriers of crude anti-invasion obstacles. These obstacles – jagged triangles of steel, saw-toothed gatelike structures of iron, metal-tipped wooden stakes and concrete cones – were planted just below high- and low-tide water marks. Strapped to them were deadly mines. Where there were not enough mines, shells had been used, their noses pointing ominously out to sea. A touch would cause them to explode instantly.
Rommel paid attention to areas most probably attacked – from Pas-de-Calais to Normanly. His strange inventions (he had designed most of them himself) were both simple and deadly. Their object was to impale and destroy troop-filled landing craft or to obstruct them long enough for shore batteries to zero in. Either way, he reasoned, the enemy soldiers would be decimated long before they reached the beaches. More than half a million of these lethal underwater obstacles now stretched along the coastline.
Still, Rommel, the perfectionist, was not satisfied. In the sands, in bluffs, in gullies and pathways leading off the beaches, he ordered mines laid – all varieties, from the large pancake type, capable of blowing off a tank’s tracks, to the small S mine which when stepped on bounded into the air and exploded level with a man’s midriff. Over five million of these mines now infested the coast. Before the attack came, Rommel hoped to have another six million planted. Eventually he hoped to girdle the invasion coast with sixty million mines.
Rommel was fascinated by mines as a defensive weapon. On one inspection trip with the field marshal, Major General Alfred Gause (rommel’s chief of staff before Major General Hans Speidel) pointed to several acres of wild spring flowers and said, “Isn’t that a wonderful sight?” Rommel nodded and said, “You might make a note, Gause – that area will take about one thousand mines.” And on yet another occasion when they were en route to Paris, Gause suggested that they visit the famous porcelain china works at Sèvres. Gause was surprised when Rommel agreed. But Rommel was not interested in the works of art he was shown. He walked quickly through the display rooms and, turning to Gause, said, “Find out if they can make waterproof casings for my sea mines.”
Overlooking the coastline, back of this jungle of mines and obstacles, Rommel’s troops waited in pillboxes, concrete bunkers and communication trenches, all surrounded by layers of barbed wire. From these positions every piece of artillery that the field marshal had been able to lay hands on looked down on sands and sea, already sighted in to give overlapping fields of fire. Some guns were actually in positions on the seashore itself. These were hidden in concrete emplacements beneath innocent-looking seaside homes, their barrels aimed not toward the sea but directly down the beaches, so as to fire at point-blank range along the waves of assaulting troops.
Rommel took advantage of every new technique or development. Where he was short of guns, he positioned batteries of rocket launchers or multiple mortar throwers. At one place he even had miniature robot tanks called “Goliaths”. These devices, capable of carrying more than half a ton of explosives, could be guided by remote control from the fortifications down onto the beaches and detonated among troops or landing craft.
At some places along the front, webs of piping ran out from concealed kerosene tanks to the grassy approaches leading off the beaches. At the press of a button, advancing troops would be instantly swallowed by flame.
Nor had Rommel forgotten the threat of parachutists or glider-borne infantry. Behind the fortifications low-lying areas had been flooded, and into every open field within seven or eight miles of the coast heavy stakes had been driven and booby-trapped. Trip wires were strung between these posts. When touched, they would immediately set off mines or shells.
Behind the fortifications low-lying areas had been flooded, and into every open field within seven or eight miles of the coast heavy stakes had been driven and booby-trapped. Trip wires were strung between these posts. When touched, they would immediately set off mines or shells.
Thus, Rommel had organized a bloody welcome for the Allied troops. Never in the history of modern warfare had a more powerful or deadly array of defenses been prepared for an invading force. Yet Rommel was not content. He wanted more pillboxes, more beach obstacles, more mines, more guns and troops.
Rommel lacked on crucial thing: intelligence about the Allies intentions. The German Air Force was too overwhelmed such that its reconnaissance could not fly to England – now full of military camps, ships, airplanes, and supplies.
And his soldiers lacked more things. Rommel’s energy produced mixed feelings in many unit commanders. All the time spent on improving the defences had left fewer opportunities for training. They also suffered from a shortage of ammunition for range practice, which may well have contributed to the generally bad marksmanship of many German units.
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An installation of the Atlantic Wall that showed to be formidable during the invasion was the Crisbecq (also known as Saint-Marcouf) Battery. It was the most powerful battery of the German defenses in the area of the landing beaches.
The site was armed three 210mm Skoda navy guns with a range of more than 30 kilometers, two 20mm antiaircraft guns, six 75mm anti aircraft guns and a 150mm tracer cannon. On D-Day only two of the 210mm navy guns were protected by concrete casemates as the third casemate was still under construction. The site also had a command post, personnel and ammunition shelters an infirmary and defensive machine-gun emplacements. The protection of the surrounding area of the battery is achieved by the installation of seventy machine guns.
In June 1944, the garrison of the Crisbecq battery was made up of 320 soldiers under Navy Lieutenant Walter Ohmsen.
This battery represented a real danger for the ships transporting American troops to the Utah Beach landing areas. For that reason it was heavily bombarded by Allied aircraft in the early days of spring 1944, as well as in the night of 5 June. They could destroy only one 210mm gun.
At 05:00, by a rangefinder the Crisbecq Battery detected the Allies flotilla and reported to the German Navy Headquarters in Cherbourg. This was probably the first time the Germans detected the flotilla. The Cherbourg HQ issued an alarm to all units along the Atlantic coast.
Then, German forces aimed their remaining operational cannon towards the Utah Beach seashores.
At dawn on June 6th, the Cherbourg HQ issued an order to the Crisbecq Battery to fire. This was probably the first official order to engage the German Navy on D-Day. The Crisbecq Battery began to exchange fire with American ships: the cruisers Tuscaloosa and Quincy, and the battleship Nevada – the only ship survived at Pearl Harbor that participated on D-Day. At the same time, an Allied aircraft charged with scattering a screen of smoke to protect the warships around the islands of Saint-Marcouf, in front of Crisbecq, is shot down by the anti-aircraft defense. The two German batteries of Crisbecq and Azeville concentrated their shots on the destroyer in perdition – the USS Corry.
At just about H-Hour (06:30), The jarring explosions jolted the ship, causing men to be thrown violently from their positions. With her rudder jammed the Corry traveled around in a circle before all steam was lost. Still under heavy fire, she began sinking rapidly with her keel broken.
According to the official USS Corry website, “the Corry‘s battle report was changed” as all initial input from the commanding officer and crew cited the cause of the sinking to be artillery damage, “the damage in the official report was declared to be a mine, completely contradicting damage assessment input by Corry officers and crew.”
At 06:40 the ship’s commander, George Dewey Hoffman, gave the evacuation order. A moment later, the battery that had hit it was itself put out of action by a salvo from the destroyer Fitch.
Below is the speech by President Clinton in 1994 at the 50th anniversary of D-Day. His speech was given aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington above the spot where the Corry was sunk off Utah Beach.
One of the most stirring tales of D-Day was of the USS Corry. Ripped… while blasting enemy positions on Utah Beach, the Corry began to go under. But one man stayed aboard. He climbed the stern, removed the flag, and swam and scrambled to the main mast. There, he ran up the flag. And as he swam off, the flag opened into the breeze. Thirteen of the Corry’s crew rested where their ship sunk.
The three battleships: USS Arkansas, USS Nevada and USS Texas ships whose function was to provide support to the landing, now received order to switch their target to the Crisbecq Battery. Around 08:00, one of the last two 210mm pieces was put out of action by. The third 210mm gun, being at the rear, was not damaged but could not attack the battleships. Instead, it aimed at Utah Beach, causing severe losses to the Americans here. At 09:00, a direct shot destroyed the remaining gun.
In the morning of 7 June, many American soldiers from the 22nd Infantry Regiment (4th Division) died in a vain attempt to take the German position. Walter Ohmsen, reinforced by artillery observers and soldiers of the 919th Infantry Regiment, fiercely defends his battery and even asks the 105mm guns of Azeville to shoot at his own position when the American assaults reach the heart of its provisions. The Americans retreated. One 210mm gun, repaired in the previous night, fired again, but soon was hit and was silent forever.
In the night of 11 June, Ohmsen finally gets the order to break the contact and leave his position which is encircled by his opponents.
Rommel’s scathing denunciation of the “The Wall” came as no surprise to von Rundstedt at OB West. The old Field Marshall never believed in fixed defenses. He had masterminded the successful outflanking of the Maginot Line in 1940 that had led to the collapse of France. To him, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall was nothing more than an “enormous bluff … more for the German people than for the enemy.” Frederick the Great’s quote “He who defends everything defends nothing” was applicable here. This was why before Rommel came, von Rundstedt did not care about the wall strengthening.
Who looks at the map of English Channel can immediately observe that this Channel is narrowest, 40 km, between Calais in France and Dover in England. So Germany thought how come the Allied consider crossing the Channel to Normandy that would take 150 km? There was one crucial factor: preparations for the invasion were more convenient in the south of England where there were many ports and shopyards. Also, Normandy was close to the Isle of Wight, where sea ports and railways were far from populated areas and so assembly of men and materials there would be convenient.
The above facts were hidden from von Rundsted and Rommerl who had only onland photos shot around Kent by their turncoat spies, but reconnaissance airphotos in the south were non-existent as German Air Force has been reduced to incapacity.
Therefore, the German army was much stronger in Pas-de-Calis, where the Fifteen Army was reinforced with 10-15 divion by the spring of 1944. Here, the Atlantic Wall was close to Nazi progaganda: impregnable. Behind this Wall, most infacry and tank units were stationed north of Seine River, between Le Havre and Dunkerque; the forces in Normandy were much thinner.
According to some sourcers, Hitler agreed with von Rundstedt and Rommel that the Allies would land on Normandy. But according to Shirer, by the end of March Hitler thought that the thrust of the invasion would be in Normandy, and during the next few weeks he ordered considerable reinforcements to the region between the Seine and the Loire. “Watch Normandy!” he kept warning his generals. Was this due to Hitler’s instinct? Beevor thinks Hitler predicted both Pas-de-Calais and Normandy so that in any case he could proved he was correct after all.
Von Rundstedt and Rommel always believed that the Allies would invade Pas-de-Calais. So catastrophic thought! It was from an aristocrat who called Hitler “the former Austrian waif” and from the “Desert Fox”. As a result, the Normandy beaches were not adequately protected. When the Allies landed, they observed that some gun casements were not yet completed.
The two top military leaders agreed on that single point. Otherwise, their ideas differed considerably.
Rommel argued that the Germans must defend against the coming invasion on the beaches. He believed that would be the moment to strike, when the enemy was still weak, without adequate supply lines and struggling to organize in isolated bridgeheads. If the German Army failed to defeat the Allies at the water’s edge, the superiority of Anglo-American air power and logistics would inevitably enable them to build up their forces on the Continent more quickly than the Germans could. The result would be an inevitable defeat.
Rommel’s aide well remembered a day when he had summed up his strategy:
“The war will be won or lost on the beaches. We’ll have only one chance to stop the enemy and that’s while he’s in the water … struggling to get ashore. Reserves will never get up to the point of attack and it’s foolish even to consider them. The Hauptkampflinie [main line of resistance] will be here … everything we have must be on the coast. Believe me, gentlemen, the first twenty-four hours of this invasion will be decisive! It will become for the Allies, as well as for the Germans, the longest day – the longest day.”
But Rommel’s was an overwhelmingly minority viewpoint.
Von Rundstedt’s idea was to hold the great mass of his troops and the panzer forces back from the coast and to counterattack after the Allied troops had landed. German armor would also then be available to execute a mobile defense that would utilize superior Wehrmacht training, tactics and equipment. This idea was supported by the commander of German armored forces in the West, General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg. The Rundstedt-Geyr von Schweppenburg operational solution basically considered that there was nothing they could do to prevent a successful Allied landing.
In retrospect, Rommel had a far better understanding of the military situation than either Rundstedt or Schweppenburg, who failed to give sufficient weight to the power that the Allies’ air forces could bring to their attack. With the German Air Force deeply engaged in opposing the strategic bomber offensive over occupied Europe and in the East, it could do little to prevent swarms of Allied aircraft from destroying any large concentration of panzers the Germans were able to assemble. It would also prevent any sort of mobile defense. The inevitable result would be a huge Allied army advancing across Europe and the Reich’s final defeat.
The argument between Rommel and Rundstedt-Schweppenburg and on the use of the panzer forces was brought to Hitler to consider. Shirer wrote of the final decision: “Due to an idiotic order of Hitler’s not even the Commander in Chief in the West could employ his panzer divisions without the specific permission of the Fuehrer.” This order would cause disastrous effects.
In the end, the Germans instituted neither defensive concept. They did not deploy their armored reserves close to the beaches as Rommel had wished, or in a concentrated reserve as Rundstedt and Schweppenburg had advised. Instead, Hitler placed the panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions under the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – Armed Forces High Command); thus, only he could authorize their movement forward to meet the Allied invasion forces. Because neither Rommel nor Rundstedt was in command of the reserve divisions, the chance of rapid intervention against Allied landings by the available reserves had evaporated even before the first Allied troops waded ashore.
On paper, Von Runstedt had nine panzer divisions and one panzergrenadier division in his Western Theater, with a total of over 1,400 tanks and self-propelled guns. But, the mobilization of the nine divisions had serious constraints:
- Three division was under Rommel’s command but only the 21th Panzer was near the landing area; the 2nd and the 116th were positioned north of Seine River to protect Pas-de-Calais, again due the Allies’ deception trap.
- Four divisions: the 1st, the 12th, the Lehr and the 17th SS Panzergrenadier, the four elite units, could be mobilized only with Hitler’s permission.
- There divisions were under Army Group G in the south, and again, were mobilized only with Hitler’s permission.
While full mobilization of the panzer forces was not permitted, Rommel relied two infantry units with Seine River as the border between them:
The Seventh Army, to protect the Normandy zone, under the command of full General Friesrich Dollmann, its Chief of staff was Major-General Max Pemsel.
The Fifteenth Army, to protect the Pas-de-Calais zone, under the command of Colonel-General Hans von Salmuth, its Chief of staff was Major-General Rudolf Hofmann.
Until 1943, around 60 good divisions had been stationed in France but these were withdrawn and replaced by shattered units from the east. Only 6 divisions were assigned to protect Normandy, from east to west:
- 711th Infantry Division (static), based in Pays de Caux, at the east end of Normandy.
- 716th Infantry Division (static), consisted mainly of those ‘unfit for active duty’ and released prisoners, deployed from Ouistreham at the east end to Arromanches at the west end, to protect Gold Beach, Juno and Sword beaches.
- 352nd Infantry Division, a well-trained unit containing combat veterans, deployed in the Bayeux area, from Coleville-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer to protect Omaha Beach.
- 709th Infantry Division (static) weak like the 716th, deployed on Contentin Peninsula to protect Utah Beach.
- 91st Air Landing Division (Luftlande – air transported), a regular infantry division, trained, and equipped to be transported by air, together with 709th to protect Contentin Peninsula.
- 243rd Infantry Division (static), to protect the western coast of the Cotentin Peninsula.
Thus, four of the six divisions were static, meaning they had no vehicles for mobile deployment or for tactical retreat. Their soldiers just shoot from one position, or run away or surrender.
The beaches themselves were defended largely by what the Germans termed Osttruppen, or Eastern Troops; conscripts from Russia, Turkestan and other eastern European nations with no desire or will to fight for the Germans. Equipped with obsolete or captured equipment, these troops were badly motivated, badly lead and all too willing to surrender to the Allies. The only beach that was not was Omaha, with disastrous consequences for the Americans due to land there.
Interviews with the German High Command after the war indicated that most of the units were of lower caliber than those on the eastern front. The average age of the 709th Division, for example, was 36-10 years older than the average American soldier. The best equipment was also going to the Eastern front.
Except in the Carentan Peninsula, the German had the elite 6th Paratroop Regiment (Fallschirmjager Regiment 6) with nearly 3,500 men. In May 1944 the Regiment was deployed to Normandy and spread out among the towns at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula. As such, too few men were deployed in too many areas.
XX : Division (10,000-20,000 troops)
XXX : Corps (30,000-60,000 troops)
XXXX : Army (100,000 to 200,000 troops)
XXXXX: Army Group (200,000 to 500,000 troops)
France and the Low Countries had long been places where divisions burnt out on the Russian Front were sent to recuperate. The coastline was held by a thin line of garrison troops, from where the fittest and most able had been combed to feed the meat-grinder in the East. However, in accordance with Hitler’s directive, units started to be transferred from other fronts, so that by the end of May 1944 a total of 58 German divisions (out of nearly 300) were positioned in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. They were tasked with defending 3,000 km of coastline.
Overall, Germany had 40,000 to 50,000 troops in Normandy. Apart from inferior fighting quality, German infantry troops were spread since they could determine where was the thrust, while Allies could concentrate their troops in specific directions.
The defense of the Normandy area was assigned to Friedrich Dollman, a full general since 1936 and now commander of the 7th Army. For four years Dollman did little to fortify the defensive positions along the French coast. Instead, he wanted to enjoy his time living in France, frequently attending religious services and visiting cathedrals and museums. At the same time he fell into a deep depression and let himself go, overindulging in wine and cigars. Only when his command came under Army Group B Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s scrutiny in December 1943 did Dollmann begin decisive and feverish construction to improve French coastal fortifications. But it was too late. Dollmann’s chief of staff claimed that efforts to strengthen the defensive section were not supported by the higher leadership. Meanwhile, Dollmann’s deteriorating health was mirrored in his diminishing knowledge of battlefield tactics and the importance of air superiority – all of which made him under-prepared for the imminent Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day.
German Air Force
Rommel had been exasperated by Hitler’s refusal to bring the Air Force and Navy under a centralized command for the defense of France. Encouraged by Marshal of the Reich Göring and Grand Admiral Dönitz, Hitler instinctively preferred to maintain rival organizations which only he could control from the top. Speidel argued that the German Air Force had more than a third of a million ground staff and signals personnel in the west, all part of Göring’s empire building. To make matters worse, Göring refused to put his anti-aircraft corps at the service of the army, which his own aircraft could not defend from Allies air attack.
At the end, German Air Force could do little to resist invasion as it was outnumbered 30:1 on D-Day. The German High Command had decided to transfer the last remaining fighter squadrons in France far out of range of the Normandy beaches. The fliers were aghast. The principal reason for the withdrawal was that the squadrons were needed for the defense of the Reich, which for months had been coming under increasingly heavy round-the-clock Allied bombing attack. Under the circumstances it just did not seem reasonable to the High Command to leave these vital planes on exposed airfields in France where they were being destroyed by Allied fighters and bombers. Hitler had promised his generals that a thousand planes would hit the beaches on the day of invasion. Now that was patently impossible.
Due to Hitler’s decision as mentioned above, the German Navy units in Normandy were not under Rundstedt or Rommel, but they reported to Dönitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy .
In the months leading to D-Day, German Navy’s warships had been hounded to destruction or were bottled up in ports. Its U-boats would have an almost impossible job penetrating the belt of Allies naval and air defenses. German ships in the area on D-Day included 3 torpedo boats, 29 fast attack craft, 36 R boats, and 36 minesweepers and patrol boats.
The storm that had been in full swing in the Channel since the beginning of June 1944 did not allow the German Navy to patrol on the days preceding the launch of Operation Overlord. When the Allies armada was heading towards the Normandy coasts, the German warships were docked.
To compensate – partially only – for the above-mentioned weaknesses, the Germans possessed some weapons that the Allies could not match. Two examples are described below.
88mm flak gun: this was a weapon which the Allies came to demonise for its killing capabilities. It was an anti-aircraft weapon that also functioned as a superbly effective anti-tank weapon. British and American armor had no protection against it. John Fitzgerald of the 101st Airborne Division had the misfortune of coming under fire from this gun. He experienced the familiar mixture of terror and excitement then there was a curious after-shock: “I could not hold a razor steady enough to shave for the next few days.” He added the thought that “there were more soldiers converted to Christianity by this 88 than by Peter and Paul combined”.
MG 42 machine gun: it was the best light machine gun of the war. Its fast rate of fire – up to 1,200 rounds per minute – had a devastating effect on advancing Allied infantry.
On the defensive, MG 42s were shifted back and forth between different positions to confuse the enemy. The Germans called this tactic Stelungswechsel (change of position) and was a vital part of their overall machine gun doctrine. Three firing pits for the gun were usually dug at various places along the front line: one to cover the expected avenue of an enemy advance; another on the left or right flank to support a neighboring squad; and yet another–called the Schweige MG (ambush position)–about 50 yards behind the main German line. These tactics made the Germans, as one American officer during the early stages of the Battle of Normandy, “masters at making one man appear to be a whole squad by moving rapidly from one concealed position to another.”
General Dwight D Eisenhower (1890-1969) was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces for Operation Overlord in late 1943 and headed SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force), which oversaw the entire liberation of Nazi-occupied north-west Europe. Eisenhower was in charge of making all final decisions relating to the invasion and although he is sometimes criticised for focusing too heavily on politics, he was a skilled administrator known for his tact and diplomacy. He tried to ease tensions between members of SHAEF and to place the needs of the alliance above national interests. He also took his responsibility for the lives of his men very seriously.
The complexity of planning and executing Operation Overlord – the largest amphibious assault in world history – was truly staggering. Together, with 16,312 members this headquarters mobilized, assembled, and also coordinated Operation Overlord – the greatest air, naval, and ground assault ever to be planned and executed.
Supreme Commander was no easy task. Apart from Marshall (who had been promised the slot by President Roosevelt), Eisenhower may have been the only American who could have operated the sometimes testy coalition so well. Relations with Montgomery were particularly strained at times, but U.S. dominance in manpower and materiel required an American as theater commander. Though criticism was leveled at Eisenhower for his lack of combat experience and his highly political orientation, the results proved the wisdom of his selection. He was, after all, manager of perhaps the most political coalition of all time. Although he had never seen action himself, he won the respect of front-line commanders. He dealt skillfully with difficult subordinates such as Omar Bradley and Patton, and allies such as Winston Churchill, Bernard Montgomery and Charles de Gaulle. He had fundamental disagreements with Churchill and Montgomery over questions of strategy but these rarely upset his relationships with them.
Though Operation Overlord, the fate of the world hinged on the decision of one man – living in a small trailer, drinking too much coffee, smoking too many cigarettes, sleeping too little. But each of individuals in SHAEF had a specific task to work on – they understood just one piece of the puzzle. Only one man had the job of putting all the pieces together, and that man was Supreme Commander Eisenhower. As Stephen Ambrose put it:
“Someone had to give the bureaucracies direction; someone had to be able to take the information they gathered, make sense out of it, and impose order on it; someone had to make certain that each part meshed into the whole; someone had to decide; someone had to take responsibility and act. It all came down to Eisenhower. He was the funnel through which everything passed. Only his worries were infinite, only he carried the awesome burden of command.”
In the end, Eisenhower showed leadership and accountability. If the Operation Overlord had failed, what could he have done? He could have blamed the weather, which was a source of anxiety for all the soldiers and sailors involved in the invasion. He could have blamed the generals tasked with carrying out the plan. He could have blamed the lack of coordination among the British and American forces. He could have blamed bad intelligence. Instead he blamed himself. Beforehand. And completely. All was shown in his draft announcement in case Overlord failed.
He actually went a step further. He originally wrote “the troops have been withdrawn.” But he scratched out that passive phrasing and re-wrote “I have withdrawn the troops.” Eisenhower’s responsibility for his decisions needed to be clear in every phrase of that short note. Leadership is about accountability.
Interestingly, Eisenhower, while willing to accept the blame in defeat, never sought the laurels he deserved in that victory. He was always quick to credit the soldier for any personal successes he had in war.
A decade after D-Day, he admitted his strength came from the soldiers below him:
“The old tactical textbooks say that the commander always visits his troops to inspire them to fight. I for one soon discovered that one of the reasons for my visiting the front lines was to get inspiration from the young American soldier. I went back to my job ashamed of my own occasional resentments or discouragements, which I probably – at least I hope I concealed them.”
Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur William Tedder (1890-1967) served as the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. He worked closely with RAF Bomber Command and the US Strategic Air Forces in Europe, who often clashed with the other members of SHAEF. He was also the go-between for Eisenhower and SHAEF’s three service commanders: General (later Field Marshal) Bernard Montgomery, Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, and Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay.
This was particularly important in the case of Montgomery, who had a tense relationship with Eisenhower. Tedder was largely responsible for British air strategy and organization during the invasion. He believed that air power should support all aspects of Allied strategy and encouraged its use to target German transportation and communication links, as well as industrial and administrative centres. Tedder was also influential in shaping the bombing campaigns of late 1944 and early 1945, in which he applied his strategy – nicknamed the ‘Tedder Carpet’ – of supporting land forces using concentrated carpet bombing.Deputy Supreme Allied Commander. He loathed Montgomery, but he in turn was deeply disliked by Winston Churchill.
Lieutenant General W. Bedell Smith served as SHAEF chief of staff. He acquired a reputation as Eisenhower’s “hatchet man” for his brusque and demanding manner. However, he was also capable of representing Eisenhower in sensitive missions requiring diplomatic skill
Lieutenant-General Frederick E. Morgan, American (1894-1967) was appointed SHAEP Deputy Chief of Staff. Eisenhower called him “the father of the plan” as Morgan was the principal planner of Operation Overlord. In early 1943, Morgan was appointed Chief of Staff to the then-unnamed Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC) and it was his job to produce a plan for the invasion of Europe. He was also called upon on occasion to deal with Montgomery, with whom his professional relationship as deputy chief of staff was similar to that before the war when Montgomery was a brigade commander.
General Bernard Montgomery, British (1887-1976) was Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Ground Forces for the invasion and made major contributions to the shape of Overlord and the overall campaign in north-west Europe. Despite his popularity with soldiers and civilians, Montgomery was perceived by many military leaders as tactless and arrogant – he was difficult to work with and did not get along with other commanders. He aggressively tried to protect British interests within the international alliance, which caused conflict with the Americans, and he thought Eisenhower was ill-equipped for the task at hand.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, British (1892-1944) was Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Air Forces for Operation Overlord and was responsible for coordinating air support for the invasion. Leigh-Mallory was unable to work well with the Americans and clashed with Tactical Air Force commanders and RAF Bomber Command. Some consider his tactical support of ground troops was very effective, others think it was ineffective and cause too high casualties of civilians. When interviewed by BBC, Antony Beevor says: “The British bombing of Caen beginning on D-Day in particular was stupid, counter-productive and above all very close to a war crime.”
Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, British (1883-1945) was Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Naval Forces for Operation Neptune, the naval component of Overlord. He had previously been responsible for the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in 1940 and was the chief planner of amphibious landings in North Africa and Italy in 1942 and 1943. On D-Day, Ramsay controlled one of the largest fleets in history and the experience and skills gained throughout his 46-year naval career greatly contributed to the invasion’s success.
Lieutenant-General Omar Bradley: for D-Day, he was chosen to command the US First Army, which, alongside the British Second Army, made up General Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.
Major-General Sir Percy Hobart, British (1885-1957) designed a series of modified armored vehicles needed for the cross-Channel invasion. Hobart was an expert in tanks and had strong and outspoken views on armored warfare, which led to his forced retirement by his ignorant and conservative boss early in the war. After his dismissal, he joined the Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) as a corporal, but in 1941 thanks to Churchill’s intervention he was recalled to service. The vehicles he developed became known as “Hobart’s Funnies” and were crucial to the Allies’ success both on D-Day and throughout the Battle of Normandy.
Eisenhower was in charge of making all final decisions relating to the invasion and although he is sometimes criticized for focusing too heavily on politics, he was a skilled administrator known for his tact and diplomacy. He tried to ease tensions between members of SHAEF and to place the needs of the alliance above national interests. He also took his responsibility for the lives of his men very seriously.
Eisenhower demonstrated good judgement on all the key decisions over the Normandy invasion and his diplomatic skills held a fractious coalition together. That alone represented a considerable feat.
Infantries are in Army Group commanded by Montgomery, comprising American First Army commanded by Lieutenant-General Omar Bradley, and British-Canadian Second Army commanded by Dempsey.
First Army (American) comprising some 73,000 men in which 15,500 were airborne soldiers:
+ VII Corps, commanded by Major General J. Lawton Collins in charge of Utah Beach:
- 82nd Airborne Division: Major General Matthew B. Ridgway.
- 101st Airborne Division: Major General Maxwell D. Taylor. Together with 82nd Airborne Division there are 15.500 men. Their mission was to cut the Cotentin Peninsula in half and at the same time secure forward positions so that the troops landing on Utah would be able to get off the beach and move inland.
- 4th Infantry Division and the 359th RCT of the 90th Infantry Division comprising of 23,250 men under Major-General Raymond Barton landing on Utah Beach, around Pouppeville and La Madeleine, Deputy Commander Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. to land
- 90th Infantry Division: Brigadier General Jay W. MacKelvie.
+ V Corps under Major-General Leonard Gerow in charge of Omaha Beach:
- 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions at Pointe du Hoc (The 5th diverted to Omaha)
- 1st Infantry Division: Major-General Clarence R. Huebner, Deputy Commander Brigadier-General Willard G. Wyman to land.
- 29th Infantry Division: Major-General Charles Gerhardt, Deputy Commander Brigadier-General Norman D. Cota to land.
Second Army (Britain and Canada) comprising some 83.000 men in which 7.900 men were British-Canadian airbornes:
+ XXX Corps under under Lieutenant-General Gerard Bucknall:
- 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division and the 8th Armored Brigade, comprising of 25,000 men landing on Gold Beach.
+ I Corps: Lieutenant-General John Crocker:
- 6th Airborne Division under Major-General R.N. Gale was delivered by parachute and glider to the east of the River Orne to protect the left flank. The division contained 7,900 men. Airborne Battalion 1 of Canada also joined. assigned to capture intact the bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne, destroy five bridges over the Dives nearly 10 km to the east, and destroy the Merville Gun Battery overlooking Sword Beach.
- Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, Canadian 2nd Armored Brigade and No.48 (RM) Commando under Major-General Rod Keller, to land on Juno Beach, from Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to Courseulles-sur-Mer, where 21,400 troops would land.
- British 3rd Infantry Division and the 27th Armored Brigade under Major-General Tom Rennie, to land on Sword Beach, from Ouistreham to Lion-sur-Mer.
+ Overall support:
- 79th Armored Division under Major-General Percy Hobart. These were distributed around the Anglo-Canadian beaches.
The overall commander of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force, providing close protection and bombardment at the beaches, was Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay.
- Western Naval Task Force: under Rear-Admiral Alan Kirk, flagship was heavy cruiser USS Augusta, supporting American troops at Utah and Omaha Beaches. 82th and 101th Airborne Divisions to protect the flanks.
- Eastern Naval Task Force: under Rear-Admiral Philip Vian, flagship was cruiser HMS Scylla, supporting British-Canadian troops at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches. 6th Airborne Division to protect the flanks.
Lacking sufficient land-based artillery in the assault divisions on D-Day, the Allies brought powerful naval artillery to Normandy. It was provided by 7 battleships, 23 cruisers, 93 destroyers, 2 monitors, and 2 gunboats. Supporting vessels included 142 escorts or corvettes and 15 sloops.
The plan called for, by the end of D-Day, capture of large towns Carentan, St. Lô, Caen, and Bayeux, and the troops from the landing beaches (except for Utah) would be linked together, forming a front of 10-16 km inland.
In the months leading up to the invasion, the Allies conducted Operation Bodyguard, the overall strategy designed to mislead the Germans as to the date and location of the main Allied landings.
Within Bodyguard was Operation Fortitude to convince the German military command that Allied forces would not land at Normandy but elsewhere! Fortitude was divided into two sub-plans, North and South, with the aim of misleading the German high command as to the location of the invasion.
Fortitude North was to convince German leaders of the Allied plans to invade Norway. The false plans to invade Norway and then push into Germany had to look official and convincing. British General Sir Andrew Thorne was selected for the task of “commanding the invasion into Norway.” The Allies invented a fictitious British 4th Army, code-named Skye, and touted it as the spearhead of the coming invasion of Norway and Scandinavia. By April of 1944, the radio and airwaves over Scotland were humming with communications about the bustling movement of brigades and equipment in preparation for an overseas assault. One easily “intercepted” message planted by the Allies contained an order for 1,800 pairs of crampons and as many snow ski bindings. To respond, Hitler deployed a large force there to hold ports in the area.
Fortitude South was to convince the Germans the cross channel invasion was to be aimed at Pas de Calais and the landing force was bigger than it actually was. Lieutenant General George Patton was pulled from the battlefield in Italy to take charge of the fictitious First US Army Group, supposedly located in Kent and Sussex. This also helped give the impression that the invasion force was larger than it actually was. Several military units, including II Canadian Corps and 2nd Canadian Division, moved into the area to bolster the illusion that a large force was gathering there. Shoulder patches were designed for units of the fictitious First United States Army Group under George Patton.
Genuine radio messages from 21st Army Group were first routed to Kent via landline and then broadcast, to give the Germans the impression that most of the Allied troops were stationed there. Patton was stationed in England until 6 July, thus continuing to deceive the Germans into believing a second attack would take place at Calais.
Among physical deception methods was the creation of thousands of imitation vehicles, aircraft and landing craft, all located so as to convince the Germans that the invasion would occur in the Pas de Calais. Between them, the Royal Engineers and their American counterparts created tanks, trucks, artillery, and aircraft, which were arrayed in marshaling areas near ports on the east coast of England. Rubber decoys could be inflated by compressed air, while others were quickly assembled from wood and canvas. A ‘‘fighter squadron’’ of twenty-four airplanes could be built by a platoon of engineers in two weeks, including imitation hangars and support equipment.
At night the men would play recordings of airplane engines starting up over a loud speaker. Automobile lights were also attached to carts and men would run up and down fake runways to make it appear like planes were taking off and landing. During the daytime the “planes” themselves were nothing but canvas and tubing.
In Scotland and Kent the Allies ran a stream of communications about the fake battle plans, hoping German intelligence officials would be listening.
Fortitude North and South also created other fictional landing sites, creating more confusion to the Germans.
The Allies also sent a man impersonating a four-star officer, Gen. Bernard Montgomery, to Gibraltar, at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, one week before D-Day. The thought was that the Germans would hear about the move and assume that a massive invasion on French beaches would not happen without Montgomery involved.
In England, real tanks were replaced by dummy tanks when they were moved from their holding areas. The inflatable decoys made the Germans think the Allies had more tanks than they actually did and helped mask that final preparations were being made for the invasion.
The Germans thought they had an extensive network of spies operating in the U.K., but in fact all their agents had been captured, and some had become double agents working for the Allies.
One of the most important double agents to work for British intelligence on Fortitude South was a Catalan, Juan Pujol, who had the codename ‘Garbo’. When World War II broke out, three times he approached the British to offer his services, only to be refused each time.
Garcia decided that in order to build a resume as a spy, he should gain the trust of the Nazis and feed them misinformation from within. At that time, the Spanish government was sympathetic to but unallied with the Nazi government, and it was easy to make contact with the German army. He tricked a printer in Portugal into thinking he was a Spanish government official working at the local embassy and obtained a diplomatic visa, which he used to bolster a false identity as a Nazi supporter who regularly traveled to London on diplomatic business. Considering that Garcia spoke no English, this was a particularly bold lie.
The Nazis, however, bought Garcia’s fabrication. They provided him with a crash course in spycraft, gave him £600 (equivalent to around $42,000 US today), and sent him on his way to London to recruit a network of spies. Without any English skills and with a fake passport, Garcia went to Lisbon, Portugal, instead.
By combining publicly available information from newsreels, magazines, and tourists guides, Garcia fabricated seemingly realistic reports of life in London and British activities, ostensibly fabricated by an entirely fictional spy network he had accumulated in London. These reports weren’t perfect, of course: at one point, he described how Glaswegians would do “ anything for a litre of wine,” which is very much not the Scottish beverage of choice.
Despite all of this, his mocked-up reports were widely believed. They were so thoroughly believed that the British, upon intercepting the reports, launched a nationwide manhunt for the spy who had infiltrated their country. At the time, there were supposed to be no Axis spies in Britain, so this was very disconcerting news for the Allies.
The trick that made the British believe in Garcia’s value as a spy occurred when he invented an entirely fictional British armada in Malta that the Axis responded to in full force. Despite the nonexistence of an armada, the Nazis continued to trust Garcia’s information. With his bona fides established, Garcia was finally able to convince the British of his value in 1942. He was secretly brought to London, and was given the code name Garbo – for love to the superstar Greta Garbo.
With his security service handler, he constructed a network of 27 completely fabricated sub-agents and bombarded the German intelligence station in Madrid with information carefully prepared in London. Garcia’s reports consisted of a mixture of misinformation; true but useless information; and true, high-value information that always arrived too late. For instance, he provided accurate information on Allied forces landing in North Africa in a letter postmarked before the landings but delivered afterwards. The Nazis apologized to Garcia for failing to act on his wonderful intelligence in time.
To account for why he failed to provide key information he would ostensibly have access to, Garcia needed to fabricate a variety of different excuses. When he failed to report on a major movement of the British fleet, Garcia informed his Nazi counterparts that his relevant sub-agent had fallen ill and later died. Bolstered by a fictional obituary in British papers, the Nazis were obliged to provide the fictional man’s fictional widow a very factual pension. To support Garcia’s spy network, the Nazis were paying him $340,000 US (close to $6 million today).
Garcia’s greatest moment came to during Operation Overlord. Having built up trust with the Nazis over the course of the war, Operation Overlord represented the opportunity to exploit that trust.
Some 500 radio messages were sent in the months leading up to D-Day. These provided details which together gradually made up the mosaic to convince the Germans that the main attack was to come later in the Pas-de-Calais. In order to maintain his credibility, Garcia told the Nazis to wait for a high-priority message at 3 AM: this was designed to provide the Germans with information on the actual target, Normandy, but just a little too late to prevent the invasion. In a stroke of luck, the Nazis missed the 3 AM appointment and didn’t respond until later that morning. Garcia chastised his handlers for missing the critical first message, saying “I cannot accept excuses or negligence. Were it not for my ideals, I would abandon the work.”
Funny things did not end, as eventually he received an Iron Cross from Hitler and an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) from King George VI.
He duly reported the First U.S. Army Group stationed opposite Pas-de-Calais and convinced the Nazis that Normandy was only a diversion.
His identity as a double agent was never revealed until decades after, which might explain why so little is heard of him. To be safe, he faked his death from malaria in 1949 and moved to Venezuela to run a bookshop.
Allied air power also played an important part in the deception. In the months leading up to D-Day, Allied bombers attacked road and rail networks in an attempt to isolate the invasion area, but additional attacks were made on other parts of northern France to divert German attention away from Normandy.
To keep the Germans guessing, and to prevent them moving the 11th Panzer-Division near Bordeaux north into Normandy, a controlled agent in Britain, known as ‘Bronx’, sent a coded message to her German controller in the Banco Espirito Santo in Lisbon: ‘Envoyez vite cinquante livres. J’ai besoin pour mon dentiste.’ This indicated ‘that a landing would be made in the Bay of Biscay on about the 15th June’. The Luftwaffe, clearly fearful of a landing in Brittany, ordered the immediate destruction of four airfields close to the coast
Bletchley Park, the highly secret complex, check on the success of disinformation. On 2 June, Bletchley reports: ‘Latest evidence suggests enemy appreciates all Allied preparations completed. Expects initial landing Normandy or Brittany followed by main effort in Pas-de-Calais.’ It looked as if the Germans really had swallowed Allies’ deception campaign.
Many of the German radar stations on the French coast were destroyed in preparation for the landings. In addition, on the night before the invasion, a small group of Special Air Service (SAS) operators deployed dummy paratroopers over Le Havre and Isigny. These dummies led the Germans to believe that an additional airborne landing had occurred. On that same night, in Operation Taxable, No. 617 Squadron RAF dropped strips of “window”, metal foil that caused a radar return which was mistakenly interpreted by German radar operators as a naval convoy near Le Havre. The illusion was bolstered by a group of small vessels towing barrage balloons. A similar deception was undertaken near Boulogne-sur-Mer in the Pas de Calais area by No. 218 Squadron RAF in Operation Glimmer.
So effective was the Allied deception effort that even after the landings had occurred, many senior German leaders, Hitler included, continued to believe the Normandy landings were a diversion and that the main blow would come at the Pas de Calais. Rommel was no more perceptive than his colleagues in this regard, although he did put considerably greater effort into preparing defenses in the areas outside Pas de Calais than had been the case before his arrival in command of Army Group B.
The Allies caused widespread confusion among German forces when rubber dummies were dropped throughout Normandy. Generically named ‘‘Rupert,’’ the imitation paratroopers added to the uncertainty already established the night of 5–6 June, when genuine airborne forces were landed far from their intended drop zones. Consequently, the defenders had no clear picture of what the opening moves of Overlord would be.
The deception worked until years later! Eisenhower later recalled:
“To show you how we succeeded, General Speidel of the German Army who was the chief of staff to Rommel, in his book five years later, he said, ‘We wonder why the Allies didn’t use very quickly their 75 divisions.’ We didn’t have 75 divisions. We had about 35 in all England…”
The Germans nearly broke Allies secret. Their intelligence service, the Abwehr, had already discovered the meaning of the code word “Overlord.” One of their agents, an Albanian named Diello but better known to the Abwehr as “Cicero,” had sent Berlin the information in January 1944. At first Cicero had identified the plan as “Overlock,” but later he had corrected it. And Berlin believed Cicero – he worked as a valet in the British embassy in Turkey. But Cicero was unable to discover the big Overlord secret: the time and place of D Day itself. So scrupulously guarded was this information that up to the end of April only a few hundred Allied officers knew it. Those few hundred were in the “BIGOT list”.
BIGOT was a security classification at the highest level of security – above Top Secret. BIGOT stood for the British Invasion of German Occupied Territory and was chosen by Churchill before America came into the War and it remained the security classification even when Eisenhower took over the planning role. Everyone with knowledge of the D-Day planning work were security cleared and were listed on what was known as the “BIGOT list”. Those on the BIGOT list were banned from travelling outside the UK in case they were captured and coerced into talking. There was one exception to this – Churchill himself!
Those on the BIGOT list had knowledge of one of history’s biggest secrets and the fact that Overlord was successfully carried out is testimony to the work of the planning team and the fact that the secret was kept.
Formidable coils of concertina wire sealed the Allies soldiers inside, where stern Counter Intelligence Corps men censored letters–which would not be mailed until after D-Day in any case–and ensured no conversations would take place with inquisitive locals approaching the wire.
Troops were briefed using maps that were correct in every detail except for the place names, and most were not told their actual destination until they were already at sea. A news blackout in Britain increased the effectiveness of the deception operations. Travel to and from the Republic of Ireland was banned. Other measures are restrictions that made travel between Britain and neutral countries, particularly Ireland, difficult if not impossible; prohibitions on neutral diplomats’ movements and correspondence; and a travel ban starting on April 1, 1944, by British civilians to England’s southern and southeastern coastline.
In spite of strict security, some leaks occurred. In April 1944, U.S. Major General Henry Miller, chief supply officer of the US 9th Air Force, during a party at Claridge’s Hotel in London complained to guests of the supply problems he was having but that after the invasion, which he told them would be before 15 June, supply would be easier. After being told, Eisenhower made quick action to Miller who was his classmate at West Point. He reduced Miller to lieutenant colonel and sent him back to the U.S. Miller protested, but Eisenhower did not change his mind. “I get so angry,” Ike cabled Marshall about this and other security lapses, “that I could cheerfully shoot the offender myself.”
One of the highly suspicious signs of security break was related to crossword solutions on a newspaper!
In the town of Leatherhead, Surrey, the 54-year-old headmaster of the Strand School was walking his dog. Leonard Sidney Dawe was a quiet, unassuming sort of man and outside of a small circle of friends he was unknown. Dawe would have been astonished to know that ever since May 2 he had been the subject of a most discreet inquiry by a certain department in Scotland Yard charged with counterespionage, MI5. For over a month his crosswords had thrown one scare after another into many sections of the Allied High Command.
When he returned home he found two men waiting for him. Dawe, like everybody else, had heard of MI5, but what could they possibly want with him?
“Mr. Dawe,” said one of the men as the questioning began, “during the last month a number of highly confidential code words concerning a certain Allied operation have appeared in the Telegraph crossword puzzles. Can you tell us what prompted you to use them – or where you got them?”
It turned out that D-Day codewords were used as Daily Telegraph crossword solutions, the dates and meanings as follows:
- 02 May 1944: Utah, a D-Day beach, this would have been treated as a coincidence.
- 22 May 1944: Omaha, another D-Day beach, another coincidence?
- 27 May 1944: Overlord, the whole D-Day operation.
- 30 May 1944: Mulberry, an artficial harbour.
- 01 June 1944: Neptune, the naval phase.
Dawe did not know what Allied operation they were talking about, so he was not unduly startled or even indignant at these questions. He could not explain, he told them, just how or why he had chosen that particular word. It was quite a common word in history books, he pointed out. “But how,” he protested, “can I tell what is being used as a code word and what isn’t?”
The two MI5 men were extremely courteous: They agreed that it was difficult. But wasn’t it strange that all these code words should appear within the same month?
Dawe had no explanation for the use of these words. For all he knew, he said, the crosswords mentioned on the list could have been completed six months before. Was there any explanation? Dawe could suggest only one: fantastic coincidence.
Tom Weston, then head boy, still remembers the day MI5 arrived. He recalls:
“An official-looking car turned up. I was interested, so I kept watching. After a time, I saw Mr Dawe go off in the car with whoever it was.”
When the boys heard of the scandal, they were appalled. “We were astonished at the thought that Dawe was a traitor. He was a member of the local golf club. It was a complete mystery to most of us.”
Dawe did little to dispel the mystery when he returned to the school a few days later. He resumed setting crosswords, and said nothing at all about the incident for more than a decade.
It was told publicly that the leakage of codewords was coincidence. Dawe kept his interrogation secret until he described it in a BBC interview in 1958.
It is said that there’s no smoke without fire. The codewords were no coincidence. US and Canadian soldiers preparing for D-Day were camped close to the Strand School, and the boys would regularly mix with them. It was during one of these conversations that one boy named Ronald French heard the codewords. Security was remarkably lax, and he had struck up close friendships with the soldiers, regularly taking the colonel’s dog for a walk and even, on one occasion, driving a tank. French admitted to inserting the clues himself. Dawe, it emerged, would invite his pupils to fill in his blank crosswords with any words that came to mind. He would later devise clues to match the boys’ solutions.
Bryan Belfon was another pupil who knew. He recalls:
“Soon after D-Day, Dawe sent for me and asked me where I had got the words from. I told him and he asked to see my notebooks. He was horrified and said that the books must be burnt at once.
“He then gave me a stern lecture about national security and made me swear that I would tell no one about the matter. I have kept to that oath until now.”
Particularly Major Terence Otway, whose unit was tasked with taking the vital Merville Battery, decided to test security among his men. He sent 30 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force to local pubs to see if any of his troops would divulge the top secret plan – none did.
Now a fear arose that the absence from Fleet Street of British journalists called forward to accompany the invasion force might be noticed.
Security was so tight that even on the second mission of D-Day the crew of a Halifax bomber was still not informed that D-Day was officially on; they were merely told: “If you have to jettison any bombs please don’t do it in the Channel, as there will probably a few extra ships around!”
The Allies undertook over 3,200 photo-reconnaissance sorties from April 1944 until the start of the invasion. Photos of the coastline were taken at extremely low altitude to show the invaders the terrain, obstacles on the beach, and defensive structures such as bunkers and gun emplacements. To avoid alerting the Germans as to the location of the invasion, this work had to be undertaken over the entire European coastline. Inland terrain, bridges, troop emplacements, and buildings were also photographed, in many cases from several angles, to give the Allies as much information as possible. Members of Combined Operations Pilotage Parties clandestinely prepared detailed harbour maps, including depth soundings.
An appeal for holiday pictures and postcards of Europe announced on the BBC produced over ten million items, some of which proved useful. Information collected by the French resistance helped provide details on Axis troop movements and on construction techniques used by the Germans for bunkers and other defensive installations.
Many German radio messages were encoded using the Enigma machine and other enciphering techniques and the codes were changed frequently. A team of code breakers stationed at Bletchley Park worked to break codes as quickly as possible to provide advance information on German plans and troop movements. British military intelligence code-named this information Ultra intelligence as it could only be provided to the top level of commanders. The Enigma code used by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West (Supreme Commander West; OB West), commander of the Western Front, was broken by the end of March. German intelligence changed the Enigma codes right after the Allied landings of 6 June but by 17 June the Allies were again consistently able to read them.
One of the men assigned to investigate the landing beaches since 1943 was British Major Logan Scott-Bowden. On New Year’s Eve 1943, a full five months before D-Day, Scott-Bowden and Sgt. Bruce Ogden-Smith swam ashore near the village of Luc-sur-Mer in France’s German-held Normandy region.
In the distance, they could hear Germans singing as they celebrated the new year. A fierce wind that began blowing as they crossed the English Channel carried them a mile from their target landing site, a beach code-named “Sword.” Armed with daggers and Colt .45 pistols, the two men began walking in the darkness, careful to stay below the tide line – where their footsteps would be erased by morning.
“We had to creep past the searchlights to make our way to the correct beach, dropping down on our stomachs every few minutes when the search light came back round,” Scott-Bowden later said.
Scott-Bowden and Ogden-Smith were members of a secret British unit. They were there to answer a question.
By late 1943, planning for the Allied invasion of Europe narrowed the invasion site to the Normandy. But old Roman maps of the area, found among the information supplied by the Resistance, indicated the Romans gathered peat from the area, which worried planners. If there were peat bogs under a thin layer of sand at the proposed invasion sites, the beaches might not be able to support the heavy equipment – tanks, trucks, bulldozers, and the like – that would be part of the landing.
Then a 24-year-old major in the Royal Engineers, Ogden-Smith boarded a motor gunboat at Gosport with his companion-in-arms Sergeant Bruce Ogden-Smith. Before they left, they were offered cyanide tablets to be used if they were captured and faced torture.
Mr Scott-Bowden says:
“Our mission was to reconnoitre the Gold Beach area around Luc-sur-Mer. A few miles from our target, we changed into our bulky rubber swimsuits, strapped on heavy bandoliers, backpacks and weapons, and transferred to a small inshore craft which took us to within a quarter-mile of the beach.”
They then swam ashore, because the D-Day planners needed to know what lay beneath the sandy beaches. Aerial photographs and knowledge of local conditions indicated that beneath the top layer were pockets of peat bog, which could spell real trouble for tanks and other heavy armoured vehicles. These were the remains of ancient forests, submerged thousands of years ago, and were the focus for the mission. The pair took core samples along the beach with metal augers, storing them in special containers for analysis back in the UK. Where they didn’t have enough space, they used condoms to store soil samples safely.
But they stopped suddenly when they spotted German guard patrolling the dark beach. The two men flattened themselves in the sand as the guard crossed the beach to within 7 meters of them.
“We both had our pistols in our hands,” Scott-Bowden said, “and I really thought I was going to have to shoot him.”
After a few minutes, however, the guard moved on without spotting the two men who quickly resumed work and finished their sample collecting.
Weighted down with the samples and their other equipment, they returned to the surf and tried to swim out from the shore to their pickup point – only to be thrown back by the crashing waves kicked up by the wind. A second attempt ended the same way. The two men rested in shallow water for a few minutes, studying the incoming waves and timing their occurrence before being able to escape the surf and swim into calmer water.
At this point, Scott-Bowden could hear his partner yelling. Fearing Ogden-Smith was in danger – and would alert the Germans to their presence – Scott-Bowden headed in his direction only to realize Ogden-Smith was simply yelling, “Happy New Year.”
“I swore at him, “ Scott-Bowden said, “then wished him a Happy New Year, too.”
They made it.
It was later reported that they left one of the “pogo stick” devices on the beach, but a French civilian found it and hid it for the duration of the war.
When Scott-Bowden was summoned to speak to a dozen admirals and generals in London, he had a simple message for Bradley: “Sir, I hope you don’t mind me saying it, but this beach [Omaha] is a very formidable proposition indeed and there are bound to be tremendous casualties.” Bradley replied, “I know, my boy, I know” – but Omaha was the only usable beach between Utah and Gold.
When the Americans heard of the mission they asked them to survey their own landing sites.
Mr Scott-Bowden says:
“This time we boarded an X20 midget submarine at Gosport, and were towed by navy trawler to within a few miles of the French coast. We then spent four days on the seabed, and three nights surveying the beaches near Omaha Beach.
“When we first approached the target area, we discovered our way was partially blocked by a French fishing fleet, complete with enemy guards. As we threaded our way through their nets, we raised the periscope and I found myself staring into the face of a German soldier perched close by, on the stern of the last fishing boat, puffing away on a pipe!”
By day they surveyed the defenses through the periscope, and each night Scott-Bowden and Ogden-Smith donned cumbersome rubber swimming suits and swam to the shore – all while dodging German searchlights. Each man was weighed down with a heavy kit of shingle bag, brandy flask, lead weight and underwater writing pad, along with a service revolver, knife, trowel, torch and a dozen sample tubes. The samples were even collected from the beaches under the noses of the sentries. The team of five had been in the tiny submarine for five days, and were welcomed as heroes when they arrived back.
At the end of January 1944, Scott-Bowden was called to SHAEF to report to Admiral Ramsay, General Bradley, General Smith, four other generals and five other admirals. Read Admiral George Creasy, Ramsey’s chief of staff, said: “Now, describe your reconnaissance.”
Scott-Bowden looked at the map. It was too general. “Well, I’m afraid, sir, it’s going to be very difficult to give much detail from this.”
“Oh,” Creasy replied, “we’ve got another map down the other end, it might be better.” So the major followed him across the large room, looked at the map hanging there, and indicate it would do. Creasy alled out, “Come on, chaps, bring your chairs down here.” As the generals and admirals picked up their chairs and came over, the 23-year old Scott-Bowden thought, “Oh dear, oh dear, I’m getting off to a bad start!”
“I’d never been confronted with such a galaxy before, so I stumbled through my account. Then they started shooting questions for getting on to an hour. The Navy were not so interested in what I said, but General Bradley was. He wanted me to say whether Sherman tanks could go up this track or that track. I though of the two-wheel carts and said it must be possible. And so on.”
When the brass ran out of questions, Scott-Bowden offered an opinion:
“If you don’t mind my saying so, sir, I think that your beach with these tremendous emplacements with guns defilading the beaches from here and there and all over, it’s going to be a very tough proposition indeed.”
Bradley patted Scott-Bowden on the shoulder and said, “Yes, I know, my boy, I know.”
Allied D-Day training and preparing was a vast endeavor, stretching from North America to southern England. Firing ranges were at a premium, as space was needed for practice-firing weapons from rifles to naval gunnery and antiaircraft guns. However, the emphasis was upon amphibious operations and landing, and some facilities had been in use long before June 1944.
Perhaps the most notable facility used by the British armed forces was the Combined Operations Training Center at Inverary, on the west coast of Scotland. It was established in 1940, originally to prepare for commando operations, but expanded when British amphibious doctrine shifted from large-scale raids to actual invasion.
The U.S. Army set up at least eight training centers prior to D-Day, most notably at Woolacombe Beach, Devonshire (See Assault Training Center). Because of its topographical similarity to Normandy, the Slapton Sands region of the south coast was selected for amphibious rehearsals, leading to the disastrous Operation Tiger in April.
Training may cause mishaps that all involved had to accepted.
As expected, the first large training exercises – on the south Devon coast at Slapton Sands – revealed communications problems, lack of mission comprehension, poor crisis management abilities and a general sense of chaos.
While successive and more complex manoeuvres over the next few months addressed many of these problems, the intensity of training, the lack of experience among many personnel and the often exceptionally dangerous nature of the equipment developed to support the landings led to a high number of deaths and injuries among the troops.
As part of the build-up to D-Day, in 1943 some 3,000 local residents in the areas around Slapton, Strete, Torcross, Blackawton and East Allington in South Devon were evacuated – without explanation – from their homes in order for the American military to carry out exercises. The area around Slapton Sands was selected for these exercises because it bore a great resemblance to parts of the French coast, the location chosen for largest invasion by sea of the war – the Normandy landings.
To make the exercise as realistic as possible, Eisenhower ordered that live ammunition was to be used. He wanted it to smell, look and feel like a real battle. He wanted the men to experience seasickness, wet clothes, and the pressure that comes with performing under fire.
On 22nd April 1944 the exercise began under the command of Rear Admiral Don Pardee Moon. He would also command Force U to convey the U.S. Army’s VII Corps across the Channel to Utah Beach. Now eight landing craft loaded with soldiers, tanks and equipment were deployed along the coast. Two ships had been assigned to protect the convoy, but only one was present. Because of a typographical error, the British and Americans were on different radio frequencies and could not properly coordinate. As a result, they were in the dark about the danger lurking below the depths.
BAa group of German E-Boats, alerted by heavy radio traffic in Lyme Bay, intercepted the 5-km long convoy of vessels. The heavily-laden, slow-moving tank landing ships were easy targets for the torpedo boats which first attacked the unprotected rear of the convoy. Two landing ships were sunk and a third badly damaged. Lack of training on the use of life vests, heavy packs and the cold water contributed to the disaster: many men drowned or died of hypothermia before they could be rescued.
Despite this, the rest of the exercise continued at Slapton beach, but with disastrous results. The practice assault included a live-firing exercise and many more soldiers were tragically killed by ‘friendly fire’ from the supporting naval bombardment.
The official death toll of Exercise Tiger was 749 men, which is more than perished at the hands of the real enemy during the Utah beach landings. It was the worst loss of life since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
Because of fears of its impact on morale, US top brass ordered a complete information blackout. The bodies of the dead were buried in complete secrecy. Any survivor who revealed the truth about what happened would be threatened with a court-martial. The terrible loss of life during the exercise was not revealed until long after the war.
There were some lessons gained from the grim episode – albeit ones that would seem like common sense now. Radio frequencies were standardized. Better life jacket training was also put in place for soldiers, and guidance was provided for small craft to pick up survivors who were floating in the water on D-Day.
Thanks to the training at Slapton, fewer soldiers died during the actual landing on Utah Beach than during Exercise Tiger, and so the training in Devon was not in vain.
On August 5, 1944, Rear Adminal Don Moon was found dead due to suicide aboard his flagship Bayfield in Naples harbor. The official cause of the death was given as combat fatigue.
Assembly and Logistics
The buildup to D-Day was undertaken by Operation Bolero, a logistical effort of unprecedented magnitude. Sailing on now-secure sea routes, the U.S. Navy and merchant marine took 1,200,000 troops to Britain, where hundreds of camps and bases were established and supplied with everything from chewing gum to bombers. Britain’s existing infrastructure was inadequate to support the massive effort, so a thousand locomotives and twenty thousand freight cars were shipped from the United States, plus material for 270 km of additional rail lines. Transatlantic shipments increased to the point that some 1,900,000 tons of supplies reached Britain in May 1944 alone, showing the scale of D-Day logistics.
The manpower required to meet the needs for D-Day logistics was enormous. Less than one-fourth of the Allied troops in France were in combat units, and only about 20 percent served as infantrymen. A four- or five-to-one “tail to tooth” ratio was not unusual in other theaters of war, either. Over three million soldiers, sailors, and airmen were training to play their part in the invasion of Europe. Those that entered the top security transit camps were effectively cut off from the outside world. Headquarters staff officers carefully coordinated and recorded the movement of every unit to ensure that the planned movement and embarkation of the fighting troops and the transfer of their vital supplies would run with clockwork precision.
In command of the U.S. Army’s Service of Supply was Lt. Gen. John C. H. Lee, an engineer officer of long experience. In the two years between 1942 and 1944, Eisenhower said that Lee turned the United Kingdom into ‘‘one gigantic air base, workshop, storage depot, and mobilization camp.’’
There were so many Americans in the small towns and villages that the British who lived in them were often hopelessly outnumbered. Their movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, dance halls and favorite pubs were suddenly swamped by a flood of troops from dozens of countries and speaking several languages.
In addition to the men who took part in that invasion, many women – including Women Airforce Service Pilots – also risked their lives on June 6, 1944. Women in uniform took office and clerical jobs in the armed forces in order to free men to fight. They also drove trucks, repaired airplanes, worked as laboratory technicians, rigged parachutes, served as radio operators, analyzed photographs, flew military aircraft across the country, test-flew newly repaired planes, and even trained anti-aircraft artillery gunners by acting as flying targets. Some women served near the front lines in the Army Nurse Corps.
The D-Day staging areas (or “marshalling areas”) were known as “sausage camps” because they were indicated on some maps by sausage-shaped blobs. They were often situated in wooded areas that offered some concealment from aerial surveillance as hundreds of thousands of men and tons of materiél were pouring into Southern England 24 hours a day in advance of the Channel crossing. These wooded areas sometimes had temporary hutments erected in them, as well as quickly laid tarmac road systems to carry vehicular traffic and provide a handy conduit for inter-camp telephone cables. Most just had pyramidal tents.
The sausages were apparently the brain-child of a Colonel Wyman. The key aspects of his “sausage plan” were as follows:
- the assembly areas were to be built around secondary paved roads
- the actual areas were to be as wooded as possible to prevent detection of the troop concentrations from the air
- the roads were to be blocked off to all civilian traffic
- the roads were to be used as hard standings to load and unload the men and supplies
- tents were to be the main billets and were to be located along the edge of the roads to expedite loading and unloading.
Once in a sausage, the routine was pretty much the same everywhere. All vehicles were equipped with the water, gasoline, rations, and other supplies that would be necessary upon landing. Vehicles were also water-proofed and equipped with snorkel tubes that extended well over the tops of the vehicles. All motor and drive-train vents were sealed with this water-proofing material as well as the entire electrical ignition systems. The water-proofing was needed in the event that disembarkation would be directly into the water.
The Allies were also concerned that the Germans would meet the opening of the Second Front with a chemical response. Consequently, before embarkation the U.S. Army re-issued every man with a new wool uniform, which had been heavily impregnated with chemicals. This thick anti-gas paste was designed to stop gas penetrating the clothing, but had the side effect of making the clothes foul smelling and unpleasantly greasy and stiff to the touch. Over the top of his wool pants and shirt, the GI wore a similarly treated M41 field jacket. No GI who landed at Normandy in June 1944 will ever forget these stiff, smelly outfits. Each man also was given an inflatable life belt to be worn under the armpits that could be inflated with a CO2 cartridge. If the cartridge failed they could be inflated by mouth through two tubes on the front of the belt. French invasion money was distributed along with a French phrase book. Briefings were held on what to expect on the beaches. Security was tight and mail pickup and delivery was suspended. Some men likened the sausages to giant livestock pens, “the kind they kept cows in before sending them off to the slaughter.”
Yet if the troops felt confined and resented the order against warming fires, conditions were tolerable. They ate better than almost anyone in the United Kingdom; steaks, eggs, pies, even ice cream were abundant. There were also movie theaters with free pop-corn and latest Holywood movies. There were also libraries, and the soldiers can borrow books to learn French or to know about France.
By the end of May 1944 the roads around these areas were crammed with long columns of military vehicles of all shapes and sizes. The atmosphere was strange, say the British civilians who lived in close proximity to the sausages. The troops’ manner had changed; there was no usual banter between the local children and the soldiers. In previous months the military had developed a good rapport with the local people, especially the children, as many of the soldiers were not much older. By May 29/30, there was generally not a soldier or an army vehicle to be seen. Suddenly there were silentempty streets and green empty spaces after they had gone. Everyone could guess why they had departed but where to was the big mystery.
Almost overnight, cities of Nissen huts and tents sprang up in the coastal regions as troops began to pour into the embarkation areas. Men slept in bunks stacked three and four deep. Showers and latrines were usually several fields away and the men had to queue up to use them. Chow lines were sometimes a quarter of a mile long. There were so many troops that it took some 54,000 men, 4,500 of them newly trained cooks, just to service American installations.
Masses were conducted, more often as required after the briefings.
The French Resistance
The French Resistance first emerged following the fall of France in 1940. With the nation’s armed forces shattered, some French people fled to Britain to remain free and continue the war. Most others bowed, with varying degrees of willingness, to the occupiers and the collaborating Vichy regime. But a few took another path, forming cells of spies and guerrillas who kept the hope of a free France alive. They provided intelligence to the Allies, sabotaged German facilities, and smuggled downed airmen and escaped POWs to safety.
The risks were incredibly high, and many Resistance members met horrible deaths at the hands of the Nazi regime. But their numbers kept growing, and by June of 1944, 100,000 Resistance members were waiting to rise up.
The French Resistance played a significant role by providing military intelligence on the German defenses known as the Atlantic Wall and on Wehrmacht deployments and orders of battle. The Resistance also planned, coordinated, and executed acts of sabotage on the electrical power grid, transport facilities, and telecommunications networks.
The Resistance received support from elsewhere in the Allied camp. Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), America’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and the exiled Free French forces under General de Gaulle had all made efforts to strengthen the volunteer force. They had forged connections with existing Resistance cells, fostered the growth of new ones, and provided them with supplies.
Perhaps the most important support the Allies gave came in the form of radio sets. These allowed the Resistance to more effectively coordinate with the rest of the Allies and with each other. Central to this was Radio London, a propaganda station the Allies used to keep hope alive in Europe. By transmitting pre-arranged code phrases in the personal messages part of its broadcasts, Radio London let Resistance members know about specific events, such as supply drops.
Safe houses were established and routes formed in order to help return stranded RAF personnel and escapees from Prisoner of War camps safely back to England. Vital communication links were targeted to disrupt the enemy’s ability to move reinforcements quickly to combat invasion. BBC messages were coded and sent out at pre-agreed times, each coded transmission being directed towards a different resistance cell. Every effort was made by the Allies to protect resistance units, to keep them intact and free from reprisal, so they would be ready for the final effort on the eve of D-Day.
A fine example of the combined efforts of the SOE and French Resistance was Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, Australian by birth. In 1939, as war was declared, Nancy returned to France where she married a handsome wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca.
By 1940 Nancy had joined the French Resistance in her locality and acted as a courier, carrying messages between the ‘underground’ resistance groups. Nancy used her elevated position in French Society to travel more freely than most and was instrumental in helping more than a thousand escaped POWs and RAF personnel out of France. Highly spirited and confident, she uplifted morale at a time when all news was bad.
In an age when women were not expected to join combat she is famously quoted as saying:
“I hate wars and violence, but if they come I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”
The German Gestapo became increasingly aware of Nancy’s activities and codenamed her ‘the white mouse’, listing her as number one on their wanted list and offering a staggering reward of five million francs to anyone who would provide information leading to her capture. Her husband was captured, tortured and shot dead.
Nancy Wake escaped to England where she joined the French Section of the SOE. In 1944, Nancy parachuted into France to help preparations for the D-Day landings and was put in charge of 7,000 Maquis troops engaged in sabotage.
Guillaume Mercader, the intelligence chief for the Normandy coastal sector between Vierville and Port-en-Bessin (roughly the Omaha Beach area), was the former Normandy cycling champion and he had represented the province several times in the famed Tour De France race. He joined the Legionnaires then went home in 1940 and opened a bicycle shop. He used his local celebrity to support his other role as a member of the French resistance movement. Having won the trust of the local Gestapo he persuaded them to use the out of bounds coastal road for his training rides, all the while noting the position of every pillbox, bunker and machine-gun position. The author Giles Milton has noted that “Mercader was the only spy in history to gather intelligence from the saddle of a La Perle racing bicycle, dressed in lightweight shorts and a skintight jersey.”
Failures existed. This was the case of sector chief Jean Marion, for example. He relayed to London just prior to D-Day that the massive cannons slated for the Pointe du Hoc had yet to be emplaced. He attempted to inform London by the standard means of a homing pigeon. However, this particular pigeon was one of those shot down. Under other circumstances, the Allies might have learned of the movement of the battery, bombed the exposed guns far away, and cancelled the hazardous Ranger mission.
The Americans and British couldn’t afford to entirely trust the Resistance or even the Free French. Therefore, they kept details of the plans for D-Day from these critical allies until the last minute. In the lead-up to D-Day, signals told the Resistance that something was coming. They were encouraged to launch attacks on specific types of targets to prepare the way. At the start of June, a signal told them that the invasion was imminent, but when and where remained a closely guarded secret.
Science and Technology
The development of penicillin was undoubtedly one of the greatest medical advances of the 20th Century. It was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. In 1943, the required clinical trials were performed and penicillin was shown to be the most effective antibacterial agent to date. The increasingly obvious value of penicillin in the war effort led the War Production Board (WPB) to take responsibility for increased production of the drug later that year. Penicillin production was quickly scaled up and available in quantity to treat Allied soldiers wounded on D-Day.
Marie Page, Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps:
“We were all well trained in the use of penicillin; it was so new. Battle injuries were so severe, sometimes we were just pouring the penicillin into open wounds.”
Vera Hay, Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps:
“The penicillin we used was in its granular form, looking like brown Demerara sugar. It was necessary to dissolve it in sterile water so it could be injected every two hours to counter bacterial infection. There were plenty of really serious injuries and amputations so we were using huge quantities. The casualty clearing tent were I worked was really quite a size. Stretchers would typically be brought in 25 at a time, so we had two sections of 25 on each side, making a total of 100 men. There was constant movement of stretcher cases; newly injured coming in, and treated cases being moved down to the beach head for the journey back to England. With that quantity of soldiers to treat, we just worked until we dropped. People ask how we kept going, but we just did. There was a critical job to do.”
There is no doubt that thousands of Allied lives were saved during Operation Overlord and the Normandy Campaign which followed as a result of this super drug. This new antibiotic was used extensively for military patients who had undergone amputation and other major operations, or had extensive wounds. Queen Alexandra nurses and medical officers were estimated to have saved up to 15% of lives with penicillin.
The Allies developed new technologies to help ensure the success of Overlord. Some outstanding features are described below.
The tanks were named after the Commander of the 79th Armoured Division, Major-General Sir Percy Hobart. Although these tanks were labeled as “funny”, they were used extensively during the landings by the Brittish and proved to be most effective as assault or support vehicles. The Hobard Funnies became the prototypes of many engineer-purpose vehicles long after the war and changed the history of naval landing warfare forever.
Four examples of Hobart’s Funnies are described below.
Bobbin: A reel of 3m wide canvas cloth reinforced with steel poles carried in front of the tank and unrolled onto the ground to form a “path” so that following vehicles (and the deploying vehicle itself) would not sink into the soft ground of the beaches during the amphibious landing.
Fascine: A bundle of wooden poles or rough brushwood lashed together with wires carried in front of the tank that could be released to fill a ditch or form a step. Metal pipes in the center of the fascine allowed water to flow through.
ARK (Armoured Ramp Carrier): a Churchill tank without a turret that had extendable ramps at each end; other vehicles could drive up ramps and over the vehicle to scale obstacles.
DD Tank (Duplex Drive): an amphibious Sherman tank fitted with a large watertight canvas housing able to float and reach the shore after being launched from a landing craft several miles from the beach. They were intended to give support to the first waves of infantry that attacked the beaches. These were the only tanks that were used by both the Americans and the British during D-Day.
AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers): A Churchill tank modification adapted to attack German defensive fortifications. The AVRE’s main gun was replaced by a Petard Mortar that fired an 18 kg HE-filled projectile (nicknamed the “Flying dustbin”) 130m.
Gliders were used by the Allies to deliver soldiers and equipment to the battlefield. Were it not for the courage and skill of the British and American glider pilots on D-Day, the Battle of Normandy may have taken a different turn.
The British-designed Airspeed Horsa glider was manufactured almost entirely of wood and could carry 25 troops plus a crew of two.
The American-designed Waco glider, named the “Hadrian” by the British, was much smaller than the Horsa. Due to its size it had the advantage of being able to land in smaller areas than the Horsa. The Waco was constructed of a welded tubular fuselage with canvas covering, with wings sheathed in thin plywood. It could carry 13 troops with equipment, or a jeep or a 75mm howitzer. The payload area was made more easily accessible by the nose and cockpit being hinged.
Later, Eisenhower has this to say:
“Never before in history had any nation produced aviators whose duty it was to crash land, and then go on to fight as combat infantrymen. They were no ordinary fighters… They were the only aviators during World War II who had no motors, no parachutes, and no second chances.”
After the experiences of the Dieppe Raid in August 1942, planners had come to the conclusion that it would be impossible to secure an existing functioning Port on the Normandy Coast. So harbors must be brought from England! Therefore, in planning for D-Day, the Allies included the pre-fabrication of two floating harbors – one for the American Landings to be situated off St Laurent and the other in support of British & Canadian Landings off Arromanches.
From the summer of 1943, construction began in earnest employing up to 45,000 personnel. The bulk of this work was carried out on the River Thames & River Clyde, using existing dry dock facilities. Pier heads and buffers (roadways) were built at the Conway Morfa site and trials continued at Garlieston as the project developed and grew. Each of the two harbors would feature two breakwaters made from hollow steel reinforced concrete. To fill the gaps, up to seventy obsolete merchant vessels and warships would be sunk strategically as blockships (codenamed “gooseberries”) for extra protection against storm damage.
Each artificial harbor would need to be the size of Dover which had taken more than seven years to build. The same would have to be built off the Normandy coast in just seven days, whilst under heavy enemy fire!
Sea-going tugs were used to tow the ‘mulberries’ from their assembly point near Lee-on-Solent over to the French coast. Each quay would have to be linked to the beaches by floating roadways in order to allow rapid offloading of material needed to maintain momentum at the front.
To construct the artificial harbors, breakwaters were formed by partially sunken blockships and concrete caissons. Closer to shore a long jetty was formed of Lobnitz Pierhead units connected to the shore by floating pontoons known as “Whales”. Concrete and steel floats or pontoons – code named “Beetle” – were used to support the roadways. Each capable of taking the weight of 56 tons + 25 tons (being the weight of a tank).
Seventy obsolete merchant vessels (block ships, code named “Gooseberries”) were amassed at Oban on the west coast of Scotland, stripped down, ballasted and primed with explosive scuttling charges. These vessels made the journey under their own steam and were sunk in 5 locations, including the 2 Mulberry harbours.
It was calculated that each of the two harbours would have a capacity to handle 7,000 tons of supplies each day.
On 19th June 1944 a fierce storm broke up most of the American Mulberry Harbour. Given urgent demand, structural elements were quickly removed to more valuably extend the British Mulberry at Arromanches.
Despite the loss of Mulberry A, the massive harbour effort was a resounding success. Once landings had been effected and a beachhead secured, it was found that both main Ports of Cherbourg and Le Havre were so badly damaged that neither could be used effectively for at least 6 months. During 10 months, the Mulberry Harbor at Arromanches received 2.5 million persons, 500,000 vehicles of all time, and 4 million tons of supplies.
What did the enemy think of the Mulberries? After the war, Albert Speer, the great architect of German defenses and manager of the forced labor, Todt Organisation, said:
“To construct our defenses we had in two years used some 13 million cubic meters of concrete and 1½ million tons of steel. A fortnight after the Normandy Landings, this costly effort was brought to nothing because of an idea of simple genius. As we now know, the invasion force brought their own harbors, and built, at Arromanches and Omaha, on unprotected coast, the necessary landing ramps.”
Ships of Liberty class
In the Battle of Normandy, most transport ships were of Liberty class. The class was developed to meet British orders for transports to replace ships that had been torpedoed by German U-boats. However, the U.S Maritime Commission adjusted the design to accommodate U.S shipbuilding standards and account for a number of factors including missing resources.
In early 1941, with the U.S. not yet in World War II but lending material aid to the British, the U.S. Maritime Commission modified a design for a merchant marine vessel to make a low-cost, easy-to-build cargo ship for mass production. Mass-produced on an unprecedented scale, the Liberty ship came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output. President Roosevelt called it “a dreadful-looking object” and Time called it the “Ugly Duckling.” This moniker changed however when President Roosevelt told the nation that the fleet of ships would bring liberty to Europe. By war’s end, 2,710 of Liberty ships were a crucial part of the war effort. It has been called the ship that helped win the war.
These 10,000-ton freighters were constructed of prefabricated sections welded together and could be assembled in an average of 42 days (the record was less than 5 days). 2,710 units were built by 18 American shipyards.
The vessels were purchased both for the U.S. fleet and lend-lease deliveries of war materiel to Britain and the Soviet Union. In the Battle of Normandy, each Liberty ship could carry 480 soldiers and 120 military vehicles.
The work force was newly trained – no one ever previously built welded ships. As America entered the war, the shipbuilding yards employed women, to replace men who were enlisting in the armed forces. The immensity of the effort, the number of ships built, the role of female workers in their construction, and the survival of some far longer than their original five-year design life combine to make them the subject of much continued interest.
After completing their assignment at Normandy beaches, a number of Liberty ships were sunk to form breakers. This was less costly and troublesome in comparison with building breakers in England and tow them across the Channel.
The planning team responsible for the invasion of Normandy had to consider the weather, the moon and tides when assigning a date for D-Day. Air operations required clear skies and a full moon for good visibility. Naval operations required low winds and calm seas to safely transport troops ashore. Ground troops needed to land at low tide, when German beach obstacles were exposed and easier to deal with.
The Allies would certainly have liked to land at high tide, as Rommel expected, so their troops would have less beach to cross under fire. But the underwater obstacles changed that. The Allied planners now decided that initial landings must be soon after low tide so that demolition teams could blow up enough obstacles to open corridors through which the following landing craft could navigate to the beach. The tide also had to be rising, because the landing craft had to unload troops and then depart without danger of being stranded by a receding tide.
There were also nontidal constraints. For secrecy, Allied forces had to cross the English Channel in darkness. But naval artillery needed about an hour of daylight to bombard the coast before the landings. Therefore, low tide had to coincide with first light, with the landings to begin one hour after. Airborne drops had to take place the night before, because the paratroopers had to land in darkness. But they also needed to see their targets, so there had to be a late-rising Moon.
For tide prediction, using the calculus, Laplace derived tidal equations. Later, William Thomson used Laplace’s principles to develop an ingenious mechanical analog computer to automate the prediction process. It had dozens of gears and pulleys over which ran a wire that was connected to a pen touching a moving roll of paper.
The Admiralty’s superintendent of tides was Commander William Ian Farquharson. He was responsible for liaising with Doodson, the world’s leading authority on tide prediction at The Tidal Institute, University of Liverpool. In 1942, Doodson had begun working on models of tide-prediction machines – essentially mechanized calculators that could reveal tidal patterns. Farquharson provide constants – or data to calculate them – required for making accurate tide predictions for the landing beaches. But because of extremely tight security, Farquharson could not tell Doodson the biggest secret of the war–that the landings were to take place in Normandy. So he labeled the coastal location to which a particular set of constants or tidal data belonged with a code name. (Years later Doodson admitted that he had guessed from those harmonic constants that the Normandy beaches were the intended landing site.) Farquharson, in Bath, and Doodson, in Liverpool 200 km away, used those code names in their exchange of letters and telegrams.
Doodson input the constants to his two tide-predicting machines placed in separate rooms in order to minimize the chance of a German bomb destroying both. Only three days in June 1944 met all those requirements for D-Day: 5, 6, and 7 June. There were also predictions for moonrise, moonset, sunrise, sunset, and various degrees of twilight.
In weather prediction, the Allies were much superior to the Germans.
The Allies had data from a network of weather stations in Canada, Greenland and Iceland; from weather ships and weather flights over the North Atlantic; and – by secret agreement – from weather stations in the neutral Republic of Ireland. Those weather stations, in particular one at a post office at Blacksod Point in the far west of Ireland, proved crucial predictions. The British used methods developed by the Bergen School, gathering measurements of temperature, pressure, and humidity from stations on land, at sea, and in the air. The Allies had cracked the German Enigma code thus allowing the D-Day forecasters access to all the German meteorological observations. There were also data collected at the beaches by British mini submarines.
In contrast, German meteorologists relied on less sophisticated models and did not have the same amount of forecast information as the Allied forces. The German Navy had few remaining vessels in the Atlantic and their weather stations in Greenland had been closed down. Worse, Weather Station Kurt, installed by a U-boat crew in Northern Labrador, Newfoundland, ran out of battery power.
Tides had been the key factor in selecting 5, 6, and 7 June as the three days most suitable for D-Day. But it was weather that ultimately determined on which of those days the invasion was launched. For weather prediction, the issue was much more complex. Rather than employing one team of forecasters, the top brass decided there should be three teams, with two men in each.
- U.S. Air Force: the team had been under Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Yates, but with Yates assigned to work under Stagg at SHAEF the aggressive Irving P. Krick took over the team, assisted by Ben Holzman who was full of liberal optimism.
- British Meteorological Office (The Met): the senior forecaster C.K.M. Douglas was a good counterbalance, full of wise ‘buts’ and pessimistic ‘ifs’. With him was Sverre Petterssen from Norway, who disliked Krick in interminable arguments.
- The Admiralty: Geoffrey Wolfe turned out to be quite the most consistent forecaster of the six, supported by the youngest from New Zealand, Dr Lawrence Hogben.
All three forecaster groups had access to the same extensive dataset. All three, however, were free to reach their own conclusions as to what those data meant. And they often contradicted each other.
In the middle of endless arguments was James Martin Stagg, Chief Meteorological Officer of SHAEF. His appointment in November 1943 had actually caused some controversy. As a geophysicist he wasn’t, strictly speaking, a weatherman himself and this had caused a considerable amount of grumbling from the genuine weathermen to be found in the British and American forces. Lawrence Hogben later recalled: “We never agreed about anything except that Stagg was not a good meteorologist and that he was a bit of a glory hound.”
More importantly at the time of his appointment, he was also still a civilian. This had gone down so badly with some in the high command that General Harold Bull, SHAEF’s Deputy Chief of Staff, conspired to have Stagg removed from his position. He wanted an American officer– Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Yates – appointed in his place. For both Yates (former student of Krick) and Stagg this had been an awkward situation. By the time General Bull made his move, Yates had already begun working as Stagg’s deputy and both men respected the other for the differing talents that they brought to the table.
Stagg’s demotion however was soon reversed. The British Air Ministry, who ultimately controlled the Met Office, were outraged at his dismissal so played their trump card. When SHAEF was formed, they pointed out, it had been agreed that the Chief Meteorologist should be British, because a British Meteorologist would have a better feel for the nuances of Northern Europe’s ever-changing weather systems. Stagg was immediately mobilised into the RAF as a Group Captain, neutralising the General’s objections, and his command position restored.
None of this was what worried Stagg right now though. What worried him was the bloody weather.
Stagg’s job was to oversee all three forecaster groups and find commonality in their predictions in order to present a single and definitive forecast to his superiors. Unfortunately for him, the teams had very different methods of forecasting and, as a result, came up with very different results. Today’s TV weather presenter has a single source of information, but poor James Martin Stagg had three, sometimes hotly divergent views to harmonize.
In 1944 weather forecasting was still more of an art than a science, and Krick and Petterssen represented two very different ideological schools of thought as to how that art should be prosecuted.
Krick believed that weather systems were entirely consistent and predictable. In fact he had become a meteorologist with the goal of using that consistency to make money. He largely used the ‘analog method.’ This meant taking the current data and finding the closest possible match for that data in the past.
Petterssen, by contrast, thought that predicting the weather over a long period of time required a level of scientific knowledge and data analysis that no-one had yet managed to achieve.
The week leading to D-Day was characterized by hot arguments among the three forecaster groups.
May 31 1944
The Met and the Admiralty agreed that bad weather was coming, but the Americans argued vehemently that the weather would improve.
Luckily, Stagg’s next briefing with the Supreme Commander had been postponed until Friday.
June 2 1944
The countdown began on June 2, when SHAEF set up its headquarters in Southwick House, a stately country mansion located just north of Portsmouth. As always, Eisenhower chose to make his quarters in an unpretentious, unheated trailer he dubbed “my circus wagon,” rather than in the home’s more comfortable bedrooms.
Twice daily weather briefings – one at 4:00 and one at 21:30– were held in the Southwick House’s library turned command room.
Roughly 800 km from Normandy on the west coast of Ireland stood Blacksod Point, the furthest western land-based weather station in the British Isles. Although technically neutral, since 1939 a secret treaty had existed between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom allowing for the sharing of weather data.
Unknown to Tom Sweeney, Coast Guardsman and Lighthouse keeper, his Blacksod Point lighthouse was one of the most important locations in Britain and his convinced would change history. The report convinced Eisenhower to delay the D-Day invasion for 24 hours, potentially averting a military disaster and changing the course of World War II.
Sweeney’s latest set of weather readings indicated that bad weather was coming.
Having jotted down his results Tom made the short walk over to the village post office – the only place with a phone – so he could file them. Whilst that might seem inconvenient, Tom didn’t mind. He knew Maureen Flavin would be on duty and, although he hadn’t worked up the courage to tell her yet, Tom was in love.
In Portsmouth, the American team ignored Blacksod Point’s data and refused to modify their forecast: weather would be good. The Met still disagreed. The continuing division placed Stagg in an enormously difficult position, especially as the Admiralty refused to make any prediction at all.
In the morning senior commander’s Briefing, Stagg told Eisenhower that the weather was continuing to deteriorate.
Eisenhower and his staff took the news without comment. They agreed to reconvene and discuss things further that evening.
Based on his own experience, Stagg firmly believed that the Americans were wrong – and that was the problem.
When the forecasters discussed that evening, things got even worse for Stagg: the Admiralty admitted that they now believed that the American team might be partially correct. The Met and Stagg were horrified. Stagg’s worst case scenario had happened: the Americans and the Admiralty believed the invasion could go ahead while the Met disagreed. Meanwhile, Yates remained ominously silent. For an hour and a half the debate raged, but no consensus emerged.
In the evening senior commander’s meeting, Stagg made his choice. He told Ike and his staff that it was more likely conditions would deteriorate than improve. As a noticeably uncomfortable Yates looked on, Stagg agreed that the next day he would provide a go/no-go forecast for D-Day.
June 3 1944
At Blacksod Point, the phone had been ringing for a while by the time Maureen got to it. When she answered she was surprised to hear the voice on the other end of the phone was English. The lady asked Maureen to confirm the weather readings that had been sent through in the early hours of that morning.
“I’ll need to get Ted,” she warned the voice, “stay on the line.”
Having located Sweeney she brought him back to the phone where he confirmed both the results and the methods he had used to collect them.
Barely an hour later though, the phone rang again.
Over 60 years later Maureen recalled:
“It was the same lady… The lady with the English accent and she asked if we could please check and repeat the very latest weather observations we had sent from Blacksod. So Ted repeated those ones again.”
Both Ted and Maureen agreed that whoever this English woman was, she seemed awfully interested in the weather.
“I was sending an hourly report 24 hours a day and night. It had to be phoned into London. We got a query back.
“They asked for a check. ‘Please check and repeat the whole report.’ I was wondering what was wrong. I thought I had made some error or something like that. They sent a second message to me about an hour later to please check and repeat again. I thought this was a bit strange so I checked and repeated again. It never dawned on me that this was the weather for invading or anything like that. When I checked the report, I said: ‘Thanks be to God, I was not at fault anyway.’ I had done my job and sent over a correct reading to London.”
In Portsmouth, the Americans continued to insist the invasion could go ahead. There was still no consensus forecast. But now Yates supported Stagg.
Hogben at the Admiralty recalled:
“The Americans produced a false forecast, not deliberately, but still false and stuck by it. Krick and Holtzman even telephoned C.K.M Douglas and Sverre Pettersen at the Met Office to persuade them to change their unfavourable forecast to agree with them.
“Then Eisenhower would have a two-to-one majority in favour, the attack would have been June 5 as Eisenhower wanted. The weather was terrible that morning…”
In the the senior commander’s meeting at 21:30, Stagg explained that the weather had turned against them. As he was talking, both Stagg and his audience could not help but keep glancing out of the large bay windows. It was a beautiful, clear, windless night. All the staff, that was, with the exception of Eisenhower. Throughout the briefing, the General had remained quiet, his chin resting on his hands and his eyes firmly fixed on his meteorologist.
Eisenhower listened to his staff’s questions and Stagg’s answers, and then turned to Stagg himself. “Last night you left us, or at least you left me, with a gleam of hope. Isn’t there just a chance that you might be a bit more optimistic again tomorrow?”
After Stagg left, the commanders were debating a delay.
Ike slept little that night and could only pick at his food the next day. The pressure of the impending decision was increasingly weighing on his shoulders, the tension building up in his bones and sinews; colleagues thought he had never looked older or more tired.
June 4 1944
In the senior commander’s meeting at 04:15, Stagg told them nothing had changed: June 5 would see high winds, low clouds, and turbulent wave. That such a dramatic change in the weather would take place – the early morning was clear and windless – was difficult to believe. Before that meeting, the three forecaster groups had been in discussion and none of their positions had changed. The Met and the Admiralty still predicted the stormy weather would indeed arrive on June 5. The Americans said it would remain clear.
After Stagg withdrew, Eisenhower polled his commanders one by one.
General Smith thought the attack should go in on the 6th – it was a gamble, but one that should be taken.
Tedder and Leigh-Mallory were both fearful that even the predicted cloud cover would prove too much for the air forces to operate effectively. It might mean that the assault would take place without adequate air support. They thought it was going to be “chancy.”
Of Eisenhower’s lieutenants, only Montgomery disagreed. He pointed out, ships and landing craft had already begun to depart. Various plans and deceptions had been laid around this date. To turn back now would risk chaos or – worse – German discovery of their intentions. Forget the Air Force and the airborne assault, he insisted, they should go.
“Jesus!” Eisenhower shouted at Montgomery, temporarily losing his calm, “You’ve been telling us for the past three or four months that you must have adequate air cover and that the airborne operations are essential to the assault, and now you say you will do without them?!”
Twenty years after, 1964, in a CBS interview, Eisenhower recounted:
“Early in the morning on June 4th I came from my camp about a mile from here, came to this room [at SHAEF Headquarters] and, uh, Captain Stagg who was the Chief Meteorologist for the allied forces, … he made the presentations. That morning the stars were out, it looked beautiful and he gave us the worst report you ever saw. Then he talked about gales hitting the Normandy beaches and winds up to, you know, the rate of forty-five miles an hour [20 m/s], that kind of thing. Landing would be impossible. So I just said, alright, we have to postpone. So we postponed for 24 hours.”
In spite of the protest from the Americans, at 6:00 AM Eisenhower directed the generals to call back any groups that had departed. That was a sound decision: if the invasion proceeded on 5 June it would be a disaster. Stagg’s forecast had been right: a few hours later a furious gale blew in.
At 07:00, Lieutenant Commander George D. Hoffman, 32-year-old skipper of the destroyer USS Corry, received an unexpected order. It was unbelievable: The whole convoy had been ordered back to England – no reason given. As the Corry raced forward Hoffman looked back and saw the destroyers behind him wheel and swing around the flanks of the convoy. Now, with signal lights blinking, they began the huge job of turning the convoy around. A worried Hoffman realized that they were dangerously close to France – just 60 km.
Not only must the convoys wheel about, almost under the very noses of the enemy, and return to England along specific, mine-swept tracks; they were now faced with the threat of another enemy – a storm at sea. For the slow-moving landing craft, heavily loaded with troops and supplies, a storm could be disastrous. And the weather was due to get worse.
The ships were clustered in the vicinity of the Isle of Wight and huddled together in various ports and anchorages along the southwest coast of England. It would take some of the convoys nearly all day to put back to port. Soldiers had to stay on board waiting for the new order.
Eisenhower spent June 4 pacing anxiously outside of his trailer, kicking stones and chain-smoking cigarettes in the increasingly stiff wind. He thought of the intelligence report he had received, informing him that Germany had recently strengthened the Normandy front with additional units.
He thought of the fact that only 15% of his D-Day troops had ever seen combat before; how would the green soldiers fair as they struggled through the withering onslaught of German firepower and up the beaches of Normandy? He thought of the men crowded into fenced military camps and trapped aboard thousands of vessels rocking and idling in the sea and awaiting his orders.
These worries and more burdened Ike, but above all, he was tormented by the thought of what would happen if a break in the weather did not arrive; the consequences, Eisenhower said, were “terrifying to contemplate:”
“Secrecy would be lost. Assault troops would be unloaded and crowded back into assembly areas enclosed in barbed wire, where their original places would have already been taken by those in subsequent waves. Complicated movement tables would be scrapped. Morale would drop. A wait of at least fourteen days, possibly twenty-eight would be necessary–a sort of suspended animation involving more than 2,000,000 men! The good-weather period available for major campaigning would become still shorter and the enemy’s defenses would become still stronger! The whole of the United Kingdom would become quickly aware that something had gone wrong and national discouragement there and in America could lead to unforeseen results. Finally, in the background was the knowledge that the enemy was developing new and presumably effective, secret weapons on the French coast. What the effect of these would be on our crowded harbors, especially at Plymouth and Portsmouth, we could not even guess.”
If Eisenhower decided to move forward with D-Day despite inclement conditions, the weather could costs thousands of lives and capsize the mission’s success, severely weakening the entire Allies effort. But if he postponed the operation, the possible consequences were just as dire.
A reporter who walked with Eisenhower that day described him as “bowed down with worry… as if each of the four stars on either shoulder weighed a ton.”
On the other side of the English Channel, German forecasters also predicted the stormy conditions that indeed rolled in as Stagg and his fellow Brits had feared. The Luftwaffe’s chief meteorologist, however, went further in reporting that rough seas and gale-force winds were unlikely to weaken until mid-June. German Luftwaffe meteorologists, however, relied on less sophisticated data and models than their Allied counterparts.
The Allies had a much more robust network of weather stations in Canada, Greenland and Iceland; of weather ships and weather flights over the North Atlantic and observations by secret agreement from weather stations in the neutral Republic of Ireland. Those weather stations, in particular one at a post office at Blacksod Point in the far west of Ireland, proved crucial.
At 20:30, it had taken two destroyers frantically dispatched from Plymouth to catch Convoy U-2A and persuade it to turn round. The 247 invasion vessels had already been at sea when the decision to postpone the landings had been made, and they’d missed the signal to return. They had been halfway to France by the time the destroyers caught up with them. At first the sailors and men of the convoy had cursed the order. Now though, as night approached and the last stragglers struggled through the rain and wind into the shelter of Weymouth Bay, they were far more sanguine about it.
On the night of June 4th, Ike and his commanders were once again assembled in the Southwick House library, eagerly awaiting perhaps the most important weather forecast in history. Hurricane-like winds raged outside, rattling the panes of the room’s French doors. Rain cascaded in horizontal sheets across the windows. The weather matched the men’s gloomy mood; the chances of the invasion moving forward looked impossibly bleak.
So what came out of Stagg’s mouth could not have been more surprising: “Gentlemen, since I presented the last forecast some rapid and unexpected developments have occurred.” Stagg told the meeting that the weather would improve, the rain would stop in the next 2-4 hours and a small, 36-hour window with better winds and visibility would open. The window would close soon after and stormy weather would return. It might cloud thenr, but the cloud bases should stay high enough for the naval gunners to spot their shots. But… the opportunity was there. Not ideal, but good enough.
The men cheered. “You never heard middle-aged men cheer like that!” Stagg remembered.
Eisenhower and his commanders deliberated.
Admiral Ramsay was worried. He said: “Let’s be clear about one thing. If Overlord is to proceed on Tuesday I must issue provisional warning to my forces within the next half-hour. But if they do restart and have to be recalled again, there can be no question of continuing on Wednesday.’
General Bedell Smith thought the attack should go in on the 6th – it was a gamble, but one that should be taken.
Tedder and Leigh-Mallory were both fearful that even the predicted cloud cover would prove too much for the air forces to operate effectively. It might mean that the assault would take place without adequate air support. They thought it was going to be “chancy.”
Eisenhower turned to Montgomery: ‘Do you see any reason why we should not go on Tuesday?’
‘No…,’ replied Montgomery pausing. ‘I would say – Go.’
It was now up to Ike. The moment had come when only he could make the decision. There was a long silence as Eisenhower weighed all the possibilities. General Smith, watching, was struck by the “isolation and loneliness” of the Supreme Commander as “he sat, hands clasped before him, looking down at the table.” Some said two minutes passed, others as many as five. Then Eisenhower looked up and said slowly, “I am quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it, but there it is. … I don’t see how we can do anything else.”
“Well boys, there it is.” Eisenhower said, firmly. “I don’t see how we can possibly do anything else.”
Ike watched the rain and the wind raging outside. The weather that, had they proceeded, would right now be wrecking his invasion fleet. Finally he turned to his Chief Meteorologist. “Well, Stagg, we’re putting it on again.” He said, with a wry smile. “For heaven’s sake, hold the weather to what you’ve told us.”
Hogben later said:
“It took courage for us to say ‘No’ on June 5; and it took courage to forecast ‘Yes’ for June 6. I was scared – I think we all were – of getting it wrong… We knew we were making history.”
Postponing the invasion carried too many risks. The 175,000 soldiers in the first two waves risked losing their fighting edge if cooped up in rough weather on their ships and landing craft. The battleships and convoys about to head down British coasts towards the Channel could not be turned round more than once without needing to refuel. And the chances of German reconnaissance aircraft sighting them would increase enormously. And Eisenhower just received a top-secret intelligence: Elements of the German 91st Division had moved to a new area, exactly on the landing area of the American 82nd Airborned Division. A further delay of the invasion would allow more time for German’s fortifications and more damage to the Airborne.
Eisenhower gave the preliminary go, and ships starting sailing towards France. He could still call them back – the final decision would be made at the next briefing. But a recall would require the ships returning to port to refuel, pushing the next attempt out a fortnight or perhaps a whole month to when lunar and tidal conditions would once again be prime.
The Allies commanders agreed to meet again in six hours to hear the latest report.
Eisenhower returned to his trailer for a few hours of restless sleep. He tossed and turned as the wind and rain rattled his trailer.
June 5 1944
At 03:30, Eisenhower returned to SHAEF Headquarters. As steaming cups of coffee were passed around, the storm shook the walls of Southwick House; the weather outside offered not the slightest hint of clearing, not a bit of evidence to buttress Stagg’s forecast.
Eisenhower remembered of the conditions later that day:
“In the morning of the 5th I came over here [SHAEF Headquarters], the weather was terrible, this house was shaking… It certainly increased my confidence in Captain Stagg and his crowd because 24 hours earlier, when it looked so nice, they said this is what you are going to have and we had it. Oh, it was really storming… He came in with sort of a little grin on his face. He didn’t laugh too much, but he was a fine man and he said ‘Well, I’ll give you some good news,’ and then he told us about this high (pressure area) that got in here and gave us some hope, and he, as I remember, predicted this good weather would last between 24 and 36 hours.”
This wasn’t too good. Eisenhower said:
“It was still a chancy thing, but when [Stagg] said that the waves down on the beaches were not going to be more than three feet [0.9m, and the wind was going down. I thought it was just the best of a bad bargain.”
Eisenhower remembered the moment of decision:
“I sat silently just reviewing these things maybe, I’d say, thirty-five or forty-five seconds. Now it’s been reported by some of the people present, for example my own Chief of Staff says that’s five minutes, well I know that wasn’t–but five minutes under such conditions sounds like a year. Actually I’d think after thirty, forty-five seconds something like that I just got up and said okay, we’ll go and, uh, every–this room was emptied in two seconds!”
At 04:17, Eisenhower made the final decision: D-Day would be 6 of June.
“I was, therefore, faced with the alternatives of taking the risks involved in an assault during what was likely to be only a partial and temporary break in the bad weather, or of putting off the operation for several weeks until tide and moon should again be favorable. Such postponement, however, would have been most harmful to the morale of our troops, apart from the likelihood of our losing the benefits of tactical surprise. At 04:00 hours on June 5, I took the final and irrevocable decision: the invasion of France would take place on the following day.”
Years later, during their ride to the Capitol for his inauguration, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked President Eisenhower why the Normandy invasion had been so successful.
Eisenhower’s answer: “Because we had better meteorologists than the Germans!”
Now, all that remained was the “interminable wait that always intervenes between the final decision of the high command and the earliest possible determination of success or failure in such ventures.” Eisenhower went to lunch and told the press that the invasion was underway. Then he sat down at his portable desk to write a note. It was a press release he knew he might need to issue in the days to come:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Relieved of burden, for the first time in two weeks, Group Captain James Martin Stagg slept like a baby.
After Eisenhower finished writing the note, he folded up the paper, tucked it inside his wallet, and went to visit with the 101st Airborne Division before they took flight to France. Eisenhower recalled:
“… about six in the evening I went over to the field from which the airborne, the American airborne, started out. … And, um, there was a very fine experience. They were getting ready and all camouflaged and their faces blackened and all this. And there they saw me and of course they recognized me and they said, ah, ‘Quit worrying, General, we’ll take care of this thing for you’. And that kind of–of thing was a good feeling. As they started off, I watched them out of sight.”
When Eisenhower arrived at Greenham Common, he began to chat with paratroopers of General Maxwell D. Taylor’s 101st Airborne shortly before they emplaned. It must have been hard not to think of Leigh-Mallory’s dire prediction that they were almost all going to their deaths. Yet Eisenhower’s ‘informality and friendliness with troopers’ amazed even his aide. A Texan offered the supreme commander a job after the war roping cows. Eisenhower then asked airborne officers if they had any men from Kansas. He hoped to find someone from his home town of Abilene. A soldier called Oyler was sent over to meet him.
‘What’s your name, soldier?’ Eisenhower asked him.
Oyler froze in front of the general and his friends had to shout his name to jog his memory.
Eisenhower then asked him where he was from.
‘Wellington, Kansas,’ Oyler replied.
‘Oh, that’s south of Wichita.’
The supreme commander proceeded to ask him about his education and service and whether he had a girlfriend in England. Oyler relaxed and answered all his questions about their training and whether he thought the other men in his platoon were ready to go.
‘You know, Oyler, the Germans have been kicking the hell out of us for five years and it is payback time.’
Eisenhower went on to ask him if he was afraid and Oyler admitted that he was.
‘Well, you’d be a damn fool not to be. But the trick is to keep moving. If you stop, if you start thinking, you lose your focus. You lose your concentration. You’ll be a casualty. The idea, the perfect idea, is to keep moving.’
At 10:15, Eisenhower stood watching as the planes trundled down the runways and lifted slowly into the air. One by one they followed each other into the darkness. Above the field, they circled as they assembled into formation. Eisenhower, his hands deep in his pockets, gazed up into the night sky. As the huge formation of planes roared one last time over the field and headed toward France, NBC’S Red Mueller looked at the Supreme Commander. Eisenhower’s eyes were filled with tears.
Were there really tears in his eyes as he turned away? Quite possibly, the general said later:
“Well, I don’t know about this. It could have been possible. … You know, there’s going to be losses. … I would think if a man didn’t show a bit of emotion, it would show that he probably was a little bit inhuman, and goodness knows, those fellows meant a lot to me. You just have to make the decision on the basis, when you’re in war: ‘I’m going to do something that will be to my country’s advantage for the least cost.’ You can’t say without cost. You know you’re going to lose them.”
Eisenhower also had another message to the French people in Normandy, to be broadcast by BBC at 06:00 hours in the morning of 6 June:
“This is London calling.
“I bring you an urgent instruction from the Supreme Commander. The lives of many of you depend upon the speed and thoroughness with which you obey it. It is particularly addressed to all who live within thirty-five kilometers of any part of the coast.
The lives of many of you depend on the speed with which you obey. Leave your towns at once – stay off the roads – go on foot and take nothing with you that is difficult to carry. Do not gather in groups which may be mistaken for enemy troops.”
That night, nervous Prime Minister Winston Churchill said to his wife: “Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning 20,000 men may have been killed?”
Responses by German military leaders
The German Army itself was beset by doubts, at least as to the date and place of the assault. Severe Anglo-American air attacks continued to disrupt German depots, radar stations, V-1 sites, communications and transport, but these had been going on night and day for weeks and seemed no more intense on this day than on others. On June 4, the Air Force meteorologist in Paris advised that because of the inclement weather no Allied action could be expected for at least a fortnight. June 5, General Speidel, Rommel’s chief of staﬀ, later recalled, “was a quiet day.” at the Luftwaffe’s headquarters in the Luxembourg Palace, Colonel Professor Walter Steobe, the chief meteorologist, told staff officers at the routine daily conference that they could relax. He doubted that Allied planes would even be operational this day. Antiaircraft crews were promptly ordered to stand down.
Next, Steobe telephoned 20 Boulevard Victor Hugo in St.-Germain-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris just twelve miles away. His call went to an immense, three-floored blockhouse embedded in the side of a slope beneath a girl’s high school – OB West, Von Rundstedt’s headquarters. Steobe spoke to his liaison officer, weatherman Major Hermann Mueller, who dutifully recorded the forecast and then sent it along to the chief of staff, Major General Blumentritt. Weather reports were taken very seriously at OB West and Blumentritt was particularly anxious to see this one. He was putting the finishing touches to the itinerary of an inspection trip the Commander in Chief West planned to make. The report confirmed his belief that the trip could take place as scheduled. Von Rundstedt, accompanied by his son, a young lieutenant, planned to inspect the coastal defenses in Normandy on Tuesday.
Not many in St.-Germain-en-Laye were aware of the blockhouse’s existence and even fewer knew that the most powerful field marshal in the German west lived in a small unpretentious villa back of the high school at 28 Rue Alexandre Dumas. It was surrounded by a high wall, the iron gates permanently closed. Entrance to the villa was by way of a specially constructed corridor that had been cut through the walls of the school, or by way of an unobtrusive door in the wall bordering the Rue Alexandre Dumas.
Von Rundstedt slept late as usual (the aged field marshal rarely got up now before ten-thirty) and it was almost noon before he sat down at his desk in the villa’s first-floor study. It was there that he conferred with his chief of staff and approved OB West’s “Estimate of Allied Intentions” so that it could be forwarded to Hitler’s headquarters, OKW, later in the day. The estimate was another typical wrong guess. It read:
The systematic and distinct increase of air attacks indicates that the enemy has reached a high degree of readiness. The probable invasion front still remains the sector from the Scheldt [in Holland] to Normandy … and it is not impossible that the north front of Brittany might be included … [but] it is still not clear where the enemy will invade within this total area. Concentrated air attacks on the coast defenses between Dunkirk and Dieppe may mean that the main Allied invasion effort will be made there … [but] imminence of invasion is not recognizable. …
With this vague estimate out of the way – an estimate that placed the possible invasion area someplace along almost eight hundred miles of coast – Von Rundstedt and his son set out for the field marshal’s favorite restaurant, the Coq Hardi at Bougival nearby. It was a little after one; D Day was twelve hours away.
All along the chain of German command the continuing bad weather acted like a tranquilizer. The various headquarters were quite confident that there would be no attack in the immediate future. Their reasoning was based on carefully assessed weather evaluations that had been made of the Allied landings in North Africa, Italy and Sicily. In each case conditions had varied, but meteorologists like Steobe and his chief in Berlin, Dr. Karl Sonntag, had noted that the Allies had never attempted a landing unless the prospects of favorable weather were almost certain, particularly for covering air operations. To the methodical German mind there was no deviation from this rule; the weather had to be just right or the Allies wouldn’t attack. And the weather wasn’t just right.
General Friedrich Dollmann, commanding the Seventh Army in Normandy, felt confident to ease the alarm status and organize a war-games exercise on maps at Rennes – over 100 miles south of the Normandy coast. All division commanders and two regiment commanders from each division had to attend. A number of them departed early so they could enjoy life in Rennes.
At Army Group B headquarters in La Roche-Guyon the work went on as though Rommel were still there, but the chief of staff, Major General Speidel, thought it was quiet enough to plan a little dinner party. He had invited several guestsm, and he hoped they’d discuss his favorite subject, French literature.
In St.-Leo, at the headquarters of the 84th Corps, Major Friedrich Hayn, the intelligence officer, was making arrangements for another kind of party. He had ordered several bottles of excellent Chablis, for at midnight the staff planned to surprise the corps commander, General Erich Marcks, a highly respected and intelligent leader. His birthday was June 6. They were holding the surprise birthday party at midnight because Marcks had to leave for the city of Rennes in Brittany at daybreak. He and all the other senior commanders in Normandy were to take part in a big map exercise that was to begin early on Tuesday morning.
Marcks was slightly amused at the role he was supposed to play: he would represent the “Allies.” The exercise was to be an “invasion” beginning with a paratroop “assault” followed by “landing” from the sea. Everyone thought the thrust would be interesting – the theoretical invasion was supposed to take place in Normandy. Pas-de-Calais was too obvious. And landing in bad weather like the one today would be a complete surprise. Lucky for Germany since this is only a map exercise!
As the cathedral bells began chiming, the little group, with Major Hayn in the lead carrying the Chablis and several glasses, marched into the general’s room, perhaps a shade self-consciously, to do honor to their commander. There was a slight pause as Marcks looked up and gazed at them mildly through his glasses. “His artificial leg creaked,” recalls Hayn, “as he rose to greet us.” With a friendly wave of the hand he immediately put everybody at ease. The wine was opened and, standing in a little group around the fifty-three-year-old general, his staff officers came to attention. Stiffly raising their glasses, they drank his health, blissfully unaware that 62 kn away 4,255 British paratroopers were dropping on French soil.
o O o
The main thrust worried the Seventh Army’s chief of staff, Major General Max Pemsel. It was bad enough that his senior commanders in Normandy and the Cherbourg peninsula would be away from their commands all at the same time. But it might be extremely dangerous if they were away overnight. Rennes was a long way off for most of them and Pemsel was afraid that some might be planning to leave the front before dawn. It was the dawn that always worried Pemsel; if an invasion ever came in Normandy, he believed, the attack would be launched at first light. He decided to warn all those due to participate in the games.
The order he sent out by teletype read: “Commanding generals and others scheduled to attend the Kriegsspiel are reminded not to leave for Rennes before dawn on June 6.” But it was too late. Some had already gone – Rennes had more pleasure than at the office.
And so it was that, one by one, senior officers from Rommel down had left the front on the very eve of the battle. All of them had reasons, but it was almost as though a capricious fate had manipulated their departure. Rommel was in Germany. So was Army Group B’s operations officer, Von Tempelhof. Admiral Theodor Krancke, the naval commander in the West, after informing Rundstedt that patrol boats were unable to leave harbor because of rough seas, set out for Bordeaux. Lieutenant General Heinz Hellmich, commanding the 243rd Division, which was holding one side of the Cherbourg peninsula, departed for Rennes. So did Lieutenant General Karl von Schlieben of the 709th Division. Major General Wilhelm Falley of the tough 91st Air Landing Division, which had just moved into Normandy, prepared to go. Colonel Wilhelm Meyer-Detring, Rundstedt’s intelligence officer, was on leave and the chief of staff of one division couldn’t be reached at all – he was off hunting with his French mistress. Another important man was Lieutenant-General Edgar Feuchtinger, commander of the 21st Panzer Division, who was in bed with his mistress in Paris so he would be absent for the some first hours of the battle. The commander of Merville Battery was also in bed with his mistress.
Thus while the Allies ships and planes were on their way to Normandy, a high number of German’s essential officers were absent from their posts. Worse, after the exercise at Rennes was cancelled, many division and commanders were on the way back, and during hours of urgency their headquarters could not contact them.
After D Day the coincidences of these multiple departures from the invasion front struck Hitler so forcibly that there was actually talk of an investigation to see whether the British service could possibly have had anything to do with it. The fact is that Hitler himself was no better prepared for the great day than his generals. The Feuhrer was at his Berchtesgaden retreat in Bavaria with his mistress, Eva Braun, a number of Nazi dignitaries and their wives. After lunch the group adjourned to the garden, where the Feuhrer sipped lime blossom tea. He napped between six and seven, held another military conference at 11:00 PM, then, a little before midnight, the ladies were called back. To the best of Puttkamer’s recollection, the group then had to listen to four hours of Wagner, Lehar and Strauss.
The destination of the Allies flotilla was the Bay of the Seine, between the Cotentin Peninsula and the port of Le Havre. Some 80 km broad and twenty deep, its waters were shallow, had a considerable tidal range, and, when the wind blew from the northward, could be very choppy. The planned landing beaches covered about 70 km of the Bay’s shoreline. Westernmost was Utah Beach, stretching southward along the low-lying southeastern coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. Directly to the east was Omaha Beach, covering generally hilly terrain. United States forces were assigned to take both of those areas. British and Canadian troops would assault the areas code-named Gold, Juno, and Sword, which ran twenty miles eastward from Omaha. This sector ended at the mouth of the Orne River, some 24 km west of Le Havre, where the German Navy based a group of potentially very dangerous torpedo boats.
The actual landing beaches occupied a fraction of the width of each area, but were intended to provide sufficient initial footholds to allow rapid reinforcement and expansion inland, with the attacking soldiers joining their flanks to create a continuous beachhead perimeter before the enemy could mount a major counterattack.
The Allies flotilla which crossed the Channel in the night of June 5th-6th comprised nearly 5,000 landing ships and assault craft, escorted by 6 battleships, 4 monitors, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers and 152 escort vessels, as well as the 277 minesweepers clearing channels ahead. It was made up mostly of British and American ships, though there were also Norwegian, Dutch, Polish, Danish, Greek and Free French vessels. Altogether there were 5,333 ships of all types, according to Ambrose (1994). The figure given by Ross (2014) was 5,339.
This vast fleet was placed under the command of the British Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay. It was subdivided into the Western Task Force under Rear-Admiral Kirk, who was in charge of landings in the American sector (Naval Forces “U” for Utah Beach and “O” for Omaha), and the Eastern Task Force under Rear-Admiral Vian, who was in charge of operations in the Anglo-Canadian sector (Naval Forces “G” for Gold Beach, “J” for Juno and “S” for Sword). Each force, composed of several hundred transport ships, auxiliary vessels and escort ships, was accompanied by a naval bombardment squadron of between fifteen and twenty warships (battleships, cruisers and destroyers).
For their part, the troop ships carried 130,000 men and more than 20,000 vehicles of all kinds, including tanks and lorries, across the Channel to the Normandy coast in the course of June 6th. A few dozen decrepit merchant and warships, such as the ships of Liberty class and the French battleship Courbet, were scuttled in a long line in front of the landing beaches to form breakwaters. In all, some 150,000 seamen belonging to the war fleets and the merchant navy took part in the landing operations – a force equal to the number of troops sent into battle on land on June 6th 1944.
These ships were to open fire on the German defences forty-five minutes before H-Hour, taking over from the aerial bombardments that had been carried out overnight and at dawn. During the battle, they were to provide continuous covering fire, silencing most of the coastal batteries of the Atlantic Wall and giving valuable tactical support to the infantry, sometimes getting them out of tricky situations, as at Omaha.
Planners of Operation Neptune, the cross-Channel phase of Overlord, had spent months considering possible threats to the invasion fleets: submarines, mines, E-boats, radar and the Luftwaffe. Every precaution was taken.
Mosquito squadrons were patrolling the French coast all night, ready to down any German aircraft which might sight the approaching fleets. Aircraft equipped for radio counter-measures were also aloft to jam the frequencies used by German night-fighters. Large-scale radar-jamming operations were carried out by British and American aircraft over the Channel. And for several weeks, rocket-firing Typhoons had attacked German radar sites all along the Channel coast from the Netherlands to Brittany.
Lancaster bombers dropped ‘window’, aluminium strips to simulate on radar screens an invasion convoy approaching the coast at Cap d’Antifer, north-east of Le Havre. This was assisted by a naval deception using motor launches and torpedo boats towing reflector balloons, which would look like large ships on radar. A similar deception plan consisted of Stirling bombers dropping ‘window’ opposite Boulogne. Mines were also dropped round Cap d’Antifer.
One of Admiral Ramsay’s greatest concerns was a mass attack on the invasion fleet by German U-boats from their bases in Brittany. Naval anti-submarine forces were deployed, but the main task of covering the south-western approaches fell to 19 Group of Coastal Command mainly flying B-24 Liberators and Sunderland flying boats. The group included one Czech, one Polish, one New Zealander, two Australian and three Canadian squadrons. Even the RAF’s own 224 Squadron was a mixed bag of nationalities, with 137 Britons, forty-four Canadians, thirty-three Anzacs, two Americans, a Swiss, a Chilean, a South African and a Brazilian.
Their crews faced long missions day and night, constantly patrolling the western Channel in box patterns from southern Ireland down to the Brest peninsula. When their radar picked out any submarine on the surface, the aircraft would dive, the front gunner trying to kill and wound as many as possible on the conning tower to impede a crash dive, then the aimer would release the depth charges. To the embarrassment of the German Navy high command, not a single U-boat penetrated the English Channel. Other Allied aircraft attacked German destroyers to prevent them from engaging the invasion fleet.
Slowly, ponderously this great armada moved across the Channel. It followed a minute-by-minute traffic pattern of a kind never attempted before. Ships poured out of British ports and, moving down the coasts in two-convoy lanes, converged on the assembly area south of the Isle of Wight. There they sorted themselves out and each took a carefully predetermined position with the force heading for the particular beach to which it had been assigned. Out of the assembly area, which was promptly nicknamed “Piccadilly Circus,” the convoys headed for France along five buoy-marked lanes. And as they approached Normandy these five paths split up into ten channels, two for each beach – one for fast traffic, the other for slow. Up front, just behind the spearhead of mine sweepers, battleships and cruisers, were the command ships, five attack transports bristling with radar and radio antennae. These floating command posts would be the nerve centers of the invasion.
There were fast new attack transports, slow rust-scarred freighters, small ocean liners, Channel steamers, hospital ships, weather-beaten tankers, coasters and swarms of fussing tugs. There were endless columns of shallow-draft landing ships – great wallowing vessels. Many of these and the other heavier transports carried smaller landing craft for the actual beach assault – more than fifteen hundred of them. Ahead of the convoys were processions of mine sweepers, Coast Guard cutters, buoy-layers and motor launches. Barrage balloons flew above the ships. Filled with hydrogen and suspended at around 70 m by a cable, these ballons were to protect the ships from aircraft flying at a low altitude. Squadrons of fighter planes weaved below the clouds. And surrounding this fantastic cavalcade of ships packed with men, guns, tanks, motor vehicles and supplies, and excluding small naval vessels, was a formidable array of warships.
Each ship captain received a specific order to shoot any aircraft – no matter friend or foe – flying at low altitude. Therefore, each Allies pilot received a specific instruction on the altitude to fly.
In fact, the backbone of the armada was not formed by majestic warships with huge guns. The backbone consisted of much smaller ships, so small that they were called “craft.” – the landing craft. Some main types are described below.
Landing craft, assault – LCA
The LCA (Landing Craft Assault) is the basic landing craft of the British Army. It can contain 38 fully-equipped soldiers and a crew of 4. The shell – in plywood – has a flat bottom, which allows a docking nearest dry sand. Armor plates may be added to ensure good resistance to the landing craft. But because of its weight, speed is its weak point. It very rarely reaches the theoretical 15 km/h.
LCAs were not designed to travel long distances in open seas so they were carried to the landing beaches on mother ships, not unlike modern lifeboats, suspended from davits.
The British LCA was widely used by British and Canadian troops during the Normandy landing, but also by the American Rangers during the assault of the Pointe du Hoc.
Landing craft, vehicle and personnel – LCVP, a.k.a. Higgins boat
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in an 1964 interview, said: “Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us.” The President went on to explain: “If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel), we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”
Clearly, the half-wood half-steel “smallboat” meant a lot to the war. The LCVP, equivalent to the British LCA, would land troops and material on invasion beachheads.
Their designer, Andrew Higgins, built his first vessel in the basement when he was 12. He signed up for a correspondence course in naval architecture, shifting his work from timber to boats. Then he built oil-prospecting wooden boats in Louisiana. Once the war broke out, he was positive there would be a need among the U.S. Navy for thousands of small boats, and was also sure that steel would be in short supply. In an common moment of eccentricity, Higgins bought the entire 1939 crop of mahogany from the Philippines and stored it on his own.
Higgins’ expectations were right, and as the war progressed he applied for a position in Naval design. Insisting that the Navy “doesn’t know one damn thing about small boats,” Higgins struggled for years to convince them of the need for small wooden boats. Finally he signed the contract to develop his LCVP.
Employing more than 30,000 for an integrated workforce in New Orleans, Higgins employed blacks and women among them, which was uncommon practice at the time. This force eagerly began mass-producing the “Higgins boats”, which were 11m in length and had a beam of 3m. Their displacement when unloaded was 8 tons, and they could maintain a speed of 16 km/h. Along with the help of other American factories, Higgins produced 23,398 LCVPs during the War.
On D-day, the CVP landed troops from the 1st Infantry Division directly into the sandy teeth of the most heavily fortified German sector–Omaha beach.
The LCVP carried platoon-sized units of some thirty-six infantrymen, or a single vehicle, or five tons of cargo. The troops or cargo were debarked over a retractable bow ramp, permitting direct access to the beach.
On D-Day the U.S. Navy had 1,089 LCVPs in the United Kingdom, of which 839 were used to shuttle Allied soldiers from the invasion transports to the Normandy beaches.
The craft is familiar to moviegoers, as Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks’s) initial appearance in Saving Private Ryan is aboard an LCVP.
Landing craft, infantry (large) – LCI(L)
The Landing Craft Infantry (Large) was an attack ship in the second line of assault. When the first wave of men from the landing boats, like the LCA’s and LCVP’s, had secured the beach, then the reinforcements in big numbers was essential. For this purpose the LCI(L) was developed. The ship could hold 150 to 200 men. Those left the ship by the on both sides placed debarking ramps.
Landing ship, tank – LST
The Landing Ship Tank was designed especially for unloading large quantities of vehicles and cargo directly on the beaches. When the LST hit the beach the two vertical bay doors opened up so unloading could begin at once. In the davits was place for the light attack landing craft, like the LCVP (see above).
When the LST was at sea it took in seawater for more stability and when it was on landing operations the tanks were emptied to create a flat bottomed craft. The ships were, because of their shallow depth, slow and cumbersome to handle. They were an easy target.
The British Mark 4, built for use in the English Channel, could carry nine M4 Sherman or six Churchill tanks or 136 tons of supplies.
A typical loadout for an American LCT was four DD tanks and four jeeps with a trailer filled with ammunition and supplies. The largest LCT could carry up to 20 tanks or 400 fully equipped soldiers or 2,100 tons of supplies. It could also carry LCVPs, to be lowered by davits.
The magnitude of the invasion is partly illustrated by the fact that 873 LCTs were involved, of which 768 were committed to the sixty-four flotillas delivering troops and equipment to the five beaches. The balance were mainly LCT(A) and (R) craft with artillery and rocket-firing batteries aboard, respectively.
Landing Craft, Tank – LCT
The Landing Craft Tank (LCT) was also a landing craft designed by the British and was perfected by the Americans. It was intended at first to transport 5 or 6 tanks to the beach or two hundred tons of cargo.
These landing craft were responsible for the unloading of the DD-tanks during D-Day. In rough sea some lost their ramp doors, this was then towed behind the LCT. The LCT was produced in several versions. The type most used on D-Day, was the Mk IV and the Mk V.
A typical loadout for an American LCT was four DD tanks and four jeeps with a trailer filled with ammunition and supplies. The magnitude of the Normandy invasion is partly illustrated by the fact that 873 LCTs were involved, of which 768 were committed to the sixty-four flotillas delivering troops and equipment to the five beaches.
One of the versions was the LCT(A), Armored. On board were two Centaur 95mm howitzers and one Sherman 75mm who should provide extra firepower during the landings. Unfortunately, because of the wild movements at sea these LCT(A)’s were not able to bring accurate fire on the targets. So the tanks on board were brought to shore and went on fighting from there on.
Landing barge (kitchen) – LB(K)
It is a floating storeroom and galley. It can carry enough fresh and bulk foodstuffs to feed 900 men for a week. Up to 1600 hot and 800 cold meals per day can be prepared. After cooking meals, a day’s rations are placed in insulated containers and handed across to a landing craft crew.
Landing craft tank (Rocket) – LCT(R)
This was modified from the LCT. It was supplied with rockets that brought a barrage of firepower. For this variant an Mk III was adapted with 1066 launching tubes that gave salvo’s of 24 when fired. During D-Day 36 LCT(R) were deployed.
During navigation to Normandy, the soldiers listened to the message from their Supreme Commander over the public address system, or read by an officer from a sheet of paper:
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
On board the landing ships, soldiers whiled away the time. Some tried to sleep, some attempted to learn a little French from their phrase books, some read their Bibles. Many attended improvised church services, finding comfort in religion. On the British ship Princess Ingrid, however, God had appeared to be in a less reassuring mood when the bosun piped ‘Hands to church’ the previous afternoon. A forward observer with the 50th Division wrote:
“Although attendance was entirely voluntary, every soldier on board seemed to be at the service which was held on the upper boat deck. In the bows stood an Army chaplain behind a table covered by a table cloth on which stood a small silver cross. As we waited for the service to begin, the wind started to increase in vigor. A sudden gust flipped up the table cloth, the cross slipped to the deck and broke in two. Utter consternation in the congregation. What an omen! For the first time I realized what ‘fear of God’ really was. All around, men were looking absolutely shattered.”
On American landing ships, dice and poker games began, with bets made mostly in the new Allied occupation currency which General de Gaulle so abhorred. Aboard the USS Samuel Chase, war correspondents, including the photographer Robert Capa and Don Whitehead, joined in enthusiastically. “All are tense and all are pretending to be casual,” remarked one soldier. “Bravado helps.”
In contrast to the riotous gambling parties, there were many who said little. “Even though huddled together and cramped,” noted Lieutenant Gardner Botsford with the 1st Infantry Division, “one felt very private.” A number had discussed “who was going to make it once we landed and who wasn’t”. One soldier recounted:
“My thoughts turned to home and family, and I wondered how they would take the news of my death. I consoled myself with the fact that I was insured for the maximum amount of the GI insurance plan, and that my parents would at least have ten thousand dollars to compensate them for my death.”
Apart from troop transport, the armada provide support by an intense bombardment that last from 05:45 to 6:25. Because most gunfire support ships could not see their targets, indirect fire was required. Aerial observation was an important aspect of effective NGF, though weather conditions on 6 June tended to obscure targets. Both infantry and airborne forces had gunfire spotters down to the battalion level, and some naval officers jumped with the paratroopers to provide an organic spotter capability.
At 10:30, the attack transport Samuel Chase blinked out a signal, “Mass is going on.” This was after a Jewish officer, Captain Irving Gray, asked Chaplain Koon if he would lead his company in prayer “to the God in whom we all believe, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic or Jew, that our mission may be accomplished and that, if possible, we may be brought safely home again.” Koon gladly obliged.
Before D-Day, there had been a great debate going on in the high command about whether the airborne troops should be used at all. Leigh Mallory predicted that 50 to 70 percent of the troop transport aircraft would be shot down in the assault. He asked Eisenhower to cancel the American Airborne phase of the invasion.
Eisenhower quietly agonized over his air advisor’s request against Bradley’s revisions. Bradley, who had the support of the American Airborne commanders, acknowledged the risks, but thought them necessary for the overall success of the invasion.
In the end, after many agonizing hours of self-debate, Eisenhower agreed to continue the airborne assault.
As the last light of June 5th began to dim, thousands of paratroopers, their faces blackened, waddled out to their respective planes. The same thing was happening at over twenty different airfields scattered around England. The men were wearing their distinctive tan two-piece jump suits, high-legged Corcoran boots, and carried a vast array of weapons, rations, ammunition, gadgets, plus of course their parachutes. Most of the paratroopers were carrying more than 100 pounds of equipment. They are so heavy they have to be helped on to the planes.
The planners feared friendly fire – anti-aircraft fire from Allied naval vessels and Allied troops – against their own air flotilla, and pilots mistakenly engaging in dogfights against their own comrades in arms. In the invasion to Sicily the previous year, anti-aircraft of American warships shot at both American transport planne and gliders – just to play safe! Dozens of planes had to cut the cables connecting with the gliders so that they could escape, and mainy soldiers on the gliders fatally fell into water. The existing system for identifying friendly aircraft, Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), would in all probability be overwhelmed by the sheer number of aircraft over the beaches. To avoid fratricidal incidents, the D-Day planners called for paint and brushes, and ordered that the aircraft of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force and supporting units be painted with alternating black and white stripes on wings and fuselage. They were called invasion stripes. Tests showed that the stripes were easily visible on the ground and in the air – easier to see than the usual national markings that Allied aircraft bore, so a simple order – if it ain’t got stripes, shoot it down – could be given out to Allied gunners and pilots. For fear of the Luftwaffe getting wind of the scheme and confusing the issue by painting their own stripes, the plan was a closely guarded secret.
It took forty minutes to load the planes, for heavily burdened paratroopers needed help to get up the steps, almost like knights in armour trying to mount their horses. And once they were in, a large number needed to struggle out again soon afterwards for another ‘nervous pee’. The pilots of the troop carrier squadrons became increasingly worried about the weight. Each aircraft was to carry a ‘stick’ of sixteen to eighteen fully laden men and they insisted on weighing them. The total made them even more concerned.
A sergeant mounted first to go to the front of the plane and the platoon commander last, as he would lead the way. The sergeant would bring up the rear so that he could act as ‘pusher’ to make sure that everyone had left and nobody had frozen. ‘One trooper asked the sergeant if it was true that he had orders to shoot any man that refused to jump. “That’s the orders I’ve been given.” He said it so softly that everybody became quiet.’
Their engines ‘growling’, the heavily laden C-47s began to trundle in a seemingly endless sequence down the runway at Greenham Common. General Eisenhower stood there, saluting the paratroopers of the 101st as they took off.
Minutes later, in the Channel, the men of the invasion fleet heard the roar of the planes. It grew louder by the second, and then wave after wave passed overhead. The formation took a long time to pass. Then the thunder of their engines began to fade. On the bridge of the USS Herndon, Lieutenant Bartow Farr, the watch officers and NEA’S war correspondent, Tom Wolf, gazed up into the darkness. Nobody could say a word. And then as the last formation flew over, an amber light blinked down through the clouds on the fleet below. Slowly it flashed out in Morse code three dots and a dash: V for Victory.
o O o
It was a little after 10:15 when Lieutenant-Colonel Meyer, counterintelligence chief of the German Fifteenth Army, got the second line of Verlaine’s poem.
In January 1944 Admiral Canaris, Chief of Army Intelligence, had warned him that the Allies would broadcast hundreds of messages to the underground in the months preceding the attack. Only a few of these would actually relate to D Day; the remainder would be fake, deliberately designed to mislead and confuse. Canaris had been explicit: Meyer was to monitor all these messages in order not to miss the all-important one. Most importantly were two lines of Verlaine’s poem Chanson d’Automne (Autumn Song).
On the night of June 1, Meyer’s men, after months of monitoring, had intercepted the first part of the Allied message – exactly as described by Canaris. “Kindly listen now to a few personal messages,” said the voice in French. Instantly Sergeant Walter Reichling switched on a wire recorder. There was a pause, and then:
Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne
[The long sobs of the violins of autumn]
Meyer had understood that the invasion would occur within 2 weeks. Meyer had reported to General Rudolf Hofmann, Fifteen Army Chief of Staff: “The first message has arrived. Something will happen.”
Then he had been waiting for the second message.
Now he got it. He rushed out of his office. In his hand was probably the most important message the Germans had intercepted throughout the whole of World War II. Meyer now knew that the invasion would take place within forty-eight hours. With this information the Allies could be thrown back into the sea. The message picked up from a BBC broadcast to the French underground was the second line of the Verlaine poem:
Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone
[Wound my heart with a monotonous languor]
Meyer burst into the dining room where General Hans von Salmuth, the Fifteenth Army’s commanding officer, was playing bridge with his chief of staff and two others. “General!” Meyer said breathlessly. “The message, the second part – it’s here!”
Von Salmuth thought a moment, then gave the order to put the Fifteenth Army on full alert. As Meyer hurried out of the room, von Salmuth was again looking at his bridge hand. “I’m too old a bunny,” von Salmuth recalls saying, “to get too excited about this.”
Back in his office, Meyer and his staff immediately notified Rommel’s and Rundstead’s Headquaters by telephone. The latter in turn alerted OKW, Hitler’s headquarters. For reasons that have never been explained satisfactorily, the Seventh Army was not notified.
At OKW, the message was given to Alfred Jodl. He did not issue a warning as he thought von Rundstedt dit it; but von Rundstedt thought Rommel’s Headquarters did it.
The Fifteenth Army War Diary carried the exact teletype message that was sent out to the various commands. It read:
Teletype No. 2117/26 urgent to 67th, 81st, 82nd, 89th Corps; Military Governors Belgium and Northern France; Army Group B; 16th Flak Division; Admiral Channel Coast; Luftwaffe Belgium and Northern France.
Message of BBC, 2115, June 5 has been processed. According to our available records it means “Expect invasion within 48 hours, starting 0000, June 6.”
It will be noted that neither the Seventh Army nor its 84th Corps is included in the above list. It was not Meyer’s job to notify these. The responsibility lay with Rommel’s headquarters, as these units came under Army Group B.
Rundstedt did not think it necessary to alert the Seventh Army, on whose sector of the coast farther west, between Caen and Cherbourg, the Allied forces were now – toward midnight – approaching on a thousand ships.
o O o
Just before 22:00 on June 5th, twenty C-47s took off from the base of North Witham, near Grantham, England. Each carried its elite pathfinder paratroopers and their equipment. Their destinations: Ste Mère-Eglise and Ste Marie du Mont. These crews and their men were the first to know the exact place of the Normandy landings, and theirs were the very first flights. Multiple pathfinder teams preceded the main assault, but some missed their destinations by more than 2 km. They set up their transmitters where they landed.
At 22:15, airplanes started to take off carrying the first wave of 6,600 men of the American 101st Airborne Division. The plan was to seize the causeways leading to Utah Beach across the flooded marshes and also take the bridges and a lock on the River Douve, between the town of Carentan and the sea.
At 22:45, 6,400 men in the first wave of the American 82nd Airborne Division followed. The plan was to secure the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. This would cut the road and rail link to Cherbourg. The paratroopers were also to capture bridges over the Merderet so that the forces arriving by sea could advance rapidly across the peninsula and cut it off, before advancing north on the port of Cherbourg.
A moment later, the British commando and pathfiders followed.
The aircraft then headed for Brittany at low altitude (150 meters) to avoid German radar echoes and was flying over the sea a few kilometers north of the Guernsey and Jersey islands. At the same time, English Stirling bombers dropped thousands of aluminum foil slats, nicknamed “Windows”, in the area of Granville (south of the Cotentin Peninsula), returning radar echoes identical to those of the planes. Germans thought they were seeing several thousands of aircraft over the Cotentin on their control screens, while the actual number of aircraft did not exceed 1,500.
During the flight over the Cotentin, the C-47s were greeted by heavy fire from the German anti-aircraft defense, which sowed disorder among the airplane formations. The C-47s were neither armed nor armored. These aircraft and their crews had no means by which to defend themselves once the German anti-aircraft guns began to fire. Further, since they were not armor plated, due to weight, being hit by flak or shrapnel in an engine or fuel tank was catastrophic for the aircraft and crew.
The American C-47 pilots were relatively inexperienced in combat flying. The lack of experience, combined with the fact that the crews were ordered to fly under radio silence, compounded an already perilous situation. Some of the pilots ordered the jump too soon while others waited too long. As a result of the ill-timed jumps, scores of paratroopers were dropped at an altitude too low for success. Many were dropped at sea while others jumped into flooded fields. Some paratroopers drowned by less than a meter of water, being extremely loaded and their equipment pulled them down. John Taylor, a paratrooper belonging to the 101st Airborne Division, remembered: “Those who jumped from the C-47 before me drowned in a marsh, just like those who jumped after me. I landed on a thin strip of land a few meters wide that crossed the marshes”.
Other companies jumped into heavily defended towns and were either shot down while descending or captured once they hit the ground. Many paratroopers never got to jump at all as several aircraft were damaged in flight to the extent that they crash landed or exploded while still in flight; the aircraft carrying their crews and full complements of paratroopers were casualties of war. Planes were being hit, exploding, or crashing to the ground in flames.
One such aircraft crashed into a hedgerow and immediately burst into flames. This plane carried the headquarters for Easy (E) Company; 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Easy Company’s recently installed leader, 1st Lieutenant Thomas Meehan, was killed instantly. Command of Easy Company fell to 1st Lieutenant Richard Winters. He and his fellow paratroopers were unaware of Meehan’s fate upon landing in France. The story of Easy Company was later told in the book and the film Band of Brothers.
The 101st Airborne Division began at 00:20 with the Pathfinders drop. The 82nd Airborne Division started at 01:21 with its own Pathfinders drop. More than 75% of the paratroopers were not dropped over the initially planned landing zone; many found themselves dropped to several tens of kilometers from their initial objectives.
Many survivors did not have anything when they landed. Some paratroopers lost everything they had packed into their leg bags, which blew off immediately once they exited the aircraft; that meant no map, compass, weapon, food, or ammunition. They were scavenging for themselves seeking food and ammo.The men started to gather in the small dark fields and hedgerows, challenging each other. In the 101st, the men were issued a small tin plate child’s toy, called a “cricket.” One click was to be answered by two clicks. The 82nd had opted for a password, “Flash” which was to be answered by “Thunder.”
Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne, recalled:
“God must have opened the chute. [Reaction on being dropped from an altitude of 500 feet]. When I began to use my cricket, the first man I met in the darkness I thought was a German until he ‘cricketed.’ He was the most beautiful soldier I’d ever seen, before or since. We threw our arms around each other, and from that moment I knew we had won the war. “
These were crazy moments to all – especially the general. They lacked staff, communications, and soldiers. Taylor observed that around him there were many officers but only a few soldiers. Taylor found himself with several officers but only two or three enlisted men. “Never,” he told them, “have so few been commanded by so many.”
There was total disorganization of the American airborne forces. Small groups of paratroopers were organizing and heading towards their objectives, gathering on their way isolated American soldiers who had lost all contact with their own unit. U.S. paratroopers at times had trouble advancing upon landing. The Germans had flooded fields and waterways and used natural dirt and tree fences along with hundreds of acres of mine fields.
After landing, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway, commander of the 82nd Airborne, was alone in a field, pistol in hand, counting himself lucky. As he was later to recall, “at least if no friends were visible neither were any foes.” His assistant, Brigadier General James M. Gavin, was miles away in the swamps of the Merderet.
Ridgway told of his advance:
“The Germans were all around us, of course, sometimes within 500 yards of my command post, but in the fierce and confused fighting that was going on all about they did not launch the strong attack that could have wiped out our eggshell perimeter defenses.”
At this time, Gavin and a number of paratroopers were trying to salvage equipment bundles from the marshes. In them were the radios, bazookas, mortars and ammunition Gavin so desperately needed. He knew that by dawn the heel of the airhead which his men were to hold would be under heavy attack. As he stood knee-deep in cold water, alongside the troopers, other worries were crowding in on Gavin. He was not sure where he was, and he wondered what to do about the number of injured men who had found their way to his little group and were now lying along the edge of the swamp.
The majority of the 82nd were fighting small but crucial actions where they landed. For these paratroopers, with their minds on survival, getting out of the flooded fields and onto terra firma was paramount. The embankment of the Cherbourg-Carentan railway was the best bet to lead to safety. Among the men headed for the embankment was Brigadier General Gavin, along with a few lost men. Finding more men, General Gavin began to get them organized and marched them south along the railway embankment to seize his objectives – the bridges over the Merderet. All around them was heavy fighting, for they had come down virtually in the middle of the German 91st Airlanding Division.
The 505th PIR had landed northwest of Sainte-Mère-Église. This had been through the sheer determination of their pilots. Their mission was to seize and hold the vital crossroads of the town. At about 01:00 that day, the inhabitants of Sainte-Mère-Église were busy fighting a house fire on the east side of the town square. It was thought to have been started by a stray incendiary bomb or tracer bullet. The fire was getting out of hand and the small fire brigade could not cope. The mayor rushed to the German headquarters to see if he could get the curfew lifted so as to get as many volunteers as possible to form a bucket chain. The Germans agreed and turned out the guard to supervise the townsfolk. The church bell was ringing loudly, but above all the commotion, aircraft engines could be heard approaching from the west. It was not long before anti-aircraft batteries around the town were adding their own noise to the now deafening din. Parachutes were spotted floating down. This was a stick from the 506th PIR of the 101st Airborne Division, who were supposed to be landing about seven miles away. These men dropped in and around the town. Four were killed immediately, riddled by German bullets as they tried to free themselves from their harnesses. The remainder scattered.
Lieutenant Charles Santarsiero of the 506th PIR was standing in the door of his plane as it passed over Sainte-Mère-Église,
“We were about four hundred feet up, and I could see fires burning and Krauts running about. There seemed to be total confusion on the ground. All hell broken loose. Flak and small-arms fire was coming up and those poor guys were caught right in the middle of it.”
About fifteen minutes later a platoon from the 505th PIR landed directly in the town, right in the middle of the now fully alerted German garrison. One soldier floated down into the blazing building and the explosives he was carrying blew up; others came down in the square itself or got snagged up in the trees surrounding it. They were immediately shot. The mayor, Alexandre Renaud, remembers standing in the square when a paratrooper plunged into a tree. Almost immediately, as he tried frantically to get out of his harness, he was spotted. “About half a dozen Germans emptied the magazines of their sub-machine guns into him and the boy hung there with his eyes open, as though looking down at his own bullet holes.”
One man, Private John M. Steele, had his parachute catch on the steeple of the church and he just hung there unable to move. On the way down something hit him that felt “like the bite of a sharp knife.” He had been shot through the foot. He hung there feigning death. The noise of the church bells alongside his head temporarily deafened him. Finally he was saved by a German observer stationed in the belfry.
o O o
Madame Angeele Levrault, sixty-year-old schoolmistress in Sainte-Mère-Église, heard of in the distance the low throbbing of planes, the muffled booming of explosions and the sharp staccato of quick-firing flak batteries. Quickly she went to the window. Far up the coast, hanging eerily in the sky, were brilliant clusters of flares. A red glow tinged the clouds. In the distance there were bright-pink explosions and streams of orange, green, yellow and white tracer bullets. To Madame Levrault it looked as if Cherbourg, twenty-seven miles away, was being bombed again. She was glad she lived in quiet little Sainte-Mère-Église this night.
The schoolmistress went out the back door, bound for the outhouse. In the garden everything was peaceful. The flares and the moonlight made it seem bright as day. The neighboring fields with their hedgerows were still and quiet, filled with long shadows.
She had taken only a few steps when she heard the sound of airplanes growing louder, heading for the town. Suddenly every flak battery in the district began firing. Madame Levrault, frightened, rushed wildly for the protection of a tree.
The planes came in fast and low, accompanied by a thunderous barrage of antiaircraft fire, and she was momentarily deafened by the din. Almost immediately the roar of the engines faded, the firing ceased and, as though nothing had happened, there was silence again.
It was then that she heard a strange fluttering sound from somewhere above her. She looked up. Floating down, heading straight for the garden, was a parachute with something bulky swinging beneath it. For a second the light of the moon was cut off, and at that moment Private Robert M. Murphy of the 82nd Airborne, a pathfinder, fell with a thud less than 20 m away and tumbled head over heels into the garden. Madame Levrault stood petrified.
Quickly the eighteen-year-old trooper whipped out a knife, cut himself loose from his chute, grabbed a large bag and stood up. Then he saw Madame Levrault. They stood looking at each other for a long moment. To the old Frenchwoman, the paratrooper looked weirdly frightening. He was tall and thin, his face was streaked with war paint, accentuating his cheekbones and nose. He seemed weighted down with weapons and equipment. Then, as the old lady watched in terror, unable to move, the strange apparition put a finger to his lips in a gesture of silence and swiftly disappeared. What Madame Levrault had seen was one of the first Americans to land in Normandy. The time was 12:15, Tuesday, June 6. D-Day had begun.
Of course she had no idea of the man’s name or unit, but she kept three hundred rounds of ammunition, still in their pouches, which the paratrooper had dropped. In 1958, Mr. Murphy, now a prominent Boston lawyer, said that “after hitting the ground… I took my trench knife from my boot and cut myself out of the harness. Without knowing it I also cut away pouches carrying three hundred rounds of ammunition.” His story tallied in all respects with Madame Levrault’s.
o O o
In Neuville-au-Plain, Miss Marcelle Hamel was a schoolteacher of a single class of different levels with 32 boys and girls from 5 to 13 years old. She has the following story to tell.
It is about 10:00 PM on Monday 5th and I have just gone to bed next to my mother. From my bed I can contemplate yet a little longer the end of that fine day. With a little sadness, I am thinking of a June evening just like this one yet in 1940, when my friend Jean left me to join La France Libre (Free France). I know he has landed in North Africa, perhaps he has already reached Italy? Soon, maybe… But let’s not dream, let’s try to sleep.
Suddenly the silence of the night is disturbed by the whirring sound of planes. But this is so common that we pay little attention, particularly as we are far from any military target and the railway track is five kilometres away. But the noise is getting louder, the sky lighter and redder. I arise and, soon, the whole family is up. We go out into the yard. Everything seems quiet there. Only the faint rumble of a bombardment near Quinéville can be heard. However, innumerable squadrons seem to hover mysteriously in a ceaseless whirring. Then it all diminishes. “It is just like last time”, my mother says, “they must have bombed the blockhouses on the coast.” And we all go back to bed.
Mother immediately falls asleep. But I sit up in bed and go on watching the light night rectangle through the window. I see fantastic shadows appearing from nowhere, dark against the the sky, like huge black parasols which seem to rain softly down onto the fields opposite and disappear behind the black line of the hedgerow.
No, I am not dreaming! My grandmother who was not asleep has seen them too, through her bedroom window. I wake up my mum and aunt. We dress quickly and go out into the yard. Once more, the sky is full of a continuous humming which is growing louder. Father Dumont, a widower who lives with his three children across the road, has come outside too. He comes towards us and points to the material of a parachute which is hanging from the roof of the covered playground. The Dumont children have followed their father and joined us in the schoolyard. But we have yet to discover the secret of the night.
My impatient curiosity is stronger. I go out of the schoolyard and walk a short distance on the pathway. At the neighbour’s fence, a man is sitting on the embankment. He is carrying heavy bags and is fully armed: a rifle, a gun, and a sort of cutlass. He beckons me over. In English, I ask him whether his plane was shot down. In a whisper he sets me straight and deals me, in an impeccable French, the astounding news: “It is the great invasion… Thousands and thousands of paratroopers are descending here tonight. I am an American soldier but I speak your language well as my mother is French. She is from the Basses-Pyrenees.”
I ask him: “What is happening on the shore? Is there a landing? What about the Germans?” My emotions confuse my thoughts and make me stutter. He doesn’t answer my questions but asks me about the strength and location of the enemy in the vicinity. I reassure him: “There are no Germans here; the nearest are stationed in Sainte-Mère-Église, about two kilometres away.”
The American tells me he would like to look at his map in a place where his electric torchlight can’t be seen. I tell him to come to our house. He is reluctant because he is afraid, he says, of compromising us in case some Germans come unexpectedly. This is a possibility I have not even thought of and which, unaware of danger as I am, still refuse to consider. I insist and reassure him: “Father Dumont and my old aunt will keep watch over the school, one in front, the other at the back.”
The soldier follows us, limping slightly. He explains he sprained his ankle when landing and refuses to be taken care of. There are more important things. In the classroom, where my grandmother, mother and the Dumont children have come after him, he removes one of his three or four canvas bags, tears away the sticky bands sealing it and takes out some maps. He unfolds one on a desk. It is a map of the area. He asks me to show him our exact location. He is surprised to be so far from the railway track and from a river called “le Merderet” which runs west of Neuville marsh. I show him the path to get there. It is where, theoretically, he is supposed to meet his comrades. He looks at his watch. Without thinking, I do the same. It is twenty past eleven. He folds his map up and hides every trace of his coming. He takes some chocolate from his pocket and gives it to the children, but they are so astonished that they forget to eat it.
With that done, he gets ready to leave. He seems perfectly calm and in control of himself, but the hand I shake is sweaty and it contracts in mine. I wish him good luck in a tone which is supposed to be jolly. “Good night to you all!” he answers. And in English, so that no one but I will understand, he adds: “The coming days will be terrible. Good luck to you, Miss. Thank you, I will think of you all my life.” And he disappears as if he were but a vision in a dream.
At 04:00, Sainte-Mère-Église became the first French town liberated by the Americans. Now the 1st Battalion of the 505th PIR set out to capture and hold the bridges over the Merderet at La Fière and Chef-du-Pont, while the 2nd Battalion was to establish a blocking line to the north.
Moments later, at 04:08, Brigadier-General Don Pratt, second in command of the 101st Airborne Division, died in the brutal landing of his glider (called “Fighting Falcon”) near Hiesville. He is the highest-ranking solder died on D-Day.
o O o
At 02:00, 1st Lt. Robert Mathias and 16 men in his command were riding in the darkness of a C-47. Mathias was the leader of the Second Platoon, E Company, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Mathias saw the red light go on. “Stand up and hook up!”, Mathias called out. With machine gun bullets tearing through the aircraft the men behind Mathias kept calling out, “Let’s go, damn it, jump!” But it was Mathias’ duty to wait, to keep his hands on the outside of the doorway, ready to propel himself into the night the instant the green light went on.
Then suddenly, a shell went off beside him. Red-hot flack ripped into his reserve chute and into his chest. It knocked him off his feet. With all his strength, he began to pull himself back up. Then the green light went on. With blood streaming from his body, Mathias raised his right arm, and called out, “Follow me!” and leaped into the night. If he had wanted to, he could have been evacuated back to Englad for medical care.
Instead, Mathias died in his chute and has been documented as being the first American officer to have died on D-Day.
o O o
On that June morning in Normandy, a small band of mis-dropped and lost paratroopers commanded by Lt Malcolm Brannen of the 82nd Airborne had stumbled across a small mill and. Having woken the owner, Brannen was trying to locate their whereabouts by showing a map to the startled mill owner. Just as he had made the discovery of where they were (between Picauville and Étienville), an urgent whistle was heard from the scouts he had placed further up the lane. The warning had the paratroopers scattering for cover as a car was heard approaching at speed.
The car carried Lieutenant General Wilhelm Falley, commander of the 91st Luftland division, and Major Joachim Bartuzat, logistics adjutant. They were returning from Rennes, where a war game had been organized by the German High Command, to their Division headquarters in Chateau de Bernavile, in Picauville,
Six hours before, they had left their headquarters to attend the war game in Rennes as ordered by Erich Marcks, commander of the 84th Corps. Falley did not received the war game cancellation from Marcks, but he was uneasy with the appearance of Allies bombers over Cherbourg. So he ordered his driver to turn back.
Now as their staff car sped toward them, the paratroopers opened up a withering fire from Garand rifles, M1 carbines and Thompson sub-machine guns.
The vehicle swerved to the right, bouncing off the field boundary stone wall before veering across the lane and crashing into the gable end of the mill. The windshield shattered and Major Bartuzat, sitting beside the driver, slumped down in his seat. The doors flew open with the impact and the driver and Falley were hurled out. Falley’s gun slithered out in front of him. He crawled across the road toward it. The driver, shaken and dazed, saw several American soldiers rushing up to the car. Falley was shouting, “Don’t kill! Don’t kill!” but he continued to crawl toward the gun. There was a shot and Falley collapsed in the road, one hand still stretched out toward the gun.
Lieutenant Malcolm Brannen looked down at the dead man. Then he stooped and picked up the officer’s cap. Stenciled on the sweatband was the name “Falley.” The German wore a greenish-gray uniform with red stripes down the seam of the trousers. There were narrow gold epaulets at the shoulders of his tunic and red tabs decorated with gold-braided oak leaves at the collar. An Iron Cross hung from a black ribbon around the man’s neck. Brannen wasn’t sure, but it looked to him as though he’d killed a general.
Major Bartuzat was killed instantly, but Falley was wounded and was thrown off the car. He tried to withdrew his Luger.
Falley was the first German general to fall in action during the Normandy landings.
It was not yet 05:00.
o O o
Now we start with the story around Caen.
Shortly after midnight, amid the confusion and spectacle caused by a thousand Allied bombers, three Horsa gliders crash-landed in a narrow triangular field that lay next to a swing bridge over the Caen Canal at Bénouville. This was Operation Deadstick commanded by Major John Howard of the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. The objective was to capture intact two road bridges of strategic value across the River Orne and the Caen Canal, then hold them untiled relieved.
It was imperative that these two bridges remained intact and in British hands. If they remained in Axis hands, they provided fast access for German armored units to counterattack the beaches. If taken by the British, they could be used for the advancing British ground units.
Along with their training, the glider troops benefited from access to constantly updated intelligence estimates. Photo reconnaissance flights provided timely images of the bridges and their defenses. Another invaluable source of information was the local French Resistance network. This included Madame Vion, who ran a maternity hospital on the south end of Benouville. She collected information from resistance operatives and passed it on to her contacts in Caen during her periodic trips there for medical supplies. One of her primary sources of information was the conversation at the Café Gondree, located on the west bank of the canal near the bridge. The owners, Georges and Therese Gondree, simply kept their ears open and listened to the conversations of the various German soldiers who frequented the establishment. Therese was from Alsace and spoke German, while Georges spoke some English. The intelligence effort gave them a fairly accurate picture of the bridge’s defenses.
Now, at 00:16, the first glider touched ground and skidded across the landing field, coming to a halt right at the wire. The aircraft stopped so suddenly both pilots were thrown out the front, crashing through the windscreen and landing in front of the glider. In the rest of the glider, 25 Platoon sat stunned for a few seconds. Major Howard was unconscious for just a moment. When he came to, he thought he was blind for a moment. Behind him, Lieutenant Brotheridge opened the glider’s door and told a nearby Bren gunner, “Gun Out!” The platoon quickly recovered and got out. The bridge was less than 30 meters away.
Private Gray, also carrying a Bren gun, charged toward the bridge; his mission was to clear a barn on the west side. As he neared the span he saw a German soldier and fired a burst at him. The enemy soldier went down, and Gray carried on across the bridge, firing as he went. He reached the barn and tossed in a grenade before emptying the rest of his magazine into the structure. When he went inside to check, it was empty.
Meanwhile, Wally Parr’s mission was to knock out the machine-gun bunker with grenades. He went to the bunker, opened the door, and threw in a grenade. When he heard someone still alive inside, Parr pulled the door open again and sprayed the interior with his Sten gun.
As Wally Parr was clearing his bunker, Lieutenant Den Brotheridge was leading his platoon across the bridge. Someone on the German side fired a flare which now hung over the scene. Perhaps the flare’s light exposed the young officer to enemy view or it may have been simple bad luck, but just then a burst of machine-gun fire lashed out across the bridge. A bullet hit Brotheridge in the neck, and he fell to the ground mortally wounded. So intent were his men on the attack no one noticed he had fallen until moments later. Brotheridge was 26. His wife, Margaret, was pregnant for 8 months.
A short distance up the road leading west, veteran German paratrooper Sergeant Heinrich Hickman heard the weapons fire and recognized it as British. He had been out collecting some soldiers on guard duty and was on his way back to his unit. He told two of the soldiers to get out of their car and take the right side of the road while he and the other two took the left. They had crept to within 50 meters or so of the bridge when Hickman spotted the British soldiers advancing toward him. What he saw frightened even him. He remembered that it was “at nighttime when you see a Para running with a Bren gun, and the next with a Sten, and no cover round my back, just me and four youngsters who had never been in action. So I could not rely on them – in those circumstances, you get scared…. So I pull my trigger, I fire.”
His first target was Billy Gray, who was just reloading after spraying the barn. Gray fired back, but neither hit the other. The British soldier ducked back into the barn, so Hickman shifted his fire toward the bridge. Inside the barn, Gray finally took a moment to empty his bursting bladder. Outside, Hickman expended the rest of his ammunition and realized it was time to go. Motioning to the four privates, they all got back into their car and raced off toward Caen. With the bridge in British hands his 15-minute trip back to his unit would now take six hours as he diverted around Caen.
As the battle raged, more gliders landed and another British attack was launched on the bridge over the River Orne. Within ten minutes both bridges had been captured and the troops began digging in and setting up a defense perimeter. Their orders were to await reinforcement from the rest of the 6th Airborne Division, which would soon be landing in and around the drop zones east of the River Orne. Also arriving soon would be the inevitable counter-attack by the Germans.
The Germans had been caught completely by surprise, not least the Bénouville garrison commander, Major Schmidt, who had decided to spend the evening in the nearby village of Ranville with his girlfriend. As commander of the garrison whose task it was to defend the bridges, Schmidt had not even put the demolition charges in place beneath the bridges that evening.
Howard organized the defense of the bridge. Each glider carried a PIAT antitank weapon, but at the time only one could be found in working order. It was given to 17 Platoon with a few rounds of ammunition. Sergeant Thornton took the weapon and made ready. It was now about 02:00.
As the British soldiers took cover around the intersection, three German armored vehicles rumbled down the road in the darkness. Thornton took a position 30 yards from the T-junction and watched as the armored vehicle began moving cautiously toward the bridge. He had only one chance; if he missed it the German would retake the bridge. The Englishman later reported he was “shaking like a leaf” and it was hard to see. Nevertheless, he took careful aim and fired at the looming black shape. The spring-loaded spigot in the PIAT launched its bomb straight into the side of the enemy vehicle. Immediately, an enormous explosion shattered the night air and flames rose into the gloom. The other two vehicles beat a hasty retreat the way they had come as the wreck continued to burn for over an hour. The Germans made a mistake trying to advance with armor unsupported by infantry.
With sunrise, enemy snipers began firing on anything that moved around the canal bridge. A medic was shot through the chest as he stood up, crying “Take my grenades out!” He was worried another shot might explode the deadly little bombs on his chest harness. The British found two more prisoners, who turned out to be Italian slave laborers. Howard ordered them released and given food. To the surprise of the British, the two Italians went out to the landing field, now littered with Horsa gliders, and began putting up the antiglider poles they had been ordered to install by the Germans.
Overhead, a pair of Spitfire fighters flew by at 08:00, their pilots seeing the recognition signals the British laid out to show they had seized the bridges. One of the fighters dropped a package of the early edition newspapers from England. None of them mentioned the landings, but Howard recalled his men being more interested in the comic strip adventures of the character Jane.
At 10:00, the men of D Company saw a rare occurrence on D-Day, the appearance of a German aircraft overhead. The fighter roared down toward the bridge, sending the infantrymen scrambling for cover. The German pilot released a bomb that soared down, hit the bridge, bounced off, and splashed into the canal. Howard, having taken cover in the pillbox, was very impressed by the pilot’s accuracy but relieved his ordnance had been a dud.
Midday came and went, and D Company grimly held onto the bridge despite the incoming fire. Still, no concerted attack by forces materialized. With the airborne landings, the beach assaults, and everything else being thrown at them on June 6, mounting an attack to retake the bridges proved beyond the Germans that day. At 13:30 hours, a few of the glidermen heard bagpipes. When they said so, several of their comrades scoffed at them, but after a few minutes the sound grew louder and closer. It was the 1st Special Service Brigade commanded by Lord Lovat. Since radio communication was spotty at best, he had posted piper Bill Millin at his side, knowing the bagpipe would be a good recognition signal. Lieutenant Sweeney recalled a D Company man standing up and playing a bugle in return.
Lovat’s piper, Bill Millin, then began to play his bagpipes to signal the airborne troops of their arrival. After crossing both the bridges, the commandos moved on to strengthen the airborne troops on the high ground near Amfreville. The commandos and airborne troops took heavy casualties capturing and holding the bridge.
By evening, after the arrival of the 6th Airlanding Brigade brought in by an awesome armada of over 250 gliders, the troops of the 6th Airborne Division had established a sizable bridgehead and additional supplies and reinforcements were already being brought in over the Pegasus and Horsa Bridges.
After crossing both the bridges, the commandos moved on to strengthen the airborne troops on the high ground near Amfreville. The commandos and airborne troops took heavy casualties capturing and holding the ridge. By evening, after the arrival of the 6th Airlanding Brigade brought in by an awesome armada of over 250 gliders, the troops of the 6th Airborne Division had established a sizable bridgehead and additional supplies and reinforcements were already being brought in over the Pegasus and Horsa Bridges.
The Pegasus Bridge Café is said by some to be the first French home to be liberated after the D-Day landings. Immediately after the engagement, the cafe was designated as 7th Batallion’s HQ and Regimental Aid post. To celebrate the success of the operation, owner Georges Gondrée – considered to be the first French liberated on D-Day – dug up nearly a hundred bottles of Champagne he had buried in the back garden at the start of the Occupation. He offered free drinks to all, and Major Howard responded by ordering all his men to report sick to the new Aid post so they could share in the celebrations.
At the other side, eighteen-year-old Private Helmut Roemer was the first German soldier to be “liberated” on D-Day. As a guard on watch at Pegasus Bridge, he had imagined it would be routine duty but suddenly, from the depths of the sky, he heard a “swishing noise”, which kept coming closer. Then there was a loud bang. Initially, he assumed an aircraft had been shot down, but then large gliders capable of carrying 30 men landed ahead of him and disgorged British troops, their faces blackened. They opened fire. Roemer was not heroic – he shouted, let off a flare and ran for his life.
The liberating troops were on the edge of the bridge firing heavily but Roemer and two fellow soldiers threw themselves into bushes and hid. They witnessed their comrades being shot in the fierce fight to take the bridge. A boat on the canal was sunk. Roemer and his two comrades spent more than a day hiding in their bush on the edge of the canal, drinking canal water. But after 36 hours they gave themselves up and witnessed the first British troops crossing the bridge accompanied by a piper.
“We were exhausted and we decided to hand ourselves over to the British, thinking, ‘Either they will shoot us or they’ll take us prisoner,’“ he says. They took him prisoner and it was the start of two years in captivity which he describes today as “like a holiday camp”.
Then Roemer and his comrades were shipped across the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia before being taken across Canada by steam train to a camp near Calgary. This, Roemer says, was marvellous – like being on holiday. There were concert parties at the camp and much recreation. Male prisoners would dress up as female chanteuses and sing cabaret songs.
o O o
At 01:00, Major General Josef Reichert, commanding officer of the German 711th Division heard the planes roared over. He and the other officers rushed out onto the veranda – just in time to see the two Britishers land on the lawn. It would have been hard to tell who was the more astonished, Reichert or the two pathfinders. The General’s intelligence officer captured and disarmed the two men and brought them up to the veranda.
The astounded Riechert could only blurt out, “Where have you come from?” to which one of the pathfinders, with all the aplomb of a man who had just crashed a cocktail party, replied, “Awfully sorry, old man, but we simply landed here by accident.”
Even as they were led away to be interrogated, 570 American and British paratroopers, the first of the Allied forces of liberation, were setting the stage for the battle of D Day. On the landing zones lights were already beginning to flash up into the night sky. The paratroopers were landing all around Riechert’s Headquarters.
At the same time in his hut at Southwick House, the Chief Meteorologist James Martin Stagg was soundly sleeping with the noise of bombers flying overhead.
Also at the same time, President was delivery his address from the White House, informing the Americans that the Allies has occupied Roma the day before. For the time being, D-Day was still a secret.
It was not until eleven minutes past 01:00, June 6, that the Seventh Army, its commander not yet returned from his map exercise at Rennes, realized what was happening. Two American and one British airborne divisions had begun landing in its midst.
Forty-five minutes later Major General Max Pemsel, chief of staﬀ of the Seventh Army, got General Speidel on the telephone at Rommel’s headquarters and told him that it looked like “a large-scale operation.” Speidel did not believe it but passed on the report to Rundstedt, who was equally skeptical. Both generals believed the dropping of parachutists was merely an Allied feint to cover their main landings around Calais. At 02:40 Pemsel was advised that Rundstedt “does not consider this to be a major operation.”
More than two hours had elapsed since the first paratroopers had landed. Only now were the German commanders in Normandy beginning to realize that something important might be happening. The first scattered reports were beginning to come in and slowly, like a patient coming out of anesthetic, the Germans were awakening.
General Erich Marcks stood at a long table studying the war maps spread out before him. He was surrounded by his staff. They had been with him ever since his birthday party, briefing the 84th Corps commander for the war games in Rennes. Every now and then the general called for another map. It seemed to his intelligence officer, Major Friedrich Hayn, that Marcks was preparing for the Kriegsspiel as though it was a real battle, instead of merely a theoretical invasion of Normandy.
In the midst of their discussion, the phone rang. The conversation ceased as Marcks picked up the receiver. Hayn recalls that “as he listened, the General’s body seemed to stiffen.” Marcks motioned to his chief of staff to pick up the extension phone. The man who was calling was Major General Wilhelm Richter, commander of the 716th Division, holding the coast above Caen. “Parachutists have landed east of the Orne,” Richter told Marcks. “The area seems to be around Breeville and Ranville … along the northern fringe of the Bavent Forest. …”
This was the first official report of the Allied attack to reach a major German headquarters. “It struck us,” Hayn says, “like lightning.” The time was 02:11.
Marcks immediately telephoned Major General Max Pemsel, chief of staff of the Seventh Army.
At 02:15, Pemsel placed the Seventh on Alarmstruffe II, the highest state of readiness. It was four hours since the second Verlaine message had been intercepted. Now at last the Seventh Army, in whose area the invasion had already begun, had been alerted.
The 84th Corps reported again: “Parachute drops near Montebourg and St.-Marcouf… Troops partly already engaged in battle.” Pemsel promptly called Rommel’s chief of staff, Major General Dr. Hans Speidel at Army Group B. It was 02:35. Speidel did not believe it but passed on the report to Rundstedt, who was equally skeptical. Both generals believed the dropping of parachutists was merely an Allied feint to cover their main landings around Calais.
By 03:00, Pemsel was convinced that the main thrust was driving into Normandy – after so much time was wasted. He called Speidel. “The air landings,” Pemsel said, “constitute the first phase of a larger enemy action.” Then he added, “Engine noises are audible from out at sea.” But Pemsel could not convince Rommel’s chief of staff. Speidel’s answer, as recorded in the Seventh Army telephone log, was that “the affair is still locally confined.” The estimate that he gave Pemsel at this time was summarized in the war diary and reads: “Chief of Staff Army Group B believes that for the time being this is not to be considered as a large operation.”
Even as Pemsel and Speidel talked, the last paratroopers of the 18,000-man airborne assault were floating down over the Cherbourg peninsula. Sixty-nine gliders, carrying men, guns and heavy equipment, were just crossing the coast of France, headed for the British landing areas near Ranville. And twelve miles off Normandy’s five invasion beaches, the Ancon, headquarters ship of Task Force O, under the command of Rear Admiral John L. Hall, dropped anchor. Lining up behind her were the transports carrying the men who would land in the first wave on Omaha Beach.
In Paris, OB West endorsed Speidel’s first estimate of the situation. Rundstedt’s able operations chief, Lieutenant General Bodo Zimmermann, informed of Speidel’s conversation with Pemsel, sent back a message agreeing with Speidel: “Operations OB West holds that this is not a large-scale airborne operation, all the more because Admiral Channel Coast (Krancke’s Headquarters) has reported that the enemy has dropped straw dummies.”
These officers can hardly be blamed for being so utterly confused. They were miles away from the actual fighting, entirely dependent on the reports coming in. These were so spotty and so misleading that even the most experienced officers found it impossible to gauge the magnitude of the airborne assault – or, for that matter, to see an overall pattern emerging from the Allied attacks. If this was the invasion, was it aimed at Normandy? Only the Seventh Army seemed to think so. Perhaps the paratroop attacks were simply a diversion intended to draw attention from the real invasion – against General Hans von Salmuth’s massive Fifteenth Army in the Pas-de-Calais, where nearly everybody thought the Allies would strike. The Fifteenth’s chief of staff, Major General Rudolf Hofmann was so sure the main attack would come in the Fifteenth’s area that he called Pemsel and bet him a dinner that he was right. “This is one bet you’re going to lose,” said Pemsel. Yet at this time neither Army Group B nor OB West had sufficient evidence to draw any conclusions. They alerted the invasion coast and ordered measures taken against the paratroop attacks. Then everybody waited for more information. There was little else they could do.
By now, messages were flooding in command posts all over Normandy. One of the first problems for some of the divisions was to find their own commanders – the generals who had already left for the Kriegsspiel in Rennes. Although most of them were located quickly, two – Lieutenant General Karl von Schlieben and Major General Wilhelm Falley, both commanding divisions in the Cherbourg peninsula – couldn’t be found. Von Schlieben was asleep in his hotel in Rennes and Falley was still en route there by car.
At about the same time, General Hans Von Salmuth, from his Fifteenth Army headquarters near the Belgian border, was trying to get some firsthand information. Although the bulk of his army was far removed from the airborne attacks, one division, Major General Josef Reichert’s 711th, held positions east of the Orne River on the boundary line between the Seventh and Fifteenth armies.
Several messages had come in from the 711th. One reported that paratroopers actually were landing near the headquarters at Cabourg; a second announced that fighting was going on all around the command post.
Von Salmuth decided to find out for himself. He rang Reichert. “What the devil is going on down there?” Von Salmuth demanded.
“My General,” came Reichert’s harassed voice on the other end of the wire, “if you’ll permit me, I’ll let you hear for yourself.” There was a pause, and then Von Salmuth could clearly hear the clatter of machine-gun fire.
“Thank you,” said Von Salmuth, and he hung up. Immediately he, too, called Army Group B, reporting that at the 711th’s headquarters “the din of battle can be heard.”
Pemsel’s and Von Salmuth’s calls, arriving almost simultaneously, gave Rommel’s headquarters the first news of the Allied attack. Was it the long-expected invasion? Nobody at Army Group B at this time was prepared to say. In fact, Rommel’s naval aide, Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge, distinctly remembers that as more reports came in of airborne troops “some said they were only dolls disguised as paratroopers.”
Whoever made the observation was partly right. To add to the German confusion, the Allies had dropped hundreds of lifelike rubber dummies, dressed as paratroopers, south of the Normandy invasion area. Attached to each were strings of firecrackers which exploded on landing, giving the impression of a small-arms fight. For more than three hours a few of these dummies were to deceive General Marcks in believing that paratroopers had landed at Lessay, some 40 km southwest of his headquarters.
These were strange, confusing minutes for Von Rundstedt’s staff at OB West in Paris and for Rommel’s officers at La Roche-Guyon. Reports came piling in from everywhere – reports that were often inaccurate, sometimes incomprehensible and always contradictory.
o O o
Major General “Windy” Gale, divisional commander of the British 6th Airborne, had several other tasks to complete before dawn, not least of which was silencing the heavily fortified German coastal battery at Merville. Despite a raid by a hundred Lancasters dropping 4,000-pound bombs, the guns of the battery were still undamaged beneath their massive reinforced concrete casemates. The task of destroying the guns was assigned to Lieutenant Colonel Terrance Otway, who would lead the men of the 9th Parachute Battalion (Para Bn) on one of the most daring raids of the whole invasion. Despite the loss of their supplies and heavy equipment, and with over three-quarters of his paratroopers still missing after a disastrously scattered drop, Otway decided to attack the battery with his meager force.
Otway’s command made its way through the darkened countryside to the battery’s perimeter wire. Here they waited tensely for the arrival of three gliders, due to land within the grounds of the coastal battery. The surprise arrival of the gliders, loaded with combat troops, was expected to create panic and confusion among the 130-strong German garrison; Otway would then launch his assault across the barbed wire entanglements and minefields of the fortified perimeter defenses.
As the time of the attack approached, only two gliders could be seen circling above the battery (one having lost its tow shortly after take-off), but the star shells – which the ground troops would use to illuminate the area for the glider pilots – had been lost in the drop. Under fire from German anti–aircraft guns, one of the glider pilots mistook a nearby village for the battery and headed off in the wrong direction. The second glider headed for the battery but was caught in crossfire from German anti-aircraft guns, which caused the glider to overshoot its landing zone into a nearby orchard.
Otway decided to waste no more time and launched his attack. Two gaps were blown in the barbed wire with Bangalore torpedoes and his men charged through. In the confusion, many of the men ran over the uncleared minefield with the inevitable horrific results. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued and chaos and confusion seemed to reign. At this point, however, the months of hard training gave the attackers the edge and the German garrison was finally forced to surrender. After spiking the guns (which happened to be 100mm field guns and not the 150mm guns that had been predicted by Intelligence), Otway gave the order to withdraw. Only about 80 of the 150 men who had begun the assault were capable of walking out of the area with him. The rest lay dead or wounded.
On the eastern flank of the 6th Airborne Division, the extent of the scattered parachute drops was becoming apparent. Many paratroopers had landed far from their designated drop zone and some of the least fortunate had landed in the flooded waters of the Dives Valley. Overburdened by their heavy equipment, which weighed in excess of thirty-five kilograms (eighty pounds), some subsequently drowned in the cold, dark waters of the river.
Spread over an area 330 square kilometers, several groups made up from men of various regiments and battalions, formed together to complete the other primary tasks essential to the success of the landings.
Almost on the coast and nearly 5 km east of Sword Beach, Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway and his men lay under heavy machine gun fire at the edge of the barbed wire and the mine fields protecting the massive Merville battery. Otway’s situation was desperate. The bombing attack had failed. The special glider train had been lost and with it artillery, flame throwers, mortars, mine detectors and scaling ladders. Of his 700-man battalion, Otway had found only 150 soldiers and, to take the battery with its garrison of 130-160, these soldiers had only their rifles, Sten guns, grenades, a few Bangalore torpedoes and one heavy machine gun. Despite these handicaps, Otway’s men had grappled with each problem, improvising brilliantly.
As he looked around at his men, Otway knew that his casualties would be high. But the guns of the battery had to be silenced – they could slaughter the troops crossing Sword Beach. He had to attack. He knew this even as he knew that the last part of his carefully detailed plan was also doomed to failure. The three gliders due to crash-land on the battery as the ground attack went in would not come down unless they received a special signal – a star shell fired from a mortar. Otway had neither the shell nor the mortar. He did have flares for a Very pistol, but they were to be used only to signal the success of the assault. His last chance for help was gone.
The gliders were on time: 04:30. The tow planes signaled with their landing lights and then cast off the machines. There were only two gliders, each carrying about twenty men. The third, parting from its tow rope over the Channel, had glided safely back to England. Now the paratroopers heard the soft rustle of the machines as they came over the battery. Helplessly Otway watched as the gliders, silhouetted against the moon, gradually lost height and wheeled back and forth, their pilots searching desperately for the signal he could not send. As the gliders circled lower the Germans opened up. The machine guns which had pinned down the troopers now turned on the gliders. Streams of 20-millimeter tracers ripped into the unprotected canvas sides. Still the gliders circled, following the plan, doggedly looking for the signal. And Otway, agonized, almost in tears, could do nothing.
Then the gliders gave it up. One veered off, to land four miles away. The other crashed into a wood some distance away. Instinctively a few men pushed themselves up from hiding to go help the survivors. But they were stopped immediately. “Don’t move! Don’t leave your positions!” whispered their harassed officers. There was now nothing more to wait for. Otway ordered the attack. Private Mower heard him yell, “Everybody in! We’re going to take this bloody battery!”
And in they went. The battle took just fifteen minutes.
Otway lost almost half of his own men – seventy killed or wounded. Within forty-eight hours the Germans would be back in the battery and two of the guns would be firing on the beaches. But for the critical few hours ahead the Merville battery would be silent and deserted.
The 6th Air Division fulfilled the expectations. Major Howard’s glider-borne troops were firmly astride the vital Caen and Orne bridges. By dawn the five crossings over the Dives would be demolished. Lieutenant Colonel Otway and his emaciated battalion had knocked out the Merville battery, and paratroopers were now in position on the heights overlooking Caen. As long as the various arteries could be held, German counterattacks would be slowed down or stopped altogether.
Note: Ryan (1959) states that at Merville the German deployed 75mm guns, half in caliber of 150mm guns previouly reported by allies intelligence; in fact, the guns are Czech 100 mm.
o O o
In the ancient Norman city of Caen, people were awake much earlier than usual. By 06.00 hours, the boulangeries in Caen were besieged by housewives buying baguettes. But then German soldiers, spotting the crowds, rushed up to take the bread for themselves. They also seized bottles of alcohol from cafés. After the reports of paratroop drops had been confirmed, neighbours emerging from apartments on to stairwells or calling to each other from their windows were confused.
Marianne Daure, woken by aircraft in the early hours, also asked her husband if this was the landing. Pierre Daure, the rector of the university, who had been secretly appointed the new préfet of Calvados by de Gaulle, replied drily, ‘Yes, it is indeed the landing.’ Marianne Daure was also the sister of François Coulet, whom de Gaulle had chosen to be the commissaire de la république for Normandy, yet she had been told nothing. Despite SHAEF’s fears, the Gaullists had kept the secret scrupulously.
o O o
The dawn of D-Day on the Cotentin peninsula brought only a little clarity to the scattered American airborne troops. The tall hedgerows of the Normandy fields made it hard to orientate themselves. For many, daylight meant that they could at last light a cigarette without giving their position away. Finding containers and equipment bundles also became easier. A French boy with a horse and cart helped an airborne staff officer gather them up. German soldiers also profited as a result of the manna from heaven which had rained down in containers during the night. They helped themselves to American K-Rations and cigarettes.
The regimental surgeon of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment had to operate in the field with the barest equipment. All their medical bundles had been lost in the drop. ‘A soldier had his leg blown off right by the knee and the only thing left attached was his patellar tendon. And I had him down there in this ditch and I said: “Son, I’m gonna have to cut the rest of your leg off and you’re back to bullet-biting time because I don’t have anything to use for an anesthetic.” And he said: “Go ahead, Doc.” I cut the patellar tendon and he didn’t even whimper.’
Another medical officer in the same regiment, who had found himself having to hold up plasma bags while being shot at, was soon captured by the Germans. They took him to the 91st Luftlande-Division’s Feldlazarett, or field hospital, set up in the Château de Hauteville, five miles west of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. The German medics treated him as a friend, and he went about his work tending wounded American paratroopers assisted by a German sergeant who was a Catholic priest in civilian life.
Although the Americans were superior in numbers, their advances were difficult. Widely scattered groups had dropped in the marshy area on the west side of the Merderet. They found the hedgerows thick with bramble and thorn, and small German detachments ensconced in Norman farms whose solid stone walls provided natural defensive positions. Once again, the lack of communication with the main American forces on the east of the river made it impossible to coordinate their efforts.
Major von der Heydte had pushed forward two battalions of his 6th Paratroop Regiment from Carentan. His men, among the most experienced of the Luftwaffe’s Paratroop Army, were to prove formidable opponents. When dawn broke, they gazed in amazement at all the different coloured parachutes lying in the fields. They wondered at first whether they represented different units, but soon got out their knives to cut themselves silk scarves. Heydte himself went forward to Saint-Côme-du-Mont later in the morning and climbed the church tower. From there he could see the huge armada of ships lying offshore.
For American paratroopers, the sound of the naval bombardment of Utah beach provided the first reassurance that the invasion was proceeding according to plan. But with the loss of so much equipment and ammunition in the drop, and the increasing concentration of German forces against them, everything depended on how quickly the 4th Infantry Division would arrive.
Bombing and Bombardment
Since spring, the Allies air force had been carrying out numerous operations over France, relentlessly bombing aerodromes, radar stations, munitions dumps and the artillery batteries of the Atlantic Wall, in order to weaken the Germans’ defensive capabilities prior to D-Day. It then turned its attention to railway stations and road and rail bridges, in order to isolate Normandy little by little from the rest of the country.
By the beginning of June 1944, Eisenhower had more than 11,000 aircraft of every kind at his disposal, placed under the responsibility of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory. The Germans had fewer than a thousand aircraft to send against them, and this massive imbalance would be one of the keys to Allies success on D-Day.
Beginning at 03:00 of June 6 1,900 Allied bombers attacked German lines. More than 3,000 tons of bombs were dropped that day. A total of 10,521 combat aircraft flew a total of 15,000 sorties on D-Day, with 113 lost.
For coastal batteries, on the night of 5-6 June, 1,012 aircraft were deployed. 946 planes completed their bombing, three aircraft were lost. No less than 5,000 tons of bombs were dropped, the biggest tonnage dropped overnight during the war (this is due to the relative proximity of targets to aerodromes, allowing to carry a minimum of fuel and a maximum of bombs).
The U.S. Air Force reported that 92 radar stations were bombed from Barfleur to Le Havre, so that the Allies armada was not noticed by radio operators of the German Navy). 74 stations were destroyed by the aviation: the operation was claimed to be a success.
But the bombing of some targets on the coast (artillery batteries, support batteries, fortified points) proved to be a relatively difficult operation. Indeed, 67 of the bombers cancelled their mission because of the bad weather conditions, while others managed to fulfill their mission.
For the road and rail lines behind the combat zone, 1,065 bombers were deployed. All the targets were located in the heart of the French cities or near them: 3,488 tons of bombs are thus dropped on Achères, Argentan, Caen, Châteaudun, Condé-sur-Noireau, Coutances, Saint-Lô, Lisieux and Vire.
Despite the efforts made in the field of precision during raids, collateral damage on French civilians is inevitable. The clouds affect the precision of the bombardments on a good part of the targets and at Achères, the squadron commander orders the abandonment of the raid and no bomb is dropped because of the lack of visibility. 10 Lancasters and 1 Halifax are lost during these raids.
As for the landing beaches, many targets were destroyed or damaged.
But between Longues-sur-Mer to the east and Grandcamp-Maisy to the west, the objectives were not reached, or very little, by the bombing. One landing beach is located in this area, Omaha Beach, where elements of the 1st and 29th American infantry divisions are supposed to land at dawn. According to the reports of different air groups deployed to bombard the area, the presence of clouds complicated their mission, and it took only one or two seconds for the bombs to be dropped several kilometers away from their objectives. For example, coastal artillery batteries near the towns of Longues-sur-Mer and Maisy were virtually intact despite the bombing, as were the 8 strongpoints around Omaha Beach. The Allies did not know it at that time, but the Germans did not suffer any damage in this area.
All day long on June 6, the Allies air force, now the masters of the sky, made endless sorties. Fighters and fighter bombers provided tactical support for the troops on the ground, while bombers attempted to destroy communication hubs in order to delay the arrival of German reinforcements at the front. Stations and bridges were systematically attacked. The centre of Caen was ravaged by bombs in the early afternoon. In the evening of June 6th and overnight, ten towns in Lower Normandy were pitilessly destroyed, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians ‑\ men, women and children alike.
o O o
At 05:10, the British warships started their bombardment of the British-Canadian landing beaches. Off Sword, Juno and Gold the battleships Warspite and Ramillies lobbed tons of steel from their 380mm guns toward powerful German gun batteries at Le Havre and around the mouth of the Orne. Maneuvering cruisers and destroyers poured streams of shells into pillboxes, concrete bunkers and redoubts.
After the air force bombers fail to destroy the battery at Longues-sur-Mer, two cruisers Ajax and Argonaut bombarded this battery and took part in the disarming of two of its 150mm guns and the destruction of a third, destroyed by a direct hit. The remaining gun continued firing, and the flagship of Task Force G, HMS Bulolo, had to retreat to a safety zone.
At 05:50, the bombardment in the American zone began. The entire invasion area erupted with a roaring storm of fire. The maelstrom of sound thundered back and forth along the Normandy coast as the big ships slammed steadily away at their preselected targets. The gray sky brightened with the hot flash of their guns and along the beaches great clouds of black smoke began to bunch up into the air.
Off Omaha, the big battleships Texas and Arkansas, mounting between them a total of ten 355mm, twelve 305mm and twelve 127mm guns, pumped six hundred shells onto the coastal battery position atop Pointe du Hoc in an all-out attempt to ease the way for the Ranger battalions even now heading for the 30m sheer cliffs.
The midnight bombing raids had silenced two of the three German coastal batteries along Gold Beach, at Ver-sur-Mer and Mont Fleury. However, a third battery at Longues, southwest of Arromanches, had survived the 1,000 tons of bombs dropped throughout the night. Its 152mm guns, with their range of 20 kilometers, began firing at the American cruiser USS Arkansas, and a destroyer that were anchored off Omaha Beach just as the Allies began their pre-dawn naval bombardment.
The USS Arkansas, supported by two French destroyers George-Leygues and Montcalm, returned fire and after a brief exchange, the battery redirected its aim toward the fleet anchored off Gold Beach. Shells whistled perilously close to the headquarters ship HMS Bulolo, forcing it to move position. The HMS Ajax immediately returned fire with its own 152mm guns. After a twenty-minute duel, in which time over 100 rounds were fired at the coastal guns, the German battery fell silent.
Unlike the Royal Navy, which fired their turrets in sequence, the American battleships Texas, Arkansas and Nevada fired broadsides with all their 355mm guns at once. The sight made some observers think for a moment that the ship had blown up. Even at a distance, the concussion could be felt. ‘The big guns,’ noted Ludovic Kennedy, ‘make your chest feel that somebody had put their arms around you and given you a good squeeze.’ The passage of the heavy shells created a vacuum in their wake. ‘It was a strange sight,’ wrote a staff sergeant in the 1st Division, ‘to see the water rise up and follow the shells in and then drop back into the sea.’
On the USS Nevada, Yeoman Third Class Charles Langley was almost frightened by the massive fire power of the fleet. He did not see “how any army could possibly withstand the bombardment” and believed that “the fleet would be able to pull out in two or three hours.” And in the speeding assault boats, as this roaring canopy of steel flashed over their heads, the sodden, miserable, seasick men, bailing with their helmets, looked up and cheered.
Lúc 4:30 rạng sáng ngày 6 tháng 6, trên chiếc tàu hàng Prince Baudouin của Bỉ đã được biến cải thành tàu chở quân, binh sĩ thuộc Tiểu đoàn 5 Biệt động quân nhận lệnh xuống tàu đổ bộ. Một sĩ quan nhận thấy có binh sĩ không đội mũ sắt. Anh ra lệnh: “Đội cái mũ sắt chết tiệt của anh lên.” Chỉ là vì chiếc mũ sắt đầy đến một phần ba số tiền anh lính thắng khi chơi bài trên tàu. Anh nói: “Mặc kệ nó”, rồi đổ tất cả số tiền xuống sàn tàu. Các đồng tiền xu lăn lông lốc khắp cùng.
Một số binh sĩ có hành trang đến 50 kg vì mang thiết bị nặng như máy thông tin hoặc súng phun lửa. Phải có người đỡ họ xuống tàu đổ bộ. Đó là công tác nguy hiểm vì tàu đổ bộ dập dềnh lên xuống không ngừng. Một số lính bị gãy cổ chân hoặc cẳng chân vì nhảy không đúng chỗ hoặc bị kẹp giữa tàu đổ bộ and tàu mẹ.
Riêng lính Biệt động quân lĩnh nhiệm vụ leo lên Pointe du Hoc có hành trang nhẹ hơn. Phần lớn chỉ có khẩu tiểu liên Thompson, súng lục tự động .45 and hơn một lạng TNT.
At 04:45, Lieutenant George Honour’s midget submarine X23 broke the surface of a heaving sea one mile off the Normandy coast. Twenty miles away its sister sub the X20 also surfaced. These two 17-meter craft were now in position, each marking one end of the British-Canadian invasion area – the three beaches Sword, Juno and Gold. Now each crew raised a navigation mast with a bright light shining only seaward. This bright directional light would be used as a beacon so that landing craft could easily navigate their way to the correct beach and to avoid obstacles and rock shoals to the east. Also, a radio beacon and echo sounder were installed on both X-Craft that would allow them to communicate with mine sweepers and other ships that were making their approach to Sword and Juno beaches without using a radio.
They had been off Sword Beach since before dawn on June 4 and they had been submerged for more than 21 hours out of each day. In all, since leaving Portsmouth on June 2, they had been under water some 64 hours.
Once on station, they dropped to the sea floor waiting for the signal that the invasion would come the next day. They occasionally popped up for a quick periscope recon, even spotting unaware German soldiers playing football on the beach. They also had to surface every night at 10pm to listen the BBC news broadcast for a coded message that would tell them if the operation would commence the following morning.
Now the crews knew the invasion was finally underway after receiving the coded message the night before, when waves of bombers flew over their positions, each dropping long strings of bombs on German positions along the beaches. Many of these positions the X-Craft had identified during its surveillance missions months earlier.
Their mission was a particularly hazardous one. Twenty minutes before H Hour, the X23 and her sister X20 – some 32 kn farther down the coast, opposite the little village of Le Hamel – would boldly come to the surface to act as navigational markers, clearly defining the extreme limits of the British-Canadian assault zone: three beaches that had been given the code names Sword, Juno and Gold.
The plan they were to follow was involved and elaborate. An automatic radio beacon capable of sending out a continuous signal was to be switched on the moment they surfaced. At the same time sonar apparatus would automatically broadcast sound waves through the water which could be picked up by underwater listening devices. The fleet carrying British and Canadian troops would home in on either one or both of the signals.
Each midget also carried an 6-m telescopic mast to which was attached a small but powerful searchlight that could send out a flashing beam capable of being seen more than five miles away. If the light showed green, it would mean that the subs were on target; if not, the light would be red.
As additional navigation aids, the plan called for each midget to launch a moored rubber dinghy with a man in it and allow it to drift a certain distance toward shore. The dinghies had been outfitted with searchlights which would be operated by their crewmen. By taking bearings on the lights of the midgets and their drifting dinghies, approaching ships would be able to pinpoint the exact positions of the three assault beaches.
Nothing had been forgotten, not even the danger that the little sub might be run over by some lumbering landing craft. As protection the X23 would be clearly marked by a large yellow flag. The point had not escaped Honour that the flag would also make them a fine target for the Germans. Notwithstanding, he planned to fly a second flag, a large white Navy “battle duster.” Honour and his crew were prepared to risk enemy shellfire, but they were taking no chances on being rammed and sunk.
On the British beaches H Hour varied from 7:00 to 7:30 AM. So for two more hours, until the first wave of assault craft came in, the midget subs would have to hold their positions. Until then the X23 and X20 would be exposed on the surface – small, fixed targets for the German beach batteries. And soon it would be daylight.
The use of the X-Craft to guide in the invasion force was viewed as a massive success. Although the Canadians and British saw the X-Craft as key to hitting their targeted landing areas, the Americans declined their participation, instead relying on their own instruments for terminal navigation. This was probably a mistake as American landing craft heading to Utah beach ended up drifting towards the west by the strong current and other ships waded ashore in the wrong locations entirely.
In all, 23 sailors died serving aboard X-Class boats, 16 of which were officers. After the war only five of the shadowy craft remained, with all but one falling victim to the scrapper’s torch. Today, the only X-Class survivor is X24, which is on display at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport. It stands as a humble tribute to the heroes that rode such an inhospitable machine right into the most hostile places in the world.
o O o
How about the first responses from the German side?
At 05:00 of June 6, the persistent Major General Pemsel of the Seventh Army telephoned Rommel’s chief of staff, Major General Speidel, and told him bluntly, “Ships are concentrating between the mouths of the Vire and the Orne. They lead to the conclusion that an enemy landing and large-scale attack against Normandy is imminent.” Pemsel said that based on reports from the German Navy positions along the coast furing the previous hour. They has discovered the sound of ships, not only of a few as before, but of a flotilla.
To von Rundstedt, the impending Normandy assault still looked like a “diversionary attack” and not the real invasion. Even so Rundstedt had moved fast. Two hours before the Allies landing, he had already ordered two massive panzer divisions – the 12th S.S. and the Panzer Lehr, both lying in reserve near Paris – to assemble and rush to the coast. Technically both these divisions came under Hitler’s headquarters, OKW, and they were not to be committed without the Feuhrer’s specific approval. But Rundstedt had taken the chance; he could not believe that Hitler would object or countermand the order. So he sent an official request to OKW for the reserves:
“OB West is fully aware that if this is actually a large-scale enemy operation it can only be met successfully if immediate action is taken. This involves the commitment on this day of the available strategic reserves … these are the 12th S.S. and Panzer Lehr divisions. If they assemble quickly and get an early start they can enter the battle on the coast during the day. Under the circumstances OB West therefore requests OKW to release the reserves…”
It was a perfunctory message, simply for the record.
At Hitler’s headquarters in Berchtesgaden in the balmy unrealistic climate of southern Bavaria, the message was delivered to the office of Colonel General Alfred Jodl, OKW Chief of Operations. Jodl was asleep and his staff believed that the situation had not developed sufficiently enough yet for his sleep to be disturbed. The message could wait until later.
When Jodl woke up at 06:00, he dared not make decisions, whereas Hitler was sleeping and nobody dared to wake him up.
Jodl’s deputy, General Warlimont, had been carefully following the Normandy attack since 4:00. He had received OB West’s teletype message requesting the release of the panzer reserves – the Panzer Lehr and 12th S.S. divisions – and he discussed this by phone with Von Rundstedt’s chief of staff, Major General Geunther Blumentritt. Now Warlimont rang Jodl.
“Blumentritt has called about the panzer reserves,” Warlimont reported. “OB West wants to move them into the invasion areas immediately.”
As Warlimont recalls, there was a long silence as Jodl pondered the question. “Are you so sure that this is the invasion?” asked Jodl. Before Warlimont could answer, Jodl went on:
“According to the reports I have received it could be a diversionary attack… part of a deception plan. OB West has sufficient reserves right now… OB West should endeavor to clean up the attack with the forces at their disposal… I do not think that this is the time to release the OKW reserves… We must wait for further clarification of the situation.”
Warlimont knew there was little use in arguing the point, although he thought the Normandy landings were more serious than Jodl seemed to believe. He was shocked by Jodl’s literal interpretation of the Hitler edict concerning the control of the panzers. True, they were OKW reserves and therefore they came under Hitler’s direct authority. But, like Von Rundstedt, Warlimont had always understood that “in the event of an Allied attack, whether diversionary or not, the panzers would be immediately released – automatically released, in fact.” To Warlimont, such a move seemed only logical; the man on the spot, fighting off the invasion, should have all the available forces to use as he saw fit, especially when the man happened to be the venerable strategist Von Rundstedt.
Jodl could have released the force, but he was taking no chances. As Warlimont was later to recall, “Jodl’s decision was the one he thought Hitler would have made.” Jodl’s attitude, Warlimont felt, was just another example of “the chaos of leadership in the Leader State.” But nobody argued with Jodl. Warlimont put through a call to Blumentritt at OB West. Now the decision to release the panzers would depend on the capricious whim of the man whom Jodl considered to be a military genius – Hitler.
At OB West, Jodl’s response produced shock and incredulity. Lieutenant General Bodo Zimmermann, chief of operations, remembers that Von Rundstedt “was fuming with rage, red in the face, and his anger made his speech unintelligible.” Zimmermann couldn’t believe it either. Previously during the night, in a phone call to OKW, Zimmermann had informed Jodl’s duty officer, Lieutenant Colonel Friedel, that OB West had alerted the two panzer divisions. “No objections whatsoever were made against the movement,” Zimmermann bitterly recalls.
Now he called OKW again and spoke to Army Operations Chief Major General Von Buttlar-Brandenfels. He got a frigid reception – Von Buttlar had picked up his cue from Jodl. In an angry outburst Von Buttlar ranted, “These divisions are under the direct control of OKW! You had no right to alert them without our prior approval. You are to halt the panzers immediately – nothing is to be done before the Feuhrer makes his decision!” When Zimmermann tried to argue back, Von Buttlar shut him up by saying sharply, “Do as you are told!”
The next move should have been up to Von Rundstedt. As a field marshal, he could have called Hitler directly, and it is even likely that the panzers might have been immediately released. But von Rundstedt did not telephone the Feuhrer now or any time during D Day. Not even the overwhelming importance of the invasion could compel the aristocratic Von Rundstedt to plead with the man he habitually referred to as “that Bohemian corporal.”
But his officers continued to bombard OKW with telephone calls in vain and futile efforts to get the decision reversed. They called Warlimont, Von Buttlar-Brandenfels and even Hitler’s adjutant, Major General Rudolf Schmundt. It was a strange, long-distance struggle that would go on for hours. Zimmermann summed it up this way:
“When we warned that if we didn’t get the panzers the Normandy landings would succeed and that unforeseeable consequences would follow, we were simply told that we were in no position to judge – that the main landing was going to come at an entirely different place anyway.”
Meanwhile Hitler, protected by his inner circle of military sycophants, in the balmy, make-believe world of Berchtesgaden, slept through it all. He had retired as usual at 4:00 AM and his personal physician, Dr. Morell, had given him a sleeping draught (he was unable to sleep now without it).
At about 05:00, Hitler’s naval aide, Admiral Karl Jesko von Puttkamer, was awakened by a call from Jodl’s headquarters. Puttkamer’s caller – he cannot recall now who it was – said that there had been “some sort of landings in France.” Nothing precise was known yet – in fact, Puttkamer was told, “the first messages are extremely vague.” Did Puttkamer think that the Feuhrer should be informed? Both men hashed it over and then decided not to wake Hitler. Puttkamer remembers that “there wasn’t much to tell him anyway and we both feared that if I woke him at this time he might start one of his endless nervous scenes which often led to the wildest decisions.” Puttkamer decided that the morning would be time enough to give Hitler the news. He switched off the light and went back to sleep.
At 07:00, Jodle requested Rundstedt to cancel the mobilization of the two panzer divisions. Then he called Speidel to ensure that his request was complied with.
The Field Marshal was like being tied at both hands: he was healthy but he cound not move. The two panzer divisions were immobile waiting for orders during the entire morning of 6 June. The sky was cloudy then and they could have advanced without being detected.
o O o
Forty-eight kilometers away Lieutenant Commander Heinrich Hoffmann, in the lead E-boat of his 5th Flotilla, saw a strange, unreal fog blanketing the sea ahead. Hoffmann had made his name as an E-boat commander. Almost from the beginning of the war, his speedy, powerful flotillas of torpedo craft had ranged up and down the English Channel, attacking shipping wherever they found it.
Before that, at 03:09, a radar report had been sent to Admiral Theodor Krancke, Commander-in-Chief of Navy Group Command West: “Some units toward south”. Some units mean a number of ships. Toward south means toward Normandy. Then Krancke called Le Havre naval base, where Hoffmann was on duty.
When the message from headquarters came in, Hoffmann was in the cabin of T-28, the lead E-boat of his 5th Flotilla, preparing to go out on a mine-laying operation. Immediately he called together the commanders of the other boats. They were all young men, and although Hoffmann told them that “this must be the invasion,” it did not surprise them. They had expected it. Only three of his six boats were ready, but Hoffmann could not wait for the others to be loaded with torpedoes.
At 03:30, Hoffman had led the three E-boat headding south-west at a speed of 43 km/h, nearly in parallel with the coastline. When he was 40 km away from Le Havre, he saw a huge flotilla on the air, and obviously his tiny group was not their target.
Now as Hoffmann watched, a single plane flew out of the whiteness. That confirmed his suspicion – it must be a smoke screen. Hoffmann, followed by the other two E-boats, plunged into the haze to investigate – and got the shock of his life. On the other side he found himself face-to-face with a staggering array of warships – almost the entire British fleet. Everywhere he looked there were battleships, cruisers and destroyers towering over him. “I felt as though I were sitting in a rowboat,” Hoffmann says. Almost instantly shells began to fall around his dodging, twisting boats. Without a moment’s hesitation, the cocky Hoffmann, unbelievably outnumbered, ordered the attack. Seconds later, in the only German naval offensive of D-Day, eighteen torpedoes knifed through the water toward the Allied fleet.
On the bridge of the Norwegian destroyer Svenner, the Royal Navy’s Lieutenant Desmond Lloyd saw them coming. So did officers on the bridges of Warspite, Ramillies and Largs. Largs promptly slammed her engines to full speed astern. Two torpedoes sliced between Warspite and Ramillies. Svenner couldn’t get out of the way. Her captain yelled, “Hard aport! Full ahead starboard! Full astern port!” in a vain effort to swing the destroyer so that the torpedoes would pass parallel to the ship. Lieutenant Lloyd, watching through his binoculars, saw that the torpedoes were going to hit directly beneath the bridge. All he could think of was, “How high will I fly?” With agonizing slowness Svenner turned to port and for a moment Lloyd thought they might escape. But the maneuver failed. A torpedo slammed into the boiler room. Svenner seemed to lift from the water, shuddered and broke in two. Nearby, Leading Stoker Robert Dowie, on the mine sweeper HMS Dunbar, was amazed to see the destroyer slide beneath the water with “her bow and stern sticking up to form a perfect V.” There were thirty casualties. Lieutenant Lloyd, unhurt, swam about for nearly twenty minutes, keeping a sailor with a broken leg afloat, until they were both picked up by the destroyer Swift.
The Norwegian destroyer Svenner with a 2,400-ton replacement was the only Allies warship sunk by the German Navy on D-Day.
To Hoffmann, safely back again on the other side of the smoke screen at a speed of nearly 90 km/h, surpassing any Allies ship, the important thing now was to raise the alarm. He flashed the news to Le Havre, serenely unaware that his radio had been knocked out of commission in the brief battle that had just taken place.
o O o
Certain that his troops were ashore on the invasion beaches, Eisenhower had authorized the release of a communiqué, broasted by BBC:
“Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.”
It was responded with a curious mixture of relief, exhilaration and anxiety. “At last,” said the London Times in a D-Day editorial, “the tension has broken.”
Most Britons heard the news at work. In some war plants the bulletin was read out over loudspeakers and men and women stood back from their lathes and sang God Save the King. Village churches threw open their doors. Total strangers talked to one another on commuter trains. On city streets civilians walked up to American soldiers and shook hands. Small crowds gathered on corners to gaze upward at the heaviest air traffic Britons had ever seen.
Wren Lieutenant Naomi Coles Honour, wife of the skipper of the midget sub X23, heard the news and immediately knew where her husband was. Sometime later she got a call from one of the operations officers at naval headquarters: “George is all right, but you’ll never guess what he’s been up to.” Naomi could hear all that later; the important thing now was that he was safe.
The mother of eighteen-year-old Able Seaman Ronald Northwood of the flagship Scylla got so excited she ran across the street to tell her neighbor Mrs. Spurgeon that “my Ron must be there.” Mrs. Spurdgeon wasn’t to be outdone. She had “a relative on the Warspite” and she was certain he was there, too. (with minor variations the same conversation was taking place all over England.)
Grace Gale, wife of Private John Gale, who had landed in the first wave on Sword Beach, was bathing the youngest of their three children when she heard the bulletin. She tried to hold back her tears, but couldn’t – she was certain that her husband was in France. “Dear God,” she whispered, “bring him back.” Then she told her daughter Evelyn to turn off the radio. “We’re not going to let your dad down by worrying,” she said.
In the cathedral-like atmosphere of the Westminster Bank at Bridgeport in Dorset, Audrey Duckworth was hard at work and didn’t hear about the assault until much later in the day. It was just as well. Her American husband, Captain Edmund Duckworth of the 1st Division, had been killed as he stepped onto Omaha Beach. They had been married just five days.
En route to Eisenhower’s headquarters at Portsmouth, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan heard the BBC warn listeners to stand by for a special announcement. Morgan told his driver to stop the car for a moment. He turned up the volume on his radio – and then the author of the original invasion plan heard the news of the attack.
For most of the United States the report came in the middle of the night; on the East Coast it was 03:33, on the West Coast 12:33.
Wave Ensign Lois Hoffman, wife of the skipper of the Corry, was on duty at the Norfolk, Virginia, naval base when she heard about D Day. From time to time she had kept track of her husband’s destroyer through friends in the operations room. The news had no personal significance for her. She still believed her husband was escorting a munitions convoy in the North Atlantic.
At her home on Long Island, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt had slept fitfully. About 03:00 she awoke and could not get back to sleep. Automatically she turned on the radio – just in time to catch the official D-Day announcement. She knew that it was characteristic of her husband to be somewhere in the thick of the fighting. She did not know that she was probably the only woman in the nation to have a husband on Utah Beach and a son – twenty-five-year-old Captain Quentin Roosevelt of the 1st Division – on Omaha Beach. Sitting up in bed, she closed her eyes and said an old and familiar family prayer: “O Lord support us this day … until the shadows lengthen and the evening falls.”
In churches and synagogues across Manhattan, people bowed their heads in prayer, while in Times Square, crowds craned their necks to watch the latest reports creep across the electronic ticker on the New York Times building. The New York Stock Exchange observed two minutes of silence and thousands gathered in Madison Square for a rally led by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
o O o
Speidel called Rommel at his home in the morning of the 6th of June to inform him of the landings. By the time Rommel arrived back at La Roche Guyon on the night of June 6th, tens of thousands of Allied troops from six Infantry and three Airborne Divisions were reinforcing their beach heads and supported by overwhelming naval and air forces were driving inland. The forces that Rommel immediately commanded were sufficient to slow the Allied advance but not to throw the invaders back into the English Channel.
Rommel spent a few hours with his wife on her birthday before having to travel back to Normandy without getting the chance to try to persuade Hitler to change the command arrangements that might have changed the outcome of the invasion. Deprived of the ability to control all of the key forces in his operational area, especially the Panzer Divisions and without the Luftwaffe being able even to contest Allied air superiority, Rommel was condemned to fight a desperate defensive struggle against an enemy who control the seas, the skies and seemingly had unlimited resources.
There is one important piece of information this morning: When was Rommel informed about the invation? Depending on the source, it was “early morning”, or 6:00 (according to Speidel) or 8:00 (according to Rommel’s son). On this day, the war journal of Army Group B recorded only one call to Rommel, at 10:15. The journal said: “Speidel briefed the situation to Generalfeldmarschall Rommel by phone. The Commander-in-Chief of Army Group B will return to the Headquarters today.”
Rommel listened, shocked and shaken. With all the canny instinct that had served him so well for most of his life, Rommel knew that it was the day he had been waiting for – the one he had said would be “the longest day.” He waited patiently until Speidel had finished the report and then he said quietly, with no tinge of emotion in his voice, “How stupid of me. How stupid of me.”
He turned from the phone and Frau Rommel saw that “the call had charged him … there was a terrible tension.” During the next forty-five minutes, Rommel twice called his aide, Captain Hellmuth Lang, at his home near Strasbourg. Each time he gave Lang a different hour for their return to La Roche-Guyon. That in itself worried Lang; it was unlike the field marshal to be so undecisive. “He sounded terribly depressed on the phone,” Lang recalls, “and that was not like him either.” The departure time was finally set. “We will leave at one o’clock sharp from Freudenstadt,” Rommel told his aide. As Lang hung up the phone he reasoned that Rommel was delaying their departure in order to see Hitler. He did not know that at Berchtesgaden no one but Hitler’s adjutant, Major General Schmundt, was even aware that Rommel was in Germany.
Close on 18:00, Rommel’s Horch pulled up in Rheims. In the city commander’s headquarters Lang placed a call to La Roche-Guyon. Rommel spent fifteen minutes on the phone, getting a briefing from his chief of staff. When Rommel came out of the office, Lang saw that the news must have been bad. There was silence in the car as they drove off. Sometime later Rommel drove his gloved fist into the palm of his other hand and said, bitterly, “My friendly enemy, Montgomery.” Still later, he said, “My God! If the Twenty-first Panzer can make it, we might just be able to drive them back in three days.”
At 21:30, Rommel arrives at his command post after a car trip of nearly 800 kilometers. This is 11 hours after sent a report on the second line of Verlaine. Rommel could have done something of substance if he had not gone home. Now he asks his aides sarcastically: “Where in the Luftwaffe?”
At midday, Prime Minister Winston Churchill is in Westminster, addressing the House of Commons. He begins with a lengthy update from the Italian campaign. Then he says:
“I have also to announce to the House that during the night and the early hours of this morning the first of the series of landings in force upon the European Continent has taken place.”
He adds that so far all is going according to plan.
o O o
The Germans did manage one counterattack that day. The 21st Panzer Division under General Edgar Feuchtinger opened June 6 deployed south-east of Caen (although the general himself, like so many others, was away from the front at the moment). Nevertheless, the division reacted quickly to the Allied air drops, fighting a series of sharp nighttime scraps with British paratroopers dropping all around it. As dawn broke and the Allies landed on the beaches north of Caen, General Erich Marcks wanted the division to disengage and head for the beaches. The 21st Panzer was under Army Group B, however, so Marcks first had to get Rommel’s permission. But Rommel wasn’t there, either, and that meant a wearying series of radio messages with Speidel, Rommel’s chief of staff.
At noon, Marcks finally got command of the 21st, and immediately ordered it to cross the Orne river, wheel north through Caen, and drive to the sea. But as always for the Germans on June 6, slow motion was the order of the day. The division took three full hours to move just 16 km from Ranville to (and through) Caen. Every man and vehicle had to squeeze over the few remaining undestroyed bridges in Caen, the sky was crawling with Allies planes the whole way, and losses in machines and men were heavy. At that time, a gap remained between the British and Canadian bridgeheads, between Lion-sur-Mer and Luc-sur-Mer. The 21st Panzer Division set off to exploit this gap.
Not until 16:20 did it happen: a Panzer counterattack on the Allied D-Day between the Juno and Sword beaches. North of Caen, Bronikowski gave the order to attack.
General Edgar Feuchtinger, commander of the 21st Panzer, and General Marcks, the 84th Corps commander, had come to see the attack go in. Marcks came over to Bronikowski. He said, “Oppeln, the future of Germany may very well rest on your shoulders. If you don’t push the British back into the sea, we’ve lost the war.”
Bronikowski saluted and replied, “General, I intend to do my best.”
As they moved up, the tanks fanning out across the fields, Bronikowski was halted by Major General Wilhelm Richter, commander of the 716th Division. Bronikowski saw that Richter “was almost demented with grief.” Tears came to his eyes as he told Bronikowki, “My troops are lost. My whole division is finished.”
Bronikowski asked, “What can I do, sir? We’ll help as best we can.” He got out his map and showed it to Richter. “Where are their positions, sir? Will you point them out?”
Richter just shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t know.”
Now, the German battle array had the 22nd Panzer Regiment (Colonel Hermann Oppeln-Bronikowski) on the right, paired with elements of 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment (Colonel Joseph Rauch) on the left. Confidence was high. Oppeln was a skilled Panzer commander with a reputation for hard drink and for dodging the reaper. On no fewer than three occasions in this war, he had survived direct hits on his tank and walked away without a scratch, and both his swagger and his luck were legendary with his men.
The assault opened with Oppeln’s tanks rolling north toward Périers Ridge. His Panzers were mainly Mark IVs, older models now upgraded with a high velocity 75mm gun, though in most of the other relevant metrics–speed, armor, optics–the state of the art had long passed them by. Trundling along behind the tanks came the infantry on half-tracks, along with self-propelled guns of various calibers mounted on the reliable French Lorraine 37L tracked chassis. The regiment moved out with gusto, and was, as always, an impressive sight: the army that had invented mechanized, combined-arms warfare once again on the prowl, apparently irresistible in the advance.
Appearances can be deceiving, though. Holding the ridge was a full British battalion, the Shropshire Light Infantry. It had dug in, hidden its positions well, and had a full complement of heavy weapons: 6-pounder anti-tank guns, Firefly tanks (a Sherman variant with a powerful, high-velocity 17-pounder gun), and self-propelled artillery. The Shropshires held their fire until the Germans came to the foot of the ridge, then opened up with the full spectrum. Six Mark IVs on the German right went up in flames in the opening minutes of the engagement, followed by nine more on the left near the village of Mathieu. Ten minutes later, the surviving German tanks were scrambling towards whichever gully, copse, or farmhouse they could find, desperately seeking cover. British fire had broken the momentum of the attack. Oppeln’s luck had run out. By the end of the day, the British had accounted for 70 of the 21st’s 124 tanks.
The attack had greater success on the left, where the 1st Battalion of Rauch’s regiment managed to hit the seam between the British and Canadian landing forces. Forward they came against little enemy opposition or fire, their path ahead eased by the attention being devoted to Oppeln’s abortive Panzer attack to their right. In an hour they reached the sea at Lion-sur-Mer and Luc-sur-Mer, splitting the Allied beachhead, separating Juno Beach from Sword, and linking up with joyful elements of the 716th Static Division who were still hanging tough in their bunkers on the coast and who thought they were all goners.
Rauch had reached the sea, traditionally a marker of victory. But to what end? He was now crammed into a tight spot between two powerful Allied forces pouring fire into his position from both flanks. A follow-up drive to the right or left was unthinkable, since it required a flank march along the seashore, where any German assault column would have presented a perfectly silhouetted parade of targets. Allied naval commanders would have been licking their chops and adding up their kills.
The coup de grâce, fittingly, hit the Germans from the air. At 9:00 PM, with Rauch still holding his position at the water’s edge and divisional commander Feuchtinger still deciding what to do, a great force of aircraft passed overhead. The British were reinforcing their airborne bridgehead east of the Orne River with an immense glider drop, some 250 craft, their tow-planes. Protecting the 500-plus supply-carrying aircraft were fighter escorts of Spitfires and Mustangs. They swooped down and attacked the German ground positions while the gliders landed in fields that were being bombarded by German artillery and mortar fire. The much-needed supplies had arrived. Fearing an Allied airdrop into the rear of the division, Feuchtinger ordered Rauch to retreat from the coast and rejoin the main body of 21st Panzer Division along Périers Ridge. Rauch’s regiment ended this day of drama slinking back to the south and, incidentally, leaving the remnants of 716th Static Division to their unhappy fate.
Thus, the only counterattack by the Germans on D-Day failed miserably.
Omaha beach is a 14-km long, gently curving stretch of coastline. Approaching from the sea, the beach ended on the right with massive cliffs. Four miles further round to the west was the Pointe du Hoc promontory. American 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were assigned to Omaha.
The main strip of beach rose gently to a bank of shingle up against a low sea wall. Beyond the sea wall was a short stretch of marshy grassland and just above that stood a steep sandy bluff covered in seagrass. These bluffs, ranging from 30 to 45 meters in height, dominated the whole bay. Along this low escarpment from east to west lay three villages, Colleville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer. The heights were accessible through five steeply rising valleys, or “draws”. These offered the only places where vehicles could be driven off the beach, and the entrances to the openings were covered by German strongpoints and gun emplacements. This was why Captain Scott-Bowden had warned General Bradley that Omaha was a formidable position to attack.
Omaha Beach was once called La Plage de Sables d’Or; the Beach of the Golden Sands. A century ago, holiday cottages and villas dotted the shore, as well as a railroad line that connected to Cherbourg, then the main junction from Paris. The area attracted artists, including one of the founders of the pointillist school of painters, George Seurat. One of his more famous paintings, Port-en-Bessin, Outer Harbor at High Tide, depicts the nearby seaside village.
Much of that was gone by 1944. The Germans, bracing for the attack they were sure would come somewhere along the French coast, demolished the summer homes of Colleville and nearby Vierville-sur-Mer, minus one Gothic-looking structure to be used as a gun bunker.
Twelve km from Port-en-Bessin-Huppain 12 km by road to the west was Vierville-sur-Mer, also on the beach front. The picture below depicts Vierville-sur-Mer in the 1930s. It shows that only some ten yeatrs ago, the French came here to relax during their holidays.
Like at Port-en-Bessin, the German changed completely the landscape, destroyed many houses and built bunkers at Vierville-sur-Mer.
At Omaha, the famed photographer Capa shot a total of 106 frames before, during and after the landing of the second invasion wave he accompanied. But most were destroyed by a fifteen-year-old lab assistant named Dennis Banks working for Life magazine in London. Banks accidentally set a film negative dryer too high and melted three complete rolls of film. In a bizarre allegory, it is as though those lost images symbolize the soldiers lost on Omaha Beach that day. Even Capa’s ruined images remain significant.
Only 11 total photos by Robert Capa of the D-Day invasion survived the darkroom error. They were included in Life magazine’s issue on June 19, 1944. The surviving photos have since been called the Magnificent Eleven. Steven Spielberg is said to have been inspired by these images when filming Saving Private Ryan.
One of the enduring images from World War II is the photograph entitled The Face in the Surf among the Magnificient Eleven.
General Leonard T. Gerow, the commander of V Corps, had wanted to begin the operation at low tide, under cover of darkness. Rommel had ordered the construction of the most fearsome system of underwater obstacles against landing craft, with mined stakes, hedgehogs made out of steel girders and rectangular constructions known as ‘Belgian gates’. Gerow argued that combat engineers and naval demolition teams should have time to clear channels to the beach at low tide without being under direct fire. He was supported by his most senior subordinates and Admiral John L. Hall, who commanded the task force. But Eisenhower, Montgomery and Bradley all insisted on an attack at 06:30, half an hour after dawn. The assault would be preceded by a massive aerial and naval bombardment. The invasion commanders believed that this combination would achieve tactical surprise and overwhelm the defenders. In any case, they could not risk the assault on one beach starting several hours before the others.
Gerow feared that the bombing and naval bombardment might not work, and he remained unconvinced even after Eisenhower assured him that ‘the greatest firepower ever assembled on the face of the earth’ would be supporting him. Events were to prove Gerow right.
The first landing craft carrying the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division and the 16th Infantry of the 1st Division had set off from their mother ships at 05:20. They had over an hour’s journey in heavy seas to land on the beach at H-Hour. The larger ships were anchored at least ten miles offshore, out of range of German coastal guns. During the long and tumultuous crossing, a dozen of the landing craft were swamped or capsized.
Captain Scott-Bowden, as Bradley had promised in January, was back in an assault pilotage role with Sergeant Ogden-Smith. Scott-Bowden’s pilot boat had a crew of three, a US Navy lieutenant, a coxswain and a Mexican-American sailor manning a quadruple pom-pom gun. The lieutenant on Scott-Bowden’s craft suddenly drew his attention to the fact that the LCTs had stopped at 4,500 meters out to launch their tanks. Scott-Bowden was horrified. “It’s far too rough,” he said. “They should go right in.” He later described the decision to launch the 741st Tank Battalion’s Shermans at that distance as “absolutely insane”.
Twenty-seven of their tanks out of thirty-two foundered and sank. Only two reached the beach through the water. Three more could not be launched because the ramp jammed, so the landing craft took them all the way in to the beach. Altogether thirty-three tank crewmen drowned. The rest were rescued later. Those of the 743rd Tank Battalion who reached the shore owed their survival to the fact that both army and navy officers decided to take the rest of them all the way in. Major General Percy Hobart, the mastermind behind the amphibious tank, told Liddell Hart ten days later that “the Americans bungled their use”. But whether the DD tank was the right answer to the problem of infantry support on the restricted space of Omaha remained a matter for debate.
When still some way offshore, Scott-Bowden and the crew became aware of the 329 heavy American bombers coming in from behind them. To their dismay they saw that the bombs were falling well beyond the top of the ridge. None hit the beach or the German positions guarding the beach exits. “That’s a fat lot of use,” Scott-Bowden said angrily to the lieutenant. “All it’s done is wake them up.” In the thirty minutes preceding H-Hour, the Liberators and Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force dropped 13,000 bombs, but none fell on Omaha beach.
The US Army Air Corps had made wildly optimistic claims about their “precision bombing”. Unfortunately Montgomery, who grabbed at any opportunity which might save the lives of his ground troops, accepted the idea without question and abandoned the British doctrine of night landings. Both he and Bradley seemed oblivious to the fact that the heavy bombing formations remained incapable of dropping the majority of their load within a five-mile radius of their target. All the ground commanders’ over-optimistic hopes that the bombing would destroy barbed-wire entanglements, minefields and some of the defensive positions were utterly dashed. “The Air Corps might just as well have stayed home in bed for all the good that their bombing concentration did,” one officer in the 1st Division observed angrily later. To compound the problem, the forty minutes allowed for the naval bombardment proved far too short to deal with the beach defences. Montgomery and Bradley’s plan had achieved neither local surprise nor overwhelming force.
In a bunker designated as Widerstandsnest 73 near the Vierville-sur-Mer exit, an Obergefreiter of the 716th Infanterie-Division was shaken by the sight which dawn revealed. “The invasion fleet was like a gigantic town on the sea,” he wrote afterwards. And the naval bombardment was “like an earthquake”. Another soldier manning a machine-gun position in a “Tobrouk” near the Colleville exit had also been shaken at dawn by the sight of the fleet “stretching in front of our coast as far as the eye could see”. During the thunder of the naval bombardment, he found himself praying desperately out loud. But as soon as the landing craft could be sighted approaching the beach, he heard cries of “Sie kommen!” from comrades in nearby positions and knew that they too had survived the shelling. He loaded his MG 42, the rapid-fire German machine gun, and waited.
The German ability to recover rapidly was impressive. At 06:26, the 352nd Infanterie-Division’s headquarters heard that, although the “heavy bombardment” had buried some of the 716th Infanterie-Division’s guns under rubble, “three of them have been set free again and re-emplaced”. One of the myths of Omaha is that the German defenders were equipped with the formidable 88mm gun. The 716th may have had two somewhere along the coast, but even this is uncertain. Most of the German artillery at Omaha consisted of far less accurate Czech 100mm guns.
The first wave of troops in their landing craft had been deeply impressed by the heavy guns of the battleships. Many compared the huge shells roaring over their heads to “freight cars”. At a given moment, the landing craft, which had been circling offshore to await H-Hour, then headed in towards the beach. The absence of fire at that stage aroused hopes that the navy and air force had done their work as planned. The infantrymen were so tightly wedged that few could see much over the helmets in front of them and the tall landing ramp at the front. One or two, however, noticed dead fish floating on the water, killed by the rocket fire which had fallen short. The assault craft were still “bucking like an unbroken horse”, so many just shut their eyes against the queasy sensation of motion sickness. By then the landing craft “reeked of vomit”.
The prospect of crossing the stretch of beach in front of them seemed impossible. Any idea of trying to run through the shallows, carrying heavy equipment and in sodden clothes and boots, seemed like a bad dream in which limbs felt leaden and numb. Overburdened soldiers stood little chance. One had 750 rounds of machine-gun ammunition as well as his own equipment. Not surprisingly, many men afterwards estimated that their casualties would have been halved if the first wave had attacked carrying less weight.
With many of their officers and non-coms among the first casualties, soldiers recovering from the shock of their reception realized that they had to get across the beach, if only to survive. Those who had made it were not even able to help with covering fire. At least 80% of their weapons did not work because of sand and sea water. In their desire to be able to fire back as soon as they landed, most soldiers had made the mistake of stripping the waterproof covering from their gun before reaching the shore. Almost all the radios failed to work as a result of sea water, and this contributed greatly to the chaos.
Captain McGrath of the 116th Infantry, when he arrived at 07:45, saw that the tide was coming in very fast and that the base of the sea wall was crowded with men. He and other officers attempted to get them moving. He yelled down at the troops that were huddled up against the seawall, cowering, frightened, doing nothing and accomplishing nothing, “You guys think you’re soldiers?!” He did everything he could, trying to organize the troops of the 116th sheltering behind the seawall, but to no avail at first. Battalion and company officers ordered their men to clean their weapons and told those without them to collect them from the dead. Some of the wounded were also put to work making weapons serviceable.
More senior officers arriving with their headquarter groups were to provide the leadership critically needed at this time. Much of the chaos, as the V Corps report later put it, came from landing craft coming in at the wrong place and breaking up units as a result. Some sectors of the beach “were crowded, others not occupied”. The command group of the 116th Infantry under Colonel Charles Canham and Brigadier General Norman D. Cota, the deputy commander of the 29th Division, swam and waded ashore on the beach soon after 07:30 hours. They sheltered behind a tank, then ran to the sea wall.
Cota strode up and down in the hail of fire, waving a .45 and yelling at men to get off the beach. Along the shingle, behind the sea wall and in the coarse beach grass at the base of the bluffs, men crouched shoulder to shoulder, peering at the general, unwilling to believe that a man could stand upright and live. Cota, who had shared Gerow’s doubts about the excessive reliance on the bombardment, was well aware of the potential disaster they faced. He had seen waves swamp many amphibious trucks carrying the 105mm howitzers. Eleven out of thirteen foundered, most of them when still circling in the rendezvous area.
Closer in, the obstacles had still not been cleared. The engineers had been landed over a mile east of their appointed landing place, mainly because of the cross-current. Cota and Canham held a hurried discussion. Not only battalions, but even companies and platoons had been broken up in the landings. What they needed to do was to force the men, once they had cleaned their weapons, to start breaking through the wire and minefields on to the bluffs behind to attack the German positions.
A group of Rangers lay huddled near the Vierville exit. Cota asked, “What outfit is this?” Someone yelled “5th Rangers!”, to which Cota replied, “Well then Goddammit, Rangers, lead the way!” (Rangers lead the way later became the motto of the 75th Ranger Regiment.) Men began to rise to their feet. Farther down the beach was an abandoned bulldozer loaded with TNT. It was just what was needed to blow the antitank wall at the Vierville exit. “Who drives this thing?” he thundered. No one answered. Men seemed still paralyzed by the merciless gunfire that flayed the beach. Cota began to lose his temper. “Hasn’t anyone got guts enough to drive the damn thing?” he roared.
A red-haired soldier got slowly up from the sand and with great deliberation walked over to Cota. “I’ll do it,” he said. Cota slapped him on the back. “That’s the stuff,” the general said. “Now let’s get off the beach.” He walked away without looking back. Behind him, men began to stir.
This was the pattern. Brigadier General Cota had been setting an example almost from the moment he arrived on the beach. He had taken the right half of the 29th’s sector; Colonel Charles D. Canham, commanding the 116th, had taken the left. Canham, a bloody handkerchief tied around a wrist wound, moved through the dead, the dying and the shocked, waving groups of men forward. “They’re murdering us here!” he said. “Let’s move inland and get murdered!” Private First Class Charles Ferguson looked up in amazement as the colonel went by. “Who the hell is that son of a bitch?” he asked and then he and the other men with him got up and headed toward the bluffs.
At 08:00, while Cota searched for a point to break through the wire towards the Les Moulins draw, a terrible scene took place. Just as the large landing craft LCI(L) 91 approached the beach, an artillery shell exploded on board, apparently hitting the fuel tank of a soldier carrying a flame-thrower. He was catapulted clear of the deck, completely clearing the starboard bulkhead, and plunging into the water. Burning fuel from the flame-thrower covered the foredeck and superstructure of the ship… The LCI(L) 91 continued to burn for more than 18 hours, during which her stores of 2 mm ammunition for the Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns continually exploded. Ten minutes later the LCI(L) 92 suffered a similar fate. Many badly burned engineers had to be dragged under heavy fire up to the lee of the sea wall.
Cota decided to carry out a reconnaissanceto the right, while Canham went to the left to find an exit from the beach. Shortly afterwards, Canham was shot through the right wrist, but he just had it bandaged and carried on. One of his soldiers spotted “Old Hatchetface” with his “right arm in a sling and clutching a.45 Colt in his bony left hand”. Canham, “tall and thin, with wire-rim glasses and a pencil thin mustache”, was the southerner who had warned his men that two-thirds of them would be killed. He was shouting for officers to get their men off the beach. “Get these men the hell off this beach! Go kill some goddamned Krauts!” A lieutenant colonel sheltering from the mortar barrage shouted back, “Colonel, you’d better take cover or you’re going to get killed!” “Get your ass out of there!” Canham screamed back. “And get these men off this goddamned beach.”
On the eastern side of Omaha, Colonel George Taylor, the commander of the 1st Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment, acted in the same manner. The 1st Division’s lack of armoured support after the disaster launching the 741st Tank Battalion too far out makes their achievement even more impressive. Captain Hall, the wounded doctor, watched as Taylor moved from one officer to another. “We’ve got to get off the beach before they put the 88s on us,” he told them. “If we’ve got to get killed, we might as well kill some Germans.” With Colonel Taylor was a British naval officer with a big beard who, “sitting on his haunches and smoking, just looked bored”. Taylor also made the famous remark to his men: “The only people on this beach are the dead and those that are going to die – now let’s get the hell out of here!”
Not far from the first large landing craft, which was still ablaze, Cota chose a section of the sea wall with a mound five yards beyond. He told a soldier with a Browning automatic rifle to keep German heads down on the bluff above. He then supervised the placing of Bangalore torpedoes under the barbed-wire entanglement. Cota had also told Lieutenant-Colonel Max Snyder of the 5th Rangers to blow similar gaps, advance inland and then swing round westwards to attack the German fortifications at Pointe et Raz de la Percée.
With the wire blown and smoke from the seagrass set on fire by naval shells, Cota decided the time had come to make a rush across the stretch of marshy grassland which led to the base of the bluff. The first soldier through the wire, however, was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire. The other men were so shaken that Cota led the way to get them moving. Soon a single file of riflemen were through to the bluff and making their way to the top. The smoke from the burning grass was so thick that those who had not thrown away their gas masks put them on.
At 08.30, Cota returned to join Canham at his improvised command post under the bluff. A mortar bomb landed by Canham’s group, killing two men next to Cota and blasting his radio operator 6 meters up the hill. They moved the command post rapidly, but still had no contact with the 1st Division on the left. Communications had collapsed. To compound the problem of radios wrecked by sea water, German riflemen had targeted the heavily burdened signallers as they lumbered up the beach with their 45kg packs.
Lack of contact with the shore disturbed General Gerow as he waited for news on the bridge of the command ship, the USS Ancon, 16 km offshore. He was already alarmed by the sight of the choppy seas tossing landing craft around and sinking several of them. Confused reports were coming in, mainly from the crews of landing craft returning to collect their next load. At 09:15 he received a message from the control vessel off the Easy Red sector of Omaha. “Boats and vehicles piled on beach. Troops dug in on beach. Enemy holds fire until craft beaches.” Gerow also heard that the engineers were unable to clear paths through the minefields and that “enemy snipers and machineguns appear to concentrate fire on officers and non-commissioned officers”.
Gerow informed Bradley aboard the USS Augusta of the position. They were deeply worried. Bradley even began to consider the possibility of abandoning Omaha and switching following waves either to Utah beach or to the British sector. The situation on many parts of Omaha, especially round the Vierville exit, was indeed horrific. The scenes of chaos on the beach and offshore had hardly improved by 09.30 hours. “It was just one big mass of junk, of men and materials,” an officer reported later. There were burnt-out and still-burning vehicles, corpses, and discarded equipment scattered in all directions. Bodies continued to wash up, rolling like logs in the surf, parallel with the water’s edge.
Although many unsuitable vehicles had been landed, the tank reinforcements were at last starting to make a difference, even though a number of them threw a track when manoeuvring on the beach. The course of the battle against the emplacements gradually turned against the defenders. In one case combat engineers managed to place a truck loaded with TNT beside a pillbox. “They lit the fuse and blew it up. Going in, they found German bodies all untouched by the explosives, blood pouring out of their noses and mouths. They had been killed by concussion.”
The most effective weapons were the guns of the destroyers, eight American and three British, which sailed in parallel to the shore and dangerously close to bombard German positions. Their guns became so hot that teams of sailors had to play hoses on them to cool them down. Many soldiers on Omaha later believed, with a good deal of truth, that these front-line destroyers saved the day. Most infantry officers afterwards felt that the naval support would have been much more effective if destroyers close in had targeted strongpoints from the start, rather than battleships firing blind from a great distance.
At 10:46, Colonel Talley radioed back to the USS Ancon, “Things look better.” But the landing system was still in a hopeless mess. There was a huge backlog, and often the wrong sort of vehicle or equipment arrived when far more necessary loads were held back. Many officers reported afterwards that until the beach was secured only infantry, tanks and armoured bulldozers should have gone in.
o O o
Responding to reports just after midnight that Allied paratroopers had landed south of the key crossroads town of Carentan, General Marcks ordered Colonel Ernest Meyer, commander of the 915th Regiment of the 352nd Infantry Division, to clear up the problem. Deployed inland in the Bayeux sector, the heart of the Normandy landings, Meyer’s Regiment was the sole reserve force for the 84th Corps. Meyer quickly assembled his troops and was on the road by 03:00. Navigating Normandy’s narrow country lanes in the middle of the night was no easy task, however, and the battle group was still on the road at 06:00, when the sun came up and the vast Allied invasion fleet came into view off the coast. Soon Marcks’s 84th Corps was under attack everywhere: 709th Division in the Cotentin, 352nd Division between Vierville and Coleville-sur-Mer, and 716th Division on the long stretch from Arromanches in the west to Ouistreham in the east.
Around 07:00, as Marcks was trying to process the threats, a new report came in: There had been no airborne drops south of Carentan, after all. It had been a mistake of some sort–a rumor, a jumpy patrol, a typo on the report. A reconnaissance flight could have clarified the situation in 10 minutes, but no German aircraft were in the sky. Marcks was operating in the unknown. The U.S. landing at Omaha had been smashed, that much seemed clear. On his right, however, the British had come ashore on a broad front, supported by tanks. They had penetrated the beach defenses of the 726th Regiment and were heading inland.
With trouble clearly brewing on his right, Marcks ordered Meyer to turn around, head east at speed, and counterattack the British. But even this simple job proved impossible. Meyer had to turn his units around and get them back into a march column. That process took an hour. Since Allied naval gunfire was ranging deep, the battle group had to loop south of Bayeux rather than head directly up the main road. Then the weather suddenly changed. As the skies cleared, they filled again with Allied fighter-bombers. The clock slipped past 11:00 and on to noon, and Meyer decided to postpone his counterattack until 14:00. That deadline, too, came and went. Much of the battle group was now strung out along the road, either pinned to the ground or taking cover from the rain of Allied bombs and strafing.
By 15:00 it was too late. Elements of the British 50th Division now went over to the attack, Sherman tanks in the lead, planes screaming overhead. The 50th easily overran the German assembly area, killing Colonel Meyer in the process, and soon the bulk of the regiment was in a hurried retreat to the west. Calling Meyer’s counterattack a failure isn’t quite accurate. It never even got started.
Staring with 3,000 men, the 915th Regiment had only 90 men returning to the base.
o O o
At 08:00, Lieutenant-Colonel Josef Priller and Sergeant Heinze Wordarczyk took two fighters FW-190 armed with rockets to take off from an airbase near Lille.
Just before they got into their planes, Priller went over to his wing man. “Now listen,” he said, “there’s just the two of us. We can’t afford to break up. For God’s sake, do exactly as I do. Fly behind me and follow every move.” They had been together a long time and Priller felt he must make the situation quite clear. “We’re going in alone,” he said, “and I don’t think we’re coming back.”
Early on the morning of D-Day, Priller received a phone call from 2nd Fighter Corps HQ informing him that “some sort of invasion is taking place. I suggest you put your wing on alert.”
Priller was less than pleased: “Who in hell am I supposed to alert? I’m alert! Wordarczyk is alert! But you fatheds know I only have two damned planes!”
The operations officer had remained perfectly cool. “Priller,” he had said soothingly, “we don’t know yet exactly where your squadrons have landed, but we’re going to divert them back to the field at Piox. Move all your ground personnel there immediately. Meanwhile you better get up to the invasion area. Good luck, Priller.”
As quietly as his anger would allow Priller had said, “Would you mind telling me where the invasion is?”
The officer, unruffled, had said, “Normandy, Pips – somewhere above Caen.”
Before that, three squadrons under Priller’s command had been ordered to move to Germany.
There was nothing the wing commander could do but protest. Priller was a flamboyant, temperamental pilot renowned in the Luftwaffe for his short temper. He had a reputation for telling off generals, and now he telephoned his group commander. “This is crazy!” Priller shouted. “If we’re expecting an invasion the squadrons should be moved up, not back! And what happens if the attack comes during the transfer? My supplies can’t reach the new bases until tomorrow or maybe the day after. You’re all crazy!”
“Listen, Priller,” said the group commander. “The invasion is out of the question. The weather is much too bad.”
Priller slammed down the receiver. He walked back out onto the airfield. There were only two planes left, his and the one belonging to Sergeant Heinz Wodarczyk, his wing man. “What can we do?” he said to Wodarczyk. “If the invasion comes they’ll probably expect us to hold it off all by ourselves. So we might as well start getting drunk now.”
Now, it was 09:00 when they took off (8:00 to Priller). They flew due west, hugging the ground. Just over Abbeville, high above them, they began to see Allied fighters. Priller noticed that they were not flying in tight formation as they should have been. He remembers thinking that “if I only had some planes, they’d be sitting ducks.” As they approached Le Havre, Priller climbed for cover in the clouds. They flew for a few more minutes and then broke through. Below them was a fantastic fleet – hundreds of ships of every size and type, stretching endlessly, it seemed, all the way back across the Channel. There was a steady procession of landing craft carrying men toward shore, and Priller could see the white puffs of explosions on and behind the beaches. The sands were black with troops, and tanks and equipment of all sorts littered the shoreline. Priller swept back into the clouds to consider what to do. There were so many planes, so many battleships offshore, so many men on the beaches, that he figured he’d have time for just one pass over the beaches before being shot down.
There was no need for radio silence now. Almost lightheartedly, Priller spoke into his microphone. “What a show! What a show!” he said. “There’s everything out here – everywhere you look. Believe me, this is the invasion!” Then he said, “Wodarczyk, we’re going in! Good luck!”
They hurtled down toward the British beaches at over four hundred miles an hour, coming in at less than 150 feet. Priller had no time to aim. He simply pressed the button on his control stick and felt his guns pounding. Skimming along just over the tops of men’s heads, he saw upturned, startled faces.
On Sword, Commander Philippe Kieffer of the French commandos saw Priller and Wodarczyk coming. He dived for cover. Six German prisoners took advantage of the confusion and tried to bolt. Kieffer’s men promptly mowed them down.
On Juno, Private Robert Rogge of the Canadian 8th Infantry Brigade heard the scream of the planes and saw them “coming in so low that I could clearly see the pilots’ faces.” He threw himself flat like everyone else, but he was amazed to see one man “calmly standing up, blazing away with a Sten gun.”
On the eastern edge of Omaha, Lieutenant (J.G.) William J. Eisemann of the U.S. Navy gasped as the two FW-190’S, guns chattering, zoomed down “at less than fifty feet and dodged through the barrage balloons.” And on HMS Dunbar, Leading Stoker Robert Dowie watched every antiaircraft gun in the fleet open up on Priller and Wodarczyk. The two fighters flew through it all unscathed, then turned inland and streaked up into the clouds. “Jerry or not,” said Dowie, unbelievingly, “the best of luck to you. You’ve got guts.”
o O o
Sixteen kilometers offshore, the destroyers saw what was happening almost helplessly. They had been ordered to stay a safe distance from shore and to stop shelling once the troops landed, given how inaccurate their guns would be at distance. The Captain of the USS Frankford, Harry Sanders, ordered the 12 ships under his command to move in as close as they could and and picked off what they could when the smoke and/or fog cleared and they could spot targets. This act was at great risk of running aground or being shelled themselves. At one point, some of the few tanks that made it and were operational tried shooting a gun emplacement. A nearby destroyer noticed this and fired where they did to great effect. The guys in the tank noticed this and they kept up that kind of non-verbal communication–the tanks spotting for the ship by shooting where the bombardment would help. The destroyers took out several Nazi bunkers with their unusually close precision shelling and certainly saved the beach.
About one hour later, at 10:46, Colonel Talley radioed back to the USS Ancon, “Things look better.” But the landing system was still in a hopeless mess. There was a huge backlog, and often the wrong sort of vehicle or equipment arrived when far more necessary loads were held back. Many officers reported afterwards that until the beach was secured only infantry, tanks and armoured bulldozers should have gone in.
At 13:30, General Omar Bradley on the flagship USS Augusta, receives the following report: “Troops previously stopped on beaches Easy Red, Easy Green, Fox Red, progress on heights behind beaches”.
At 17:21, Colonel Talley radioed the USS Ancon to say that the beach would permit “wheeled and tracked vehicular traffic” over most of the area below the high-water mark. The relief for General Gerow was considerable. Gerow, determined to establish his corps headquarters on French soil before nightfall, went ashore. He crossed the beach in an armoured bulldozer sent by Colonel Talley to fetch him, and reached the corps command post at 20.30 hours. It was still within 500 yards of the front line.
Even though Allies casualties on D-Day were far lighter than the planners’ estimates, that did not in any way reduce the shock of the first wave’s slaughter at Omaha. Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment, a National Guard outfit, became a symbol of the sacrifice, albeit an unrepresentative one. One of the survivors of that company met Brigadier General Cota the next morning. Cota asked him what unit he was from. When he told him, Cota just shook his head in sadness. “He knew better than I that Company A was practically… well, it was out of action.” Around 100 men out of 215 had been killed and many more wounded.
The Americans at Omaha were unlucky, but they had one signicant luck even though they did not know it then. It had to do with the commander of the 352nd Infantry Division, which had responsibility for the sector where the American 1st and 29th Infantry divisions and other supporting units would land on D-Day. One of the great myths of World War II has been that the 352nd Division’s presence in the area of Omaha Beach was a surprise to Allied intelligence. It was not. In fact, while the 352nd was responsible for defending the area to the north and northwest of Bayeux, the division commander, Major General Dietrich Kraiss, held most of his infantry battalions back from the beaches as a counterattack force – an approach in accordance with basic German doctrine.
When Rommel had arrived in the area in early May, he was upset at the division’s dispositions and immediately ordered Kraiss to move more of his force up to defend the beaches. Supported by his corps commander, Lieutenant Geneneral Erich Marcks, who had been one of the early planners for Operation Barbarossa to attack the Soviet Union, Kraiss ignored Rommel’s order. Of the ten infantry and five artillery battalions that Kraiss had available, he placed only one artillery battalion and two infantry battalions along the Omaha Beach sector. This decision made even less sense when one realized that he deployed two-thirds of his force in reserve or in position to defend the western sector of his area of responsibility – where no amphibious landing could possibly take place.
Although the bloodshed on Omaha was appalling, the Americans there were indeed lucky that they only had to face two battalions of enemy infantry on June 6. Had Kraiss obeyed Rommel’s instructions, it is likely that the Omaha Beach landing would have failed – with considerable consequences for the Allies’ ability to link together the British and American beaches.
As of 20:15, only 100 of the 2,400 tons of supplies scheduled to be landed on D-Day were landed. Losses in equipment were also high, including 26 artillery pieces, over 50 tanks, about 50 landing craft and 10 larger vessels. And there was no adequate means for medical evacuation.
At the end of D-Day, casualties for V Corps that day were about 3,000 (killed, wounded, and missing).
Pointe du Hoc
Pointe du Hoc, a prominent headland situated between Utah and Omaha, was assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder. Their task was to scale the 30m cliffs with grappling hooks, ropes, and ladders to destroy the coastal gun battery located at the top. Intelligence reported that this gun battery consisted of four 152mm guns that controlled both Utah and Omaha beaches but that could not be destroyed by bombers and warships. The cliffs were defended by the German 352nd Infantry Division and French collaborators.
While one company of the 2nd Rangers had landed with disastrous losses alongside Company A of the 116th at the western end of Omaha, the rest of the battalion had as its main objective the battery on the Pointe du Hoc, much further round the headland. But these Rangers too were to be plagued by bad luck.
Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder, the commanding officer of the 2nd Rangers, when heading for the Pointe du Hoc, realized that the Royal Navy coxswain was taking them in much too far to the east, almost on to Omaha beach. Half an hour was then lost beating against the current round to the Pointe du Hoc. Once the boats were in position under the cliff, rocket-fired grappling irons invented by British commando forces were used. Many fell short, partly because the ropes were heavy from sea water, but several took hold and the first men began to scale the cliff. Some London fire brigade ladders were also used. The Germans could not believe that the grappling irons were coming up from the landing craft under the cliff.
On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan gave a moving tribute to the Rangers, many of whom were present at the occasion. Standing on the very spot of Pointe du Hoc, Reagan spoke these words to an audience of D-Day veterans and world leaders. Excerpts follow.
We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, two hundred and twenty-five Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs.
Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here, and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.
The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms.
And behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”
Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.
The German garrison on the cliff top tried to fire down at their attackers and drop grenades on them, but close support from the destroyers USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont forced them to keep their heads down in the early stage. The Satterlee remained with the Rangers all day, ready to support them. The bravery and skill of the first Rangers climbing the cliff enabled them to seize a foothold at the top. They were soon reinforced by others. To their surprise, they found that there were no large guns mounted in the battery. The guns were lying a little way inland and were soon dealt with. An unknown number of French collaborators were executed.
The westernmost of the D-Day beaches and extending some 18 km, Utah was added to the invasion plans at the eleventh hour so that the Allies would be within striking distance of the port city of Cherbourg.
Utah Beach was protected by 110 guns from 75mm to 170mm. There were 18 gun batteries inland, with biggest four lớn nhất là bốn khẩu 210mm at St.-Marcouf. Utah Beach was in the area defended by two battalions of the 919th Grenadier Regiment.
Utah was the responsibility of VII Corps, commanded by Major General J. Lawton Collins, a dynamic leader known to his men as “Lightning Joe”. The assault was led by the 8th Infantry Regiment in Major General Raymond O. Barton’s 4th Infantry Division comprising 23,000 men. Their assignment was to establish a bridgehead on the Contentin Peninsula then advance to the port Cherbourg of strategic importance.
Off Utah, the battleship Nevada and the cruisers Tuscaloosa, Quincy and Black Prince seemed to lean back as they hurled salvo after salvo at the shore batteries. While the big ships blasted away from 8-10 km offshore, the small destroyers pressed in to a 1.5-3.2 km off the beaches and, line astern, sent a saturating fire into targets all over the network of coastal fortifications.
The gunfire, while failing to hit many of the German positions, cleared large parts of the minefields on which the enemy had relied. Meanwhile the medium bombers of the Ninth Air Force dropped their loads much closer to the target area at Utah than the Eighth had at Omaha, but even so the effect on German positions was negligible. The rocket ships were also inaccurate, but none of this seemed to matter.
The landings at Utah proved the most successful of all, largely due to good fortune. The naval bombardment force, commanded by Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk in the heavy cruiser USS Augusta, was no less powerful than that at Omaha. As soon as the naval bombardment started, French civilians fled from their villages out into the countryside and awaited events in relative safety.
One more good thing is that, in contrast to the catastrophe at Omaha, none of the tanks sank at Utah.
The first senior officer ashore at Utah was Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Jr., son of a former president and a cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the third-wave boats beached and men began to wade ashore, there was the sudden whine of German 88 fire and shells burst among the incoming troops. A dozen men went down. Seconds later, a lone figure emerged from the smoke of the artillery burst. His face was black, his helmet and equipment were gone. He came walking up the beach in complete shock, eyes staring. Yelling for a medic, Roosevelt ran over to the man. He put his arm around the soldier. “Son,” he said gently, “I think we’ll get you back on a boat.”
The determined Roosevelt was very much alive. Sergeant Harry Brown of the 8th Infantry saw him “with a cane in one hand, a map in the other, walking around as if he was looking over some real estate.” Every now and then a mortar burst on the beach, sending showers of sand into the air. It seemed to annoy Roosevelt; impatiently he would brush himself off.
As yet only Roosevelt and a few of his officers knew that the Utah landings had been made in the wrong place. Roosevelt’s group were pushed to the south by strong currents, and they found themselves about 1.8 km from their intended landing zone. This site turned out to be better, as there was only one strongpoint nearby rather than two, and bombers of IX Bomber Command had bombed the defences from lower than their prescribed altitude, inflicting considerable damage. In addition, the strong currents had washed ashore many of the underwater obstacles. So, instead of invading the beach opposite Exits (causeways) 3 and 4 – two of the vital five causeways toward which the 101th Airborne was driving – the entire beachhead was now astride Exit 2.
Ironically, at this moment Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole and a miscellaneous band of seventy-five 101th and 82nd troopers had just reached the western end of Exit 3. They were the first paratroopers to get to a causeway. Cole and his men concealed themselves in the swamps and settled down to wait; he expected the men of the 4th Division along at any moment.
On the beach, near the approach to Exit 2, Roosevelt was about to make an important decision. Every few minutes from now on wave after wave of men and vehicles were due to land – thirty thousand men and thirty-five hundred vehicles. Roosevelt had to decide whether to bring succeeding waves into this new, relatively quiet area with only one causeway, or to divert all other assault troops and take their equipment to the original Utah Beach with its two causeways. If the single exit could not be opened and held, a nightmarish jumble of men and vehicles would be trapped on the beach. The general huddled with his battalion commanders. Everything now depended on moving as fast as possible before the enemy recovered from the initial shock of the landings. Resistance was light and the men of the 4th were moving off the beach fast.
Roosevelt rightly decided that it would be stupid to try to redeploy. He turned to Colonel Eugene Caffey of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade:
“I’m going ahead with the troops. You get word to the Navy to bring them in. We’re going to start the war from here.”
So, instead of fighting for the planned objectives which lay back of the original beach, the 4th Division would drive inland on the single causeway and take out German positions when and where they found them.
The beaches were cleared of Germans in less than an hour, creating something of an anticlimax. Instead of opening 45-m channels through the obstacles, the engineers began to clear the whole beach at once. The contrast with Omaha could not have been greater.
The two leading battalions from the 4th Infantry Division began their advance inland as soon as the beach was secured. A Sherman from the 70th Tank Battalion fired at one strongpoint guarding the causeway and the Germans inside immediately came out to surrender. The company commander jumped down from his tank to approach them, but they began yelling at him. It took him a moment to work out that they were shouting, “Achtung! Minen!” at him. He retreated to the safety of his vehicle and called up the engineers.
But he was to have less luck later in the day. After his tank company advanced south-west to Pouppeville, their attention was attracted by some wounded paratroopers from the 101st calling for help. The commander climbed down, taking their first-aid kit, but on the way over to them he stepped on an anti-personnel mine. He shouted to his crew not to come anywhere near, but they threw him a rope and towed him out with the tank. The remains of his left foot were amputated later.
At 11:00, the Americans liberated Vierville-sur-Mer.
At 12:00, four beach exits were controlled by the 101st Airborne Division.
Inevitably, civilians and their property suffered during the advance inland. A company of the 20th Field Artillery with the 4th Division came under fire from some farm buildings. The widow who lived in the farm told the Americans that the “sniper” was a very young soldier in her barn who was drunk. The artillerymen turned one of their guns on the barn. The first round set it on fire and the young German inside shot himself.
One soldier’s account was particularly revealing. He recounted:
“French people, of course, lived there. Us being there was as big a surprise as anything in the world to those people. They didn’t really know how to take us, I guess. One man started to run, and we hollered for him to halt. He didn’t halt, and one of our men shot him and left him there. I remember one house a couple of us went into and hollered, trying to tell them to come out. We didn’t know any French. Nobody came out. We took a rifle butt and knocked the door in. I threw a grenade in the door, stepped back and waited until it exploded. Then we went on in. There was a man, three or four women and two or three kids in that room. The only damage that was done was the old man had a cut on his cheek. It was just a piece of luck that they didn’t all get killed.”
He then went on to tell how they captured a small hill with the support of tank fire.
“It was pretty rough. And those guys [the Germans] were baffled and they were crazy. There were quite a few of them still in their foxholes. Then I saw quite a few of them shot right in the foxholes. We didn’t take prisoners and there was nothing to do but kill them, and we did, and I had never shot one like that. Even our lieutenant did and some of the non-coms.”
The most extraordinary encounter of the 4th Division’s advance to relieve the paratroopers was American infantry fighting a German cavalry unit made up of former Red Army prisoners. The horsemen had forced their mounts to the ground to take up firing positions behind them, a classic cavalry tactic. “We had to kill most of the horses,” wrote a lieutenant unused to such warfare, “because the Germans were using them for shelter.”
Other surprises came when talking to prisoners. One German captive spoke to an American soldier of German origin.
“There isn’t much left of New York any more, is there?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, “you know it’s been bombed by the Luftwaffe.”
Americans were to find that many German soldiers had swallowed the most outrageous lies of Nazi propaganda without question.
Lieutenane General von Schlieben, the commander of the 709th Infantry Division, had hoped that the sound of tanks would panic the Americans. He ordered this attached panzer battalion of Renault tanks – captured from the French in 1940 – to drive around, but when they came to close quarters, the paratroopers found it comparatively easy to knock out these obsolete vehicles with their Gammon grenades.
Yet the airborne commanders remained extremely concerned. Their men were low on ammunition and they had no idea how the seaborne invasion was progressing. French civilians were afraid that the landings might fail, and that the Germans would return to take revenge on anyone who had assisted the Americans. Rumours even spread that the invasion had failed, so when the Shermans and leading elements of the 4th Infantry Division made contact with the 101st Airborne, the relief was considerable. The advance over the narrow causeways had been slow and came to a halt before nightfall, but at least the right flank between Sainte-Mère-Eglise and the marshes by the sea had been secured by the follow-up regiments of the 4th Division.
The Americans had one significant luck even though they did not know it then. Rommel had requested permission to move the fanatical Hitler Youth volunteers of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend to Carentan, which – unknown to him – was to lie equidistant between the American landing beaches of Omaha and Utah. In that position, the SS division would have been ideally placed to intervene against either of the American landing areas. Even if they had failed to stop the landings, the Germans would have made the linkup between the American beaches extraordinarily difficult. This request had not been granted.
The 4th Infantry Division did not meet all of their D-Day objectives at Utah Beach, partly because they had arrived too far to the south, but they landed 21,000 troops at the cost of less than 200 casualties – about one-tenth of Omaha. But 700 soldiers were lost in the engineering units, tank battallions, and in ship sinking.
A ten-mile stretch between Arromanches to the west and La Rivière to the east, Gold Beach was one of the largest of the landing beaches.
Allied planners were concerned about a reef and reported shoals, which required a high tide landing at 0745, later than the other beaches. As it developed, the ‘‘shoals’’ were accumulated banks of seaweed and probably would have posed little problem to most landing craft.
The casualties were quite heavy, partly because the swimming Sherman DD tanks were delayed, and the Germans had strongly fortified a village on the beach. However, the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division and the 8th Armored Brigade overcame these difficulties and advanced almost to the outskirts of Bayeux by the end of the day. With the exception of the Canadians at Juno Beach, no division came closer to its objectives.
By midnight, 25,000 British troops who landed on Gold Beach had established a beachhead wide enough to link up with the Canadians on Juno.
About 1,000 men were killed in the effort.
Juno Beach was 10 km long, extending from Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to Bernières and Courseulles-sur-Mer, protected by two battalions of the 716 Infantry Division. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division landed on Juno, and their objectives were to cut the Caen-Bayeux road, seize the Carpiquet airport west of Caen, and form a link between the two British beaches on either flank.
The first waves of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division coming ashore on Juno Beach landed on top of, and among, the mined steel beach defenses. The naval commanders had feared an offshore reef might present as great a hazard to the landing craft as did the German defenses, so they delayed the landing by fifteen minutes to 07:45 AM. Strong winds and rough seas pushed their assault formations out of position causing many to land even later and, with the tide quickly coming in, they drifted onto the mined obstacles.
The initial landings were on the beaches either side of the Norman coastal port of Courseulles-sur-Mer. As the landing crafts approached the beach, submerged German mines began to do their jobs. About thirty percent of the landing crafts were either destroyed or damaged. This meant that the soldiers had to wade in, exposing them to even greater danger. Adding to the nightmare was the continuous artillery and mortar fire that sent plumes of sand, shrapnel, and water both skyward and sideward, across the beaches, into the advancing troops. The DD tanks failed to reach shore before the infantry so men had to run over the sand and shingle without any protection.
Because German defensive guns were set-up to fire along the beach itself, the wading troops were spared heavy gunfire as they made their way to shore. But when they arrived at the beach, they faced incredibly intense firepower. All along Juno the Canadians suffered. Of the three British beaches theirs was the bloodiest. Razor-edged reefs on the eastern half of the beach and barricades of obstacles created havoc among the assault craft. Worse, the naval and air bombardment had failed to knock out the coastal defenses or had missed them altogether.
Historians estimate that the first wave of men reaching the Juno beach had a 50-50 chance to live.
Of approximately 21,400 Canadians who landed at Juno, about 1,200 became casualties of war. Of their efforts, John Keegan (the prominent British historian) later observed:
At the end of the day, its forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division.
Stephen Ambrose also comments on the fierce opposition which the Canadian troops had to endure:
The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.
While the fighting still raged, some French civilians left their homes. They were astonished to meet soldiers who spoke their language. Replying to an inquiring villager, a soldier from the Régiment de la Chaudière told him “P’tet bien que oui, p’tet bien que non” (“Maybe yes, maybe no”) with an accent so similar to that of French as spoken in Normandy that the civilian could not believe he was dealing with a Canadian.
The Canadians liberated Bernières at 09:30, Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer two hours later.
At the end of D-Day, Canadian losses were recorded as 340 killed, and a further 574 wounded.
Stretching 8 km from Ouistreham at the eastern end to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer at the western end, the beach was the easternmost landing site of the invasion. Among the five beaches of the operation, Sword is the nearest to Caen, being located around 15 km from the goal of the 3rd Infantry Division. Sword Beach was assigned to the British 3rd Infantry Division and the 27th Armored Brigade. The plan was to liaise with the 6th Airborne and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions to take Caen and the Carpiquet aerodrome by nightfall. The British 6th Airborne Division was assigned, among other duties, to destroy the Merville Gun Battery of four 100mm guns overlooking Sword Beach.
At 07:30, the 3rd British Division under the command of General T.D. Rennie lands on time. The naval and aerial bombing on German defenses was effective, but heavy fighting slows down the soldiers’ progress.
At 09:30, the British liberated Hermanville.
In many places along Sword there was even a bank holiday atmosphere. Here and there along the seafront little groups of elated French waved to the troops and yelled, “Vive les Anglais!” Royal Marine Signalman Leslie Ford noticed a Frenchman “practically on the beach itself who appeared to be giving a running commentary on the battle to a group of townspeople.” Ford thought they were crazy, for the beaches and the foreshore were still infested with mines and under occasional fire. But it was happening everywhere. Men were hugged and kissed and embraced by the French, who seemed quite unaware of the dangers around them. Corporal Harry Norfield and Gunner Ronald Allen were astonished to see “a person all dressed up in splendid regalia and wearing a bright brass helmet making his way down to the beaches.” He turned out to be the mayor of Colleville-sur-Orne, a small village about a mile inland, who had decided to come down and officially greet the invasion forces.
Other young Frenchwomen also showed extraordinary bravery, coming to the beaches to help. Purely by chance, a student nurse who had left her bathing dress in a beach hut the day before had arrived on a bicycle that morning to retrieve it. She ignored the wolf whistles of the amazed squaddies and set to work bandaging wounds. Her work lasted two days and during the course of it she met her future husband, a young English officer.
Flail tanks from the 22nd Dragoons and the Westminster Dragoons cleared paths through minefields, and exits from the beach were opened more quickly than on any other sector. The Royal Engineers also wasted no time. ‘Every now and then there’s a big flash and clouds of smoke and a noise as some part of the beach is cleared by sappers,’ a naval officer noted in his diary.
Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade also landed near Colleville. His commandos had thrown away their helmets at the last moment and wore their green berets instead, with their own regimental cap badges. Lovat had his personal piper, Bill Millin, from the Cameron Highlanders, with him. Millin was glad that Lovat led the way off the landing craft, since he was more than six feet tall and would show how deep the water was. The man just behind Lovat received a bullet in the face and collapsed. Millin jumped in and was shocked by the cold as his kilt spread around him. By the time he strode up out of the surf he was playing Highland Laddie. Lovat turned round and gave him the thumbs up because it was a march of his old regiment, the Scots Guards. Amid the crump of mortars, shouting and small-arms fire, Millin could hardly believe it when Lovat then asked him if he would mind marching up and down playing The Road to the Isles as the rest of the men disembarked. Most of the astonished soldiers on the beach loved it, but one or two almost lost their tempers at what they thought was insane behaviour.
At 14:25, Périers-sur-le-Dan, south of Sword Beach, was liberated.
At 15:30, the British controlled the port of Ouistreham.
At 16:00, Biéville south of Sword Beach was liberated.
At 20:00, the 1st Suffolk Regiment seized the Hillman site situated at Colleville-sur-Orne above Sword Beach. This concrete-reinforced stronghold had been the headquarters for the 736th Grenadier Regiment.
By the end of the first day, despite Caen not having fallen, and without a link-up to the Canadian troops from Juno Beach, the Sword beach landings were considered a success. The seaborne troops had managed to linkup and reinforce the 6th Airborne Division and, more importantly, they had also drawn Rommel’s panzer reserves in and around Caen. This took the pressures, at least temporarily, off the 50th Northumbrian Division landing on Sword Beach, and the American troops to the west at Omaha and on the Cherbourg Peninsular. For those American soldiers still fighting to gain a foothold on the shores of Omaha Beach, it would prove to be an especially important respite.
The shortest day
D-Day was a short day for some.
On 5-6 June the bombardments of Caen, aerial and naval, and the intense anti-aircraft fire, allowed nobody to sleep. The Caen Maison d’Arrêt was full of prisoners hoping for a hit on the prison to give them some slight chance of escape. At St-Lô, the prison was hit. Forty-two résistant prisoners were buried under the ruins.
The Germans believed that Caen might be surrounded by the evening of D-Day, and the Gestapo received order not to allow the Allies to free any NN prisoners. A decision had to made about the fate of the prisoners. The contingency plan was to withdraw Gestapo (German and French) and SD (Sicherheitsdienst, Intelligence) personnel to Alençon immediately, removing with them prisoners who were subject to the grotesque Nacht und Nebel Erlass, meaning Night and Fog Decree, issued by Hitler himself on December 7, 1941. Its purpose, as the weird title indicates, was to seize persons “endangering German security” who were not to be immediately executed and make them vanish without a trace into the night and fog of the unknown in Germany. That was why the victims were called NN prisoners. Their fate was to be unknown to their friends and relations.
The Army would not provide transport for the move to Alençon. It was feared also that a convoy might not have got through, given the intense activity of the Allied fighter-bombers. So Gestapo and SD men began to burn the dossiers and archives. The decision was made in the late morning to carry out Nacht und Nebel killings. At 14.00 the SD caused more than eighty NN prisoners to be shot. None of them had had any sort of trial.
The atrocity, what happened cannot be called executions, was perpetrated in the Maison d’Arrêt in the afternoon and evening of 6 June. Prison guards, supervised by SD men in plain clothes, did the shooting. The victims were sprayed with fire from machine-pistols. No single shots were heard which might have been the coups de grace for those who had merely been wounded. The lucky ones died quickly, the unlucky were left to die of whatever wounds they had incurred. Later, during the evening, a large number of single shots were heard. The current interpretation of this is that the remaining prisoners, thirty-five or more, were shot in the back of the neck, each with a single bullet.
It is considered certain that no fewer than eighty-five died but the number may be as high as a hundred (Dillon, 2004). There is no complete list. About seventy names have been deduced but the identities of the others, fifteen to thirty of them, have never been discovered. They may have included résistants from other regions as well as Allied airmen and agents. Some may have been unknown except for their code-names.
No prison records survived. The security services destroyed them all. They carefully removed and destroyed all the personal effects of the dead. They carefully removed and destroyed all the personal effects of the dead. The bodies may have been buried within the walls for a time but no trace of them has ever been found.
Then innocent French citizens were killed by Allies bombing.
Particularly Caen suffered several huge air attacks. In the first on June 6 American bombers seeking to knock out bridges over the river Orne totally missed their targets, instead destroying swathes of the city centre and killing around 600 civilians.
When Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery failed to capture Caen that day, the city was added to a list of Norman towns targeted in devastating Bomber Command operation to “flatten” them to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the coast.
The total number of civilians killed on D Day was around 3,000 – roughly the same as the number of Allied soldiers killed on the beaches of Normandy.
Jean Quellien, a leading French D-Day historian, said:
“There is definitely a feeling among the local population that the suffering of French civilians was not sufficiently taken into account. When one looks at testimonies in 1944 and 1945, the sense of anger was very clear. One finds phrases such as: ‘Oh, the bastards.’
“Such expressions completely disappeared over the years as it is politically incorrect to say them openly, but when you talk to people quietly and privately, a certain number definitely still have a problem with it.”
Considering the pivotal nature of June 6, 1944, one might expect that Hitler responded to the arrival of Allied troops on the banks of Normandy with alarm – quite the contrary.
In the early days of June Germany’s Fuhrer was at The Berghof, his residence in the Bavarian Alps. Everyone there knew an invasion was likely in the near future, but the atmosphere was not nervous, according to contemporary accounts. To the contrary it was relaxed, and in the evening, almost festive.
On the evening of June 5, Hitler and his entourage watched the latest newsreels, and then talked about films and theater. They stayed up until 2 a.m., trading reminiscences. It was almost like the “good old times,” remembered key Hitler associate Joseph Goebbels.
When Goebbels left for his own quarters, a thunderstorm broke, writes British historian Ian Kershaw. German military intelligence was already picking up indications of an oncoming Allied force, and perhaps landing troops, in the Normandy region. But Hitler wasn’t told. Hitler must have been informed about the invasion when he was still awake, at least in two occasions:
Shortly after 10:15 of June 5 when Lieutenant-Colonel Meyer got the second line of Verlaine’s poem indicating the imminent invasion, he informed Rundstead’s Headquaters. The latter in turn alerted OKW, Hitler’s headquarters. The message was given to Alfred Jodl.
At 01:50 of 6 June, Naval West Group chief of operations, Admiral Karl Hoffman, sent the following message to Germany: “Report to the headquarters of the Führer that it is the invasion”. This is perhaps the first official report about the invasion sent directly to Hitler. It appears that there is no response to this report.
Then Hitler retired around 04:00 of June 6. Also at that time, the first town, Sainte-Mère-Église, was liberated.
German headquarters confirmed that some sort of widespread attack was in progress shortly thereafter. At sunrise, around 06:00, the defenders knew: Allied ships and planes were massed off the French beaches in astounding strength, and men were beginning to come ashore. But the German reaction was slow and befuddled. Was this the real thing, the main invasion? Or was it a feint, with the real force to land elsewhere, probably Calais?
German confusion was extensive while Hitler snored on. He had previously insisted that any initial attack would be a decoy intended to divert forces to the wrong place. Given his tendency towards histrionics, no one wanted to tell Hitler what was going on until they themselves were certain. His adjutants now hesitated to waken him with mistaken information.
Hitler was awakened around 10:00 and told the news – 11 hours after OKW received the report about the second line of Verlaine’s poem. And still Hitler was not angry, or vindictive – far from it. He seemed relieved. Goebbels thought the German leader looked as if a great burden had fallen from his shoulders. He had earlier said Normandy was a possible landing site, for one thing. He felt the poor weather in the area would favor the defense. He considered Allied troops far inferior to German units. For months, Allied forces had been massing in England, where the now-weakened Luftwaffe could not strike them. Now they were in reach, in range of German guns.
“The news couldn’t be better,” Hitler said when informed of the invasion
Earlier on the morning of June 6, von Rundstedt, had requested the immediate release of two reserve panzer divisions. Jodl, as we’ve seen before, rejected the request.
At a lunchtime military conference Hitler finally agreed with von Rundstedt’s request. But at that point it was too late. If they had moved out in early morning, under cover of darkness, they might have reached the front. Now they had to wait out the daylight hours, lest they be destroyed by Allied aircraft which ruled the French skies.
Later on June 6, Hitler attended a reception near Salzburg for the new Austrian foreign minister. When he entered the room he was radiant. “It’s begun at last,” he said.
As the hours passed and Pas-de-Calais remained completely quiet, German field commanders phoned the High Command for permission to rush all available reinforcements including two nearby Panzer divisions to Normandy. But Hitler said he wanted to wait until the overall situation became clearer. In the meantime, British and Canadian troops continued to advance inland while the Americans broke free of Omaha and moved inland as well.
Jodl had refused to awaken Hitler or to release the panzer divisions being held in reserve. Not until early in the afternoon were the two nearest panzer divisions – the 12th SS and the Panzer Lehr – released to Army Group B so that they could begin their move toward the beachhead. The Panzer Lehr had been ready to move at 06:00 hours, but did not receive the move order until late in the afternoon. Neither would arrive on the scene until June 7.
At OB West, Blumentritt called Speidel at Rommel’s headquarters. The one-sentence conversation was duly recorded in Army Group B’s War Diary. “OKW,” said Blumentritt, “has released the 12th S.S. and Panzer Lehr divisions.” The time was 15:40. Both generals knew that it was too late. Hitler and his senior officers had held up the two panzer divisions for nearly ten hours after von Rundstedt’s request. Now the sky was clear, Allies planes were attacking everywhere. The German tanks had to shelters under the tree canopy along their roads, waiting for the night to continue their advance.
Hitler’s strict orders had made it impossible to throw in the armored divisions “in the first hours” or even the first days. When they finally arrived they were thrown in piecemeal and failed.
Nearly seven hours after waking up, Hitler had the first definite action. He issued a famous order which has been preserved for posterity in the log of the Seventh Army:
16:55 hours. June 6, 1944
Chief of Staff Western Command must emphasize the desire of the Supreme Command to have the enemy in the bridgehead annihilated by the evening of June 6 since there exists the danger of additional sea – and airborne landings for support… The beachhead must be cleaned up by not later than tonight.
In the eerie mountain air of the Obersalzberg, from which Hitler was now trying to direct the most crucial battle of the war up to this moment – he had been saying for months that Germany’s destiny would be decided in the West – this fantastic order seemed to be in all seriousness, concurred in by Jodl and Keitel. Even Rommel, who passed it on by telephone around 17:00 that afternoon, an hour after his return from Germany, seemed to took it seriously, for he ordered Seventh Army headquarters to launch an attack by the 21st Panzer Division, the only German armored unit in the area, “immediately regardless of whether reinforcements arrive or not.”
This the division had already done since 10:00, without waiting for Rommel’s command. General Pemsel, who was on the other end of the line when Rommel called Seventh Army headquarters, gave a blunt reply to Hitler’s demand that the Allied beachhead – there were actually now three – “be cleaned up by not later than tonight.”
“That,” he replied, “would be impossible.”
Less than two months before, Rommel had written General Jodl:
“If, in spite of the enemy’s air superiority, we succeed in getting a large part of our mobile force into action in the threatened coast defense sectors in the first hours, I am convinced that the enemy attack on the coast will collapse completely on its first day.”
Rommel tried to convince Hitler once more, this time by sending him a letter which praised the heroism of the German fighting troops, but also advised “the unequal struggle is nearing its end.”
At the end of D-Day
Not even when the news began to reach him shortly after dawn on June 6 that on the Normandy coast between the rivers Vire and Orne a huge Allied fleet was disembarking large bodies of troops, under cover of a murderous fire from the big guns of an armada of warships, did von Rundstedt believe that this was to be the main Allied assault. It did not become apparent, Speidel says, until the afternoon of June 6. By that time the Americans had a toehold on two beaches and the British on a third and had penetrated inland for a distance of 3-10 km.
After 14:00, the Allies troops started to strengthen their positions and move further inland. They were supported by airplanes while the German Air Force was totally absent. Omaha was the last beach that the Allies troops had to overcome, after the German soldiers one by one ran away from their positions.
Some towns were subsequently liberated:
- 14:20 – Périers-sur-le-Dan.
- 16:00 – Biéville
- 20:00 – Colleville-sur-Med.
- 20:15 – Taillerville.
- 22:00 – Arromanches; quân Đồng minh tiến đến ngoại ô Thị trấn Bayeux.
- 22:30 – Tailleville.
The Allies failed to achieve any of their goals on the first day. Carentan, St. Lô, and Bayeux remained in German hands, and Caen, a major objective, was not captured. Only two of the beaches (Juno and Gold) were linked on the first day, and all five beachheads were not yet connected.
June 6th, 1944, was the “longest day” alright–for the Germans. Indeed, it was a disaster. The twin rocks of the Wehrmacht’s defensive strategy in the west, the Atlantic Wall and the Panzer divisions, were both abject failures. The Allies pierced the wall within the opening minutes of the landing, and only a single Panzer Division managed to head towards the beach and launch a counterattack, then had to retreat.
The Allied invasion plans had called for the capture of Carentan, St. Lô, Caen, and Bayeux on the first day, with all the beaches (other than Utah) linked with a front line 10 to 16 kilometresfrom the beaches. None of these objectives were achieved. The five bridgeheads were not connected, and Caen, a major objective, was still in German hands at the end of D-Day.
The longest night ended with the Allies firmly holding their beach fronts. Like the German generals said about Hitler’s order, it was impossible to clean up the beachhead by not later than tonight – in fact, by any subsequent night.
The longest day remembered
Bedford resident Lucille Boggess, who was just 14 during World War II remembered the longest day in her family’s history – “We were getting ready to go to church on Sunday, and the sheriff brought the first telegram. The second telegram was delivered by a cab driver.”
The telegrams brought word that both of her two brothers were killed on D-Day. Sadly, 21 similar telegrams would be sent to other parents in this community, providing word that their sons would never again set foot on Virginia soil. This is the town of Bedford of Virginia.
Even to this day, town leaders say the loss of 23 young men from a single town of only 3,200 residents has had devastating effects.
One town resident said:
“You have to think, this tragedy struck everyone. Every one of these boys was a classmate, a son, a nephew, a paperboy, a little freckle faced neighbor kid who played ball out in the yard – these were 23 young men who never got to raise a family, start a business or build something great – it’d be impossible to determine just what this community lost on that day.”
Among 46 men that went to war, only 23 returned. In the number per capita or in casualty rate, Bedford suffered the highest loss in the Battle of Normandy.
The numbers related to the D-Day differ according to the sources. The following is considered to be pretty close to the situation.
The Army under Eisenhower is huge:
- American personnel in Britain consisted of 2,876,439 persons housed in 1,108 bases and camps. On the average each fighting man was supported by 3 other soldiers who provided and maintained supplies and equipment, communication, medical care, training, etc.
- 163 new airbases built in England.
- Nearly 1,000 trains built with 20,000 tankers.
- About 3,200 reconnaissance missions were launched in the run-up to the invasion to take photos of vital locations.
- Allied planners also produced around 17 million maps of varying types including training maps with fake place names.
- Of the 6,939 vessels that took part in the Normandy landings there were 1,213 naval combat ships, 4,126 landing ships/landing craft, 736 ancillary craft and 864 merchant vessels. Sailors from 8 different nations, some 195,700 of them, manned the ships.
- At the end of D-Day, 156.115 soldiers were deployed in Normandy.
- The average age of landing soldiers was 22.
- There were 11,590 airplanes, 14,674 sorties were flown, 832 were C-47 Dakota; 127 airplane of various types were lost. The airborned troops were transported by 2,395 airplannes and 867 gliders.
- The Invasion Fleet was drawn from eight different navies, comprising 6,939 vessels: 1,213 warships, 4,126 transport vessels (landing ships and landing craft), and 736 ancilliary craft and 864 merchant vessels.
- Some 20,000 vehicles were landed on D-Day.
Casuaties at the end of D-Day:
- 4.413 Allies soldiers were killed, most of them under 20 years old.
- The total casualties (killed, injured, missing and captured as POW) was 10.500 người – much lower than what Churchill had been afraid at 20,000.
- During the preparation period and run-up to D-Day, Allied air forces lost nearly 12,000 men in over 2,000 aircraft. Although this effort paved the way for the success of the landings, the casualty figures are unlikely to be included under that heading.
- German sources vary between 4,000 and 9,000 killed on D-Day.
- From 11,000 to 19,000 French residents died in the bombings during the weeks leading to D-Day, some 3,000 of them were killed on D-Day.
The D-Day preceded more bloody fightings in Normandy. The average losses per division on both sides in this area were to exceed those for Soviet and German divisions during an equivalent period on the Eastern Front.
After the longest day
In the days that followed, given all they were up against, Field Marshals von Rundstedt and Rommel decided that it was time have a talk with Hitler, face to face, about the possibility of saving their troops, and Germany itself, from all but certain destruction. Hoping to talk some sense into Hitler, they enticed him to a meeting on June 17 at Margival, north of Soissons, in the elaborate bombproof bunker which had been built to serve as the Fuehrer’s headquarters for the invasion of Britain in the summer of 1940, but never used. Now, four summers later, the Nazi warlord appeared there for the first time.
Speidel later wrote:
“He looked pale and sleepless, playing nervously with his glasses and an array of colored pencils which he held between his fingers. He sat hunched upon a stool, while the field marshals stood. His hypnotic powers seemed to have waned. There was a curt and frosty greeting from him. Then in a loud voice he spoke bitterly of his displeasure at the success of the Allied landings, for which he tried to hold the field commanders responsible.”
But the prospect of another stunning defeat was emboldening the generals, or at least Rommel, whom Rundstedt left to do most of the talking when Hitler’s diatribe against them had come to a momentary pause.
Says Speidel, who was present:
“With merciless frankness, Rommel pointed out… that the struggle was hopeless against the [Allies] superiority in the air, at sea and on the land…”
Well, not quite hopeless, if Hitler abandoned his absurd determination to hold every foot of ground and then to drive the Allied forces into the sea. Rommel proposed, with Rundstedt’s assent, that the Germans withdraw out of range of the enemy’s murderous naval guns, take their panzer units out of the line and re-form them for a later thrust which might defeat the Allies in a battle fought outside the range of the enemy’s naval artillery.
But the supreme warlord would not listen to any proposal for withdrawal. German soldiers must stand and fight. The subject obviously was unpleasant to him and he quickly changed to others. In a display which Speidel calls “a strange mixture of cynicism and false intuition,” Hitler assured the generals that the new V-l weapon, the buzz bomb, which had been launched for the first time the day before against London, “would be decisive against Great Britain… and make the British willing to make peace.”
When the two field marshals drew Hitler’s attention to the utter failure of the German Air Force in the West, the Fuehrer retorted that “masses of jet fighters” – the Allies had no jets, but the Germans had just put them into production – would soon drive the British and American flyers from the skies. Then, he said, Britain would collapse. At this juncture the approach of Allied planes forced them to adjourn to the Fuehrer’s air-raid shelter.
The talks lasted from 09:00 to 16:00, with a break for lunch. Speidel recounts:
“A one-dish meal, at which Hitler boiled a heaped plate of rice and vegetables, after it had been previously tasted for him. Pills and liqueur glasses containing various medicines were ranged around his place, and he took them in turn. Two S.S. men stood guard behind his chair.”
Safe in the underground concrete bunker, they resumed the conversation, and at this point Rommel insisted on steering it into politics.
“He predicted that the German front in Normandy would collapse and that a breakthrough into Germany by the Allies could not be checked… He doubted whether the Russian front could be held. He pointed to Germany’s complete political isolation… He concluded… with an urgent request that the war be brought to an end.”
Hitler, who had interrupted Rommel several times, finally cut him short: “Don’t you worry about the future course of the war, but rather about your own invasion front.”
The two field marshals were getting nowhere, either with their military or political arguments. “Hitler paid no attention whatsoever to their warnings,” General Jodl later recalled at Nuremberg. Finally the generals urged the Supreme Commander at least to visit Rommel’s Army Group B headquarters to confer with some of the field commanders on what they were up against in Normandy. Hitler reluctantly agreed to the visit for June 19 – two days hence.
He did not show up. Shortly after the field marshals had departed from Margival on the afternoon of June 17 an errant V-l on its way to London turned around and landed on the top of the Fuehrer’s bunker. No one was killed or even hurt, but Hitler was so upset that he set off immediately for safer parts, not stopping until he got to the mountains of Berchtesgaden.
Once more, on June 29, Rundstedt and Rommel appealed to Hitler to face realities both in the East and in the West and to try to end the war while considerable parts of the German Army were still in being. This meeting took place on the Obersalzberg, where the supreme warlord treated the two field marshals frostily, dismissing their appeals curtly and then lapsing into a long monologue on how he would win the war with new “miracle weapons.” His discourse, says Speidel, “became lost in fantastic digressions.”
Two days later Rundstedt was replaced as Commander-in-Chief West by Field Marshal von Kluge. Rundstedt’s dismissal may have come partly as the result of his blunt words the night before to Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, OKW Chief of Staff. The latter had rung him up to inquire about the situation. An all-out German attack on the British lines by four S.S. panzer divisions had just floundered and Rundstedt was in a gloomy mood. “What shall we do?” cried Keitel. “Make peace, you fools. What else can you do?” Rundstedt retorted. It seems that Keitel, the “telltale toady,” as most Army field commanders called him, went straight to Hitler with the remarks. The Fuehrer was at that moment conferring with Kluge, who had been on sick leave for the last few months as the result of injuries sustained in a motor accident. Kluge was immediately named to replace Rundstedt. In such ways were top commands changed by the Nazi warlord.
On July 15 Rommel wrote a long letter to Hitler and dispatched it by Army teletype.
“The troops are fighting heroically everywhere, but the unequal struggle is nearing its end. I must beg you to draw the proper conclusions without delay. I feel it my duty as Commander-in-Chief of the Army Group to state this clearly.”
“I have given him his last chance,” Rommel told Speidel. “If he does not take it, we will act.”
Two days later, on the afternoon of July 17, while driving back to headquarters from the Normandy front, Rommel’s staff car was shot up by low-flying Allied fighter planes and he was so critically wounded that it was first thought he would not survive the day. His military ended.
Where the soldiers rest
Most soldiers falling on D-Day and subsequent days rest in the cemetaries in Normandy. There are together 13 cemetaries for the soldiers of both sides fighting each other in Normandy. They rest near their buddies, and not far from those in the other sides.
Many old enemies rest in the same cemetery, for example:
- Fontenay-le-Pesnel War Cemetary: 461 Commonwealt soldiers and 59 German soldiers (from the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend).
- La Délivrande War Cemetary: 943 Commonwealt and 180 German soldiers.
- Saint-Manvieu War Cemetary: 1,627 Commonwealt and 555 German soldiers.
- Tilly-sur-Seulles War Cemetary: 990 Commonwealt and 232 German soldiers.
Some other cemeteries are as follows.
Ranville War Cemetery, near Pegasus Bridge, containing 2,235 British and Commonwealth servicemen; 97 of these remain unidentified. Also contained there are 330 German graves, along with a few burials of other nationalities. The cemetery contains the grave of Lieutenant Den Brotheridge – considered to be the first Allied death on D-Day.
Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, near Caen, 1 km from Reviers in the east, containing predominantly Canadian soldiers killed during the early stages of the Battle of Normandy The cemetery also includes three British graves and one French grave, for a total of 2048 markers.
La Cambe German War Cemetery: near Bayeux, containing in excess of 21,000 German military personnel of World War II.
Orglandes German War Cemetery: around 7km west of Ste-Mère Église, with 10,152 graves. Lieutenant General Wilhelm Falley, the most senior German soldier killed on D-Day, was buried here.
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial: located east of St Laurent, directly overlooking Omaha beach where so many lost their lives. It contains the graves of 9,387 US Soldiers; most of these were killed in the landings and ensuing operations. Inscribed on the Memorial walls are the names of a further 1,557 soldiers posted ‘missing in action’. In this Colleville American Military Cemetery are the graves of two brothers, Robert and Preston Niland. A third brother, Edward, was not in fact killed in action but had been taken prisoner in the Far East. These brothers were the inspiration for the motion picture Saving Private Ryan. Another notable grave is that of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr..
In his speech on the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, President Obama said:
“At the end of the war, when our ships set off for America filled with our fallen, tens of thousands of liberated Europeans turned out to say farewell. And they pledged to take care of the more than 60,000 Americans who would remain in cemeteries on this continent ‘as if,’ in the words of one man, ‘their tombs were our children’s.’ You have kept your word, like the true friends you are. We are forever grateful.”
D-Day then and now
D-Day in color
“The generation of World War II are almost all gone, so I think it is extremely important to rescue these photos through a process that interests the new generation – so maybe people will be able to better understand what happened. This is what I’ve been trying to do since I began colorizing photos two years ago.
“I like to keep in mind that I’m working with historical facts, and it’s not my job to change that story and make it look the way I want it to look.
These are the words of the Bazilian artist Marina Amaral on D-Day photos colorized by her for remembrance of the Battle of Normandy on its 73rd Anniversary.
Those people later on
Günther Blumentritt: after the war, helped in the rearmament of Germany and the development of the modern German army.
Logan Scott-Bowden: his final appointment, on promotion to Major General, was as Head of the British Defence Liaison Staff, India. After retirement from active service Scott-Bowden served as the Colonel-Commandant of the Royal Engineers from 1975 to 1980.
Omar Bradley: after the Battle of Normandy, was appointed Commander the 12th Army Group that numbered over 1.3 million men (the largest army unit commanded by a single man). He was also the last man in WW-II to be promoted to General of the Army (22-Sep-1950) and the first U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1948).
Charles Canham: after the war, Assistant Division Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and later commanding general of XI Corps.
Norman D. Cota: received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism on Omaha Beach, led the American troops on Champs Élisées Avelue after Paris was liberated, Commander of the 28th Infantry Division, retired as lieutenant-general.
Friedrich Dollmann: after Cherbourg fell on 26-Jun-1944, Hitler relieved him of command and, unaware of that, he died. The exact circumstances of his death. His last chief of staff Max-Josef Pemsel said Dollmann committed suicide.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: General of the Army (1944), Chief of Staff of the Army (1945-1948), President of Columbia University (1948-1953), Supreme Commander of NATO (1950-1952), U.S. President (1953-1961). When he died, President Richard M. Nixon’s eulogy called him “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
James M. Gavin: was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses and French Legion of Honour (Grand Officer), youngest lieutenant general at 48 (in 1955), Ambassador to France (1961-1962), advisor on the two films The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far.
Marcelle Hamel: after the war got a bachelor’s degree, appointed headmistress of a highschool, received Ordre des Palmes Académiques of France for outstanding performance in education.
Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte: after his release as a POW, he completed his dissertation then became professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Mainz, at the same time served the new armny of West Germany and retired with the rank of brigadier general.
Sir Percy Hobart: after the Battle of Normandy he got no award from the the British apparently due to old-time persecution and victimization by his superiors, but he received the Legion of Merit, Degree of Commander, a decoration of which he was extremely proud.
Lawrence Hogben: after the war Hogben joined the Rank Organisation as a meteorologist while he studied for a PhD at Imperial College, London. Two years later he joined ICI, with which he worked for 35 years.
Georges Gondrée: after the war together with his wife continued to run their café and served free drinks to veterans of D-Day each year on June 6. The café and bridge area are now considered national monuments, and a museum is nearby. The bridge itself was replaced when the canal was widened postwar, but the original bridge sits at the museum.
John Howard: was awarded Distinguished Service Order and Croix de Guerre avec Palme of France, often came back to Pegasus Bridge area and met again Georges Gondrée.
Wilhelm Keitel: following the war, was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. He was found guilty, sentenced to death and executed in 1946.
Irving P. Krick: Caltech terminated his contract, then he continued offering commercial long-term weather forecasts.
George Lane: escaped from prison, retired as colonel. He always believed his life was saved by Rommel. He died in 2018, at 95.
Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory: In November 1944, en route to Ceylon to take up the post of Air Commander-in-Chief South East Asia Command, his aircraft crashed in the French Alps and Leigh-Mallory, his wife and eight others were killed. He was the most senior RAF officer to be killed in the WW-II.
Erich Marcks: was wounded in an Allied air attack on 12-Jun-1944 and died the same day. Posthumously, he was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
Bernard Montgomery: was promoted to field marshall, after the war became Chief of the Imperial General Staff (1946-1948), then NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe until his retirement in 1958.
Frederick E. Morgan: was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB). The U.S. awarded him the Legion of Merit and the Army Distinguished Service Medal. After the war, Chief of Operations for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration – UNRRA (1945), Controller of Atomic Energy (1951) and Controller of Nuclear Weapons (1954).
Walter Ohmsen: after the war joined the West Germany Navy and retired with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
Josef Priller: after the war became general manager of a brewery after his marriage to the owner. He was one of several D-day combatants to advise on the making of the film The Longest Day.
Karl-Jesko von Puttkamer: was injured on 20 July 1944 in the plot to kill Hitler by a bomb, then joined Hitler to live in a bunker under Berlin, on 20 April ngày 20/7/1944 was ordered with several others by Hitler to leave Berlin by aircraft for the Obersalzberg to destroy Hitler’s papers and personal belongings there. Following the German surrender on 8 May 1945, Puttkamer was held in captivity until May 1947.
Sir Bertram Ramsay: on 2 January 1945, he was killed when his plane crashed on takeoff at Toussus-le-Noble Airport southwest of Paris. He was en route to a conference with General Bernard Montgomery in Brussels.
Matthew B. Ridgway: as promoted to lieutenant general (June 1945), in the Korean War commander of the Eighth Army then replaced MacArthur as Commander in Chief of the Far East Command and was promoted to full general, in 1952 replaced Eisenhower as NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Europe.
Helmut Roemer: in 1947, together with other prisoners, was freed and returned to Germany with barely imaginable luxuries like cigarettes and coffee. He later returned to Pegasus Bridge and became friendly with Major John Howard.
Erwin Rommel: On 17 July 1944 was incapacitated by an Allied air attack, ending his combat career. He was implicated in a conspiracy against Hitler, so he chose a quiet suicide as ordered by Hitler, with the promise (fulfilled later) that the government would claim that he died a hero and bury him with full military honours.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.: died of a heart attack on July 12, 1944. He had spent part of the day in a long conversation with his son, Captain Quentin Roosevelt II, who had also landed at Normandy on D-Day. On that day, he had been selected by Bradley for promotion to the rank of major general and command of the 90th Infantry Division. These recommendations were sent to Eisenhower for approval. When Eisenhower called the next morning to approve them, he was told that Roosevelt had died during the night.
Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Later, when asked about the best heroism in the Battle of Normandy, Bradley answered, “Ted Roosevelt on Utah Beach.”
Gerd von Rundstedt: after the war was accused of responsibility for war crimes, but the author Liddell Hart wrote of him: “Rundstedt makes an increasingly favourable impression on me… He is dignified without being arrogant, and essentially aristocratic in outlook.” After four years in custody, in 1948, he was released due to poor health.
Hans von Salmuth: was relieved of his command in late August 1944. Following the war, he was tried in the High Command Trial, as part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 20 years. He was released in 1953.
Walter Bedell Smith: after the war Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1945-1948), head of CIA (1950-1950) and was promoted to 4-star general (1951).
James Stagg: for invaluable services over the D-Day period, was appointed an Officer of the US Legion of Merit in 1945 and was also appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) at the same time, later worked as director of services at the Meteorological Office until 1960. In an interview 20 years after D-Day, Eisenhower has words of praising him.
Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg: on 10 June 1944, Royal Air Force aircraft attacked his headquarters at La Caine in Normandy, and he was wounded. Hitler relieved his command on July 2 – same day for von Rundstedt. After the war he wrote a memoir which was translated as The Critical Years (1952), and was involved in the development of the newly built West German Army.
Hans Speidel: after the war, was instrumental in the creation of the West Germany Army, and later as its first four-star general, then Supreme Commander of NATO ground forces in Central Europe (1957-1963).
John M. Steele: the Germans took him prisoner. He later escaped from the Germans and rejoined his division when US troops of the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment attacked the village capturing thirty Germans and killing another eleven. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat. He continued to visit Sainte-Mère Église town throughout his life and was an honorary citizen of Ste. Mère Église. The tavern, Auberge John Steele, stands adjacent to the square and maintains his memory through photos, letters and articles hung on its walls.
Maxwell D. Taylor: after the war, was superintendent of West Point (1945-1949), promoted to lieutenant general (1951) then four-star general (1953), commander of the Eighth United States Army in the Korean War (1953), Army Chief of Staff (1955-1959), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1962-1964), Ambassador to South Vietnam (1964-1965).
Arthur William Tedder: after the war served as Chief of the Air Staff (1946-1950), Chancellor of the University of Cambridge (1950–1967).
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake: was given several important medals for bravery including the British George Medal, the French Croix de Guerre (on three occasions), and the Médaille de la Résistance. She was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. The Americans gave her the Medal of Freedom, and Australia made her a Companion of the Order of Australia. She sold her medals to support her income in her old age. She said, “There was no point in keeping them, I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway”.
Roy Wooldridge: immediately following the war, he returned to education, starting work as a lecturer in mathematics at Brighton Technical college. He went on to become head of mathematics at Lanchester College of Technology in Coventry. He died in 2017, aged 97.
Willard G. Wyman: After WW2 full general and Commander-in-Chief, Allied Land Forces South-Eastern Europe (NATO) from 1952 to 1954, followed by command of Sixth United States Army (1954-1955). His final assignment was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Continental Command (1956-1958).
There were a number of factors, each complemented the others to determine the Battle of Normandy outcome.
The classic “The Art of War” by ancient China’s philosopher Sun Tzu stressed the importance of deception. Eisenhower may or may not have read the book. He could have written the book, easily.
The Allies’ near-perfect deception plan yielded great benefits. It was added by the German spies in Britain who were “turned” into double agents then fed false information to their bosses back in Germany. As a result, German surprise was complete. Several hours after the invasion began, the Germans still believed that Normandy was merely a diversion and that the real invasion would take place at Pas-de-Calais. They were certain it would be the site of the battle, and they had placed the bulk of their panzer divisions north and east of the Seine River, where they were unavailable for counterattack in Normandy. Too much time was wasted by the Germans, and when they made decision, it was too late.
Also due to Allies’ deception, German confusion was extensive. Without air reconnaissance, with Allied airborne troops dropping here, there, everywhere, with their telephone lines cut by the Resistance, with their army, corps, division, and some regimental commanders at the war game in Rennes, the Germans were all but blind and leaderless.
The invasion was supported by overwhelming naval and air force power. In contrast, except for a few isolated, daring attacks (such as during an amphibious-landing rehearsal at Slapton Sands on April 28, 1944), the German navy was absent in the English Channel, allowing the massive seaborne force to cross the Channel virtually unimpeded. Also, Germany’s air force no longer had control of the skies, thus missing the chance to spot the Allied build-up on England’s southern coast – and being able to disrupt or destroy it. The Luftwaffe’s last remaining fighter squadrons in France had been moved far out of range from the Normandy beaches. And, once the invasion was underway, the movement of the panzers and other reinforcements was stopped by Allied air power. Without control of the air, Germany was doomed. Chiến dịch đổ bộ lên Normandy được yểm trợ bởi lực lượng hải quân and không quân áp đảo. Conclusion: distinct advantage to the Allies.
Allies’ units were well-equipped and well-trained. Not so with many German units, which were also made up of conscripts from Nazi-conquered lands who did not wish to die for Hitler – and surrendered the first chance they had. German fighting quality was also affected badly by Rommel who paid attention to strengthening the useless Atlantic Wall and ignored training.
One of the main reasons for the Wehrmacht’s failure was much more basic: the sheer, raw power of its adversaries. The Allies had finally learned how to translate their wealth and industrial might into combat power at the front. Thousands of ships, tens of thousands of aircraft sorties, and the elements of nine divisions were in play on the Allied side that morning. To resist this onslaught, the Wehrmacht fielded just three divisions–two low-grade static formations and a single infantry division–with no navy or air force. Whether Hitler slept in or not, whether Rommel came home or not, wasn’t going to change the balance of forces in Normandy.
In contrast, the German lacked everything: from weather forecasting capability to reconnaissance, ships, airplanes, guns, and particularly troops: lacking in number and quality. Hitler had criticized the German Emperor who ordered fighting on two fronts in World War I, but the Nazi armny were fighting in three fronts: in the east along 2,000 km front, in the Mediterranean, 2,000 km, and in the west, 3,000 km.The German troops were spread too thin and so they lacked everything. Due to this serious lacking, the general opinion was that no matter if Hitler slept on the erly morning of June 6 or not and no matter if Rommel visited home during June 4-6 or not, the final outcome would the same.
In fact, the Germans did not lack strength in some respects. Their Intelligence could decode Allies’ message broadcast by BBC but no German military leaders believed such “announcement of invasion by radio”. Again, this was due to Allies’ deception as mentioned above.
And if the Germans had been able to quickly launch a massed counterattack at Normandy with their panzer divisions, Eisenhower might have been forced to read his somber speech that he had prepared. If Rommel had been given control of ten panzer divisions, and he had been able to station some close to Normandy and ready to move at an hour’s notice (or if Hitler had awakened early on June 6 and permitted them to move), then history might have turned out differently.
Trust, leadership and command structure
Trust creates strong leadership, and strong leadership also comes from streamlined command structure.
One big diference: President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill trusted Eisenhower completely, at the same time the Allies generals and admirals trust their Supreme Commander; whereas Hitler mistrust his generals and the generals mistrust him and mistrust each others. Hitler considered himself to be a military genius while von Rundstedt often called him “Bohemian corporal”, referred to Rommel as the “Marschall Bubi” (roughly, the “Marshall Laddie”), and addressed Jodl as “you fools”.
Benefitting from full trust, Eisenhower was given full authority, making his leadership so effective. At first he had to convince the top to have authority over strategic air forces who did not like to be told where to bomb, and he got it. With such full leadership, Eisenhower could demonstrate great executive ability in supervising an unprecedented logistical challenge, and his remarkable interpersonal skills could weld and hold together the most diverse military alliance in history. Related to this, he was able to establish overall unity of command.
Also with full leadership, Eisenhower alone could first postpone the invasion for 24 hours then also alone decided D-Day to be June 6. After the war, Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge marveled that Eisenhower made such an important decision without recourse to higher authority, noting that no-one in the German chain of command would have dared. It was, Ruge believed, “one of the truly great decisions in military history.”
While Eisenhower had full leadership on all air force and navy units, it was not so in the German chain of command: the German commanders of air force and navy in Normandy reported to their branch commanders in chief, not to von Rundstedt. This fact made a big different.
Another big difference was shown by clear responsibility delineation in SHAEF, in contrast to the confusing responsibilities between von Rundstedt (OB West) and Rommel (Army Group B) as well as between these two men and von Schweppenburg (Panzer Group West). Thus there were odd situations when the full General Marcks had to seek permission from Major General Hans Speidel for the use of the 21th Panzer Division, and Field Marshall von Rundstedt was rejected by Colonel-General to use two other panzer division.
For the German side, strong leadership worked in a wrong way. Hitler had gone to bed in the early hours of June 6 and gave orders that he was not to be awakened. When reports arrived, nobody dared to wake him up, and by the time he woke up it was too late to stop the invasion. Imagine Eisenhower had given a similar order. Any of his staff would not have hesitated to wake up the Suprement Commander if the situation had warranted it, and this would have made a big difference.
The Germans had a convoluted command structure to the point of a disaster. Although he was responsible for the defense of Normandy, Rommel had to await Hitler’s order just to mobilize two panzer divisions. Over Rommel was von Rundstedt who was not the “Supreme Commander” on the German side, unlike Eisenhower was on the Allied side. The commander-in-chief of the west front had to wait for Hitler, a thousand of kilometers away, to give orders even for matters at the division level.
In marked contrast to the rigid command structure Hitler had imposed on his armies, Allies field commanders were authorized by Eisenhower to make on-the-spot decisions about how to proceed. For the Americans at both Utah and Omaha beaches, this frontline improvisation saved the day. At Utah, troops under the command of General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. quickly realized they had landed on the wrong spot, a sparsely defended stretch of beach with a single road leading inland. Roosevelt decided to press forward anyway, gambling that he could get his troops off the beach and dash inland via the small exit before the Germans could reposition themselves for a counter-attack. And it worked.
And at Omaha, seeing American troops pinned down, U.S. Naval commanders sailed their destroyers close to the beach and blasted the entrenched Germans at nearly point-blank range – and this was not their duty.
One of the disastrous effects of bad trust, leadership and command combined was that the two panzer divisions spent the whole morning of June 6 waiting. There was a heavy overcast; they could have moved out free from serious interference from Allied aircraft. It was 16:00 when Hitler at last gave his approval. By then the clouds had broken up and Allied fighters and bombers ranged the skies over Normandy, smashing anything that moved. The panzers had to crawl into roadside woods and wait under cover for darkness before continuing their march to the sound of the guns.
The Germans had lost their weather-prediction ability so they were unable to see the brief “window” of opportunity that occurred during the middle of the Channel storm – and which the Allies had spotted. A number of key German commanders were absent from their posts during the critical first hours of June 6, 1944. Without their presence, their deputies could not – or dared not – make clear decision except wait-and-see.
Fighting for the cause
This is the crucial difference: the Allies leaders knew D-Day was not a mere battle; it was their common struggle for freedom, it was a commitment to the dignity of human beings. At the other side, Speidel and Rommel had joined an anti-Nazi group to revolt against Hitler while the aristocratic von Rundstedt knew about it but maintained silence.
Thus, due to the above-mentioned factors, the Battle of Normandie proved to be a pivotal moment in the war in Europe.
Twenty years later
Eisenhower was sitting on a bench in the American military cemetery at Saint‐Laurent sur‐Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach. As he viewed the 9,000 graves in the cemetery he said:
“I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope and pray that humanity will learn more than we had learned up to that time. But these people gave us a chance,, and they bought time for us, so that we can do better than we have before.
“So every time I come back to these beaches, or any day when I think about that day 20 years ago now, I say once more we must find some way to work to peace, and really to gain an eternal peace for this world.”
Years after the Battle of Normandy ended
In 1953, when Eisenhower was very ill, he gave a speech with the following paragraph:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.”
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Compiled by: Diệp Minh Tâm, 04-Dec-2018