INTRODUCTION

D-Day, 6 June 1944, was a date that altered the course of history. The invasion of Occupied France by Allied forces, codenamed Operation Overlord, had been years in the planning and subject to the utmost secrecy. The Germans knew that an attack would come but when and where was the subject of much speculation for Adolf Hitler and his generals. For the operation to succeed, it was vital for the Allies to maximize the element of surprise. The Allied commanders, planning the assault, could not allow the enemy to meet the attack in strength at the very moment it was at its most vulnerable – the time it took to land troops on the beaches of Normandy. The stakes could not have been higher – the liberation of Western Europe from the occupying forces of Nazi Germany, ahead of the assault on Germany itself and, ultimately, the defeat of Hitler.

In order to trick the Germans into believing the invasion would take place elsewhere, the Allies embarked on an elaborate campaign of deception. The ruse worked and on D-Day 156,000 Allied troops managed to land along a fifty-mile stretch of Normandy coastline. It was vital, also, to maintain the deception even after D-Day to oblige Hitler into keeping much of his force back in preparation for a possible assault elsewhere.

D-Day was, for the Germans, the beginning of the end. Now the prospect of liberation from Nazi rule was within reach. The sixth of June was the day that millions of people across occupied Europe had hoped and waited for. Among them was 14-year-old Anne Frank. On 22 May 1944, Anne wrote in her diary, ‘All of Amsterdam, all of Holland, in fact the entire western coast of Europe all the way down to Spain, are talking about the invasion day and night, debating, making bets and… hoping. The suspense is rising to fever pitch.’

This, in an hour, is the epic story of D-Day.

BACKGROUND

D-Day initiated the end-game of what had been an unprecedented struggle for supremacy in Europe. If the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942 had been what Winston Churchill called ‘the end of the beginning’, then D-Day was perhaps the beginning of the end.

Almost five years before D-Day, on 1 September 1939, Hitler had launched the German invasion of Poland. Two days later, Great Britain and France had declared war on Germany – and so the Second World War had begun. While German forces then struck Poland from the west, from 17 September, forces of the Soviet Union attacked from the east.

With Poland crushed between two totalitarian heavyweights, Hitler focused his attention on Scandinavia. On 9 April 1940, German forces attacked both Denmark, which capitulated within six hours, and Norway, which held out until 10 June.

On 10 May, Hitler launched the German invasion of Western Europe. By 28 May, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands had surrendered. On 10 June, Germany invaded France. On the same day, Benito Mussolini, fascist dictator of Italy, keen to share in Germany’s spoils of victory, declared war on France and Britain. British troops, sent to aid the French, were forced back to the French port of Dunkirk before being evacuated back to Britain. On 22 June, France, under its new prime minister, Philippe Pétain, surrendered. The dark years of Nazi occupation had begun.

During the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain raged above the skies of southern England as the RAF saved Britain from the German Luftwaffe, while, soon after, Britain endured the Blitz, the aerial bombardment of its cities.

In 1941, the German juggernaut continued on its course of destruction. Greece fell, as did Yugoslavia. Then, on 22 June, Hitler launched the invasion of the Soviet Union, opening up the Eastern Front, which, over the coming four years, would experience the most brutal fighting perhaps ever seen.

The war became truly global when, on 7 December 1941, Japan attacked the American fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Four days later, Hitler and Mussolini declared war on the USA.

The Dieppe Raid

In August 1942, Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, flew to Moscow and there met for the first time the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Stalin had been urging Churchill to open a second front by attacking Nazi-occupied Europe from the west, thereby forcing Hitler to divert troops to the west and alleviating in part the enormous pressure the Soviet Union found itself under. Now, as Churchill prepared to meet Stalin, German forces were bearing down on the strategically and symbolically important Russian city of Stalingrad.

Churchill knew that if Germany were to defeat the Soviet Union then Hitler would be able to concentrate his whole military strength on the west. But although tentative plans for a large-scale invasion were afoot, to act too quickly, too hastily, would be foolhardy. Churchill withstood Stalin’s pressure. There would be no second front for at least another year. But, in the meantime, Churchill was able to offer a ‘reconnaissance in force’ on the French port of Dieppe, with the objective of drawing away German troops from the Eastern Front. Whether Stalin was at all appeased by this morsel of compensation, Churchill does not say.

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German soldiers defending the French port of Dieppe against the Anglo-Canadian raid, 19 August 1942. (Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-291-1213-34 / Müller, Karl / CC-BY-SA)

Thus in the early hours of 19 August 1942, the Allies launched Operation Jubilee – the raid on Dieppe sixty-five miles across from England. Two hundred and fifty-two ships crossed the Channel in a five-pronged attack. They carried tanks together with 5,000 Canadians and 1,000 British and American troops plus a handful of fighters from the French resistance. Nearing their destination, one prong ran into a German merchant convoy. A skirmish ensued. More fatally, it meant that the element of surprise had been lost – aware of what was taking place, the Germans at Dieppe were now waiting in great numbers. What followed was a disaster as the Germans unleashed a withering fire from cliff tops and port-side hotels. A Canadian war correspondent described the scene as men tried to disembark from their landing craft: the soldiers ‘plunged into about two feet of water and machine-gun bullets laced into them. Bodies piled up on the ramp.’ Neutralized by German fighters, overhead support from squadrons of RAF planes proved ineffectual. Only twenty-nine tanks managed to make it ashore where they struggled on the shingle beach, and of those only fifteen were able to advance as far as the sea wall, only to be prevented from encroaching into the town by concrete barriers.

The Dieppe Raid, which had lasted just six hours, was a costly affair – 60 per cent of ground troops were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The operation left 1,027 dead, of whom 907 were Canadian. A further 2,340 troops were captured, and 106 aircraft shot down. An American, Lieutenant Edward V. Loustalot, earned the unenviable distinction of becoming the first US soldier killed in wartime Europe.

Despite the failure of Dieppe and the high rate of losses, important lessons were learned – that a direct assault on a well-defended harbour was not an option for any future attack; and that superiority of the air was a prerequisite. Churchill concluded that the raid had provided a ‘mine of experience’. In charge of the operation, Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, cousin to King George VI, would later say, ‘If I had the same decision to make again, I would do as I did before… For every soldier who died at Dieppe, ten were saved on D-Day.’ Hitler too felt as if a lesson had been learned. Knowing that at some point the Allies would try again, he said, ‘We must reckon with a totally different mode of attack and in quite a different place.’

PLANNING

Casablanca Conference

Meeting in January 1943, Churchill and US president Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed that a cross-Channel invasion was a necessity, and that plans for such a venture should be initiated. But at this stage both the prime minister and the president had alternative priorities: for Churchill, the focus of the war in Europe would be centred on Italy, starting with an invasion of Sicily; while Roosevelt’s main concern was the ongoing war in the Pacific.

Stalin, although invited, was not present at Casablanca – preoccupied by the ongoing battle raging round Stalingrad. Another Allied leader conspicuous by his absence was the head of the Free French forces, General Charles de Gaulle.

De Gaulle had been living in exile in London since the fall of France in June 1940. Philippe Pétain’s Vichy government, collaborating with the German invaders, had, in absentia, found de Gaulle guilty of treason and sentenced him to death. De Gaulle’s relationship with his allies was far from cordial. Roosevelt, in particular, disliked the Frenchman, refusing to acknowledge the self-proclaimed leader in any way that might enhance de Gaulle’s political standing. The Allies were not about to liberate France merely to install de Gaulle into power. Instead, Roosevelt insisted, following liberation there would be a provisional military government in place until elections could be held. Roosevelt and Churchill pointedly kept de Gaulle in the dark regarding the invasion plans and, indeed, only informed him two days before the event.

COSSAC

As a consequence of Casablanca, in March 1943, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Morgan was charged with the initial planning of a cross-Channel invasion of occupied Western Europe, codenamed Overlord, to include a naval assault, codenamed Neptune. Morgan, leading a team of fifty, was given the title Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC), though the Allies had yet to decide who their Supreme Commander should be. Undeterred, the COSSAC team, based in London’s St James’s Square, began work.

The Germans had fifty-nine divisions posted in France. The puzzle for COSSAC was how to land enough men as practicably possible to withhold the Germans until sufficient reinforcements were brought over. Attacking a port, as illustrated by the Dieppe Raid, was out of the question, so instead Morgan and his teams proposed an invasion via a beach. But where? Air superiority was vital (another lesson from Dieppe) so it had to be within operational reach of England. Two years previously, the BBC had urged people to send the War Office their photographs and postcards of coastal Europe. The British public responded with enthusiasm, sending in almost 10 million snaps which COSSAC now pored over, looking for clues and snippets of information. Meanwhile, air reconnaissance crews flew over the coasts of occupied Europe, collecting information regarding the lay of the land; their missions rarely disturbed by the overstretched German Luftwaffe who were otherwise engaged on the Eastern Front. The sorties covered the whole coast – from the Netherlands down to Spain – far more than was necessary but vital not to give German intelligence any idea of where the invasion might take place.

Small-scale raids on the French coasts were charged with taking photographs, collecting sand and soil samples to be analysed to ensure the beaches could sustain the weight of heavy tanks, and capturing Germans who then endured interrogation.

It soon became apparent that there were only two options – the area around Calais, the Pas-de-Calais, or, 140 miles to the west, the beaches of Normandy on the Cotentin Peninsula. Although Normandy was still well within range of fighter planes, Calais had the advantage of being the nearest, just twenty-one miles, from the southern coast of England hence the greater chance of an invading fleet remaining undetected as it crossed the Channel. Calais was also much nearer to the German border than Normandy. But Calais had the distinct disadvantage of being heavily protected by divisions of German tanks, and it was the most obvious point to expect an invading force to land.

Thus, Morgan proposed Normandy.

COSSAC planned accordingly. Morgan envisaged troops landing on a thirty-mile expanse of beach, while airborne troops would capture the Norman capital of Caen, eight miles inland. Having secured a foothold, the land troops would then capture the port of Cherbourg to the west of the Cotentin Peninsula, thus enabling the means for supplies to be shipped over.

Meanwhile, planning began on a simultaneous invasion from the south of France, codenamed Operation Dragoon.

The Mulberry Harbours

A problem that vexed Morgan and his team was that without access to a port, the transport ships lacked a harbour that had sufficiently deep enough water. Vital to the success of the invasion would be the Allies’ capacity to bring in reinforcements and supplies (necessarily via transport ships) quicker than the enemy. The ingenious solution was to build two inflatable harbours in England (one for the Americans, the other for the British and Canadians), tow them across the English Channel, and plant them near the beaches. Churchill approved of the proposals, with orders to ‘Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.’ The harbours, each designed to be the size of the port of Dover, consisted of a series of large watertight concrete chambers to be anchored down as pier heads, linking a long stretch of steel roadway.

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A concrete caisson being towed by a tug to form part of a Mulberry Harbour.

To ensure the provision of calm water off the Normandy coast, some sixty old merchant ships, codenamed Corncobs, were to be sailed across the Channel and then sunk in rows, thereby recreating the conditions of a sheltered harbour.

Meanwhile, work began on the world’s first undersea oil pipeline, 70 miles long from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg. PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) would pump a million litres of oil a day into northern France, reducing the reliance on tankers.

Engineers also designed airfields that could be constructed on site in Normandy to allow easier disembarkation for later waves of troops and, in the opposite direction, quick evacuation of the wounded.

Hobart’s Funnies

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A ‘Crab’ tank in action.

The British, under the inspiration of Percy Hobart, Bernard Montgomery’s brother-in-law, invented various aids for the landings, ‘Hobart’s Funnies’, to help advancing soldiers get on and across the beaches. Perhaps the most commonly used was the amphibious tank, the ‘Duplex Drive’, or DD, nicknamed by the troops as ‘Donald Duck’. Equipped with propellers and encased within a ‘flotation screen’, it could, having been launched from a landing craft several miles out, ‘swim’ ashore, where it would shed its screen and operate as an ordinary tank, providing vital assistance to the first waves of infantry soldiers attacking the beaches. The slow-moving Crab tank was equipped with a rotating drum with heavy, flailing chains that could detonate mines in its path. There were tanks that could unroll long, canvas paths so that vehicles behind wouldn’t sink into the sand; tanks that carried flamethrowers, and waterproofed tanks capable of diving to depths of nine feet to remove broken-down vehicles or push away ones that had come stuck; and tanks loaded with ramps that could act as mobile bridges. The ingenuity was stunning. Necessity, with Percy Hobart’s help, was the mother of invention.

(Since May 1941 and the capture of Germany’s Enigma coding machine from a German U-boat, British codebreakers, primarily based in Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, had been able to decode and read German communications. In the lead-up to D-Day and during the subsequent Battle of Normandy, the intelligence gleaned from Enigma provided vital information to the Allies regarding German movements and plans, often resulting in modifications to their own plans and allowing Allied troops to be on the ready.)

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