Even as H-Hour approached, ingenious and precisely executed deceptions continued. Under Operations Taxable and Glimmer, a squadron of Lancaster bombers released strips of tin foil by the thousand to give the impression on the German radar screens of a large convoy approaching Calais at a rate of eight knots per hour. To create the illusion, the bombers had to fly very low and release the exact amount of strips at precisely the right time and location. In Operation Moonshine, a small flotilla of gunboats sailing towards Calais, armed with twenty-eight radar reflective balloons, received German radar pulses and returned them magnified many times over to give the impression of a large fleet of ships heading at them. Again, the deception worked, and the Germans brought their big guns into action, firing at strips of aluminium fluttering through the night sky.
Pegasus Bridge three days after its capture by British paratroopers.
Sixteen minutes past midnight on Tuesday, 6 June 1944, a British Horsa glider crash-landed at exactly its intended spot – within fifty yards of a 200-foot-long road bridge crossing the Caen Canal, codenamed Pegasus Bridge, five miles from the coast. (Built in 1934, the bridge had a motorized hinge to allow shipping traffic to pass by beneath.) Within two minutes, another two gliders, each containing thirty soldiers, had also landed. The gliders, having been towed across the Channel by bombers, had released themselves three miles from their target from a height of 8,000 feet. The obstacles planted by the Germans, ‘Rommel’s asparagus’, were not as dangerous as feared and the gliders merely sliced through them. If anything, the wooden stakes helped bring the gliders, flying down at ninety miles per hour, to a quicker, if rather abrupt, landing, mostly causing the men inside nothing more than bruising (although there was one fatality).
The ninety soldiers of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, led by one Major John Howard, were the first to go into action in Occupied France. Five hundred yards further on from Pegasus Bridge was the 350-foot-long bridge over the River Orne (codenamed Horsa Bridge). Both bridges were of vital importance – German reinforcements intending to reach the coast would have to cross the canal and river via these bridges and, likewise, Allied forces would need them if, assuming they had got that far, they were to advance further inland. Howard’s men needed to take the bridges intact. The Germans, totally taken by surprise, offered little resistance as the infantrymen stormed the bridges, securing them within fifteen minutes. As Howard would later say, ‘We had caught old Jerry with his pants down.’
The infantrymen then held the bridges against counterattacks until reinforcements reached them almost thirteen hours later – a group of commandos accompanied by the rousing sound of bagpipes. The nearby café, the Café Gondrée, became perhaps the first dwelling in Occupied France to be liberated. Its owner, Georges Gondrée, overcome with joyful emotion, dug up ninety-eight bottles of champagne he had buried in June 1940 to hide them from the Germans, and invited the soldiers to join him in a toast to freedom.
Another immediate target for the Allies was the fortified German Merville Battery. Its heavy guns, if allowed to be operational, would pose a serious threat to troops landing on Sword beach. But most of the paratroopers assigned to the task had been dropped too far away, together with much vitally needed equipment, including lights to guide in supporting gliders. Without the lights to guide them in, the three gliders, expected to crash land on the battery, missed their target. Although limited to a mere 150 men out of the planned 600, the commander, Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, knew he could not wait. Despite desperate odds, Otway led his men into the attack and, following hand-to-hand fighting, succeeded in neutralizing the battery. The price was heavy – half his 150 men were killed.
Across the Channel advanced the first wave of the huge armada that made up Operation Neptune, the naval element of Overlord – the first of the 5,500 ships that sailed on 6 June, carrying the first of the 156,000 men to go into combat on D-Day. In front of them, clearing the way through the aquatic minefields off the Normandy coast, were 255 wooden-hulled minesweepers. Patrol planes combed the western approach to the Channel, searching for and sinking German U-boats.
Aircraft carrying paratroopers of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions skirted the edges of the armada lest they should accidentally be shot at. At 1.30 a.m., as they approached the French coast, they came under attack from anti-aircraft fire. Many troops were dropped far from their intended drop zones, in some cases up to thirty miles away, and had to navigate through the dark in a foreign country to find their colleagues. Some of those unfortunate enough to land in marshland or rivers drowned, weighed down by their heavy equipment. Others were shot at and killed by Germans as they landed. In an operation codenamed Titanic, 500 dummy parachutists were also dropped. Known as ‘Ruperts’, they were designed to explode on landing, while soldiers accompanying the Ruperts played sound recordings of gunfire, shouting and explosions. The Germans were certainly under the impression they were being swamped from all sides, greatly overestimating the number of airborne troops that had landed, committing troops away from the beaches.
With Rommel away from the scene, his deputy, Hans Speidel, failed to take the threat seriously, still believing the main invasion would not come for days and, when it did, it would be focused on Calais. The grand deception was still working.
At 3 a.m., Britain’s double agent Garbo issued his message to German intelligence, warning them that the invasion was coming. By the time they received it they had been left with no time to prevent the attack from advancing.