Eisenhower was far from being the only one to be awed by the enormity of what they were launching. Churchill, who had always been dubious about the whole plan of a cross-Channel invasion, was now working himself up into a nervous state of irrational optimism, while Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke confided to his diary that there was ‘an empty feeling at the pit of one’s stomach’. ‘It is very hard to believe that in a few hours the cross Channel invasion starts! I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At the best it will fall so very very far short of the expectation of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing of its difficulties. At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war.’
‘The British,’ observed a key American staff officer, ‘had a much greater fear of failure.’ This was hardly surprising after the long years of war, with bitter memories of Dunkirk and the ill-fated Dieppe raid. Yet whatever their reasons, they were right to have refused to invade the Continent any earlier. An overwhelming superiority was necessary, and the US Army had had many harsh lessons to learn in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
Churchill once remarked that the Americans always came to the right decision, having tried everything else first. But even if the joke contained an element of truth, it underplayed the fact that they learned much more quickly than their self-appointed tutors in the British Army. They were not afraid to listen to bright civilians from the business world now in uniform and above all they were not afraid to experiment.
The British showed their ingenuity in many fields, from the computer which decoded Ultra intercepts to new weapons such as Major General Percy Hobart’s swimming tanks and mine-clearing flails. Yet the British Army hierarchy remained fundamentally conservative. The fact that the special tanks were known as Hobart’s ‘funnies’ revealed that inimitable blend of British scepticism and flippancy. The cult of the gentleman amateur, which Montgomery so detested, would continue to prove a considerable handicap. Not surprisingly, American officers regarded their British counter parts as ‘too polite’ and lacking a necessary ruthlessness, especially when it came to sacking incompetent commanders.
Churchill himself was a great gentleman amateur, but nobody could accuse him of lacking drive. He took a passionate interest in military operations - in fact rather too much, in the view of his military advisers. A stream of ideas, most of them utterly impractical, poured forth in memos that produced groans and sighs in Whitehall. General ‘Pug’ Ismay, Churchill’s military adviser, had to deal with the Prime Minister’s latest inspiration at this historically symbolic moment. Churchill wanted to ‘display some form of “reverse Dunkirk” for Overlord with small [civilian] boats landing infantry to follow up and supplement proper assault troops after beaches have been cleared’.
The Prime Minister’s obsessive desire to be close to the centre of action had prompted him to insist that he sail with the invasion fleet. He wanted to watch the bombardment of the coast from the bridge of the cruiser HMS Belfast. He did not warn Brooke, knowing that he would disapprove, and tried to justify his demand on the grounds that he was also Minister of Defence. Fortunately the King dealt with this in a masterly letter on 2 June: ‘My dear Winston, I want to make one more appeal to you not to go to sea on D-Day. Please consider my own position. I am a younger man than you, I am a sailor, and as King I am the head of all the services. There is nothing I would like better than to go to sea but I have agreed to stay at home; is it fair that you should then do exactly what I should have liked to do myself?’
Churchill, in a ‘peevish’ frame of mind at being thwarted, ordered up his personal train as a mobile headquarters to be close to Eisenhower. Brooke wrote in his diary, ‘Winston meanwhile has taken his train and is touring the Portsmouth area making a thorough pest of himself!’ There was one bright moment on that eve of D-Day. News arrived that Allied forces under General Mark Clark were entering Rome. But Churchill’s attention was about to be taxed with an almost insoluble problem. General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French, who used the Cross of Lorraine as his symbol, had arrived in London that morning. Pre-D-Day jitters, combined with political complications and de Gaulle’s patriotic egocentricity, were to lead to an explosive row.
The central problem of relations with de Gaulle stemmed from President Roosevelt’s distrust. Roosevelt saw him as a potential dictator. This view had been encouraged by Admiral Leahy, formerly his ambassador to Marshal Pétain in Vichy, as well as several influential Frenchmen in Washington, including Jean Monnet, later seen as the founding father of European unity.
Roosevelt had become so repelled by French politics that in February he suggested changing the plans for the post-war Allied occupation zones in Germany. He wanted the United States to take the northern half of the country, so that it could be resupplied through Hamburg, rather than through France. ‘As I understand it,’ Churchill wrote in reply, ‘your proposal arises from an aversion to undertaking police work in France and a fear that this might involve the stationing of US Forces in France over a long period.’
Roosevelt, and to a lesser extent Churchill, refused to recognize the problems of what de Gaulle himself described as ‘an insurrectional government’. De Gaulle was not merely trying to assure his own position. He needed to keep the rival factions together to save France from chaos after the liberation, perhaps even civil war. But the lofty and awkward de Gaulle, often to the despair of his own supporters, seemed almost to take a perverse pleasure in biting the American and British hands which fed him. De Gaulle had a totally Franco-centric view of everything. This included a supreme disdain for inconvenient facts, especially anything which might undermine the glory of France. Only de Gaulle could have written a history of the French army and manage to make no mention of the Battle of Waterloo.
Throughout the spring, Churchill had done his best to soften Roosevelt’s attitude, knowing that the Allies had to work with de Gaulle. He encouraged Roosevelt to meet him. ‘You might do him a great deal of good by paternal treatment,’ he wrote, ‘and indeed I think it would be a help from every point of view.’
Roosevelt agreed to see him, but he insisted that de Gaulle must request the meeting. To issue an official invitation would imply recognition of de Gaulle as France’s leader. The President stuck to his line that the Allied armies were not invading France to put de Gaulle in power. ‘I am unable at this time,’ he wrote, ‘to recognise any Government of France until the French people have an opportunity for a free choice of Government.’ But since elections could not possibly be held for sometime, this would mean that the administration of liberated areas would be carried out by AMGOT, the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories.
This acronym represented a deadly insult, both to de Gaulle and to the Comité Français de Libération Nationale in Algiers. On 3 June, the day before de Gaulle flew to Britain, the CFLN declared itself to be the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Française. This announcemen twas immediately seen by Roosevelt as a deliberate provocation. He had already forbidden Eisenhower to have any contact with the French administration in waiting.
Eisenhower was permitted to work only with General Pierre Koenig, whom de Gaulle had appointed as commander of the Resistance, known as the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, or the FFI. Yet even then Eisenhower was told not to trust Koenig with details of the invasion, because he would be obliged to report back on them to his political masters. These contradictions resulted in ‘acute embarrassment’, as Eisenhower admitted in a report to Washington. ‘General Koenig feels very keenly the fact that he is denied even the most general knowledge of forthcoming operations although French naval, air and airborne units are to be employed, and much is expected from [the] French resistance.’
Churchill had meanwhile been urging Roosevelt to accept ‘a working arrangement’ with the French Committee, principally because the Allies needed the Resistance to play its part in the invasion. He had also helped persuade the Americans to send to England the French 2nd Armoured Division (known as the 2ème DB for Division Blindée), which they had armed and equipped in North Africa. Commanded by General Philippe Leclerc, it would form part of Patton’s Third Army later in the Normandy campaign. Yet to the amused resignation of British officers, one of the first ceremonies which Leclerc’s Division organized after its arrival in Yorkshire was an official mass in honour of Joan of Arc, whom the English had burned at the stake some five hundred years earlier.
Allied troops, on the other hand, were warned not to offend French sensibilities after they landed. A pamphlet told them to avoid any reference to France’s humiliating defeat in 1940. ‘Thanks to jokes about “Gay Paree” etc.,’ it added, ‘there is a fairly widespread belief that the French are a gay, frivolous people with no morals and few convictions. This is especially not true at the present time.’ But official briefings were unlikely to have much effect on those gripped by excited speculation over ‘French mademoiselles’.
Churchill’s War Cabinet realized that the Free French leader had to be invited to Britain to be briefed on D-Day. Despite ‘all the faults and follies of de Gaulle,’ the Prime Minister wrote to Roosevelt, ‘he has lately shown some signs of wishing to work with us, and after all it is very difficult to cut the French out of the liberation of France.’ The President, however, had insisted that in ‘the interest of security’ de Gaulle must be kept in the United Kingdom ‘until the Overlord landing has been made’.
The weakness of Free French security stemmed not from Vichy spies infiltrating the Gaullist network but from the unsophisticated French codes. Exasperation within the Special Operations Executive, especially after the massive Gestapo infiltration of the Resistance the year before, prompted the chief SOE cryptographer, Leo Marks, to go round to the Gaullists’ office in Duke Street in central London. He asked their cipher officers to encode any message they wanted, then he took it from them and broke it ‘under their astonished noses’. ‘This did not endear the British to the French,’ wrote the official historian with dry understatement. Yet Gallic pride still prevented the Free French from using British or American code systems. Just before D-Day, ‘C’, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, warned the Prime Minister that the French must not be allowed to send any messages by radio, only by secure landlines.
Churchill sent two York passenger aircraft to Algiers to bring back de Gaulle and his retinue. But de Gaulle was reluctant to come, because Roosevelt would not permit a discussion on French civil government. Churchill’s representative, Duff Cooper, argued with him for an hour on 2 June, trying to persuade him to back off from this brinkmanship. If de Gaulle refused to come, then he would be playing into Roosevelt’s hands, Duff Cooper told him. He should be present in England in his role as military leader. Above all, Duff Cooper warned him, he would finally lose the regard of the Prime Minister, who would decide that he was an impossible man to deal with. De Gaulle agreed only the next morning, when the two Yorks were already waiting for them on the airfield to take them on the first leg of the journey to Rabat in French Morocco.
After flying through the night from Rabat, de Gaulle’s plane touched down at exactly 06.00 hours on 4 June at Northolt. After all the secrecy imposed on their journey, Duff Cooper was surprised to find a large guard of honour drawn up and an RAF band playing the ‘Marseillaise’ as they descended the steps. A very Churchillian letter of greeting was handed to de Gaulle. ‘My dear General de Gaulle,’ it read. ‘Welcome to these shores! Very great military events are about to take place.’ He invited him down to join him on his personal train. ‘If you could be here by 1.30 p.m., I should be glad to give you dejeuner and we will then repair to General Eisenhower’s headquarters.’
Duff Cooper was mystified by the notion of Churchill’s ‘advance headquarters’ on a train, which they finally found in a siding at a small station near Portsmouth. He considered it ‘a perfectly absurd scheme’. His heart sank much further when he found that Field Marshal Smuts, the decidedly Francophobe South African, was in the Prime Minister’s entourage. Then Churchill opened the conversation with de Gaulle by saying that he had brought him over to deliver a speech on the radio. To make matters even worse, he made no mention of discussing civil affairs in France, the subject of greatest interest to de Gaulle.
When Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, turned the conversation to ‘politics’, which basically meant Roosevelt’s continued refusal to recognize de Gaulle and his provisional government, de Gaulle’s anger erupted. His resentment was inflamed by the Allied currency printed in the United States and issued to their troops. He said that this currency, which he considered ‘une fausse monnaie’, was ‘absolutely unrecognized by the government of the Republic’. This was an important point which does not appear to have occurred either to the American authorities or to the British. If no government was prepared to back these rather unimpressively printed banknotes - American troops compared them to ‘cigar coupons’ - then they were worthless.
Churchill flared up, demanding how the British could act separately from the United States. ‘We are going to liberate Europe, but it is because the Americans are with us. So get this quite clear. Every time we have to decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea that we shall choose. Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I shall always choose Roosevelt.’ De Gaulle coolly accepted that that was bound to be the case. Tempers calmed as they sat down to lunch. Churchill raised his glass: ‘To de Gaulle, who never accepted defeat.’ De Gaulle raised his in reply: ‘To Britain, to victory, to Europe.’
Afterwards, Churchill accompanied de Gaulle over to Southwick House. There, Eisenhower and Bedell Smith briefed the French leader on the plan for Overlord. Eisenhower was charming and concealed the turmoil he was going through as a result of the weather. Before de Gaulle left, however, Eisenhower showed him a copy of the proclamation he was to make to the French people on D-Day. Although he had softened Roosevelt’s peremptory tone, the speech did not recognize the authority of the provisional government in any way. In fact, it even instructed the French to obey the orders of the Allied command until ‘the French themselves should choose their representatives and their government’. For de Gaulle this confirmed his worst fear of an Anglo-Saxon occupation of France. He kept his temper, however, and simply said that he ‘wished to suggest certain changes in General Eisenhower’s message’. Eisenhower agreed to consider them, since there might be time to make alterations.
On his return to London, de Gaulle heard that his suggested amendments could not be approved in time, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff would need to agree them. De Gaulle then refused to speak to the French people on the BBC the next morning after Eisenhower and the leaders of other occupied countries. De Gaulle also announced that he was ordering the French liaison officers allocated to British and American divisions not to accompany them because no agreement had been reached on civil administration. When Churchill received the news during a meeting of the War Cabinet he exploded in a terrible rage.
That night, Eden and de Gaulle’s emissary, Pierre Viénot, engaged in shuttle diplomacy between the two furious leaders to repair the damage. De Gaulle raged at Viénot, saying that Churchill was a ‘gangster’. Viénot then went to see Churchill, who accused de Gaulle of ‘treason at the height of battle’. He wanted to fly him back to Algiers, ‘in chains if necessary’.
Even with all these dramas, the most important event on that evening of Sunday, 4 June, took place in the library at Southwick House. During the afternoon, Stagg and his colleagues had seen that the approaching depression in the Atlantic had concentrated, but also slowed down. This indicated that a sufficient gap in the bad weather was emerging for the invasion to go ahead. At 21.30 hours the conference began and Stagg was summoned. Few of those present felt optimistic. Rain and wind were battering the windows, and they could imagine what conditions were like for the tens of thousands of soldiers on the landing ships and craft anchored along the coasts.
‘Gentlemen,’ said Stagg, ‘since I presented the forecast last evening some rapid and unexpected developments have occurred over the north Atlantic.’ There would be a brief improvement from Monday afternoon. The weather would not be ideal, was the gist of his message, but it would do. Searching questions followed and an earnest discussion began.
‘Let’s be clear about one thing,’ Admiral Ramsay broke in. ‘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.’
Leigh-Mallory again expressed concern about sufficient visibility for his bombers, but Eisenhower turned to Montgomery, who was wearing his unconventional uniform of a fawn pullover and baggy corduroys.
‘Do you see any reason why we should not go on Tuesday?’
‘No,’ replied Montgomery emphatically in his nasal voice. ‘I would say - Go.’
Outside in the hall, staff officers were waiting with sheaves of orders ready to be signed by their chiefs. Two sets had been prepared to cover both alternatives.
In the early hours of Monday, 5 June, further data came in to confirm the break in the weather. At the morning conference, Stagg was able to face his intimidating audience with much greater confidence. The tension eased and ‘the Supreme Commander and his colleagues became as new men’, he wrote afterwards. Eisenhower’s grin returned. Further details were discussed, but everyone was impatient to leave and the room emptied rapidly. There was much to be done to get the 5,000 ships from nearly a dozen different nations back to sea and on course down pre-established shipping lanes. A small fleet of minesweepers in line abreast would then proceed in front of them to clear a broad channel all the way to the beaches. Admiral Ramsay was particularly concerned for the crews of these vulnerable craft. They expected very heavy casualties.
Now that the great decision had been taken, Eisenhower went to South Parade Pier in Portsmouth to see the last troops embarking. ‘He always gets a lift from talking with soldiers,’ his aide, Harry Butcher, noted in his diary. At lunchtime, they returned to Eisenhower’s trailer at Southwick Park and played ‘Hounds and Fox’ and then checkers. Butcher had already arranged for the supreme commander, accompanied by journalists, to go to the airfield at Greenham Common that evening to visit the American 101st Airborne Division. They were due to take off at 23.00 hours for the mission which Leigh-Mallory had predicted would be a disaster.
Unlike the infantry and other arms, who had been enclosed in the barbed-wire ‘sausages’, the airborne troops had been driven directly to the airfields from where they were to take off. The 82nd Airborne Division had been based around Nottingham, while the 101st was spread around the Home Counties west of London. For five days they had been quartered in aircraft hangars and provided with rows of cots with aisles in between. There, they stripped and oiled their personal weapons time and again, or sharpened their bayonets. Some had bought commando knives in London, and several had equipped themselves with cut-throat razors. They had been instructed how to kill a man silently by slicing through the jugular and the voice box. Their airborne training had not only been physically rigorous. Some of them had been forced ‘to crawl through the entrails and blood of hogs as part of getting toughened up’.
To take their minds off the oppressive wait extended by the postponement, officers provided gramophones which played songs such as ‘I’ll Walk Alone’ and ‘That Old Black Magic’. They also organized projectors to show movies, especially ones starring Bob Hope. Many paratroopers had also been listening to ‘Axis Sally’2 on Radio Berlin, who played good music as well as transmitting vicious propaganda on the programme Home Sweet Home. Yet even when she said on repeated occasions before D-Day that the Germans were waiting for them, most regarded it as a joke.
There were also Red Cross doughnut and coffee stands run by young American women volunteers. In many cases they slipped soldiers their own cigarette ration. The food provided, including steak, chips and ice cream, was a luxury which inevitably prompted more black jokes about being fattened up for the kill. The 82nd Airborne had acquired a taste for fish and chips in the Nottingham area as well as many local friendships. They too had been touched by the population rushing out to wave them off, many of them in tears, as convoys of trucks drove the paratroopers to their airfields.
A large number of men took their minds off what lay ahead with frenetic gambling, first with the dubious-looking invasion money and then with saved dollars and pound notes. They were shooting dice and playing blackjack. One man who had won $2,500, a very considerable sum in those days, deliberately played on until he lost the lot. He sensed that if he walked away with the money, the fates would decree his death.
Paratroopers looked over their main chutes and reserves to make sure that they were in perfect order. Others wrote last letters home to families or girlfriends in case of their death. Sometimes precious photographs were taken from their wallet and taped on the inside of their helmet. All personal papers and civilian effects were collected up and packed to be held until their return. Chaplains held church services in a corner of the hangar and Catholics took confession.
In this time for individual reflection, no greater contrast could have come than from some of the regimental commanders’ pep talks. Colonel ‘Jump’ Johnson, who led the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, drove into the hangar in his Jeep and leaped on to the calisthenics platform. Johnson, who had acquired his nickname from wanting to throw himself from almost any flying object, wore pearl-handled revolvers on each hip. The 2,000 men from his regiment gathered round. ‘There was a great feeling in the air; the excitement of battle,’ noted one paratrooper. After a short speech to arouse their martial ardour, Johnson swiftly bent down, pulled a large commando knife from his boot and brandished it above his head. ‘Before I see the dawn of another day,’ he yelled, ‘I want to stick this knife into the heart of the meanest, dirtiest, filthiest Nazi in all of Europe.’ A huge, resounding cheer went up and his men raised their knives in response.
General Maxwell Taylor warned his men in the 101st Airborne that fighting at night would be highly confusing. They would find it hard to distinguish their own side from the enemy. For that reason they should fight with their knives and grenades during darkness, and use firearms only after dawn. According to one of his men, ‘he also said that if you were to take prisoners, they handicap our ability to perform our mission. We were going to have to dispose of prisoners as best we saw fit.’
Brigadier General ‘Slim Jim’ Gavin of the 82nd Airborne was perhaps the most measured in his address. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘what you’re going to go through in the next few days, you won’t want to change for a million dollars, but you won’t want to go through it very often again. For most of you, this will be the first time you will be going into combat. Remember that you are going in to kill, or you will be killed.’ Gavin clearly created a strong impression. One of his listeners said that, after his quiet talk, ‘I believe we would have gone to hell with him.’ Another commanding officer decided to adopt shock tactics. He said to his men lined up in front of him, ‘Look to the right of you and look to the left of you. There’s only going to be one of you left after the first week in Normandy.’
There can be little doubt about the very high level of motivation among the overwhelming majority of the American airborne troops. The most effective way for officers to enforce discipline for some time had been to threaten a soldier that he would not be allowed to join the invasion drop.
Eve of battle rituals included shaving heads, to make it easier for the medics to deal with head wounds, but a number of men decided to leave a strip of hair down the middle in Mohican style. This contributed to the German idea, influenced by Hollywood gangster films and later whipped up by Wehrmacht propaganda detachments, that American airborne troops were recruited from the toughest jails in the United States and came from the ‘übelste Untermenschentum amerikanischer Slums’ - ‘the nastiest underclass from American slums’. Faces were also blackened up, mostly with soot from the stoves, although some used polish and others added streaks of white paint in a competition over who could make their face look the ‘most gruesome’.
Their jump suits carried their divisional emblem on the left shoulder and an American flag on the right. One soldier, who had been given two extra cartons of Pall Mall cigarettes by a Red Cross helper, slipped one down each leg. But for those who found themselves dropping into flooded areas, this choice of hiding place was likely to produce an extra disappointment. Boots and straps were fastened as tightly as possible, as if they constituted a form of armour to protect them in the fighting to come. Paratroopers also went back for extra ammunition, overloading themselves. The greatest fear was to face an enemy with an empty gun. Bandoliers were slung crossways over their chests ‘Pancho Villa style’, canteens were filled to the brim, and pouches packed with spare socks and underwear. The camouflage-netted helmets had an aid kit fixed to the back with bandages, eight sulfa tablets and two syrettes of morphine - ‘one for pain and two for eternity’.
Pockets and pouches bulged, not just with 150 rounds of .30 ammunition, but also D-Ration chocolate bars, which possessed a texture akin to semi-set concrete, and a British Gammon grenade, which contained a pound of C2 explosive in a sort of cotton sock. This improvised bomb could certainly be effective against even armoured vehicles (paratroopers called it their ‘hand artillery’), but it was also popular for other reasons. A small amount of the fast-burning explosive could heat a mug of coffee or K-Rations without giving off any smoke from the bottom of a foxhole.
Dog tags were taped together to prevent them making a noise. Cigarettes and lighters, together with other essentials, such as a washing and shaving kit, water-purifying tablets, twenty-four sheets of toilet paper and a French phrase book, went into the musette bag slung around the neck, along with an escape kit consisting of a map printed on silk, hacksaw blade, compass and money. The largesse of the issued equipment amazed poor country boys more used to make-do and mend at home.
On top of all these smaller items came an entrenching tool and the soldier’s personal weapon, usually a carbine with a folding stock partially disassembled in a bag known as a ‘violin case’ which was strapped across their chest. Others were armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun. Bazookas were broken down into their two halves. Together with several rounds of anti-tank grenades, they were packed in leg bags which would dangle during the descent. The leg bags alone often weighed up to eighty pounds.
Paratroopers had their own superstitions. A number of them also foresaw their own death. One soldier remembered a ‘tow-headed kid’ named Johnny. ‘He was standing there, staring into space. I went over to him and I said, “What’s the matter, Johnny?” He said, “I don’t think I’ll make it.” I said, “Nah, you’ll be alright.” I sort of shook him because he was like in a daze. As it turned out, he was one of the first men killed in Normandy.’
When Eisenhower arrived at Greenham Common in his Cadillac staff car, followed by a small convoy of pressmen and photographers, he began to chat with paratroopers of General Maxwell 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.’
Movement at that moment was the paratroopers’ biggest problem. They were so loaded down with kit that they could only waddle to the waiting planes lined up beside the runway.
The ground crews of their C-47 Skytrains (the British called them Dakotas) had been working hard. All invasion aircraft were painted at the last moment with black and white stripes on the wings and fuselages to identify them more clearly to all the Allied ships below. Some paratroopers were taken aback at the sight. ‘We were surprised as dickens to see the big wide stripes painted on the wings and also on the fuselage. You thought they would be up there like sitting ducks for every ground gunner to try his luck on.’
The danger of ‘friendly fire’ was a major preoccupation, especially for airborne forces. During the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, US Navy anti-aircraft gunners had shot at both American transport aircraft and those towing gliders. In their desperation to escape the fire, pilots of tow aircraft had let loose their gliders, leaving them to crash into the sea. More than a dozen had been lost in the disaster. This time, to avoid flying over the invasion fleets, the routes planned for the drop on to the Cotentin peninsula would take the two airborne divisions on a wide sweep to the west, making their final approach from over the Channel Islands.
Many of the C-47s, which paratroopers referred to as ‘goony birds’, had names and symbols painted on the side of the nose. One, for example, had a picture of a devil holding up a tray on which sat a girl in a bathing suit. The inscription underneath was ‘Heaven can Wait’. A less encouraging aircraft name was ‘Miss Carriage’.
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.’
The 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division received a nasty shock during loading. A Gammon grenade exploded inside one fuselage, killing a number of soldiers and setting the plane on fire. The survivors were simply switched to a follow-up detail. Nothing was allowed to delay the schedule for take-off that night.
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, apparently with tears in his eyes, saluting the paratroopers of the 101st as they took off.
Churchill, on that night of problems with de Gaulle, was also thinking of their powerful ally in the east. He had been trying to persuade Stalin to coincide his summer offensive with the invasion of Normandy. On 14 April he had signalled, ‘We ask you to let us know, in order to make our own calculations, what scale your effort will take.’
The year before Stalin had begun to despair of the western Allies ever launching the invasion of northern Europe, a development which they had been promising since 1942. Churchill had always preferred an indirect, or peripheral, strategy in the Mediterranean, to avoid another bloodbath in France like the one which had slaughtered the youth of his generation. He was right in the end to have delayed the invasion, albeit for the wrong reasons. The Anglo-American armies had simply not been ready, either materially or in trained manpower, to attempt such an operation before. A failure would have been catastrophic. Yet none of the excuses or genuine reasons had placated Stalin, who never ceased to remind his allies of their commitment. ‘One should not forget,’ he had written to Churchill on 24 June 1943, ‘that on all this depends the possibility to save millions of lives in the occupied regions of western Europe and Russia and reduce the colossal sacrifices of the Soviet armies, in comparison with which the losses of the Anglo-American troops could be considered as modest.’ More than 7 million members of the Soviet armed forces had already died in the war.
At the Teheran conference in November, Roosevelt, to Churchill’s dismay, had gone behind his back to tell Stalin that as well as the landings in Normandy, they would also invade the south of France with Operation Anvil. Churchill and Brooke had been resisting this plan ever since the Americans dreamed it up. Anvil would drain the Allied armies in Italy of reserves and resources, and this would wreck Churchill’s dream of advancing into the northern Balkans and Austria. Churchill had foreseen the consequences of the dramatic Red Army advances. He dreaded a Soviet occupation of central Europe. Roosevelt, on the other hand, had convinced himself that by charming Stalin instead of confronting him, a lasting post-war peace was a real possibility. It would be based on the United Nations Organization which he intended to create. The President felt that Churchill was guided far too much by reactionary impulses, both imperial and geopolitical. Roosevelt believed that once Nazi Germany was defeated with American help, then Europe should sort herself out.
Stalin had been pleased during the Teheran conference to have the firmest assurances so far that the cross-Channel invasion would take place in the spring. But then he became deeply suspicious again when he heard that a supreme commander had not yet been appointed. Even after Eisenhower’s nomination, Stalin still remained sceptical. On 22 February, he received a signal from Gusev, his ambassador in London:‘We have heard from other sources, mainly English and American correspondents, that the dates for the opening of the Second Front which had been fixed in Teheran, can probably change from March to April and maybe even to May.’ And when Roosevelt finally wrote with the date, Stalin’s foreign minister, Vishinsky, summoned the American chargé d’affaires in Moscow to demand what the ‘D’ stood for in ‘D-Day’.
On the eve of the great undertaking, Churchill sent a signal to Stalin with the feeling that the blood debt which the western Allies owed the Soviet people was being paid at last: ‘I have just returned from two days at Eisenhower’s headquarters, watching the troops embark ... With great regret General Eisenhower was forced to postpone for one night, but the weather forecast has undergone a most favourable change and tonight we go.’