In the ancient Norman city of Caen, people were awake much earlier than usual. After the reports of paratroop drops had been confirmed, the headquarters of the 716th Infanterie-Division on the Avenue de Bagatelle came to life. A young member of the Resistance who lived nearby watched dispatch riders come and go. He knew very well what was afoot. His mother, who had pretended not to know about his activities, looked at him questioningly: ‘Is this the landing?’12 Her son did not reply. She turned away and began to fill bottles of water and to cook some potatoes in case the water and gas were shut off.
Neighbours emerging from apartments on to stairwells or calling to each other from their windows were confused.
‘Do you think this is it?’
‘Oh, not here.’
‘The poor people on the coast, what will they be going through?’
‘Don’t worry. They’ll be here this evening. The Fritzes are in a right panic.’
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.
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.
In the excitement of the moment, some boys bicycled furiously north towards the beaches to see what was happening. They had to avoid German troops moving into defensive positions. When they returned, word spread quickly. One cyclist rode south out of Caen, shouting along the way, ‘They’re landing! The sea is black with ships! The Boches are screwed!’
Wild optimism became infectious. A newspaper seller climbed the tower of the Saint-Sauveur church and ran around afterwards claiming that he had seen the English advancing. It was not long before German loudspeaker vans toured the streets of Caen, telling the population to stay indoors. The military authorities gave the order that parts of the city were to be evacuated immediately. The inhabitants would not be allowed to take anything with them. Most, however, stayed put and did not answer the hammering on the door.
Generalfeldmarschall Rommel, meanwhile, was woken at home in Herrlingen, near Ulm, where he had gone to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Generalleutnant Speidel rang him at 06.30 hours from La Roche-Guyon, as soon as reports of the huge invasion fleet anchored offshore were confirmed. Speidel told him of measures taken so far. Rommel rang the Berghof to cancel his visit to Hitler. His driver was waiting outside in the open Horch staff car and they drove back to France at top speed. Rommel would not reach his headquarters until nightfall.
Army Group B staff officers in the operations room at La Roche-Guyon worked feverishly as they tried to assess the situation from reports coming in from the Seventh Army. Speidel also had to deal with higher command: ‘Continual telephone calls from OKW and OB West revealed the nervousness reigning at the highest levels.’
Outside Paris at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the headquarters of OB West was in a similar state, with teleprinters chattering and telephones ringing constantly. Rundstedt’s chief of staff, General der Infanterie Günther Blumentritt, rang the OKW staff at the Berghof about the release of panzer divisions whose deployment Hitler had insisted on controlling. Shortly before 07.00 hours OKW rang back. It ‘objected violently to OB West’s arbitrary deployment of OKW reserves’. They were to be stopped immediately. Jodl then called Speidel to ensure that the order was carried out. Blumentritt also had to call the headquarters of the Luftwaffe Third Air Fleet, Naval Group West, even Otto Abetz, the German ambassador in Paris and the Vichy government, concerning pre-agreed proclamations, ‘urging the population to keep the peace, with warnings against revolt, sabotage and obstruction of German counter-measures’.
Of the three British beaches, Gold in the west was the closest to Omaha. The landing there of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division was the one which took pressure off the Americans. Gold beach lay between Arromanches and La Rivière. H-Hour was at 07.30 hours, one hour after the Americans on their right, but the basic pattern remained the same, with bombing, shelling from the sea and then rocket ships firing close in. The cruisers HMS Ajax and Argonaut kept up a constant shelling of the German heavy coastal battery at Longues, which the bombers had failed to destroy.
Rough seas and vomiting affected the assault troops, just as at Omaha. The two armoured regiments launching their DD tanks rightly decided to ignore the order ‘Floater five thousand’. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry on the left launched their two squadrons of swimming Shermans at only 1,000 yards out, yet still lost eight tanks. Officers in the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards had to argue forcefully with the commanders of their tank landing craft. In the end they lost even fewer tanks than the Sherwood Rangers.
The right-hand brigade group, led by the 1st Battalion of the Royal Hampshires and the 1st Dorsets, landed on the beach east of Le Hamel and the small seaside resort of Arromanches-les-Bains. The tanks of the Sherwood Rangers were delayed by the rough sea and the Hampshires suffered a bloody landing at Le Hamel. Their commanding officer and several of their headquarters officers became casualties almost immediately. But the battalion fought on, backed up by the 2nd Devons. It took most of the day before German resistance was finally eliminated.
On the left the 69th Brigade group led by the 6th Battalion of the Green Howards wasted little time. Their huge second in command, Major George Young, had warned his men, ‘Once you stop on the beach, you are never going to get up again.’ As they pushed inland towards Mont Fleury, Germans emerged to surrender. The Green Howards simply turned to point towards the beach and said, ‘Zurück!’ (‘Back there!’), and the unescorted prisoners did as they were told.
The 5th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment had a hard fight over on the extreme left-hand side of Gold beach at La Rivière, where the concrete defences had survived the shelling. After several armoured vehicles had been knocked out, an AVRE13 tank appeared. The fortypound petard bomb fired from its stubby barrel managed to destroy the emplacement containing the anti-tank gun which had inflicted so many losses. But the East Yorks, amid the dust and smoke from the bombardment, still needed several more hours to clear La Rivière, house by house. Flame-throwing Crocodile tanks of the Westminster Dragoons also helped, and their flail tanks soon cleared minefields. ‘Hobart’s funnies’ had proved their worth in the face of British, but also American scepticism.
Under the direction of the Royal Navy beachmaster, the landing operation was soon in full swing. An American commander of an LST - a ‘landing ship tank’, known to its crew as a ‘large stationary target’ - described the traffic as ‘a sort of aquatic turnpike’, with ‘a whole line of ships going one direction, a whole lot of ships going the other direction’. Three regiments of self-propelled artillery landed soon afterwards and the 50th Division began to push inland, with the independent 56th Brigade in the second wave, heading south-west towards Bayeux.
Having secured Le Hamel, the Hampshires advanced west along the coast towards Arromanches-les-Bains, where the Mulberry artificial harbour was to be sited. No. 47 Commando of the Royal Marines, which had lost three landing craft to mines, was to push even further west with the mission to take Port-en-Bessin. This was where the British right flank would join up with the American 1st Division spreading left from Omaha.
The Green Howards moved rapidly on Mont Fleury, where they forced the German defenders, shaken by the naval bombardment, to surrender. Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis first showed his quite selfless courage there. Hollis’s company commander suddenly noticed that they had passed two pillboxes. He and Hollis went to investigate. A machine gun opened up on them. Hollis charged the pillbox, firing his Sten sub-machine gun, jumped on top to reload and threw grenades inside. Later, when the Green Howards advanced on the village of Crépon, his consistent bravery won him the only Victoria Cross awarded that day. In Crépon, his company encountered a German position with a field gun and MG42 machine guns. Hollis mounted an attack from a house on the flank. The field gun was traversed on to them. Hollis led his men out, but on finding that two had been left behind, he mounted a diversionary attack armed with a Bren gun and rescued them.
In the centre, the advance continued along the ridge to Bazenville, where a furious battle was fought against Oberstleutnant Meyer’s Kampfgruppe of the 352nd Division. As already mentioned, Meyer was killed and his force almost entirely wiped out. Just to the right, 56th Brigade Group, led by the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment and the Sherwood Rangers, were given Bayeux as their objective. The Sherwood Rangers had already lost their commanding officer to a sniper, yet the tank commanders still kept their heads out of the turret (it was impossible to operate closed down). Major Stanley Christopherson, who commanded the squadron attached to the 2nd Essex, had not found their colonel at the rendezvous. Not wanting to go in search of him in his tank down narrow lanes encumbered with infantry, he left the squadron with his second in command, Keith Douglas, and decided to take a horse, which he found ready saddled outside a house. ‘Never in my wildest dreams,’ Christopherson wrote in his diary, ‘did I ever anticipate that D-Day would find me dashing along the lanes of Normandy endeavouring, not very successfully, to control a very frightened horse with one hand, gripping a map case in the other, and wearing a tin hat and black overalls! The Essex colonel was somewhat startled when I eventually found him and reported that my Squadron was ready to support his battalion in the next phase of the attack.’
The battlegroup advanced, meeting only the lightest opposition, but stopped just short of Bayeux. ‘Bayeux could have been attacked and captured that evening,’ wrote Christopherson, ‘as patrols reported that the town was very lightly held, but the commanding officer of the Essex preferred to remain on the outskirts for the night.’
Juno beach, the central sector for the Second British Army, extended from La Rivière to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. Juno was the objective of the 3rd Canadian Division. The Canadians were determined to take revenge for the Dieppe raid, the disastrous experiment from which fewer than half their men had returned. Dieppe had provided a cruel but vital lesson for the planning of D-Day: never attack a heavily defended port from the sea.
The 3rd Canadian Division was commanded by Major General Rod Keller, a large man with a round, florid face and military moustache. He was known as a compulsive raconteur with a penchant for whisky. The Canadians, despite their battledress uniform and regimental system inherited from the British Army, in many ways felt closer to the Americans than to their mother country. They cultivated a certain scepticism towards British Army conventions and referred to Overlord as ‘Operation Overboard’, after being smothered in instructions from British staff officers at Second Army headquarters. The strength of the Canadians lay in the quality of their junior officers, many of whom were borrowed eagerly by a British Army short of manpower.
Task Force J, which supported their landing, opened fire at 05.27 hours. The cruiser HMS Belfast was the flagship. One naval officer described her ‘sitting like a broody hen with a swarm of landing craft round her’. This was an international squadron, with the cruiser HMS Diadem and five Royal Navy fleet destroyers, three Norwegian destroyers, the French destroyer La Combattante, which would bring de Gaulle to Normandy a week later, and two Canadian destroyers, HMCS Algonquin and Sioux.14
Allied warships continued to fire over the heads of the landing craft and the DD tanks of the 1st Hussars and the Fort Garry Horse. The rocket ships also fired their screaming salvoes just as the landing craft approached the beach. Then there was an eerie silence. The Canadian assault troops, also seasick and their battledress soaked with spray, were surprised that the German artillery had not opened fire.
Waiting until the landing craft dropped their ramps, the German defenders held their fire. As soon as the first men jumped down into the water at 07.49 hours, machine guns and field guns opened up on them. Canadian troops suffered a total of 961 casualties that day. Many ignored the order to leave those who had been hit and turned back to pull a comrade to safety.
The 7th Canadian Brigade landed either side of the River Seulles at Courseulles-sur-Mer.The Royal Winnipeg Rifles cleared the west bank, then, with the Canadian Scottish Regiment, pushed in towards Vaux and Graye-sur-Mer. The main part of the town on the east bank proved a much harder task for the Regina Rifles, which had suffered heavy losses on landing. Courseulles-sur-Mer had been partitioned into numbered blocks to be dealt with by designated companies. ‘Nearly every foot of the town was known before it was ever entered,’ said the commanding officer of the Regina Rifles. He described the performance of the supporting tank crews of the 1st Hussars as ‘gallant rather than brilliant’, and they learned the hard way. Even with support from the few remaining DD Shermans, it took until the afternoon to clear the town fully. The Canadians found that having chased the German defenders from some fortified houses, they then returned via tunnels and began shooting at them from behind.
Part of the 8th Canadian Brigade landing at Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer also faced fierce resistance. The North Shore Regiment suffered many losses from an extensive concrete bunker armed with an anti-tank gun, machine guns and 81 mm mortars. The squadron of DD tanks of the Fort Garry Horse, which had been delayed, finally arrived. In the confusion, as they charged around the beach, they ran over corpses and several of their own wounded soldiers. A sergeant in 48 Royal Marine Commando who witnessed this also saw a medical orderly in a state of complete shock, unable to face the wounded.
Only the arrival of an AVRE tank, firing its hefty petards on to the bunker system, brought resistance there to an end at 11.30 hours. Meanwhile another company from the North Shore Regiment, which had entered the town after blowing gaps in the wire with Bangalore torpedoes, continued to fight from house to house, with grenades, rifles and Bren guns. They too faced the danger of Germans re-emerging from tunnels behind them to fight on.
At Bernières-sur-Mer, the Queen’s Own Rifles were reinforced by another squadron of Fort Garry Horse tanks, which, after landing ‘dryshod’, then lined up on the beach to blast defended houses. An AVRE tank blew a gap in the sea wall, then engineers prepared ramps for the tanks. Infantry and ‘Priest’ self-propelled artillery were soon streaming through, followed by the Shermans. The German defenders fled and civilians emerged from their cellars. By 09.00 hours, a bar was open for celebratory drinks. Officers had warned their men not to accept any food or drink from the French in case they were poisoned, but few took the idea seriously. The suspicion in official circles that the Normans had been won over by their German occupiers was contrary to what the Resistance and other sources had told them. In fact, considering the suffering of the French along the coast and in the main towns, the vast majority showed great understanding.
Although the leading infantry battalions pushed on inland, the advance was slowed by chaos on the beaches as the follow-up waves arrived. Tanks, self-propelled guns and Bren carriers became embroiled in traffic jams, to the intense frustration of beachmasters and the newly landed headquarter groups. Major General Keller was furious when he landed at Bernières accompanied by newspaper correspondents and photographers recording his arrival. On board, he had made a show in their presence of radioing through an optimistic report on progress to Lieutenant General Harry Crerar, the commander of Canadian troops in the invasion. The situation on the beach looked rather less encouraging.
French-Canadians of the Régiment de la Chaudière received a rapturous welcome from locals as soon as they spoke to them in French. Many rushed down to their cellar to fetch a keg of cider for the soldiers. But when the farming families began to pull the boots off dead Germans, the Canadians were clearly shocked. They had no idea that the Germans had commandeered all supplies of leather for the Wehrmacht until the French said to them, ‘But what do you expect? It’s war and we have no footwear.’
French civilians saw these ‘cousins’ from across the Atlantic as the next best thing to their own troops landing. They had no idea that one of the squadrons of Spitfires overhead covering the Canadians was piloted by Free French aviators. ‘Les Cigognes’ (‘the Storks’), as 329 Squadron called itself, had been told by their wing commander, Christian Martell, ‘I don’t want to see pilots watching the ground. Today you’ve got to scan the sky.’ But the heavens remained void of enemy fighters that day. The only danger was of collision with other aircraft.
The Chaudières took over the lead in the advance on Bény-sur-Mer, which, despite its name, lay three miles inland. Although the road south was straight, it ran between wheatfields in which the Germans had sited machine guns. Outflanking them became an arduous business, with infantry crawling through the standing corn on what had turned into a sultry afternoon. After a battery of guns near Bény-sur-Mer had been knocked out by some very accurate gunfire from the destroyer HMCS Algonquin, the advance slowly continued.
Delays on the beach, and surprisingly strong resistance from the underestimated 716th Infanterie-Division, meant that the advance battlegroup of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade had too little time to reach its main objective. Carpiquet airfield lay just south of the Caen- Bayeux road. The flat ground ahead sloped upwards and, through binoculars, its hangars were tantalizingly visible in the distance, but the supporting tanks were low on ammunition. Major General Keller was expecting a counter-attack by the 21st Panzer-Division and wanted his advance elements to be in defensive positions by nightfall.
One certainly cannot criticize the Canadians for the way they went about it. The battlegroup of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders rightly used all the vehicles available - light Stuart tanks, Shermans, M10 tank destroyers, trucks and Bren gun carriers - to speed the advance. If Keller had known of the panic and chaos on the airfield, he might have pushed them on. The Third Luftflotte in Paris reported, ‘At Carpiquet at 19.20 hours on 6 June, everybody lost their heads badly . . . the station commandant gave orders for evacuation.’ The Luftwaffe’s hurried attempts to destroy installations proved remarkably inept, as the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend observed two days later: ‘Takeoff runway at Carpiquet inefficiently blown up. Rest of taxiing area hardly damaged at all. Most of the fuel could still be saved.’
Over the next few weeks, the airfield and its surrounding area were to see some of the most bitter fighting of the whole battle for Normandy against the Hitler Jugend Division. It would take just over a month before Carpiquet was finally in Allied hands.