Military history

The British beaches

At 7.25 a.m., an hour after the Americans began landing on Omaha, the minesweeping flail tanks of the 22nd Dragoon Guards touched Sword beach at the eastern end of the Allied line, precisely on schedule. Lieutenant Charles Munday in Leander I drove ashore into the mortar and machine-gun fire with the hatch open as usual because of his haunting fear of fire. Some of the sappers disembarking with them were hit immediately. Corporal Charles Baldwin watched the same instant fate befall the engineers who led his flail of the Westminster Dragoons: ‘They were flung about as German machine-gun fire hit them, clutching various parts of their bodies, jolting like rag dolls, then sinking out of sight into the water. I often wondered if any of those unfortunate men survived the landing. Even slightly wounded, the weight of their equipment dragged them under.’1

Mundy’s column of five Shermans clattered forward out of the landing craft and took up echelon formation to begin flailing, thrashing the sand with their great probosces of chains, creeping forward astonishingly unscathed to the metalled road, where they switched off the equipment and began engaging the German defences with their 75 mm guns. Mundy could hear screams from defensive positions above the beach as a Crocodile flamethrower puffed its terrible jet of fire towards them. 34 of the 40 Sherman DD amphibious tanks launched against Sword also arrived as planned, ahead of the infantry, cleared the beach successfully and became heavily engaged in the dunes beyond. A few minutes later, the 20 landing craft carrying the first wave of the 1st South Lancashires and 2nd East Yorkshires dropped their ramps and launched the lead companies, followed 20 minutes later by the second wave. These point battalions suffered less severely crossing the beach than those which followed. The East Yorkshires immediately began moving off towards Ouistreham, with men of 4 and 10 Commandos. 41 Commando, which took heavy casualties in their landing, headed for Lion-sur-Mer. By 9.00 a.m. the South Lancashires were between one and one and a half miles inland, at Hermanville. Vehicles and supporting units were pouring ashore, clogging the beaches. From the outset, the Sword landing was a remarkable success. Lieutenant Arthur Heal, commanding the sapper platoon attached to the 1st Suffolks, was still congratulating himself on completing his first trip in a landing craft without feeling seasick when the order came, ‘Ramp down! All out!’ A few moments later, having passed through the infantry on the beach and regrouped for the battalion’s advance to its objectives inland, Heal was enjoying a moment of anticlimax and relief. There had been powerful rumours within the unit before D-Day that they would pay for the honour of leading the assault by accepting withering losses.

The British landing plan for each brigade front called for four LCTs carrying four DD tanks apiece to put these ashore at H-5 minutes, followed at H-Hour by four LCTs carrying the specialized armour – flails, Crocodiles, Petards and the like – with sapper groups to begin work on the obstacles. Behind them at H+7 came eight assault landing craft bearing the two leading infantry companies; at H+20 another eight LCAs followed with two more infantry companies, and at H+25 came two LCAs with the men of the beach group. At H+35 bulldozers and more specialized armour rolled ashore; at H+60 nine LCTs with self-propelled guns; at H+90 10 LCTs with a full squadron of tanks. The tenth wave, behind all these, carried more gunners and 21 amphibious DUKWs loaded with stores and ammunition. COSSAC had predicted the loss of 10 per cent of the landing craft, with a further 20 per cent damaged. In the event, the losses were less severe, but it was not remarkable that, with a landing plan of such complexity, in many places the schedule collapsed in the first half-hour and successive waves reached the shore helplessly entangled with each other – creating a great jumble of men, vehicles, landing craft and wreckage on the waterline.

Even on Sword, where the losses were slight in relation to the scale of the assault, some men paid a speedy price for the success of the 3rd Division. Two LCTs ran off course and rammed two DD tanks, which sank with merciless immediacy. The seizure of the La Brèche strongpoint covering the beach took three hours, during which troops coming ashore had to struggle through fierce fire. Some men reaching the beach in Queen White sector were touched to see a lone French girl struggling in the shallows to help wounded men out of the water. Shell and mortar fire from inland continued to harass the beach for most of 6 June and the days which followed it. The South Lancashires, who bore the brunt of the La Brèche battle, lost 11 officers and 96 other ranks on D-Day; the East Yorkshires about the same.

Private Len Ainslie was an anti-tank gunner of the King’s Regiment, which was to provide local defence for the beach area. A regular soldier who had been in the army since 1938, if Ainslie had had his way he would have landed by glider, for he had asked for a transfer to airborne forces. But his colonel refused to forward the request because Ainslie was a battalion bugler. Now, 100 yards offshore, his landing craft was struck amidships on the starboard side by a shell. Ainslie was appalled by the trail of devastation immediately in front of him. A big cook’s head vanished, the company commander’s batman lost his legs. A jumble of other broken bodies drifted amid the rush of water pouring through the side. A naval officer called abruptly: ‘Come on, all out!’ Men began to struggle over the side of the sinking hulk. Ainslie tried for a moment to help a young soldier, who remarked flatly as he lay, ‘I can’t do anything now, can I?’ Then the officer shouted to Ainslie: ‘Leave him.’ Somebody ashore hurled them a line. The survivors swam and stumbled through the dead and the wounded in the water to the beach, where they saw the battalion’s commanding officer killed a few minutes later. They were all soaking wet, their battledress and boots and equipment stiff with salt for days. But Ainslie and most of his comrades felt less a sense of shock than elation at their own achievement in survival, in having made it.

Some of the fire falling upon Sword beach during the morning came from the four 150 mm self-propelled guns of 3 Battery, 1716th Artillery Regiment, firing from a position at Plumetot, 3,000 yards inland from the coast. After standing by since midnight, at dawn its commander, Lieutenant Rudolf Schaaf, walked forward a little way until he could see the great invasion fleet stretched out before him off the coast. He found the spectacle impressive rather than frightening – it all seemed somehow detached from himself. ‘Well,’ he wondered thoughtfully, ‘what do we do now?’ Contact with the battery’s forward observer in a ‘resistance nest’ on the beach was lost soon after first light. Thereafter, the guns fired on predetermined DFs – Defensive Fire targets – measured many weeks before. Around mid-morning, Schaaf was suddenly ordered to take his guns immediately north to the coast, and counter-attack towards Lion-sur-Mer with infantry of the 3rd Battalion of 736th Regiment.

It was a pathetic episode. The first man of the battery to be killed was a taxi-driver from Leipzig who had been posted back to Germany several days earlier, but lingered in order to buy food and presents to take home. Now he died driving forward a truck loaded with ammunition. The German infantry were middle-aged men. They were strafed intermittently from the air as they advanced in open order down the gentle decline to the sea, and soon found themselves under fierce gun and small-arms fire. Schaaf’s guns, astonishingly, approached Lion intact at around 10.30 a.m., and the Germans watched British infantrymen scuttling for cover, lacking heavy weapons or tanks to deal with them. As they fired into the buildings over open sights, little clusters of invaders emerged with their hands up, and were hustled to the rear. But the weight of British fire rapidly overwhelmed the infantry. When the Germans at last despaired and began to pull back, only 20 men of the 3rd/736th remained with the guns when they reached the old battery position. They examined their prisoners, and were awed by their superb maps, food and equipment. Schaaf ordered them to be herded into a shell hole. In great agitation, a German-speaking British officer produced a copy of the Geneva Convention which he waved at the artilleryman, declaring forcefully that it was illegal to shoot them. ‘Nobody is going to be shot,’ said Schaaf brusquely. A few minutes later, he was telephoned by the excitable Major Hof, his battalion commander, and ordered to advance immediately to regimental HQ two miles away on Hill 61, and attempt to extricate them from heavy attack. Schaaf abandoned his prisoners in their shell hole, and departed south-eastwards.

On Juno beach, a few miles west of Sword, the Canadians had also broken through the coastal crust, but at heavier cost. The local naval commanders delayed H-Hour from 7.35 to 7.45 a.m., and even then many craft were late. As a result, the fast incoming tide covered an offshore reef which it had been feared would prove a serious hazard, and the first units found themselves landing right in amid the German beach obstacles. As the landing craft went astern after unloading, the coxswains could do nothing to prevent themselves from becoming helplessly entangled in mines and twisted steel. 20 of the leading 24 vessels were lost or damaged, among a total of 90 out of 306 employed on Juno that morning. Close artillery support for all the British landings was to be provided by Royal Marines manning obsolete Centaur tanks mounting 95 mm howitzers, but these proved lethally unseaworthy in landing craft. Scores capsized and were lost. Only six of 40 intended to support the Canadians reached the shore. Most of the DD tanks made it, but arrived behind the leading infantry rather than in time to provide suppressive fire ahead of them. Tanks and infantry moved inland together, becoming entangled in heavy street fighting in Courseulles that lasted well into the afternoon. The capture of St Aubin took three hours. The enemy in Bernières, where the assault company landing below the village lost 50 per cent of its strength in 100 yards, fought hard until they were outflanked. But in accordance with the plan, the Canadian follow-up units passed through the assault troops still mopping up around the beaches, ignored the snipers, who continued in action until nightfall, and pressed on towards their objectives inland.

The 50th Division attacking Gold, the most westerly of the three British beaches, ran into their first serious difficulty in front of the fortified German positions at Le Hamel. The 1st Hampshires and 1st Dorsets landed under furious fire from bunkers scarcely scarred by the bombardment, manned by Germans of 716th Division’s 1st Battalion. The British supporting tanks arrived too late to give the infantry immediate support and, as on Juno, very few of the Royal Marine Centaurs arrived at all. Corporal Chris Portway, who landed with 231st Brigade HQ was impressed above all by the sense of ‘noise, noise, noise’, the continuous roar of gunfire, much of it from the Allied bombardment ships. Major Dick Gosling, the artillery battery commander, who landed with the Hampshires’ battalion headquarters, was pleasantly surprised in his first moments ashore to find that the beach ‘was not the raging inferno some people had feared’. Then he saw ripples of sand being pitched up all around him, and heard a noise like a swarm of angry bees over his head – his first encounter with enemy fire in six years of soldiering. Nelson-Smith, the Hampshires’ fire-eating CO, who had insisted upon leading his headquarters in with the first wave, called to the others to lie down. Gosling, hopeful that the colonel knew more than he did about what to do next, dutifully prostrated himself in a foot of water. Then they all sprang to their feet and began to run for the shelter of the dunes. A blast close at hand killed a man beside Gosling, and suddenly he found that he could not walk. A mortar fragment had struck him in the leg. Somehow he reached the dunes, where he found Nelson-Smith, also wounded. Gosling began desperately scraping a hole for his head with an entrenching tool. Most of the Hampshires’ wireless sets had been knocked out by the blast in the midst of the headquarters group, and the gunner found his own set so hopelessly clogged with ships’ morse and other units’ communications that he was unable to send a single radio message that morning to his own guns offshore. A rifleman nearby craned his head briefly to look over the rim of the dune and immediately fell back dead. Gosling looked up cautiously, and was astounded to glimpse a German only 10 yards away. He pulled out his revolver and fired a shot which discouraged the enemy soldier – no doubt as shocked as the gunner himself – from appearing again.

The sound of intense small-arms fire now seemed more distant. Gosling assumed that the Hampshires were making progress. He had been lying immobile for some time when he glimpsed the first of his own self-propelled guns coming ashore, led by his second-in-command, Vere Broke, standing proudly upright in his half-track. Gosling yelled: ‘Vere – get your head down, you’ll get shot!’ Broke studiedly tilted his helmet an inch forward on his head.

Gunner Charles Wilson, also of the 147th Field Regiment, spent most of the run-in to the beach seeking shelter from the devastating noise of four 25-pounders firing alongside each other in the landing craft. Wilson was stripped to vest, pants and gym shoes for the invasion, for he was one of a group detailed to tow ashore and release one of the huge ‘roly-poly’ mats over which the guns would drive up the beach:

We hit two mines going in [wrote Wilson] – bottle mines on stakes. They didn’t stop us, although our ramp was damaged and an officer standing on it was killed. We grounded on a sandbank. The first man off was a commando sergeant in full kit. He disappeared like a stone into six feet of water. We grasped the ropes of the ‘Roly Poly’ and plunged down the ramp into the icy water. The mat was quite unmanageable in the rough water and dragged us away towards some mines. We let go the ropes and scrambled ashore. I lost my shoes and vest in the struggle, and had only my PT shorts. Somebody offered cigarettes but they were soaking wet. George in the bren carrier was first vehicle off the LCT. It floated for a moment, drifted onto a mine and sank. George dived overboard and swam ashore. The battery command post half-track got off with me running behind. The beach was strewn with wreckage, a blazing tank, bundles of blankets and kit, bodies and bits of bodies. One bloke near me was blown in half by a shell and his lower part collapsed in a bloody heap in the sand. The half-track stopped and I managed to struggle into my clothes.2

Major Gosling eventually managed to hobble down to a German pillbox on the beach, where he sat among other casualties waiting for evacuation. The occupants had clearly been disturbed over breakfast – coffee and sausage lay on the table, a picture of Hitler on the wall. Gosling found a letter from a French girl named Madeleine, obviously addressed to one of the garrison, promising to meet him on the evening of 6 June.

It is only for commanders and historians that it is possible to say that a battle proved a great deal easier than expected, and that casualties were remarkably light. For the men taking part in the D-Day landings, there were moments of violent intensity and horror on the British beaches as shattering as anything that happened on Omaha. It would have availed them little to know that their experience was much less terrible in scale than that of the Americans, for in kind it was equally deadly. Three of the five landing craft bringing 47 Commando ashore struck mines. When the survivors who swam to the beach regrouped to begin their advance towards Port-en-Bessin, 46 men and almost every wireless set in the unit had been lost.

Most of the men of 73rd Field Company, Royal Engineers, shared a common sensation of relief on reaching a shore – even a hostile shore – after three days imprisoned on their landing craft. When the first of their LCTs lowered its ramp off Le Hamel, the leading Petard AVRE tank tipped forward into the water and jammed itself half in, half out. The craft swung slowly round with the tide until a mine exploded against its stern. With the bridge and engine badly damaged, and fire from the shore raking the crippled vessel, it lay helpless on the waterline until it could be unloaded at the next low tide at 1.00 p.m. Of the engineers aboard it, two were killed and several more wounded, including one young officer who had somehow escaped from the debacle at Singapore in 1942. A second LCT hit a mine and began to settle 300 yards offshore. One section of men was rescued by an LCT leaving the beach which, to their fury, insisted upon carrying them back to England. Another group was threatened with the same fate but, after furious protests from its NCO in charge, had themselves trans-shipped to yet another craft heading into the beach. Captain James Smith and his team had been working desperately on the beach obstacles for almost an hour when he ran to his company commander to report progress, and was killed by machine-gun fire as he reached him. For any of those ignorant of war who believed that army engineers merely built roads or bridges, 6 June revealed how the sappers were required to bear the very brunt of the battle, and the price that they paid for doing so.

The flail tanks of the Westminster Dragoons were modified to wade rather than to swim the last yards to the beach. As they tipped over the LCT ramps, the drivers saw the view through their periscopes turn dark green, then progressively lighten until the sky appeared once more and water poured off the hulls as they crawled up the shore. Captain Roger Bell halted for a moment to check his position below La Rivière. His crew watched three sappers from a neighbouring AVRE Churchill clambering out onto its hull. Then there was a massive explosion, hurling sappers and fragments of tank into the air all around them and a sledgehammer thump on their own tank. For a moment they believed that they themselves had been hit by a shell, until Captain Bell reported that the engine of the exploding Churchill had struck them. They saw another tank explode. Corporal Charlie Baldwin in the co-driver’s seat spotted the flash of the German gun and called over the intercom: ‘Eighty-eight-pillbox-eleven o’clock.’ They traversed rapidly and fired. ‘Missed,’ said Baldwin laconically. Jimmy Smith, the gunner, fired again and once more they assumed a miss. Bell said that they must press on anyway. They only learned later that they had destroyed the German gun. For all the attention focused since D-Day upon the role of the specialized armour, it is striking to notice that, on the beaches, the ‘funnies’ performing as conventional gun tanks made a markedly greater impact on the course of the battle than they did by using their engineer equipment, although this was obviously also valuable.

They began flailing at the high-water mark, and continued until they reached clear ground, where Bell pulled the pin on the green smoke canister to signal to the infantry that a lane was open. It fell on the floor of the turret, and they gasped and cursed amid the choking fumes until it could be retrieved and tossed out. Bell fought through the days that followed with his hair, face and moustache dyed a brilliant green. They drove on towards Crépon, Baldwin suddenly glimpsing three Germans cowering in a shellhole in the road. As they passed, the tank track slipped sideways into it and, over the roar of the engine, the Englishman caught the sound of the terrible screams beneath them. At their rendezvous in an orchard, they had just begun to boil a kettle when a bullet smacked against the hull beside them. They leapt quickly back into the tank and scanned the scenery. Like so many Allied soldiers in the weeks that followed, they decided that the shot could only have come from a church tower overlooking them. They worked high explosive rounds up and down the building until they were convinced that nothing inside it could have survived. Then the tanks moved on.

The 6th Green Howards, landing 1,000 yards eastwards below the German strongpoint at La Rivière, suffered the common run of small comedies, tragedies and moments of heroism. When the LCA carrying the battalion HQ group grounded, its stern at once began to swing round towards a mined obstacle. The CO, Robin Hastings, sat on the ramp and dropped his feet cautiously into the water to explore the depth. Hitting bottom when he was only ankle-deep, the colonel paddled ashore. This was not an absurd precaution. Sergeant Hill of 16 Platoon, who had survived the entire North African and Sicilian campaigns, jumped from the ramp of another LCA into a deep shellhole, from which he could not extricate himself before the vessel ran over him.

Sergeant-Major Stan Hollis reached the beach feeling a little foolish, for he was already suffering a self-inflicted wound from a bad burn on the hand. He had carelessly seized the barrel of the bren gun with which he had been firing over the side of the craft as they closed in. His D Company advanced only a few hundred yards inland before they began to take casualties from a position to the right of the road. Major Lofthouse, the company commander, pointed it out to Hollis: ‘There’s a pillbox in there, sergeant-major!’ Without hesitating, Hollis sprang to his feet and ran 30 yards to the German position, spraying sten-gun fire as he went, until he reached the weapon slit, where he thrust in the barrel and hosed the interior with fire. Then he climbed on the roof, pulled the pin from a grenade, and leaned over to drop it through the slit. Not content with this, he began to advance alone along the communicating trench to the next pillbox. Its garrison hastily emerged and began to surrender. Hollis returned with 25 prisoners.

The sergeant-major, who performed a succession of feats of this kind in the weeks that followed, was later awarded the Victoria Cross. Every unit in every war needs a handful of men willing to commit acts of sacrificial courage to enable it to gain its objectives, and it is the nature of these that few who carry them out survive. But Hollis did, and lived to keep a Yorkshire pub after the war. Lieutenant-Colonel Hastings described him as a simple, straightforward Yorkshireman keen on horse-racing: ‘He was absolutely personally dedicated to winning the war – one of the few men I ever met who felt like that.’

Austin Baker, wireless operator in an armoured recovery vehicle of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards, was in an LCT which struck a mine as it manoeuvred inshore, among infantry wading up to their necks in the sea. Baker was hurled forward by the concussion, smashing a tooth on the turret hatch rim, but he managed hastily to close down the lid. The sailor directing the ramp lowering was hurled bodily into the air, and as the leading scout car drove off it was immediately knocked out by a shell. The others drove quickly off the beach, joining a procession of vehicles moving forwards between grassy banks and the skull and crossbones warnings, ACHTUNG MINEN, that were among the most familiar landmarks of every German battlefield. The village of Ver-sur-Mer had been considerably damaged in the bombardment, but a little cluster of French civilians emerged from the ruins to cheer and throw flowers. After losing their way for a time, Baker and his crew reached the inevitable orchard rendezvous. Among the other crews of the squadron, they began to exchange their excited stories of the landing while they drank tea and shared bully beef and biscuits with the crew of their wrecked landing craft, who had followed them ashore. Two tank commanders had already been killed by small-arms fire during the clearing of La Rivière. Two tanks had been swamped on the beach and a third disabled by a mine. A troop commander of B Squadron had met a self-propelled gun almost immediately after landing, and been beaten into action by the German’s shot. This took off his leg, killed his operator and wounded the rest of the crew.

Yet nothing could dampen the exhilaration of those who had survived, sitting as wondering sightseers on ground that over four long years had attained for them the alien and mysterious status of the dark side of the moon. Corporal Portway of 231st Brigade thought that ‘once ashore, it all seemed better organised than most exercises’. By 10.30 a.m., the British Second Army had landed fifteen infantry battalions, seven commandos, seven tank regiments, two engineer assault regiments, nine field artillery regiments and detachments of scores of supporting units. There had been setbacks, local failures, severe casualties to certain units, poor performance by some specialist equipment. Yet overall, the plan had succeeded stunningly well. Almost everywhere along the British line, the German coastal positions had been rolled up. It now remained to press forward to complete the second phase of the D-Day operation, to exploit German shock and surprise, ruthlessly to seize the vital ground inland.

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