Military history


From the beachhead to the front

By the last days of June, the battle for Normandy had taken on the character that it was to retain for the two months that followed: a struggle involving more than 1,000,000 men pitted against each other on a front of scarcely 100 miles. By August, the numbers would be over 2,000,000. Each morning, while in the fighting areas armoured units ground forward from their night harbours and headquarters staffs plotted the hopeful course of the next battle, thousands of infantrymen lay in their foxholes scratching laconic letters home, overshadowed by a consciousness both of the censor’s eye and of the desultory shell and mortar fire around them. ‘Dear Mum,’ wrote Private Sid Verrier of the 2nd Ox & Bucks on 27 June:

I’m still feeling rather dirty after living the way I have done since D-Day and I will be very glad to have a good bath, change into civvies and go for a nice walk round the parks at home. Better than a walk would be a couple of days sleep. Still I’m not grumbling, life is too sweet . . .1

On the beaches, new columns of men waded ashore from their landing craft, each one awed by the feeling that he was conducting his own personal invasion, no matter how many others had gone before. Bradley, as he came ashore at Omaha on the second day, was puzzled by the sight of a broken tennis racquet and a sodden boxing glove drifting side by side amid the debris in the surf. Ceaseless columns of vehicles bumped across the piers and out of the LCTs beached on the sand, to follow the outstretched gauntlet of a military policeman towards some rendezvous inland. When Trooper Stephen Dyson drove his tank up Juno beach in the last days of June, he jumped down from the hull and filled a matchbox with French sand the moment that the Churchill had cleared the LCT. His squadron harboured alongside tanks of 11th Armoured Division, veterans of some weeks’ experience. They chatted together. The 11th Armoured men derided their late appearance on the battlefield. ‘They told us that the Germans were very, very good.’

Every man who approached the French coast that summer was amazed by the panorama of shipping that met his eye, the Rhino ferries shuttling out to the transports with cargoes of dejected German prisoners, the huge caissons and heavily gunned piers of the Mulberry harbours, whose creation had done so much to convince doubters, such as the Prime Minister, that OVERLORD was feasible. In fact, there will always be grave doubt as to whether the Mulberries justified the enormous cost and effort that was put into them. Their scale fascinated and impressed contemporary servicemen and the first generation of post-war historians, but recent researchers2 have focused much more closely upon the American achievement of unloading stores at a greater rate directly across the beaches than had been managed across the Mulberry before the American harbour was wrecked in the ‘great storm’ of 19–21 June. The storm itself, treated by some chroniclers as a veritable cataclysm, has also been the subject of modern dispute. At no time, it has been pointed out, did the winds exceed force six, a moderate blow by nautical standards. The inability of the Mulberries to withstand it – for the British harbour was also severely damaged – seems to reflect more upon the strength of the structures rather than upon the nature of the gales. There was no doubt of the impact of the storm upon the Allied unloading programme, or of its serious effect upon operations at the front. But the surprise of the Allied command about the consequences of the storm was caused chiefly by their expectation that the huge Mulberry programme should have been capable of overcoming any problems of delay. It is likely that Allied unloading operations could have been shielded from the sea just as effectively merely by sinking the screen of blockships and creating a network of piers, rather than by devoting the labour of 45,000 men to building the Mulberries.3 Some of the same doubts apply to another celebrated innovation, PLUTO – PipeLine Under The Ocean – a device for pumping petrol direct from England to the armies in France. It was 41 days before PLUTO was in position. A few weeks later its submerged couplings gave way and a new line had to be laid from Dungeness to Boulogne. This began to yield 700 tons of fuel a day only in January 1945.4

The slow progress inland resulted in a dramatic surplus of vehicles ashore in the first weeks after D-Day – in the first 11 days 81,000 were landed for the Americans alone. Every GI required 30 pounds of supplies per day to support him in action, compared with 20 pounds per British soldier, and a German quota that sometimes fell to four pounds. The Allied armies demanded 26,000 tons of stores a day to sustain them in action. By 25 July, there were 1,450,000 men ashore – 812,000 American, 640,000 British and Canadian. Amid this vast movement of humanity, some simply disappeared into the administrative jungle. General Gerow of the US V Corps was compelled to make a personal visit to England to locate one unit under his command which he was persistently assured was with his corps in Normandy.

Inland from the beaches, newly arriving men gaped at the massive dumps of fuel, ammunition, supplies, the parked ranks of brand-new tanks, vehicles, guns that crowded every field. Uncamouflaged, their safety was a spectacular tribute to the Allies’ absolute command of the air. As for so many others, the first impression of Major Charles Richardson of the 6th KOSB was astonishment that the beachhead was so well organized, and bewilderment about where to find a field in which to put anything. Tank tracks scarred the countryside in all directions. Unit signposts and field telephone cables were nailed to every tree by the roadside, or draped along branches and ditches. Patton, when he came, was delighted by the droll spectacle of telephone wires suspended between the crucifixes at every crossroads. The crashed aircraft that lay everywhere reminded him of ‘dead birds partly eaten by beetles’.5 Soldiers were puzzled, sometimes angered, by the sight of French civilians tending their fields or going about their business with their little carts, apparently indifferent to the claims of their liberators to gratitude. One morning a few days after the landing, Corporal Charles Baldwin of the Westminster Dragoons was sent back to the beaches to bring forward a draft of replacements for his squadron:

Just after leaving Crepon by jeep, in a field on my right I noticed some dead British infantry. There were two civilians there and I pulled up. Another jeep containing a military police lance-corporal pulled up behind me. We walked towards the two men and it became apparent that they had been looting the bodies. Two had had their boots removed. The civilians started to speak quickly in French. But the military policeman simply said: ‘Bloody bastards’ and shot them with his sten gun.6

Private John Price found most of the French sullen, and was struck by the predominance of the elderly – the young or middle-aged appeared to have fled. But he was touched when a kindly old clockmaker asked for a penny, and worked it into a ring for him. Many of the British, after years of privation at home, were disgusted by the abundance of food in the Norman villages. ‘The civilians seemed to have eaten well,’ said Alfred Lee of the Middlesex Regiment. ‘We saw no skinny ones.’7 There were persistent rumours throughout the beachhead of Fifth Column activities by local Frenchmen spying for the Germans, and these multiplied mistrust. ‘We almost had the feeling that these people had not been hostile to the Germans,’ John Hein of the US 1st Division said wonderingly.8 A captured German of 12th SS Panzer wrote cynically in his diary: ‘As we are marched through the town towards the port, the French insult us, shake their fists and make throat-cutting gestures. This does not really shock us. We are used to this sort of thing from the French. If it was the other way around, they would be threatening the Tommies . . .’9 In the British sector, it was found necessary to mount pipeline patrols to prevent civilians from inserting wooden plugs at intervals along them in order to drain off fuel supplies for themselves. Most Normans treated the fighting armies with impartial disdain or occasional kindness. Helmut Gunther of 17th SS Panzergrenadiers once asked an elderly woman why she gave his men cream, and she answered gravely: ‘Because I have a grandson who is a prisoner in Germany, and I hope that the people there are doing the same for him.’10 It was not remarkable that so many French families were shocked and appalled by the cost of liberation to their own homes, which if anything were looted more thoroughly by the Allied than the German armies. ‘We have been reproached,’ wrote a local writer bitterly a few months later, ‘at least by those who regard the battle of Normandy as a military tattoo, for failing to throw ourselves on the necks of our liberators. Those people have lost sight of the Stations of the Cross that we have passed since 6 June.’11 When it began to rain early in July, the locals told the soldiers that there had not been a summer like it for 50 years. But for this, at least, they did not seek to blame the Allies. They shrugged: ‘C’est la guerre.

A few overworked Norman prostitutes were already plying their trade. One day General Bradley was astonished to notice a village near Isigny with ‘Off Limits’ signs posted outside it, and drove in with General ‘Pete’ Quesada of IXth Tactical Air Command. He found a house marked ‘Prophylactic Station’, containing three sleeping GIs, none of whom recognized their army commander when he awakened them. He inquired how much business they were doing. The medic shrugged. ‘Well, yesterday there was just the two for the MPs and one for me and that was it.’ Characteristically, Bradley moved on without inflicting the trauma of his identity upon them.12

It was well into July before facilities for rear-area entertainments began to be established, and few men were withdrawn from the line for long enough to enjoy them. But in the mairie of Balleroy, where the US 1st Division had its civil affairs office issuing laissez-passers to civilians and supervising the blackout, a group of local inhabitants one day requested permission to hold a concert. On 2 July, a few score civilians and GIs crowded into the little auditorium for what they billed proudly as ‘the first cultural event in liberated France’. The mayor’s daughter sang a song, a succession of other local talents performed their little acts, and Leslie Bertal, a Hungarian concert pianist of some pre-war celebrity who was now serving as a prisoner-of-war interrogator, played in the oddest setting of his career. He was killed a week later, when a shell exploded in the tree above him as he was questioning a German soldier.

For most of the men fighting in France, beyond a passing curiosity about alien sights and a foreign language, life revolved around the battle and the cocoon of their units. Each squad or platoon carried its little island of east London or westside New York across Europe, the average GI only communicating with the world outside for long enough to imitate a chicken before a bewildered Frenchwoman, in an effort to persuade her to sell him eggs. They had little eye for the beauty of the creeper-clad farmhouses, the white apple and pear blossom, the golden walls of the châteaux. Most Tommies were bemused by their officers’ enthusiasm for the sticky, smelly local cheese – camembert. Sergeant Andy Hertz, an American aviation engineer, was once asked to dinner by a French refugee family, fellow Jews. He said that it was his first inkling of what the Germans were doing to his people. As a souvenir, his hosts gave him one of the yellow Stars of David that they had been compelled to wear. He kept it all his life.

The rear areas were littered with signs – divisional symbols and direction markers, cautionary KEEP TO SWEPT PATH, or roughly daubed FRONT LINE NO VEHICLES FORWARD OF HERE, or simply DUST MEANS DEATH. Except when rain and the vast columns of tracked vehicles had chewed the roads into muddy ruins, one of the greatest perils was the dust thrown up by speeding convoys, bringing down a deadly rain of German artillery fire. Infantry cursed the proximity of their own tanks or artillery for the same reason, and took pains to avoid occupying positions near a major signals unit, for fear of German radio locators and the fire that they could call down. Every German signaller testified to the carelessness of Allied soldiers on the air, especially the Canadians and some American units whose easy chatter provided priceless intelligence.

Among the fighting soldiers, there was little to do between battles except stroll among the fields or visit a nearby village to buy milk or eggs; they could write home; drown themselves in the universal calvados and cider; play cards; or talk interminably. Padre Lovegrove of the Green Howards tried to get his men to speak about their civilian jobs and homes, to preserve some grip upon the world beyond the battlefield. Among themselves many men, inevitably, talked about women. But deep in their hearts most soldiers on the battlefield would readily trade a night with a woman for a hot bath, a home-cooked meal, and a safe bed in which they could merely sleep. Some found solace in religion. Frank Svboda, a presbyterian chaplain with the US 79th Division, was moved by the manner in which his services were attended by Protestants, Jews, and Catholic soldiers clutching their rosaries. Before battle, he found himself administering communion of crackers and squeezed raisin juice to little clusters of 15 or 20 sombre young men in a hedgerow a few hundred yards behind the front. Good chaplains were greatly prized by their units, but bad ones – of whom there were many in the Allied armies – were detested and avoided for the hypocrisy with which they offered their blessings from the rear echelon. Frank Svboda felt that the best aid he possessed in cementing relations with his men was a little axe he had bought in England, and which they found invaluable for hacking off the stubborn hedgerow roots as they dug foxholes. ‘Chaplain, pass the hatchet!’ became a unit catchphrase.

The Americans lived chiefly off 5-pound cartons of C rations, or the more popular three-meal K ration – 60,000,000 of them were shipped to Normandy in the first three weeks of operations. Everybody detested the powdered lemon juice, but otherwise it was the monotony of the food that men cursed, rather than its quality. One night, John Hein found himself called upon to feed four German prisoners seized by a patrol. The men wolfed their first American rations, one of them declaring courteously: ‘This is first-rate.’ British soldiers were astonished by the sheer quantity of American supplies, and by the ice cream-making machines that soon appeared in rear areas. But their own rations were of substantially higher quality than the food on which the British civilian population at home was being fed. Augmented by occasional cuts from freshly-dead cattle and produce bought or thieved from the Normans, it was tolerable enough. Almost every man smoked. The armies supplied the troops with cigarettes in prodigal profusion, as the readiest means of sustaining morale, the most portable comfort available to a soldier. For the first weeks ashore in France, their greatest craving was bread. There was none to be had until field bakeries were established in the beachhead, and as they chewed day after day on tasteless hard tack biscuits, soft white bread came to seem an unimaginable luxury.

To almost every man of the Allied armies, the predominant memory of the campaign, beyond the horror of the battle, was the astounding efficiency of the supply services. The Americans had always justly prided themselves upon their organization. But for young British soldiers, who had grown up with the legend of the War Office’s chronic bungling, and of the Crimea and the Boer War, Second Army’s administration in Normandy seemed a miracle. ‘We were all very agreeably surprised by the efficiency,’ said Major John Warner of 3rd Recce Regiment. ‘We always knew that we would receive ammunition, letters, petrol, food.’ Curiously enough, whatever the command shortcomings of the British Army in France in the First World War, its administration had been a supreme achievement. So it was now, and this contributed enormously to men’s faith in their commanders and in final victory. ‘There was so much matériel at the back,’ said Alf Lee of the Middlesex Regiment. ‘Whenever you went to the rear and saw fields packed with petrol tins as high as a house, rows of guns in their canvas covers waiting to come up, huge dumps of shells, you couldn’t doubt that we could do it. We would often fire 25,000 rounds from a Vickers gun in a single shoot. Yet we were never short of ammunition.’

Few men on the battlefield read anything more demanding than comics. Private Richardson of the 82nd Airborne self-consciously carried around his US army paperback edition of Oliver Twist until his unit was withdrawn from action, but he never looked at it. Padre Lovegrove read Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, and some men clung to their bibles. But most merely glanced at their own unit’s weekly duplicated news-sheets – if there was time for headquarters to produce such refinements – or, in the American army, leafed through Stars and Stripes. To Lieutenant Floyd Ratliff of the 30th Artillery, this at least ‘made it seem that there was some design, some grand strategy to what we were doing’. Unless a man had access to radio news or headquarters gossip, he lived entirely in the tiny private world of his unit, cut off from both the successes and failures of others, and from the army of which he was a part. The sheer enormity of the forces deployed in Normandy destroyed the sense of personality, the feeling of identity which had been so strong, for instance, in the Eighth Army in the desert. The campaign in north-west Europe was industrialized warfare on a vast scale. For that reason, veterans of earlier campaigns found this one less congenial – dirty and sordid in a fashion unknown in the desert. Many responded by focusing their own loyalties exclusively upon their own squad or company. One of the chronic command difficulties of the campaign was that of overcoming the conviction of many men that another unit or another division’s difficulties were entirely its own affair. The sense of detachment was inevitably strongest among the hundreds of thousands of men serving in the rear areas or on the gunlines:

We would suddenly find ourselves put with a different army [said Ratliff of his 155 mm battery], and we would more likely hear about it on the grapevine than from orders. Much of our firing was blind or at night, and we often wondered what we were shooting at. Nobody would say down the telephone: ‘I can see this village and people running out.’ We would just hear ‘50 short’ or ‘50 over’ called to the Fire Control Centre. We didn’t enjoy the job. It was simply something we had to do, and there was no way out except to finish it. Nobody felt much animosity towards the Germans except a couple of German-speaking Jews in our unit. What hatred there was was generated by propaganda, and didn’t go deep. We didn’t really know anything about the Germans, or even about their army. Most of our men were bewildered by the whole thing. They didn’t understand what it was all about, although they felt that it was a just cause because of Pearl Harbor. Wherever they went they would look around and say: ‘This isn’t the way we do things at home.’13

For the gunners, the greatest strain lay in the shattering noise of their own pieces, and the physical sweat of shifting 95-pound 155 mm projectiles day after day, stripped to the waist and working like automatons through the bombardment before a big attack. Their risk of death or mutilation was small – very small by comparison with that of the infantry. In Ratliff’s battalion in Normandy, one observation officer was lost when his Piper Cub was shot down, and a switchboard operator and his assistant were wounded by an incoming shell exploding in a tree above their foxhole. That was all.

The British 17-pounder was the best Allied anti-tank gun of the war, capable of penetrating 149 mm of armour at 100 yards, 140 mm at 500 yards, 130 mm at 1,000 yards. In August 1944, small quantities of the new ‘Discarding Sabot’ ammunition began to become available for the 17-pounder, dramatically increasing its hitting power. But throughout the campaign in north-west Europe, the Allies faced the problem that the strategic onus for attack lay upon themselves, and towed anti-tank guns were of limited value – except against German armoured counter-attacks, in which the 17-pounder proved its outstanding quality.

Much the most hazardous gunnery task was that of forward observer, either working with the infantry, spotting from the steel towers erected around Caen, or flying an American Piper or British Auster. The pilots droned slowly up and down the line at 120 mph, normally 1,000 feet up and 1,000 yards behind the front. They seldom glimpsed men below, more often the quick flash of German guns or a brief movement of vehicles. Then the pilot called his battery: ‘Hello Foxtrot 3, I have a Mike target for you.’ When the guns warned him that they were ready, he called the firing order and watched the ground below for the explosions. Then he radioed ‘All north 400,’ or whatever correction was necessary until shells were bracketing the target. The aircraft was often jolted by the passage of shells through the sky around it. ‘But it was a very disembodied business,’ said a British spotter pilot, Captain Geoffrey Ivon-Jones.14 One day he was puzzled by piles of logs lying beside a road, until he saw that they were dead Germans. He developed a personal affection for some of the batteries for which he spotted, above all the 79th Scottish Horse, which prided itself on its smartness. Circling above them in action, the pilot could see the tiny figure of the gun position officer standing with his battery, giving the signal to fire with a sweep of his white silk handkerchief.

Tragic accidents were part of the small change of the battle. One day, spotting for a warship, Ivon-Jones found that the naval gunners were reading the directional ‘clock’ messages upside down, and shelling British positions. An Auster crew watched in horror as bombers rained explosives on friendly forces, and swung alongside to signal frantically by Aldis lamp: WRONG TARGET. On the ground, the pilots lived in foxholes beside the pits bulldozed to protect their aircraft, which took off and landed from any convenient field. Ivon-Jones, a passionate falconer, kept a sparrow-hawk named Mrs Patton for some weeks, feeding her on birds and meat cut from dead cows. He and the other pilots flew perhaps four or five 40-minute sorties a day, ever watchful for German fighters. Some Allied fliers became so accustomed to regarding every aircraft as friendly that the Luftwaffe could spring lethal surprises. ‘What are those, Geordie?’ Captain Harry Bordon asked his observer. ‘Spitfires, sir,’ came the cheerful reply, seconds before five Me 109s shot them down.

Beyond the obvious dangers of enemy action, an extraordinary number of men were injured in accidents, or shot up by their own guns or aircraft. Padre Lovegrove was well behind the lines, looking for dead men of his unit from an earlier battle, when he stooped to pick up a man’s web equipment, hoping to find his service number, and trod on a mine. John Price of the Ox & Bucks watched a man shake with fear when he was called for a reconnaissance patrol, then sag with relief as he returned alive. He laid down his bren, and fell asleep beneath it. A passing soldier tripped on the gun. It fired, killing its owner instantly. Hundreds of men were run over by tanks or trucks. As Stephen Dyson’s tank troop halted after disembarking, the waterproof sealing on another Churchill blew up without warning, taking off the hand of the gunner beside it before he had been in France five minutes. Lieutenant-Arthur Heal, having survived the storming of ‘Hillman’ with the Suffolks on D-Day, had to be evacuated after rupturing himself. His replacement was killed within 24 hours. Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Hay of the 5th/7th Gordons had already been injured in Sicily when his own intelligence officer dropped a sub-machine gun. Now, after surviving six weeks in the Orne bridgehead, he was travelling in a staff car miles behind the forward positions when a single German shell exploded without warning alongside, wounding him badly in the head. Hundreds of soldiers paid the price of recklessly ignoring warnings about German booby-traps, failing to see tripwires between hedges, or charges linked to tempting booty on abandoned farmhouse tables.

With the coming of night, men lay down to sleep beneath the stars, wrapped in a blanket in their foxholes or the nearest ditch. Most tank crews stretched out a tarpaulin from the hulls of their vehicles and slept beneath it. Some felt safer lying under the tank itself, although enthusiasm for this practice diminished when the bad weather came and a number of men were found in the morning crushed by the vast weight of steel subsiding into the soft ground as they slept. The mosquitoes plagued them, and seemed quite immune to the cream issued for their suppression. There were other natural miseries: swarms of flies and wasps; the dysentery from which so many men suffered despite the heavy use of chlorine in the water; and the lice.

We had been spared by the felt lice but their brothers, the lovely white ones, defeated us [wrote an SS trooper, Sadi Schneid]. As if the Allied invasion was not enough! I escaped from them only when I became an American prisoner six months later. I could never understand why the Germans with all their excellent chemists could not find something effective against this plague. The only thing available was Lysol, which had no effect, and cleaning our clothes in steam baths. The result was that we had permanent lice, and our leather equipment became stiff from steam. Our pullovers were so crawling with lice that we could not bear to put them on. Those Norman civilians who found underwear missing from their cupboards must forgive me for helping myself, but the constant torture of lice was sometimes worse than the fighter-bomber attacks.15

With hundreds of thousands of vehicles crammed into a narrow beachhead, movement by day was hampered by constant traffic jams. In darkness it became a nightmare: columns of tanks and trucks crawled nose to tail, guided solely by a pinpoint red lamp on the tail of each one, to reach their destinations only after interminable detours and delays. The vital role of the military police in making movement to any battlefield possible in Europe in 1944 has not been sufficiently recognized, nor the dangers that they faced in doing so from the shelling of crossroads as well as chronic traffic accidents.

Each side bombarded the other with propaganda of varying effectiveness. Allied leaflets promised German soldiers who surrendered a life of comfort and safety, evidenced by photographs of grinning Wehrmacht prisoners. One German leaflet was headed, CAUGHT LIKE FOXES IN A TRAP. It demanded:

English and American soldiers! Why has Jerry waited so long after the landings to use his so called secret weapons behind your back? Doesn’t that strike you as queer? It looks very much as though after waiting for you to cross the Channel, he has set a TRAP for you. You’re fighting at present on a very narrow strip of coast, the extent of which has been so far regulated by the Germans. You are using up an enormous number of men and huge quantities of material. Meanwhile the robot planes scatter over London and Southern England explosives, the power and incendiary efficiency of which are without precedent. They are cutting the bridge to your bases.

A more succinct document addressed to Bradley’s men demanded: ‘American soldier! Are you on the wrong side of the street?’ By far the most effective propaganda organ was Radio Calais, the British-run station which reached half the German army, who listened intently for the lists of prisoners which were regularly read over the air.

Although the Luftwaffe possessed no power to impede Allied operations seriously, it was still capable of causing considerable irritation, and even acute fear among men living and working on its principal targets, the beaches. Each night, up to 50 Luftwaffe aircraft droned overhead, bombing almost at random, yet with the near-certainty of hitting something in the crowded perimeter. The Americans called the night visitation ‘Bedcheck Charlie’. The men behind the beaches – a great army of support and supply troops, inevitably not the most highly-trained or best-equipped to withstand bombardment – dug themselves deeper and deeper into the dunes. ‘We were terrified by the bombing,’ said an NCO who had landed with a port construction company on 6 June, expecting to proceed immediately to Caen to reopen its facilities. Instead he and his comrades were stranded for weeks behind the beaches in bewilderment and misery. ‘We were so frightened, so glad to be alive every morning. We hadn’t expected to be in anything like that.’ Each night they lay down in their gas masks, as protection from the great smokescreeen that was ignited to shroud the piers from enemy bomb aimers. ‘Golden City’, the German pilots called the invasion coast, because of the dazzling array of tracer lacing the darkness offshore. The bald statistics of ships lost to German mines and one-man submarines in the Channel, dumps blown up by air attack, and men killed by brief strafing attacks make the Luftwaffe and German navy’s impact upon the Allied build-up seem slight. But for those who were on hand to suffer these small disasters, they seemed very terrible indeed.

The great majority of Allied soldiers who went to Normandy had never before seen action. Many thousands of British troops, especially, had lingered at home through two, three, four years of training and routine. They approached the campaign with an eagerness that promised much to their commanders. ‘We were all very scared, but glad that we were now going into battle,’ said Lieutenant Andrew Wilson of The Buffs. ‘We had been frightened that the war would end before we were really in it. People had no great urge to kill, but they wanted to face the challenge to their manhood of being in danger.’16 Major William Whitelaw and his brother officers of the Scots Guards tank battalion were ‘thrilled that we were actually going to do something. We had been terrified that we weren’t going to get there, and worried how we should answer that question about “What did you do in the war, daddy?” ’17

The first shock of battle, the first losses, however severe, did not entirely destroy the sense of wonder, exhilaration and fulfilment that was created by the consummation of months and years of training. A British infantryman wrote of the period following his first action in another theatre at this time:

We had been in some bloody fighting and lost many men, but the sense of nastiness had been overlaid, even at the time, by an exhilarating aura of adventure. I did not of course then realise that that sense of adventure, with its supercharged impulses of curiosity and excitement, was one of the few advantages that the infantryman new to battle enjoyed over the veteran; and that it would, alas, gradually fade away. Thereafter we would become much better soldiers, hardened and more expert. But we would also, to that end, have to draw more deeply on our innermost resources of discipline, comradeship, endurance and fortitude.18

After the enormous initial excitement of the landings, the quick capture of Bayeux, and the dramatic American seizure of Cherbourg and clearance of the northern peninsula, the mood among the men of the Allied armies slowly changed, stiffened as the line of battle congealed. They learned the cost of digging slit-trenches beneath trees if these were struck by shellfire, the vital importance of oiling rifles to protect them from the ravages of rust that set in almost overnight, the price of leaving magazines filled too long so that in action their springs would no longer feed the weapon chambers. As most soldiers on most days found themselves holding fixed positions among the nettles and cow parsley of the hedgerows, at risk principally from mortar and artillery harassing fire, they dug deeper and adjusted to a routine of war: dawn stand-to; breakfast of tea, coffee or self-heating soup in their observation positions or foxholes or tank harbours; then the daily grind of infantry patrolling or tank deployments – for the Allied armour almost invariably withdrew from the front line during the hours of darkness. There were map shoots by the gunners or local attacks to adjust a salient or clear a start-line for major operations to come. Among the greatest strains on all the armies in Normandy was the sheer length of the summer day – from 4.45 a.m. to 11.15 p.m. in the first weeks of June. This bore especially heavily on commanders and staff officers, who were compelled to continue writing reports and issuing orders when they returned to their headquarters from the front with the coming of the brief darkness. Most commanding officers found that they could remain on their feet only by sleeping a little during the day. It was difficult to remain undisturbed. One British colonel posted a sign outside his CP: ‘HAVE YOU HAD YOUR ORGANIZED REST TODAY? I AM HAVING MINE NOW.’19 Men discovered that they could sleep on their feet, under bombardment, in their tanks, on the march. Fatigue, and the struggle to overcome it, ruled their lives.

For the tank crews, even in battle, there were hours sitting motionless, closed down beneath their hatches, firing an occasional shell merely to provide a receptacle into which to urinate. Inside their hulls, they were vulnerable only to direct hits from artillery or mortar fire, but they were often more ignorant than the infantry of what was taking place around them. During the critical battle for Villers-Bocage, Trooper Denis Huett of 5th RTR never saw a German. Scout cars radioed that enemy tanks were approaching, ‘and stuff started flying about’. They once traversed their turret violently to meet an oncoming tank, to discover just in time that it was one of their own. A nearby battery of 25-pounders was firing over open sights. Three of the crew of a neighbouring Cromwell, who lost patience with all the hanging about, dismounted for a private reconnaissance beyond the hedge and did not return, for they walked 100 yards to a barn and found themselves staring into the muzzle of a German tank commander’s Schmeisser. In an uncommon moment of humanity, when he learnt that it was the lap gunner’s 21st birthday, he produced a bottle of wine in celebration before sending the prisoners to the rear.

All one night and through the next day, Huett and the other crews remained in their tanks, periodically starting the petrol engines to charge the batteries, acutely watchful when darkness came and they were no longer able to pull back to harbour: ‘Oh gawd, we thought, and every time we saw a shadow we were sure something was out there.’ Somebody said that they were surrounded. They were deeply relieved on the night of 15 June when at last they retired, exhausted infantry clinging to their hulls. But of who had gone where, who had gained or lost what, they understood little. There was only the vague ranker’s awareness, communicated to Corporal Topper Brown, that, ‘the Germans had chewed us all for arsepaper, hadn’t they?’20

The tankmen pitied the infantry, their bodies naked to every form of high explosive, just as most foot soldiers preferred the comfort of their slit trenches to facing the enemy in a vast, noisy steel box which seemed to ignite instantly when hit. Tank crews could carry all manner of private comforts and extra rations with them, and despite strict orders against cooking inside the tanks in action, all of them did so, brewing up on the floors of the turrets. The chief handicap was the poor visibility through their periscopes with the hatches closed. Many of the best tank commanders were killed by small arms, standing up in their turrets for a wider view of the battlefield. Their greatest fear was of breakdown or throwing a track under fire, which would compel them to dismount. Corporal Bill Preston of the US 743rd Battalion had been in action for 32 days when his crew came upon another Sherman bogged down in a hedgerow ditch. He was peering out of the turret watching his commander and wireless operator hitch a cable to the casualty when two German mortar rounds dropped in their midst. Of the two men on the ground, one was killed and the other wounded. Preston himself fell to the bottom of the turret paralysed – his neck broken by a hit in the spine. ‘Dad’s not going to like this,’ he thought through his coma. He spent the next six months in hospitals, and reflected more pragmatically: ‘Thank God I’m out of it.’21

Every forward unit suffered a steady drain of casualties from snipers, mortaring and artillery fire, which both sides employed daily to maintain pressure upon each other, the Allies in greater volume since they possessed greater firepower. 2nd Panzer reported in July that they were receiving an average of 4,000 incoming artillery and 5,000 mortar rounds a day on their front, rising dramatically during British attacks to a total of 3,500 rounds in two hours on one occasion. It is important to remember that throughout the campaign, even in sectors where neither side was carrying out a major offensive, there were constant local attacks. To emphasize the staggering weight of firepower that the Allies employed in support of their movements, it is worth citing the example of a minor operation near Cristot on 16 June. Throughout the night of the 15th, the German positions to be attacked were subjected to harassing fire. In the early morning of the 16th, from H-35 to H-20, naval guns bombarded the objectives. From H-15 to H-Hour, Typhoons rocketed and strafed them. A squadron of tanks provided covering fire for the assault from a hull-down position on the flank. An entire armoured regiment carried out a diversionary manoeuvre just north of the intended thrust. A company of heavy 4.2-inch mortars stonked selected German positions from H-15 to H-Hour. The operation itself was supported by seven field regiments of 25-pounders, and four regiments of medium guns. At H-Hour, noon on the 16th, the battalion of 49th Division making the attack advanced two companies forward, at the normal infantry assault pace of 25 yards a minute; a troop of tanks accompanied each company. The tanks led across the open fields beyond the start-line, then, as they approached an orchard, allowed the infantry to overtake them and sweep it for anti-tank guns, before the tanks once again took over. At 1.15 p.m. the battalion passed through Cristot, where it reorganized. They found 17 German dead in the village and two armoured cars and one soft-skinned vehicle destroyed. The British had lost three killed and 24 wounded, almost all by enemy mortars. A few hundred yards of fields and ruins had been gained, at uncommonly small cost in British life. But the extraordinary firepower that had been deployed to make this possible readily explains why the Allies in Normandy suffered chronic shortages of artillery ammunition.22

Every German unit reported ceaselessly on the agonizing difficulties caused by constant Allied air surveillance, even when there were no incoming air strikes. The mere presence in the sky of Allied spotting aircraft frequently reduced every nearby German gun to silence. Anti-aircraft fire was discouraged by bringing down an immediate Allied barrage upon its source.

Snipers were detested and feared as much for the strain that they caused to men’s routine movements in forward areas as for the casualties that they inflicted. Their activities provoked as much irrational resentment as the killing of baled-out tank crews or parachutists in mid-descent. Both sides habitually shot snipers who were taken prisoner. ‘Brad says he will not take any action against anyone that decides to treat snipers a little more roughly than they are being treated at present,’ wrote the First Army commander’s ADC in his diary: ‘A sniper cannot sit around and shoot and then capture when you close in on him. That’s not the way to play the game.’23 It is important to distinguish here between the work of the specially-trained, superbly-camouflaged marksmen who worked with telescopic-sighted rifles between the lines during periods of static warfare, and the universal habit of describing any man hit by a small-arms round as ‘shot by a sniper’.

One of the chronic preoccupations of Allied commanders in Normandy was the need to persuade attacking infantry to keep moving, not to cause incessant delays by taking cover whenever small-arms fire was heard in their area. For most infantrymen, when a shot came from an unseen gun – and almost every gun fired in Normandy was unseen – it was a reflex action to seek cover until the danger had been pinpointed. No habit caused greater difficulties and delays to Allied movement, nor proved more difficult to overcome when those junior leaders who resisted it and pressed on were so frequently killed. ‘It is a natural tendency for inexperienced troops to think that every bullet that comes over their heads is fired from about a hundred yards away,’ stated an acerbic British report after the early fighting in France, ‘whereas in fact it is probably fired from a much greater range.’24 Many units in defensive positions habitually sprayed the surrounding area – above all, nearby woods – with random gunfire at dawn to shake out any enemy who had infiltrated during the night. Commanders sought in vain to discourage this practice, which almost invariably provoked an unwanted exchange of shooting.

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