Military history

Chapter 3 » TO THE FAR SHORE

The overture

Over the last few days of May and the first of June, vast columns of men and vehicles began to stream south into the assembly areas – the ‘sausages’, as they were known, because of their shapes on the map – where the invaders were briefed and equipped before being loaded aboard the fleet. The trucks and tanks rolled through towns and villages that, to the disappointment of some, paid little heed to their passing, so accustomed had the inhabitants become to mass military movements. Although the coastal areas had supposedly been sealed off to all but local residents, in reality so many exemptions had been granted for weddings, funerals and compassionate cases that the routine of life was very little changed.

Whole divisions of the follow-up waves had been temporarily transferred from training to man the assembly areas, to feed and cosset the assault forces to the utmost extent that the circumstances allowed. The men, crowded into the tiered bunks in the huge tented camps, were issued with seasickness pills and lifejackets, new gas-protective battledress and ODs – which everybody detested because of their extra weight and smell. Each soldier was given a leaflet about getting on with French civilians which urged him to say nothing about 1940 and not to buy up everything in sight at extravagant prices: ‘Thanks to jokes about “Gay Paree” etc., 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.’ More pragmatically, in the ‘sausages’ men were issued with their ammunition and grenades, satchel and pole charges. They worked obsessively to the very last minute upon the waterproofing of their vehicles, conscious of the horror of stalling with a flooded engine under fire in the surf. The plethora of food, fruit and American cigarettes that was thrust upon them made LAC Norman Phillips of the RAF advance party for Omaha feel ‘as if we were being fattened like Christmas turkeys’. Despite the stringent security precautions which kept the men confined once they had entered the assembly areas, many young British soldiers slipped under the wire for a last glimpse of the pub, the village or their own families. Corporal ‘Topper’ Brown of 5th RTR escaped from his camp near Felixstowe, stripped the unit flashes off his battledress, and travelled all the way home to Tonbridge in Kent.

The tannoy systems in the camps were seldom silent by day or night as groups of men were mustered, loaded into trucks, and driven through meticulously signposted streets to numbered docks where they joined their transports. The concentration and loading operations rank high among the staff achievements of OVERLORD. For once there was little need to motivate men to attend to their tasks: they understood that their lives depended on doing so. Dock officers later commented adversely upon the casual behaviour of the follow-up waves in contrast to that of the troops who embarked for D-Day.

Aboard the ships, each man sought to create his tiny island of privacy amid the mass of humanity crowded below decks. Officers struggled with last-minute loading problems. Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Hastings of the 6th Green Howards was enraged when an officious trade union official counted the lifeboats on his battalion’s transport, declared that there were insufficient, and insisted that one vital landing craft should be left behind to make room for an extra lifeboat. The unit’s chaplain, Captain Henry Lovegrove, conducted a service from the ship’s bridge which men crowded onto the foc’sle to hear. Lovegrove was uncommonly respected as a padre, but he had lost some credibility during a rehearsal at sea off Hayling Island several weeks earlier, when he took as his text for morning service ‘The hour is now come . . .’, which many men took to mean that the padre had been chosen to break it to them that they were on their way to France. In the vast anchorages off the south coast in the first days of June, many ships looked curiously unmilitary, with sailors’ drying laundry draped along the rails and strung among the upperworks. A REME driver, passionately proud of his vehicle, expostulated furiously with an East End crane driver swinging his workshop’s trucks into the hold of a transport, crushing wings and fenders against the hatch. ‘You’ll be f---ing lucky if that’s the worst that happens to your lot over there!’ said the docker succinctly, continuing as before.

One of Montgomery’s few undoubted errors of judgement during the mounting of OVERLORD was his support for a landing on 5 June despite the adverse weather forecast. Given the difficulties much less severe weather caused on the 6th, there is little doubt that a landing on the previous day would have found itself in deep trouble. For all the scorn that Montgomery later heaped upon Eisenhower’s qualities as a military commander, at no single period did the Supreme Commander distinguish himself more than by his judgement and decision during the D-Day launching conferences of 3–4 June. Having unhesitatingly overridden Montgomery to postpone for the 5th, at 9.45 p.m. on the 4th Eisenhower equally firmly brushed aside Leigh-Mallory and ignored Tedder’s uncertainty to confirm the decision to go for the 6th: ‘I’m quite positive we must give the order,’ he said, ‘I don’t like it, but there it is . . . I don’t see how we can possibly do anything else.’1

The postponement much increased the mental strain and physical pressure on the men crowded in the ships. They played cards incessantly, chatted quietly, in many cases simply lay silent on their bunks, gazing up at the bulkheads. Private James Gimbert and a cluster of other RAOC men of 50th Division brewed up on a little primus stove perched atop the vast stack of ammunition cases loaded on their LST. Brigadier-General Norman ‘Dutch’ Cota assembled his staff of the advanced headquarters group of 29th Division, of which he was deputy commander, in the aft wardroom of the USS Carroll. An officer of legendary forcefulness, somewhat old for his rank at 51, Cota could claim exceptional expertise in amphibious operations. He had taken part in the TORCH landings and subsequently served with Lord Mountbatten’s Combined Operations HQ. Now, he addressed his team for the last time:

This is different from any other exercises that you’ve had so far. The little discrepancies that we tried to correct on Slapton Sands are going to be magnified and are going to give way to incidents that you might at first view as chaotic. The air and naval bombardment are reassuring. But you’re going to find confusion. The landing craft aren’t going in on schedule, and people are going to be landed in the wrong place. Some won’t be landed at all. The enemy will try, and will have some success, in preventing our gaining ‘lodgement’. But we must improvise, carry on, not lose our heads.2

Cota and his men were to land on Omaha. On all the ships, officers and NCOs pored over the maps and photographs of their landing areas that they had at last been ordered to strip from the sealed packages: it remains one of the minor miracles of OVERLORD that although hundreds of men and women had been involved in making and printing them, there was no security leak. On every ship, some or most passengers were seasick. Apart from the assault troops, there was an extraordinary ragbag of men from all manner of units aboard the invasion fleet. On many of the transports crewed by the merchant navy, there were spcially-trained civilian aircraft recognition teams from the Royal Observer Corps. The Sicilian landings had been marred by the alarming quantity of Allied aircraft shot down by reckless ships’ gun crews. Now, at the AA positions, men stood in their helmets and flash capes drinking interminable mugs of ‘kye’ – cocoa – and peering out fascinated at the shadowy shapes of the great fleet around them in the darkness. While the soldiers below were more sombrely preoccupied by the task that awaited them on the morrow, most of the sailors felt a strong, conscious sense of pride that they were taking part in the greatest amphibious operation of all time.

One of the most curious spectators of the great invasion fleet’s movement to France was an airman named Eric Crofts, seated in a caravan mounted on a turntable on a clifftop in south Devon. Crofts manned one of the RAF’s centimetric radar posts, and all spring he and his colleagues had intently scanned the progress of the invasion rehearsals on their screen. Now he arrived on watch a little before midnight on 5 June to find the duty crew clustered round the set: ‘Large convoys of ships were creeping southward to the top of the radar screen, and small groups were coming from left to right to join the tail. Off to the east, beyond Portland, other convoys were on the move. Desperate for the relief of seeing everything pass from our range, our interest was seized later that long night by aircraft away to the east, circling but moving slowly away from us. Each dot was in a hazy cloud. We guessed, as others joined or left the group, that they were dropping metal strips of “Window” to simulate an invasion fleet heading for the Pas de Calais. It was an anti-climax at last to see our tube empty, yet sobering to know that so many men in the ships were heading for a hell ahead of them.’3 The Germans, partly as a result of their own failures of technology, but chiefly because of damage caused by Allied bombing, possessed no sets on the Channel coast capable of showing such an accurate picture that night.

On the later afternoon of 5 June, when the men of the seaborne assault divisions had already been at sea for many hours – in some cases for days – Private Fayette Richardson of the 82nd Airborne Division was still in camp in England. He was lying on his bunk with his hands clasped behind his head, gazing up at the whitewashed ceiling and trying to exorcize from his mind the nagging beat of Tommy Dorsey’s What Is This Thing Called Love? that had echoed out of the recreation hut every evening for weeks as the men walked to chow. A short, wiry 20-year-old from a small town near Buffalo, New York, Richardson had left home at 17 to drive an old jalopy to the west coast. He was in Seattle when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and enlisted at once ‘because everybody else was’.4 Like so many others, he wanted to be a pilot and was dismayed to be rejected for poor eyesight. Instead, he joined the Airborne and shipped to Northern Ireland with the 508th Regiment. There he volunteered to become a pathfinder, a decision he did not regret, because his group lived a far more independent and relaxed life than the rifle companies, spared KP and guard duties, free to come and go pretty much as they pleased after completing their special training in handling the Eureka beacon. Now, in his hut in Nottinghamshire, he stood among the rest of the team joking self-consciously with each other as they struggled to stow a mountain of personal equipment about their bodies. A 32-pound radar set was strapped below the reserve parachute on his stomach; fragmentation grenades were hooked on his harness; gammon bombs and a phosphorus grenade, chocolate D rations, fighting knife, water-bottle, anti-tank mine, a morphia syrette and an armed forces paperback edition of Oliver Twist were stowed about his body. Richardson, as platoon guinea pig for a morphia demonstration a few weeks earlier, had plunged the tiny needle into his leg and fallen promptly asleep, to dream in brilliant colours of sailing boats against a sunset sky, green tropical islands, flowers, rainbows.

On top of all the kit, the New Yorker was expected to carry a rifle. He decided to leave this and make do with a .45 pistol strapped to his high paratroop boot, where he could reach it easily. The pressure of the pistol belt, the tightly laced boots and equipment made him feel oddly secure, as if he was wearing armour. When the trucks came for them, the paratroopers tottered forward, floundering like men in diving suits, boosted aboard by the cooks and maintenance men who were being left behind. When the shouted messages of good luck faded away, the men in the back of the truck sat silent, scarcely able to recognize each other beneath the layer of burnt cork on their faces. Then they lay beside the fuselage of an olive-drab Dakota in the summer evening silence for almost an hour, drinking coffee and posing for an army photographer. Richardson found himself wanting to stay close to his own friends, reluctant to be alone. They were no longer excited, merely tense and thoughtful. Soon after darkness fell, they were airborne.

Jammed together in the belly of the plane, they could only talk to their neighbours by yelling over the noise of the aircraft, could see out of the windows only by squirming round inside their great clumsy burdens. Lamareux, alongside Richardson, nudged him and pointed down to the moonlight shining on the water. It seemed to the paratrooper to be frozen in smooth, unmoving ripples. The crew chief clambered down the aircraft to the rear and pulled off the door. Richardson saw a flash of light in the sky outside and understood, after a moment of puzzlement, that it was anti-aircraft fire. Then, on the shouted command, they pulled themselves clumsily to their feet and hooked static lines to the overhead cable. Now they could see streams of flashing lights coming up from the ground, making a harmless popping noise around them, like Roman candles being hosed into the sky. Each soldier felt the pressure of the man behind leaning into his pack. Then the green light came, and they began the familiar rush to the door in the paratroop one-step shuffle that they had practised so many times, at last pivoting abruptly before they hurled themselves into the slipstream and the sudden silence that followed.

At the moment ‘Rich’ Richardson jumped over the fields of the Cotentin soon after 1.30 a.m., thousands of other Allied paratroopers were already on the ground ahead of him. Men of the British 6th Airborne Division seized the bridges over the Caen Canal and across the Orne at Ranville a few minutes after midnight. The American 101st Division began to drop at 1.30 a.m., the 82nd following at 2.30, and the bulk of the 6th Airborne – 4,800 parachutists – shortly before 1.00 a.m. A total of 8,000 British and 16,000 American airborne troops were to land by parachute and glider. The drops were marred by the poor performance of many of the Allied Dakota pilots who, by a combination of unsteady navigation and extravagant reaction to German flak, released their parachutists with near-criminal carelessness. Over both the British and American zones that night, extraordinary and undignified scenes took place in some aircraft, with paratroopers cursing the pilots as they were thrown to the floor by the frenzied weaving of their planes, officers and NCOs demanding – in several recorded instances, at gunpoint – that the airmen should resume their course and proceed with the drop rather than abort. The loss of only 30 Allied transport aircraft proved that the flak was not severe.

The glider pilots, by contrast, performed miracles of determination to crash their frail craft on their objectives, above all making possible the seizure of the British bridges after brief battles. 71 of the 196 glider pilots who landed east of the Orne on D-Day became casualties; among the Americans the proportion was even higher. The costly battle to gain the Merville Battery by the British 9th Para was a fine feat of arms, rendered anti-climactic by the discovery that the casemates mounted only 75 mm guns with slight capacity to harass the beaches. The inability of air photographs to distinguish the weapons mounted in many bunkers and casemates was a chronic problem for the planners before 6 June, and the suppression of positions such as the Merville Battery was a vital piece of insurance. The bulk of 6th Airborne struggled through the darkness and the first hours of daylight to concentrate its units, dispose of German patrols and strongpoints and create a firm perimeter east of the Orne from which to resist the powerful counter-attacks that would inevitably follow.

The American 82nd and 101st Airborne suffered even more seriously than the British from scattered dropping, and with far more deadly consequences amid the swamps and floods of the Cotentin, which drowned hundreds of men before they could even escape their harnesses. The 82nd gained one of its principal objectives, the village of St Mère Eglise, and fought to retain it against fierce German pressure. But it proved impossible immediately to secure the causeways across the Merderet. The airborne operations of D-Day emphasized painfully for the Allies the cost and difficulty inseparable from massed drops even before paratroopers could engage the enemy, and the limitations of lightly-armed formations without armoured support. Thousands of young Americans found themselves struggling, alone or with little clusters of other lonely figures, to find a path through the hedges and swamps to a rendezvous many miles from where they had been so mistakenly ‘given the green’. It was a remarkable tribute to the 82nd and the 101st that while thousands of the men found themselves miles from their units and their objectives that night, they engaged the Germans wherever they encountered them. The great achievement of the American airborne forces on 6 June was to bring confusion and uncertainty to the Germans across the whole breadth of the Cherbourg peninsula.

Private Richardson felt a moment of pain on the inside of his thighs from his harness as the canopy jerked open, and his head and neck were jerked so sharply that he suffered a brief headache. Then he was floating rapidly down towards an orchard amid a rattle of fire from the ground. He let go the front risers of his parachute, just missed a tree, and slammed into the ground. Ears ringing, he grabbed his pistol and used his spare hand to struggle out of his harness. Then he walked cautiously towards the sound of the little metal crickets that American soldiers were snapping all over the Cotentin that night as a recognition signal. Through the darkness other men moved in to join them. They struggled to free one of the group whose parachute was caught in the top of a tree, and at last cut him down. Then they counted heads. Around half the team – including almost all the men equipped with beacon lights to back up the radar sets – were missing. These had jumped last and landed beyond a road on which the Germans were already audible, driving hither and thither searching for parachutists. Lamareux, the lead radar operator, switched on his beacon. To Richardson’s chagrin, having lugged his own set so far with such sweat, he was now obliged to watch the other man pull the internal detonator to destroy it – only one set was necessary. Then the Americans dispersed hastily across the field. The one remaining tripod-mounted light was switched on. The other men pointed their torches towards the sky. Not many minutes had passed before somebody shouted, ‘Here they come!’ They saw a new sparkle of anti-aircraft fire, moving closer and closer to them as the planes approached and local guns opened up. Then, as the first parachutes became dimly visible against the sky, the pathfinders below broke into muted but ecstatic cheers.

Hundreds of Americans who jumped that night found themselves plunged into action immediately they reached the ground, or were shot dead before they did so. After that brief moment of euphoria when the first wave over Richardson’s landing zone jumped as planned, they were dismayed to see the second wave approach their signal on the same course, then drone on past the desperately flashing lights without dropping a single man. Only one plane came close to them. Flames were pouring from its starboard engine and the pilot was revving desperately as he lost height; the windows were clearly visible three or four hundred feet above them. A pathfinder sobbed desperately: ‘Those are our guys.’ Then the plane disappeared over the horizon and there was silence in the field again. The stillness persisted, for the expected third wave of aircraft never came. Instead of a powerful paratroop unit at the assembly point, there were only a few dozen men.

Richardson decided that the moment had come to make good his lack of a weapon. He picked up a machine-gun from the bundle attached to a collapsed parachute. Then another man ran over and said curtly, ‘That’s our gun.’ They argued for a few moments. Richardson lost. His own company was among those which had failed to arrive, so he simply joined the nearest group of men digging slit trenches. When he had made his own foxhole, he dropped into it and fell asleep.

The German sluggishness in responding to the first Allied movements of D-Day has passed into the legend of the war. Montgomery had told his commanders: ‘By dusk on D-1 day the enemy will be certain that the NEPTUNE [or OVERLORD] area is to be assaulted in strength . . .’5 Yet the astounding truth remains that even in the early hours of 6 June, the Germans were still in a condition of bewildered uncertainty. The German navy had failed to station patrols in the Channel because of its conviction that the weather was unfit for an invasion. Fifteenth Army’s interception of the known BBC codeword for the French Resistance to begin their D-Day tasks was ignored. It is doubtful whether SHAEF would ever have agreed to the transmission of the BBC message on the night of 5 June, given the overwhelming probability that its significance was already compromised somewhere in France, had it not seemed inevitable that the invasion fleet would by that hour be detected.

The failures of the German navy and air force were obviously central to the defenders’ lack of warning of the invasion. They had not even noticed the concentration of minesweepers operating off the Normandy coast at last light on 5 June. The lack of action following interception of the BBC message is more comprehensible, for it must be considered against the background of repeated false alarms all that spring, which had exasperated and wearied the coastal units. Neither the Germans nor SHAEF had ever taken the French Resistance entirely seriously, regarding it as a nuisance force rather than a central feature of Allied military operations. It is also important to notice that the message to the Resistance gave no hint of where the invasion was to take place. There was some discussion within Allied Special Forces HQ and SOE about the possibility of mobilizing only relevant sections of the Resistance, in order to reduce the possibility of bitter reprisals and long delays before liberation came to groups far from the front. But it was quickly agreed that, on grounds of security, it was vital to mobilize all résistants to avoid giving any clues to the Germans as to the whereabouts of the point of assault. There have been suggestions in some recent books6 that, properly used, the BBC message could have told OKW that the Allies were going to Normandy. This notion is unfounded.

But the absence from headquarters of so many vital senior German commanders was a misfortune of critical importance. The whereabouts of General Edgar Feuchtinger of 21st Panzer have never been confirmed, but it was widely believed by his own men that he was incommunicado with a female friend. Rommel, of course, was in Germany, and Dollman of Seventh Army at the Rennes war games. On the night of 5 June, exploiting Rommel’s absence, his Chief of Staff, General Hans Speidel, invited several of his fellow anti-Hitler conspirators to join him for drinks at the chateau at La Roche Guyon. It was here, after they had all dined together, that Speidel was telephone by Fifteenth Army headquarters at Tourcoing and informed of the intercepted BBC message. Fifteenth Army had been placed on alert. A staff officer telephoned von Rundstedt’s headquarters for a decision on whether Seventh Army should also be alerted. It was decided that it should not. Von Rundstedt’s staff confined themselves to a general warning to all units that the BBC message might presage a widespread outbreak of terrorist sabotage.

Seventh Army was finally alerted at 1.35 a.m. Half an hour earlier, General Marcks had called out his own LXXXIV Corps, in the wake of the reported paratroop landings. The confusion was compounded by the Allied drop of thousands of dummies and six uncommonly brave SAS soldiers to divert the defenders inland. The discovery of the dummies doubled the Germans’ uncertainty about a possible bluff. General Max Pemsel, Dollman’s Chief of Staff, telephoned Rommel’s headquarters and spoke to Speidel repeatedly during the night, insisting that a major Allied operation was taking place. At 3.00 a.m., von Rundstedt’s headquarters reported to OKW that large-scale air landings were under way. At 4.00 a.m., General Kraiss of 352nd Division sent a regiment on bicycles in pursuit of paratroopers at a location where in reality only dummies had landed. At 6.00 a.m., Blumentritt from von Rundstedt’s headquarters told OKW that a major invasion appeared to be taking place, and asked for the release of the armoured reserve, I SS Panzer Corps outside Paris. With Hitler asleep, the request was denied. It was not finally granted until ten hours later. At 6.15 a.m., Pemsel told Speidel of the opening of a massive naval bombardment and air assault on the coastal defences. At 6.45 a.m., Pemsel telephoned Fifteenth Army and told them that his forces expected to be able to cope with the situation from their own resources. Von Salmuth, Commander-in-Chief of Fifteenth Army, thereupon went to bed. So did Speidel and most of the staff at La Roche Guyon. It was after 10.30 a.m., over an hour after Allied radio had formally announced the coming of the invasion, when Rommel left his home in Herrlingen to drive headlong for his headquarters. It was almost 12 hours before he reached La Roche Guyon.

It was an impressive tribute to the success of the Allied deception plans that every key German commander greeted the news of operations in Normandy as evidence of an invasion, not of the invasion. Rommel’s personal presence and energy might have galvanized the local formations to react with vigour. Most recent writers7 have suggested that it would have availed the Germans nothing to wake Hitler in order to obtain authorization for the release of the OKW armoured reserves, because Allied air power would have prevented their movement in daylight on 6 June. This is patently untrue, since other formations, including 21st Panzer, were able to drive to the battlefield, albeit with some difficulty. The fighter-bombers and naval guns would certainly have hit hard at any German concentration of armour around the beachhead. But on 6 June forward air control and gunnery direction were not operating efficiently. The balance of probability remains that the Allies could have gained their beachhead against any German reaction on D-Day. But the early release of the armour would have made matters incomparably more dangerous for them. It was fortunate that the senior staff officers of all the major German formations behaved with a lassitude that verged upon utter incompetence.

Some subordinate German commanders, such as General Richter of 716th Division, responded more forcefully to the spectacle of enemy paratroopers dropping around them. Richter directed a battalion of infantry with an anti-tank gun and self-propelled artillery support towards Bénouville to recapture the Orne and Caen Canal bridges in the early hours of the morning. But when their leading light tank was knocked out by a British PIAT and the paratroopers opened heavy fire on the counter-attacking force, the Germans contented themselves with occupying Bénouville and exchanging fire with the British. 716th Division’s operations were conducted with nothing like the determination that could have been expected from a top-class formation.

‘You could see that the Germans were really frightened because they started being so nasty,’ said Nicole Ferté,8 one of the local inhabitants of Hérouville, three miles south of the Orne bridge. ‘They had always been so courteous in the past.’ Madémoiselle Ferté, the 20-year-old daughter of a local garage owner, had lain on the floor during the bombing, sheltering her eight-year-old sister and listening spellbound to the sound of the glider tugs and transport aircraft overhead before midnight. Suddenly there was a knock at their door, and the local teacher stood outside. A wounded British soldier was in the school. Could Nicole come and interpret? Together they hurried back down the road and, in a mixture of half-remembered English, French, and even German, began to talk to the airborne soldier, lying in great pain with a broken leg. They had just given him tea when German soldiers burst in. The civilians were busquely sent to their homes, the British soldier taken away. Most of the local inhabitants hastily fled from the village, but the Fertés stayed through a week when the fighting raged to within a few hundred yards of their door, ‘because we were certain that liberation must come at any moment. The only other people who stayed were the girls who had been sleeping with Germans.’ After a week, the Germans abruptly ordered all the remaining occupants to leave Hérouville, and they endured many weeks of fear and privation before they saw the village again.

At 21st Panzer’s headquarters, although two companies of infantry exercising north of Caen reported the British glider landings immediately, in the absence of General Feuchtinger and his senior staff officer the only action that could be taken was the immediate removal of divisional headquarters to its operational location. Corporal Werner Kortenhaus, wireless operator in one of the division’s 127 Mk IV tanks, was out on picket with two other men when they heard the massive air activity overhead – the sound of aircraft descending, and then climbing once more as the glider tugs loosed their tows. As the panzer crew approached their platoon harbour in the darkness, they could see the shadows of men already clambering over the tanks, preparing to move off. While his own crew hastily unloaded their drill rounds and filled the turret with armour-piercing ammunition, Kortenhaus ran to the house of the Frenchwoman who did their laundry to collect their clean clothes. By 2.00 a.m., the crews were in the tanks and ready to move. Yet it was 8.00 a.m. before the 1st Tank Battalion under Captain von Gottberg began to roll north from its harbour up the long, straight road north to Caen. The 2nd Battalion under Major Vierzig did not start to move until 9.00 a.m., although that officer had held his tanks on standby since 2.20 a.m. No order had been given to them and for this failure responsibility must be shared between Speidel and Feuchtinger, who at the very least displayed an astounding lack of initiative when he arrived at his headquarters some time between 6.00 and 7.00 a.m.

Lieutenant Rudolf Schaaf, commanding a self-propelled battery of the 1716th Artillery, was telephoned at 3.00 a.m. and ordered to take his guns to join the counter-attack against the British airborne bridgehead. Yet he had driven only a few miles across country when he received a radio message recalling them to their original positions. It was clear by dawn that the seaborne menace would have to be met by every infantryman and gun that the defenders possessed.

Shortly before H-Hour, Allied bombers struck the station at Caen and soon afterwards fighter-bombers began to strafe German installations and barracks. A loudspeaker vehicle toured the streets, ordering civilians to stay in their houses. Throughout the day there were intermittent Allied air attacks. By mid-morning the first truckloads of British prisoners were being driven through the streets. The first of more than 80 ruthless executions of French civilians alleged to have assisted the invaders were taking place at the barracks. Early reports of the airborne landings and the fleet offshore were as confused as those reaching German headquarters. The overwhelming sensation among the French was terror that a landing might fail. The memory of Dieppe, the possibility that all the suffering, destruction and death might be in vain, hung heavy over Caen and all Normandy that morning and through the days that followed. A local historian described the events of the dawn of D-Day: ‘Thus Caen, like other towns in Normandy, passed the night of 6–7 June in fire and blood, while elsewhere in France they celebrated the invasion by drinking champagne and dancing to the gramophone.’9

Before dawn, the invasion coast was lit by flares and flashes as the naval guns pounded the defences, explosions of every hue rippling up and down the shoreline as hundreds of launches and landing craft scuttled amid the dim silhouettes of the battleships and cruisers, transports and rocket ships a few miles out to sea. No man who saw it ever forgot either the spectacle of the vast invasion fleet crowding the Channel at first light on the morning of D-Day, or the roar of the guns rolling across the sea, or the tearing rasp of the rocket batteries firing over the heads of the men in the landing craft. Nine battleships, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers and 71 corvettes dominated the 6,483-strong assembly of converted liners, merchantmen and tank landing craft now shaking out into their positions a few miles offshore. 4,000 landing ships – craft and barges of all sizes – would carry the troops ashore. Alongside the transports, overburdened men clambered clumsily down the scrambling nets into the pitching assault craft below. For many, this was among the most alarming experiences of the day. Thousands of men tossing upon the swell strained to make their eyes focus through binoculars upon the coastline ahead. Captain Hendrie Bruce of the Royal Artillery wrote in his notebook: ‘The villages of La Breche and Lion-sur-Mer are smothered with bursts, and enormous dirty clouds of smoke and brick dust rise from the target area and drift out to sea, completely obscuring our target for a time and enveloping many craft in a veritable “fog of war”.’10 Gunnery observation was to be one of the least satisfactory aspects of the landings, with scores of ships compelled to waste ammunition on harassing objectives selected from the map, for lack of targets pinpointed by forward observers. As the first waves of landing craft headed for the shore, the guns lifted their barrage precisely according to the time schedule. As a result, with so many craft running minutes late, the German defences enjoyed a precious pause before the first infantry hit the beaches.

Probably the first Allied vessel to be destroyed by the shore batteries was PC 1261, one of the American patrol craft leading landing craft towards Utah beach. Lieutenant Halsey Barrett was concentrating intently upon the task of holding a course of 236 degrees true when the quartermaster stepped down into the chartroom and reported that the batteries ashore had just straddled the craft. Seconds later, just 58 minutes before H-Hour at 5.34 a.m., they were hit.

There was a crash – not terribly loud – a lunge – a crash of glass, a rumble of gear falling around the decks – an immediate, yes immediate, 50° list to starboard – all lights darkened and the dawn’s early light coming through the pilot house door which had been blown open. The Executive Officer immediately said: ‘That’s it’, with finality and threw down his chart pencil. I felt blood covering my face and a gash over my left eye around the eyebrow.11

While most of the crew took to the liferafts as the craft turned turtle, Barrett and a cluster of others clung to the upturned hull, watching the great procession of landing craft driving on past them towards the shore.

A landing craft LCVP with thirty or so men aboard was blown a hundred feet in the air in pieces. Shore batteries flashed, splashes appeared sporadically around the bay. Planes were flying in reasonable formation over the beach. One transpired into a huge streaming flame and no trace of the plane remained. Aft of us an LCT lay belly skyward no trace of survivors around it. The USS battleship Nevada a mile off to the northwest of us was using her 14-inch guns rapidly and with huge gushes of black smoke and flame extending yards and yards from her broadside . . . There was a beautiful sunrise commencing . . . A small British ML picked up with difficulty one of our men shrieking for help while hanging on a marker buoy. His childish yells for help despite his life jacket and secure buoy was the only disgraceful and unmanly incident which I saw . . .12

Most men, even those who had suffered as savage a shock as the crew of PC 1261, felt reassured by the sense of the Allied armada’s dominance of the sea. Barrett and the other survivors knew that somebody would pick them up as soon as they had time to spare, as indeed they did. For the men of the British and American navies, there was an overwhelming sense of relief that they faced no sudden, devastating attack from the Luftwaffe as some, despite all the reassurance of the intelligence reports, had feared they might. ‘We were all more or less expecting bombs, shells, blood etc.’ wrote a British sailor on the corvette Gentian. ‘Dive bombers were expected to be attacking continually, backed by high-level bombing. But no, nothing like that . . . Instead, a calm, peaceful scene . . . The Luftwaffe is obviously smashed.’13

In England early that morning, only a few thousand people knew with certainty what was happening across the Channel, and only some thousands more guessed. The Times news pages were dominated by the latest reports from Italy, with the Fifth Army past Rome; there was a mention of Allied bombing of Calais and Boulogne. The daily weather bulletin recorded dull conditions in the Channel on 5 June, with a south-west wind becoming very strong in the middle of the day: ‘Towards dusk the wind had dropped a little, and the sea was less choppy. The outlook was a little more favourable at nightfall.’

Outside Portsmouth, at 21st Army Group headquarters, Montgomery’s Chief of Staff, Major-General Francis de Guingand, turned to Brigadier Bill Williams and recalled the beginning of other, desert battles. ‘My God, I wish we had 9th Australian Division with us this morning, don’t you?’ he said wryly.14 Some of the British officers at SHAEF were taken aback to discover their American counterparts reporting for duty that morning wearing helmets and sidearms, an earnest of their identification with the men across the water. Brooke described in his diary how he walked in the sunshine of St James’s Park: ‘A most unreal day during which I felt as if I were in a trance entirely detached from the war.’15

In his foxhole in the Cotentin, Private Richardson of the 82nd Airborne was woken by daylight, and the overhead roar of an Allied fighter-bomber. Hungry and thirsty, he munched a chocolate bar until the word came to move out. Richardson picked up a stray bazooka without enthusiasm, because he had only the barest idea of how to use it. Among a long file of men, all of them unknown to him, he began to march across the Norman fields, ignorant of where they were going. They reached a hedge by a road and halted, while at the front of the column two officers pored over a map and discussed which way to go. Suddenly everybody was signalled to lie flat. A car was approaching. They lay frozen as it approached. Richardson and the others could see the heads of its three German occupants passing the top of the ledge like targets in a shooting gallery. It seemed that no one would move against them, each American privately expecting another to be the first to act. Then one man stood up and emptied a burst of Browning automatic rifle fire at the car. It swerved off the road into a ditch, where somebody shouted, ‘Finish ’em!’ and tossed a grenade. But the Germans were already dead. One of them was Lieutenant-General Wilhelm Falley, commanding the German 91st Division, on his way back to his headquarters from the ill-fated war games in Rennes.

Like Richardson, many of the paratroopers had never seen a man killed before, least of all on a peaceful summer morning in the midst of the countryside. They found the experience rather shocking. Leaving the Germans where they had fallen, they marched on through the meadows and wild flowers, disturbed by nothing more intrusive than the buzzing insects. They encountered another group from the 508th, presiding over 30 German prisoners, arranged in ranks by the roadside as if for a parade. Most were Poles or oriental Russians. One American threw a scene about shooting them: ‘The Japs killed my brother!’ He was dissuaded at the time, but Richardson heard later that the whole group had been killed.

The New Yorker felt better now, because among the new group of paratroopers was one of his closest friends, a tall Oklahoman named Earl Williams, the sergeant commanding 3 Platoon. They sat and talked about money. Williams had changed $100 into francs before take-off. Richardson could not see the point of money at this stage, but Williams insisted upon giving him some. They lay in the grass chatting for what seemed a long time, conscious of the war only because of spasmodic shells falling a few hundred yards away. Finally they wrapped themselves in parachute silk, and once again fell asleep.

Richardson’s experience was scarcely universal. While his group were making their way across country with little interference, many other American paratroopers were engaged in desperate battles around the causeways and hamlets of the eastern Cotentin, while the British 6th Airborne was already under fierce German pressure north-east of Caen. But the young New Yorker’s story catches the dreamlike quality, the curious sense of detachment that so many men felt in those first hours after being wrenched from the peace of the English summer, and thrust onto an alien battlefield. As the days went by, the battlefield became the reality, until there came a time when they scarcely remembered that another world existed. For thousands of men, it was only when OVERLORD was behind them that they could grasp the magnitude of the events in which they had taken part. While the great drama was unfolding, it seemed a fantasy into which they had somehow slipped as spectators.

As they approached Sword beach, Lieutenant Charles Mundy’s men did their best to dull their sensations with the rum rations which they had saved and bottled for three months in anticipation of this moment. They were still over a mile offshore, gazing like eager tourists towards the beach ahead, when a shell smashed through the side of their landing craft and the entire troop were ordered to close down in the tanks. Their Sherman minesweeping flails of 22nd Dragoon Guards were to lead the landing on the eastern flank. Mundy, a 31-year-old Londoner, was impressed to see that the shoreline ahead conformed precisely to the photographs that he and his men had studied so earnestly.

Some men reacted theatrically to their parts. A bugler of the East Yorkshire regiment sounded the General Salute as his landing craft passed the British command ship. Commander Angus Mackenzie, aboard the destroyer Undaunted, stood in his Highlander’s bonnet playing the bagpipes from his bridge as the LCAs, crammed with seated infantry, ploughed by his ship towards the beach.

Private John Hein of the American 1st Division ‘felt a little queasy. But I trusted this vast organization – everything was so organized, so programmed that there seemed little scope for individual fear.’16 Hein was born in Germany, the son of a Jewish doctor. He and his family fled in 1936, when he was 15, and adopted their new country with the enthusiasm that only immigrants can achieve. Now, as the former music student headed towards Omaha beach, he felt only intense pride to be wearing an American uniform.

Chaplain Henry Lovegrove of the Green Howards was relieved to find that he was experienced enough not to behave as he had when, in action for the first time in North Africa, he had scrambled panic-stricken under mortar fire, crying, ‘Where’s my helmet? Where’s my helmet?’ On 6 June, it was a vast reassurance to every soldier who had been in battle before to know that he was capable of doing what was asked of him. This was a consolation denied to many thousands of the men now crouched in the landing craft, bucketing towards the beaches with spray drenching themselves and their weapons.

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