Thanks to the all-star 1962 film of Cornelius Ryan's great reportage The Longest Day and, more recently, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan., the Allied landings on the Normandy coast on 6 June 1944 may well be the most celebrated episode of the Second World War. The planning of Operation Overlord and Eisenhower's bold decision to accept the advice of his chief meteorologist and launch the invasion in the sole window of opportunity provided by fickle English Channel weather was dealt with well by the episode entitled Morning: June–August 1944. However, the programme used only anonymous voice-overs to describe the landings themselves: one of the great pleasures of this project has been to put names to some of those voices. The interviews unfortunately did not cover the left flank, so this introduction must suffice as the only mention of the British 3rd Division's landing on Sword Beach and the drop of the British 6th Airborne Division, which silenced the gun battery at Merville and captured the bridges over the River Orne and the Caen canal, the latter still known as 'Pegasus Bridge'. In military history attention inevitably goes to the places where things go badly wrong and on D-Day that was Omaha Beach, where a combination of terrain well-suited for defence, the best German troops on the attack front and the requirement to land with only minimal time for bombardment led initially to a bloody stalemate. One of the first break-outs from the beach was accomplished by a company commanded by Captain Wozenski, interviewed below. General Collins, whose VII Corps had a relatively easy landing at Utah Beach, mentions in passing that the US 82nd Airborne Division was scattered like confetti inland from his beachhead but managed to capture the bridge over the Mederet river, the inspiration for the climax of Saving Private Ryan. The character portrayed in the film by Tom Hanks gets in a jibe against the 'over-rated' Montgomery. Montgomery was in operational command of Overlord from start to finish, and, whatever his personal flaws, its success owed much to his practical good sense.
MAJOR GORONWY REES
Combined Operations Staff Officer
I got involved in the [August 1942] Dieppe operation really by accident and found myself deeply involved in the planning of it, and it was a most appalling disaster. I think everything that could go wrong went wrong with that operation and the result of it was that by the end we were most powerfully impressed by the dangers and the hazards of any kind of combined operation on that kind of scale – we'd never attempted to do a combined operation on that scale before, and really nobody knew how to do it. And this was why, in fact, it was worth doing because if we hadn't done that operation then I'm quite sure thousands of lives would have been wasted in the D-Day operation. We learned so much from Dieppe that I think it was quite invaluable as far as the final invasion was concerned.
Mayor of Asnelles, Normandy, inland from Juno Beach
We had waited for four years for that day to come and we never thought that the landing would be done here on our coast, although we thought that would happen in the north of France because you know there's a hundred miles between our coast and the southern coast of England. So we never thought the reason of the landing here is the condition of our beach, which is a beach of sand, but hard sand. You remember the failure of Dieppe was because the tanks couldn't get out of the beach, the beach is made of stones and stones were rolling under the caterpillars of the tanks, while here you can drive cars and of course tanks on the beach, and the soil of the beach is good.
ADMIRAL LORD LOUIS MOUNTBATTEN
Chief of Combined Operations
To prevent the enemy from building up reinforcements so quickly that he could push you back in the sea, you had to do two things. First, you have to have a deception plan, to make him think you're going to land quite somewhere else and make him build up all his reinforcements and his defences there. That was easy in our case, because it was obviously Pas-de-Calais, the Straits of Dover, the shortest way across. Secondly, having got them all concentrated in the wrong place you have to then prevent them from being moved to the right place when they discover their mistake. And for that purpose you wanted weeks of interdiction bombing, destroying roads, bridges, railways, tunnels and everything, and for that purpose the whole of the main British and American Bomber Commands had to be turned on to the job way ahead of the actual D-Day.
US Assistant Secretary of War
Eisenhower had already been rather separated out as a potential High Command leader, he had been Chief of Staff to General MacArthur in the Philippines. Already he had a very good record as a highly confident Staff Officer. He had not served abroad in World War One but his record since then had been very good. He was brought in to replace the Chief of War Plans Division after the Pearl Harbor disaster and anyone who filled that job at that time was bound to be thought of in terms of future capacities and employment in High Command. When it turned out that we were going to go ashore it had already been pretty well determined that Eisenhower was to be the figure to take over the command, and not the least of his qualities was the impression that he had created an ability to compose differences, to get along with people and direct combined efforts whether they be in the Army, Navy or Air Force.
MAJOR GENERAL J LAWTON COLLINS
Commander US VII Corps
I had come back from the South Pacific at Christmas of 1943 and happened to be in Washington at a time when General Eisenhower came over for a visit. As I understand it, initially only one of our Corps was to have gone in, on Omaha, and at Field Marshal Montgomery's suggestion a second Corps was brought in for the Cherbourg operation. The man who had been sent to England in command of VII Corps had no combat experience, although he was a very able man. But Monty insisted that he wanted someone who had combat experience in this war and also preferably someone who had some amphibious experience. I just happened to fill that bill, fortunately for me at the right moment, and was picked then to take command of VII Corps for the Normandy show.
MAJOR GENERAL KENNETH STRONG
Eisenhower's Chief of Intelligence
The British had memories of the First World War when we'd had these tremendous casualties in France and moreover the Dieppe raid had shown how tremendously strong the German defences were. The Americans held exactly the opposite view, and by the Americans I mean the Chiefs of Staff, Roosevelt and General Eisenhower. They felt the only way that you could defeat Germany was to take the shortest way into the centre of Germany, across the Channel and advance into the areas of the Ruhr and Saar, the great industrial areas, and then destroy the German forces by that means. Now Churchill never said there won't be a Channel-crossing campaign. What he said was it'll come later, when the Germans had been weakened there by our oppositions in Italy and through the Balkans. The Americans were going to supply the great bulk of forces for both operations and to them it seemed the quickest way into Germany was to come across the Channel and land there, not to come right through the Mediterranean. This argument went on and on, right to the end almost.
GROUP CAPTAIN JAMES STAGG
Eisenhower's Chief Meteorological Officer
In 1943 when I joined the planning staff for Overlord my job at first was to go through the weather statistics of many past years to try to advise on a suitable period in the early summer months of the next year for the Overlord operation. Now the three services, the Army, Navy and the Air Force, had all made up their lists of what they needed for success in their part of the operation. The Navy had to have onshore winds not more than force three or four, and they needed good visibility for bombarding the coastal defences, and the Air Force had to have very special conditions of cloud amount and heights, so that when I come to put them together I found they might have to sit about for one hundred and twenty or one hundred and fifty years before they got the operation launched. I found that in one year the chances of them getting those conditions was going to be about sixty to one against.
BRIGADIER RONALD BELCHEM
Twenty-First Army Group Staff
It was accepted by all that Normandy was the best compromise location for this invasion. The disquieting tiling that happened between the beginning of what we might call combat planning in January 1944 and the invasion in June was that after Rommel assumed command of this sector in France he began to build up the strength of the defences in Normandy, on the beaches, from the point of view of pillboxes, guns and the like. The discrepancies in relative strength between the German defences in, shall we say, the Pas-de-Calais and upper Normandy in January–February were very apparent, but there was an enormous acceleration in the strengthening of the defences in the Normandy peninsula going on right up to the time of the landing.
SERGEANT LEO GARIEPY
Canadian Tank Commander, Juno Beach
We knew exactly, we had known for months, what the beach defences were like, what the town was like; we had a photograph of the town, we knew the town, not by a map, we knew the town by photography where each crew commander had a photograph of the town that had been divided in twelve rectangles, we knew the streets by their names. I broke forty walls to get to the German headquarters, I knew it was going beyond each house, I knew where there was potatoes, I knew where there was cabbage, I knew where there was turnips – I knew where I was every inch of the way. We were so well informed about the defence. We had been trained about Juno for a long, long time. The only thing we didn't know about Juno prior to D-Day was that Juno could have been in Greece, Italy, Spain. We had no idea where Juno was, we only learned on the night prior to D-Day where Juno was, in Normandy.
PRIVATE ARNOLD LEVIN
16th Regiment, US 1st Division, Omaha Beach
You can get so scared that you're not scared any more and I think that's what happened to me. We were psychologically trained as well as militarily trained, which is probably more important, really, because we were trained to such a point that you do everything by instinct. We give the British a lot of credit for that because we did spend some time at a British assault centre, I think it was a place called Barnsley. We spent a lot of time there. Miserable place but the training was good – and after it was all over the food was awful.
SAPPER JOE MINOGUE
Royal Engineer in a flail tank with 50th Division, Gold Beach
We began to suspect that this business of rendezvousing at Le Hamel twenty minutes after the actual landing was only a blind and they really thought we'd all be killed. To some degree this was heightened when the Divisional Commander – he was [Major] General Percy Hobart, who must have been about seventy – one day when we were waterproofing near Southampton Water, popped his head under the tank and said, 'We're expecting seventy per cent casualties, you know, but if any of you chaps get there I'll see you the day after D-Day.' And indeed he did.*65
The DD Tank is an ordinary Sherman, modified and called DD because it stood for duplex drive; you could drive it at sea as well as on the land. They were modified in Birmingham by adding a shelf, which we call the deck, around the circumference of the tank at the upper-track level. The shelf was about fourteen or eighteen inches in width, on which was riveted a rubberised canvas that rose nine feet in height all round the circumference of the tank. This canvas was held rigid by thirty-two inner tubes and when the inner tubes were inflated the canvas was rigid. We displaced more than thirty-two tons of water, the weight of the tank, which gave us buoyancy. Two propellers were synchronised with the tracks and when the tracks turned so did the propellers. This gave us propulsion; to give us direction the propellers were mobile fifteen degrees to the right, fifteen degrees to the left, steered by the crew commander standing on top of the tank because someone had to see over the screen to direct the tank.
MAJOR GENERAL COLLINS
The 4th Division had never participated in an amphibious operation before and a very important part of their training was some exercises at Slapton Sands in southern England. To me it was highly profitable because one of the things I was concerned with was whether we were going to be able to get these amphibious tanks ashore without them being swamped. This was a British design; the tanks had a canvas body around them but when they went off the LST [Landing Ship, Tanks] were inevitably going to scoop up some water as they went down the ramp, particularly if the weather was bad. So I went personally in with those tanks and watched this performance and in consequence I decided to put them as close to shore as the Navy would do it. There was always the danger that ships would be hit by gunfire, but I made them put off about four to six thousand yards offshore and despite the rough water we were able to get practically all of our tanks ashore, whereas on Omaha Beach they were put way offshore and most of the tanks foundered.
For tank men I think there were two main fears, one is the danger of being trapped inside a tank that's on fire and the second one, because we were soldiers and because we were used to being on the land all the time, was our fear of water. Really, I think we were more terrified of being drowned in that damned tank than anything else. One thing we did do to pass the time was to get a hacksaw and cut about thirty pounds of valuable metal from inside the turret of the Sherman tank that we had, so that if there were any fear of drowning two of us in the turret could grab the driver and co-driver and pull them into what we thought might be some kind of safe haven, in which they could just shoot through the turret top.
MAJOR GENERAL COLLINS
We had a number of conferences at General Omar Bradley's headquarters at Bristol and then we had a final show at St John's in London, which was supervised by Montgomery and in which the Army Commanders all along the line, the British and the Canadians and ourselves, outlined our plans and the Corps Commanders all spoke there also. We had a big map laid out on the floor and we stood in front of the map. Mr Churchill was present at that, it was a very dramatic thing, and then following each of our presentations Monty would ask us questions as to what we would do under various circumstances. I found it fascinating and profitable.
GROUP CAPTAIN STAGG
Towards the end of May the date for the actual invasion was fixed for 5th June and during that time, just as the whole of General Eisenhower's forces were assembling round the coast of these islands, there seemed on our weather charts to be nothing but a series of depressions with almost winter-like intensity. As the time went on the seriousness, the ominous-ness, of the whole situation got worse until by Saturday night, 3rd June, it became obvious there would certainly be a storm in the Channel area on the Sunday night and Monday. General Eisenhower, at that meeting, decided to hold the operation. On that Sunday morning, 4th June, after three days of tremendous tension, we were completely uncertain what could happen. Then, miraculously and mercifully, the almost unbelievable happened: during the Sunday we spotted from two reports from the Atlantic that there might just be a slight interlude between the two depressions off western Ireland.
LIEUTENANT RAY NANCE
117th Regiment, US 29th Division, Omaha Beach
We were loaded on trucks and proceeded to the port of embarkation, which in our case was Weymouth in southern England. We'd travelled this way once before on a dry run and there'd been nothing along the road, but this time there was so much equipment parked along the road and in the fields that it seemed the whole island would tilt and slide into the Channel.
I would say that the success of the actual invasion was simply down to the fact that the soldiers were so glad to get off the landing craft and to escape the seasickness that they were just ready to go anywhere by that time. But it was a fantastic sight to see so many ships of all shapes and sizes heading down the Channel and all going one way. I think anybody who saw that sight couldn't fail to be impressed by the organisation that must have gone into it.
GROUP CAPTAIN STAGG
If that interlude could be long enough and if it arrived in the Channel at the proper time, it might just let the whole thing get started again. When I reported this to General Eisenhower's staff during the afternoon they seemed to be very pessimistic about it, they didn't think it could be started again. But by the evening my own confidence in the forecast for this quieter period had so increased from further reports that had come in that I convinced General Eisenhower. The next morning, early on 5th June, they met again to confirm this decision and when I could tell them that we were even more confident than we had been the previous night, the joy on the faces of the Supreme Commander and his Commanders after the deep gloom of the preceding day was a marvel to behold. It was in the early hours of Monday, 5th June, General Eisenhower made his final and irrevocable decision for the operation to go forward again, round midnight that night. As it turned out that Tuesday, 6th June, when D–Day actually took place, was the only day in the whole of June on which it could have been started. The day before was too stormy and the period a fortnight later was the stormiest of the whole month. The Germans seemed to be caught unawares, whether they didn't spot this interlude coming along or whether they didn't think it would last long enough to be of any use to General Eisenhower we don't know, but they certainly didn't expect General Eisenhower's forces at that time.
The only formations that managed to gain their D-Day objectives, or approximately so, were on the British side the 50th Division in the Gold sector and on the American side General Collins's Corps at the base of the Cotentin peninsula. In other areas we fell short. Tanks got south of the Bayeux road but we weren't able to follow them up with infantry and it took some months before we captured the city of Caen. The main problem actually on D-Day was the American Omaha Beach. Throughout D-Day the situation there was extremely critical and it demonstrated in the event the wisdom of using highly experienced divisions in this sort of operation. The 1st American Infantry Division, which was one of the top Allied divisions, did a magnificent job in holding on in the Omaha area, bearing in mind that when they landed they found the German defence division at that particular part of the coast was holding an anti-invasion exercise, so they ran straight into a formation deployed to stop exactly what they were trying to do.
PRIVATE GEORGE ALEX
101st US Airborne Division
After we all got in the air and circled some part of England for quite some time waiting for the rest of the aircraft to get off the ground and get together we felt this was it, this is for real, we're going. It was about three hours, something like that, by the time we all took off and got in the air together and as the time was getting closer, because you'd got to get there just before daybreak, you're getting nervous, getting butterflies in your stomach and you're wondering, What am I doing here, why did I ever come, why did I volunteer? You're worrying if you're going to get hit by your own people again, like for instance when we dropped into Sicily our own Navy shot us down when we were flying over the beaches and that was almost the end of the Airborne at that time. Someone would get sick in the aircraft and they'd pull their steel helmets off and start getting the heaves and then everyone else down the line would follow suit and everybody is heaving, dry heaves, and waiting to get out of that aeroplane, hoping that the moment would come right away to get out of that place because it stunk. And of course we all managed to pitch our gas masks out, we didn't want to carry that around our necks all the time and the English Channel must be full of gas masks. When the time came to go, when that green light went on and out the door we went, we didn't hesitate one moment we were so happy to get out of that thing.
MME THÉRÈSE BROHER
Resident of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, inland from Utah Beach
It began day before D-Day, it was in the evening of the 5th, about nine o'clock. We went at first to go to bed and we heard planes and they dropped lights. Many colours in the sky, it was wonderful. And we heard other planes coming so we set out for a shelter, but bombs dropped all round the house and we went under a table in the kitchen. We were frightened and we thought that will probably be it for us, and it lasted about one hour – we did not know exactly because all clocks stopped. And bombs dropped, we were frightened, and at last it was the end of the bombardment. And we heard crickets, funny noises, we did not dare to go out and then we saw two men with all kinds of weapons around their body and one of them came near us and he told us in French, 'We are Americans.' It was a very good, big surprise and we had at home a bottle of white wine that wasn't broken and my father was so happy he gave that bottle to the first American soldier he saw.
MAJOR GENERAL COLLINS
The 82nd did seize the bridge across the Mederet, which was very helpful. But their drop was scattered almost from the base of the Cherbourg peninsula up to the city of Cherbourg itself. This resulted in confusion to the Germans as to just where the attack was going to take place because they couldn't believe that it could be so scattered, and this did tend to slow down their reaction to where the landing was actually taking place and therefore it was an advantage.
MICHEL DE VALAVIELLE
French farmers, resident inland from Utah Beach
I was here in my farm when the landing happened. We were having in the farm a German battery of artillery with 88-millimetre guns and when the American people came we were afraid. We don't realise what has happened during the night, many, many planes, and I go to the farm and see an old woman who was just coming from the beach and told me the sea is dark with ships, and some time after a German soldier came here and he was having a prayer book on which it was wrote, Murphy, Michigan. He told us it was a prayer book of a paratrooper, so we realised it was the landing. The German obliged us to stay a long time in the house while they were fighting with the American soldier; the fight was during the beginning of the day until about twelve. At that time the American soldier began to approach the house. I go out first to tell him Germans were gone and there was nobody except French people in the house. He took me, I suppose, as a German soldier and so I was wounded by the American soldier. When they realised their mistake they took me immediately and I was the first Frenchman wounded on the beach in a hospital. So it was unforgettable view of the D-Day for me.
LIEUTENANT PATRICK DONNELL
47 Commando, Royal Marines, Gold Beach
We expected a clear beach with an indication as to exactly how we should proceed. We were even told the Military Police would be there to greet us. Our job was to land immediately behind the first wave of the 50th Division and pass through them, swing to the west, and capture a small port called Port-en-Bessin, which was halfway between the British beaches and the American beaches. About a mile off the beach we realised that the thing was not at all as we had expected. My commanding officer waved to us to turn to the left and at that moment a German battery on high ground beyond Arromanches got their sights on to us and started to pick some of the craft off. Of course these craft sank in deep water and very few of the men actually got on to the beach. Most of them were rescued and taken back to England. It became obvious to us as we proceeded further along the beach eastwards, in the wrong direction from what we had originally intended, that the beach itself was in a considerable state of chaos and ultimately it became a matter of each craft for itself. On the run-in, other craft ran into underwater obstacles and mines, and of the fourteen craft that set off, only two actually returned to the parent ships. I was pretty concerned about the German battery because it had considerable accuracy, but just as we turned and they began to pick us off a destroyer saw the situation and began to fire at the guns, and anyone who's ever experienced naval gunfire knows it's a terrifying thing because of the very high velocity and I think this shut the Germans up so that we lost only two or three craft in deep water. The other craft were lost closer to the beach. One of them went over a mine and the front half of the craft with the personnel in it went straight up in the air. That was not a very pleasant sight. The sea was quite a different colour when that craft blew up.
CAPTAIN JOHN FINKE
Company Commander, 16th Regiment, US 1st Division, Omaha Beach
There was a great deal of confusion, in fact we didn't realise what some of it meant. For instance we thought there had been a lot of aircraft shot down because the water was covered with these bright orange life rafts. But they were actually the survivors from the tanks, we called them DD [duplex drive] tanks. They had a canvas thing and they swam in the water and used the motor of the tank to push themselves by means of a propeller. Well, I think ninety-nine per cent of them swamped, that is went down in the drink, and the tank crews had been able to get out in most cases and into these orange rafts, which we didn't realise the meaning of until we got ashore and found that all these tanks that were supposed to be with us weren't there. They later brought in a few of what they called wader tanks, which were unloaded at the water's edge. They had been waterproofed and they could move up the beach, but there were very few of those actually.
The retaliation, very, very mild, they were firing, and machine-gunning at us but not heavy at all. Of course you must understand that the DD Tank in the water looks like a little, very unharmful canvas boat; there's only about fifteen inches of rubberised canvas that shows. It's only when we're coming out of the water, that's when they realised there were tanks, but by then we were a little too close to their heavy-calibre guns on us and they were firing over our heads. No, the tanks lost at sea were through rough sea not by enemy action; there may be one or two that was sank by mortar but the big opposition was the sea, the condition of the sea, not the enemy.
CAPTAIN EDWARD WOZENSKI
Company Commander, 16th Regiment, US 1st Division, Omaha Beach
At Slapton Sands in England when we were rehearsing we had nine landing-ship rockets. They would trigger off a rocket at a time until they walked down the water and hit the beach. Then somebody would pull the master switch and a thousand rockets would take off per ship in a fantastic display, they would just churn up the beach. In the real show they were drawing some shore gunfire and we saw the rocket ships taking some evasive action and somebody panicked and pulled the switch. And we saw this tremendous display but I'll bet my bottom dollar that there wasn't one rocket that came within a half a mile of the beach. Nine thousand rockets, the most beautiful display you ever saw in your life, and I swear to God I didn't see so much as a hand-grenade crater within a half a mile of the beach. Of course we expected great things of the Ninth Air Force too. We'd been briefed with their pilots, John Finke and I were both briefed. He had Exit E-3, and I had responsibility for Exit E-l, and each one of those exits was to get one hundred and eighty-six tons, the figure stays right in my mind to this day, one hundred and eighty-six tons of dive-bombing by the Ninth Air Force on Exit El and the same thing for John Finke on Exit E-3. To this day, I don't know what happened. As I say, I didn't sec so much as a hand-grenade crater anyplace.
I was the gunner of the tank and I had a forward view until such a time as I was asked to do a 360–degree traverse to blow the waterproofing around the turret ring. And in the forward view I saw that the three tanks in front of us were not doing too well. The first tank had stopped because its commander had been killed, the second tank had been a bit too close to him and had slewed slightly to the right and hit a clay patch on the beach and the tank behind him, they had a hit in the petrol tank, or rather on the side of the tank, which had set the thing on fire, and we saw the crew busily scrambling out. This did not do a great deal for our confidence.
COLONEL JAMES SINK
116th Regiment, US 29th Division, Omaha Beach
As we went in we were . . . just at the left were two LCIs [Landing Craft Infantry] – this is a military ship that carried about two hundred men who landed by a couple of ramps that dropped down over the bow of the ship on each side – and one of them carried our headquarters, the other half of my unit, which was to take over my mission if I failed. And as we were preparing to come in and beach, on our left we saw this tremendous explosion aboard the craft and everything went up in smoke. We found out later what had happened: the top side of the landing craft was loaded with flamethrowers and the Germans got a couple of rounds into this and set them off. Of course the pressure in these things went off like a firebomb, more or less like a bomb attack from an aeroplane, and it enveloped the ship in flames. Although we did see a lot of men jump off the ship to escape, quite a few were caught inside and burned up. The commander of my landing craft didn't say a word to me and just turned our craft around and headed back to sea. It took some persuasion on my part to get him to come back and land, and when he did he brought us back about three hundred yards to the east of where we were supposed to land.
PRIVATE ROBERT KOCH
116th Regiment, US 29th Division, Omaha Beach
In my particular ship the first man, who was a sergeant, raised up to see how far we had to go to reach land and was struck right in the forehead by a bullet and fell back dead. He was the first man that I had ever in my life seen dead in any combat. We were about three hundred feet off the beach when our ship got hit so we had to swim in, and the water was approximately twelve feet in depth so when you went off you were over your head. When I arrived on the beach, believe it or not the only thing I had was myself – my rifle I'd dropped in the water and I lay there and thought to myself, What am I going to do here, am I going to wrestle or fist-fight or what? But the other boys had come along and some of them, my buddies, had been shot and were laying near me and of course I took their rifles and their belts and moved along.
Chaos? Well, one landing craft had been hit in the engine room and the five tanks on it spent the whole day facing out to sea until the tide turned and they could come in. And chaos, if you like, was this whole business of Le Hamel, which we'd been told was held by a German platoon, and when it finally fell about four o'clock in the afternoon there was so many men came out of it that it must have been the biggest platoon that the German Army ever mustered.
I was with my CO and saw that fellow Robert Capa, the internationally known photographer who took the picture that appeared on the front of Life of a man caught in an obstacle. Now we started to go after him but as we started out we caught some small-arms fire and went back in, and we figured that he was probably better off where he was, there was no sense getting people killed.*66
We had a great deal of difficulty getting the men to move. There was great deal of enemy fire and they would take cover behind some of these obstacles that were there to catch assault craft. They were about the size of a ten- or twelve-foot telephone pole with a teller mine on the top of it. The whole area was just full of these obstacles. Any port in a storm. People would just try to take cover behind one of these poles. Well, it didn't provide any cover so you just had to force them to move no matter how you did it. It had so happened, I had sprained my ankle in the marshalling area and had to go ashore carrying a cane instead of a rifle. I used it to very good effect to just whack people until they moved. And it was not much fun, obviously.
We finally did make it to the bottom of the cliffs where we had more safety, because the Germans couldn't fire their machine guns straight down and they couldn't also fire their rifles down because they had to expose themselves over the cliffs, which would give us a chance to get them. Now we remained in that position for – well, I would say it was a lifetime but it was about four to five hours – and then one of the other companies of, I think it was of the 115th Regiment, that had come in after us, they had fortunately come in at a better position and came around, came up on the cliffs and they'd taken over. And they greeted us and told us to come on up and we were very thankful to see them. In our original company that went in at approximately 213 men, eight hours after we were on the beach there was only 38 of us that were fit for continued duty, and we lost most of them from the water-line to the bottom of the cliff.
When we reached the first corner there was a dead German there and he was just like something from a film, because he was young, he was huddled up and his helmet had fallen off, and he was very, very blond. As we turned this corner I was told to clear the waterproofing off the machine gun and I began to fire down this deserted road. At the very moment that I began to fire, probably about one hundred and fifty yards ahead, three of our own infantrymen burst though a hedge at the side of the road and suddenly one of them fell as though he'd been hit and the other two dragged him back. I've often wondered in the whole of the intervening twenty-eight years whether in fact I was responsible for any injury or death that poor bloke might have suffered.
I think the greatest unsung hero of World War Two was Sergeant Streczyk, one of my platoon sergeants. To the best of my knowledge he was the first one off the beach and it was the path that he took that I picked up. The rest of our battalion followed and then later on I think almost the whole Corps went up that path. As I told this character Cornelius Ryan,*67 I'm climbing the bluff and I see Streczyk coming down because he's happy to see me and he's got a grin on his face. And I say, 'My God!' as he puts his foot on a teller mine right in front of my nose. I'm climbing up the cliff and he puts his foot on a teller mine. He says, 'Don't let it worry you, it didn't go off when I stepped on it going up.' We got up to the top of the cliff and we found just one of our weapons that would fire. I landed with one hundred and eighty men and eight officers, counting myself, and I had a head count and I counted thirteen men, one other officer and myself. And one weapon, one M-l rifle, would fire. So we put that man on guard and the rest of us sat down and cleaned our weapons, first echelon maintenance right on top of the bluff. Shortly thereafter I ran into John Finke, I think he had come up and gone off to my left toward his goal, and somebody had winged him through the helmet. He had blood streaming down all over the side of his helmet and I remember my telling him to get his ass back to the beach.
You could see your friends, people you'd served with for years, floating face down or face up. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, planes overhead – and snipers in the cliffs, if you can call that beautiful.
I don't think I was frightened – I was scared, and I think when you're scared you really are more alert. It's like you're playing a game with somebody – you're going through the woods, you've got a gun and he's got a gun – who's going to shoot first? 1 guess it's more like a duel – you know you're going to spin round and pull the trigger first.
We were aware that we had been very, very lucky indeed that for us it had been a kind of glorified exercise and that none of our fears had fortunately materialised. But we also realised something else: that we would never, no matter what we were called upon to do, be quite as afraid again. It was the whole business of the invasion, we'd been preparing for it for months and months and each of us had been building up little secret fears that we might not survive it.
MAJOR GENERAL COLLINS
In order to save casualties after we had the experience of heavy fighting through the bocage [thick hedgerow] country it was decided to precede the attack by a tremendous bombardment and this would take place in front of my Corps. I was directed by General Bradley to prepare the plans for the attack, which would break out the bocage country and get out into the open a bit. The bombardment started on 25th July with some three thousand planes dropping bombs just in advance of our troops. In the initial planning we had asked that the fighters and bombers come in parallel to our lines so that they would be sure not to have bombs fall short on our troops. Unfortunately they came in at right angles and we had many shorts and took some casualties in our own troops. The weather was not too good so the attack was called off after only perhaps an hour, and was rescheduled for the next day, but the same thing occurred then. We took about six hundred casualties, including one of our senior Army Commanders who was there as an observer.*68
We were bombed quite often by mistake. We had a saying in the Army that when the British bombed the Axis took cover when the Germans bombed the Allies took cover. Well, when our cousin Americans bombed, everybody took cover.
Hitler refused permission to his generals to withdraw, when the position was impossible for them, behind the Seine and the Loire, which a professional would have done. On the contrary, he made them remain and fight it out in Normandy and indeed made the Germans counter-attack the enveloping movement of the Americans. This was frustrated firstly by the Americans on the ground, and secondly, of course, you cannot successfully launch a major offensive operation, particularly an armoured operation, without at least local air superiority – which the Germans didn't have.
MAJOR GENERAL COLLINS
After we made the breakthrough west of Saint-Lô, we headed south, parallel to Patton and then we had to defend to the left, because it was a natural thing that the Germans would try to cut off Patton's line of communications at Avranches. So we anticipated that a major counterattack would be launched at Avranches. The First Army's job was to prevent that breakthrough and my corps, which was on the right flank, was to turn to the west and the real battle took place at Mortain, where we held against the concentrated German attack for several days. The troops of Patton were now spreading out towards Brest and through France, and part of the First Army was then to seize the south end of the pocket. The Germans had only one way to get out and that was towards Paris and if we could close the open mouth of this bag, by the British and Canadians coming down from the north with the Americans coming up from the south, then we could pretty nearly end the German ability to continue the war in France. Unfortunately for a variety of reasons the attack coming down from the north was slow and laborious. Had they been able to move faster we might have trapped more Germans in the Falaise pocket. Very little of their equipment got out but quite a number of Germans were able to escape towards the Seine river and this was too bad. I think that Britain had been in the war for much longer than we had and had taken very heavy casualties, and the Americans were fresh and they had practically no casualties. So while we were anxious to drive forward and were not too concerned about the casualties as long as we could get our objective, it was natural that the British and Canadian forces did it in a more orderly, pacing way.
There were very great practical difficulties in closing the Falaise gap quickly and it was difficult for one side, the British–Canadian–Polish, to appreciate the point of view of the other side, the Americans. We were coming down from the north, from the congested, bombed and difficult areas of the Caen sector, and the Germans facing us on the north side of the corridor they were trying to keep open for their escape were in areas where they had been fighting against us for three months or more. The Americans were coming up to meet us from the south, more open country and against much less prepared and organised German resistance.