I wrote the title and then sat staring at the empty space below. The immensity of the topic inspired an initial loss of words, a sense of this being one of those pivotal but incomprehensible events in history, and an awareness that, for some, this is not yet history; it is living memory.
Despite this, D-Day is indescribably interesting. I became inspired to read and write about this event to coincide with the BBC’s two-part documentary featuring first-hand accounts of the ‘last heroes’ of the 1944 campaign that resulted in the liberation of France from Nazi occupation and marked a turning point in World War Two. It also, we should not forget, meant the sacrifice of thousands of combatants and non-combatants, on both sides, as well as civilians, on and around the Normandy beaches.
Indeed, when we think of D-Day, it is the images of the beaches, and soldiers emerging from the sea under a barrage of heavy artillery, that emerges in our minds. What struck me as I began my reading was the tremendous preparations that had been made in the months and years before 6 June 1944; meticulous and comprehensive, preparing for all eventualities, and even for failure.
Measures were taken to attempt to ensure that the location of the anticipated invasion was not revealed, including fake formations in Scotland to give the impression that Norway was the target and radio messages which suggested that the attack would be on the Pas-de-Calais. In addition, the French resistance had helped to prepare the way for their liberators by undertaking sabotage operations.
For those in charge of Plan Fortitude, including the American General, Dwight Eisenhower, and the British General, Sir Bernard Montgomery, the days leading up to the invasion were fraught with uncertainties and problems. Late in May, the weather in Southern England had been glorious, but by early June a weather-front was emerging that promised unfavourable conditions, risking the timing (and hence the secrecy) of the whole operation. There were also concerns about the potential for a high casualty rate amongst French civilians, particularly as a result of the initial bombing campaign, and for the mine-sweepers who would prepare the way for the naval and landing crafts. Having been delayed a day due to the poor weather, the order went out that D-Day would take place on Tuesday 6 June, 1944.
Over 1,200 aircraft took to the air just before midnight. The first were the Horsa gliders, which were made of plywood and required a crash-landing, breaking up on impact. This resulted in injury, maiming and fatalities, so that their nickname of ‘Hearses’ is unfortunately fitting. Those who did survive were able to fulfil their targets of taking or destroying (as appropriate) key bridges, pill-boxes, batteries and villages.
Next were the paratroopers. Here the diversion-tactics continued, as dummy parachutists were dropped and SAS activity increased away from the invasion area to confuse the enemy. Despite preparations, the landing of the airborne soldiers did not go to plan; the bombing raid that had gone before had failed in places, many were dropped in the wrong locations, miles from their rendezvous points, whilst others drowned after landing in marshy or flooded areas.
For the American paratroopers, the pilots maintained their speed rather than slowing down in order to avoid machine-gun fire, whilst others flew too low with the result that the parachutes did not have time to open. Those who landed successfully moved to take villages and secure causeways, and to prepare safe zones for the landing of reinforcements and heavy equipment, thought the vast number of gliders attempting to land in the same locations at the same time led to confusion and chaos.
Meanwhile, back on the south coast of England, the soldiers were waiting inside the landing crafts, ready to depart. Bomber pilots had been awakened and briefed, and 1,000 bombers took to the skies to destroy targets and make craters on the beaches that would offer shelter for the troops on the ground, despite the poor visibility on account of the cloudy conditions. The mine-sweepers scoured the English Channel, and as they returned, submarines, destroyers, cruisers, battleships and so forth moved into position. The landing craft, too, advanced. Special DD tanks went ahead; they were designed to be launched into the sea, but the conditions were so rough that they had to be dispatched closer to the shore.
For the soldiers who had been cramped up inside the landing ships, enduring seasickness and unimaginable emotions, the waiting finally ended. American divisions destined for Omaha beach had departed at 05.20 hours, though it was an hour before they would land. Twenty-seven of the thirty-two tanks failed to reach the beach, and the troops had to watch in dismay as the American bombers missed their targets. Fortunately, the bombardment from the battleships was more effective.
The beach was well-defended by the Germans, and as the men disembarked many were shot down, or, failing that, foundered in the water under the weight of their equipment. Chaos ensued, as men reacted in different ways to the unimaginable stress, though reinforcements arrived they were able to make their way (often behind tanks) to cover under the sea wall. There, officers began to organise the men to take key defences along the coast, though this battle would continue throughout the day.
The horrific experience of those at Omaha was in stark contrast to that of their comrades at Utah beach, where none of the DD tanks were lost and German resistance was more limited and irregular, so that the main assault took less than a hour, and the troops soon began to make their way inland.
The pattern was repeated an hour later at 07.30 on the three ‘British beaches’ – Gold, Juno and Sword. On the right and far left flanks of Gold beach, it would take the whole day to obtain the advantage over the Germans, whilst on the immediate left, German soldiers began to surrender as the brigade gained ground. The right-hand battalions then made their way west to meet up with the Americans moving east from Omaha.
The Canadian Divisions undertook the assault on Juno; there was no response to the bombardment, the German artillery waiting for the men to embark from the landing crafts to unleash the machine guns, and there were 961 casualties as a result. As the survivors made their way inland, taking key towns, they found that the Germans escaped via tunnels and re-emerged behind them. When DD tanks arrived on the North Shore, they ran over corpses and wounded men in the confusion. The Canadians had gained the advantage there by around 11.30 hours. But similar disorganisation occurred on the beach as subsequent waves of reinforcements arrived, delaying progress of a key objective, the airfield at Carpiquet, for that day.
On Sword beach, DD tanks landed first, followed by the first regiments of 3rd British Infantry Division, which secured the beach rapidly, but then delayed the advance inwards by stopping to take a tea break (a common British trait that confounded the Canadian and Americans). However, the objective of Caen had not been planned with the same level of detail as the landings, so that this was delayed (though a bombing campaign started in the city at 13.45 hours), and would take over a month to take.
The invasion had begun, but the campaign to liberate France would be a hard-fought and drawn-out one. Figures for those who lost their lives, were injured or missing on D-Day are difficult to determine; if the days from 6 to 10 June are considered, American, British and Canadian losses total over 40,000. In addition were the German losses and the causalities among French civilians. This article is dedicated to all those who lost their lives on 6 June 1944.
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The main source of information for this article was Anthony Beevor’s ‘D-Day: The Battle for Normandy’ which is excellent and highly recommended – available in libraries, bookshops, and online (for example, at Amazon)
The BBC documentary ‘D-Day: The Last Heroes’ can be accessed here – available for a limited time on Iplayer and the webpage also features clips from survivors recounting their experience – by far the most valuable resource and most interesting aspect of the documentary
All photographs are in the public domain and have been obtained from Wikipedia