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June 6, 1944 is considered one of the most pivotal moments in modern history. Better known by its codename, D-Day, the Allied assault on five beaches in Nazi-occupied France was the result of over a year of planning and jockeying amongst various military and political leaders. On January 31, 1944, several key leaders agreed to postpone the invasion over concerns that there would not be enough ships available by May, finally setting the stage for the June invasion.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin began urging British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to open a second front almost as soon as the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941. After the American entry into the war at the end of that year, the three nations agreed that such action was necessary but disagreed on how it should proceed. British leadership, for whom the slaughters and stalemates of World War I's Western Front were still relatively recent memories, eventually prevailed upon the other Allies to first attack Italy, which Churchill called Europe's "soft underbelly." With plans to attack German-held North Africa and the Italian island of Sicily underway, the three leaders agreed in May of 1943 to assault the European mainland. In December of 1943, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery were presented with a detailed plan for the invasion, codenamed Operation Overlord.
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Both generals argued for increasing the scope of Overlord from three divisions to five divisions supported by three airborne divisions. Eisenhower was eager to enact such a plan in May, but had concerns over the availability of landing craft. The Italian campaign, which provided the Allies with valuable experience in amphibious landings, was also taking up many of the boats that would be necessary for the Normandy invasion. By the 31st, all relevant commanders had come around to this way of thinking and signed off on an early-June invasion.
D-Day would be postponed once more, by a single day—high winds on June 4 forced Eisenhower to push the "great crusade" back one more day. Finally, on the morning of June 6, the long-awaited invasion of France began. By the time the sun set the Allies had established a foothold, the first step in a march that would lead them all the way to Berlin and the defeat of Nazi Germany.
READ MORE: D-Day: Facts About the 1944 WWII Invasion
D-Day is called off and postponed until June - HISTORY
The planning for D-Day began in 1943. The Russians had been asking from 1942 for the Allies to open a second front against the Nazis, but the initial answer was the invasion of North Africa. The British were opposed to landing in France too early and urged delay. Finally May 1944 was set as the date for the attack. The invasion was assigned the name Operation Overlord. For almost a year a steady stream of men and material were transported to England prepare for the invasion. Thirty-nine allied divisions 22 American, 12 British, 3 Canadian and one Polish and French prepared for the invasion. As part of the plans the Allies set up fake armies to keep the Germans guessing as to where the invasion would take place. With no port close by the Germans were not expecting Normandy to be the location for the invasion.
Because of a lack of landing craft the invasion was delay from May until June. The invasion was set for June 5th but bad weather forced the invasion to be delayed for one day. In the month before the invasion Allied air forces bombed targets throughout France to try make it difficult for the German to reinforce their forces.
The invasion forces included 6,939 ships, 1213 warships, 4,126 landing craft, 736 support ships and 864 merchant ships. At midnight 2,2000 British, Canadian and American planes started attacking targets around the coast and inland. As part of the operations airborne troops were landed behind the lines, who were tasked with either capturing or destroying key bridges and junctions. Many of the airborne troops missed their targets when landing, but the failure of some of the troops to land in the right locations, confused the Germans who were unsure where the main assault was coming. An earlier destruction of the German radar station allowed the fleet to remain undetected until 2 AM.
The invasion was divided into a number of different locations. One was Utah beach. There the 4th Infantry landed 2000 yards south of their intended target due to a strong current. The mistaken location turned out to be a good location. Because they landed to the south they did not achieve their first day objectives, but by nightfall they had landed 21,000 troops and sustained only 179 casualties.
The most heavily defended beach was Omaha Beach and there the troops had a hard time landing. When they first did land they were often pinned down by the German troops . Many of the tanks landing craft never made it to beach. Slowly the overwhelming number of allied troops with strong support from naval ships offshore allowed the American troops of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions slowly move off the beach and conquer the heights above. Casualties that first day at Omaha were 2,000 troops and it took until the third day of invasion for the goals of D-day to all be achieved at Omaha Beach
The invasion on at Gold Beach began a little later due to the difference in tides. The shore included fortified houses, but they were quickly cleared by troops of the British 30th Division. There was also heavy gun emplacement located at near the beach, three of which were knocked out by direct naval gunfire the fourth by charges placed at the rear of one of the emplacement. By the end of the day both the beach and the heights above were in British hands.
The British X corps were responsible for capturing the Sword Beach, Most of their amphibious
tanks made it to the beach, thus providing cover for the infantry. The beach was covered with obstacles that slowed the advance, but slowly the troops who were soon joined by French troops cleared the beach. In the course of the day the troops who captured Sword beach suffered 1,000 casualties.
All together the Allies had 10,000 casualties on D-Day with 4,414 confirmed dead. However, in the course of the first day 160,000 Allied troops landed. While none of the objectives of the first day were achieved , by the end of June and additional 800,000 men with all their equipment were landed and their was no stopping the better equipped Allied troops, the Germans could only hope to slow them down.
D-Day by the hour: A timeline of Operation Overlord in Normandy
4:27 D-Day invasion leaves lasting impression of compassion, camaraderie for veteran Norm Kirby
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D-Day was a pivotal moment in the Second World War, when thousands of British, American and Canadian soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy to gain a foothold in Nazi-controlled Europe on June 6, 1944.
The D-Day invasion of Normandy took a tremendous amount of co-ordination to pull off from the Allied stronghold of Britain, which was one of the few European territories not under Adolf Hitler‘s control. Germany had effectively conquered the mainland in 1940, and the Allies needed to take some of it back in order to defeat the Nazis.
Nearly 133,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel in a fleet of more than 5,000 amphibious ships, with 1,213 warships defending them at sea. The Allies also dispatched approximately 4,000 bombers and 3,700 fighter-bombers to hammer the enemy’s coastal defences.
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0:56 What the ‘D’ in D-Day stands for
The cross-Channel invasion was called Operation Neptune, while the overarching plan to invade mainland Europe was dubbed Operation Overlord.
Here’s how the battle played out, hour by hour. All times are local.
June 5, 1944 — The original D-Day
The Allies originally plan to invade Normandy on June 5. However, U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander, decides to postpone the invasion by 24 hours due to poor weather conditions. Eisenhower worries the weather will be a problem for the Allied landing ships when they cross the English Channel.
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The Allies have a massive force of troops, planes and ships gathered in Britain, but they conceal their invasion plans by deploying dummy armies throughout the U.K. to threaten other German targets across the water. They set up fake tanks and stage fake radio chatter at several points, including Dover, which is across the water from German-held Pas-de-Calais. The ruse convinces the Germans that Calais is the Allies’ true target.
WATCH: D-Day invasion leaves lasting impression of compassion, camaraderie for veteran Norm Kirby
4:27 D-Day invasion leaves lasting impression of compassion, camaraderie for veteran Norm Kirby
June 5 — 10 p.m.
Approximately 7,000 ships leave Britain under cover of darkness. The ships are loaded with Allied troops primarily from Britain, the United States and Canada.
The soldiers are split up to invade five landing points along the coast of northern France, each with its own code name. The U.S. Army is assigned to Utah and Omaha beaches, the British are tasked with taking Gold and Sword beaches and the Canadians draw Juno Beach.
That night, Eisenhower pens a morbid note announcing the invasion is a failure, just in case he needs it.
“If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone,” he writes, underlining the last two words. He mistakenly dates the note “July 5” and tucks it away in a drawer, hoping never to use it.
June 6 — 12 a.m.
Allied aircraft arrive in Normandy. Bombers start bombarding the coastline while personnel carriers fly inland to drop off squads of paratroopers. The paratroopers attack bridges and seize several key points to cut off the Nazi supply lines.
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Several paratrooper groups land on the beaches and begin chipping away at the heavily fortified coastal defences. Many others are scattered across the countryside, making them slow to get into position.
The German navy detects Allied ships off Pas-de-Calais. The ships are part of the feint to distract from the Allies’ true target in Normandy.
Allied warships drop anchor off the coast of Normandy to wait for dawn and provide cover for the landing ships.
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2 a.m.-4 a.m.
The Allies continue to drop paratroopers into France, with more than 13,000 deployed by morning. An additional 4,000 troops fly in on gliders. Approximately 450 members of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion are among the paratrooper force.
Some of the paratroopers die in crash-landings or drown in flooded fields.
The Germans notice the paratrooper invasion and begin to scramble a response, although they don’t yet fully grasp the scope of the invasion.
WATCH: D-Day veteran’s harrowing tale of advancing deep behind Nazi lines
5:27 D-Day veteran’s harrowing tale of advancing deep behind Nazi lines
Allied battleships start firing on the Nazi defences while the first landing ships head ashore.
German and Allied ships clash in the first skirmishes at sea.
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The sun rises, and the landing operation is fully underway. The Allied battleships stop firing as their landing boats approach the shore at 6:30 a.m., dubbed “H-Hour” for the designated moment of the invasion.
German forces pepper the landing boats with gunfire, killing scores of Allied troops before they can reach the beach.
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The landing ships are tightly packed together, and they suffer heavy casualties under the German assault. Nevertheless, the Allies manage to land their troops, and the fight for the beaches begins.
The Allies deploy amphibious tanks on the beaches of Normandy to support the ground troops and sweep for defensive mines.
American troops face heavy machine-gun fire on Omaha Beach, the most heavily fortified landing point of the invasion. Approximately 2,500 U.S. soldiers are killed on the beach in the bloodiest fight of the day.
Eisenhower announces the invasion has begun in a communique to soldiers.
“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months,” Eisenhower writes. “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
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The Allied forces send a separate communique announcing the invasion to the media.
“Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France,” the brief communique says.
American troops turn the tide of battle at the Omaha landing point, with warships backing them up at sea.
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British Prime Minister Winston Churchill informs U.K. Parliament that the invasion is underway and it’s going well.
“So far, the commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan. And what a plan!” Churchill says. “This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place.”
After sleeping through the morning, Adolf Hitler wakes up and learns of the attack. He remains convinced the landings are a decoy and that the real invasion will come at Calais. He refuses to reassign his army to defend Normandy.
2 p.m.-6 p.m.
Canada’s force of 14,000 troops takes Juno Beach and presses inland. British and American forces, including those at Omaha, take control of their beaches as well.
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The Allies bring in tanks, tend to the wounded and clear away mines on the beaches. They also start pressuring German forces at Caen, a key city in the area.
Hitler finally agrees to send reinforcements to Normandy rather than waiting for an assault at Calais.
Allied reinforcements from Britain arrive in Normandy. Ground troops link up with the paratroopers further inland and press on toward Caen. However, the city does not fall until July 10.
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At least 4,000 Allied soldiers are killed in the initial attack, including 359 Canadians. However, the invasion ultimately prevails, and the German forces are either killed, captured or forced to withdraw to Caen.
The Allies have won the day and taken their first step toward liberating Europe. They continue to ferry troops and equipment across the Channel, and by the end of June, the Allies have more than 850,000 men, 148,000 vehicles and 570,000 tonnes of supplies in France. These forces allow them to march across western Europe, freeing Allied nations and driving the Germans back to Berlin, while the Soviets do the same from the east.
Hitler dies by suicide during the siege of Berlin on April 30, 1945. The Germans surrender a week later on May 8.
WATCH: Canadian D-Day 75 ceremony held on Juno Beach
6:03 Canadian D-Day 75 ceremony held on Juno Beach
Operation Neptune: The D-Day Normandy Landings
The D-Day invasion of Normandy was necessitated by the overwhelming dominance of Nazi Germany over Continental Europe. As can be seen in the map given below, every country in Europe apart from the Soviet Union and neutral states was either allied with or controlled by Hitler.
The region representing Nazi Germany included the annexed German-speaking Czechoslovakian states of Bohemia and Moravia (Sudetenland), Austria, which was annexed to Germany after the Anschluss, and annexed areas of Poland. The regions occupied by Germany or Italy included those like Norway, northern France, and the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands). Regions allied to Germany or ruled by German puppet states included regions such as Italy, which was allied to Germany, Vichy France, a puppet state installed in southern France, and Romania, Bulgaria, etc. Allied countries in Europe included the United Kingdom and its territories and the Soviet Union. And the neutral countries included Turkey, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal.
The neutrality of Spain and Portugal meant that Nazi Germany controlled virtually the entire Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Europe. Using this to his advantage, Hitler had started to build a linked chain of fortifications along the Atlantic coast, called the Atlantic Wall. This would safeguard Germany from naval attacks by the U.S. and the UK.
Meanwhile, Hitler had violated Germany’s peace accord with the Soviet Union, which led Joseph Stalin to request the Allies to open a second, western front in Europe. Though Winston Churchill declined the request at first due to a lack of manpower, eventually the Allies saw the need for an amphibious attack on Continental Europe.
Four sites, all in northern France, were considered as possible landing sites for the D-Day invasion. However, two of them were peninsulas, which would make it very easy for the Germans, who were situated in the broader part of the peninsulas, to defeat the Allied forces. Another option was Calais, but since it was the closest to Great Britain, it was heavily fortified and guarded by the Germans as an obvious point for the entry of soldiers from Britain. This left Normandy as a viable option. It allowed for separate landings without being concentrated in the tip of a peninsula, and the planned landing beaches were very close to the ports of Cherbourg and Le Havre.
One of the main problems of the landing was that, even if the coastal fortifications of the Germans could be overcome, the area further inland was still teeming with Nazi battalions, patrolled by able generals such as the Field Marshals Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt. The Allies had to distract the Nazi army so that Normandy would lie unprotected.
Operation Bodyguard was launched to this end. This operation consisted of diverting the attention of German generals to other regions. Some of the methods used to achieve this objective were increasing radio traffic in a particular area, dropping dummy paratroopers, establishing fake military bases, etc. Even an actor with a close resemblance to General Bernard Montgomery was hired to fool the Germans into believing the regions visited by this fake Montgomery were regions worth keeping an eye on. Here’s a map of the regions worked upon in Operation Bodyguard the titles signify the names of the operations for that particular location.
British double agents were used extensively in this operation. The role of one particular double agent, Joan Pujol Garcia, codenamed ‘Garbo’ by the Allies and ‘Arabel’ by the Nazis, was particularly noteworthy.
Garcia fed Germans reliable information about the Normandy attack, in order to make his espionage more believable. However, the information was relayed too late for the Germans to do anything about it. A more important part of his operations included convincing the Germans that a fictitious U.S. Army Division was stationed in the south of England, and would use the Normandy invasion as a diversion for an all-out attack on Calais. This information, relayed on June 9 and bolstered by the accuracy of Garcia’s information about the Normandy landings, convinced the Germans to keep extra regiments at Calais even after the D-Day Normandy invasion, which gave the Allied forces in Normandy more time to achieve their objectives. The illusion of the fictitious US Army Division was maintained by fake planes and tanks, including inflatables, and constant but meaningless radio traffic.
Garcia was motivated to work against the Nazis by his disgust of Fascism and Communism. He was so adept at his art that, at one point, he got the Germans to financially support a network of 27 spies. Excluding ‘Arabel’ himself, all the spies were fictitious!
Garcia’s standing in the German camp and the efficacy of his deception was such that ‘Arabel’ received an Iron Cross Second Class for his contribution to German war efforts, an award that required personal authorization from the Fuehrer himself! ‘Garbo’ later received an MBE from King George VI, making Garcia arguably the only person to receive felicitations from both the Allies and the Germans.
The Airborne Divisions Land
Before the landings, the French Resistance was told via coded messages to disrupt German communication and transport services in Normandy, an accomplishment that came in very useful in the latter stages of the landings. Though the heavy radio traffic in the days leading up to the invasion raised alarms in the German intelligence agencies, most defense posts ignored their warning, since countless failed warnings had been given earlier.
The Normandy invasion began with a large-scale bombing of the Normandy beaches where the troops would land. More than 2,200 Allied bombers peppered the beaches after midnight on June 6, 1944, in order to remove defensive structures established on the beach. The bombings were largely successful on all but one beach: Omaha. Overcast conditions at Omaha meant that the bombers couldn’t ascertain their targets visually. Many delayed the attack, and eventually found themselves in the position of not being able to release their warheads without risking damaging their own arriving ships and units. This left the German defenses on Omaha beach virtually untouched, a factor that would turn out to be crucial.
The first airborne operations began at 00.15 am, when American ‘pathfinders’ started to drop behind enemy lines in order to set up drop zones for the arriving forces. Bad weather conditions hampered their operation, and many of the airborne divisions landed scattered and disorganized as a result. As an unintended benefit, the German Army also became fragmented trying to follow all isolated groups of paratroopers.
The first military operation, however, began immediately after the arrival of pathfinders, at 00.16 am. This was a British operation at Sword Beach aimed at capturing and protecting the bridges on the Caen canal and the river Orne. These bridges were the only exit points for the incoming British infantry at Sword Beach, and failure to capture or stop the Germans from blowing them up would result in a massive disaster for the British 3rd Infantry Division. The bridges were captured by the British 6th Airborne Division, who also defended it against German counterattacks until further reinforcements arrived.
US paratroopers from the 101st Airborne started dropping on Utah Beach from 01.30 am. This division had the primary objective of securing the causeways behind Utah Beach and destroy other links to the beach, including road and rail bridges. These landings were highly erratic due to the cloud cover and the confusing terrain, many paratroopers only reached the causeways after the 4th Infantry Division had already captured them after overcoming the defenses at the beach. The German 7th Army received news of the parachute drops at 1.20 am, but von Rundstedt misjudged the scale of the offensive and thought it could easily be suppressed by the defenses at the seaboard.
The 82nd Airborne Division started arriving at 2.30 am. They had the primary objective of securing the bridges on the river Merderet. This Division secured Sainte-Mère-Église, an important crossroads town in the region, but lost the bridges on the Merderet after having won them first. The bridges weren’t loaded with explosives, unlike the ones on the Caen Canal and the Orne, and crossfire over the bridges continued for several days.
The Naval Landings
The 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division landed on Utah Beach at 6.30 am. Like most infantry divisions, their landing craft had been blown eastward by the wind, but by good fortune, the eventual point where they landed was more beneficial for their objectives than the one they had planned. Soon joined by reinforcements, including engineers and demolition teams, the 4th Infantry quickly took Utah Beach.
The 1st Infantry Division and 29th Infantry Division landed on Omaha. This was the most heavily guarded beach, and the battle here claimed the most lives of all five beaches. As mentioned before, bombers hadn’t been able to deploy their loads over Omaha Beach due to cloudy conditions, due to which the defenses were mostly untouched. To compound the American tragedy, many troops had to disembark from their landing craft in deep water since the craft got stuck on sandbanks. This left them completely exposed to the firing from the German lines, while they sought to clamber up the beach. Specially modified amphibious tanks, called DD tanks, also had to be unloaded farther out than optimum, and 27 of 32 tanks sank. Aided by reinforcements, the objectives for Omaha Beach were eventually accomplished three days after D-Day (D+3).
High winds also disrupted the landings at Gold Beach. The primary defensive gun installment had been severely damaged by attacks from British Cruisers at 6.20 am. Only one of four guns was remaining, but its crew held out till the next day before finally surrendering. Another gun was disabled by a tank at 7.30 am. The Le Hamel gun installment was destroyed at 4 pm by a tank from the Armored Vehicles Royal Engineers. The only Victoria Cross awarded in the D-Day operations was awarded in the battle in the towns along Gold Beach, to Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis. By the end of the day, the Brits at Gold Beach had established contact with the Canadian army at Juno Beach.
Like at Omaha, bombers had missed many of their targets on Juno Beach, which hampered the progress of the 3rd Canadian Division. In addition to the failed bombardment, the DD tanks at Juno Beach had fallen behind the infantry, which left the soldiers completely exposed to defensive fire from the Germans. However, by nightfall Juno Beach was captured, and the beachhead was merged with Gold Beach.
Though the British 6th Airborne Division had already been fighting inland of Sword Beach for a few hours, Infantry divisions only landed at 7.30. The British 3rd Infantry got the most out of the DD tanks, with 21 of 25 tanks landing safely. The beach was taken during the day, but the 3rd Infantry faced a German counterattack from the 21st Panzer Division. This was the only armored counterattack on D-Day. The thrust of the counterattack was thwarted by the Brit division, but one company reached the beach and set about strengthening the defensive structures there. However, they abandoned the task when they saw the arrival of aerial reinforcements, though the reinforcements were actually intended for the 6th Airborne rather than the 3rd Infantry.
Order of Battle
Among the Infantry Divisions, the division of labor was as follows:
Utah Beach was taken by the American VII Corps, led by Major General J. Lawton Collins, and consisted the following Divisions:
- 4th Infantry
- 9th Infantry
- 79th Infantry
- 90th Infantry
- 82nd Airborne
- 101st Airborne
This army faced the German 709th Infantry Division.
Omaha Beach would be taken by the American V Corps, led by Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow, and consisted the following Divisions:
The V Corps faced the German 352nd Infantry Division.
Utah and Omaha beaches were the mission objectives of the American First Army, under the overall command of General Omar Bradley.
Gold Beach was taken by the British XXX Corps, made up by the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division led by Lieutenant General Gerard Bucknall.
Juno Beach was the objective of the British I Corps, led by Lt. Gen. John Crocker and consisting of the 3rd Canadian Division.
The Allied forces at Juno and Gold Beaches faced a combination of the German 352nd Infantry and 716th Infantry Divisions. The latter was also partially responsible for the German response at Sword Beach.
Sword Beachwas also an objective of the British I Corps. The 3rd Infantry and 6th Airborne attacked Sword Beach.
The British 3rd Infantry faced the only armored German counterattack in the Normandy landings, from the 21st Panzer Division.
Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches were assigned to the British Second Army, under the overall command of Lt. Gen. Sir Miles Dempsey. The British 79th Armored Division provided support to all operations in the form of specially customized amphibious tanks called DD tanks. The British Second Army was not exclusively British despite the name, and in addition to the Canadian Division on Juno Beach, several Allied soldiers from various countries―particularly Australia―were included in many British regiments.
The US First Army contained 73,000 men, and the British Second Army contained 83,115. Of the latter, 61,715 were British.
Here’s a brief timeline noting the important events during and immediately after the Normandy landings.
Specific times given in the timeline refer to June 6, 1944.
1943-early 1944: Operation Bodyguard is carried out
Mid May-early June, 1944: French Resistance sabotages German communication and transport lines around Normandy
June 4, 1944: Original plans for an invasion on June 5 are postponed by a day
00.00 on D-Day: Aerial bombing of landing sites begins
00.15: American ‘pathfinders’ start to drop behind landing beaches
00.16: Paratroopers from the British 6th Airborne Division start to land behind Sword Beach
01.20: Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt receives word of the landings, dismisses them
01.30: Paratroopers from the US 101st Airborne Division start to land /behind Utah Beach
02.30: Paratroopers from the US 82nd Airborne Division start to land behind Utah Beach
06.30: US Infantry divisions start to land on Utah and Omaha Beach
07.30: British and Canadian Infantry divisions start to land on Gold, Juno, and Sword Beach
16.00: 21st Panzer Division makes the only armored counterattack of the invasion
June 7, 1944: British units start to build artificial ‘Mulberry’ harbors
June 9, 1944: Mission objectives for Omaha Beach are achieved, the last of all beaches
June 12, 1944: The five beaches are connected
June 21, 1944: Allies capture Caen
June 26, 1944: Allies capture Cherbourg
August 1, 1944: Allies break out of Normandy
August 15, 1944: A naval invasion, Operation Dragoon, is launched in southern France
August 25, 1944: Paris is liberated
The objective of the Allied armies on D-Day was to capture Bayeux, Caen, Carentan, and Saint-Lô, and establish a joined beachhead across all five beaches more than 10 km inland. None of these objectives were met by the first day. In fact, Caen was only captured on July 21. However, the Allies continued to inch on, expanding outwards from the beachheads they had established on D-Day.
More than two million Allied troops were sent into Normandy over the coming weeks. In spite of that, the army only succeeded in breaking out of Normandy in early August. There on, though, they achieved quick progress, liberating Paris on August 25 and liberating Luxembourg and Belgium by the end of September.
Close to 160,000 Allied troops crossed into Normandy on almost 5,000 landing craft and aircraft on D-Day. This makes the Normandy landings the largest naval invasion in human history.
The Allies suffered more than 12,000 casualties on D-Day 4,414 deaths were registered. Close to 2,500 American soldiers died on D-Day, the most of any Allied nation.
Normandy Landings In Popular Culture
The Normandy beaches house several museums and memorials dedicated to the bravery of Allied forces during the activities of the D-Day invasion. Among the notable ones are the memorial to the American National guard at Omaha, a museum about the operations on Utah Beach at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, and the Juno Beach Center at Juno, funded by the Canadian and French governments as well as Canadian veterans.
The Normandy landings are one of the most iconic events during the Second World War, and have been depicted in various books, movies and TV shows. Notable modern depictions include the movie Saving Private Ryan and the TV miniseries Band of Brothers. The former is renowned for its unabashed depiction of the violence and brutality at the landing at Omaha Beach. The latter, which is based on the book of the same name by Stephen E. Ambrose, focuses on the “Easy” Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, and depicts several battles in the Normandy invasion from the view of various characters in the E Company.
D-Day: What It Meant
A conjecture, worthy of a certainty, is that no American soldier on Omaha Beach at high noon, June 6, 1944, gave thought to being present at a turning point in world history. Any abstract thinking he may have done was more likely along the lines of being in a major debacle. The English Channel to his back, his weapons, fouled by saltwater and sand, he was largely naked before an enemy firing down from trenches and massive concrete bunkers along high bluffs looming to his immediate front. Fortunately for his mission, if of no comfort to his person, his allies invading Europe by sea and air along some fifty miles of less forbidding Normandy coast were in better straits.
Their battle is popularly known as D-Day. Their mission was to break through the German coastal defenses and secure a lodgment area in Normandy for the mustering of the armed might of the Western Allies, then assembled in England. This accomplished, they were to attack and destroy the German armies in Western Europe and, in concert with the forces of the Soviet Union, advancing from the east, invade Germany and destroy the Nazi regime that had held most of Europe in bondage and terror over the past five years.
This generalized American soldier’s lack of interest in history at the darkest moment of his travail is understandable. In the end, of course, he prevailed on Omaha and, with his allies, secured the lodgment. This done, the ultimate success of the mission became as much a given as war ever affords. Costly battles that followed in Normandy, at Arnhem, and in the Ardennes delayed but could not halt the Allied armies that continued to grow in strength, while those of their foes steadily eroded without hope of recovery. By any sort of reasoning, the D-Day victory was decisive to victory in Western Europe.
Now, fifty years later, a clearer perspective of this victory shows that it not only was decisive in a theater of operations of a long-ago war but can also be strongly argued as the decisive turning point in America’s long, hesitant march to the peak of power in a world of vast change in its every human aspect: political, social, economic. This perspective is supported by an abundance of recorded history. The battle and the blind avalanche of events leading to it are exhaustively documented. The half-century since is also minutely recorded for many it is within living memory. For the first time, much of it has been under the electronic eye of television. Unfortunately—as with the written word—this inherently impartial eye can be manipulated to blink selectively. In time, however, the decisive direction of history emerges from these encumbrances with distinct clarity. Just so, from the varied records of this century emerges the trace of America’s sometimes reluctant march to global power, with June 6, 1944, as its final, pivotal point.
No such perspective is now available on America’s tenure in power or on the uses it will make of it, for on time’s long calendar it is a position just assumed. Apart from its effectiveness in serving American interests in the Gulf War and its limitations and dangers in serving European interests in the Balkans and in serving humanitarian interests in Somalia, the record is blank, as only the pages of history yet to be enacted can be blank. The sole certainty is that this history, when enacted, will bear the imprint of what the late Barbara Tuchman identified as the “Unknown Variable…namely man.” Over time this variable has demonstrated a strong proclivity toward illogical and unpredictable behavior—a trait made more confusing by frequent infusions of acts of sense and conscience.
So, this future of America as the global superpower is best left to its uncharted devices. There is no existing tool for determining its course. There is a tool, however, for examining the voluminous record surrounding D-Day as the pivotal point in this march to power. It is best to stipulate that this tool is not the computer. Its astounding capabilities are invaluable, but it cannot, of course, solve problems involving tumultuous human emotions. At present the human stuff, the pulse, of history can be ciphered only by us humans, using humanly conceived criteria against which to measure actions and events an inexact tool, but our own.
The criteria by which I measure the place of D-day in the unending parade of world history were propounded by Sir Edward S. Creasy, a noted nineteenth-century historian and jurist, in his classic study Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World . This work, first published in 1851, was followed in quick succession by five more editions over the next three years and frequent reprints since. It has been studied by generations of historians and read for pleasure by even more history buffs. The criteria are as I extract them from the text of the preface of the first edition. Their prose style is of his period their content has stood up remarkably well to the test of time and dissent I know of none better:
“They [the fifteen battles] have for us an abiding and actual interest, both while we investigate the chain of causes and effects, by which they have helped to make us what we are and also while we speculate on what we probably should have been, if any one of those battles had come to a different termination.” Concerning battle causes and effects: “I speak of the obvious and important agency of one fact upon another, and not of remote and fancifully infinitesimal influences.” He discards fatalism and inevitability as factors in history but recognizes “the design of The Designer” in human affairs. In something of an aside, he notes: “I need hardly remark that it is not the number of killed and wounded in a battle that determines its general historical importance.”
Pursuant to his criteria and method, he named the victory of the Greeks over the Persians on the Plain of Marathon (490 B.C.) as the first truly decisive battle in world history, because it ensured that the “whole future progress of human civilization” would stem from Greece, not from Persia. Among the great armed conflicts of the era, he wrote, to Marathon alone can be traced the spirit that “secured for mankind the treasures of Athens, the growth of free institutions, the liberal enlightenment of the western world and the gradual ascendancy for many ages of the great principles of European civilization.”
Continuing up to his own time, he judged only fourteen other battles of like decisiveness in shaping his nineteenthcentury world, with which, with the British Empire as its superpower, he seemed quite content.
Thirteenth on his list is the American Continental Army’s defeat of the British at Saratoga (1777). In his opinion, this victory decided the outcome of the Revolution, making possible the founding of the American Republic. He observed, with some awe, that the American citizen had in two centuries and a half “acquired ampler dominion than the Roman gained in ten [centuries].” To Britain, France, and Russia—the great powers of his day—he added “the great commonwealth of the western continent, which now commands the admiration of mankind.”
Sir Edward did not venture far into predictions on the future of this “great commonwealth.” Perhaps his judicial experience made him wary of guessing at human directions. He did, however, quote at length the predictions of his noted contemporary Tocqueville, the brilliant firsthand French observer of the American phenomenon. Tocqueville’s predictions were not modest. He was emphatic that nothing could halt America’s growth and power. His predictions about the limits of America’s territorial and population expansion were quickly overtaken and passed, but his basic premise has proven sound.
America’s potential as a world power was first put to the test in World War I. Entry into the war ensured the Allies’ victory and secured a voice in the political squabbling that followed. Disillusioned by the cost of a war that yielded such obviously dangerous and desolate results, popular American opinion forced the return to an aloof position in world affairs frequent reference was made to President Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements. Then, with no military threat from any quarter, the country reduced its formidable wartime forces to negligible size and, in the heady postwar boom, turned to creating domestic problems, principally the devastating economic depression of the 1930s.
The world war of the 1940s, which incidentally ended the Depression, was the most critical test of national character since the American Revolution and the Civil War. From the Revolution came the nation from the Civil War, a firmly united nation from World War II, a nation that was one of two dominant world powers. The almost immediate confrontation that followed with the Soviet Union, the other power, developed into the long and costly Cold War. (Veterans of Korea and Vietnam can rightly call this title an oxymoron.) America emerged from that grueling test, which included the period of raucous and violent dissent over Vietnam, as victor and undisputed king of World Power Mountain. This distinction seems to rouse no great outpouring of national pride, because, perhaps, the reality of it reveals responsibilities that are onerous, homage that is given grudgingly and usually along with demands, blame that exceeds glory, and costs that impinge upon serious domestic needs. A thick national skin and a cool, unblinking eye appear essential to the holder of global power.
To speculate on how Sir Edward Creasy might measure D-Day against his criteria would be grossly presumptuous and might disturb his rest. I apply his criteria and method as I interpret them, nothing more.
I have noted that the “causes and effects” leading to D-Day and afterward are extensively and variously recorded. From the generally agreed-upon hard facts in this record—not upon “remote and fancifully infinitesimal influences,” which Sir Edward disdained—it stands out as the time when and place where American leadership of the Western Allies was unequivocally asserted. This was a mantle bestowed not as a generous gesture but for the preponderance of American manpower and matériel committed to the battle.
Equally significant, American industry in 1944 was not only arming and supplying its own forces around the world but also producing more than 25 percent of the armament of its Allies. This imbalance was to grow. Britain, after five years of total war effort, had reached the limits of its resources. From the invasion on, it would at best maintain its forces at their D-Day levels while American forces in the theater grew until by the time victory was declared in Europe, U.S. ground forces were some three times greater than those of all its Western Allies combined.
This shift in the balance of power in the military structure of the Western Allies was drastic. In hindsight it represented the descent of Britain from, and the rise of America to, the top rank of world power. When the Western Alliance was first formed, after Pearl Harbor, Britain was the senior partner as far as forces in being were concerned. It was bearing alone the air battle over its isles and Germany, the ground war in North Africa, the submarine warfare in the Atlantic, and the war against Japan in the Pacific and Asia. All this while American forces and war industry were in the hectic stage of coming on stream.
This disparity in forces confronting the enemy was rapidly closed by the eve of D-Day, thirty months later, the American commitment of forces worldwide was predominant. Outwardly, Britain’s equality in the partnership was maintained actually, it had ceased to exist. In the war councils American insistence that the invasion be in 1944 overrode British reluctance to risk what its leadership knew would be the last great effort Britain could mount. (In justice, once committed to the invasion, Britain, under the drive of Prime Minister Churchill, held back nothing. It risked all.) As to the Supreme Command of the Allied invasion, no question arose: It would be American.
(A strong case has been made that there have been not two separate world wars in this century but one war interrupted by a twenty-year intermission for refurbishing armaments and antagonisms. With only a slight adjustment in thinking, the Cold War can be included as a third phase of this one war, making, overall, a conflict covering three-quarters of a century—in length somewhere between the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century and the Hundred Years’ War of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, if that be a distinction to cherish.)
History never seems to repeat itself in any exact sense: The close of World War I found America facing no military threat World War II ended with the immediate threat of a Soviet Union bound for world domination. The price of aloofness here was disaster America had to continue leadership and support of what was now called the Free World.
The Soviet Union was unable to sustain this long conflict of sometimes open warfare and always of worldwide clandestine war. When the Communist political and economic structure collapsed in 1989, the Soviet Union dissolved into deeply troubled component parts the mighty Soviet military machine, including its nuclear weapons, was left at dangerous loose ends.
The breakup of colonial empires into independent nations brought freedom for them to engage in tribal, ethnic, and religious wars conducted by a new raft of ruthless tyrants. America, as the superpower, is looked to by the rest of the world for leadership and resources to solve the humanitarian problems of disease and famine that are always the camp followers of such wars. Also in this correctional field is the United Nations, a cumbersome organization with a mixed record of effectiveness. There is an uncertain relationship between America’s responsibilities, by reason of national strength, and those of the United Nations. Once again, great nations do not have small problems.
This troublesome picture has a brighter side that is often obscured by the hurly-burly of the everyday world: the century’s two major tyrannies, Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union, have been broken, though their doctrines and practices continue to surface in various hate groups. And I find no credible denial that with American leadership, freedom has a better chance of surviving and growing in the world today than at any time in history. While this leadership is not pro bono in its purest form, it is a historic departure from the tradition that territorial acquisition and economic gain are legitimate spoils of power.
Sir Edward Creasy decreed that the historical stature of a battle must be judged not only on the basis of victory that helped “make us what we are” but also on the basis of “what we probably should have been” had it been lost. He correctly tags this latter process as speculation, not always a productive exercise. “What if” and “if only” applied to history are something on the order of trying to prove a negative. This may be a harmless, ego-stroking exercise when practiced privately, but an irritant when imposed upon others. Sir Edward therefore insisted that the speculation he considered necessary to his method be within the bounds of “human probabilities only,” a porous restraint but helpful. In dealing with human affairs, one must use any tool available.
That D-Day could have been an Allied defeat with farreaching consequences was a decidedly human probability. The generalized American soldier who was left, at the start of this essay, caught in the shambles of death and destruction on Omaha Beach would have been justified in thinking that the battle there had been lost. This thought also plagued Gen. Omar Bradley, commanding the American ground forces. In his autobiography General Bradley wrote that from reports he received around midday of the carnage on Omaha, he had to believe that the assault there “had suffered an irreversible catastrophe.” He wrote that at the time he privately considered shifting further landings to the American Utah Beach on the right and the British beaches on the left. Later in the afternoon, with reports of the attack moving inland, he gave no more thought to evacuating Omaha.
The “what ifs” of a lost Omaha are all ominous: an attempt to evacuate under fire would have been more costly in landing craft and casualties than the initial assault. Shifting the troops and equipment of the entire Army corps destined for Omaha to other beaches that were already crowded would have raised confusion to the level of chaos. A German counterattack, which never came, would have accomplished the same havoc as an ordered withdrawal. The loss of Omaha would have left a gap of some twenty miles between Utah and the British beaches.
The German high command was slow in identifying the June 6 assault as the Allies’ main effort and in assembling the first-class panzer and infantry divisions that it had available to contain and repulse it. Even so, it is highly unlikely that the gap in the Allies’ line would not have been quickly discovered and exploited to flank the adjoining beachheads. As it was, with Omaha Beach won, the situation of the Allies remained serious. Attacks beyond the beachheads were brought to a slow and bloody crawl by stiff resistance in the difficult hedgerow terrain. The British objective of taking the important communications center of Caen on the first day was not accomplished until six weeks later. General Bradley observed in his autobiography that had Hitler launched the forces he had available within the first week of the invasion, “he might well have overwhelmed us.”
The “human probability” that D-Day could have ended as a Dunkirk, or as did the amphibious assault on Gallipoli in the First World War, is too real to be disregarded. Had it happened, Pandora, that well-known packager and purveyor of disasters, would have had a memorable day. The immediate military ill would have been the reduction of Germany’s three-front land war to two fronts. Then the major part of their sixty-one divisions, including eleven panzer, stationed in France and the Low Countries, could have been shifted with small risk to both the Eastern Front confronting the Soviet Union and Italy confronting the Western Allies.
The Eastern Front stretched at the time from the tip of Finland south to the tip of Greece, well away from Germany’s eastern border. In Italy the Allies had taken Rome but were faced with continuing the slow, costly attacks up the mountainous spine of the Apennines.
Even with the major reinforcements made available by repulse of the invasion, it is unlikely that the German Army could have repeated its great offensives of the early war. But that it could have stalemated both fronts is a probability well within the human range.
Churchill, before the invasion, called it “much the greatest thing we have ever attempted.” Defeat would have been crushing to Britain, in both military losses and morale. America would have made good its own losses but would have had to brace for a longer, more costly war, and largely alone. The effect on Germany, of course, would have been a revival of faith in Hitler. It would also have provided time to produce new weapons that would have had dramatic effect on the war right up to its final exclamation point: the atomic bomb. On D-Day this bomb was some fourteen months away from its first appointment in Hiroshima.
Time is more of the essence in war than in any other destructive endeavor. Given fourteen months, Hitler’s Germany would certainly have been into mass production of the jet plane, ballistic missiles capable of wreaking great damage on Britain, and ground-to-air missiles that could destroy bombers by tracking the heat from their engines.
These were not really “secret” weapons. Allied intelligence knew of them and sought to destroy their development and production sites by heavy bombings, none of which was entirely successful. In Britain and in America the jet engine was in development, but not up to the German stage of production. Shortly after D-Day the first rocket missiles, the V-I, were launched against England. Had their launching sites not been overrun by the invasion, the V-I and the much more advanced V-2 would have done incalculable damage to British industry and morale. Forereach in weapons systems has changed the course of battles and of wars.
One of the more tragic consequences of a D-Day defeat would have been the time given the Nazis to complete the Holocaust and to destroy the Resistance movement in occupied Europe. With the launching of the invasion, the Resistance was signaled to begin largescale sabotage of German communications. With the Resistance so exposed, German retaliation would have been swift and brutal. To rebuild the movement would have been slow and difficult. The thousands of additional lives lost in an extended Holocaust can be calculated the effect on the establishment of Israel cannot.
That the war could have been ended by the assassination of Hitler is a human probability supported by the prior attempts on his life. That in a stalemated war it could have been ended between Germany and Russia by an accommodation reached between Hitler and Stalin is supported only by the recognized obsession of each dictator with staying in power, regardless of what was required to do so. This, however, runs off the scale of human probabilities.
Then there was the atomic bomb.
The two bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 ended the war in Asia and the Pacific. This was a war that Japan could not have won, but it could have exacted a terrible price had defeat required an invasion.
That Germany would also have been targeted for the bomb is a human probability of the highest order. (In terms of death and destruction, the conventional bombing of Dresden in February 1945 was on the scale of that visited on Hiroshima some six months later.) To speculate on the response of Hitler to a threat of the bomb requires probing an exceedingly dark mind. He might have seen this new order of flame, smoke, and concussion as a Götterdämmerung scene fitting for his departure. I speculate no further than that. One way or another, the bomb would have ended the war in Europe.
Again, these are projections of things that never happened, of situations that never developed. There is no certain knowledge of what course history would have taken had the Persians won at Marathon, the British at Saratoga, or Napoleon at Waterloo, other than that in each instance oppression would have had a further run. And there is no certainty of the aftermath of a Nazi German victory on D-Day, other than that it would have been followed by at least fourteen months of dark and bloody deeds that would have left an even more terrible scar on what we call civilization.
If we set aside probabilities, these, in sum, are the recorded facts: that D-Day was won by the Western Allies that it was fought at American insistence, with an American as supreme commander that the most critical and hard-fought sector of the battle—Omaha Beach—was won by Americans against heavy odds imposed by terrain and enemy strength and that from this battle to the end of the war, American preponderance in men and matériel continued to grow, and with it grew American influence and leadership in the Western Alliance. This pattern continued throughout the Cold War, the demands of survival denying any discharge from it.
From all this there emerges one overriding result: World leadership now rests upon the shoulders of a free people, committed to democracy—this at a level not equaled since the time of the Athenians and Marathon. It is a decisive turn in history D-Day is the pivotal point upon which this turn was made.
At nightfall after the Battle of Valmy (1792), in which the French revolutionary forces turned back Prussian and Austrian invaders, the poet Goethe, who was there, was asked by some dejected Prussians what he concluded from the defeat. “From this place,” he said, “and from this day forth commences a new era in the world’s history and you can say you were present at its birth.”
It would not be amiss to address these words to all who fought the D-day battle on the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
The Longest Day
On June 6, 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt went to bed just after midnight. The D-Day invasion was under way, but the
President was nevertheless determined to get a little shut-eye. His wife, Eleanor, was more anxious. She paced around the White House, waiting for General George C. Marshall to report on how the Allied forces fared on the five battlefield beaches of Normandy: Omaha and Utah (Americans), Gold and Sword (British), and Juno (Canadians).
At three a.m., she woke up Franklin, who put on his favorite gray sweater and sipped some coffee before starting a round of telephone calls that lasted over five hours. When FDR finally held a press conference late that afternoon on the White House lawn, he talked about how distinctive D-Day was in world history. Crossing the turbulent waters of the English Channel from Dover to Pointe du Hoc with the largest armada in world history&mdashthe ships carried more than 100,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers&mdashwas truly an event for the ages. Later that evening Roosevelt addressed the world on the radio. He evoked the Fall of Rome before boasting that God had let the Allies prevail over the &ldquounholy forces of our enemy&rdquo in Europe. Roosevelt was basking in the glow of one of history&rsquos seismic shifts.
The following day, June 7, newspapers were full of mind-boggling factoids and statistics about how D-Day had succeeded. One number that didn&rsquot appear was 36,525. Readers might guess that the number represents the tally of soldiers who landed at Omaha Beach or the number of ships and aircraft used in the cross-Channel operation or the number of German defenders or the number of casualties or any number of other things associated with Operation Overlord. But 36,525 is simply the number of days in a century, and of all the days in the 20th century, none were more consequential than June 6, 1944. Some might argue that certain inventions and discoveries during that great century of innovation should be deemed the most important&mdashlike Watson and Crick&rsquos reveal of the double-helix structure of DNA or all of Einstein&rsquos contributions&mdashbut other nominees flatten when one asks, &ldquoWhat if D-Day had failed?&rdquo
Usually, one day in a century rises above the others as an accepted turning point or historic milestone. It becomes the climactic day, or the day, of that century. For the 19th century, I&rsquod choose July 3, 1863, when the youthful United States of America&mdashsplit in two by a great Civil War&mdashwas finally set on the healing path that would allow it to remain a single nation. We can only imagine the history of the free world today if, at the end of the Civil War, there had been two countries: the United States and the Confederate States of America. And what date in the 18th century can beat July 4, 1776? In the 15th century, was there a more important date than October 12, 1492, when Christopher Columbus first sighted the New World? And the course of Western civilization was forever changed on October 14, 1066, when the Battle of Hastings brought William the Conqueror to England&rsquos throne. Almost a century and a half later, June 19, 1215, became the signature day of the 13th century when King John signed the Magna Carta, enumerating the rights of free men and establishing the rule of law.
The D-Day moniker wasn&rsquot invented for the Allied invasion. The same name had been attached to the date of every planned offensive of World War II. It was first coined during World War I, at the U.S. attack at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, in France in 1918. The D was short for day. The expression literally meant &ldquoday-day&rdquo and signified the day of an attack. By the end of World War II, however, the phrase had become synonymous with a single date: June 6, 1944.
By the spring of 1944, as Daniel Levy and John Keegan have explained for us in eloquent detail, World War II had been raging for five tortuous years. If D-Day&mdashthe greatest amphibious operation ever undertaken&mdashfailed, there would be no going back to the drawing board for the Allies. Regrouping and attempting another massive invasion of German-occupied France even a few months later in 1944 wasn&rsquot an option. Historians must assume that if Operation Overlord had been a catastrophe, a major part of the Allied invasion force would have been destroyed, and it would have been no small task to rebuild it. The massive armada and matériel could not be replaced with the waving of a magic wand. There was not a second team on hand to step in and continue the job. In fact, the aspect of the Normandy invasion that sets it apart from all other operations in military history is that it had no backup plan. There was to be one throw of the dice against the German might. Before the attack, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower confided to General Omar Bradley, &ldquothis operation is not being planned with any alternatives.&rdquo Failure would also have meant that the chosen invasion site was forever compromised. There were already precious few suitable areas along the entire western European coast from Norway to southern France from which to choose an invasion site. After a long vetting process, the Allies finally settled on Normandy.
They did this even though the targeted areas had more negatives than positives overall. The curious topography of the Normandy beaches was anything but ideal for the landing of a naval craft that needed to drop bow ramps into the churning surf. The area was subject to the third-largest tidal fluctuations in the world, making amphibious operations treacherous. None of the five selected invasion beaches were well enough connected to the others to allow mutual assistance when the going got extra tough. The planned landing was the equivalent of making five separate attacks instead of advancing on a continuous battle line. Defeat at any one of those Normandy beaches could spell doom for the largest seaborne assault in world history. &ldquoThe Allies were invading a continent where the enemy had immense capabilities for reinforcement and counterattack, not a small island cut off by sea power from sources of supply,&rdquo U.S. naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote. &ldquoEven a complete pulverizing of the Atlantic Wall at Omaha would have availed nothing if the German command had been given twenty-four hours&rsquo notice to move up reserves for counterattack. We had to accept the risk of heavy casualties on the beaches to prevent far heavier ones on the plateau and among the hedgerows.&rdquo
There was no deep-water port to support this massive operation. It was one thing to put Allied troops ashore on a hostile beach, but keeping them there was quite another story. The supply requirements for food and ammunition were immense. To gain a foothold, the invading Allied army would require 400 tons of supplies each day to support just one infantry division, and a staggering 1,200 tons a day for each armored division. The initial assault was intended to have eight divisions land, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The follow-up landings were to pour numerous other divisions ashore to form two armies.
And a landing at Normandy also meant that one of the great rivers of the world, the Seine, would be between the landing area and the objective&mdashthis being the industrial Rhine-Ruhr region leading into Nazi Germany. Rivers have proven to be great obstacles in military campaigns. A large, swollen river like the Seine would offer enemy defenders the opportunity to develop formidable lines.
Given all of these caveats, it&rsquos fair to wonder why Normandy was such an attractive location to President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and the other Allied planners. The most convincing argument in the region&rsquos favor was its proximity to the supporting Allied airfields in southern England. A second advantage, ironically enough, was Normandy&rsquos perceived unsuitability as a landing site. Since it was fraught with clear disadvantages, it was deemed the least likely spot in the German mind and therefore afforded the Allies an opportunity for surprise. Surprise was absolutely essential for Operation Overlord&rsquos success because the Germans controlled the interior lines of communications and could quickly react to any threat by rushing reinforcements from far-flung locations in occupied France.
In 1944 the common appreciation for an amphibious assault had been graphically displayed in newsreel film as American audiences watched U.S. Marine assaults on flyspeck islands in the central Pacific. Waves of landing craft broke upon the hostile beaches to initiate furious attacks against isolated Japanese defenders. The enemy rarely had air or naval support. The scenario became very familiar: Land the landing force cut the island in half by driving to the other side clear the first half and then clear the second half and, in the process, annihilate the defenders or drive them into the sea. It would all be over in days or weeks. Speed was of the essence.
But an amphibious landing at Normandy would be far different from landing on a tiny island like Wake or Iwo Jima in the central Pacific. This was the European continent, and the defenders were hardly isolated or lacking in reserves. In fact, the Third Reich had the ability to call upon up to 50 divisions in the vicinity of Normandy to react to an Allied attack.
An attack on the Normandy beaches can best be described as a showdown. Those beaches in northern France were the gates to the fortress, and if it was successful, then the entrance into the Continent would allow the military and industrial might of the Allies to pour onto the battlefield. That overwhelming might could then make victory a reasonable outcome. But if the attack failed, the consequences for democracy would be dire. The threat to Germany from the west would be over. Adolf Hitler would not have to fight on two fronts. Allied long-range air attacks against Germany would remain just that&mdashlong range&mdashand Hitler&rsquos aircraft and rocket development could continue (as could the machinery of the Final Solution).
And what about the Soviet Union? Premier Joseph Stalin had made it clear that he had no intention of absorbing the losses and bloodletting of the war so that the Anglo-American alliance might come in at the end to reap the rewards. When Secretary of State Cordell Hull reminded his Soviet counterpart that the United States had not been unbloodied and indeed had suffered 200,000 casualties during the war, the Soviet diplomat abruptly cut him off, saying, &ldquoWe lose that many each day before lunch.&rdquo And didn&rsquot Russia bow out of World War I? What was to preclude another retreat and the conclusion of a separate understanding with Germany if it was advantageous to the Soviet Union? It had made deals with the devil before.
Exhausted from years of war, Europeans in 1944 longed for the day when they would be liberated from the totalitarian grip of Germany. There seemed to be no end in sight, and Great Britain had nearly depleted its reserves of manpower. It had fought alone in the Battle of Britain and had endured the naval Battle of the Atlantic. It had fought in Norway, North Africa and Sicily. It was now fighting in Italy and in the Pacific. On December 11, 1941, Adolf Hitler&rsquos sudden declaration of war against the United States brought Britain the hope of salvation. But while there was guarded jubilation among the beleaguered British, American involvement in the war initially changed little. In two years of indecisive Allied operations against the Wehrmacht, the Anglo-American team had been able to attack only the fringes of the German Reich. The main Allied success, as we have seen in these pages, had been taking control of North Africa.
Everyone, including Winston Churchill, knew that the road to the end of the war ran through Berlin. But no one was marching to Berlin without first invading the Continent. The incorrigible Churchill declared, &ldquoUnless we can go and land and fight Hitler and beat his forces on land, we shall never win this war.&rdquo
On the other side, Hitler was equally astute concerning the inevitable Allied invasion attempt and the importance of defeating it: &ldquoOnce defeated, the enemy will never again try to invade . . . They would need months to organize a fresh attempt.&rdquo
Any Allied entry into Europe was going to be possible only by breaching the western wall of what had aptly been dubbed &ldquoFortress Europe.&rdquo In that respect, the Germans seemed to have all the military advantages. But the one advantage the Third Reich did not possess was superior intelligence capabilities. They were clueless as to where the invasion would come and could only speculate about potential landing sites. The Germans thought Calais the obvious landing point and made its beaches impregnable. Calais was situated less than 25 miles from the white cliffs of Dover across the English Channel, while the beaches of Normandy were 100 miles away.
The Germans had ignored Normandy, except for some basic defenses. Who would ever plan to land there? And if an attack were to come, how would it be supported without a port? General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) team were encouraged to see only minor German defensive activity all along the windswept Norman coast. Nonetheless, the only chance for the operation&rsquos success was to keep everything top secret. Eisenhower had succeeded in his role as Allied commander by remaining tight-lipped. If he hadn&rsquot carefully cultivated a culture of trust between Americans and Britons, then Operation Overlord would have been doomed before it even began.
But &ldquoleak proofing&rdquo is easier said than done, especially when it comes to the &ldquowhen&rdquo and &ldquowhere&rdquo of a massive invasion like D-Day. The enemy is usually tipped off by invasion preparations&mdashthe most obvious being the use of aerial bombing and naval gunfire to soften up the site. Eisenhower decided that secrecy trumped softening, so the days and weeks preceding the landings were marked by silence instead of preinvasion bombardment.
The Great Secret would also be safeguarded by the unleashing of a monumental Allied deception plan, designed to convince the Germans that the invasion would occur at a location other than Normandy. Part of that deception included the efforts of 28 middle-aged British -officers, who settled in to a castle in the far reaches of Scotland with radios and operators. They planted fear in the German mind of the existence of a massive 250,000-man force: the British Fourth Army, which was capable of invading Norway. Their phony network traffic&mdashpurposely communicated in a low-level cipher that they knew the listening Germans could easily break&mdashincluded requests for cold-weather gear and equipment.
If the D-Day invasion was to have a chance to succeed, the Germans would have to be continually misled. Churchill had told FDR that in wartime &ldquoTruth is so precious that she must often be attended by a bodyguard of lies.&rdquo
That bodyguard of lies led to the creation of many bizarre operations, not the least of which was the creation of a second, semifictitious Army group stationed in and around Dover. It was commanded by General George S. Patton, whom the German military leadership considered the best Allied combat leader. Wherever Patton was stationed, the Germans believed, the big invasion would surely follow. That meant they thought the cross-Channel attack would take place from Dover to Calais. At Dover, fake camps were constructed and tents erected to create the illusion that American soldiers were occupying them. Loudspeakers transmitted the recorded sounds of vehicles, tanks and camp activities that escaped through the trees and were heard in the surrounding towns. Guards were posted at the entrances and vehicles regularly moved in and out, but few people were actually actively engaged inside those gates.
Contributing to the deception were a whole host of agents and double agents all tasked to obscure and confuse. One such agent was the master of deception Juan Pujol Garcia, a Spaniard who assumed the code name Garbo. Posing as a German agent, he had created his own fictitious spy network of 20 operatives who supposedly fed him information about the Allies. Much of it was tantalizing and laced with elements of truth, but he passed it on to the Germans in such a fashion as to cause minimal damage to the Allied cause. Yet his accuracy was astounding to the Germans, and as a result he built impressive bona fides with the Abwehr (the German military intelligence). One of the many results of the deception plan was convincing Hitler that the Allies had 89 divisions when, in fact, they had only 47.
But despite all of the cloak-and-dagger work, Eisenhower still had to get the invading force ashore. That was no easy task at Normandy. Unlike other landing areas, Normandy has an enormous tidal wash that, twice a day, floods the beaches and then recedes. The 20-foot difference in elevation between low tide and high means that at high tide the water is 300 yards farther inland than at low. At high tide, the water covered the beach and the German obstacles and lapped at the wall.
Eisenhower planned to land at dead low tide, on five isolated beaches across a 60-mile front. Four of the beaches&mdashOmaha, Gold, Juno and Sword&mdashwere enclaves along the Norman coast. The fifth was figuratively out on the end of a limb, alone on the Cotentin Peninsula, 15 miles south of Cherbourg. It was named Utah Beach and, while a successful landing there would position the attackers to make a run to seize the deep-water port of Cherbourg, Allies who landed there would be the most vulnerable. Their only protection from an annihilating German counterattack would be if the two American airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, could drop and seize the narrow causeways that led to the beach across flooded fields.
Eisenhower was also faced with having to move the entire armada across the widest part of the English Channel, thereby increasing its possible discovery. He had to isolate the battlefield where he intended to land. He was confident that his force could deal with any military forces already within the confines of the battlefield, but it was imperative to keep reserves and reinforcements from entering into the fray, especially during the early hours of invasion, when the attack was still feeble. To do that he called upon the air forces to disrupt and destroy the German ability to move. The British Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Corps would bomb and attack bridges, railcars, rolling stock, train yards and tracks&mdash-essentially any target that could be used to transport German reserves to the battlefield. Eisenhower labeled this simply the Transportation Plan.
But here, he ran into a thorny problem&mdashnot from the enemy, but from his own British and American air officers. They contended that the execution of the air offensive should be left to them and that bombing transportation targets would greatly impair their ongoing Oil Plan. They believed that if oil supplies, refineries and storage facilities could be annihilated, then the German war machine would grind to a halt. Unlike Eisenhower, they didn&rsquot place transportation infrastructure high on the list of priority targets.
But Ike knew that the Transportation Plan would result in only a temporary halt of the Oil Plan. As Supreme Commander, he scoffed at the idea that he was not in charge of making determinations about the air forces. The air chiefs, however, did not share this belief and interpreted Eisenhower&rsquos duties and responsibilities as limited to command on the ground and at sea. Even Churchill sided with the air chiefs concerning the Oil Plan, but as the crisis mounted, it was Eisenhower who brought the argument to an abrupt halt. As Supreme Commander, he was ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the operation. Unless he was given control of the bombers to use as he saw fit to accomplish his mission, take care of his men and win at Normandy, he would &ldquosimply have to go home.&rdquo
He won the argument. He unleashed the Transportation Plan on the Wehrmacht and, in the run-up to D-Day, destroyed 900 locomotives, more than 16,000 railcars and countless miles of track. The Oil Plan was later resumed with enormous success.
Solving the problem of the lack of a deep-water port was more daunting. Such existing ports were at Cherbourg, Dieppe and Calais and were heavily defended. A failed August 1942 raid on the small French port of Dieppe had proven just how well defended. The attack was a calamity for the Allies that resulted in more than 4,000 Canadian casualties. Nazi newspapers had cheered about Hitler&rsquos forces decisively beating a huge invasion attempt.
The final answer to the port problem came in the form of an engineering marvel code-named Mulberry. Never before had an army tried to take its harbors with it to an invasion beach. A large consortium of British engineering companies tackled the problem of building two floating artificial harbors, each of which would have the unloading capacity of the Port of Dover. That port had taken seven years to build, but these floating ports had to be ready in 150 days. If the invasion proved successful, various parts of the Mulberry harbors would be towed across the English Channel to Normandy, where they would be assembled to make the two giant seaports.
The window of opportunity to launch this enormous attack was indeed a narrow one. There were four prerequisites. First was the tide. Eisenhower wanted to land on a late spring or early summer morning so he could use the night to conceal his seaborne approach to the Norman coast (and obscure his unloading operations). An early dawn landing offered some promise of surprise, and it would give him a full day of fighting to secure a foothold in France. The second consideration was the moon. The navy needed some light to maneuver the massive armada at sea, and the paratroopers would need at least some moonlight to allow them to find each other on the ground in the fields of France. The bombardiers also needed light to see and identify their targets.
The third and fourth prerequisites had to do with training. The 1944 landing would have to come early enough in the summer to allow a minimum of three months of good campaigning weather before the onset of winter, but it had to be late enough in the year to allow for the completion of training and, as we have learned, the construction of enough landing vessels, particularly the LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank). LSTs&mdashwhat one officer described as &ldquoa large, empty, self-propelled box&rdquo&mdashwere the linchpins of D-Day. There were well over 40 different types of these landing craft used in the invasion.
Those four major restrictions left only a few options in all of 1944 for possible invasion days. The first opportunity would be on May 1, followed by a few days during the first and third weeks in June. The Allies had set May 1 as D-Day, but immediately had to cancel when it became evident that the invasion was short 271 LSTs. Hopefully one month&rsquos delay would allow for the production of those additional ships. Churchill reportedly growled that the destinies of the &ldquotwo greatest empires seemed to be tied up in some goddamn thing called LSTs.&rdquo But Eisenhower set D-Day back to June 5 to have more of the vessels at his disposal.
The month of May brought gorgeous weather to Normandy. General Eisenhower was encouraged and moved his headquarters from London to Southwick House, near Portsmouth. Upon arrival, he sent a coded message to all his chief commanders: &ldquoExercise Hornpipe plus six.&rdquo That meant that June 5 was still confirmed as D-Day. He sent a second message to Washington: &ldquoHalcion plus 4,&rdquo meaning precisely the same thing.
But as fate would have it, almost as soon as Eisenhower sent those encouraging missives, signals arrived from American planes flying weather missions over Newfoundland. They showed that conditions were drastically changing off the East Coast of the United States. A great swirling front was developing, and this disruptive weather system was labeled &ldquoL5.&rdquo
By June 3, though the weather was beautiful over the English Channel, L5 was becoming a major problem. The chief of SHAEF&rsquos meteorological team, Group Captain James M. Stagg of the British Royal Air Force, followed its trajectory and then alerted Eisenhower that the weather prospects were not good. In fact, there was a possibility of Force 5 winds on June 4 and 5. Stagg reported that the whole North Atlantic was filled with a succession of depressions of a severe nature theretofore unrecorded in more than 40 years of modern meteorological research. He recommended postponing the operation.
A disappointed Eisenhower grilled Stagg and made a reluctant, provisional decision to postpone D-Day. His final decision would be made after the 4:15 meeting on the morning of June 4. The 6,000 ships of the invasion force were all in position, with the soldiers having been embarked for several days. Some vessels had even started the long crossing. The cross-Channel attack was like a drawn bowstring, straining for release, and L5 was in the way.
By 4:15, nothing had changed. At the meeting, Eisenhower polled his staff. Some bullheaded advisers wanted to go full throttle to Normandy, bad weather be damned. Others did not. The Allied Navy, under the command of Admiral Bertram Ramsay, said it would be unaffected by high winds and chop. But the planes would have a major problem, especially the troop carriers in charge of delivering the paratroopers. Without the paratroopers protecting the approaches to Utah Beach, that landing would have to be called off. Eisenhower postponed D-Day until June 6. The great armada, already at sea, was called back. The paratroopers were stood down for 24 hours, and Eisenhower and his staff would again meet at 21:30.
At 21:30, Stagg&rsquos predicted gale-force winds were driving the pouring rain horizontally into the windowpanes of Southwick House, the estate that served as the site of SHAEF&rsquos Advance Command Post. As Stagg entered the tension-filled room, he surprisingly modified his gloomy predictions and reported that despite the present stormy weather, the cloud conditions would improve and the winds would lessen after midnight. The weather would be tolerable, but no better than that.
Again Eisenhower polled his lieutenants, who were still divided. He finally declared, &ldquoI&rsquom quite positive the order must be given . . . I don&rsquot like it, but there it is.&rdquo Operation Overlord slipped back into gear, and the great armada rolled out into the English Channel. On June 5, Eisenhower left himself one last opportunity to recall the invasion at an early morning meeting scheduled for six hours later. At that 4:15 gathering, nothing had changed. Eisenhower gave the final order in three brisk words: &ldquoOkay, let&rsquos go.&rdquo
In the end, the weather didn&rsquot terribly disrupt the D-Day landings, and the blustery conditions lulled the Nazi defenders into thinking that an Allied attack was impossible. The invasion began on the wings of the airborne assault and its 21,100 paratroopers. On the eastern edge of the invasion area, the British 6th Airborne Division came in to seize and control key bridges to keep any German counterattack from striking the flank at Sword Beach and rolling up the invasion. On the west side of the battlefield, the American airborne dropped in to seize the towns of Carentan and Sainte-Mère-Église in order to control the road networks leading to Utah Beach.
The American sky train that flew to Normandy comprised 850 troop carriers. They flew in a formation nine planes wide and 300 miles long. It took great skill to avoid midair collisions, and radio silence was strictly maintained. A tiny blue dot on the tail of each aircraft was all that a pilot could see of the plane to his front. British air marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory had confided to Eisenhower that he thought up to 70 percent of the paratroopers could be killed, wounded or captured.
Eisenhower had joined these paratroopers at their airfields and remained until the last C-47s had disappeared into the night before retiring to his small trailer near Southwick House. He penned a note to be released if the invasion failed: &ldquoOur landings . . . have failed. And I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.&rdquo
The great sky train flew to the west of the Cotentin Peninsula and then turned to the east to cut across the narrow neck of land. Its approach was greeted by a heavy German antiaircraft barrage. Many men described the colorful display of tracers streaming up through the night as if they were Roman candles. When the flak struck the aircraft, it sounded like nails being thrown against the sides. The intense fire caused many aircraft to swerve to avoid midair collisions and others to increase their speeds to escape the streams of green and yellow fingers reaching into the sky.
The air over France was filled with parachuting soldiers. It was also filled with falling debris&mdashburning aircraft, detached rifles, helmets and packs ripped from the troopers by the impact of their parachutes opening. The drop was badly scattered, and paratroopers landed in trees, hedgerows, farm fields and on barns. Very few landed in their designated zones, but they were able to adapt thanks to their training and discipline. Some troopers joined other units and fought until they could find their own squads and platoons. Others attacked the Germans wherever they could find them. They all struggled to seize the causeways and gain control of the roads.
At two a.m. on June 6, the ships of the great armada halted 12 miles off the Normandy coast and began disembarking their soldiers into landing craft. The gigantic fleet had crossed the English Channel undetected and, by three o&rsquoclock, the small landing craft were already circling, awaiting their run to the beach. Then and only then came the prebombardment of the invasion area. There was one hour of battleship and heavy-ship naval gunfire, followed by one hour of a 2,000-plane bombing offensive.
The landing craft finally began their run-in to the five invasion beaches. Because of the diagonal direction of the incoming tide, the American beaches were assaulted at 6:30, one hour before the British beaches to the east. The American 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah Beach with its armor in the lead to easily sweep aside the small German defending force. The infantry came in next and moved off the beach. By noon they had linked up with the elements of the 101st Airborne that had earlier sealed off the approaches to the beach. The landings at Utah succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of the Allied planners the combined air and sea assault had worked perfectly despite the scattered paratroop drop. Leigh-Mallory&rsquos prediction that 70 percent of the paratroopers could be lost was, thankfully, off the mark. There were many fewer casualties, and the landing had generally surprised the German sentries.
Thirty miles to the east of Utah Beach, the American assault regiments of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions approached Omaha Beach, which was dominated by a looming 100-foot cliff. It was at this location that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had recognized this beach as a possible invasion site and ordered it fortified. For the next few months, the Germans had constructed concrete-and-steel defensive positions. There were 15 of these massively strong positions, called Widerstandsnests, covering the entire length of the six-mile beach, each bearing a number from 59 to 74.
Unlike at Utah Beach, the first wave to land at Omaha did so without armor. Only five of the 32 tanks assigned to the landing site made it to the beach, and those were immediately destroyed. The German fire along the beach was tremendous, especially from the Widerstandsnests, and the American line was broken. The Americans had run into a wall of steel, and camouflaged guns fired an enfilading crisscross pattern across the entire length of the beach. Twenty minutes later, there were few men who were not dead or wounded. And then, on their heels, came the second and third waves, each destined to meet the same fate.
The Americans were pinned down. Some hid behind beach obstacles. All along the beach, small groups attempted to crawl forward, knowing that salvation would be found off the beach. American officers ran up and down, yelling at the men to move out and telling them that the only way to survive was to get up to high ground. In twos and fours they crawled and clawed their way through barbed wire and mines to the sloping ground. With the help of direct fire from daring American destroyers, the Americans slowly pushed the Germans out of their positions. By 11 o&rsquoclock, the fire on the beach was diminished. A little after noon, the beach was mostly quiet.
But the effort to win at Omaha came at a tremendous cost. There were more than 2,000 casualties. The beach was strewn with wrecked vehicles and burning ships and boats. Some infantry units had lost most of their officers and many of their soldiers. The fight on that beach earned the name Bloody Omaha.
In the center of the invasion area, just four miles west of Omaha Beach, was a strange and dangerous place called Pointe du Hoc. It was a point of land that stuck out into the English Channel and rose 100 feet above the water between Omaha and Utah beaches. The Germans had fortified this promontory with large, 150mm guns that were able to fire on both beaches and therefore threaten the entire invasion. Eisenhower knew that this fortification had to be taken and ordered the Rangers of the 2nd and 5th Battalions to eliminate the threat. Unlike at the beaches, Pointe du Hoc had no shoreline. The Rangers would have to scale the steep cliffs to attack the guns.
&ldquoWhen we went into battle after all this training there was no shaking of the knees or weeping or praying,&rdquo U.S. lieutenant James Eikner of Mississippi recalled. &ldquoWe knew what we were getting into. We knew every one of us had volunteered for extra hazardous duty. We went into battle confident . . . We were intent on getting the job done. We were actually looking forward to accomplishing our mission.&rdquo No matter how many oral histories are collected about D-Day, it&rsquos still impossible to understand what each man felt as he crossed the English Channel. There was not a singular kind of war experience for the survivors of that day.
Arriving in eight landing craft, the Rangers fired hooks and grapnels with attached ropes from mortar tubes on the boats. When they snagged on the barbed wire or the ground on top of the cliff, the Rangers began to climb, hand over hand. Once at the top, they attacked the surprised Germans, swept them aside and rushed to the fortifications to silence the guns. But the concrete casements had no guns. In their place were protruding telephone poles disguised to look like guns in order to deceive aerial photography.
The Rangers secured the position and moved inland to block the coastal road that ran behind all the invasion beaches. But two Rangers reconnoitered a dirt path that ran between the hedgerows separating the farm fields. A short distance down the road, they found real guns, well hidden under camouflage netting and aimed at Utah Beach. The Germans had no idea that there were any Americans within miles of their position, and while the gun crews were at the far end of the field listening to a German -officer -issuing orders, the Rangers squeezed through the hedges and disabled the guns with thermite grenades before creeping out. The guns were eliminated. Though the Germans furiously counterattacked the -Rang-ers for the next two days, the Rangers held on. Those five German guns, capable of wreaking havoc on the invasion force, remained silent on D-Day.
Farther to the east, the Canadian 3rd Division approached Juno Beach. But because of buffeting currents and difficult navigation, their landing craft arrived after the rising tide had covered many of the beach obstacles. The boats began to strike these obstacles, which were called tetrahedrons, hedgehogs and Belgian gates. Great pilings had been anchored in the sand with mines attached to the tips. As the boats snagged on them or had their bottoms ripped out or exploded, the vessels sank, taking their embarked soldiers with them. Whole boat teams were lost in the surf of Juno Beach.
From the land, German defenders fired on the boats that managed to avoid the mines, until some of the Canadian soldiers finally landed and were able to push through the shallow German defenses. But half of their boats had been damaged, and more than a third forever lost. By late morning, the Canadian division had gained control of the beach, but at a cost of more than 1,000 men.
The British landings at Sword and Gold beaches were huge successes. The British 3rd and 50th Divisions made great progress and moved aggressively inland from their beaches. By two o&rsquoclock, elements of the British amphibious forces from Sword had linked up with the 6th Airborne, which was protecting the east flank of the invasion area. The forces at Gold Beach achieved most of their objectives and were the only unit to link up with an adjacent beach when they joined forces with the Canadians on Juno. &ldquoD-Day was a success, and the Allies had breached Hitler&rsquos seawall,&rdquo President Ronald Reagan noted on the 38th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. &ldquoThey swept into Europe, liberating towns and cities and countrysides until the Axis powers were finally crushed. We remember D-Day because the French, British, Canadians and Americans fought shoulder to shoulder for democracy and freedom&mdashand won.&rdquo
As D-Day ended, the Allies were far short of the grand objectives that had been optimistically set for the day. The old aphorism that &ldquono plan survives first contact with the enemy&rdquo held true. But the Allies were dug in all across the front, and the German army had not been able to hurl them back into the sea. These young soldiers didn&rsquot know that they still faced seven weeks of hard fighting before the Normandy campaign would be won. But in those next seven weeks, through newsreels and photography, the world followed them through the shattered French villages, first to capture Cherbourg and finally to break out of Normandy at Saint-Lô. You see that imagery on these pages. Cameras captured Allied forces as they were greeted every step of the way by the suddenly free French people.
A young French girl who had sought to help the wounded on Sword Beach that D-Day morning saw the war&rsquos end in sight. To her, D-Day was the moment when -liberty was reclaimed for the world. She said, &ldquoWhen I saw the invasion fleet, it was something that you just can&rsquot imagine. It was boats, boats, boats and boats at the end, boats at the back, and the planes coming over. If I had been a German, I would have looked at this, put my arms down, and said, &lsquoThat&rsquos it. Finished!&rsquo&rdquo
D-Day: 6th Airborne Division’s Glider Four Encountered An Unexpected Turn of Events
On the morning of June 6, 1944, a handful of gliders carrying a handpicked strike force landed behind enemy lines in France and set out to destroy bridges along the Orne River and the Caen Canal. For most of the glider-borne force, the mission proceeded pretty much according to plan. In fact, the assault would go down in the history books as one of Britain’s most notable D-Day successes. But for the troops who came across the English Channel in Glider No. 4, June 6 would turn into a confusing, if ultimately rewarding, episode in their own Normandy experiences. Today the story of those men who rode to battle in Glider No. 4 is largely forgotten.
The idea for the daring British glider attacks began in the mind of Maj. Gen. Richard Gale, widely known as ‘Windy.’ Gale commanded the British 6th Airborne Division in 1944 as General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff were fleshing out the plans for the invasion of Normandy. Eisenhower’s plan was for an amphibious assault, shrouded in secrecy and deception, which would storm five invasion beaches along the Norman coast, gain a foothold and then break out to advance through France. Failure was a very real possibility if the Germans got wind of the operation and were able to meet the Allied invasion at the beaches with superior forces.
Those superior forces, including the entire German Fifteenth Army, were stationed to the east of Normandy around Pas de Calais, awaiting an anticipated invasion. It was an obvious location, since Calais was the shortest distance across the Channel — only 25 miles from Dover. But Eisenhower instead chose to send his troops across the longest distance: almost 100 miles from England to Normandy. That move would afford him some advantage in the form of surprise, but any initial success gained through that measure could be negated if the Fifteenth Army reacted quickly and moved its forces to the west. The Germans could strike Eisenhower’s vulnerable left flank at Sword Beach and then systematically roll up his entire force with continuing flanking attacks, smashing west along the Norman coast.
Eisenhower tasked General Gale with preventing that dreaded flank attack. Gale’s lightly armed paratroopers — seemingly the least likely unit to stop an armored thrust — were the only force capable of getting in quickly. Speed was vital. Once in Normandy, they would have to hold until relieved. And if things did not go well for the rest of the invasion force, that could be a tall order.
Gale planned to drop his division east of Sword Beach and destroy the bridges along the Dives River, 10 miles farther to the east. He would then have his troopers form a semicircular defense behind the Dives, where they would await their fate. But there was one problem. The Caen Canal and the Orne River ran adjacent to Sword Beach and would be directly behind his defenses facing the Dives. Gale’s men would be vulnerably sandwiched between the Dives and those two bodies of water.
If the attacking German forces could destroy the bridges over the Orne River and the Caen Canal, they would have succeeded in isolating Gale’s men from the very beaches they were trying to protect. The British 6th Airborne Division would then be left on its own, fighting with its back to the water, facing possible annihilation. To overcome this unpleasant possibility, General Gale conceived of a strike force that would land in gliders prior to the main parachute drop. Six gliders carrying a total of 180 men would land and attempt to seize the two bridges intact, before the Germans could destroy them.
The bold plan, even on paper, did not look easy. It would fail if not executed perfectly, but Gale thought it had a reasonable chance of success. The 6th Airborne’s commander reasoned that the forces defending the bridges might be somewhat lethargic. After all, the Germans had occupied northern France for four long years, during which time they had been guarding many such crossings against little or no opposition.
If Gale was right, a lightning strike might succeed in seizing the bridges before the defenders realized what was happening. Intelligence reports indicated that the bridges were wired for demolition, but it seemed unlikely that detonation wires were actually hooked to a ‘hellbox’ that could trigger a detonation. A commander would probably not want to risk an accidental explosion.
Even in the event of a surprise attack, Gale concluded, the German guards would not simply blow the bridge on hearing the first shot. It would take several minutes for the defenders to determine what was really happening.
Adding up all his suppositions, Gale estimated that he had five minutes to get to the bridges and disarm them before the defenders would put two and two together. If the attack took longer than that, Gale feared that the crossings could not be seized intact and his division would be in grave peril.
To lead a force that would have to mount the attack, Gale and his planners chose Major John Howard and Company D, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Howard was allowed to reinforce his company’s four platoons by adding two additional platoons from Company B, along with 30 sappers from the Royal Engineers.
Howard’s force was regarded by many as one of the most elite in the British army. One veteran trainer — who had participated in the exercises to prepare Howard’s men before the mission — watched as the troops hurled themselves onto barbed-wire barricades so that following men could use their bodies as stepping-stones over the wire. Shaking his head, he said, ‘I pity the bloody Germans these buggers are mad!’
Howard’s second-in-command was a good-looking captain named Brian Priday. The plan was for three gliders under Howard to land and seize the bridge on the Caen Canal, while the remaining three gliders under Captain Priday seized the bridge over the Orne River. Four hundred yards separated the two bridges over the waterways.
Throughout May, Howard and his men practiced their attack. They conducted a dozen mock assaults on sites replicating the two-bridge objective, while the glider pilots flew 43 training flights. At the conclusion of the training period, the ‘Ox and Bucks’ men were so conditioned that some felt they could probably do the job in their sleep.
Finally, at the end of May, the whole force was sealed in at the RAF base at Tarrant Rushton, while the rest of the Normandy assault force went into quarantined areas all across southern England. They could now only await the order to attack. Each morning his men spent at Tarrant Rushton, Howard awaited a dispatch rider carrying a single-word order that would mean that the attack was on. The word that Howard was looking for was ‘Cromwell.’ All other words were meaningless and meant the attack had yet to begin. On Sunday, June 4, the rider stopped and whispered the magic word to Howard. But Eisenhower was forced to postpone operations because of a fierce storm over the Channel.
On June 5 the weather was still foul, and Howard was somewhat surprised when the dispatch rider delivered his Cromwell message once again. By 10 p.m., the Ox and Bucks men were ready to board their gliders.
Howard went around to all his men as they were standing next to their aircraft. ‘I gave my `Ham and Jam’ farewell,’ Howard later said. ‘Those words were very important to us.’ ‘Ham’ was the success code word for capturing the Caen Canal Bridge intact, and ‘Jam’ was the success code for the Orne River Bridge. Howard then took his seat in Glider No. 1, while Brian Priday boarded Glider No. 4, along with platoon commander Lieutenant Tony Hooper and his unit, including Lance Sgt. Tich Raynor and Lance Cpl. Felix Clive.
Takeoff time was scheduled for 10:56, and right on the dot Howard’s Airspeed Horsa glider was airborne, towed by a Handley Page Halifax bomber. The other five gliders were right in line behind Howard. Glider No. 2 had David Wood’s platoon, No. 3 had Sandy Smith’s unit, No. 4 was occupied by Tony Hooper’s men, No. 5 carried Dennis Fox’s platoon and No. 6 was filled with Todd McSweeney’s unit. The crossing over the Channel would take just over an hour. Through the portholes of the gliders, the troops could see other planes headed toward targets that were to be bombed prior to the invasion.
In Glider No. 1, Howard’s men started to loosen up a bit, some of them even singing Cockney tunes as a way to pass the time during their journey. But the singing only masked their nervousness about what they might face on landing. The men had been shown the most recent aerial photos, and they had seen newly dug holes in the Normandy countryside for anti-glider stakes, nicknamed ‘Rommel asparagus’ by Allied troopers. Many of those holes appeared near the bridge landing sites. Each man had plenty to think about as the gliders neared the French coast.
The tow planes and gliders crossed over the town of Cabourg, at which point the glider pilots cut themselves loose from the bombers. Once free of the tow planes, the gliders were in free flight at 6,000 feet, and each plane went into a steep dive to get through the flak belt being thrown up by the German anti-aircraft guns targeting the bombers that droned onward.
The steep dive brought painful pressure to the ears, and to relieve it each man blew hard while holding his nose. Many of the paratroopers fought queasiness as the powerless aircraft swooped downward in the darkness. In the cockpits, co-pilots began monitoring stopwatches as pilots checked their compasses to make the exacting runs on the downwind and upwind legs of the flight. They would have to work to stretch the glide out far enough to reach the bridges 10 miles away.
In Glider No. 1, pilot Jim Wallwork held the aircraft steady while John Ainsworth called out, -4-3-2-1-bingo, right turn.’ The glider turned to starboard and onto the course of the crosswind leg. Wallwork strained to see what lay ahead of them in the light from a half-moon.
‘Halfway down the crosswind leg, I could see it,’ Wallwork later recalled. ‘I could see the river and the canal like strips of silver and I could see the bridges. So then, to hell with the course, I didn’t complete the crosswind leg. I bowled down and landed rather quickly.’
Wallwork glided in at 95 mph. He was a little fast, having hoped to come in at 85. He deployed his arrester parachute for a few seconds, then released it and crashed into the corner of a small triangular field next to the Caen Canal Bridge. The nose wheel came off, the cockpit collapsed and Wallwork and Ainsworth were thrown through the cockpit. The rest of the men were tossed about as well, with Howard smashing his head on a beam, which jammed his helmet down over his eyes. For a brief moment Howard thought he had suddenly been blinded, but he quickly recovered his wits and found his platoon commander, Lieutenant Den Brotheridge.
Kneeling next to Brotheridge, Howard heard him give his section leader a simple, four-word order: ‘Get your chaps moving.’ Nothing more was necessary. Each man knew just what to do. In minutes, men of No. 1 platoon were racing across the bridge, firing as they ran and tossing grenades into bunkers. A flare went off, fired by a German sentry.
One minute after Glider No. 1 landed, Glider No. 2 was down. ‘I dropped to the ground with an almighty crash,’ said pilot Oliver Boland, ‘and we crashed along and managed to stop.’
Directly behind No. 2 came No. 3, which initially touched down behind Glider No. 2 but then shot into the air and sailed over No. 2, crash-landing between it and Glider No. 1. Number 3 broke in half upon the second impact and hurled Private Fred Diggs into a pond, pinning him there until he drowned. Had the glider not become airborne after its first impact, it would have crashed into the rear of glider No. 2, and two-thirds of Howard’s force might have been wiped out upon landing.
Now the attackers’ intense training paid off. The men from the second and third gliders moved quickly to accomplish their assigned tasks, and within five minutes the bridge over the Caen Canal was in British hands. Engineers checked the span for explosives and found that not only were the wires not hooked to the hellbox but the explosives themselves were not fixed in the holders attached to the bridge supports. Instead, they had been stored in a shed situated just off the far side of the bridge. Gale’s assessment of a bored and lethargic bridge defense force had been more than accurate.
For the first 15 minutes there was no word from the other bridge over the Orne River. Howard asked his radioman, Corporal Tappendan, over and over, ‘Any from four, five, or six?’ The answer was, ‘No, no, no.’ Finally, Dennis Fox from Glider No. 5 called in that the Orne Bridge had been captured. Within minutes of that report, Glider No. 6 landed and Todd McSweeney’s troops came racing to the bridge. The attackers had achieved total surprise, and the British now controlled both bridges. Ecstatic, Howard ordered Tappendan to send out the success signal. Tappendan lay down on the road by the canal bridge and transmitted, ‘Hello Four Dog, Hello Four Dog, Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam!’ He paused for an answer, but there was only silence on the airwaves. Then he tried again, ‘Hello Four Dog, Hello Four Dog, Ham and Jam, Ham and Jam.’ But try as he might, no one answered him. At that very moment, the rest of 6th Airborne was descending onto the Ranville Plain. A radio in that force had been set to their frequency, but no one answered.
‘For a solid hour I lay on that road,’ Tappendan recalled. ‘I finally got so frustrated that I said, `Hello Four Dog, Hello Four Dog, Ham and Jam, Ham and Bloody Jam, why don’t you answer me?”
Tappendan had no way of knowing that the radio tuned to his frequency had been lost in the jump, so no one knew that Howard’s force had captured the bridges intact. The major began consolidating his positions, preparing for the anticipated German counterattack.
The successful taking of the bridges had not been without cost. Two men had been killed — Diggs, who had drowned in the pond, and Howard’s platoon commander, Brotheridge, who had been shot through the neck on the far side of the bridge.
But those losses seemed relatively minor when Howard learned that Glider No. 4 was apparently missing. That meant 30 men might have been lost, including two of his officers, Lieutenant Hooper and his second-in-command, Captain Priday. Lieutenant Fox reported that he had seen the glider while he was in the air. ‘I saw Brian Priday’s tug and glider going off at an angle,’ he told Howard, ‘and I thought the pilot was going to circle and come in.’ But the glider never arrived.
At that point, Glider No. 4 was still very much in action. Coming in over Cabourg, the crew had cast off from their tug and dived toward the ground. Somehow, however, the pilot then became disoriented and flew in a great circle, finally spotting a silver stream of water reflected in the moonlight. Deciding that he had spotted his target, the glider pilot made his approach and set the plane down smooth as velvet on the left bank of the river. ‘We had a very comfortable, soft landing in the water on the riverbank,’ said Lance Cpl. Clive. ‘We got out and were only fifty yards from the bridge, and Captain Priday led the way.’
We rushed the bridge,’ recalled Sergeant Raynor, ‘and we took the bridge. There was a German sentry there and he ran away. He left his helmet on the parapet of the bridge and ran.’
Priday’s men would eventually realize that they had seized the wrong bridge, a Dives River crossing near Robehomme that was about 10 miles from their real objective. But it would take a while for them to understand what had happened.
Lieutenant Hooper immediately went off toward the right, down the road in the direction of the invasion area. Captain Priday split his force, so that half of the men occupied each end of the bridge over the Dives.
Just then German fire came from Hooper’s direction, with one shot hitting the wireless operator in the head and killing him instantly. Then, from the same direction, Raynor and Priday could see dark figures approaching. The 13 troopers on that end of the bridge flattened themselves into the grass along the bridge embankment. In the moonlight, they could make out the familiar figure of Lieutenant Hooper. But he was not walking confidently. He had his boots tied around his neck, with his hands over his head, marching in front of a German soldier who had a submachine gun pointed at his back.
Raynor was on one side of the road and Priday on the other. When Hooper and the German were only 10 yards from them they shouted out together, ‘Jump, Tony!’ Hooper jumped into the ditch to get away from the German, and as he did so Raynor and Priday each emptied a full magazine in the direction of the enemy soldier. Several of the other paratroopers also fired, and the German went down. But as he fell he pulled the trigger. A spray of bullets cut Priday’s map case in half, and one bullet tore into Sergeant Raynor’s arm.
The men of Glider No. 4 set up a defensive position for the rest of the night. As the gray light of dawn approached, Corporal Clive saw a Frenchman with a young boy approach the bridge from the east, where the surrounding fields were swampy and flooded. By this time Priday had figured out that his group was probably some distance away from its actual target. He confirmed their location with the Frenchman and boy, who told the paratroopers how to get to their objective.
Priday then briefed everyone that they were at the wrong bridge and sent his men off to join Howard. One by one, the men descended from the roadway and began moving through the flooded fields toward the town of Robehomme.
After almost three hours of exhausting wading, the paratroopers came to a farmhouse. Although the British troops stopped short of entering the dwelling itself, since they knew the Germans were likely to execute anyone who had helped Allied forces, they explained who they were to the inhabitants and then moved inside a thatched outbuilding.
Suddenly a group of Germans arrived on the scene, parking their motorcycles with sidecars in the yard not 20 yards away from the hidden British troopers. Raynor later estimated that 30 motorcycles showed up. As the British force had a specific job — to get to the bridge and take it — they did not engage the enemy troops, remaining out of sight.
After two hours, the motorcycles left one by one. Only then could Priday’s force move on. They finally arrived in Robehomme, where they met up with some Canadian engineers and other paratroopers who had become separated from their units. Raynor at last had his arm attended to, and the force was able to follow some dry roads toward Ranville, evading German units along the way.
At 3 a.m. on June 7, Priday’s force made it to the objective and linked up with the rest of Howard’s glider force. He had led his own men and all those who joined him at Robehomme safely to Ranville. A surprised and delighted Howard, who had given them up as lost, greeted them joyfully.
Company D, Ox and Bucks, had succeeded in its daring mission and had actually captured three bridges on D-Day — one more river crossing than the paratroopers had originally had in their sights. In doing so they had achieved one of the most important victories of D-Day and added new luster to the mystique of Britain’s airborne forces, the ‘Red Devils.’
Monday, June 06, 2011
Written in 2007 by a friend of mine, Dale Franks:
It actually started on June 5th. And it almost didn’t start then. The weather had turned bad. A great storm had blown in from the Atlantic. High wind and high seas had forced ships of all kinds back into bays and inlets. Low clouds made it impossible for aircraft to find landmarks. If the weather didn’t break, nothing would happen until at least July.
But the weather did break, and so, it began only a day later than planned.
There must have been about, oh, I don’t know, 15 of us there. Our two great men were there, Monty and Eisenhower. The poor weatherman had to talk first. Eisenhower asked Monty what he felt. ”Sure, I’ll do whatever you say, you know. We’re ready.” Then Eisenhower very calmly said, ”We’ll go.”
150,000 soldiers—American, British, Canadian, French, and many others—embarked on 5,000 ships, began moving towards places known today as St. Lô, Vierville-sur-Mer, Pouppeville, Arromanches, La Rivière-Saint-Sauveur, Pointe-du-hoc, Ouistreham.
The men on those ships, for the most part, didn’t know those names. They had simpler terms for the beaches where they would be spending the day—and for many, the rest of their lives. They called them Juno, Sword, Gold, Omaha, and Utah.
There were soldiers from many nations involved that day, all of whom deserve to be recognized and remembered. But as an American, it is the men from my country that I will write about.
Only about 15% of them had ever seen combat. But by this time, cold, wet, seasick, crammed into airless holds, or huddled on unprotected decks, many of them preferred combat to what they were going through on board ship.
Get us off these ships. I don’t care what’s waiting for us.
As it happened, though, it didn’t begin on the beaches, but in the air. On the night of June 5th, an armada of over 800 C-47 transport planes ferried the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions over the invasion fleet towards France. For them, the weather was still pretty bad. And it was dark.
It was going to be difficult. Everything depended on landing the pathfinders in the right place. Then the pathfinders had to light the dim beacons for the landing zones. The pilots carrying the airborne forces had to see the beacons, then they had to fly precisely, right over the landing zones.
And the Germans. Always the Germans, with searchlights and flares and the 88mm anti-aircraft cannon—the “flak” guns.
Getting everyone down alive, together, and ready to fight was going to be a chancy business. And the airborne troops knew it.
I lined up all the pilots. I says, ”I don’t give a damn what you do, but for one thing. If you’re going to drop us on a hill or if you’re going to drop us on our zone, drop us all in one place.”
But…they didn’t. The airborne forces were scattered. Almost no one landed on their programmed landing zone. Units from the two airborne divisions were scattered and intermixed, forcing officers and NCOs to create scratch units on the spot, with whomever they could find. The 101st Airborne Division commander, Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, found that his new “unit” consisted of himself, his deputy commander, a colonel, several captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels…and three enlisted men. He quipped, “Never have so few been commanded by so many.”
And still they fought. Gen. Taylor soon had gathered a force of 90 officers, clerks, MPs, and a smattering of infantrymen. With them, he liberated the town of Pouppeville. Elsewhere, American soldiers gathered into groups, and struck out for an objective. Even if it wasn’t their objective, it was someone’s, and they were going to take and hold it.
And when they took it from the Germans, the Germans tried to take it back. But the paratroopers held.
It was a terrible day for paratroopers, but they did terrible fighting in there and they really made their presence known.
By this time, the Germans knew something was going on, if not precisely what. Their responses were confused. Their commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had returned to Germany for a brief leave. He wasn’t the only one absent that night. The 21st Panzer Division’s commander, Lt. Gen. Edgar Feuchtinger, was spending the night in Paris with his mistress. Col. Gen. Freiderich Dollman, commander of the 7th Army, and many of his staff officers and commanders, were 90 miles away in Rennes, on a map exercise. Ironically, the scenario for that exercise was countering an airborne landing.
The Germans were surprised, yet subordinate commanders began to take the initiative, seeking out the paratroops and engaging them, trying to determine what was happening. Was it the invasion? A diversion from the expected landings in Calais? What was happening?
Then, as the black night gave way to the cold, gray dawn of June 6th, they began to find out. Looming out of the fog, a vast armada of haze gray ships and landing craft began to move ashore.
At 5:50am, the warships began shelling Utah and Omaha Beaches. In the exchange of fire with German artillery on Utah Beach, one of the landing control ships was sunk. As a result, when the first wave came ashore on Utah beach at 6:30am, they were 2,000 yards south of their designated landing point.
It was a blessing in disguise. There was almost no enemy opposition. Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. made a personal reconnaissance past Utah beach, and found the beach exits almost undefended. He returned to the beach to coordinate the push inland. By the end of the day, 197 Americans were dead around Utah Beach, but the landing force had pushed inland.
At Omaha Beach, the story was much bleaker.
At around 6:30am, 96 tanks, an Army-Navy special Engineer Task Force, and eight companies of assault infantry went ashore, right into the teeth of withering machine-gun fire. Despite heavy bombardment, the German defenses were intact. Because the landing was at low tide, the men had to cross 185 yards of flat, open beach, as the well-protected German gunners cut them down. Tanks were sunk in their landing ships, or blown up at the edge of the water.
Them poor guys, they died like sardines in a can, they did. They never had a chance.
The men from the 29th Division’s 116 Regimental Combat Team (RCT) and the 1st Division’s 16th RCT were pushed off course in their landing craft by strong currents, and landed with machine gun bullets spanging off the gunwhales of their LCT’s. When the bow ramp dropped, men were riddled with bullets before they could even move. Others, jumping off the sides of the ramp, burdened with their equipment, drowned as they landed in water over their heads. Many more died on the beach, at the water’s edge.
You couldn’t lay your hand down without you didn’t touch a body. You had to weave your way over top of the corpses.
The first instinct for many was to crouch behind the steel anti-tank obstacles, to take cover behind the bodies of fallen comrades, to try and scrape shallow trenches with their hands. And yet, they couldn’t. More assault waves were on the way, and the volume of fire was so great that to stay where they were meant certain death. The beach had to be cleared for the incoming waves of infantry, but to move across that open beach also seemed like a death sentence.
He started yelling, ”God damn it, get up. Move in. You’re going to die, anyway. Move in and die.”
And so they did. They crossed that empty expanse of beach to the only cover to be had, a narrow strip of rock shingle at the base of the cliffs, below a short, timber seawall.
Those who made it to the shingle in those first hours…just stopped. Behind them was a carpet of bodes, and a tide that ran red with blood, making the spray from the curling waves a sickly pink. Ahead of them were intact and well-armed German defenders. Those men cowering on the shingle behind the low seawall had seen their units decimated, watched successive waves being slaughtered as they hit the beach. Shocked and disorganized, they stayed beneath the seawall, in the only narrow strip of safety they could find.
Meanwhile, at Point-du-hoc, at 7:00am, the men of the 2nd Ranger battalion came ashore beneath the cliffs. Their mission was to climb the steep cliffs with grappling hooks and ropes, to capture the German heavy artillery threatening the Omaha and Utah landings.
Under heavy fire from the cliffs, they fired back with the small mortars that launched the grappling hooks. With their fellow rangers dying on the beach beside them, they grasped the ropes and climbed. They climbed until German riflemen picked them off. They climbed while they watched their buddies arch in pain, and then fall headlong to the rocky beach below. They climbed as the men above them plummeted into them while falling, threatening to tear their fragile grip from the rope. They climbed and climbed.
And when they got to the top, the Germans were ready for them. But the Rangers were ready, too. So they fought their way through the pillboxes and trenches surrounding the gun emplacements. Pushing through the Germans, killing them to capture the guns.
And when they did, they discovered that the guns weren’t there. The men of the 2nd Ranger battalion had captured empty concrete emplacements, at the cost of half their number.
Back on Omaha Beach, the carnage continued.
Confusion, total confusion. We were just being slaughtered.
And as for the men (Huh. “Men.” Most of them hadn’t yet seen their twentieth summer.) who had survived the holocaust on the beach, and who now hid behind the tiny cover of the shingle? Well, who could have blamed them if they had just quit? Decided that this one taste of violence and death was enough for a lifetime? Decided that they didn’t want to face what must have seemed like inevitable and horrible, painful death?
And yet…they didn’t. Somehow, they gathered whatever courage was left to them, and began to try and figure out how to get off that beach, and move inland.
We were recreating from this mass of twisted bodies a fighting unit again, and it was done by soldiers, not by the officers.
It was C Company of the 116th RCT, accompanied by men from the 5th Ranger Battalion, that began the push. At the top of the seawall was a narrow road, and on the other side of it, protecting a draw, was a mesh of barbed wire. Pvt. Ingram E. Lambert jumped over the wall, crossed the road, and set a Bangalore torpedo in the barbed wire obstacle. He pulled the igniter, but nothing happened. Caught in the open, Pvt. Lambert was cut down by machine gun fire.
His platoon leader, 2d Lt. Stanley M. Schwartz, crossed the road, fixed the igniter, and blew the torpedo. The men of C Company and 5th Rangers began crossing through the gap, some falling to enemy fire. As they left the beach, and assaulted through the draw, others followed. Those men shivering behind the seawall grabbed their rifles, stood up, and began leaving the beach, moving toward the Germans.
Other breaches in the German defenses followed. Company I of the 116th RCT breached the strongpoints defending les Moulins draw. The 1st Section of Company E, 16th RCT, who had come ashore in the first wave, along with elements of two other companies, blew their own gap in the wire, and moved inland. Company G, 16th RCT, needed four Bangalore torpedoes to cut a single lane in the wire and anti-personnel mines that were set up with trip wires.
The breaches were narrow, and tenuous. Follow-on waves still faced murderous fire from the bluffs overlooking the beaches, and there was still confusion as the timetable was set back by the initial fury of German defenses. The 18th RCT was originally scheduled to land at 10:30am, but didn’t get on the beach until 1:00pm. The 118th RCT was delayed even more.
By the end of the day 3393 Americans were dead or missing, 3184 wounded, and 26 captured. But the breaches in the German defenses had been made. The Americans were ashore, and they were moving inland. The “Atlantic Wall” had been broken, but at a heavy cost.
When I was relieved and I walked by, oh God, the guys that died that day — all those beautiful, wonderful friends of mine, the day before, the night before, kidding and joking.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was the German Army’s Commander in Chief, West. He was a crusty old soldier who disdained the flashy accouterments of rank that a German field marshal usually wore. He was content to attach his batons to the shoulders of his old regimental colonel’s uniform. He was also a realist.
Knowing what D-Day meant, he called the Chief of Operations for the German Armed forces, Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl. “What do you suggest we do now, Herr Feldmarschall?” Jodl asked.
“End the war, you fools! What else can you do?” replied the old warrior.
All quotes taken from the PBS documentary, D-Day.
Posted by McQ on Monday, June 06, 2011 at 11:50 AM in Fallen But Never Forgotten | Permalink | Comments (4)
Landing operations Edit
In late 1943, as part of the build-up to D-day, the British government set up a training ground at Slapton Sands, Devon, to be used by Force "U", the American forces tasked with landing on Utah Beach. Slapton Beach was selected for its similarity to Utah Beach: a gravel beach, followed by a strip of land and then a lake. Approximately 3,000 local residents in the area of Slapton,  now South Hams District of Devon, were evacuated.  Some had never left their villages before being evacuated. 
Landing exercises started in December 1943. Exercise Tiger was one of the larger exercises that took place in April and May 1944. The exercise was to last from 22 April until 30 April 1944, and covered all aspects of the invasion, culminating in a beach landing at Slapton Sands. On board nine large tank landing ships (LSTs), the 30,000 troops prepared for their mock landing, which also included a live-firing exercise.
Protection for the exercise area came from the Royal Navy. Two destroyers, three Motor Torpedo Boats and two Motor Gun Boats patrolled the entrance to Lyme Bay and Motor Torpedo Boats watched the Cherbourg area where German E-boats were based.
The first phase of the exercise focused on marshalling and embarkation drills, and lasted from 22 to 25 April. On the evening of 26 April the first wave of assault troops boarded their transports and set off, the plan being to simulate the Channel crossing by taking a roundabout route through Lyme Bay, in order to arrive off Slapton at first light on 27 April.
Friendly fire incident Edit
The first practice assault took place on the morning of 27 April   and was marked by an incident involving friendly fire. H-hour was set for 07:30, and was to include live ammunition to acclimatize the troops to the sights, sounds and even smells of a naval bombardment. During the landing itself, live rounds were to be fired over the heads of the incoming troops by forces on land, for the same reason. This followed an order made by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, who felt that the men must be hardened by exposure to real battle conditions.  The exercise was to include naval bombardment by ships of Force U Bombardment Group fifty minutes prior to the landing. 
Several of the landing ships for that morning were delayed, and the officer in charge, American Admiral Don P. Moon, decided to delay H-hour for 60 minutes, until 08:30.  Some of the landing craft did not receive word of the change. Landing on the beach at their original scheduled time, the second wave came under fire, suffering an unknown number of casualties. Rumours circulated along the fleet that as many as 450 men were killed. 
On the day after the first practice assaults, early on the morning of 28 April, the exercise was blighted when Convoy T-4, consisting of eight LSTs carrying vehicles and combat engineers of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade, was attacked by German E-boats in Lyme Bay [a] Nine German E-boats had left Cherbourg shortly after midnight, avoiding the British MTBs watching the port area and patrols in the English Channel. 
Around 0130 hrs six E-boats of the 5. S-Boot Flottille (5th E-Boat Flotilla) commanded by Korvettenkapitän Bernd Klug saw eight dark ships and split into three pairs to attack with torpedoes: first Rotte 3 (S-136 & S-138), then Rotte 2 under Oberleutnant zur See Goetschke (S-140 & S-142), then Rotte 1 (S-100 & S-143). The final three E-boats of the nine, S-Boot Flottille commanded by Korvettenkapitän Götz Freiherr von Mirbach (S-130, S-145 & S-150), saw the red flares for attack (or may have heard the contact report sent at 0203 hrs) and joined the attack. After, within the Rotte 1 pair, S-100 collided with S-143 and damaged its superstructure, the boats decided to leave, masking their retreat with smoke while sending another contact report. S-145 attacked the ships with gunfire. The attack ended circa at 0330 hrs. The Germans had been puzzled by the strange-looking ships which did not look like merchantmen. They estimated that they were some type of American landing ship with a shallow draft as the initial torpedoes from Rotte 3 and Rotte 2 seemed to miss. 
Of the two ships assigned to protect the convoy, only one was present. HMS Azalea, a corvette, was leading the LSTs in a straight line, a formation that later drew criticism since it presented an easy target to the E-boats. The second ship that was supposed to be present, HMS Scimitar, a World War I destroyer, had been in a collision with an LST, suffered structural damage and left the convoy to be repaired at Plymouth.  Because the LSTs and British naval headquarters were operating on different frequencies, the American forces did not know this.  HMS Saladin was dispatched as a replacement, but did not arrive in time to help protect the convoy. 
- was set on fire but eventually made it back to shore with the loss of 13 Navy personnel.  was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 202 US Army/US Navy personnel.  was damaged by friendly fire from LST-496 (intended to be directed at one of the E-boats which passed between the two LSTs)  resulting in injuries to 18 US Army/Navy personnel.  sank within six minutes of being torpedoed with the loss of 424 Army and Navy personnel. 
The remaining ships and their escort fired back and the E-boats made no more attacks. In total, 749 servicemen (551 United States Army and 198 United States Navy) were killed during Exercise Tiger.   Many servicemen drowned or died of hypothermia in the cold sea while waiting to be rescued. Many had not been shown how to put on their lifebelt correctly, and placed it around their waist, the only available spot because of their large backpacks. In some cases this meant that when they jumped into the water, the weight of their combat packs flipped them upside down, dragging their heads under water and drowning them.  Dale Rodman, who travelled on LST-507, commented: "The worst memory I have is setting off in the lifeboat away from the sinking ship and watching bodies float by."  The 248 bodies that were recovered were sent to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey on 29 April.  The unit with the most casualties was the 1st Special Engineer Brigade. 
The attack was reported up the chain of command to Dwight D. Eisenhower on 29 April. Eisenhower was enraged that the convoy was sailing in a straight line and not zig-zagging, that the attack reduced reserves of LSTs, that it indicated to the Germans that the Allies were nearly ready to invade, and that ten American officers with knowledge of the invasion were missing. The missing officers had BIGOT-level clearance for D-Day, meaning that they knew the invasion plans and could have compromised the invasion should they have been captured alive. As a result, the invasion was nearly called off until the bodies of all ten victims were found.  He ordered that all the officers’ bodies, and any incriminating papers they might have had, be found. The ten American officers were from the 1st Engineer Special Brigade they knew when and where the Utah and Omaha landings were to take place, and had seen the amphibious DUKWs that were to take the Rangers to below Pointe du Hoc.  Merely knowing that exercises were taking place at Slapton was of interest to the Germans the historian Stephen Ambrose suggests that the insistence in May by Hitler that the Normandy area be reinforced was because "he noticed the similarity between Slapton Sands and the Cotentin beach". 
There were reports that S-boats were nosing through the wreckage for information with searchlights or torches. The shore batteries around nearby Salcombe Harbour had visually spotted unidentified small craft, but were ordered not to fire on them as it would have shown the Germans that the harbour was defended and disclosed the battery position. 
As a result of official embarrassment and concerns over potential leaks just prior to the real invasion, all survivors were sworn to secrecy about the events by their superiors. There is little information about exactly how individual soldiers and sailors died. The US Department of Defense stated in 1988 that record-keeping may have been inadequate aboard some of the ships, and the most pertinent log books were lost at sea.  A ninth LST (LST-508) was scheduled to be in the convoy, but was damaged. Author Nigel Lewis speculates that some or all of its infantrymen may have been aboard LST 507 when it went down.  Various eyewitness accounts detail hasty treatment of casualties and rumours circulated of unmarked mass graves in Devon fields. 
Several changes resulted from mistakes made in Exercise Tiger:
- Radio frequencies were standardised the British escort vessels were late and out of position due to radio problems, and a signal about the E-boats' presence was not picked up by the LSTs.
- Better life vest training was provided for landing troops
- Plans were made for small craft to pick up floating survivors on D-Day.
Official histories contain little information about the tragedy. Some commentators have called it a cover-up, but the initial critical secrecy about Tiger may have merely resulted in longer-term quietude. In his book The Forgotten Dead: Why 946 American Servicemen Died Off The Coast Of Devon In 1944 – And The Man Who Discovered Their True Story, published in 1988, Ken Small declares that the event "was never covered up it was 'conveniently forgotten'". 
The casualty statistics from Tiger were not released by Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) until August 1944, along with the casualties of the actual D-Day landings. This report stated that there were 442 army dead and 197 navy, for a total of 639.  (However, Moon had reported on 30 April that there were 749 dead.  ) Charles B. MacDonald, author and former deputy chief historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, notes that information from the SHAEF press release appeared in the August issue of Stars and Stripes.  MacDonald surmises that the press release went largely unnoticed in light of the larger events that were occurring at the time.  The story was detailed in at least three books at the end of the war, including Captain Harry C. Butcher's My Three Years With Eisenhower (1946),  and in several publications and speeches. 
Devon resident and civilian Ken Small took on the task of seeking to commemorate the event, after discovering evidence of the aftermath washed up on the shore while beachcombing in the early 1970s. 
In 1974, Small bought from the U.S. Government the rights to a submerged tank from the 70th Tank Battalion discovered in his search. In 1984, with the aid of local residents and diving firms, he raised the tank, which now stands as a memorial to the incident. The local authority provided a plinth on the seafront to put the tank on, and erected a plaque in memory of the men killed. The American military honoured and supported him. Small died of cancer in March 2004, a few weeks before the 60th anniversary of Exercise Tiger.
A plaque was erected, in 1995, at Arlington National Cemetery entitled "Exercise Tiger Memorial". In 1997, the Exercise Tiger Association  established a memorial to Exercise Tiger veterans in Mexico, Missouri. It is a 5,000-pound stern anchor from an LST of the Suffolk County Class on permanent loan from the Navy. In 2006, the Slapton Sands Memorial Tank Limited (a non-profit organisation, one of whose directors is Small's son Dean) established a more prominent memorial listing the names of all the victims of the attacks on Exercise Tiger. 
In 2012, a memorial plaque was erected at Utah Beach, Normandy, on the wall of a former German anti-aircraft bunker. An M4 Sherman tank stands as a memorial to Exercise Tiger at Fort Rodman Park in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Canada in the Second World War
Landry, Pierre. “D-Day” Juno Beach Centre. The Juno Beach Centre Association, 2003. [Date Accessed].
Monday, June 5th, 1944: near Southampton, England, the men of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade had already boarded the ships. LCA slung from the davits, the ships sailed off at dawn, followed by the large landing crafts for infantry and tanks. They passed Portsmouth around 0900. On the way, subaltern officers and later troops were briefed. They broke open the seals and took out the maps where the actual targets were shown. This was no exercise…
The Channel was rough. Waves, some two metres high, made sailing difficult even at reduced speed. The ships and landing crafts were tossed around and many got seasick. In front of the fleet, minesweepers cleared a route through the mined area protecting the coast. The 31st Canadian Minesweeper Flotilla, as well as other Canadian ships incorporated into British flotillas took part in the operation, clearing ten lanes marked with lighted buoys.
At nightfall, everything was going according to plan. In the distance, the bombings could be heard at 2331 Bomber Command launched an assault against the coastal batteries in the landing zone. Bombs fell until 0515 in all, 1,136 sorties, 5,268 tonnes dropped. The Royal Canadian Air Force 6 Group was part of the operation, targetting batteries at Merville, Franceville and Houlgate.
Meanwhile, French resistance fighters warned by BBC coded messages undertook more than a thousand sabotage actions during a single night. At midnight, the 6th British Airborne division, which included the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, dropped off north of Caen to protect the eastern flank of the landing area. On the western side, US paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne were dropped their mission was to take control of the area inland from Utah Beach.
‘C’ Company had been given the task of clearing out the enemy garrison at Varaville. Given the size of the force represented by ‘C’ Company, the undertaking was formidable. At the Chateau de Varaville, a 75 mm anti-tank gun and fortifications, which included bunkers and trenches, had been established to control the road intersection. This was manned by a much larger force than had been anticipated…
– John A. Willes, Out of the Clouds
A LCA just launched off HMCS Prince Henry carrying troops towards the Normandy beaches.
Photo by Dennis Sullivan. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-132790.
At dawn, the weather was still bad a northwesterly wind was blowing at 15 knots. Channel waters were choppy with waves over one metre. And clouds were piling up. At 0530, destroyers started pounding the coastal defence positions. As thousands of engines roared and bombs exploded in the air, the LCAs were launched and the soldiers boarded them. In a few minutes, 130,000 men would be landing on French soil to oust the Nazi invaders.
Operation Overlord was only one step of a global strategic plan for the complete defeat of Nazi Germany. The Normandy landing was designed to establish a bridgehead from which two armies, the First US Army on the west flank and the Second British Army to the east could be supplied by sea. With the bridgehead firmly secured, the armies were to move on to liberate France and the neighbouring countries. Germany, attacked on three separate fronts, in Northwest Europe, in Russia, and in the Mediterranean, would soon be exhausted and defeated.
On June 6th, 1944, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Armoured Brigade were tasked with establishing a bridgehead on the beach codenamed “Juno”. This was an eight-kilometre long stretch of beach bordering Saint-Aubin, Bernières, Courseulles-sur-Mer and Graye-sur-Mer. Assault troops were then to move towards the Carpiquet airfield, 18 kilometres inland. The 3rd Infantry Division, under Major-General R.F.L. Keller, was under command of the Second British Army. It was flanked on the left by the 3rd British Infantry Division that was to land on Sword beach (Lion-sur-Mer, Langrune-sur-Mer). To the right, the 50th British Division had as its target “Gold Beach” (La Rivière, Le Hamel, and Arromanches).
D-Day, June 6th, 1944
On board their assault landing crafts, men of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles heading towards their sector of Juno Beach, June 6th, 1944.
Photo by Dennis Sullivan. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-132651.
Before the infantry actually set foot on the beach, all artillery launched a saturation barrage against enemy defences. Destroyers pounded the beaches and the large landing crafts approached with their 4.7-inch guns firing. Landing craft Tanks fired rocket rounds.
The four field artillery regiments, in all 96 guns of 105-mm, embarked on 24 LCTs, moved on simultaneously. From its craft the 12th Field Regiment opened fire against a fortified position in Courseulles. At 0655, the 13th Field Regiment attacked another position west of the cliff. At 0744, the 14th Regiment fired on the Bernières fortified position and at 0739, the 19th Regiment attacked a similar post in Saint-Aubin. For half an hour they fired above the heads of the infantry and above the LCAs that were by the shore.
As we moved farther from the mother ship and closer to shore, it came as a shock to realize that the assault fleet just behind us had completely disappeared from view. Suddenly there was just us and an awful lot of ocean) or English Channel if you prefer. All that remained within sight was our own fleet of ten assault craft, moving abreast in the early-morning silence in a gradually extending line facing the shore, the A Company boats on the right and the B Company boats on the left.
Daylight. We had never felt so alone in our lives.
– Charles Cromwell Martin, Battle Diary, 1994, p. 4
1st Hussars tanks and men of the 7th Infantry Brigade landing on a crowded beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer, June 6th,1944.
Photo by Ken Bell. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-128791.
In the west, the first assault troops of the 7th Infantry Brigade landed shortly after 0800 near Courseulles-sur-mer. Somewhat further east, in the sector of the 8th Brigade, the North Shore Regiment set foot on the Saint-Aubin beach at 0810 and the Queen’s Own Rifles started to march on Bernières at 0812. As they ran under heavy enemy machine-gun fire, the men were quick to forget their nausea due to choppy waters and rolling ships. But bad weather still had an impact on the operations: landing the tanks was hindered and the LCTs had to move in closer with the risk of hitting a submerged mine. As they set foot on the beach, men of the “B” Company of the Queen’s Own Rifles had to run 200 metres against a German defensive position spared by the saturation fire earlier on. They suffered most from the delayed arrival of the DD tanks, Sherman tanks equipped with floating devices that the height of the waves had rendered useless.
On the run-in Doug Reed and I were standing up eagerly, watching for shore. We began singing “The Bells Are Ringing for Me and My Gal” and continued until we saw the steeple of the church at our landing site. I said, “Doug, there’s the church, I thought it wasn’t supposed to be there.”
It suffered one shell hole in the steeple. We soon saw the big hotel that is a famous painting now.
Then we saw the five pillboxes mounted on top of the sea-wall. These were our first objective. About five hundred yards out, they had us in the sights of their small arms and began shooting. We had never been under real fire and realized it when bullets were hitting our assault craft. I said to Doug, as if we should be surprised, “they’re shooting at us” and we ducked down below the armour.
– Doug Hester, Queen’s Own Rifles, from Canadians, A Battalion at War, p. 3
Helped by a sergeant, French civilians walking by a tank in Bernières.
Photo by Frank L. Dubervill. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-132725.
Taking advantage of the surprise, the first assault troops silenced the 75-mm and 88-mm guns and ensured access to the beaches. Around 0830, they were followed by the reserve battalions. At 0910 and 0925, the 19th and 14th Field Regiments landed and positioned their self-propelled guns for combat. The ever-increasing number of troops and vehicles on the beach made circulation more difficult. To solve the problem, Royal Corps of Engineers personnel opened up breaches in the seawall protecting the beach.
Our first attempt to deploy the normal unit of four guns in the field role occurred immediately after debarment it should be recalled that our SPs were carrying extra and unusual loads which temporarily rendered them clumsy in movement as well as critically vulnerable to enemy fire.
– Wesley M. Alkenbrack, “First deployment of the 14th Field Regiment”
While the fighting still raged, some French civilians left their homes. They were astonished to meet soldiers who spoke their language. Replying to an inquiring villager, a soldier from the Régiment de la Chaudière told him “P’tet ben que oui, p’tet ben que non” (“Maybe yes, maybe no”) with an accent so similar to that of French as spoken in Normandy that the civilian could not believe he was dealing with a Canadian.
Two German officers in a group of prisoners who surrendered to Canadian troops in Bernières-sur-Mer, June 6th, 1944.
Photograph by Ken Bell. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-114493.
With the fighting moving inland, the 3rd Division deployed its reserves: the 9th Infantry Brigade, supported by the 27th Armoured Regiment. The first battalions arrived in Bernières at 1140, but the crowding of the beach slowed them down as they moved towards the meeting point near Bény. Fortunately there were no enemy aircraft or ships to attack the massive concentration of men and material that slowly moved inland. As D-Day drew to an end, Canadians had succeed in advancing quite deeply towards Creully, Colomby-sur-Thaon and Anisy, short of their assigned targets but far enough to make the operation a definite success.
At 0630 hours all wireless sets were on listening watch to keep the Battalion informed of the progress of the assault battalions. At 1100 hours the order came through that we were to land…
– North Nova Scotia Highlanders, War Diary, 3-6 June 1944
In a single day, 574 men of the 3rd Canadian Division were wounded and 340 were killed. Such was the price of victory. Some paid more dearly: V US Army Corps at Omaha Beach fought on the beach till the end of day. The Allies had broken through the Atlantic wall and established a bridgehead in France. The Germans were caught unprepared as they thought the operation was merely a diversion, the real landing being planned near Calais. Their disorganized troops were not able to withstand the assault but they would be quick to redress the situation and the following day, SS Panzer Divisions launched violent counter-attacks to drive back the Canadians.
- Terry Copp, Fields of Fire: The Canadians in Normandy, 2003
- Terry Copp and Mike Bechthold, The Canadian Battlefields in Normandy: A Visitor’s Guide, 2004
- T. Robert Fowler, Valour on Juno Beach: the Canadian Awards for Gallantry, D-Day June 6, 1944, 1994
- J.L. Granatstein, Normandy 1944, 1999
- J.L. Granatstein et Desmond Morton, Bloody Victory: Canadians and the D-Day Campaign 1944, 1994
- Dan Hartigan, A Rising of Courage: Canada’s Paratroopers in the Liberation of Normandy, 2000
- Bill McAndrew, Donald E. Graves, Michael Whitby, Normandy 1944: The Canadian Summer, 1994
- Reginald H. Roy, D-Day!: The Canadians and the Normandy Landings, June 1944, 2001
- Reginald H. Roy, 1944: The Canadians in Normandy, 1984
- Mark Zuehlke, Juno Beach: Canada’s D-Day Victory, June 6 1944, 2004
- C.P. Stacey, The victory campaign, Volume 3 of the Official History of The Canadian Army in the Second World War, 1960.
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