Mighty force

14th May 2004 at 01:00
June 6, 1944: after five years of war in Europe, Allied troops land in northern France to begin the decisive push for victory. Martin Bowman tells the story of D-Day

Invasion Fever was on everyone's lips in May 1944. USAAF airmen returning from 48 hour passes in London to their bases in East Anglia told of trucks, jeeps, transports and staff cars jamming the English roads and narrow country lanes. In Andover, Hampshire, office workers had to be given 15 minutes extra at lunchtime to cross the street. Passenger trains were being withdrawn and trains out of the capital were crammed. Headlines in the London press and the American forces newspaper Stars and Stripes proclaimed that Operation Overlord, the top-secret invasion of the continent, was imminent. But on May 8 General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Commander at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) was forced to postpone the invasion date until June 5 so that extra landing craft could be built.

Since the beginning of May 18, Allied air forces had pounded targets in Normandy as part of a pre-invasion blitz. The enemy was led to believe that the invasion would come in the Pas de Calais, but a select few knew that a stretch of the Normandy coastline from Quineville to just south of Caen had been chosen for the long-awaited second front. The document detailing the biggest invasion force the world has ever seen stretched to 1,100 pages.

SHAEF estimated that about 16,000 Frenchmen were under arms and their participation was crucial. It was thought the retreating Germans would destroy large quantities of French currency, so French Francs to the sterling equivalent of pound;21.7m were printed in the US.

Overlord began on the night of June 56 after a 24-hour postponement caused by the weather. The British prime minister Winston Churchill turned to his wife Clementine and said: "Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 men may have been killed?" A coded wireless message sent out by the BBC instructed the French Resistance to cut railway lines all over France. Of 1,050 planned breaches of rail lines by the Resistance, 950 were carried out. RAF "heavies" bombed gun positions covering the invasion beaches. "Special Squadrons" simulated a naval attack on the Pas de Calais and other aircraft effectively "jammed" the enemy's radar network. Wing Commander AHD Livock, controller on board HMS Bulolo, thought that the regularity with which large formations of aircraft flew over reminded him of Clapham Junction during a Bank Holiday weekend. Andre Heintz, 23, a French Resistance fighter, will never forget "that night or the thrill of knowing the Allies were coming to expel the Nazis at last".

Hundreds of aircraft and glider combinations carried more than 23,000 airborne troops, 15,500 of them American, to France, where the US 82nd and 101st Divisions and the British 6th Airborne Division were dropped behind enemy lines to seize bridges, destroy key points and safeguard the flanks of the bridgehead. They all knew that if the accompanying assault by sea failed there would be no rescue. First Lieutenant Richard Todd, 7th Light Infantry Battalion, 5th Parachute Brigade, and the star of many post-war film epics such as The Dambusters and The Longest Day, says: "We were a bunch of young men, weighed down with guns and equipment, our faces blackened. We literally dropped out of the night sky behind enemy lines. I knew thousands of men were landing on the Normandy beaches. We might have been a total disaster but as a psyched-up 23-year-old you don't think of such things."

The US suffered 2,500 casualties and only about a third of the force assembled, but the objectives were met. British airborne and Coup de main parties in gliders soon captured the bridges over the Canal de Caen (subsequently renamed "Pegasus Bridge") and Orne River and held them. The greatest feat of arms was the capture by the Parachute Regiment of four concrete gun emplacements near Merville, three miles east of Ouistreham, which were thought to contain four 155mm calibre guns, each capable of bombarding the landing beaches.

During an inspection Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel had said: "Whoever occupies this field will hold the key to the gateway of France and eventually into Germany itself." About 100 Lancasters detailed to "soften up" the battery with 4,000lb bombs missed the target in the cloudy conditions and the majority of the 750 men of the 9th Battalion commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Terence BH Otway DSO who were dropped were scattered over a wide area. Many drowned in the flooded fields. Just 150 paras were left as an assault group but, as Sergeant John Walker said: "Surprise was total. Two years' training and all over in eight to 10 minutes at a cost of 75 paras killed."

Follow-on drops of airborne reinforcements were made by 2,000 paratroops north of Ranville by 110 RAF aircraft and 256 aircraft towing gliders, escorted by 15 RAF fighter squadrons. Off Utah Beach, Jack Culshaw in the 34th Flotilla heard the "buzz" of low-flying Dakotas as they droned in from the sea towing gliders. He could only stare as bodies were thrown like "rag dolls" across the grassy turf and glider wings crumpled as the limited landing spaces became overcrowded. "The carnage ended as quickly as it started. Then at 0630 and without warning the USS Nevada let off a broadside of its 14-inch guns in the direction of the coast. Following the belch of flame, huge clouds of brown cordite smoke veiled the ship. HMS Black Prince took up the challenge and it too fired a thunderous broadside.

From the rear a barrage of fire from the USS Tuscaloosa flew over the shore bound armada."

The Channel was rough with a strong wind in the region of 4-5 on the Beaufort Scale. Lieutenant Charles John Cooke RNVR, CO of LCT 721 heading for Juno beach felt "rather sorry" for the Canadian troops he carried.

"They were unused to the rough weather and the craft's movement. I could see that a number were being seasick: not a very good start for an invasion force."

Two Naval Task Forces totalling 672 warships and 4,126 major and minor landing ships sailed from British ports across the English Channel to France carrying the force of 39 army divisions - 20 American, 14 British, three Canadian, one Free French, and one Polish. In the first 24 hours more than 130,000 men were landed from the sea and more than 20,000 men from the air. Henry Tarcza in a Flying Fortress "gazed with awe" at the hundreds of ships and boats off Omaha Beach. He felt "one could almost step from one vessel to another and walk between England and France". Prudent Boiux, 16, who lived on the seafront at Asnelles saw the Second British Army land at Sword beach. The bay was so "black" with ships that there was "absolutely no sea left". Within minutes the earth began shaking with the constant hail of shells, machine-gun fire and bombs, and all the time thousands of soldiers poured out of landing craft. At 10am three tanks rolled up outside the Boiux' house. Prudent's father ripped up the rose bush and gave it to the soldiers.

Landing craft (LCT (R)) armed with rocket launchers rendered onlookers immobile, as a thousand rockets trailing fire and smoke screamed towards the shore.

"Hobart's funnies" were named after their creator Major General Percy Hobart - Centaur tanks mounting 95mm howitzers on special ramps at the forward end of the tank deck gave fire support to the troops on the beach; Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) tanks with bridging material were armed with a 290mm mortar which fired a 40lb projectile; flame-thrower tanks threw a flame up to 300 yards (275m); bobbins with chains were fixed in front of a Sherman, whirled round and used to blow up mines in front; and the top-secret 33 ton amphibious Sherman Duplex Drive (DD)Tank was capable of "swimming" ashore from two miles out, using its twin propellers, and yet within minutes of reaching land, becoming a fighting tank. Sergeant Leo Gariepy of the Canadian 6th Armoured Regiment noted: "German machine-gunners in the dunes were absolutely stupefied to see a tank emerge from the sea. Some ran away, some just stood up in their nests and stared, mouths wide open. To see tanks coming out of the water shook them rigid."

On the American beaches the absence of special tanks offered by the British to demolish fortifications and obstacles and lack of sufficient DD tanks and heavy bulldozing equipment meant lightly armed infantry had to make frontal assaults on pillboxes and strongpoints without armour. Pinned down on Omaha beach they suffered 4,184 casualties - most of these in the first two hours - the highest of all the beaches. Leading Stoker Henry "Buck" Taylor on LST 63 (a tank landing ship) saw the dead and the wounded being tended by medics, and knew that "The 'Yanks' had really been hit badly".

At Utah because of a strong current 4th Infantry Division actually landed 2,000 yards (1,830m) south of their intended beach, less heavily defended than the original, and 26 assault waves were landed before noon with very few losses. US Rangers landed by sea and scaled 100ft (30.5m) high cliffs to capture the gun battery at Pointe-du-Hoc, which overlooked both Omaha and Utah beaches. Waverly Woodson, a medic and one of the handful of black American soldiers on D-Day was wounded by shrapnel but waded ashore with his medical equipment. "The scene was pretty bad. Scared? You bet. Some of the troops were pinned down under some cliffs. I did what I could for the wounded. At that time, they didn't care what colour my skin was. That's what I got my Bronze Star for."

Americans suffered more than 6,000 casualties - over half the total - but the Germans could not halt the attacks at "Bloody" Omaha, or the other beaches. Twenty-two-year-old Leutnant Herbert Walther in the 12th Waffen-SS Armoured Division Hitler Youth wrote: "If the army had not been left by the Luftwaffe and the navy to fight alone the invasion would have turned out very differently. But we had run out of planes."

Lieutenant Irwin, commander of a landing craft assault (LCA) group, watched the East Yorks land and rush Sword beach and crawl to the sea wall, "which had to be stormed like a Middle Ages fortress. Germans on top of the sea wall were chucking hand grenades onto our soldiers below." Lol Buxton, a gunner on HMS Goathland off Sword wrote: "It was absolute hell. All you could see was dust and smoke and flames, and the pungent smell of cordite hung in the air. We were lucky to survive. It was about survival, a case of kill or be killed, getting on with what you had to do. June 6 1944 was one of the proudest days of my life."

Many outstanding acts of gallantry were performed. Company Sergeant Major Stan Hollis, Green Howards, was the only man to win the Victoria Cross on D-Day, for his actions during the assault on Gold beach and the Mont Fleury battery.

The severely wounded began arriving at English ports that evening. In Dorset land-girls like Patricia Gent volunteered to help tend the casualties at a nearby army hospital. One American soldier gave her his Purple Heart medal awarded to US servicemen wounded in action. Elizabeth Hillmann, an American Army Nurse in a 30-bed surgical ward in Bournemouth was aware that all the patients were 19 and 20 years old - younger than she was. "Some had fingers and arms blown off. One had his buttocks blown off.

Some had stomach wounds. It was one almost constant nightmare."

For most, the nightmares remain. Jack Woods (20) of the 9th Royal Tank Regiment concludes: "Normandy is a funny place. You never get over it. You can hear it, feel it. The smell never gets out of your nostrils. I went back in 1984 and when I went to the cemetery at Bayeux my mind went straight back to 1944. I could smell it then. I could see it all so clearly. I was not at the cemetery any more. I could suddenly smell the tanks burning, a terrible smell, the smell of death around you all the time. It was very traumatic. I'm not alone in feeling this way."

Martin W Bowman has recently published a new book, Remembering D-Day: Personal Histories of Everyday Heroes in association with the Imperial War Museum (Collins, pound;19.99) Allied force

Australia 11,000 aircrew and the 1,100 officers and men of the Royal Australian Volunteer Naval Reserve (RANVR)

Belgium Eight vessels and two RAF squadrons.

Czechoslovakia Three squadrons of Spitfire IXs and one Liberator squadron in RAF Coastal Command.

Canada About 15,000 troops, 39 strategic and tactical squadrons and nearly 10,000 officers and men aboard 126 Canadian ships and landing craft.

Denmark 800 Danes mostly serve aboard ships.

France Four fighter and two medium bomber squadrons, two light cruisers and 17 ships and submarine chasers.

Great Britain 62,000 soldiers and about 80 percent of the warships. RAF flies 5,656 sorties.

Greece Two corvettes (patrol vessels) and soldiers, sailors and airmen in ALLIED FORCES

Norway 10 warships and 43 ships and three fighter squadrons.

Netherlands Cruiser, two sloops and one fighter and three bomber squadrons New Zealand 30,000 men in the RAF or in the six RNZAF Squadrons. 4,000 officers and men in the Royal Navy.

Poland One heavy bomber and five fighter squadrons, six naval vessels and eight merchant ships.

USA 73,000 troops. Navy provides 16.5 percent of the Allied warships and hundreds of landing vessels. 6,080 tactical and strategic aircraft in Allied Expeditionary Air Force.


March 1942 BBC pleas for holiday snaps to help map French coast. 30,000 letters arrive next day.

Early 1942 Construction begins on PLUTO (Pipeline Under the Sea) a network of 3 inch (76mm) diameter steel pipe lines to carry petrol across the Channel.

August 19 1942 In a disastrous rehearsal for D-Day of 6,100 men land at Dieppe, France, only 2,500 return. The raid proves floating harbours will need to be taken - in eight months two artificial harbours are built.

December 1943 Landings are rehearsed in Bideford Bay, Devon.

December 6 1943 General Dwight D Eisenhower appointed supreme commander January 1 1944 RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force are placed under the operational direction of the Supreme Commander

January 17 Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force set up in London

January 21 plans which set the invasion date as May 31, changed to extend the landing area towards Cherbourg and the seaborne force is increased

February 1 Neptune, the sea transportation and landing phase of Overlord issued

April All troop leaves cancelled.

April 22-29 Operation Tiger, US rehearsal for Overlord at Slapton Sands between Plymouth and Dartmouth.

May 2-6 Final rehearsal for Overlord at Slapton Sands.

May 23 Senior Commanders told that D-Day is June 5. Eisenhower and Montgomery move their HQs to Southwick House near Portsmouth.

May 30 Over 500 ships gather in a vast anchorage, extending from Hurst Castle in the west to Bembridge in the east.

May 31 Eisenhower warned to expect stormy weather for several days.

June 2-3 Battleships sail from the Clyde and Belfast Lough.

June 4 Bad weather postpones the landings for 24 hours. All convoys at sea have to reverse their courses. Rommel, convinced an invasion is not imminent, leaves for Germany.

Monday June 5

0415 Eisenhower decides to begin the invasion.

2130 First of more than 10,000 aircraft take off. 1,333 heavy RAF bombers drop 5,316 tons of bombs on radar stations and the 10 most important gun batteries in the assault area. RAF drops 35,000 tons of bombs June 5-6 .

June 56 Allies fly 14,674 sorties. Losses are 113 (0.77 per cent). The Luftwaffe flies 319 sorties.


* The D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, which houses the Overlord Embroidery, conceived as a modern counterpart to the Bayeux tapestry, has permanent exhibitions and publishes a range of curriculum-linked resources.

www.ddaymusuem.co.uk * A special D-Day pack produced in association with the museum contains reproductions of memorabilia, a 16-page booklet and photographs. (Michael O'Mara Books pound;10)

* D-Day: The Dramatic Story of the Worlds Greatest Invasion by Dan Parry, accompanies the BBC drama and exhibition at the Imperial War Museum London this book (BBC Books pound;12.99).

* The D-Day Experience: from Invasion to the Liberation of Paris by Richard Holmes includes over 30 facsimile items of rare D-day memorabilia. Maps, dairies, letters and secret memos, many from the Imperial War Museum's archives, plus a 72 minute audio of veteran's first-hand accounts. (Carlton Books, pound;30.00)

* The D-Day Atlas by Charles Messenger presents "an anatomy of the Normandy campaign", with maps following developments over the years of build-up and the events of June 6 and subsequent months.

* History in Motion CD-Rom from Film Education examines the way film has presented D-Day and aims to increase GCSE history students' multimedia literacy

* Prize categories for school work in the YHP's annual competition include Spirit of Normandy Trust Prize for Primary Schools, KS3 and GCSEA-level students for individual work on D-Day andor the Normandy Campaign. For more details contact: Trevor James, Director , Young Historian Project, 36 Heritage Court, Lichfield, Staffordshire WS14 9ST. Tel: 01543 301097.

* The Imperial War Museum and New Opportunities fund have just announced the results of their D-Day and Beyond competition. Watch the museum's website for more information on winning projects and a programme of D-Day events and exhibitions.


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