D day the battle for nor.., p.10
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy,
In contrast to the riotous gambling parties, there were many who said little. ‘Even though huddled together and cramped,’ noted Lieutenant Gardner Botsford with the 1st Infantry Division, ‘one felt very private.’ A number had discussed ‘who was going to make it once we landed and who wasn’t’. ‘My thoughts turned to home and family,’ one soldier recounted, ‘and I wondered how they would take the news of my death. I consoled myself with the fact that I was insured for the maximum amount of the GI insurance plan, and that my parents would at least have ten thousand dollars to compensate them for my death.’
The men of the 116th Infantry Regiment heading for Omaha found it hard to forget the address of their commanding officer, Colonel Charles D. Canham. He had predicted that two out of three of them would never return home. He finished off his warning in a pronounced southern drawl: ‘Anyone who has butterflize in the bellah, speak up now.’ A senior British officer on the Empire Broadsword provided an equally discouraging envoi when he finished his pep talk with the words: ‘Don’t worry if you do not survive the assault as we have plenty of back-up troops who will just go in over you.’
On the USS Bayfield, a young officer wrote in his diary of his sense of ‘approaching a great abyss - not knowing whether we are sailing into one of the world’s greatest military traps or whether we have caught the enemy completely off guard’. Another man observed that there was little hatred of the Germans, but everyone sensed that it would develop after the first casualties.
The captain of the USS Shubrick ordered his crew to shave, shower and dress in clean clothes to reduce the chance of infection if they were wounded. Soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division headed for Utah beach also shaved their heads, some leaving a V of hair, but more opted for the Mohican fashion like the paratroopers. The sobering thoughts prompted by these precautions were offset when ships’ captains read Eisenhower’s message to the invasion troops over the public address system: ‘Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, towards which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave allies and brothers in arms on the other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.’ Many admitted to getting ‘goose bumps’ on listening to the stirring words. Before midnight, US Navy ships went to ‘general quarters’ and the Royal Navy to ‘action stations’.
On more than 100 airfields in England, bomber pilots from both the RAF and the USAAC were being roused from their beds for breakfast and an early briefing. Most guessed that something big was up, but they were not sure what. The pilots of the American 388th Bomber Group at Thetford were apparently unprepared for the ‘dramatic announcement’ of the briefing officer on the platform. ‘As he drew back the white sheet that covered the operational map, he said, “Gentlemen, today the Allies invade the Continent”. Pandemonium broke loose as the briefing room exploded with cheers and whistles and shouts.’ He then went on to tell them that ‘everything in the Eighth Air Force that could fly’ would be taking off that morning. The bomb groups, once assembled in the air, would stretch for miles and miles as they streamed over towards their targets on the Normandy coast. Formation and fire discipline was vital. ‘Any individual plane flying in the opposite direction, that is, against traffic, once we left the coast of England, would be shot down.’
The reaction at British briefings appears to have been more subdued, mainly out of awe at the magnitude of the whole operation. ‘The preparations were staggering,’ wrote Desmond Scott, a New Zealander who commanded a wing of four Typhoon squadrons. ‘The airborne assaults, the quantity and variety of shipping, the number of army divisions, the tremendous weight of the air offensive. The scale and the precision of it all made our past efforts look insignificant. When the briefing was over there was no conversation, no laughter. No one lingered and we filed out as though we were leaving church. Expressions remained solemn. The task ahead outweighed all our previous experiences and sent a shiver down the spine.’
The RAF was putting up a maximum effort that night. Apart from the aircraft on deception and airborne missions, 1,000 bombers took off to attack ten coastal batteries during darkness with more than 5,000 tons of bombs. Spitfire squadrons scrambled to provide air cover over the beaches, along with American P-38 Lightnings. Their task was to prevent any Luftwaffe incursions over the invasion area, while the longer-range Mustangs would sweep deeper into France to attack any German fighters attempting to take off from airfields closer to Paris. American P-47 Thunderbolts and RAF Typhoon fighter-bombers, meanwhile, would hunt inland along the approach routes, ready to strafe any columns of German troops advancing to reinforce the coast.
The D-Day air offensive was another multinational operation. It included five New Zealander, seven Australian, twenty-eight Canadian, one Rhodesian, six French, fourteen Polish, three Czech, two Belgian, two Dutch and two Norwegian squadrons. Other units from these Allied countries were assigned to ‘anti-Diver’ missions, attacking the V-bomb launch sites in northern France.
The air chiefs’ lingering fears about visibility were justified. The cloud ceiling was about 4,000 feet and their aircraft normally bombed from over 10,000 feet. The mission of the American heavy bombers attacking at dawn was twofold: to destroy their targets, but also to make bomb craters on the beaches ‘to provide shelter for ground forces who followed us in’.
Soon after 01.00 hours, the assault troops were given breakfast. The US Navy was generous to a fault. On the Samuel Chase, the cooks gave them ‘as much steak, pork, chicken, ice cream, and candy’ as they could eat. Other ships provided ‘wieners, beans, coffee and doughnuts’. Royal Navy ships offered little more than corned-beef sandwiches and a tot of rum from a great big earthenware jar, ‘as if it were Nelson’s navy’, observed a major in the Green Howards. Many sailors volunteered their own rations for the soldiers going ashore. On the Prince Henry, taking the Canadian Scottish regiment, sailors made sure that the soldiers had an extra two hard-boiled eggs and a cheese sandwich to take with them. Wardroom staff, attending on Royal Navy officers, saw no reason why standards should slip at such a time. Ludovic Kennedy, on board the headquarters ship HMS Largs, was surprised by the impression that ‘we might have been alongside the jetty in Portsmouth. The white tablecloth was laid, and then along came a steward saying “porridge or cereal this morning, Sir?”.’
As soon as breakfast was over, soldiers in the first wave began to get their kit together. American troops cursed the fatigues with which they had been issued. They had been impregnated with a foul-smelling chemical which was supposed to counteract the effects of gas. American GIs called them ‘skunk suits’. But the main problem was the weight of all their equipment and ammunition. They felt almost as ungainly as the paratroopers when they were called forward. The overloading of soldiers in the first wave to hit the beaches was to prove fatal for many. Sailors, who did not envy them their fate, joked away to keep their spirits up. They made ribald remarks about the condoms fastened round the muzzles of their rifles to keep them dry. One US Navy officer wrote of soldiers ‘nervously adjusting their packs and puffing on cigarettes as if that would be their last’.
Having cleared channels to the landing beaches, the screen of minesweepers turned back, making the signal ‘Good luck’ to the destroyers which passed them to proceed towards their bombardment positions. It seemed miraculous that the fragile minesweepers, whose likely losses had so concerned Admiral Ramsay, should have achieved their task without a single casualty. An officer on the Hunt-class destroyer HMS Eglinton wrote, ‘We crept still further in, amazed at the relative silence of the proceedings.’ Ahead of them were two midget submarines, X-20 and X-23, ready to provide markers for the British beaches. The postponement of the invasion to 6 June had forced them to sta
An officer of the US Rangers stayed on the bridge of HMS Prince Baudouin, a Belgian cross-Channel steamer. He had posted two of his snipers, one on each side. Their task was to watch for floating mines as they approached the French coast. Around 04.00 hours, the captain announced over the tannoy, ‘Attention on deck! Attention on deck! British crews report to their assault boats.’ The Ranger officer decided that he preferred the British ‘Attention on deck!’ to the US Navy’s ‘Now hear this!’
Inevitably, such a huge fleet could not remain unseen for long. At 02.15 hours, the headquarters of the German 352nd Infanterie-Division, which was spread along the coast, had received a call from the Seekommandant Normandie in Cherbourg stating that enemy ships had been sighted seven miles north of Grandcamp. But the confusion caused by all the paratroop drops seems to have distracted attention away from the main threat to the coast. The dropping of the exploding parachute dummies had even led to a whole regiment from the 352nd Infanterie-Division being sent off on a wild-goose chase. It was not until 05.20 hours that the garrison on the Pointe du Hoc reported the presence of twenty-nine ships, of which four were large, perhaps cruisers.
Task Force O off Omaha, which they had sighted, in fact included the US battleships Texas and Nevada, as well as the monitor HMS Erebus, four cruisers and twelve destroyers.5 Two of the cruisers, the Montcalm and the Georges Leygues, formed part of the Forces Navales Françaises Libres. Montcalm, the flagship of Contre-amiral Jaujard, flew the largest tricolore battle ensign that anyone had ever seen. The only British influence on the bridges of French cruisers came in the form of duffel coats and steaming mugs of cocoa as their officers tried to study the shore through binoculars. For French sailors, as for French airmen, the idea of bombarding their own country was deeply disturbing, but they did not shrink from their task.6
The Eastern Task Force off the three British and Canadian beaches, Sword, Juno and Gold, consisted of the battleships Ramillies and Warspite, the monitor HMS Roberts, twelve cruisers, including the Polish warship Dragon,7 and thirty-seven destroyers for close support. When they opened fire, ‘the whole horizon appeared to be a solid mass of flames,’ wrote Generalleutnant Reichert of the 711th Infanterie-Division, watching from the coast.
The Western Task Force lost a destroyer, the USS Corry, to a mine, and the Eastern Task Force suffered a similar loss, but to a torpedo attack from a German E-boat. At 05.37 hours, while the smaller vessels headed towards their bombarding positions, the Norwegian destroyer Svenner was hit amidships. A small flotilla from Le Havre had approached under cover of the smokescreen laid by Allied aircraft to the east of the fleet to shield it from the Le Havre batteries. The Svenner broke in half, its bow and stern halves lifting out of the water, forming a V, then she sank rapidly. Five other torpedoes ran on, narrowly missing the Largs and the Slazak, both of which managed to take avoiding action just in time. Two warships raced to rescue the crew from the water. HMS Swift alone took on sixty-seven survivors, but thirty-three men had been killed in the explosion. Swift herself was sunk by a mine in the same waters eighteen days later.
The landing ships also moved in to their offshore positions. A US Navy lieutenant who commanded an LST (landing ship tank) headed for Gold beach with British troops slipped below for a moment to look at the radar plot. ‘The screen was literally filled all over with little pinpoints of light,’ he wrote, ‘ships everywhere 360 degrees from the centerpoint of where we were.’ When he returned, the senior British officer on board put a hand on his shoulder just before he addressed the ship’s company over the tannoy. ‘Most of my men,’ this colonel said, ‘have seen the worst of desert warfare and a good many of them were in France and evacuated through Dunkirk. So I’d advise you to go easy, go quick, and don’t get dramatic or emotional.’ The young American followed his lead and ‘made a very simple announcement’.
At 04.30 hours on the Prince Baudouin, the waiting soldiers heard the call: ‘Rangers, man your boats!’ On other landing ships there was a gooddeal ofchaosgetting themeninto thelandingcraft. Someinfantrymen were so scared of the sea that they had inflated their life jackets on board ship and then could not get through the hatches. As they lined up on deck, an officer in the 1st Division noticed that one man was not wearing his steel helmet. ‘Get your damn helmet on,’ he told him. But the soldier had won so much in a high card game that his helmet was a third full. He had no choice. ‘The hell with it,’ he said, and emptied it like a bucket on the deck. Coins rolled all over the place. Many soldiers had their field dressings taped to their helmet; others attached a pack of cigarettes wrapped in cellophane.
Those with heavy equipment, such as radios and flame-throwers whichweighed 100 pounds, had great difficulty descending the scramble nets into the landing craft. It was a dangerous process in any case, with the small craft rising and falling and bouncing against the side of the ship. Several men broke ankles or legs when they mistimed their jump or were caught between the rail and the ship’s side. It was easier for those lowered in landing craft from davits, but a battalion headquarters group of the 29th Infantry Division experienced an inauspicious start a little later when their assault craft was lowered from the British ship, HMS Empire Javelin. The davits jammed, leaving them for thirty minutes right under the ship’s heads. ‘During this half-hour,’ Major Dallas recorded, ‘the bowels of the ship’s company made the most of an opportunity which Englishmen have sought since 1776.’ Nobody inside the ship could hear their yells of protest. ‘We cursed, we cried and we laughed, but it kept coming. When we started for shore, we were all covered with shit.’
The US Rangers, whose principal task was to scale the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc to the west of Omaha beach, were less heavily burdened. Most were armed with little more than a Thompson sub-machine gun, a .45 automatic and a quarter-pound of TNT attached to their helmet. The ship’s captain bade them farewell over the public address system: ‘Good hunting, Rangers!’
One engineer about to land on Utah with the 4th Infantry Division later described in a letter the lowering of the assault boats as ‘the loneliest time’ of your life. ‘With a slap that jars everyone aboard, the craft hits the water. We chugged away and in a few seconds the large mother ship became just a darker blob in a world of darkness and then disappeared from view entirely.’
As the first flotillas of landing craft took up formation, two Ranger officers jumped on hearing a tremendous explosion.Theylookedaround to see what had caused it. ‘That, sirs’, a British petty officer informed them pedantically, ‘is the battleship Texas, opening the barrage on the Normandy coast.’ The men on the landing craft felt the shock waves of the heavy shells from the battleships and cruisers firing over their heads. The other bombarding ships of the Western Task Force for the two American beaches of Utah and Omaha also opened up with their main armament. Unlike the Royal Navy, which fired their turrets in sequence, the American battleships Texas, Arkansas and Nevada fired broadsides with all their fourteen-inch guns at once. The sight made some observers think for a moment that the ship had blown up. Even at a distance, the concussion could be felt. ‘The big guns,’ noted Ludovic Kennedy, ‘make your chest feel that somebody had put their arms around you and given you a good squeeze.’ The passage of the heavy shells created a vacuum in their wake. ‘It was a strange sight,’ wrote a staff sergeant in the 1st Division, ‘to see the water rise up and follow the shells in and then drop back into the sea.’
Many, however, were suffering dreadfully from seasickness as the flat-bottomed boats pitched and rolled in and out of the five-foot waves. ‘The other landing-craft,’ wrote a private, ‘could be observed sinking and reappearing in their troughs.’ As he looked around, he observed that ‘the sky and the sea and the ships were all the colour of pewter’.
Soaked in spray, British and American soldiers alike regretted their ‘hearty breakfast for the condemned man’. Many ‘started throwing up chunks of corn beef’ from their san
Others who had good reason to feel queasy from fear were the crews of tanks about to launch into the sea. These were specially adapted and waterproofed DD, or duplex-drive, Shermans, with propellers and inflatable canvas screens. The idea of this new invention was to surprise the Germans by landing tanks at the same time as the very first wave of infantry. Unrecognizable in the water, they would emerge to provide fire support against bunkers and gun emplacements. DD tanks had not been designed for sea conditions as rough as this and some soldiers, terrified by their training back in England with the Davis escape apparatus designed for submarines, had refused ‘to be a bloody sailor in a bloody tank’. Only the commander, standing on the engine deck behind the turret, was above water level. The rest of the crew remained inside and the driver could see nothing but a grey-green murk through his periscope.
The original plan had been to launch them from tank landing craft at 8,000 yards from the shore, out of the range of German guns, but the sea was so rough that this was reduced. Major Julius Neave of the 13th/18th Hussars received instead the order: ‘Floater, five thousand!’ But the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry launched their tanks much closer to the beaches. Even so, five tanks foundered out of their two swimming squadrons. Most crews managed to get out and were rescued, but a number of men drowned. The American tank battalions swimming in were to face even greater difficulties, partly because of the currents further west, but mainly because one of them received the order to launch much too far out.
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes