D day the battle for nor.., p.2
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.2
 

           Antony Beevor

  Bradley got on very well with Eisenhower, but he did not share his chief’s tolerance towards that loose cannon, George Patton. In fact Bradley barely managed to conceal his intense distrust of that eccentric southern cavalryman. Patton, a God-fearing man famous for his profanity, enjoyed addressing his troops in provocative terms. ‘Now I want you to remember,’ he once told them, ‘that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You win it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. ’There is no doubt that with out Eisenhower’s support at critical moments, Patton would never have had the chance to make his name in the coming campaign. Eisenhower’s ability to keep such a disparate team together was an extraordinary achievement.

  The most recent dispute produced entirely by D-Day jitters came from Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory. Leigh-Mallory, who ‘made everyone angry’ and even managed to rile Eisenhower, suddenly became convinced that the two US airborne divisions due to be dropped on the Cotentin peninsula faced a massacre. He repeatedly urged the cancellation of this vital element in the Overlord plan to protect the western flank. Eisenhower told Leigh-Mallory to put his concerns in writing. This he did, and after careful consideration Eisenhower rejected them with Montgomery’s full support.

  Eisenhower, despite his nervous state and the appalling responsibility heaped upon him, wisely adopted a philosophical attitude. He had been selected to make the final decisions, so make them he must and face the consequences. The biggest decision, as he knew only too well, was almost upon him. Quite literally, the fate of many thousands of his soldiers’livesresteduponit. Withouttellingevenhisclosestaides,Eisenhower prepared a brief statement to be made in the event of failure: ‘The landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.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 navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.’

  Although neither Eisenhower nor Bradley could admit it, the most difficult of the five landing beaches was going to be Omaha. This objective for the American 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions had been closely reconnoitred by a British team from COPP, the Combined Operations Beach Reconnaissance and Assault Pilotage Parties. In the second half of January, the midget submarine X-20 had been towed close to the Normandy coast by an armed trawler. General Bradley had requested that, having checked the beaches selected for the British and Canadian forces, COPP should also examine Omaha to make sure that it was firm enough for tanks. Captain Scott-Bowden, a sapper, and Sergeant Bruce Ogden-Smith of the Special Boat Section swam ashore, each armed only with a commando knife and a Colt .45 automatic. They also carried an eighteen-inch earth auger and a bandolier with containers into which they put their samples. The sea was unusually flat and they only just escaped discovery by German sentries.

  The day after his return, Scott-Bowden was summoned to London by a rear admiral. He arrived at Norfolk House in St James’s Square just after lunch. There, in a long dining room, with maps covered by curtains along the walls, he found himself facing six admirals and five generals, including General Bradley. Bradley interrogated him carefully on the beach-bearing capacity. ‘Sir, I hope you don’t mind my saying it,’Scott-Bowdensaidtohimjustbeforeleaving,‘butthisbeachisavery formidable proposition indeed and there are bound to be tremendous casualties.’ Bradley put a hand on his shoulder and said, ‘I know, my boy, I know.’ Omaha was simply the only possible beach between the British sector on the left and Utah beach on the right.

  As soon as the invasion troops moved off for embarkation, the civilian population rushed out to wave goodbye. ‘When we left,’ wrote a young American engineer who had been billeted on an English family, ‘[they] cried just as if they were our parents. It was quite a touching thing for us. It seemed like the general public seemed to know pretty much what was going on.’

  Secrecywas,ofcourse, impossibletomaintain.‘Aswepassedthrough Southampton,’ wrote a British trooper in an armoured regiment, ‘the people gave us a wonderful welcome. Each time that we halted we were all plied with cups of tea and cakes, much to the consternation of the Military Police escorting the column, who had strict orders to prevent any contact between civilian and soldier.’

  Most troops were moved in army trucks, but some British units marched, their hobnailed ammunition boots ringing in step on the road. Old people, watching from their front gardens often with tears in their eyes, could not help thinking of the previous generation marching off to the trenches in Flanders. The helmets were a similar shape, but the battledress was different. And soldiers no longer wore puttees. They had canvas gaiters instead, which matched the webbing equipment of belt, yoke, ammunition pouches and pack. Rifle and bayonet had also changed, but not enough to make a noticeable difference.

  The troops had sensed that D-Day must be close when twenty-four-hour leave passes were offered. For the less enthusiastic soldier this provided a last chance to disappear or get drunk. There had been many cases of soldiers going absent in the pre-invasion period, but relatively few cases of outright desertion. Most had returned to duty to be ‘with their mates’ when the invasion was on. Pragmatic commanding officers did not want to lose men to a military prison. They left it up to the individual to redeem himself in battle.

  Soldiers noticed that officers had suddenly become much more solicitous of their men. Film shows were laid on in the closed camps. A more generous ration of beer was available and dance music played from loudspeakers. The more cynical spotted that quartermasters had suddenly become generous, an ominous sign. The poet Keith Douglas, a twenty-four-year-old captain in the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, wrote to Edmund Blunden, that poet of the previous war, ‘I’ve been fattened up for the slaughter and am simply waiting for it to start.’ Douglas was one of a number of men who harboured a strong sense of imminent death and spoke to their closest friends about it. It is striking how many turned out to have been right, and yet perhaps such a belief somehow turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Douglas went to church parade on the last Sunday. He walked afterwards with the regimental padre, who recorded that Douglas was reconciled to his approaching death and not morbid about it. In the view of a fellow officer, he was fatalistic because he felt that he had used up his ration of luck in the desert war.

  Almost everyone hated the waiting and longed for the worst to be over. ‘All are tense and all are pretending to be casual,’ commented an American infantryman. ‘Bravado helps,’ he added. Many thought of their girlfriends. Some had married them in haste to make sure that they would benefit from a pension if the worst happened. One American soldier bundled up all his pay and sent it to a jeweller so that his English fiancée could select a ring ready for their wedding on his return. It was a time of intense personal emotion. ‘The women who have come to see their men off,’ noted a journalist shortly before, ‘nearly always walk to the very end of the platform to wave their elaborately smiling goodbyes as the train pulls out.’

  A few men cracked under the strain. ‘One night,’ recorded a member of the US 1st Infantry Division, ‘one of the soldiers put on two bandoliers of ammunition and his hand grenades, grabbed a rifle, and took off. Nobody had seen him do this, but the moment they became aware, a search party was formed. The search party found him. He refused to give up, so he was killed. We never did know whether he just didn’t want to die on the beach, or he was a spy. Whatever he did, it was dumb. He was a sure dead man versus a maybe.’ Perhaps he had had a premonition of what lay ahead on Omaha.

  While tanks and troops were still being loaded on to landing ships that Friday evening, Group Captain Stagg conferred again over secure landlines with the other meteorological centres. He had to give a firm report at the conference due to start at 21.30 hours, but there was still no agreement. ‘Had it not been fraught with such potential tragedy, the whole business was ridiculous. In less than half an hour I was expected to prese
nt to General Eisenhower an “agreed” forecast for the next five days which covered the time of launching of the greatest military operation ever mounted: no two of the expert participants in the discussion could agree on the likely weather even for the next 24 hours.’

  They argued round and round until time ran out. Stagg hurried to the library in the main house to present a report to all the key commanders for Overlord.

  ‘Well, Stagg,’ Eisenhower said. ‘What have you got for us this time?’

  Stagg felt compelled to follow his own instinct and overlook the more optimistic views of his American colleagues at Bushey Park: ‘The whole situation from the British Isles to Newfoundland has been transformed in recent days and is now potentially full of menace.’ As he went into detail, several of the senior officers glanced out of the window at the beautiful sunset in slight bewilderment.1

  After questions about the weather for the airborne drops, Eisenhower probed further about the likely situation on 6 and 7 June. There was a significant pause, according to Tedder. ‘If I answered that, Sir,’ Stagg replied, ‘I would be guessing, not behaving as your meteorological adviser.’

  Stagg and his American counterpart, Colonel D. N. Yates, withdrew, and soon General Bull came out to tell them that there would be no change of plan for the next twenty-four hours. As they returned to their tented sleeping quarters, the two men knew that the first ships had already left their anchorages. Stagg could not help thinking of the black joke made to him by Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, the initial chief planner of Overlord. ‘Good luck, Stagg. May all your depressions be nice little ones, but remember we’ll string you up from the nearest lamp post if you don’t read the omens aright.’

  Early the next morning, Saturday, 3 June, the news could hardly have been worse. The weather station at Blacksod Point in western Ireland had just reported a rapidly falling barometer and a force six wind. Stagg felt ‘all but physically nauseated’ by the weather charts and the way the teams still analysed the same data in different ways. That evening, at 21.30 hours, he and Yates were summoned. They entered the library, its shelves emptied of books. Mess armchairs were arranged in concentric arcs, with commanders-in-chief in the front row and their chiefs of staff and subordinate commanders behind. Eisenhower, his chief of staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, and Tedder sat on three chairs facing the audience.

  ‘Gentlemen,’ Stagg began. ‘The fears my colleagues and I had yesterday about the weather for the next three or four days have been confirmed.’ He then launched into a detailed forecast. It was a gloomy picture of rough seas, winds up to force six and low cloud. ‘Throughout this recital,’ Stagg wrote later, ‘General Eisenhower sat motionless, with his head slightly to one side resting on his hand, staring steadily towards me. All in the room seemed to be temporarily stunned.’ Not surprisingly, Eisenhower felt compelled to recommend a provisional postponement.

  It was not a good night for Eisenhower. His aide, Commander Harry Butcher, came to him later with the news that Associated Press had put out a tape stating, ‘Eisenhower’s forces are landing in France.’ Even though the agency cancelled the story twenty-three minutes later, it had been picked up by CBS and Radio Moscow. ‘He sort of grunted,’ Butcher noted in his diary.

  When Stagg went off to his tent at about midnight, having heard of the provisional postponement, it was strange to look up between the trees and see that ‘the sky was almost clear and everything around was still and quiet’. Stagg did not attempt to sleep. He spent the early hours of the morning writing up detailed notes of all discussions. When he hadfinishedtheforecastwasnobetter, eventhoughoutsideallremained calm.

  At 04.15 hours on the Sunday, 4 June, at yet another meeting, Eisenhower decided that the twenty-four-hour postponement provisionally agreed the night before must stand. Without maximum air support, the risks were too great. The order went out to call back the convoys. Destroyers set to sea at full speed to round up landing craft which could not be contacted by radio and shepherd them back.

  Stagg, who had then gone back to his camp bed exhausted, was taken aback when he awoke a few hours later to find that the sky was still clear and there seemed to be little wind. He could not face the other officers at breakfast. But later in the day he felt a certain shamefaced relief when the cloud and wind began to increase from the west.

  That Sunday was a day of endless questions. Surely the tens of thousands of men could not be kept cooped up on their landing craft? And what of all the ships which had put to sea and had now been ordered back? They would need to refuel. And if the bad weather were to continue, then the tides would be wrong. In fact, if conditions did not improve within forty-eight hours, Overlord would have to be postponed for two weeks. Secrecy would be hard to maintain and the effect on morale could be devastating.

  2

  Bearing the Cross of Lorraine

  Eisenhower was far from being the only one to be awed by the enormity of what they were launching. Churchill, who had always been dubious about the whole plan of a cross-Channel invasion, was now working himself up into a nervous state of irrational optimism, while Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke confided to his diary that there was ‘an empty feeling at the pit of one’s stomach’. ‘It is very hard to believe that in a few hours the cross Channel invasion starts! I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At the best it will fall so very very far short of the expectation of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing of its difficulties. At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war.’

  ‘The British,’ observed a key American staff officer, ‘had a much greater fear of failure.’ This was hardly surprising after the long years of war, with bitter memories of Dunkirk and the ill-fated Dieppe raid. Yet whatever their reasons, they were right to have refused to invade the Continent any earlier. An overwhelming superiority was necessary, and the US Army had had many harsh lessons to learn in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

  Churchill once remarked that the Americans always came to the right decision, havingtriedeverythingelsefirst. Butevenifthejokecontained an element of truth, it underplayed the fact that they learned much more quickly than their self-appointed tutors in the British Army. They were not afraid to listen to bright civilians from the business world now in uniform and above all they were not afraid to experiment.

  The British showed their ingenuity in manyfields, from the computer which decoded Ultra intercepts to new weapons such as Major General Percy Hobart’s swimming tanks and mine-clearing flails. Yet the British Army hierarchy remained fundamentally conservative. The fact that the special tanks were known as Hobart’s ‘funnies’ revealed that inimitable blend of British scepticism and flippancy. The cult of the gentleman amateur, which Montgomery so detested, would continue to prove a considerable handicap. Not surprisingly, American officers regarded their British counter parts as‘too polite’and lacking a necessary ruthlessness, especially when it came to sacking incompetent commanders.

  Churchill himself was a great gentleman amateur, but nobody could accuse him of lacking drive. He took a passionate interest in military operations - in fact rather too much, in the view of his military advisers. A stream of ideas, most of them utterly impractical, poured forth in memos that produced groans and sighs in Whitehall. General ‘Pug’ Ismay, Churchill’s military adviser, had to deal with the Prime Minister’s latest inspiration at this historically symbolic moment. Churchill wanted to ‘display some form of “reverse Dunkirk” for Overlord with small [civilian] boats landing infantry to follow up and supplement proper assault troops after beaches have been cleared’.

  The Prime Minister’s obsessive desire to be close to the centre of action had prompted him to insist that he sail with the invasion fleet. He wanted to watch the bombardment of the coast from the bridge of the cruiser HMS Belfast. He did not warn Brooke, knowing that he would disapprove, and tried to justify his demand on the grounds that he was also Minister of Defence. Fortunately the King dealt with this in
a masterly letter on 2 June: ‘My dear Winston, I want to make one more appeal to you not to go to sea on D-Day. Please consider my own position. I am a younger man than you, I am a sailor, and as King I am the head of all the services. There is nothing I would like better than to go to sea but I have agreed to stay at home; is it fair that you should then do exactly what I should have liked to do myself?’

  Churchill, in a ‘peevish’ frame of mind at being thwarted, ordered up his personal train as a mobile headquarters to be close to Eisenhower. Brooke wrote in his diary, ‘Winston meanwhile has taken his train and is touring the Portsmouth area making a thorough pest of himself!’ There was one bright moment on that eve of D-Day. News arrived that Allied forces under General Mark Clark were entering Rome. But Churchill’s attention was about to be taxed with an almost insoluble problem. General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French, who used the Cross of Lorraine as his symbol, had arrived in London that morning. Pre-D-Day jitters, combined with political complications and de Gaulle’s patriotic egocentricity, were to lead to an explosive row.

  The central problem of relations with de Gaulle stemmed from President Roosevelt’s distrust. Roosevelt saw him as a potential dictator. This view had been encouraged by Admiral Leahy, formerly his ambassador to Marshal Pétain in Vichy, as well as several influential Frenchmen in Washington, including Jean Monnet, later seen as the founding father of European unity.

 
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