D day the battle for nor.., p.3
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy,
Roosevelt had become so repelled by French politics that in February he suggested changing the plans for the post-war Allied occupation zones in Germany. He wanted the United States to take the northern half of the country, so that it could be resupplied through Hamburg, rather than through France. ‘As I understand it,’ Churchill wrote in reply, ‘your proposal arises from an aversion to undertaking police work in France and a fear that this might involve the stationing of US Forces in France over a long period.’
Roosevelt, and to a lesser extent Churchill, refused to recognize the problems of what de Gaulle himself described as ‘an insurrectional government’. De Gaulle was not merely trying to assure his own position. He needed to keep the rival factions together to save France from chaos after the liberation, perhaps even civil war. But the lofty and awkward de Gaulle, often to the despair of his own supporters, seemed almost to take a perverse pleasure in biting the American and British hands which fed him. De Gaulle had a totally Franco-centric view of everything. This included a supreme disdain for inconvenient facts, especially anything which might undermine the glory of France. Only de Gaulle could have written a history of the French army and manage to make no mention of the Battle of Waterloo.
Throughout the spring, Churchill had done his best to soften Roosevelt’s attitude, knowing that the Allies had to work with de Gaulle. He encouraged Roosevelt to meet him. ‘You might do him a great deal of good by paternal treatment,’ he wrote, ‘and indeed I think it would be a help from every point of view.’
Roosevelt agreed to see him, but he insisted that de Gaulle must request the meeting. To issue an official invitation would imply recognition of de Gaulle as France’s leader. The President stuck to his line that the Allied armies were not invading France to put de Gaulle in power. ‘I am unable at this time,’ he wrote, ‘to recognise any Government of France until the French people have an opportunity for a free choice of Government.’ But since elections could not possibly be held for sometime, this wouldmean that theadministration of liberatedareas would be carried out by AMGOT, the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories.
This acronym represented a deadly insult, both to de Gaulle and to the Comité Français de Libération Nationale in Algiers. On 3 June, the day before de Gaulle flew to Britain, the CFLN declared itself to be the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Française. This announcementwas immediatelyseenby Rooseveltasa deliberateprovocation. He had already forbidden Eisenhower to have any contact with the French administration in waiting.
Eisenhower was permitted to work only with General Pierre Koenig, whom de Gaulle had appointed as commander of the Resistance, known as the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, or the FFI. Yet even then Eisenhower was told not to trust Koenig with details of the invasion, because he would be obliged to report back on them to his political masters. These contradictions resulted in ‘acute embarrassment’, as Eisenhower admitted in a report to Washington. ‘General Koenig feels very keenly the fact that he is denied even the most general knowledge of forthcoming operations although French naval, air and airborne units are to be employed, and much is expected from [the] French resistance.’
Churchill had meanwhile been urging Roosevelt to accept ‘a working arrangement’ with the French Committee, principally because the Allies needed the Resistance to play its part in the invasion. He had also helped persuade the Americans to send to England the French 2nd Armoured Division (known as the 2ème DB for Division Blindée), which they had armed and equipped in North Africa. Commanded by General Philippe Leclerc, it would form part of Patton’s Third Army later in the Normandy campaign. Yet to the amused resignation of British officers, one of the first ceremonies which Leclerc’s Division organized after its arrival in Yorkshire was an official mass in honour of Joan of Arc, whom the English had burned at the stake some five hundred years earlier.
Allied troops, on the other hand, were warned not to offend French sensibilities after they landed. A pamphlet told them to avoid any reference to France’s humiliating defeat in 1940. ‘Thanks to jokes about “Gay Paree” etc.,’ it added, ‘there is a fairly widespread belief that the French are a gay, frivolous people with no morals and few convictions. This is especially not true at the present time.’ But official briefings were unlikely to have much effect on those gripped by excited speculation over ‘French mademoiselles’.
Churchill’s War Cabinet realized that the Free French leader had to be invited to Britain to be briefed on D-Day. Despite ‘all the faults and follies of de Gaulle,’ the Prime Minister wrote to Roosevelt, ‘he has lately shown some signs of wishing to work with us, and after all it is very difficult to cut the French out of the liberation of France.’ The President, however, had insisted that in ‘the interest of security’ de Gaulle must be kept in the United Kingdom ‘until the Overlord landing has been made’.
The weakness of Free French security stemmed not from Vichy spies infiltrating the Gaullist network but from the unsophisticated French codes. Exasperation within the Special Operations Executive, especially after the massive Gestapo infiltration of the Resistance the year before, prompted the chief SOE cryptographer, Leo Marks, to go round to the Gaullists’ office in Duke Street in central London. He asked their cipher officers to encode any message they wanted, then he took it from them and broke it ‘under their astonished noses’. ‘This did not endear the British to the French,’ wrote the official historian with dry understatement. Yet Gallic pride still prevented the Free French from using British or American code systems. Just before D-Day, ‘C’, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, warned the Prime Minister that the French must not be allowed to send any messages by radio, only by secure landlines.
Churchill sent two York passenger aircraft to Algiers to bring back de Gaulle and his retinue. But de Gaulle was reluctant to come, because Roosevelt would not permit a discussion on French civil government. Churchill’s representative, Duff Cooper, argued with him for an hour on 2 June, trying to persuade him to back off from this brinkmanship. If de Gaulle refused to come, then he would be playing into Roosevelt’s hands, Duff Cooper told him. He should be present in England in his role as military leader. Above all, Duff Cooper warned him, he would finally lose the regard of the Prime Minister, who would decide that he was an impossible man to deal with. De Gaulle agreed only the next morning, when the two Yorks were already waiting for them on the airfield to take them on the first leg of the journey to Rabat in French Morocco.
After flying through the night from Rabat, de Gaulle’s plane touched down at exactly 06.00 hours on 4 June at Northolt. After all the secrecy imposed on their journey, Duff Cooper was surprised to find a large guard of honour drawn up and an RAF band playing the ‘Marseillaise’ as they descended the steps. A very Churchillian letter of greeting was handed to de Gaulle. ‘My dear General de Gaulle,’ it read. ‘Welcome to these shores! Very great military events are about to take place.’ He invited him down to join him on his personal train. ‘If you could be here by 1.30 p.m., I should be glad to give you dejeuner and we will then repair to General Eisenhower’s headquarters.’
Duff Cooper was mystified by the notion of Churchill’s ‘advance headquarters’ on a train, which they finally found in a siding at a small station near Portsmouth. He considered it ‘a perfectly absurd scheme’. His heart sank much further when he found that Field Marshal Smuts, the decidedly Francophobe South African, was in the Prime Minister’s entourage. Then Churchill opened the conversation with de Gaulle by saying that he had brought him over to deliver a speech on the radio. To make matters even worse, he made no mention of discussing civil affairs in France, the subject of greatest interest to de Gaulle.
When Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, turned the conversation to ‘politics’, which basically meant Roosevelt’s continued refusal to recognize de Gaulle and his provisional government, de Gaulle’s anger erupted. His resentment was inflamed by the Allied currency printed in the United States and issued to th
Churchill flared up, demanding how the British could act separately from the United States. ‘We are going to liberate Europe, but it is because the Americans are with us. So get this quite clear. Every time we have to decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea that we shall choose. Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I shall always choose Roosevelt.’ De Gaulle coolly accepted that that was bound to be the case. Tempers calmed as they sat down to lunch. Churchill raised his glass: ‘To de Gaulle, who never accepted defeat.’ De Gaulle raised his in reply: ‘To Britain, to victory, to Europe.’
Afterwards, Churchill accompanied de Gaulle over to Southwick House. There, Eisenhower and Bedell Smith briefed the French leader on the plan for Overlord. Eisenhower was charming and concealed the turmoil he was going through as a result of the weather. Before de Gaulle left, however, Eisenhower showed him a copy of the proclamation he was to make to the French people on D-Day. Although he had softened Roosevelt’s peremptory tone, the speech did not recognize the authority of the provisional government in any way. In fact, it even instructed the French to obey the orders of the Allied command until ‘the French themselves should choose their representatives and their government’. For de Gaulle this confirmed his worst fear of an Anglo-Saxon occupation of France. He kept his temper, however, and simply said that he ‘wished to suggest certain changes in General Eisenhower’s message’. Eisenhower agreed to consider them, since there might be time to make alterations.
On his return to London, de Gaulle heard that his suggested amendments could not be approved in time, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff would need to agree them. De Gaulle then refused to speak to the French people on the BBC the next morning after Eisenhower and the leaders of other occupied countries. De Gaulle also announced that he was ordering the French liaison officers allocated to British and American divisions not to accompany them because no agreement had been reached on civil administration. When Churchill received the news during a meeting of the War Cabinet he exploded in a terrible rage.
That night, Eden and de Gaulle’s emissary, Pierre Viénot, engaged in shuttle diplomacy between the two furious leaders to repair the damage. De Gaulle raged at Viénot, saying that Churchill was a‘gangster’.Viénot then went to see Churchill, who accused de Gaulle of ‘treason at the height of battle’. He wanted to fly him back to Algiers, ‘in chains if necessary’.
Even with all these dramas, the most important event on that evening of Sunday, 4 June, took place in the library at Southwick House. During the afternoon, Stagg and his colleagues had seen that the approaching depression in the Atlantic had concentrated, but also slowed down. This indicated that a sufficient gap in the bad weather was emerging for the invasion to go ahead. At 21.30 hours the conference began and Stagg was summoned. Few of those present felt optimistic. Rain and wind were battering the windows, and they could imagine what conditions were like for the tens of thousands of soldiers on the landing ships and craft anchored along the coasts.
‘Gentlemen,’ said Stagg, ‘since I presented the forecast last evening some rapid and unexpected developments have occurred over the north Atlantic.’ Therewould be abrief improvement from Monday afternoon. The weatherwould notbe ideal,was thegist ofhis message,but itwould do. Searching questions followed and an earnest discussion began.
‘Let’s be clear about one thing,’ Admiral Ramsay broke in. ‘If Overlord is to proceed on Tuesday I must issue provisional warning to my forces within the next half-hour. But if they do restart and have to be recalled again, there can be no question of continuing on Wednesday.’
Leigh-Mallory again expressed concern about sufficient visibility for his bombers, but Eisenhower turned to Montgomery, who was wearing his unconventional uniform of a fawn pullover and baggy corduroys.
‘Do you see any reason why we should not go on Tuesday?’
‘No,’ replied Montgomery emphatically in his nasal voice. ‘I would say - Go.’
Outside in the hall, staff officers were waiting with sheaves of orders ready to be signed by their chiefs. Two sets had been prepared to cover both alternatives.
In the early hours of Monday, 5 June, further data came in to confirm the break in the weather. At the morning conference, Stagg was able to face his intimidating audience with much greater confidence. The tension eased and ‘the Supreme Commander and his colleagues became as new men’, he wrote afterwards. Eisenhower’s grin returned. Further details were discussed, but everyone was impatient to leave and the room emptied rapidly. There was much to be done to get the 5,000 ships from nearly a dozen different nations back to sea and on course down pre-established shipping lanes. A small fleet of minesweepers in line abreast would then proceed in front of them to clear a broad channel all the way to the beaches. Admiral Ramsay was particularly concerned for the crews of these vulnerable craft. They expected very heavy casualties.
Now that the great decision had been taken, Eisenhower went to South Parade Pier in Portsmouth to see the last troops embarking. ‘He always gets a lift from talking with soldiers,’ his aide, Harry Butcher, noted in his diary. At lunchtime, they returned to Eisenhower’s trailer at Southwick Park and played ‘Hounds and Fox’ and then checkers. Butcher had already arranged for the supreme commander, accompanied by journalists, to go to the airfield at Greenham Common that evening to visit the American 101st Airborne Division. They were due to take off at 23.00 hours for the mission which Leigh-Mallory had predicted would be a disaster.
Unlike the infantry and other arms, who had been enclosed in the barbed-wire ‘sausages’, the airborne troops had been driven directly to the airfields from where they were to take off. The 82nd Airborne Division had been based around Nottingham, while the 101st was spread around the Home Counties west of London. For five days they had been quartered in aircraft hangars and provided with rows of cots with aisles in between. There, they stripped and oiled their personal weapons time and again, or sharpened their bayonets. Some had bought commando knives in London, and several had equipped themselves with cut-throat razors. They had been instructed how to kill a man silently by slicing through the jugular and the voice box. Their airborne training had not only been physically rigorous. Some of them had been forced ‘to crawl through the entrails and blood of hogs as part of getting toughened up’.
To take their minds off the oppressive wait extended by the postponement, officers provided gramophones which played songs such as ‘I’ll Walk Alone’ and ‘That Old Black Magic’. They also organized projectors to show movies, especially ones starring Bob Hope. Many paratroopers had also been listening to ‘Axis Sally’2 on Radio Berlin, who played good music as well as transmitting vicious propaganda on the programme Home Sweet Home. Yet even when she said on repeated occasions before D-Day that the Germans were waiting for them, most regarded it as a joke.
There were also Red Cross doughnut and coffee stands run by young American women volunteers. In many cases they slipped soldiers their own cigarette ration. The food provided, including steak, chips and ice cream, was a luxury which inevitably prompted more black jokes about being fattened up for the kill. The 82nd Airborne had acquired a taste for fish and chips in the Nottingham area as well as many local friendships. They too had been touched by the population rushing out to wave them off, many of them in tears, as convoys of trucks drove the paratroopers to their airfields.
A large number of men took their minds off what lay ahead with frenetic gambling, first with the dubious-looking invasion money and then with saved dollars and pound notes. They were shooting dice and playing blackjack. One man who
Paratroopers looked over their main chutes and reserves to make sure that they were in perfect order. Others wrote last letters home to families or girlfriends in case of their death. Sometimes precious photographs were taken from their wallet and taped on the inside of their helmet. All personal papers and civilian effects were collected up and packed to be held until their return. Chaplains held church services in a corner of the hangar and Catholics took confession.
In this time for individual reflection, no greater contrast could have come than from some of the regimental commanders’ pep talks. Colonel ‘Jump’ Johnson, who led the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, drove into the hangar in his Jeep and leaped on to the calisthenics platform. Johnson, who had acquired his nickname from wanting to throw himself from almost any flying object, wore pearl-handled revolvers on each hip. The 2,000 men from his regiment gathered round. ‘There was a great feeling in the air; the excitement of battle,’ noted one paratrooper. After a short speech to arouse their martial ardour, Johnson swiftly bentdown, pulledalargecommandoknifefromhisbootandbrandished it above his head. ‘Before I see the dawn of another day,’ he yelled, ‘I want to stick this knife into the heart of the meanest, dirtiest, filthiest Nazi in all of Europe.’ A huge, resounding cheer went up and his men raised their knives in response.
General Maxwell Taylor warned his men in the 101st Airborne that fighting at night would be highly confusing. They would find it hard to distinguish their own side from the enemy. For that reason they should fight with their knives and grenades during darkness, and use firearms only after dawn. According to one of his men, ‘he also said that if you were to take prisoners, they handicap our ability to perform our mission. Weweregoingtohavetodisposeofprisonersasbestwesawfit.’
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