D day the battle for nor.., p.4
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.4Antony Beevor
Brigadier General‘Slim Jim’Gavin of the 82ndAirbornewasperhaps the most measured in his address. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘what you’re going to go through in the next few days, you won’t want to change for a million dollars, but you won’t want to go through it very often again. For most of you, this will be the first time you will be going into combat. Remember that you are going in to kill, or you will be killed.’ Gavin clearly created a strong impression. One of his listeners said that, after his quiet talk, ‘I believe we would have gone to hell with him.’ Another commanding officer decided to adopt shock tactics. He said to his men lined up in front of him, ‘Look to the right of you and look to the left of you. There’s only going to be one of you left after the first week in Normandy.’
There can be little doubt about the very high level of motivation among the overwhelming majority of the American airborne troops. The most effective way for officers to enforce discipline for some time had been to threaten a soldier that he would not be allowed to join the invasion drop.
Eve of battle rituals included shaving heads, to make it easier for the medics to deal with head wounds, but a number of men decided to leave a strip of hair down the middle in Mohican style. This contributed to the German idea, influenced by Hollywood gangster films and later whipped up by Wehrmacht propaganda detachments, that American airborne troops were recruited from the toughest jails in the United States and came from the ‘übelste Untermenschentum amerikanischer Slums’ - ‘the nastiest underclass from American slums’. Faces were also blackened up, mostly with soot from the stoves, although some used polish and others added streaks of white paint in a competition over who could make their face look the ‘most gruesome’.
Their jump suits carried their divisional emblem on the left shoulder and an American flag on the right. One soldier, who had been given two extra cartons of Pall Mall cigarettes by a Red Cross helper, slipped one down each leg. But for those who found themselves dropping into flooded areas, this choice of hiding place was likely to produce an extra disappointment. Boots and straps were fastened as tightly as possible, as if they constituted a form of armour to protect them in the fighting to come. Paratroopers also went back for extra ammunition, overloading themselves. The greatest fear was to face an enemy with an empty gun. Bandoliers were slung crossways over their chests ‘Pancho Villa style’, canteens were filled to the brim, and pouches packed with spare socks and underwear. The camouflage-netted helmets had an aid kit fixed to the back with bandages, eight sulfa tablets and two syrettes of morphine - ‘one for pain and two for eternity’.
Pockets and pouches bulged, not just with 150 rounds of .30 ammunition, but also D-Ration chocolate bars, which possessed a texture akin to semi-set concrete, and a British Gammon grenade, which contained a pound of C2 explosive in a sort of cotton sock. This improvised bomb couldcertainlybeeffectiveagainstevenarmouredvehicles(paratroopers called it their ‘hand artillery’), but it was also popular for other reasons. A small amount of the fast-burning explosive could heat a mug of coffee or K-Rations without giving off any smoke from the bottom of a foxhole.
Dog tags were taped together to prevent them making a noise. Cigarettes and lighters, together with other essentials, such as a washing and shaving kit, water-purifying tablets, twenty-four sheets of toilet paper and a French phrase book, went into the musette bag slung around the neck, along with an escape kit consisting of a map printed on silk, hacksaw blade, compass and money. The largesse of the issued equipment amazed poor country boys more used to make-do and mend at home.
On top of all these smaller items came an entrenching tool and the soldier’spersonalweapon, usuallyacarbinewithafoldingstockpartially disassembled in a bag known as a ‘violin case’ which was strapped across their chest. Others were armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun. Bazookas were broken down into their two halves. Together with several rounds of anti-tank grenades, they were packed in leg bags which would dangle during the descent. The leg bags alone often weighed up to eighty pounds.
Paratroopers had their own superstitions. A number of them also foresaw their own death. One soldier remembered a ‘tow-headed kid’ named Johnny. ‘He was standing there, staring into space. I went over to him and I said, “What’s the matter, Johnny?” He said, “I don’t think I’ll make it.” I said, “Nah, you’ll be alright.” I sort of shook him because he was like in a daze. As it turned out, he was one of the first men killed in Normandy.’
When Eisenhower arrived at Greenham Common in his Cadillac staff car, followed by a small convoy of pressmen and photographers, he began to chat with paratroopers of General Maxwell Taylor’s 101st Airborne shortly before they emplaned. It must have been hard not to think of Leigh-Mallory’s dire prediction that they were almost all going to their deaths. Yet Eisenhower’s ‘informality and friendliness with troopers’ amazed even his aide. A Texan offered the supreme commander a job after the war roping cows. Eisenhower then asked airborne officers if they had any men from Kansas. He hoped to find someone from his home town of Abilene. A soldier called Oyler was sent over to meet him.
‘What’s your name, soldier?’ Eisenhower asked him.
Oyler froze in front of the general and his friends had to shout his name to jog his memory.
Eisenhower then asked him where he was from.
‘Wellington, Kansas,’ Oyler replied.
‘Oh, that’s south of Wichita.’
The supreme commander proceeded to ask him about his education and service and whether he had a girlfriend in England. Oyler relaxed and answered all his questions about their training and whether he thought the other men in his platoon were ready to go.
‘You know, Oyler, the Germans have been kicking the hell out of us for five years and it is payback time.’
Eisenhower went on to ask him if he was afraid and Oyler admitted that he was.
‘Well, you’d be a damn fool not to be. But the trick is to keep moving. If you stop, if you start thinking, you lose your focus. You lose your concentration. You’ll be a casualty. The idea, the perfect idea, is to keep moving.’
Movement at that moment was the paratroopers’ biggest problem. They were so loaded down with kit that they could only waddle to the waiting planes lined up beside the runway.
The ground crews of their C-47 Skytrains (the British called them Dakotas) had been working hard. All invasion aircraft were painted at the last moment with black and white stripes on the wings and fuselages to identify them more clearly to all the Allied ships below. Some paratroopers were taken aback at the sight. ‘We were surprised as dickens to see the big wide stripes painted on the wings and also on the fuselage. You thought they would be up there like sitting ducks for every ground gunner to try his luck on.’
The danger of ‘friendly fire’ was a major preoccupation, especially for airborne forces. During the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, US Navy anti-aircraft gunners had shot at both American transport aircraft and those towing gliders. In their desperation to escape the fire, pilots of tow aircraft had let loose their gliders, leaving them to crash into the sea. More than a dozen had been lost in the disaster. This time, to avoid flying over the invasion fleets, the routes planned for the drop on to the Cotentin peninsula would take the two airborne divisions on a wide sweep to the west, making their final approach from over the Channel Islands.
Many of the C-47s, which paratroopers referred to as ‘goony birds’, had names and symbols painted on the side of the nose. One, for example, had a picture of a devil holding up a tray on which sat a girl in a bathing suit. The inscription underneath was ‘Heaven can Wait’. A less encouraging aircraft name was ‘Miss Carriage’.
It took forty minutes to load the planes, for heavily burdened paratroopers needed help to get up the steps, almost like knights in armour trying to mount their horses. And once they were in, a large number needed to struggle out again soon afterwards for another ‘nervous pee’. The pilots of the troop carrier squadrons became increasingly worried about the we
A sergeant mounted first to go to the front of the plane and the platoon commander last, as he would lead the way. The sergeant would bring up the rear so that he could act as ‘pusher’ to make sure that everyone had left and nobody had frozen. ‘One trooper asked the sergeant if it was true that he had orders to shoot any man that refused to jump. “That’s the orders I’ve been given.” He said it so softly that everybody became quiet.’
The 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division received a nasty shock during loading. A Gammon grenade exploded inside one fuselage, killing a number of soldiers and setting the plane on fire. The survivors were simply switched to a follow-up detail. Nothing was allowed to delay the schedule for take-off that night.
Their engines ‘growling’, the heavily laden C-47s began to trundle in a seemingly endless sequence down the runway at Greenham Common. General Eisenhower stood there, apparently with tears in his eyes, saluting the paratroopers of the 101st as they took off.
Churchill, on that night of problems with de Gaulle, was also thinking of their powerful ally in the east. He had been trying to persuade Stalin to coincide his summer offensive with the invasion of Normandy. On 14 April he had signalled, ‘We ask you to let us know, in order to make our own calculations, what scale your effort will take.’
The year before Stalin had begun to despair of the western Allies ever launching the invasion of northern Europe, a development which they had been promising since 1942. Churchill had always preferred an indirect, or peripheral, strategy in the Mediterranean, to avoid another bloodbath in France like the one which had slaughtered the youth of his generation. He was right in the end to have delayed the invasion, albeit for the wrong reasons. The Anglo-American armies had simply not been ready, either materially or in trained manpower, to attempt such an operation before. A failure would have been catastrophic. Yet none of the excuses or genuine reasons had placated Stalin, who never ceased to remindhisalliesof theircommitment.‘Oneshouldnotforget,’ he had written to Churchill on 24 June 1943, ‘that on all this depends the possibility to save millions of lives in the occupied regions of western Europe and Russia and reduce the colossal sacrifices of the Soviet armies, in comparison with which the losses of the Anglo-American troops could be considered as modest.’ More than 7 million members of the Soviet armed forces had already died in the war.
At the Teheran conference in November, Roosevelt, to Churchill’s dismay, had gone behind his back to tell Stalin that as well as the landings in Normandy, they would also invade the south of France with Operation Anvil. Churchill and Brooke had been resisting this plan ever since the Americans dreamed it up. Anvil would drain the Allied armies in Italy of reserves and resources, and this would wreck Churchill’s dream of advancing into the northern Balkans and Austria. Churchill had foreseen the consequences of the dramatic Red Army advances. He dreaded a Soviet occupation of central Europe. Roosevelt, on the other hand, had convinced himself that by charming Stalin instead of confronting him, a lasting post-war peace was a real possibility. It would be based on the United Nations Organization which he intended to create. The President felt that Churchill was guided far too much by reactionary impulses, both imperial and geopolitical. Roosevelt believed that once Nazi Germany was defeated with American help, then Europe should sort herself out.
Stalin had been pleased during the Teheran conference to have the firmest assurances so far that the cross-Channel invasion would take place in the spring. But then he became deeply suspicious again when he heard that a supreme commander had not yet been appointed. Even after Eisenhower’s nomination, Stalin still remained sceptical. On 22 February, he received a signal from Gusev, his ambassador in London:‘We have heard from other sources, mainly English and American correspondents, that the dates for the opening of the Second Front which had been fixed in Teheran, can probably change from March to April and maybe even to May.’ And when Roosevelt finally wrote with the date, Stalin’s foreign minister, Vishinsky, summoned the American chargé d’affaires in Moscow to demand what the ‘D’ stood for in ‘D-Day’.
On the eve of the great undertaking, Churchill sent a signal to Stalin with the feeling that the blood debt which the western Allies owed the Soviet people was being paid at last: ‘I have just returned from two days at Eisenhower’s headquarters, watching the troops embark ... With great regret General Eisenhower was forced to postpone for one night, but the weather forecast has undergone a most favourable change and tonight we go.’
Watch on the Channel
While the Wehrmacht awaited the invasion, Hitler remained at the Berghof, his Alpine residence on the mountainside above Berchtesgaden. On 3 June, as the Allied ships were loading, a wedding had taken place in these rarefied surroundings. Eva Braun’s younger sister, Gretl, married SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s representative at Führer headquarters. Guests wore their best clothes or dress uniform. The one exception was Hitler in his usual mouse-grey tunic. He seldom dressed up whatever the occasion. Hitler, assuming the role of father of the bride, did not object to the abundance of champagne being served and he allowed them to dance to an SS band. He left the bridal party early to let them celebrate late into the night. Martin Bormann became so drunk on schnapps that he had to be carried back to his chalet.
Hitler was in a confident mood. He longed for the enemy to come, certain that an Allied invasion would be smashed on the Atlantic Wall. The Reich propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, even implied that the Allies would not dare to cross the Channel. His great slogan at the time was: ‘They are supposed to be coming. Why don’t they come?’
Hitler had convinced himself that defeating the invasion would knock the British and Americans out of the war. Then he could concentrate all his armies on the eastern front against Stalin. The casualties the German armies in France would suffer in this great defensive battle did not concern him. He had already demonstrated what little attention he paid to loss of life, even in his own guard formation, the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. Yet he sent the men Christmas boxes each year containing chocolate and schnapps, but no cigarettes since that would be bad for their health. Himmler had to make up this deficiency from SS resources.
The Atlantic Wall, which supposedly stretched from Norway to the Spanish frontier, was more a triumph of propaganda for home consumption than a physical reality. Hitler had once again fallen victim to his own regime’s self-deception. He refused to acknowledge any comparisons to France’s Maginot Line of 1940 or even listen to complaints from those responsible for the coastal defences. They lacked sufficient concrete for the bunkers and batteries, because Hitler himself had given priority to massive U-boat shelters. The Kriegsmarine had lost the battle of the Atlantic, but he still believed that the new generation of submarines being developed would destroy Allied shipping.
Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Commander-in-Chief West, regarded the Atlantic Wall as ‘just a bit of cheap bluff’. Like many senior officers, the elderly Rundstedt did not forget Frederick the Great’s dictum ‘He who defends everything defends nothing.’ He believed that the Wehrmacht should abandon Italy, ‘that frightful boot of a country’, and hold a line across the Alps. He also disagreed with the retention of so many troops in Norway, whose strategic importance he considered ‘a purely naval affair’.3
Almost all senior German officers were privately scathing about Hitler’s obsession with ‘fortresses’. The ports of Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre and Cherbourg on the Channel coast, and Brest, La Rochelle and Bordeaux on the Atlantic, had each been designated a ‘Festung’ to be held to the last man. Hitler also refused to contemplate bringing in the strengthened division based on the Channel Islands because, judging the British by himself, he was certain that they would want to take back the only piece of their
Hitler had convinced himself that his ‘fortress’ orders, both in the east and in the west, provided the best way to hold back the enemy and prevent his own generals from permitting retreats. In fact it meant that the garrisons - 120,000 men in the case of northern France - would not be available later to help defend Germany. His policy was contrary to every traditional tenet of the German general staff, which insisted on flexibility. And when Rundstedt pointed out that, with their guns and concrete emplacements facing seawards, they were vulnerable to attack from the landward side, his observation was ‘not favourably received’.
Yet even many experienced officers, and not just the fanatics of the Waffen-SS, looked forward to the approaching battle with some confidence. ‘We considered the repulse at Dieppe as proof that we could repel any invasion,’ Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein told his American interrogators later. An urge to get to grips with the enemy on the ground was widespread. ‘The face of the war has changed dramatically,’ a lieutenant wrote just five days before the landings. ‘It is no longer like it is in the cinema, where the best places are at the back. We continue to stand by and hope that they’re coming soon. But I’m still worried that they’re not coming at all, but will try to finish us off by air.’ Two days after the invasion he was killed by Allied bombers.
The key question, of course, was where the Allies would attack. German contingency planning had considered Norway and Denmark, and even landings in Spain and Portugal. Staff officers of the OKW, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, looked carefully at the possibilities of attacks against France’s Mediterranean coast and the Bay of Biscay, especially Brittany and also around Bordeaux. But the most likely areas would be those well within range of Allied airbases in southern and eastern England. This meant anywhere from the coast of Holland all the way down the Channel to Cherbourg at the tip of the Cotentin peninsula.
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