D day the battle for nor.., p.7
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.7

           Antony Beevor
 

  The first warning to the Resistance to prepare had been transmitted by the French service of the BBC on 1 June. The announcer read these ‘personal messages’ in an emphatic tone. Defying the usual security measures for codes, the message could not have been clearer: ‘L’heure du combat viendra’ - ‘The moment of battle is approaching.’ The signal to be sent in the event of cancellation was slightly more veiled: ‘Les enfants s’ennuient au jardin’ - ‘The children are getting bored in the garden.’ During the first days of June, members of the Resistance all over France leaned closer to their wireless sets to be certain of what they heard. So too did the German Abwehr and Sicherheitsdienst. Others not in on the secret also listened in fascination. An intellectual living near Lisieux described his wireless as this ‘insolent little sphinx emitting baroque messages on which the fate of France depended’.

  Finally, in the early evening of 5 June, personal messages sent the Resistance all over France into action. The Allies deemed this necessary because they could not risk identifying the main landing areas. That evening, the Resistance in Normandy heard the announcer say, ‘Les dés sont sur le tapis’ - ‘The dice are down.’ This was their order to start cutting cables and telegraph wires immediately. It was followed by ‘Il fait chaud à Suez’, the signal to attack all lines of communication.

  5

  The Airborne Assault

  During the hour before midnight on 5 June, the roar of hundreds of aircraft engines in a constant stream could be heard over villages near airfields in southern and central England. People in their nightclothes went out into their gardens to stare up at the seemingly endless air armada silhouetted against the scudding clouds. ‘This is it’ was their instinctive thought. The sight evoked powerful emotions, including painful memories of the evacuation from Dunkirk four summers before. Some went back inside to kneel by their beds to pray for those setting forth.

  Three airborne divisions were taking to the air in over 1,200 aircraft. The British 6th Airborne Division was headed for the east of the River Orne to secure Montgomery’s left flank. The American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions would be dropped on the Cotentin peninsula to seize key points, especially the causeways across the flooded areas inland from Utah beach.

  The first group to take off was D Company of the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. They left even before the pathfinder detachments sent ahead of the main force to mark dropping zones. This company, commanded by Major John Howard, was flown in six Horsa gliders towed by Halifax bombers. Officers and soldiers all had blackened faces and wore round paratroop helmets with camouflage netting. They were armed with a mixture of rifles, Sten sub-machine guns and several Bren guns. The Halifaxes took them over to the east of the invasion fleet and aimed for the seaside resort of Cabourg, where there was a gap in the German flak defences. The gliders were at an altitude of 5,000 feet when the tow lines were cast off. Howard told his men to stop their songs, which had been bellowed out for most of the way across the Channel. From then on there was no noise apart from the rushing wind. The pilots banked, turning the flimsy craft westwards. After losing height rapidly, they flattened out at 1,000 feet for the approach.

  Their objectives were two bridges close together, one over the River Orne and the other over the Caen Canal. They had to seize them before the Germans guarding them could blow demolition charges. Howard, who had positioned himself opposite the door on the first glider, could see the gleam of the two parallel waterways below. As his Horsa swept in, the men braced themselves for the shock of landing. The two pilots brought the cumbersome glider in with astonishing accuracy. After bumping and leaping and skidding across the field, the nose of the glider came to a halt penetrating the barbed-wire entanglement. The two pilots were knocked unconscious in the crash, but they had achieved a landing within fifty feet of the pillbox beside the bridge.

  Some of the plywood Horsa gliders - unaffectionately known as ‘Hearses’ - broke up on impact, so soldiers scrambled out through the broken sides as well as the door. Within moments, the first men out of Howard’s glider had hurled grenades through the slits of the pillbox on the west side of the Caen Canal. The rest of the platoon did not wait. Led by Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, they were already charging across the bridge. Howard had made sure they were at the peak of fitness with cross-country runs. But by the time Brotheridge’s platoon reached the other side, the German guards had got themselves together andopenedfire. Brotheridgewasmortallywoundedfromashotthrough the neck and died soon afterwards.

  Another platoon arrived led by Lieutenant Sandy Smith, although he had broken his arm badly in the landing. After a fierce but mercifully brief firefight, the bridge over the Caen Canal was secured. Howard was concerned at having heard nothing from the platoon ordered to take the bridge over the Orne, a few hundred yards beyond, but then a message arrived to say that they had secured it without the defenders firing a shot. Its commander, Lieutenant Dennis Fox, took a certain pleasure in greeting the next platoon to arrive, panting heavily since they had landed half a mile off target. When asked how things stood, he replied, ‘Well, so far the exercise is going fine, but I can’t find any bloody umpires.’

  Howard immediately ordered an all-round defence and sent Fox’s platoon out in fighting patrols to probe the nearby village of Bénouville. The curious choice of success signal for the two bridges - ‘Ham and Jam’ - was sent off by radio. Howard could hardly dare believe that such a tricky operation had gone entirely according to plan, but then at 01.30 hours the platoons defending the bridges heard the unmistakable noise of armoured vehicles beyond Bénouville.

  By then paratroopers were landing all over the place. German officers in command posts along the Normandy coastline were desperately ringing regimental headquarters on field telephones. In some cases they could not get through because the Resistance had cut the lines and they had to resort to their radios. To increase confusion, the RAF had mounted Operation Titanic, with a force of forty Hudsons, Halifaxes and Stirlings. They dropped dummy parachutists and ‘window’ aluminium strips to confuse the radar, as well as SAS teams to simulate airborne landings away from the invasion area. The SAS teams were there to cause mayhem behind the lines and give substance to the dummy parachutists. Some 200 dummies were dropped south of Carentan at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, fifty more east of the River Dives and fifty to the south-west of Caen. They were little more than rough scarecrows, with a device to make them explode and catch fire on landing. The Germans called them ‘Explosivpuppen’. Soon after 01.30 hours, teleprinters began chattering in corps and army headquarters, but reports of these ‘exploding puppets’ caused most commanders to think that all the attacks were simply part of a large-scale diversion, probably for the main landing in the Pas-de-Calais. Only Generalmajor Max Pemsel, the chief of staff of the Seventh Army, recognized at the time that this was the major invasion, but Generalleutnant Speidel at La Roche-Guyon refused to believe him.

  Generalleutnant Joseph Reichert, who commanded the 711th Infanterie-Division to theeast of the Orne estuary,had remained talking in the officers’ mess until late. On the point of going to bed, he and his companions heard aircraft engines overhead. ‘The planes were flying so low that we had the feeling they might almost touch the roof,’ he wrote later. Reichert and his companions went outside to have a look. ‘It was a night of the full moon. The weather was fairly stormy, with low-hanging black clouds, but in the gaps between them several low-flying planes could be distinctly observed, circling the divisional command post.’ Reichert went back inside to grab his pistol, then heard the shout of ‘Parachutists!’ Paratroopers were coming down all round his divisional headquarters. The 20 mm quadruple flak guns on the main strongpoint opened fire.

  While his operations officer alerted the division, Reichert rang LXXXI Corps headquarters at Rouen. By this time the guns had stopped firing, leaving an uneasy calm. Reichert, who had been sceptical about the whole invasion, now sensed that it really was starting,
even if this attack was only a feint. Two captured British paratroopers were brought in, but they refused to answer questions. The accuracy of the maps found on them shook Reichert. They showed almost every gun emplacement. He deduced that the French Resistance had been even busier than the Germans had imagined. Not all prisoners were so fortunate. Elsewhere in the sector, a Hauptfeldwebel in Reichert’s division executed eight captured British paratroopers, probably in obedience to Hitler’s notorious Kommandobefehl, which demanded the shooting of all special forces taken on raids.

  South of Evreux, Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, the commander of the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend, had been enjoying a late drink with staff officers in front of a log fire when the first reports of dummy parachutists came in. They dismissed these as yet another of the false alarms which had taken place that spring. But almost as soon as they went to bed, they were woken with more insistent warnings. Witt rang 1st SS Panzer Corps headquarters, but found that they had heard nothing. On his own authority, he ordered the alert for the Hitler Jugend, with the codeword ‘Blücher’. Yet, to their intense frustration, most of his men would spend many hours waiting in their armoured vehicles until Führer headquarters finally agreed to release them for action. Witt nevertheless permitted the 25th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment to move towards Caen and sent ahead part of his reconnaissance battalion in their six-wheeler armoured cars and BMW motorcycles with sidecars.

  Of the British airborne operations that night, Howard’s success with the two bridges was about the only one which went according to plan. Brigadier James Hill, the commander of 3rd Parachute Brigade, had warned his officers before their departure, ‘Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and orders, do not be daunted if chaos reigns. It undoubtedly will.’

  Major General Richard Gale, the commander of the 6th Airborne Division, had formulated a sound plan. To secure the left flank of the landings, his force needed to occupy and defend the area between the River Orne and the River Dives five miles further east. By destroying five bridges on that eastern side, he could make use of the Dives and the flood plain around it, which the Germans themselves had inundated, as a barrier against armoured counter-attacks. He could then concentrate the bulk of his forces facing southwards to hold off an expected counter-attack from the 21st Panzer-Division. For this they needed anti-tank guns, which would be brought in with the first glider force two hours later.

  Another important objective for the 6th Airborne Division was the battery at Merville, onthe far side of the Orne estuary from Ouistreham. RAF air reconnaissance had monitored the preparation of these emplacements for coastal artillery. Large-calibre guns there could wreak havoc on the fleet and the landing ships, as well as Sword beach, the most easterly landing sector. Their massive concrete construction made them virtually impervious to bombing. Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway’s 9th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment therefore received orders to capture the site and destroy the guns. The barbed-wire defences, minefields and machine-gun positions around them made this an awesome assignment. A bombing raid by Lancasters to soften up the defences was due to go in just before the battalion jumped, then four Horsa gliders carrying an assault group were to land inside the wire and on top of the battery.

  Otway’s men had practised the attack many times over on mocked-up positions back in England, but chaos was destined to reign, as their brigade commander had warned. The battalion was dropped all over the place. This was partly due to their aircraft taking evasive action when the flak opened up, but also because the pathfinder group’s Eureka homing devices to guide in the main force had broken on landing. Many paratroopers fell into the flood plain of the River Dives. One of Otway’s men was sucked into a bog and drowned in mud despite efforts to save him. The airborne soldiers had been equipped with duck calls to try to find each other in the dark, but the battalion was so spread out that these could not be heard. Fewer than 160 men out of 600 reached the rendezvous point.

  Two sticks of the 9th Battalion had failed to join Otway because they were dropped at Saint-Pair, sixteen miles too far south. They could not believe the silence of the night. Their officer went to a nearby house and woke up the inhabitants to find out where they were. Horrified by the news, he told the men to break up into small groups and try to make their way back to join the battalion, but many of them would be captured on the way. Altogether 192 of Otway’s battalion were still unaccounted for at the end of the battle for Normandy.

  Colonel Otway could not wait any longer. He had to complete the mission and send the success signal before 06.00 hours, when the six-inch guns of the light cruiser HMS Arethusa would open fire. To make matters worse, much of their kit had been lost in the jump. Otway’s men had no mine detectors and only a few Bangalore torpedoes for blowing gaps in the barbed-wire entanglements. Otway nevertheless decided to carry on, with only a quarter of his force. His soldier servant, a former professional boxer, proffered a small flask. ‘Shall we take our brandy now, sir?’ he said.

  The next blow was to find that the Lancasters coming to soften up the battery had missed their target. Otway had to abandon the set plan completely, above all because the Horsa gliders which were to land on the battery never reached their objective. A young officer and a sergeant crawled ahead through the minefield to mark the way, then the attack went in. The force of 160 men suffered seventy-five casualties in a matter of minutes, but they still seized the emplacements. To their bitter frustration they found only 75 mm guns, not the anticipated 150 mm heavy coastal artillery. Using the plastic explosive which each man carried, they blew the breeches and retired as best they could with their wounded to be out of range before the Arethusa was in position to open fire.

  The other seven parachute battalions of Gale’s division were also to be dropped between the rivers Orne and Dives. After the bridges between Bénouville and Ranville had been secured by Howard’s company, the next objective was to destroy the bridges over the Dives to protect the east flank. This was the task of the 3rd Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers, assisted by the battalions dropping on that flank. After the bridges were blown, the 8th Battalion took up positions in the south-east of the area, in and around the Bois de Bavent.

  Almost all the battalions dropping that night lost a large amount of kit. Bren guns and PIAT anti-tank launchers suffered damage on landing. In many cases, the jump bag attached to a paratrooper’s ankle was so heavy because of the extra ammunition that either the webbing attachment broke or the bag buried itself deep in the mud of marshy ground. Some soldiers drowned in the ditches of flooded areas adjoining the River Dives. Brigadier James Hill, the commander of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, dropped not far from Cabourg into flooded marshland there. The water was only waist deep, but this did not save him from one minor disaster. All the tea bags which he had brought stuffed inside his trouser legs were ruined. He soon suffered a far more serious blow, when British bombs exploded nearby. As he threw himself sideways, landing on another officer, Hill was wounded in the left buttock. He then saw to his horror a blown-off leg lying in the middle of the path, but it was not his. It belonged to Lieutenant Peters, the man on whom he had fallen. Peters was dead.

  Hill’s brigade had suffered the most from inaccurate drops. Low cloud had made navigation difficult and pilots had tried to avoid the flak. Some were also confused because the River Dives, swollen by flooding, looked like the River Orne, and they dropped men on the wrong side. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, bound for the same drop zone as Otway’s 9th Battalion, was also scattered widely for the same reasons. Many of its men fell into the flooded surrounds of the Dives and two sticks were even dropped on the west side of the Orne. Only a small force reached Varaville, where the bridge was to be destroyed. Part of a company helped the 9th Battalion withdraw from the Merville battery, while other detachments, guided through the night by a French girl they met, seized and held the bridge at Robehomme until sappers arrived to destroy it.

  One of the Canadian officers noted just
before departure that his men were all in a ‘very suggestible state’. This may have been made worse by their Catholic padre. Appalled to hear that the paratroopers had been issued with condoms, he had ranted in his sermon before take-off that they should not be going to meet their deaths with ‘the means of mortal sin’ in their pockets. At the end of the service, the ground was apparently littered with discarded packets. But as soon as the Canadian paratroopers were in action, particularly during the fierce fighting for the village of Varaville, they showed no lack of courage. They also had confidence in their commander, Brigadier Hill, showing a rare respect among Canadians for a senior British officer.

  The 5th Parachute Brigade dropped just to the east of the two captured bridges. It was while their battalions were still sorting themselves out that Major Howard’s men heard the clanking and grinding of tracked vehicles approaching from Bénouville. The only anti-tank weapon available was a PIAT launcher and two rounds. Sergeant Thornton ran forward with this hefty apparatus. Knowing that the weapon was useless except at close range, he took up a firing position next to the road. Fortunately, the oncoming tracked vehicle turned out to be a half-track rather than a tank. Thornton knocked it out with the first round and the following vehicle retreated rapidly. He and his men captured several survivors from the half-track, including the local German commander, Major Schmidt, who was coming from Ranville to see if the bridges really had been taken.

  Shortly afterwards, Howard’s little defence force was relieved by the 7th Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Pine-Coffin, whose name alone qualified him for a place in an Evelyn Waugh novel. These reinforcements were able to increase the bridgehead considerably by occupying more of the surrounding area on the west bank of the canal, including most of the village of Bénouville. Meanwhile the 12th Battalion took up defensive positions along the low ridge beside the Orne. The 13th Battalion moved into Ranville ready for a counterattack, while one of its companies began to clear the landing zone for the gliders.

 
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