D day the battle for nor.., p.9
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       D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, p.9

           Antony Beevor
 

  On occasions, the killing of prisoners was prevented. About 02.30 hours, a handful of paratroopers from the 101st, including a lieutenant and a chaplain, were standing in a farmyard talking to the French inhabitants. They were astonished when around a dozen troopers from the 82nd came in at the run, herding a group of very young German orderlies, whom they then told to lie down. The terrified boys pleaded for their lives. The sergeant, who intended to shoot them all, claimed that some of their buddies caught in trees had been turned into ‘Roman candles’ by a German soldier with a flame-thrower.

  The sergeant pulled the bolt back on his Thompson sub-machine gun. In desperation, the boys grabbed the legs of the lieutenant and the chaplain as they and the French family shouted at the sergeant not to shoot them. Finally, the sergeant was persuaded to stop. The boys were locked in the farm’s cellar. But the sergeant was not put off his mission of vengeance. ‘Let’s go and find some Krauts to kill!’ he yelled to his men, and they left. The members of the 101st were shaken by what they had witnessed. ‘These people had gone ape,’ a senior non-com remarked later.

  As the scattered groups coalesced during the night, officers were able to exert control and concentrate on objectives. Soldiers who could not find their own units attached themselves to any battalion, even if it was from the other division. General Maxwell Taylor, the commander of the 101st, had accumulated a group of thirty men, which included four colonels as well as other officers. This prompted him to parody Churchill, with the comment, ‘Never before in the annals of warfare have so few been commanded by so many.’ Another group of troopers were sighted pulling the regimental commander of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, Colonel George Van Horn Mosely Jr, around on a machine-gun cart because he had broken his leg on the jump.

  Several soldiers and officers who had broken an ankle on landing just strapped it up and hobbled on, gritting their teeth. Those who could not walk at all were left to guard prisoners. The bravery of the overwhelming majority of men cannot be doubted. Apart from a single battalion commander in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment who spent the night hiding in a ditch, there were few cases of nervous collapse.

  There appear to have been considerably more examples of battle shock on the German side. A soldier called Rainer Hartmetz went back to his company command post for more ammunition. There he found two men in deep shock: ‘They couldn’t talk. They were trembling. They tried to smoke, but they couldn’t get the cigarette to their lips.’ And the company commander, a captain who had apparently been brave on the eastern front, was lying in a foxhole drunk. Whenever anybody appeared with a message from the forward positions, he waved his pistol and muttered, ‘I should execute every man who runs back.’

  A mixed force of some seventy-five paratroopers attacked the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. The officer who took command had no idea how many Germans were there, but their training paid off. With machine guns on the flanks to cover them, squads leapfrogged forward. A bazooka team rushed out into the main street and fired at the door of the church with an anti-tank round. A dozen German soldiers, with their leader waving an improvised white flag, appeared out through the smoke and dust with their hands in the air. The village was cleared in less than an hour. Most of the defenders had fled down the road towards Carentan.

  Other groups moved to secure the causeways over the flooded areas behind Utah beach. A handful of paratroopers came across fifteen Germans transporting ammunition in three horse-drawn carts. They forced them to surrender and then made them march ahead down the road. A German speaker told them that if they came under fire they were not to move. A short time later a German machine gun opened up. The paratroopers took cover in the ditches. One of the Germans began to run, but was shot down immediately. ‘We threw him in the cart,’ one of the paratroopers recorded. ‘He died later that morning. From then on, we had no problem with the prisoners remaining erect in the road, under any conditions.’ This practice was, of course, a flagrant breach of the Geneva Convention.

  As with the British airborne forces, one of the tasks of the paratroopers was to clear and secure the landing zone for the Waco gliders bringing in reinforcements and heavy equipment. But their landing near Sainte-Mère-Eglise was not to pass off so smoothly. ‘After a short march,’ wrote one paratrooper assigned to this duty, ‘we arrived at the field and encountered a small group of Germans who were guarding it. They were quickly routed after a brief firefight. The field was nothing more than a large clearing surrounded by woods and several farmhouses. We were quickly assigned to squads and formed a perimeter defense around it. There was nothing more to do but wait.’

  At the appointed moment signal lamps were switched on. ‘We could hear the sounds of planes in the distance, then no sounds at all. This was followed by a series of swishing noises. Adding to the swelling crescendo of sounds were the tearing of branches and trees followed by loud crashes and intermittent screams.’ The gliders were coming in rapidly, one after the other, from different directions. Many overshot the field and landed in the surrounding woods, while others crashed into nearby farmhouses and stone walls. The gliders had been loaded with Jeeps, anti-tank guns, and other weapons too large to drop by parachute. The cargo was strapped down and secured to plywood floors. Pilots and glider troops alike had only canvas and light wood to protect them.

  In a moment, the field was complete chaos, with gliders ploughing in all directions. Equipment broke away and catapulted through the front of the plane when it hit the ground, often crushing the pilots. Bodies and bundles were scattered the length of the field. Some of the glider troopers were impaled by the splintering wood of the fragile machines. ‘We immediately tried to aid the injured,’ wrote one of the paratroopers who had prepared the landing zone, ‘but knew we would first have to decide who could be helped and who could not. A makeshift aid station was set up and we began the grim process of separating the living from the dead. I saw one man with his legs and buttocks sticking out of the canvas fuselage of a glider. I tried to pull him out. He would not budge. When I looked inside the wreckage, I could see his upper torso had been crushed by a jeep.’

  British gliders, which were larger, carried the field guns of the 320th Glider Field Artillery Battalion. They were even more dangerous than the Waco gliders. On a hard landing the front wheel structure would smash up through the plywood floor, causing considerable injury. A lot of the crashes were caused by confusion and too many planes coming in at the same time. A number were shot down by ground fire from nearby German positions. ‘The troop-carrying gliders came like a swarm of ravens,’ wrote the Obergefreiter from the 91st Luftlande-Division, ‘and then the war really got started.’ Among the casualties was Brigadier General Pratt, the assistant divisional commander of the 101st Airborne. He too was killed by a Jeep smashing through the front of the aircraft when it came to an abrupt halt on hitting a tree. Within twenty minutes, enough glider troops had landed to allow them to start caring for their own injured. Medics were working frantically, administering morphine, sulfa pills and whatever bandages they had.

  A number of the gliders missed the landing zone altogether. One came down on a landmine and blew up. Some came in on the flooded areas, which at least softened the landing. Pilots had to remember to take off their heavy flak jackets before cutting their way out through the side panels. The water could be deep in places.

  Glider infantrymen were extremely vulnerable at this moment if within range of German positions. ‘Upon landing,’ wrote one pilot, ‘we discovered the source of the ground fire which nearly got me. It turned out to be a bunker containing about a dozen conscripted Polish soldiers with one German in charge. After the glider infantrymen from several gliders, including ours, directed a hail of rifle-fire at the bunker, the resistance ceased. There was silence in the bunker, and then a single shot. Then there were shouts and laughter, and these Poles emerged with their hands held high. They weren’t about to fight the Americans so they simply shot the Kraut sergeant.’

/>   Reactions among the French civilian population could also be unpredictable. While many made omelettes or crêpes for the paratroopers and offered them swigs of Calvados, others were frightened that this operation might just be a raid, and that the Germans would return afterwards to take revenge. But such fears did not stop farmers’ wives from rushing out into the fields and grabbing as many parachutes as possible for their silk. Not surprisingly, the rather stolid Norman farmers, who seldom travelled far from their own villages, were confused by this extraordinary intrusion. A trooper in the 101st recounted that when they stopped to talk to three Frenchmen, one of the farmers said to his companion, pointing to the blackened face of a paratrooper, ‘You’ve now seen an American negro.’

  Despite the intensely vicious skirmishes, the fighting had hardly started. As dawn approached, the paratroopers knew that the Germans would launch counter-attacks in strength. Their prime concern was the possible failure of the main invasion. If the 4th Infantry Division did not secure Utah beach and break through across the causeways to join them, then they would be abandoned to their fate.

  After seeing the 101st Airborne take off from Greenham Common, General Eisenhower had returned to his nickel-plated trailer at 01.15 hours. He had sat there in silence for a while smoking. His aide, Harry Butcher, did not know then that the supreme commander had already written a statement assuming all responsibility if Overlord turned out to be a disaster.

  A few hours later, Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory, the very man who had warned of catastrophe on the Cotentin airborne operation, telephoned through a preliminary report. Butcher immediately went to Eisenhower. Unable to sleep, the supreme commander was reading a western in bed and still smoking. Only twenty-one of the 850 transports carrying the American airborne troops had been destroyed. British losses were even lighter, with just eight missing out of around 400 aircraft. Leigh-Mallory was already composing an apology in writing which managed to be both grovelling and handsome at the same time: ‘I am more thankful than I can say that my misgivings were unfounded . . . May I congratulate you on the wisdom of your choice.’ But they all knew that the airborne operation had been just the first step. Everything depended upon the seaborne landings and the German response.

  6

  The Armada Crosses

  As those who set forth in the convoys of warships and landing craft looked over Southampton Water on the evening of 5 June, the invasion fleet seemed to stretch to the horizon. Many wondered what the Germans would think when they caught sight of this armada, by far the largest fleet that had ever put to sea. Nearly 5,000 landing ships and assault craft were escorted by six battleships, four monitors, twenty-three cruisers, 104 destroyers and 152 escort vessels, as well as the 277 minesweepers clearing channels ahead. Most were British, American and Canadian, but there were also French, Polish, Dutch and Norwegian warships.

  On the landing ship carrying Lord Lovat’s commandos in the 1st Special Service Brigade, his personal piper, Bill Millin of the Cameron Highlanders, stood on the bow in battledress tunic and kilt, playing ‘The Road to the Isles’. The sound carried across the water and the crews of other ships began to cheer. Captains of several warships had the same idea. Two Hunt-class destroyers played ‘A-hunting We Will Go’ at full blast over their tannoys and Free French destroyers responded with the ‘Marseillaise’. Their sailors leaped about on deck, waving in joy at the prospect of a return to France after four years.

  Convoys converged from all directions on the assembly area south of the Isle of Wight dubbed ‘Piccadilly Circus’. Admiral Middleton, on board the battleship HMS Ramillies, which had sailed down the west coast, recorded that ‘the traffic got thicker and thicker’ after they rounded Land’s End. In ‘strong winds and lumpy seas’, the Ramillies ploughed on through the slower convoys. He described it as ‘an exciting sport, especially at night’, but it must have been alarming for the crews of small ships which found the battleship bearing down on them.

  The feelings of the 130,000 soldiers approaching the French coast by sea that night were turbulent. Field Marshal Lord Bramall, then a young lieutenant, described ‘a mixture of excitement at being part of such a great enterprise and apprehension of somehow not coming up to expectations and doing what was expected of us’. This fear of failure seems to have been especially strong in young, unblooded subalterns. An old sweat had come up to him and said, ‘Don’t you worry, sir, we’ll look after you.’ But Bramall knew that in fact ‘many of them had already had too much of a war’. His own regiment, the 60th Rifles, had fought throughout the desert campaign and the strain had told. At the back of many British and Canadian minds was also a fear that the whole operation might turn out to be a murderous fiasco like the raid on Dieppe two years before. Many wondered whether they would return. Some, just before leaving, had picked up a pebble from the beach ‘as a last reminder’ of their native land.

  Almost everyone at every level was acutely conscious of taking part in a great historical event. Headquarters of the American V Corps heading for Omaha beach recorded in its war diary, ‘The attempt to do what had been contemplated by all the great military leaders of modern European History - a cross channel invasion - was about to commence.’

  The main question in most minds was whether the Germans already knew what was afoot and would be waiting for them. Planners of Operation Neptune, the cross-Channel phase of Overlord, had spent months considering possible threats to the invasion fleets: submarines, mines, E-boats, radar and the Luftwaffe. Every precaution was taken.

  Mosquito squadrons were patrolling the French coast all night, ready to down any German aircraft which might sight the approaching fleets. Aircraft equipped for radio counter-measures were also aloft to jam the frequencies used by German night-fighters. Large-scale radar-jamming operations were carried out by British and American aircraft over the Channel. And for several weeks, rocket-firing Typhoons had attacked German radar sites all along the Channel coast from the Netherlands to Brittany.

  In Operation Taxable, Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron dropped ‘window’, aluminium strips to simulate on radar screens an invasion convoy approaching the coast at Cap d’Antifer, north-east of Le Havre. This was assisted by a naval deception using motor launches and torpedo boats towing reflector balloons, which would look like large ships on radar. A similar deception plan, Operation Glimmer, consisted of Stirling bombers dropping ‘window’ opposite Boulogne. Mines were also dropped round Cap d’Antifer.

  One of Admiral Ramsay’s greatest concerns was a mass attack on the invasion fleet by German U-boats from their bases in Brittany. Naval anti-submarine forces were deployed, but the main task of covering the south-western approaches fell to 19 Group of Coastal Command mainly flying B-24 Liberatorsand Sunderland flying boats. Thegroup included one Czech, one Polish, one New Zealander, two Australian and three Canadian squadrons. Even the RAF’s own 224 Squadron was a mixed bag of nationalities, with 137 Britons, forty-four Canadians, thirty-three Anzacs, two Americans, a Swiss, a Chilean, a South African and a Brazilian.

  Their crews faced long missions day and night, constantly patrolling the western Channel in box patterns from southern Ireland down to the Brest peninsula. When their radar picked out any submarine on the surface, the aircraft would dive, the front gunner trying to kill and wound as many as possible on the conning tower to impede a crash dive, then the aimer would release the depth charges. In Operation Cork, aircraft from 19 Group attacked forty submarines. One of 224 Squadron’s Liberators piloted by the twenty-one-year-old Canadian, Flying Officer Ken Moore, made naval history by sinking two U-boats within twenty-two minutes on the night of 7 June. To the embarrassment of Großadmiral Karl Dönitz and the high command of the Kriegsmarine, not a single U-boat penetrated the English Channel. Other Allied aircraft attacked German destroyers to prevent them from engaging the invasion fleet. Only fast German E-boats and later midget submarines managed to inflict any losses.

  On board the landing ships, soldiers whiled away
the time. Some tried to sleep, some attempted to learn a little French from their phrase books, some read their Bibles. Many attended improvised church services, finding comfort in religion. On the British ship Princess Ingrid, however, God had appeared to be in a less reassuring mood when the bosun piped ‘Hands to church’ the previous afternoon. ‘Although attendance was entirely voluntary,’ wrote a forward observer with the 50th Division, ‘every soldier on board seemed to be at the service which was held on the upper boat deck. In the bows stood an Army chaplain behind a table covered by a table cloth on which stood a small silver cross. As we waited for the service to begin, the wind started to increase in vigor. A sudden gust flipped up the table cloth, the cross slipped to the deck and broke in two. Utter consternation in the congregation. What an omen! For the first time I realized what “fear of God” really was. All around, men were looking absolutely shattered.’

  On American landing ships, dice and poker games began, with bets made mostly in the new Allied occupation currency which General de Gaulle so abhorred. Aboard the USS Samuel Chase, war correspondents, including the photographer Robert Capa and Don Whitehead, joined in enthusiastically. ‘All are tense and all are pretending to be casual,’ remarked one soldier. ‘Bravado helps.’

 

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