The ramps went down, the bayonets glistened, the boots crunched onto the gravel. The landing craft emptied of their human, breathing cargoes, the assault ships motored slowly as the next sections of soldiers moved forwards, and then down the cargo nets into the landing craft, which had the blood swept from the flat decks by the ocean waves, as they returned to the noisy hell which was the five designated beaches of Normandy some seventy years ago this day. From the organised chaos of Gold & Sword; to the bloodstained sands of Omaha beaches, We had returned!
The photo depicts the sacrifice seventy years ago this morning; on one portion of one British sector of a Normandy beach.
June 6th 1944 is a day which most British people readily recognise, but the younger members of our fractured society have not the simplest idea of how important that windy, rainy day in midst 1944 really was. I have more personal associations than many with that day, as well as that date.
As General Eisenhower stated, “you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world”.
One hundred and fifty thousand men, thousands of ships, veritable clouds of aircraft stood ready to commence the advance into Nazi-held Europe, and all was balanced in the hope that the Germans would not detect that Patton’s Army was actually a phantom Army. Eisenhower had given the brilliant yet erratic General George Patton command over the strategy ‘Operation Fortitude’ which was hopefully destined to retain the German panzer divisions sited and settled in the wrong place, so that the massed and fearsome mechanical might of the German Wehrmacht’s battle-hardened panzers would not be available to defend against the actual invasion, planned for the beaches of Normandy. The regimented lines of inflatable rubber tanks, the echelons of flimsy wooden barges which neither would nor could move, based and tied up in every inlet along the Norfolk and Kent coastlines, huge encampments of deserted tents, the runways cluttered with aircraft made from balsa wood, tied down so they would not blow away; huge numbers of radio sets all blurting out reams of coded messages, all of course garbage. The local newspapers even printed casualty lists of the ‘accidental deaths’ from all the training. All of the aforementioned ploys were based to give the illusion that the Allied strike would progress across the shortest, and of course the most logical, section of the English Channel, from Dover to Calais. The possibility of a massive long-range expedition, sailing from English Southern Channel ports, travelling over one hundred miles to strike at, and then land on, the beaches of Normandy, was discounted by all except a few prescient German Generals, and the ablest of these was Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel.
Rommel’s plan was to bring forward the upgrade to the French portion of the ‘Atlantic Wall’, but limited by supplies, problems due to the bitter feuding between the Wehrmacht and the civilian Todt Organization, the reinforcing of the strong points deemed necessary by Rommel was behind schedule. The one item which might have proven crucial to Germany’s defence of the Atlantic coast were the heavy-calibre long-range multiple-gunned batteries sited miles inland; such as the Merville Battery. With cannon which could be guided by accurate radar, Allied warships with the necessary big-calibre guns would face a formidable foe which outranged them, and might also have inflicted huge losses on an armada of small landing craft heading in to a defended beach. Rommel also planned to move his Panzer divisions to strong points back from the coastline, ready to move and decimate lightly-armoured infantry.
Fortunately for the Allies, Eisenhower’s plan to provide Hitler with Operation Fortitude; ‘the only logical route’ worked successfully, with Patton’s ‘Phantom army’, along with his proven reputation as a master strategist, and a soldier who delivered; giving the Nazi leader the sure and certain proof that Calais was the target, meant that Hitler overruled his Generals once again, and kept the panzers standing in Northern France, in order to repel an enemy which never came. The batteries nearly made a difference, but the Allied plan for a night paratroop drop and attack on the batteries by land worked, but only just, as a combination of navigational errors, Rommel’s canny prediction and flooding of the marshes, nearly resulted in the whole attack being aborted; but the Paratroopers won through, amidst terrible losses, and the heavy weaponry was silenced. The main American and British Paratroop night assault inland from the beaches of Normandy, designed to stop the Germans from advancing on the beachhead armies, worked up to a point, but the slaughter, which took nearly twenty-percent of those brave men who dropped from the skies, was the subject of many sleepless nights for the Allied High Command.
The British and Canadian forces went in from those landing-craft on a broad front over the beaches, sands and tank-traps on Gold, Sword and Juno beaches beneath a furious Allied bombardment from both sea and air. Despite a spirited opposition from German forces entrenched off-beach, the masterplan worked and Allied vehicles, tanks and mobile weaponry, along with thousands of troops, began consolidating their gains, and moving inland, as did the Americans who landed on Utah beach, which was relatively undefended. Unfortunately, the American invasion forces destined for Omaha came up against a well-organised, entrenched and superbly-outfitted German defence. The ‘swimming tanks’, designed and tasked to break through the defences above the beaches, all sank, overwhelmed by the heavy swell of the Channel, as they were launched too far out; and America’s prime assault soldiers died by the hundred as they stepped off their landing craft, or were machine-gunned as they crouched behind the virtually non-existent cover on that flat killing-ground named Omaha. Finally, brave men literally fought their way up the cliffs, aided by naval shellfire which evened the opposition out by destroying German emplacements. The Omaha assault cost 2400 American lives, but by sheer guts and determination landed over 34,000 troops who then were able to push forward towards the enemy.
The secret weaponry, the massive floating ‘Mulberry harbours’, PLUTO, the fuel pipeline laid on the sea-bed to supply much-needed fuel for the masses of armour which would head ever towards Germany, the ‘Flail’ tanks which exploded the land-mines buried in the sand; the intelligence-led air assault on the railways and marshalling points of the German army, as well as the men with ice-water running through their veins, who swam ashore on those Normandy beaches in the dead of night over many weeks, testing the ground, the sand and of course the mines and tank traps: they all played their part on and after that amazing day which literally was the true ‘beginning of the end’ for Nazi Germany. The Russians pressed ever westward, but, with Stalin’s scheming well evident, overran much of Eastern Europe in a second conquest while doing so.
If the worst fears of the Allied High Command were reached, and the invasion had to be turned into a retreat, who knows what our history would have become? I doubt if Great Britain would have been invaded, with the Germans ever more tied up and steadily retreating across the vast expanses of Russia from their high-points in the Caucasus, and at Stalingrad; but would America instead have turned away from Europe, and instead concentrated on the expanding Japanese Empire, which of course was the reason why the Americans had declared war in the first place? Yes, Great Britain would have been safe, but it would have been a very, very different British Isles to the one we know today.
305 days later after that bloody 6th June 1944, Germany surrendered unconditionally, Hitler having committed suicide.
My personal connections? My Uncle died just days after D-Day, and his remains lie in a tiny cemetery, in a Normandy village named Bonnebosq. My father served in the Army throughout the War, despite having an automatic deferral, coming as he did from County Down. I was a child of the Second World War; but my daughter, the apple of her father’s eye, today a successful Professional Mechanical Engineer; was born on June Sixth, 1970.
X-posted and updated from Fire, Pillage & Plague.