6th June, 1944. H-Hour. 6:30am, Paris time. The plans were set. All was ready. The tide was about to turn, and the war would be won. Now was the hour.
D-Day. Without a doubt, the most audacious attack on any nation, anywhere, in all of history. It was of a scale beyond which had ever been seen on this planet, and such a scale will likely never be seen again. The story of D-Day is the story of every one of 156,000 men who landed there that day. The story of D-Day is a story that changed the course of history.
OK. Now we’ve had the dramatic buildup, time for some context. D-Day (if you don’t already know) was the day in 1944 when the Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, to begin taking back Europe from the Nazis. It also happened to coincide with a massive push on the Eastern front when the Soviets turned the tide of battle there as well. In short, over the months around D-Day, the Nazis began to lose the war.
On D-Day (which in fact stood for day-day), the British, Canadians and Americans landed 156,000 men on five beaches in Normandy. The British targeted beaches codenamed Gold and Sword, the Canadians took Juno and the Americans attacked Omaha and Utah. It is on Omaha beach that the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is set, and it does a pretty good job of showing what happened. But by the end of the day, all 5 beaches had been taken. There were an estimated 10,000 dead and wounded. At least 4,414 died. It was not pretty.
I will also point out that the landings at H-Hour (guess what the H stands for!) were not chapter one of the invasion. Of course there had been years of planning, troop movement, construction and a massive deception campaign that fooled the Nazis into reinforcing Calais rather than Normandy. Plus the date had to be pushed back because of bad weather. But on D-Day itself, in the early hours of the morning, over 24,000 Allied paratroopers dropped into Normandy by parachute or glider. They captured bridges, destroyed gun batteries, performed reconnaissance operations and generally were a pain in the arse for the Nazi occupiers. Hilariously, one German heard a glider landing and informed his immediate superior of it. He was told ‘One glider does not make an invasion. Go back to bed’. Had that officer contacted High Command, it could have scuppered a large part of the Allied plan.
But honestly, that is only the beginning of the story. D-Day was the first toehold for the Allies in occupied Europe. After D-Day, there was D+1. By the end of D-Day, there were 155,000 Allied soldiers in Northern France. By the end of June, over a million. D-Day provided the foundations from which the Allied forces could build up a massive attack force, supplied by a harbour that had literally been assembled by the Royal Engineers during D-Day itself at Arromanches. The campaign swept south, and by D+81, Paris was liberated. In less than 3 months, the Allied forces had overturned the enemy that had occupied France for 4 years. And they marched on Berlin.
Now that I’ve got all that context out of the way, I’m going to tell you a few short stories. Stories of smaller battles that took place on D-Day. And yes, these do correspond to the sites I visited on my recent trip.
Pegasus Bridge was one of several bridges in the area around Normandy that the Allies had to capture. It spans the otherwise almost impassable Caen Canal, and would have been an early stumbling block for troop movement had it been destroyed. As well as this, it could provide a conduit for German Panzer tanks trying to recapture Normandy. So on the early hours of D-Day, three Horsa gliders carrying just under 90 men were released over Normandy. It was completely dark and the gliders were very hard to control. Despite this, one pilot managed to land his plane and all 28 soldiers just 45 metres from the bridge, completely silently. The other 2 gliders landed further away. One of them crash-landed in a swamp, throwing a soldier through the windshield. He was the first soldier to die on D-Day. Within 15 minutes, the bridge (with only two sentries, aged 17 and 50) had been taken. There was one British death, the first to die in combat on D-Day. The bridge was taken.
Pointe du Hoc was a headland between the American Utah and Omaha beaches. The guns of the battery there could target both beaches, and thus could have hampered the American landings considerably. To resolve this, American forces dropped over 10 kilotons of explosive onto the battery, from the air and from the USS Texas. While this did create some mighty impressive craters, it did little to actually destroy the batteries.
So the 2nd Ranger Battalion was sent to scale the 30m (100ft) cliffs, destroy the guns and hold out until reinforcements arrived. They went out with 225 infantrymen. They went to the wrong headland, righted themselves, were exposed to heavy mortar and machine gun fire, managed to scale the cliffs, took the battery and sustained heavy losses only to find that the guns had been moved. They were in fact a few hundred metres behind the battery, with no protection at all. The guns were destroyed with grenades, and the Rangers held the battery for 2 days. By the time they were relived, there were only 90 Rangers left standing.
Once D-Day itself was over, the Allies needed a way to get supplies into Europe. There were literally millions of soldiers to move, thousands of vehicles, thousands of tonnes of ammunition and spectacular amounts of fuel. But the only major port in the Normandy region, Cherbourg, was incrediby heavily defended and ready to be demolished if Allied victory seemed likely. So to fix the supply problem, the Mulberry Harbours were created. These weren’t actually harbours – they were the components for harbours. Hundreds of enormous concrete breakwaters, miles of floating roadway and massive moveable piers. Before the invasion was finished, Royal Engineers were demolishing buildings and levelling beaches to make way for these harbours. Two were floated across, one at Arromanches and one at Utah Beach, although the Utah harbour was sunk in a storm. These were massive feats of engineering, and were the mouth that fed the Allied campaign until the capture of Cherbourg and other ports.
But those are just some of the millions of stories. Stories of soldiers, engineers, civilians, defenders, sailors, airmen and commanders. They began the march across Europe, that ended with the destruction of the Nazi regime and all that it brought. To them we owe our freedom.
Not to sound romantic or anything. It was a team effort.