by Nitin K. Shankar, 14 August 2005
Reprinted with the generous permission of Nitin K. Shankar
My Normandy visit was more than just a holiday trip to the beaches where the D-Day amphibious troop landings took place on June 6, 1944. I had read several books on the D-day invasion as well as seen the 1961 movie "The Longest Day". On one level, I visited the actual landing sites and walked the bloody beaches where more than 10,000 men lost their lives on that fateful day. Yet, I also spent time in local museums, picking up fascinating facts about how this Anglo-American operation was managed.
Selection of the Landing Site
The D-Day operation combined British ingenuity with American logistical power.
It was England's Lord Louis Mountbatten who proposed the beaches lying between the ports of Cherbourg and Le Havre as the landing site to open the second front.
Both ports were heavily fortified in 1944 with some of these fortifications dating from Napoleon's time. Today vacation apartments line the waterfront and marinas extend along the breakwaters. Fifty years ago, however, things looked less cheerful in such port towns.
At Le Havre, I thought about the raid on Dieppe, a port lying to the east. Lord Mountbatten in his capacity as Chief of Combined Operations had planned this attack. In August 1942, 10,000 troops attempted to seize Dieppe, hold it for a few hours and withdraw. The operation was an unmitigated disaster. A fast German reaction left 1,000 dead and turned 2,000 into prisoners-of-war.
With the terrible disaster of the Dieppe raid still in the forefront of many minds, Mountbatten pushed the second option of taking exposed and less defended beaches between the ports. Thus, Operation Overlord was born. But with this came another set of unique problems identified in an early report by Mountbatten.
He considered that any plans for the invasion would have to satisfy three all-important factors.
First, the invasion would have to be certain of obtaining a firm foothold at the right place on the enemy-held coast, against all known defences.
Secondly, it would have to break out of the beach-heads while reinforcements of both men and equipment continued without fail, no matter what the weather.
Thirdly, deception tactics would have to keep the enemy away from the landing areas and then when the force was discovered they would have to stop the Germans from moving into the area.
The choice of the landing point involved much debate. Mountbatten was ranged against the Allied generals and air marshalls who wanted the invasion to start from the Dover area and cross the channel to the beaches around Calais. He pointed out that the German generals had come to the same conclusion as them and were rapidly building up reinforcements in the Calais area.
Normandy was finally chosen as the landing point.
Operation OVERLORD - Triumph in Planning
"Overlord" was the code-word for the opening of the second front and by May 1943, the Allies made it their number one priority. By the end of 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill appointed General Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force.
Despite his lack of combat experience, Ike proved to be the ideal choice because of his planning and coordination capabilities.
It was at The Memorial - a museum in Caen - where one realises that Overlord was a planning as well as military success. At its peak, over 30,000 military and civilian personnel worked on the invasion plan.
Ike's Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell-Smith, and his immediate deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, made a good team. They supervised a massive logistics operation - the likes of which can never be duplicated again.
In terms of logistics, ten tonnes of materials were needed to send a soldier to the front and one tonne per month to support him there. Six hundred tonnes per day were needed to maintain a combat division without accounting for replacement of destroyed materials.
The attack plan called for five infantry divisions (two US, two British and one Canadian) to land on a 80 kilometre sector consisting of beaches, estuaries and cliffs.
A remarkable sound-and-light show at the Caen museum highlights the key events of the battle for Normandy.
A very wide screen lit up to show the Normandy coastline with an armada of ships progressing towards the beaches on the morning of June 6, 1944.
The coast is demarcated to show the two beaches assigned to the Americans (Utah and Omaha) and the three beaches to the British (Gold, Juno and Sword). Aircraft sounds fill the hall as the screen showed squadrons of planes flying to drop paratroopers to the West (near Utah beach) and East (behind Sword Beach).Thereafter, the progress is shown on an half-hourly basis, starting from 6:30 a.m. when the first landings took place. This show is a must for anybody wanting to understand how the sequence of events in Operation Overlord were planned.
Detailed organisation charts at the museum highlight the coordination challenges posed by Overlord.
Ike's top brass team included three British Commanders-in Chief: General B. L. (Monty) Montgomery (C-in-C, Land Forces), Admiral B. H. Ramsay (C-in-C Allied Expeditionary Naval) and Air Chief Marshal T. Leigh-Mallory (C-in-C Allied Expeditionary Air Force). As victor of El Alamein and idol of the British public, Monty was in a position to lay it on the line: "Give me five divisions or get somebody else to command". Ike did defer to his field commanders and incorporate their suggestions in his plans. This ability to coordinate between his line and staff was one of Ike's great qualities.
Once Ike gave the orders for the attack ("OK, we go"), the Supreme Commander set into motion a sequence of events over which he had little control.
The focus shifted several levels down to line commanders at the brigade, battalion and even platoon level. These were the elements who made the first contact with the enemy and often things did not go to plan.
I wanted to visit the sites where these actions took place.
One such contact took place at what is now known as Pegasus bridge - just a few kilometres away from the museum at Caen.
Pegasus Bridge, 9 June 1944. Horsa gliders can be seen where they landed.
I tried to imagine the feelings of those 181 glider commandos who had taken off from Dorset airfield in six Horsa gliders on a daring mission to seize this bridge, a strategic crossing leading to Caen.
The Horsas - high-winged plywood monoplanes also known as "Flying Matchboxes" or "Airborne Coffins" - were towed by Halifax bombers. It was around midnight when they started their descent and crash-landed close to the bridge.
Major John Howard's glider landed just 50 yards away from the bridge. He allowed his platoon to pour out first. They moved to the bridge and the German guards opened fire. Sergeant Charles Thornton set up a two inch mortar. Bombs landed on the northern end of the bridge and the guns fell silent.
With their blackened faces and camouflaged smocks, Thornton and his section stormed forward and found that the Germans had scarpered. Pegasus bridge was taken within 10 minutes but not without cost. Lt Danny Brotheridge was the first Allied casualty of D-Day.
There was also another first. George and Thèrese Gondrée's cafe, by the bridge, was the first house to be liberated in France. George had opened his door to two knocks and led two commandos to the cellar where his wife and children were waiting. Then he went into his garden and dug up 93 bottles of champagne which he had buried in June 1940 just before the Germans arrived.
La Café Gondrée is still there but is now run by Arlette, George's daughter. She was just 4 years when the commandos came in and still remembers how one of the men with blackened faces gave her chocolates and biscuits.
There was more excitment. The Germans counter-attacked with two Mark IV tanks moving down the road. Thornton fired a tank-bursting missile. It was a direct hit. The second tank fled.
Moving along the canal, Thornton found a bunker about thirty feet deep where they found five Germans still asleep. They were taken prisoners and shifted to their HQ. Thereafter, he and his men continued taking up defensive positions and wondering will they would "ever see England again?" At 2 p.m. on June 6, he heard the sound of bagpipes.
It was piper Bill Millin from No. 4 Commando Brigade. The next moment, Lord Lovat, a tall man with a green beret, white sweater and a walking stick, made his way over the bridge. He shook hands with a Major Howard with the immortal words,"History is being made today." And they went off for a briefing.
The Piper on Sword Beach
My next stop was the Sword beach sector in front of Ouistreham. This was one of the beaches where events went according to plan.
Armour led the way, hitting the beach right on schedule (7:25 a.m.). They were followed by assault troops and a few minutes later the RAF provided the promised air support. Around 20,000 men had embarked on these beaches and by 9:30 a.m. the Royal Engineers had cleared seven out of the eight exits from the beach.
Troops on Sword Beach
The British suffered heavy losses due to mines, bullets, bombs and shells. Many wounded men were engulfed by the rising tide. It was difficult to imagine that these beaches were once full of debris and cadavers.
As I walked, I imagined hearing the strains of "The Road to the Isles" played by piper Bill Millin as he marched up and down these very beaches. He boosted the morale of many as they came ashore fifty years ago on this beach.
Today all I could see was a clean stretch of beach with a few sunbathers on blankets or mattresses.
A German bunker in the rear is the only sign that this was once a fortified beach.
This bunker is now a museum called "The Bunker". It is worth a visit because it uses original artifacts and soldier models to show how life was in such a bunker in 1944.
This bunker was built between September 1943 and January 1944 and has six levels. The lower levels were for housing the troops while the third level housed a Skoda 47 mm anti-tank gun. The fourth level had radio and telephone communications while the fifth level had a rangefinder to locate targets upto a distance of 40 kilometres.
Some of the rooms had interesting photographs and facts about the construction of the Atlantic Wall.
The Atlantic Wall was 4,000 kilometres of bunkered fortifications hugging the coastline from the fjords of Norway to the Franco-Spanish border. At the museum, photographs showed how the Germans used 500,000 labourers from the Todt Organisation to build up the concrete fortifications. Huge concrete blockhouses shielded hundreds of large-calibre guns while foxholes and trenches protected machine guns and mortars. They also positioned countless obstacles to stop landing craft, installed miles of barbed wire and planted 4 million mines.
This bunker also has a story. It was captured on June 9 by Lieutenant Bob Oviell of the Royal Engineers. He noticed that the main door of this concrete block was closed. After using two charges of TNT, he still needed four hours to open up the blown door. The British, to their astonishment, found 53 German soldiers who meekly surrendered. During their period of inactivity, however, the Germans had managed to finish off all their food reserves.
The D-D Tanks of Juno Beach
At Coursuelles, a charming village in the middle of the second beach - Juno beach - I saw a "Duplex Drive" tank exhibited near the waterfront just next to my hotel.
This tank was part of Major-General Sir Percy Hobart's 79th Armoured Division. His weird-looking specialised armour - Hobart's "Funnies" - would help the British and Canadian with the special problems and obstacles likely to confront them on the Normandy beaches.
DD Sherman tank with its flotation screen lowered.
The "Duplex Drive" is a tank which could "swim ashore" thanks to two propellors added to the main power pack.
The most important feature of this tank was a canvas screen raised by pneumatic tubes filled by compressed air bottles. With this screen raised, the Duplex Drive was protected from being overwhelmed with water and sinking as the freeboard was limited to a few inches. The tank would be launched from a landing craft with the screen raised while the commander steered course with a tiller. When it reached the shallows, the front of the screen would be lowered so that the gun could be fired. The back, however, stayed up to keep the waves off the engine.
I visited the tourist office at Coursuelles and had an interesting conversation with Anne, a charming storyteller, Anne, who told me more about the Duplex Drive exhibited in the town. It was driven into Coursuelles at 6:47 a.m. on June 6 by a Sergeant Leo Gariepy of the Canadian 6th Armoured Division.
Gariepy drove his tank from the beach straight through a house adjoining the hotel where I had spent the night. He recalls: "The German machine gunners in the dunes were absolutely stupefied to see a tank emerging from the sea. Some ran away, some just stood up in their nests and stared, mouths wide open."
Like many veterans, Leo Gariepy liked the life-style in Normandy and continued living in Coursuelles.
I drove beyond Coursuelles and stopped near a monument commemorating Juno beach. It was slightly drizzling when I walked along the beach. I thought about that June morning when the first wave came in on a fast-rising tide. The landing craft had to battle with the surf and the deadly maze of wood, steel and mines. Of the first 24 craft, only four made it back to their mother ships. Most blew up, showering advancing troops with debris blown 100 feet in the air.
Only six of the 40 Centaur tanks made it to the beach. The swimming tanks fared better but arrived after the leading infantry instead of before it.
Many on Juno that morning saw the sickening spectacle of tanks running over bodies - not just dead bodies but wounded or even uninjured men unable to hear the machine's approach above the general din. At least one tank commander thought he was running over German bodies. When he discovered that they were Canadians and that some may have been alive, he was horrified.
Despite such mishaps and a 30% loss of armoured vehicles during landing, Juno was a success. The 8th Canadian brigade succeeded in moving 11 kilometres as well as linking up with troops from Gold beach.
The Artificial Harbour at Gold Beach
The assault on Gold beach was also a success.
Gold was to be attacked by Force G which consisted of the British 50th Division, strengthened on the right by the 47 Royal Marine Commando. Their objectives were to take the towns of Arromanches and Bayeux as well as link up with the Americans on Omaha beach.
My stop in Arromanches was to visit the Landing Museum. This museum is located in front of the remians of the extraordinary artificial port created by the Allies.
The Mulberry harbor at Arromanches, Gold Beach
The war chiefs recognised that any heavy bombardment to soften up enemy defences would also wreck existing dock facilities, making reinforcement a non-starter.
So one senior officer put it: "All I can say is if we cannot capture a port, we must take one with us."
At the museum, I saw Churchill's letter providing succinct instructions for the piers: "they must float up and down with the tides, the anchoring problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out. Don't argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves."
This germ of an idea would eventually turn into the "Mulberry Harbour" project.
The whole project was of daunting dimensions. Within a few months, harbours the size of Dover and exceeding, in area, the entire Southampton dock system had to be built. On completion, all components had to be towed nearly 100 miles across the Channel and assembled under the likelihood of strong enemy fire.
Several excellent models at the museum explained how the project was executed. There was a breakwater created by sunken ship hulks and the manufacture of an outer sea wall of huge concrete boxes - some equal to a three-storey building - known as Phoenix caissons. More than 200 different types of caissons were made using more than one million tonnes of concrete and 70,000 tonnes of steel.
Other models showed the piers and roadways of steel pontoon bridges forming the link with the shore. Made of articulated steel, the floating roads were designed to move with the rise and fall of the tides.
The pontoons were fitted with vertical columns each ninety feet tall and weighing 36 tonnes, which anchored the harbour to the sea bed.
Two days before D-Day, the main components were ready. They were towed across the channel by 150 tugs - the biggest towing job in history.
Looking out from the museum, I could still see remaining hulks of the harbour still standing in the sea around Arromanches as mute testimony to a victory of minds over matter.
My next stop was at Port-en-Bassin where Royal Marine commandos linked up with the Americans who had landed on Omaha beach.
The commandos were specifically trained for amphibious operations and spearheaded for the main forces. No. 47 Commando produced one of D-Day's most startling success stories.
After being forced back from their original landing place, they tried again further east. Thereafter, they fought their way through coastal villages to occupy the high ground south of their target, Port-en-Bassin.
The success of the Anglo-Canadian landings can be extremely attributed to careful preparation and the use of elite troops such as the Royal Commandos.
The next beach - Omaha - was an object lesson in how the best laid plan can go wrong.
The Bloody Beach at Omaha
A good way to start is to visit the Normandy American Cemetery located on top of a cliff overlooking Omaha beach. This shows the losses suffered by the Americans in this attack.
There are 9,386 American War Dead buried in this 172 acre site. The remains of approximately 14,000 others originally buried in this region were returned at the request of their next of kin. On the east side of the Memorial is the semi-circular Garden of the Missing. Inscribed on its walls are the names and organisations and State of 1,557 who have been designated as missing.
I thought about the seventeen loaded landing craft carrying more than 500 soldiers which were sunk by high waves on the way in. Many of the overloaded troops, bailing frantically with their helmets, drowned. How many mothers would be content to know that their sons died without ever firing a shot?
At the memorial, there is an overlook parapet with an orientation table indicating the various landing beaches.
Omaha Beach: LCVPs from the Samuel Chase approach under fire
Planners had divided the 59 kilometre beach into six sectors and 8 battalions would storm the beach at H-Hour (6:30 a.m.) to be followed just 120 seconds later by underwater explosive experts who would blast a way through the beach obstacles clearing a path for reinforcements. The clearing party were given exactly 30 minutes for their role in a battle plan which called for reinforcements to land every ten minutes in the coming three hours.
That was the strategy. A combination of events, however, almost forced the Americans back into the sea.
The first concerned a decision taken by General Omar N. Bradley, the Commander of the First US Army, who had the responsibility for Omaha and Utah beaches.
Bradley rejected the use of Hobart's Duplex Drive tank in favour of regular tanks with flotation screens around their hulls. During the attack, however, these were launched too far out in rough waters, swamped in the first few minutes and went under. Twenty-nine out of 32 tanks floundered, thus stripping the G.I.s of any armoured support.
A bombing run to pound German defences was hampered by thick clouds which blanketed the beaches. Fearful that soldiers in landing craft could become victims of Allied bombing, the drop was put off by the briefest of time. As a result, 13,000 bombs fell on the Normandy countryside instead of hitting hard at the Germans.
A storm of shells from US battleships also failed to meet their targets. As a result, the first wave of men hitting the beach were struck down by intensive enemy gunfire. Landing craft coming in continued to disgorge their human cargo on a narrow shelf from which no exits had been opened.
By the end of the day, just a small strip of real estate was obtained at a cost of over 2,000 lives.
The Rangers of Pointe du Hoc
Yet, it was at Omaha beach where one of the most daring exploits took place: the capture of the heights of Pointe du Hoc.
I drove to the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Memorial where Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder's 2nd Ranger Battalion (First American Division) scaled a sheer cliff about six storeys high to seize a fortified German position which controlled the landing approaches to Omaha and Utah beaches. This battle scarred area amidst German machine gun nests remains much as the Rangers left it on June 8, 1944.
The cliffs at Pointe du Hoc dominate Omaha and Utah beaches which lie on either side of the headlands. Around me were the remnants of massive bunkers constructed by the Germans to house huge guns with a range of more than 15 miles. This was clearly a "high ground" that posed a deadly threat fifty years ago.
To learn more about what happened, I decided to visit the Rangers Museum in the village of Grandcamp-Maisy just a few kilometres away from the Pointe du Hoc. There was a detailed account of how Col. Rudder (1910-1970) and his Rangers were given this task.
The Rangers, an elite force, were to eliminate the guns by launching a direct attack against the towering cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. Rudder's orders were direct: land soldiers on the rocky beach below, scale the cliffs, take out the guns and join up with other forces landed at Omaha beach.
As soon as they clamoured ashore, the Rangers found themselves pinned down under the cliff-face, easy targets for the Germans above. Naval bombardment silenced some of the enemy fire allowing the Rangers to get a hold on the cliffs. They fired grappling hooks from rockets and started climbing. The Germans cut through the ropes and threw down a lethal shower of grenades. Undaunted, the Rangers continued climbing with ropes and ladders (commandeered from the London Fire Brigade) as comrades fell past them to their deaths.
The men eventually scrambled over the top and fought their way through the underground passages linking the defences. To their frustration, they found the heavy guns had been removed and some replaced by camouflaged tree trunks. The guns were later discovered hidden inland but many men were sacrificed on their account at Pointe du Hoc.
Yet, Pointe du Hoc occupies a pride of place in American military folklore. At the museum, I saw a film providing a detailed description of the assault by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. I was quite surprised since I had not expected the Supreme Allied Commander to be so conversant with events which took place at the battalion level. The same film showed a touching speech made by President Ronald Reagan at the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landing at the Pointe du Hoc Memorial attended by some 60 Ranger veterans. His thanks were very sincere.
From Grandchamp-Maisy, I drove to Utah - my last beach on this pilgrimage.
Utah Beach and the Paratrooper Landing at St-Mere-Eglise
This beach looked no different from the other beaches which I had seen.
The fight for Utah beach was completed with remarkable speed and minimal casualities. The landing cost less than 200 lives - barely a quarter of the number killed in a training exercise off Slapton Sands in April 1944.
American Paratrooper near St-Mere-Eglise
The landing on Utah beach started on time but strong currents and a navigational error caused the asault craft to drift more than a mile to the south. The mistake proved to be decidely fortuitous as the sector was lightly defended. Accurate naval and aerial bombardment had knocked out every most of the guns in the area.
Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr, the US President's cousin, was among the early arrivals in Utah. "Men," he said as troops gathered around,"you've landed about 2,000 yards south of where you were supposed to land. We'll start the war from here."
Soon vehicles, follow-up units and 23,000 men poured onto this beach and streamed inland along a single undefended causeway along the floodplain.
I drove along this causeway to the nearby village of Ste-Marie-des-Mont. This was, however, not the first village to be liberated. That distinction belonged to another village about 8 kilometres away - Ste-Mère-Eglise.
I remembered this village from the movie which highlighted the behind-the-lines support provided by the paratroops and glider troops of the US 82nd and 101th Airborne Divisions.
Many paratroopers from the 82nd completed their drop successfully, gathering in a tight-knit group north-west of Ste-Mère-Eglise. Thirty odd men, desperately off-course, floated gently into the centre of the village to be met by a hail of German bullets.
Private John Smith of the 505th Regiment missed the parapet of the church but his canopy got tangled with a tower. In the movie, I still remember the look of horror on the face of the actor playing Pvt Steele as other paratroopers landed to firing by German soldiers. The real John Steele was eventually taken down and captured.
John Steele lived to tell the tale until he died in 1960 in Kentucky. His name, however, will never be forgotten in Ste-Mère-Eglise where I saw a model of John Steele and his parachute hanging from the church. There is also a hotel just around the corner from the market square named after him.
The Airborne Troops museum, near the market square, provides a wealth of information about the 82nd. and 101th Airborne divisions.
The museum also houses two aircraft. One is a CG-4A glider which was used to ferry paratroopers to their landing destinations. The second is a Douglas C-47 transport aircraft which, like the jeep, was a work-horse during that era.
The museum is managed by Philippe L. Jutras who served as an Army officer during the war and billeted with a certain Mr and Mrs Castel in Ste-Mère-Eglise. After serving as Senator from Maine, he returned in 1970 to Ste-Mère-Eglise where he renewed his acquaintance with Antoinette Castel, now a widow. They married in 1974 but Jutras is a symbol of the close ties between this village and the Airborne divisions.
The 50th anniversary is a good occasion to sentimentalise such ties. During my Normandy trip, I met many Allied veterans. All were in their seventies and eighties and probably making this trip for the last time in their lives. Some talked about their experiences; others did not want to even remember them. Yet, all had been marked by this experience.
I was only five years when the invasion took place but even I was marked by my visits to the beaches and museums. It was almost like a nostalgic trip to another era.
It was another era - a time when human life counted for less. I remember reading about Prime Minister Winston Churchill telling his wife on the night of June 5, 1944, "Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 men may be killed?"
Fortunately, Mr Churchill's fears proved to be overly pessimistic. Yet, it would be romantic to think that bravery carried the day and the seasick, young men dodging bullets in the surf along the 100 kilometres of Normandy beach were courageous indeed. Most were green troops, never before tested in battle. Many died even before firng a shot.
Three simple statistics sum up the results of D-Day: in the first 24 hours, the Allies landed about 155,000 troops and controlled 100 kilometres of French coastline at a cost of around 10,000 lives. While many of the targets for D-Day evening were not met (Caen, Bayeux, Isigny, Carentan), the political objective of starting a Second Front was met.
This front got off to a slow start and Caen, a pivotal town, was only captured by the end of July 1944. Two weeks after Operation Overlord, however, Stalin launched an offensive that dwarfed D-Day. In 10 days, 130 Russian divisions destroyed three entire German armies, killing, wounding or capturing 350,000 men.
Nevertheless, there was a special brand of individualism which marked the D-Day landings. If the operation succeeded, it was not only due to the high quality of planning and preparation. What saved the day were the individual acts of leadership displayed on the beaches. We will never know what motivated these leaders but they got moving when things got bogged down. What finally counted was that this exceptional victory of minds over matter.
Copyright © 2005 Nitin K. Shankar
Written and reprinted with the generous permission of Nitin K. Shankar. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Nitin K. Shankar at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Nitin Shankar is a retired engineer, living in Switzerland, and a student of military history. As a freelance writer, he has written articles on military encounters published in Coastguard Magazine and other publications.