Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces:
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have stri
ven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory.
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
General Dwight D Eisenhower
On June 6 1944, 156000 young men went ashore on the beaches, jumped into Normandy by parachute or were flown in by glider. The first allied troops to see action on D-Day were D Company of 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who mounted a glider-borne assault to secure the bridges crossing the Caen Canal and the Orne River. Lieutenant Den Brotheridge and Lance Corporal Fred Greenhalgh were killed in the assault; the first of 4414 allied soldiers killed in action on 6 June. Elsewhere, the Merville Battery was overrun by the British 9th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, successfully achieving the objectives of Britain’s Airborne Forces.
Further west, the US airborne landings did not go so well. Hampered by dense fog, and intense fire from the ground, the C-47s had difficulty maintaining formation. This led to the paratroopers being scattered over a wide area, rather than landing on concentrated drop zones. Areas of low lying ground to the rear of the beaches had been flooded, with the result that many men drowned after landing, weighed down by their kit and equipment. Such was the offensive spirit of the US troops, that they teamed up in pairs and small groups and rallied themselves into ad hoc units before moving off to take the fight to the enemy.
The seaborne landings began at 0630 on the western beaches (US) and an hour later on the eastern beaches (Britain and Canada). Omaha, by far the most heavily defended beach saw the highest casualty rates of the day. The US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions found themselves facing a German Division instead of the Regiment they expected. Enfilade fire across the beach as well as fire from the high ground to the south of the beach, accounted for most of the 2000 casualties on Omaha. On Utah beach, strong currents led to the assault force landing away from its intended objectives. This proved to be a more favourable location than the original landing site. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. gave orders for subsequent landings to be re-routed, declaring that “the war would start from right here”.
On Sword Beach, 21 of the 25 Duplex Drive Sherman tanks made it ashore with the first wave and were able to provide fire support for the following waves of infantry. It was not plain sailing though; the enemy sappers had done their job well, with a comprehensive counter-mobility plan which consisted of mines and obstacles. Manoeuvring off the beach was challenging and the area soon became very heavily congested. Late in the afternoon, the Germans mounted a counter-attack between Sword Beach and Juno which was repulsed by Britain’s 3rd Division (The Iron Division). Sword Beach was taken and held at a cost of 1000 casualties.
Landings on Gold Beach were hampered by enfilade fire from the Le Hamel strongpoint, which was not neutralised until late in the afternoon. Nonetheless, British infantry and Royal Marines were able to clear the beach and begin probing inland. After landing on Gold Beach, Company Sergeant Major Stan Hollis of the Green Howards won the only Victoria Cross awarded on D-Day for his action in attacking two pillboxes single-handed using his Sten gun and grenades.
Canadian troops landed on Juno with the adverse weather leading to the infantry landing ahead of their supporting armour which led to many casualties as they disembarked and captured the beach. Fighting their way up the beach, the Canadians discovered that the naval bombardment had failed to destroy the German defences. Eventually exiting the beach, the troops found themselves facing well constructed depth defensive positions along with obstacles and minefields that needed to be cleared before progress could be made. These positions were centred upon the villages of Corseulles-sur-Mer, St Aubin-sur-Mer and Bernieres-sur-Mer. Each village had to be cleared house by house, room by room. By nightfall, the Canadians that had infiltrated furthest inland could see Caen’s Carpiquet airfield. The British on Gold and the Canadians on Juno were successful in achieving a link-up, achieving a foothold of 12 miles frontage that extended inland for 7 miles. Capturing Juno cost 961 men their lives.
The story of D-Day would not be complete without telling of the US 2nd Ranger Battalion, which scaled the 100 ft cliffs of the Pointe Du Hoc using ropes, grapnels and ladders. After making their climb under withering fire from above, the Rangers found that their objective – a battery of coastal guns had been withdrawn. The Rangers, under the command of LTC Rudder, later discovered the guns in an orchard to the south and destroyed them. Once on the Pointe, the Rangers were an isolated force and in constant danger of being overrun. Within hours of landing, Rudders 200 man unit was down to 40% combat effectiveness. They would not be relieved for another day, by which time, low on ammunition, many men had resorted to using captured enemy weapons.
D-Day cost the allies more than 10000 casualties, of which 4414 were killed in action. This great and noble undertaking did not come cheap and was only the beginning of an 11 month campaign that would ultimately defeat the tyranny of Nazi Germany. The coming years will see the passing of the generation that fought that tyranny. Read their stories, listen to their words and learn from them, for as Bertolt Brecht wrote:
“Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”