D-Day: The First 72 Hours

D-Day: The First 72 Hours

by William Buckingham

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The Allied invasion of occupied France began with the delivery of three airborne and six infantry divisions onto a 60-mile stretch of the Normandy coast. Accomplishing this involved over 1,200 transport aircraft, 450 gliders, 325 assorted warships and over 4,000 landing vessels. Operation Overlord, as the invasion was code-named, remains the largest amphibious


The Allied invasion of occupied France began with the delivery of three airborne and six infantry divisions onto a 60-mile stretch of the Normandy coast. Accomplishing this involved over 1,200 transport aircraft, 450 gliders, 325 assorted warships and over 4,000 landing vessels. Operation Overlord, as the invasion was code-named, remains the largest amphibious invasion in history. This books tells the story hour-by-hour as it unfurled on the beaches, as experienced by the Allied troops. D-Day: The First 72 Hours covers the initial attacks made by airborne and special forces until the point where all the beachheads were secured.

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D-Day the First 72 Hours

By William F. Buckingham

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 William F. Buckingham,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9641-2



JUNE 1940-JUNE 1944

At 04:30 hours on the morning of 10 May 1940, forty-two Luftwaffe Junkers 52 transport aircraft lifted off from airfields around Cologne, each towing a DFS 230 troop-carrying glider. Two machines were obliged to abort after take off due to tow-rope failure. An hour later, in the last minutes of pre-dawn darkness, the remaining gliders cast off just short of the Belgian-German border. As first light tinged the sky, they began landing on the meadow atop the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael, protecting three nearby bridges across the Albert Canal. The gliders carried assault pioneers from 7 Flieger Division, who moved to their objectives with the fluidity and speed generated by intensive practice. A mere ten minutes after touchdown, the fort's observation cupolas and gun turrets had been destroyed or disabled with specially designed shaped charges and flame-throwers. Two of the three bridges were also seized, and a bridgehead established at the third after the defenders triggered their demolition charges.

The attack on Eben Emael was the opening move in Operation Sichelschnitt (Cut of the Scythe), which involved three German Army Groups fielding a total of ninety-three divisions. The Eben Emael operation heralded a feint attack into the Low Countries while the main focus of the German attack was an armoured thrust through the Ardennes region, which forced the River Meuse at Dinant and Sedan on 13 and 14 May 1940. Allied counter-attacks failed to stem the German advance, and the Panzers reached the Channel coast south of Boulogne on 21 May, trapping the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the Pas de Calais. An ad hoc evacuation, codenamed DYNAMO, was launched on 27 May. Over the next week 311,586 British, French and other Allied personnel were lifted from Calais, Dunkirk and adjacent beaches. The rest of the BEF was evacuated from ports along the north and western French coast by 20 June 1940. The price of the evacuation was high. The BEF lost 68,111 of its personnel in France killed, missing or as POWs, and mere fractions of its stores and heavy equipment were salvaged. In all, 2,472 guns, 63,877 vehicles, 105,797 tons of ammunition, 415,940 tons of assorted stores and 164,929 tons of fuel were left behind.

This then was the sequence of events that made a cross-Channel invasion necessary almost exactly four years to the day after the end of Operation DYNAMO. In the more immediate term, it also provided the catalyst for a number of practical measures without which the Normandy invasion in June 1944 would have been far more difficult, or even impossible. The main driver behind this was Winston Churchill. Made Prime Minister on the same day the German offensive began, Churchill actually began issuing directives aimed at returning to the offensive before Operation DYNAMO had run its course. On 3 June 1940, in a minute to the Military Secretary to the Cabinet, General Sir Hastings Ismay, warning against the dangers of adopting a defensive mindset, Churchill also mooted raising a 10,000-strong raiding force. He expanded on the latter topic two days later in a further minute that ended with a number of specific proposals. These included a call for suggestions for delivering tanks onto enemy-held beaches, setting up intelligence gathering networks along German held coasts, and the establishment of a 5,000-strong parachute force.

The War Office and Air Ministry response was commendably swift in the circumstances. On 6 June 1940 the War Office authorised raising a raiding force, dubbed Commandos in honour of the Boer guerrillas of the same name, and three days later the Army's Director of Recruiting and Organisation (DRO) called for volunteers for unspecified special service. On 10 June the Air Ministry formulated its response to Churchill's demand for a parachute force, and the Army Chiefs of Staff included additional parameters for prospective parachute volunteers into Commando recruiting instructions. Two days later Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Bourne RM was appointed the first Director of Combined Operations; his higher ranking successor, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes supplanted him on Churchill's instructions on 17 July. Bureaucratic measures were accompanied by the practical. By July 1940 twelve 500-strong Commandos were forming, and the new joint-service Parachute Training Centre at RAF Ringway had been established. Combined Operations carried out its first live operation on the night of 24-25 June 1940; Operation COLLAR saw five small parties landed at three separate spots south of Boulogne. A second raid, codenamed AMBASSADOR, was aimed at the airfield and installations on recently occupied Guernsey on the night of 15-16 July 1940.

This was commendable but by no means flawless progress. The Commando idea was not universally accepted, and there were difficulties in obtaining volunteers, obliging a second recruiting drive in October 1940. Even then, the War Office department tasked to implement the Commando directive had to invoke the CIGS to force recalcitrant Commandos to comply with its instructions. The peculiar Commando conditions of service were also problematic. Such postings were temporary, and units were soon agitating for the return of their volunteers, and morale suffered when the separation between volunteer and parent unit caused problems with pay and allowances for dependants. In addition, Commando volunteers were not provided with billets or rations, but were expected to make their own arrangements with a monetary allowance, amounting to thirteen shillings and four pence per day for officers, and six shillings and eight pence for other ranks. This still brought the War Office into conflict with the Ministry of Food, particularly when Commando units moved into rural areas for training.

These teething troubles do not detract from what was highly creditable progress, given the threat of seemingly imminent invasion and the need to rebuild the British Army. According to received wisdom, Churchill's rationale in demanding the formation of Commando and Airborne forces was to carry out pin-prick raids to boost British civilian morale, which by happy accident later developed into one capable of spearheading more conventional operations as well. In the process this involved a largely needless and wasteful diversion of high quality manpower and other resources that would have been better employed elsewhere. This explanation is very popular with Churchill's critics and those generally opposed to the creation of so-called 'elite' forces alike.

It is easy to see how this view was formed. Arguably the biggest culprit was Churchill himself, because of the language in which he couched his directives. His initial minutes, for example, advocated developing a 'reign of terror' along German-held coastlines via a 'butcher and bolt' policy. This language was mirrored in internal War Office communications, which invariably referred to the new Commando force as a basis for 'irregular units' and 'special parties' with no fixed organisation and intended for 'tip and run tactics depending on speed, ingenuity [and] dispersion'. Churchill's badgering for action without delay reinforced this interpretation, if only because the lack of time and resources made small-scale raiding the only immediate option.

This interpretation also fitted neatly with a pre-existing War Office interest in irregular warfare. This went back at least to the end of the First World War, with British involvement in such operations in Russia and Ireland. A small section entitled General Staff (Research) was set up in the mid-1930s, being expanded and renamed Military Intelligence (Research) in early 1939. As well as publishing pamphlets on guerrilla operations, MI(R) carried out covert intelligence gathering in Rumania, Poland and the Baltic States, and was involved in an abortive scheme to assist the Finns in the Winter War. In April 1940 ten 'Independent Companies' were formed for irregular operations in Scandinavia, five of which briefly saw action. Administrative convenience may also have played a part in focusing Churchill's directives into raiding. This appears to be the only reason the War Office folded the parachute requirement into the Commando recruiting effort, for example, and the Air Ministry used the same excuse for its unilateral reduction of the parachute requirement from 5,000 to 500.

However, there is evidence to counter the raiding interpretation of Churchill's directives, starting with what Churchill actually asked for. The first minutes called for the raising of not less than 10,000 raiders, with an additional and separate requirement for 5,000 parachute troops. This clearly shows that Churchill did not consider the two requirements indivisible, and a total force of 15,000 men was a considerable force for small-scale raiding under any conditions. This in turn strongly suggests Churchill had a more substantial purpose in mind, and he was not alone. In July 1940 Major John Rock RE, ranking Army officer at the Parachute Training Centre, requested the War Office reserve the new parachute force for key tasks like the '...capture of a Channel port for an invasion of France'. In fact, planning for an airborne brigade group was already underway, leading to a formal requirement for two all-arms 'Aerodrome Capture Groups'. Such thinking was not restricted to the embryonic airborne force either. Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, who replaced Keyes as Director of Combined Operations in October 1941, claimed that he was left in no doubt that the primary focus of his new command was to be preparation for a large-scale cross-Channel invasion.

It is possible that Rock was expressing a personal opinion, but it is unlikely that the Director of Combined Operations was doing the same. A closer examination of his directives suggests Churchill was thinking along similar lines from the outset too. The minute of 3 June 1940, for example, referred to the need to play the Germans at their own game. Only the Eben Emael operation and a coup de main against bridges in Rotterdam can be construed as raiding operations, and it is therefore logical to assume that Churchill was instead referring to the German employment of 'shock troops'. Yet more pertinently, on 25 August 1940 Churchill briefed Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden on the requirement for 5,000 parachutists and 10,000 raiders, which were to be

... capable of lightning action. In this way alone will those positions be secured which afterwards will give the opportunity for highly trained regular troops to operate on a larger scale.

This clearly shows that Churchill viewed raiding as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, and the scale and scope of the operations carried out under the raiding umbrella reinforces the point. These ranged from Operation BITING, the seizure of apparatus from the German radar station at Bruneval on the night of 27-28 February 1942, to the operation to destroy the 'Normandie' dry dock facility at St Nazaire on 28 March 1942. The former employed 119 men from the 2nd Parachute Battalion, supported by a thirty-two strong Army covering party, six assault landing craft, five motor gunboats and two destroyers. The latter involved over 600 Commandos and naval personnel, three destroyers, one of which was converted into a floating time bomb, and eighteen smaller craft. Despite their disparate scale, these operations required exactly the same skills, expertise and detailed planning as a large-scale invasion. The sheer number of such operations also generated a considerable amount of research and development data and operational training and experience; by early 1942 Mountbatten was pushing for an operation every two weeks.

In fact, some operations were launched purely to test operational concepts, as Mountbatten pointed out to personnel training to attack the defended port on the Norwegian island of Vaagsö. Launched on Boxing Day 1941, Operation ARCHERY involved 800 Commandos, supported by the cruiser HMS Kenya, two dedicated landing ships (HMS Prince Leopold and HMS Prince Charles), four destroyers and the submarine HMS Tuna. The latter vessel acted as a guide to place the attack force in the correct fjord, and RAF bombers dropped smoke pots to cover the landings and provided daylight air cover for the duration of the operation. The Vaagsö was thus in essence a small-scale invasion, and used a number of techniques employed in the cross-Channel invasion two and a half years later.

It is therefore clear that Churchill intended the new forces to play a larger role than small-scale raids for British public consumption from the outset. The creation of Combined Operations, the Commandos and what was ultimately to become British Airborne Forces was intended to provide the British military with a vital capability totally lacking in its order of battle in mid-1940. This was a properly trained, configured and equipped shock force, capable of operating from the sea or air, and controlled by an independent executive command answerable to the highest British command echelon. The primary purpose of this force was to spearhead a future large-scale invasion of German-occupied Europe, which it did at the beginning of June 1944. It can therefore be argued that, thanks largely to Churchill's foresight and prompting, British preparations for the invasion began as the last British and Allied troops were being lifted from Dunkirk, and exactly four years before British, Canadian and US troops set foot on the Normandy beaches.

Planning for the cross-Channel invasion commenced only slightly later than these practical measures. In October 1941 the British Chiefs of Staff drew up a scheme codenamed ROUNDUP, which envisaged landing just twelve divisions and six tank brigades north and south of Le Havre. ROUNDUP was not intended to fight through serious opposition, but as a pursuit operation to take advantage of a German withdrawal following a decisive defeat in Russia. Given German success in the Soviet Union at the time ROUNDUP was conceived, this was somewhat optimistic, and the scheme was probably intended as a first step for planning purposes. Nonetheless, the Chiefs of Staff ordered Combined Operations HQ and Home Forces Command to prepare a collective outline in April 1942, based on a detailed survey of coastal topography, intelligence on German defences and research and development work on assault landing techniques and equipment.

At this time it was an article of faith that the logistics of a large-scale landing required the seizure of a port at the outset or immediately thereafter, and the larger the better. The ROUNDUP landing area included several ports beside Le Havre, and Dieppe to the north was selected as the venue for a scaled-down dry run for ROUNDUP in August 1942. The operation, initially codenamed RUTTER, was first mooted in April 1942, presumably in response to the Chiefs of Staff directive cited above. The primary stated aim of the operation was to test the feasibility of seizing a defended port, with the secondary aims of investigating possible problems inherent in controlling a large and disparate invasion fleet, and to test assault techniques and equipment.

Dieppe stands at the mouth of the River Arques, overlooked by flanking headlands. The harbour lay to the east of the town, which was fronted by almost a mile of steep shingle beach backed by a concrete sea wall, a 150-yard wide esplanade and a row of seafront hotels ending with a large casino built into the western end of the seawall. Infanterie Regiment 571 was stationed in the town, the beach was laced with mines and barbed wire, concrete obstacles were placed in the narrow streets leading inland from the esplanade, the casino was fortified and the eastern headland was reinforced with concrete artillery positions and machine-gun emplacements. This allowed the defenders to enfilade the beach from both ends, and the esplanade formed a secondary killing zone. Defences were also constructed covering two outlying beaches to the east and west, and four batteries of coastal defence guns provided long-range support.

The initial plan was scheduled for July 1942, and envisaged landing troops east and west of Dieppe, with a parachute attack on the out lying coastal artillery batteries. It was postponed at the last minute when an unexpected weather front grounded the parachute force. Thereafter the parachute element was discarded along with the intensive pre-landing bombardment. Ostensibly the latter was to avoid French civilian casualties, and the former to remove weather-dependent factors from the plan. These were undoubtedly valid concerns, but there was also the fact that the RAF was unable to provide sufficient aircraft to lift even a single parachute battalion without borrowing operational aircraft from Bomber Command, and that the 1st Parachute Brigade was significantly under- strength. Whether or not, dealing with the coastal batteries was given to the Commandos, and the scheme then snowballed in size and scope. The major focus became a frontal assault with tanks on Dieppe, with flank landings to seize the headlands overlooking the port. Later additions included seizing the airfield at St Aubin-sur-Scie and an attack on a nearby German divisional headquarters, a rather tall order given that the latter objectives were 3 and 6 miles inland respectively, and that the entire raid was scheduled to last a maximum of seven hours.


Excerpted from D-Day the First 72 Hours by William F. Buckingham. Copyright © 2013 William F. Buckingham,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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