Dawn of D-Day: These Men Were There, 6 June 1944
  • Dawn of D-Day: These Men Were There, 6 June 1944
  • Dawn of D-Day: These Men Were There, 6 June 1944

Dawn of D-Day: These Men Were There, 6 June 1944

by David Howarth

The exciting story of the greatest seaborne invasion in history as seen through the eyes of the participants.See more details below


The exciting story of the greatest seaborne invasion in history as seen through the eyes of the participants.

Product Details

Greenhill Books/Lionel Leventhal, Limited
Publication date:
Greenhill Military Paperback Series
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Chapter One


* * *

All over the south of England, on the night of the fifth ofJune, people awoke, or else, if they were going late to bed,stopped what they were doing and went outside to listen. Thosewho had lived there for the past four years were used to noisynights. The noise at nights had changed through the years,from the distinctive beat of German bombers and the din of air-raids,to the sound of British bombers outward bound at duskand homeward bound at dawn. But people who heard the noiseon the fifth of June remember it as different from anything thathad ever been heard before. Life in war had made them adeptat guessing what was happening from what they could hear, andas they listened that night, with increasing excitement and pride,they knew that by far the greatest fleet of aircraft they had everheard—and therefore the greatest fleet that anyone had everheard—was passing overhead from north to south.

    Nobody had much doubt of what the noise implied; eventhose who had nothing to do with military secrets had knownit would happen soon. They simply said to themselves or toeach other "This is it"; and probably most of them heard thesound with such deep emotion that they did not try to put theirfeelings into words. It was the invasion, as everybody eitherknew or guessed; and the invasion, if it succeeded, was to bethe redemption of the defeat of Dunkirk, and the justificationof the British refusal to admit defeat when everyone else in theworld believed they were finished. It would be a reward forthefour years' grinding labour by which they had dragged themselvesup from the depths of 1940 to a state of national strengthwhich made them an equal partner of the United States. Andpersonally, to the British, it had a significance like a first gleamof sunshine after rain; it would be a sign, if it succeeded, ofhope that the worst was over, the first glimpse of the beginningof the end of the sorrow, boredom, pain and frustration in whichthey had lived for so long.

    That was to be its significance if it succeeded: what if itfailed? People could not bring themselves to imagine what wouldhappen flit failed; but they knew that failure would be a militarydisaster which at best would take years to retrieve, and in theback of their minds they doubted their own ability, exhaustedby war as they were, to survive such a disappointment and startagain, as they had at Dunkirk, and build everything up anew.

    They went to sleep that night, if they slept any more, witha sense of great events impending, and of comradeship in a vastadventure, knowing the day would bring news of a battle whichwould influence all their lives for ever more. On the whole,they were certainly thankful the time had come to put everythingto the test; but of course they thought anxiously of the thousandsof their own people who even then, in the night, were on theirway to battle, and of the Americans, whom many of them hadmet for the first time in the past few months. And many ofthese people, perhaps most, thought with special anxiety of oneman who they imagined, rightly or wrongly, was on his way toFrance by air or sea.

    In the morning, the main news in the papers and on the radiowas still of the fall of Rome, which had been announced on theday before, and nothing was said of events which were nearerhome. But just after nine o'clock the bare announcementcame: "Under the command of General Eisenhower, Alliednaval forces supported by strong air forces began landing Alliedarmies this morning on the coast of France." Within a fewminutes, this news, which the people of southern England hadanticipated, was repeated all round the world.

    The purpose of this book is to give an impression of whathappened in the English Channel and on the coast of France thatmorning, roughly between the time when the aircraft wereheard over England, and the time when the news was given.But to make the impression clear, one must start with a summaryof eighteen months of concentrated thought and work whichpreceded the invasion, and of the reasoning which decidedwhen and where it should be made, and the plans of what thehigh commanders intended to happen that morning.

    The idea of an invasion of the continent from Englandcould be said to have started at Dunkirk in 1940, when the morefar-sighted British soldiers, struggling across the shore to escapefrom the German army, already knew that a British army wouldhave to cross the shore of Europe in the opposite directionbefore the war was won. At that time, it seemed a very distantproject: distant, but never impossible. In that same year,while most of Britain was preoccupied with improvising itsown defence, the organisation called Combined Operationshad already been founded, and was studying the technique oflanding on hostile coasts. Eighteen months later, when CaptainLord Louis Mountbatten took over command of CombinedOperations, Churchill told him "to plan for the offensive."When Russia and America joined Britain in the war, the prospecthad become less distant; and in January 1943, Churchill andRoosevelt, meeting at Casablanca, agreed to appoint a joint staffto make a definite plan for the invasion. The head of this staffwas Lieutenant General F. E. Morgan, who was appointedChief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander—COSSACfor short—although the Supreme Commander himself had notyet been chosen.

    For six months in 1943, COSSAC studied the coasts ofEurope, and the Allied and German forces which might bejoined in the battle, and the complicated technical details of theproject. It was in that period—a year before the invasion—thatthe question of where to land in Europe was decided: adecision which had to remain an elaborately guarded secret tillthe very moment when the invasion fleet was sighted from theshore.

    Many considerations were weighed, and balanced in thisdecision: beaches suitable for landing, and country suitable fordeploying an army behind the beaches; weather and rides;the distances from bases for short-range fighter aircraft, andfrom foreign ports which could be captured to help to supportthe army; and of course, the German defence. Of the wholeof the coast of Europe from Norway to the Bay of Biscay, strictmilitary logic narrowed the choice to two places: the district ofCalais, or the coast of Normandy between Cherbourg and LeHavre. In the choice between these, there was room for opinion.Of course, Normandy is much further than Calais from Englishports, but that made very little difference. The fleet which wasplanned was so large that all the ports from the Thames to theBristol Channel would be needed to load it, and so most of theships would have a long crossing wherever the landing was made.The Americans favoured Calais, although it was the moststrongly defended part of the whole of the coast, because itoffered a more direct route to Germany. The British rather moreemphatically favoured Normandy, because its defences wereweaker and because it could be cut off from the rest of Europeby bombing the bridges over the Seine and Loire. In the end,the COSSAC staff agreed to recommend Normandy, and theirplan was approved by Churchill, Roosevelt and the CombinedChiefs of Staff at the conference in Quebec in August 1943.In Quebec it was also agreed that the Supreme Commandershould be American, and that his deputy and his three commanders-in-chiefshould be British, and May 1944 was fixedas the target date.

    It was not till December, after some weeks of hesitation,that Roosevelt appointed General Eisenhower, who was thenSupreme Commander in the Mediterranean, to take commandof the invasion of France; and in January the names of hisBritish subordinates were announced: Air Chief Marshal Tedderas Deputy Supreme Commander, and Admiral Ramsay, GeneralMontgomery and Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory to commandthe navies, armies and air forces. Already, at the Teheran conferenceat the end of November, Stalin had shown himselfvery impatient for the opening of what was called a secondfront, where the Americans and British could take a fairer shareof the burden of fighting from the Russians. Roosevelt andChurchill had promised him the invasion would start in May;and so, when the commanders took up their appointments inJanuary, there were only four months to go.

    When Eisenhower and Montgomery saw the details of theCOSSAC plan for the first time, they both declared the areaof the landing was too narrow and the troops for the first assaulttoo few. General Morgan had thought so himself, but as a chiefof staff without a commander, he had had to plan with theforces which the two governments had told him could be used;and the size of the whole operation had been limited by thenumber of landing craft which existed or could be built in time.At Eisenhower's demand, landing craft were gathered in fromall over the world; but still there were not enough for theextra forces he wanted. As a last resort, the landing was postponedtill early June, so that another month's production ofnew craft would be available, although Churchill was worriedby the thought of what Stalin would say when May was endedand the promise had not been fulfilled.

    The exact date which was chosen in June was decided bythe tides, the plan of attack, and the German defences. Reconniassancephotographs of the coast of France were taken byaircraft every day that spring; and they showed Germans andFrench civilians hard at work building new gun emplacementsand installing several kinds of obstacles on the beaches. Theobstacles were wooden stakes and ramps, and steel barricadesand spikes. Some of them were mined.

    As the Germans intended, these obstacles offered a choiceof evils. If a landing were made at high tide, when the obstacleswere submerged and invisible, a large proportion of the landingcraft might be lost by hitting them. If it were made at low tide,the troops would have to cross an open beach under Germanfire; and in Normandy the beaches slope gently and the rangeof tide is large, so that at low tide some beaches are three or fourhundred yards wide.

    Eisenhower and Montgomery chose to take the latter risk,and to minimise it by landing tanks ahead of the infantry, andby bombarding the defences very heavily just before the landing.They decided to land just after low tide, and planned to demolishthe obstacles at once, so that landing could continue as the tiderose.

    The navy wanted to approach the coast under cover of night,but both navy and air force needed an hour of daylight for thebombardment of the defences. These considerations fixed thetime of the landing at an hour after dawn; and by combiningthis time with the state of the tide, the date of the landing wasfixed. Low tide in Normandy was an hour after dawn on June6th. On June 5th and 7th, it was near enough to be acceptable.After that, of course, the tides were not right again for a fortnight,until about June 20th; but by then the moon would havewaned, and the airborne forces preferred moonlight for theparachute and glider landings which were planned. Besides,by June 20th, fulfilment of the promise to Stalin would be anotherfortnight overdue. So June 5th was chosen as D-Day, withthe next two days as alternatives if the weather was bad. H Hour,the moment of landing, was 6.30 a.m. at the western end of thearea of the landing, which the tide reached soonest, and 7.30at the eastern end.

    Of course, the Germans knew an invasion was coming.At that moment, the only front where America and Britain werefighting Germany on land was in Italy, and there was nothinglike enough scope in Italy for the Allies to deploy their wholestrength. To try an invasion of north west Europe was the onlyway they could get to grips with Germany. Just before Montgomerywas appointed to command the invading army, his oldadversary of the desert war in Africa, Field Marshal Rommel,was appointed to the defence of the coast of Europe. For twoyears, German propagandists had talked of the Atlantic Wall,which was supposed to be a chain of impregnable defences allalong the coast. But Rommel found the Atlantic Wall was verylittle more than propaganda. Its strength had been exaggeratedto discourage British or American raids, and to encourage theGermans. But in fact, the building of it had been given a lowpriority, its materials had often been diverted to other workswhich had seemed more urgent, and on many parts of the coastits construction had been neglected by local commanders whoregarded an appointment to France as a rest cure from theRussian front. But Rommel was a man, as the British had reasonto know, of tremendous energy, and during the last few months,while preparations for the invasion were being completed inBritain, he was working at top speed to build fortifications todefeat it: it was his work which reconnaissance showed inprogress. But the work was still made difficult by shortages ofmaterial, and even more difficult by differences of opinion amongthe high command. Rommel himself believed an invasion couldonly be halted at sea and on the shore. His immediate senior,Field Marshal yon Rundstedt, thought that was impossible,and put his trust in reserves which he proposed to keep intacttill the exact intentions of the invading forces could be seen.The whole of the German high command, using the same logicwhich had guided COSSAC, had decided on Normandy orCalais as the most likely points of invasion, but they could notagree in the choice between the two places. Von Rundstedt wasconvinced the main landing would be in Calais, and so was thehigher command of the army in Germany. Rommel favouredNormandy, and so, it is said, did Hitler.

    These disagreements were the result, at least in part, ofdeliberate deception by the Allies. Having decided on Normandy,they did everything they could to persuade the Germansthey had decided on Calais. While the armies and fleets wereassembling in the south-west of England, dummy army campsand dummy fleets were assembled in the south-east. All the radioactivity of an army was simulated in Kent. General Patton,whom the Germans knew well, was brought back from theMediterranean to England with ample publicity to commandthis non-existent army. More reconnaissance flights and morepreliminary bombing attacks were made in Calais than inNormandy. At the last moment, while the fleets were sailingto Normandy, dummy fleets of ships and aircraft sailed to Calais,using devices which made them appear on radar much largerthan they were.

    The British secret service was also at work to implant thisfalse belief in the minds of the German commanders. Its taskwas probably simplified by disagreement between the Germansecret service and the Nazi leaders. Admiral Canaris, the headof the secret service, had recently been dismissed, and most of hisorganisation disbanded. A new all-Nazi service had beenstarted under Himmler; but its agents are said to have beenclumsy and amateurish, and easy game for the practised cunningof the British. After the war, in German files, about 250 reportsfrom Himmler's men were found to predict the place and timeof the invasion. All of them were wrong except one. Thewrong ones simply repeated the rumours and false informationwhich were circulated by British agents; and nobody in Berlinhad taken any action on the single report which was right.

    The deception was so successful that von Rundstedt, for one,went on believing for several weeks after the invasion that thelanding in Normandy was a feint and that the main attack wasstill to come in Calais, and he still kept his reserves in the Calaisarea. In fact, it was much more successful than anyone expectedat the time, and looking back at it now, it seems likely that somekind of deception more convincing than dummies or turnoutswas in use, and that the British had a direct method of givingfalse information to the German high command, and giving itwith such authority that the Germans could not bring themselvesto disbelieve it. Students of spy stories may imagine whatthe method might have been; but whatever it was, it is stillkept secret and probably always will be.

    During May, the troops who were to lead the attack hadfinished a long and arduous and often dangerous training. Theseaborne forces had landed in exercises against live ammunitionon beaches in Britain which resembled the beaches in Normandy,especially on Slapton Sands in Devon and at Burghead in theMoray Firth; and each unit had practised assaults on replicasof the particular German defences it was expected to attack.But none of them yet had been told where they would be going,or when. Most of the training had been as thorough as it possiblycould have been; but the troops could not appreciate itsthoroughness till they were told precisely what it was for, and inMay, packed into great camps in the south of England withvery little to do, men began to feel first bored and then apprehensive.The weather was perfect that month. There seemed tobe no reason why they should not start and get it over. Waitingwas enough to make anyone nervous.

    Most of this feeling disappeared at the end of the monthwhen briefing began. The briefing gave every man the feelingthat he was being told exactly what he had to do, and that whoeverwas planning the thing was making a good job of it and notleaving anything to chance. Every man was shown maps andmodels of his own objective, and photographs of the shorewhich were taken from aircraft flying low above the sea, and wereso good and clear that in some of them the individual Germansoldiers manning the defences could be seen. Everyone wasallowed to study these for as long as he liked, and officersexplained in the greatest detail exactly what each unit wasto do and what other units would be doing in the neighbourhood.The only fault that could be found with this briefing,in retrospect, was that it was so good that it made some units overconfident.

    Once the briefing had started, the whole vast process of theinvasion was irreversible: it had to go on, or else for ever beabandoned. Its success depended entirely on surprise andsecrecy. Even during the briefing, the maps had no real nameson them, only code names, and nobody except individuallyselected officers had yet been told what part of the coast theyrepresented. Most men were not told this final secret till afterthey had actually embarked. But of course everybody could makehis own guess; and in fact anybody who knew France well,or had an ordinary map for comparison, could easily havediscovered that Poland meant Caen and that Sword Beach, forexample, was at Ouistreham. And as for the time, anybody,not only the soldiers in the camps but anybody who lived nearthe coast, could tell that it was coming very soon.

    The camps in which men were briefed were therefore cutoff from the rest of the world. Men and materials were allowedin, but nobody was allowed out again except on the strictestcompassionate grounds: the only way out was on a ship toFrance. The people of England, who had put up with so muchalready, had to submit to new sets of restrictions. Mail wasstopped, and travel was restricted. A zone along the coast wassealed off. As a second line of defence against leakage, the fewremaining ways out of the country were closed, and diplomatsof neutral countries found they could not communicate withtheir governments, which was an unprecedented breach of internationalcustom. Ireland was specially under suspicion, becausethe Germans still had a flourishing embassy in Dublin. But thisstate of readiness could not be kept up for long, and the longerit lasted the more chance there was that the secret, now sharedin whole or in part by hundreds of thousands of people, wouldleak out of the country and somehow reach Germany.

    The people responsible for security had a series of minorscares. Early on, an American major general was sent home toAmerica as a colonel for what was thought to be careless talkin Claridges; and on a hot morning in May, when a windowwas open in the War Office in London, all twelve copies of a top-secretsignal which gave the whole show away blew out andfluttered down into the crowded street below. Distraughtstaff officers pounded down the stairs and found eleven copies,and spent the next two hours in an agonised search for the twelfth.It had been picked up by a passer-by, who gave it to the sentryon the Horse Guards Parade on the opposite side of Whitehall.Who was this person? Would he be likely to gossip? Nobodyever knew, and the only comfort was that the sentry said hehad very thick glasses and seemed to find it difficult to read.

    A railwayman who retired in 1957 announced then that in1944, just before the invasion, he had found the plans of it in abriefcase in a train, and had given them to the station masterat Exeter, who had kept them in his safe, watched by the HomeGuard, till an officer came to claim them the next morning.

    The oddest of all the scares was the Daily Telegraph crosswordpuzzle of May 22nd. When this puzzle was solved, itincluded the name Omaha, which was the code-name for oneof the beaches where the Americans were to land, and the worddives, which might have been the River Dives, on which theleft flank of the whole invasion was to rest. Another vaguelysuspicious name in it was Dover. It caused some concern tostaff officers who still retained the English middle-class habitof doing the Telegraph crossword after breakfast, and in afteryears it provided a story with unlimited scope for growth.Everybody enjoyed stories against the security forces, and storiesof narrow escapes from disaster, and sooner or later most of thedozens of code-words in the invasion plans were said to havebeen revealed in this puzzle.

    After Eisenhower had extended the original COSSAC plan,the area of the landing covered sixty miles of the coast of France,from the River Dives near Caen to the east side of the Cherbourgpeninsula. At each end of the area, large forces of airbornetroops, Americans at the west end and British at the east, wereto land by parachute and glider during the night to protect theflanks of the seaborne forces. In the first light of dawn, greatfleets of naval ships and aircraft were to bombard the coast,and as the bombardment stopped, the seaborne forces were toland on five separate stretches of beach, each three or four mileslong. Again, the Americans were on the west and the Britishon the east. The Americans had two stretches of beach, one oneach side of the estuary of the River Vire; it was these which hadthe code names Utah and Omaha. The three other beaches wereknown as Gold, Juno and Sword. Gold and Sword wereBritish objectives; Juno was mainly Canadian. The British andCanadian troops for the first assault were about equal in numberto the Americans. The air forces were also equal. About threequarters of the naval forces were British.


Excerpted from DAWN OF D-DAY by David Howarth. Copyright © 1959 by David Howarth. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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