The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Dayby Cornelius Ryan
Cornelius Ryan's unsurpassed account of D-Day, a painstaking recreation of the fateful hours that preceded and followed the invasion of Normandy.
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The village was silent in the damp June morning. Its name was La Roche-Guyon and it had sat undisturbed for nearly twelve centuries in a great lazy loop of the Seine roughly midway between Paris and Normandy. For years it had been just a place that people passed through on their way to somewhere else. Its only distinction was its castle, the seat of the Dukes de La Rochefoucauld. It was this castle jutting out from the backdrop of hills behind the village that had brought an end to the peace of La Roche-Guyon.
On this gray morning the castle loomed up over everything, its massive stones glistening with dampness. It was almost 6:00 A.M., but nothing stirred in the two great cobbled courtyards. Outside the gates the main road stretched broad and empty, and in the village the windows of the red-roofed houses were still shuttered. La Roche-Guyon was very quiet -- so quiet that it appeared to be deserted. But the silence was deceptive. Behind the shuttered windows people waited for a bell to ring.
At 6:00 A.M. the bell in the fifteenth-century Church of St. Samson next to the castle would sound the Angelus. In more peaceful days it had had a simple meaning -- in La Roche-Guyon the villagers would cross themselves and pause for a moment of prayer. But now the Angelus meant much more than a moment of meditation. This morning when the bell rang it would mark the end of the night's curfew and the beginning of the 1,451st day of German occupation.
Everywhere in La Roche-Guyon there were sentries. Huddled in their camouflage capes, they stood inside both gates of the castle, at road blocks at each end of the village, in pillboxes built flush into the chalk outcroppings of the foothills and in the crumbling ruins of an old tower on the highest hill above the castle. From up there machine gunners could see everything that moved in this, the most occupied village in all of occupied France.
Behind its pastoral front La Roche-Guyon was really a prison; for every one of the 543 villagers, in and around the area there were more than three German soldiers. One of these soldiers was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander in chief of Army Group B, the most powerful force in the German west. His headquarters was in the castle of La Roche-Guyon.
From here in this crucial fifth year of World War II, a tense, determined Rommel prepared to fight the most desperate battle of his career. Under his command more than a half a million men manned defenses along a tremendous length of coastline -- stretching almost eight hundred miles, from the dikes of Holland to the Atlantic-washed shores of the Brittany peninsula. His main strength, the Fifteenth Army, was concentrated about the Pas-de-Calais, at the narrowest point of the Channel between France and England.
Night after night, Allied bombers hit this area. Bombweary veterans of the Fifteenth Army bitterly joked that the place for a rest cure was in the zone of the Seventh Army in Normandy. Hardly a bomb had fallen there.
For months, behind a fantastic jungle of beach obstacles and mine fields, Rommel's troops had waited in their concrete coastal fortifications. But the blue-gray English Channel had remained empty of ships. Nothing had happened. From La Roche-Guyon, on this gloomy and peaceful Sunday morning, there was still no sign of the Allied invasion. It was June 4, 1944.
In the ground-floor room he used as an office, Rommel was alone. He sat behind a massive Renaissance desk, working by the light of a single desk lamp. The room was large and high-ceilinged. Along one wall stretched a faded Gobelin tapestry. On another the haughty face of Duke François de La Rochefoucauld -- a seventeenth-century writer of maxims and an ancestor of the present Duke -- looked down out of a heavy gold frame. There were a few chairs casually placed on the highly polished parquet floor and thick draperies at the windows, but little else.
In particular, there was nothing of Rommel in this room but himself. There were no photographs of his wife, Lucie-Maria, or his fifteen-year-old son, Manfred. There were no mementos of his great victories in the North African deserts in the early days of the war -- not even the garish field marshal's baton which Hitler had so exuberantly bestowed upon him in 1942. (Only once had Rommel carried the eighteen-inch, three-pound gold baton with its red velvet coveting studded with gold eagles and black swastikas: that was the day he got it.) There wasn't even a map showing the dispositions of his troops. The legendary "Desert Fox" remained as elusive and shadowy as ever; he could have walked out of that room without leaving a trace.
Although the fifty-one-year-old Rommel looked older than his years, he remained as tireless as ever. Nobody at Army Group B could remember a single night when he had slept longer than five hours. This morning, as usual, he had been up since before four. Now he too waited impatiently for six o'clock. At that time he would breakfast with his staff -- and then depart for Germany.
This would be Rommel's first leave at home in months. He would go by car; Hitler had made it almost impossible for senior officers to fly by insisting that they use "three-engined aircraft...and always with a fighter escort." Rommel disliked flying anyway; he would make the eight-hour journey home, to Herrlingen, Ulm, in his big black convertible Horch.
He was looking forward to the trip, but the decision to go had not been an easy one to make. On Rommel's shoulders lay the enormous responsibility of repulsing the Allied assault the moment it began. Hitler's Third Reich was reeling from one disaster after another; day and night thousands of Allied bombers pounded Germany, Russia's massive forces had driven into Poland, Allied troops were at the gates of Rome -- everywhere the great armies of the Wehrmacht were being driven back and destroyed. Germany was still far from beaten, but the Allied invasion would be the decisive battle. Nothing less than the future of Germany was at stake, and no one knew it better than Rommel.
Yet this morning Rommel was going home. For months he had hoped to spend a few days in Germany the first part of June. There were many reasons why he now believed he could leave, and although he would never have admitted it, he desperately needed rest. Just a few days earlier he had telephoned his superior, the aged Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt, Commander in Chief West, requesting permission to make the trip; the request had been immediately granted. Next he had made a courtesy call to Von Rundstedt's headquarters at St.-Germain-en-Laye outside of Paris, to take his leave formally. Both Von Rundstedt and his chief of staff, Major General Günther Blumentritt, had been shocked by Rommel's haggard appearance. Blumentritt would always remember that Rommel looked "fired and tense...a man who needed to be home for a few days with his family."
Rommel was tense and edgy. From the very day he arrived in France toward the end of 1943, the problems of where and how to meet the Allied attack had imposed on him an almost intolerable burden. Like everybody else along' the invasion front, he had been living through a nightmare of suspense. Hanging over him always was the need to outthink the Allies as to their probable intentions -- how they would launch the attack, where they would attempt to land and, above all, when.
Only one person really knew the strain that Rommel was under. To his wife, Lucie-Maria, he confided everything. In less than four months he had written her more than forty letters and in almost every other letter he had made a new prediction about the Allied assualt.
On March 30 he wrote: "Now that March is nearing its end and without the Anglo-Americans having started their attack...I'm beginning to believe they have lost confidence in their cause."
On April 6: "Here the tension is growing from day to day...It will probably be only weeks that separate us from the decisive events..."
On April 26: "In England morale is bad...there is one strike after another and the cries of 'Down with Churchill and the Jews' and for peace are getting louder...these are bad omens for such a risky offensive."
On April 27: "It appears now that the British and Americans are not going to be so accommodating as to come in the immediate future."
On May 6: "Still no signs of the British and Americans...Every day, every week...we get stronger....I am looking forward to the battle with confidence...perhaps it will come on May 15, perhaps at the end of the month."
On May 15: "I can't take many more big [inspection] trips...because one never knows when the invasion will begin. I believe only a few more weeks remain until things begin here in the west."
On May 19: "I hope I can get ahead with my plans faster than before...[but] I am wondering if I can spare a few days in June to get away from here. Right now there isn't a chance."
But there was chance after all. One of the reasons for Rommel's decision to leave at this time was his own estimate of the Allies' intentions. Before him now on the desk was Army Group B's weekly report. This meticulously compiled evaluation was due to be sent by noon of the following day to Field Marshal von Rundstedt's headquarters, or, as it was generally known in military jargon, OB West (Oberbefehlshaber West). From there, after further embroidery, it would become part of the over-all theater report and then it would be forwarded to Hitler's headquarters, OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht).
Rommel's estimate read in part that the Allies had reached a "high degree of readiness" and that there was an "increased volume of messages going to the French resistance." But, it went on, "according to past experience this is not indicative that an invasion is imminent..."
This time Rommel had guessed wrong.
In the office of the chief of staff, down the corridor from the field marshall's study, Captain Hellmuth Lang, Rommel's thirty-six-year-old aide, picked up the morning report. It was always his first chore for the commander in chief. Rommel liked to get the report early so that he could discuss it with his staff at breakfast. But there was nothing much in it this morning; the invasion front remained quiet except for the continuing nightly bombing of the Pas-de-Calais. There seemed no doubt about it: Besides all the other indications, this marathon bombing pointed to the Pas-de-Calais as the place the Allies had chosen for their attack. If they were going to invade at all it would be there. Nearly everybody seemed to think so.
Lang looked at his watch; it was a few minutes of 6:00 A.M. They would leave at seven sharp and they should make good time. There was no escort, just two cars, Rommel's and one belonging to Colonel Hans George Von Tempelhof, Army Group B's operations officer, who was going along with them. As usual, the various military commanders in the areas through which they would pass had not been informed of the field marshal's plans. Rommel liked it that way; he hated to be delayed by the fuss and protocol of heel-clicking commanders and motorcycle escorts awaiting him at the entrance to each city. So with a bit of luck they should reach Ulm about three.
There was the usual problem: what to take along for the field marshal's lunch. Rommel did not smoke, rarely drank and cared so little for food that he sometimes forgot to eat. Often, when going over the arrangements for a long journey with Lang, Rommel would run a pencil through the proposed luncheon and write in big black letters "Simple field kitchen meal." Sometimes he would confuse Lang even more by saying, "Of course, if you want to throw in a chop or two that won't bother me." The attentive Lang never quite knew what to order from the kitchen. This morning, besides a vacuum jug of consommé, he had ordered an assortment of sandwiches. His guess was that Rommel, as usual, would forget about lunch anyway.
Lang left the office and walked down the oak-paneled corridor. From the rooms on either side of him came the hum of conversation and the clacking of typewriters; Army Group B headquarters was an extremely busy place now. Lang had often wondered how the Duke and the Duchess, who occupied the floors above, could possibly sleep through all the noise.
At the end of the corridor Lang stopped before a massive door. He knocked gently, turned the handle and walked in. Rommel did not look up. He was so engrossed in the papers before him that he seemed quite unaware that his aide had entered the room, but Lang knew better than to interrupt. He stood waiting.
Rommel glanced up from his desk. "Good morning, Lang," he said.
"Good morning, Field Marshal. The report." Lang handed it over. Then he left the room and waited outside the door to escort Rommel down to breakfast. The field marshal seemed extremely busy this morning. Lang, who knew how impulsive and changeable Rommel could be, wondered if they were really leaving after all.
Rommel had no intention of canceling the trip. Although no definite appointment had yet been made, he hoped to see Hitler. All field marshals had access to the Führer, and Rommel had telephoned his old friend, Major General Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler's adjutant, requesting an appointment. Schmundt thought the meeting could be arranged sometime between the sixth and the ninth. It was typical of Rommel that nobody outside of his own staff knew that he intended to see Hitler. In the official diaries at Rundstedt's headquarters, it was simply noted that Rommel was spending a few days' leave at home.
Rommel was quite confident that he could leave his head, quarters at this time. Now that May had passed -- and it had been a month of perfect weather for the Allied attack -- he had reached the conclusion that the invasion would not come for several more weeks. He was so confident of this that he had even set a deadline for the completion of all anti-invasion obstacle programs. On his desk was an order to the Seventh and Fifteenth armies. "Every possible effort," it read, "must be made to complete obstacles so as to make a low-tide landing possible only at extreme cost to the enemy...work must be pushed forward...completion is to be reported to my headquarters by June 20."
He now reasoned -- as did Hitler and the German High Command -- that the invasion would take place either simultaneously with the Red Army's summer offensive, or shorty after. The Russian attack, they knew, could not begin until the late thaw in Poland, and therefore they did not think the offensive could be mounted until the latter part of June.
In the west the weather had been bad for several days, and it promised to be even worse. The 5:00 A.M. report, prepared by Colonel Professor Walter Stübe, the Luftwaffe's chief meteorologist in Paris, predicted increasing cloudiness, high winds and rain. Even now a twenty- to thirty-mile-an-hour wind was blowing in the Channel. To Rommel, it seemed hardly likely that the Allies would dare launch their attack during the next few days.
Even at La Roche-Guyon, during the night, the weather had changed. Almost opposite Rommel's desk two tall French windows opened out onto a terraced rose garden. It was not much of a rose garden this morning -- rose petals, broken branches and twigs were strewn all over. Shortly before dawn a brief summer storm had come out of the English Channel, swept along part of the French coast and then passed on.
Rommel opened the door of his office and stepped out. "Good morning, Lang," he said, as though he had not seen his aide until that moment. "Are we ready to go?" Together they went down to breakfast.
Outside in the village of La Roche-Guyon the bell in the Church of St. Samson sounded the Angelus. Each note fought for its existence against the wind. It was 6:00 A.M.
Between Rommel and Lang an easy, informal relationship existed. They had been constantly together for months. Lang had joined Rommel in February and hardly a day had passed since without a long inspection trip somewhere. Usually they were on the road by 4:30 A.M., driving at top speed to some distant part of Rommel's command. One day it would be Holland, another day Belgium, the next day Normandy or Brittany. The determined field marshal had taken advantage of every moment. "I have only one real enemy now," he had told Lang, "and that is time." To conquer time Rommel spared neither himself nor his men; it had been that way from the moment he had been sent to France in November 1943.
That fall Von Rundstedt, responsible for the defense of all Western Europe, had asked Hitler for reinforcements. Instead, he got the hardheaded, daring and ambitious Rommel. To the humiliation of the aristocratic sixty-eight-year-old Commander in Chief West, Rommel arrived with a Gummiberfehl, an "elastic directive," ordering him to inspect the coastal fortifications -- Hitler's much-publicized "Atlantic Wall" -- and then to report directly back to the Führer's headquarters, OKW. The embarrassed and disappointed Von Rundstedt was so upset by the arrival of the younger Rommel -- he referred to him as the "Marschall Bubi" (roughly, the "Marshal Laddie") -- that he asked Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of OKW, if Rommel was being considered as his successor. He was told "not to draw any false conclusions," that with all "Rommel's capabilities he is not up to that job."
Shortly after his arrival, Rommel had made a whirlwind inspection of the Atlantic Wall -- and what he saw appalled him. In only a few places were the massive concrete and steel fortifications along the coast completed: at the principal ports and river mouths and overlooking the straits, roughly from above Le Havre to Holland. Elsewhere the defenses were in various stages of completion. In some places work had not even begun. True, the Atlantic Wall was a formidable barrier even in its present state. Where it was finished, it fairly bristled with heavy guns. But there were not enough of them to suit Rommel. There was not enough of anything to stop the sort of onslaught that Rommel -- always remembering his crushing defeat at the hands of Montgomery in North Africa the year before -- knew must surely come. To his critical eye the Atlantic Wall was a farce. Using one of the most descriptive words in any language, he had denounced it as a "figment of Hitler's Wolkenkuckucksheim [cloud cuckoo land]."
Just two years before, the wall had hardly existed at all.
Up to 1942, victory had seemed so certain to the Führer and his strutting Nazis that there was no need for coastal fortifications. The swastsika flew everywhere. Austria and Czechoslovakia had been picked off before the war even started. Poland had been carved up between Germany and Russia as long ago as 1939. The war was not even a year old when the countries of Western Europe began falling like so many rotten apples. Denmark fell in a day. Norway, infiltrated from within, took a little longer: six weeks. Then that May and June, in just twenty-seven days and without overture of any sort, Hitler's blitzkrieging troops had plunged into Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France and, as an incredulous world watched, had driven the British into the sea at Dunkirk. After the collapse of France all that remained was England -- standing alone. What need had Hitler for a "wall"?
But Hitler didn't invade England. His generals wanted him to, but Hitler waited, thinking the British would sue for peace. As time passed the situation rapidly changed. With U.S. aid, Britain began staging a slow but sure recovery. Hitler, by now deeply involved in Russia -- he attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 -- saw that the coast of France was no longer an offensive springboard. It was now a soft spot in his defenses. By the fall of 1941 he began talking to his generals about making Europe an "impregnable fortress." And in December, after the U.S. had entered the war, the Führer ranted to the world that "a belt of strongpoints and gigantic fortifications runs from Kirkenes [on the Norwegian-Finnish frontier]...to the Pyrenees [on the Franco-Spanish border]...and it is my unshakable decision to make this front impregnable against every enemy."
It was a wild, impossible boast. Discounting the indentations, this coastline running from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Bay of Biscay in the south stretched almost three thousand miles.
Even directly across from Britain at the narrowest part of the Channel, the fortifications didn't exist. But Hitler had become obsessed with the fortress concept. Colonel General Franz Halder, then Chief of the German General Staff, well remembers the first time Hitler outlined his fantastic scheme. Halder, who would never forgive Hitler for refusing to invade England, was cool to the whole idea. He ventured the opinion that fortifications "if they were needed" should be constructed "behind the coastline out of range of naval guns," otherwise troops might be pinned down. Hitler dashed across the room to a table on which there was a large map and for a full five minutes threw an unforgettable tantrum. Pounding the map with his clenched fist he screamed, "Bombs and shells will fall here...here...here...and here...in front of the wall, behind it and on it...but the troops will be safe in the wall! Then they'll come out and fight?"
Halder said nothing, but he knew, as did the other generals in the High Command, that despite all the Reich's intoxicating victories the Führer already feared a second front -- an invasion.
Still, little work was done on the fortifications. In 1942, as the tide of war began to swing against Hitler, British commandos began raiding the "impregnable" fortress of Europe. Then came the bloodiest commando raid of the war, when more than five thousand heroic Canadians landed at Dieppe. It was a bloody curtain-raiser to the invasion. Allied planners learned just how strongly the Germans had fortified the ports. The Canadians had 3,369 casualties, of which nine hundred were dead. The raid was disastrous, but it shocked Hitler. The Atlantic Wall, he thundered at his generals, must be completed at top speed. Construction was to be rushed "fanatically."
It was. Thousands of slave laborers worked night and day to build the fortifications. Millions of tons of concrete were poured; so much was used that all over Hitler's Europe it became impossible to get concrete for anything else. Staggering quantities of steel were ordered, but this commodity was in such short supply that the engineers were forced to do without it. As a result few of the bunkers or blockhouses had swiveling cupolas, which required steel for the turrets, and the arc of fire from the guns was thereby restricted. So great was the demand for materials and equipment that parts of the old French Maginot Line and Germany's frontier fortifications (the Siegfried Line) were cannibalized for the Atlantic Wall. By the end of 1943, although the wall was far from finished, over half a million men were working on it and the fortifications had become a menacing reality.
Hitler knew that invasion was inevitable, and now he was faced with another great problem: finding the divisions to man his growing defenses. In Russia division after division was being chewed up as the Wehrmacht tried to hold a two-thousand mile front against relentless Soviet attacks. In Italy, knocked out of the war after the invasion of Sicily, thousands of troops were still pinned down. So, by 1944, Hitler was forced to bolster his garrisons in the west with a strange conglomeration of replacements -- old men and young boys, the remnants of divisions shattered on the Russian front, impressed "volunteers" from occupied countries (there were units of Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Romanians and Yugoslavs, to mention just a few) and even two Russian divisions composed of men who preferred fighting for the Nazis to remaining in prison camps. Questionable as these troops might prove to be in combat, they filled out the gaps. He still had a hard core of battle-hardened troops and panzers. By D Day, Hitler's strength in the west would total a formidable sixty divisions.
Not all these divisions would be up to full strength, but Hitler was still relying on his Atlantic Wall; that would make the difference. Yet men like Rommel who had been fighting -- and losing -- on other fronts were shocked when they saw the fortifications. Rommel had not been in France since 1941. And he, like many other German generals, believing in Hitler's propaganda, had thought that the defenses were almost completed.
His scathing denunciation of the "wall" came as no surprise to Von Rundstedt at OB West. He heartily concurred; indeed, it was probably the only time that he completely agreed with Rommel on anything. The wise old Von Rundstedt had never believed in fixed defenses. He had masterminded the successful outflanking of the Maginot Line in 1940 that had led to the collapse of France. To him Hitler's Atlantic Wall was nothing more than an "enormous bluff...more for the German people than for the enemy...and the enemy, through his agents, knows more about it than we do." It would "temporarily obstruct" the Allied attack, but it would not stop it. Nothing, Von Rundstedt was convinced, could prevent the initial landings from being successful. His plan to defeat the invasion was to hold the great mass of his troops back from the coast and to attack after the Allied troops had landed. That would be the moment to strike, he believed -- when the enemy was still weak, without adequate supply lines and struggling to organize in isolated bridgeheads.
With this theory Rommel disagreed completely. He was positive that there was only one way to smash the attack: meet it head on. There would be no time to bring up reinforcements from the rear; he was certain that they would be destroyed by incessant air attacks or the massive weight of naval or artillery bombardment. Everything, in his view, from troops to panzer divisions, had to be held ready at the coast or just behind it. His aide well remembered a day when Rommel had summed up his strategy. They had stood on a deserted beach, and Rommel, a short, stocky figure in a heavy greatcoat with an old muffler around his throat, had stalked up and down waving his "informal" marshal's baton, a two-foot-long silver-topped black stick with a red, black and white tassel. He had pointed to the sands with his baton and said, "The war will be won or lost on the beaches. We'll have only one chance to stop the enemy and that's while he's in the water...struggling to get ashore. Reserves will never get up to the point of attack and it's foolish even to consider them. The Hauptkampflinie [main line of resistance] will be here...everything we have must be on the coast. Believe me, Lang, the first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive...for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day."
Hitler had approved Rommel's plan in general, and from then on Von Rundstedt had become merely a figurehead. Rommel executed Von Rundstedt's orders only if they agreed with his own ideas. To get his way he would frequently use a single but powerful argument. "The Ffihrer," Rommel would remark, "gave quite explicit orders to me." He never said this directly to the dignified Von Rundstedt, but rather to OB West's chief of staff, Major General Blumentritt.
With Hitler's backing and Von Rundstedt's reluctant acceptance ("That Bohemian corporal, Hitler," snapped the Commander in Chief West, "usually decides against himself.") the determined Rommel had set out to overhaul completely the existing anti-invasion plans.
In a few short months Rommel's ruthless drive had changed the whole picture. On every beach where he considered a landing possible he had ordered his soldiers, working with local conscripted labor battalions, to erect barriers of crude anti-invasion obstacles. These obstacles -- jagged triangles of steel, saw-toothed gatelike structures of iron, metal-tipped wooden stakes and concrete cones -- were planted just below high- and low-tide water marks. Strapped to them were deadly mines. Where there were not enough mines, shells had been used, their noses pointing ominously out to sea. A touch would cause them to explode instantly.
Rommel's strange inventions (he had designed most of them himself) were both simple and deadly. Their object was to impale and destroy troop-filled landing craft or to obstruct them long enough for shore batteries to zero in. Either way, he reasoned, the enemy soldiers would be decimated long before they reached the beaches. More than half a million of these lethal underwater obstacles now stretched along the coastline.
Still, Rommel, the perfectionist, was not satisfied. In the sands, in bluffs, in gullies and pathways leading off the beaches, he ordered mines laid -- all varieties, from the large pancake type, capable of blowing off a tank's tracks, to the small S mine which when stepped on bounded into the air and exploded level with a man's midriff. Over five million of these mines now infested the coast. Before the attack came, Rommel hoped to have another six million planted. Eventually he hoped to girdle the invasion coast with sixty million mines.
Overlooking the coastline, back of this jungle of mines and obstacles, Rommel's troops waited in pillboxes, concrete bunkers and communication trenches, all surrounded by layers of barbed wire. From these positions every piece of artillery that the field marshal had been able to lay hands on looked down on sands and sea, already sighted in to give overlapping fields of fire. Some guns were actually in positions on the seashore itself. These were hidden in concrete emplacements beneath innocent-looking seashide homes, their barrels aimed not toward the sea but directly down the beaches, so as to fire at point-blank range along the waves of assaulting troops.
Rommel took advantage of every new technique or development. Where he was short of guns, he positioned batteries of rocket launchers or multiple mortar throwers. At one place he even had miniature robot tanks called "Goliaths." These devices, capable of carrying more than half a ton of explosives, could be guided by remote control from the fortifications down onto the beaches and detonated among troops or landing craft.
About all that was missing from Rommel's medieval arsenal of weapons were crucibles of molten lead to pour down on the attackers -- and in a way he had the modern equivalent: automatic flame throwers. At some places along the front, webs of piping ran out from concealed kerosene tanks to the grassy approaches leading off the beaches. At the press of a button, advancing troops would be instantly swallowed by flame.
Nor had Rommel forgotten the threat of parachutists or glider-borne infantry. Behind the fortifications low-lying areas had been flooded, and into every open field within seven or eight miles of the coast heavy stakes had been driven and booby-trapped. Trip wires were strung between these posts. When touched, they would immediately set off mines or shells.
Rommel had organized a bloody welcome for the Allied troops. Never in the history of modern warfare had a more powerful or deadly array of defenses been prepared for an invading force. Yet Rommel was not content. He wanted more pillboxes, more beach obstacles, more mines, more guns and troops. Most of all he wanted the massive panzer divisions which were lying in reserve far from the coast. He had won memorable battles with panzers in the North African deserts. Now, at this crucial moment, neither he nor Rundstedt could move these armored formations without Hitler's consent. The Führer insisted on holding them under his personal authority. Rommel needed at least five panzer divisions at the coast, ready to counterattack within the first few hours of the Allied assault. There was only one way to get them -- he would see Hitler. Rommel had often told Lang, "The last man who sees Hitler wins the game." On this leaden morning in La Roche-Guyon, as he prepared to leave for Germany and the long drive home, Rommel was more determined than ever to win the game.
At Fifteenth Army headquarters near the Belgian border, 125 miles away, one man was glad to see the morning of June 4 arrive. Lieutenant Colonel Hellmuth Meyer sat in his office, haggard and bleary-eyed. He had not really had a good night's sleep since June 1. But the night that had just passed had been the worst yet; he would never forget it.
Meyer had a frustrating, nerve-racking job. Besides being the Fifteenth Army's intelligence officer, he also headed up the only counterintelligence team on the invasion front. The heart of his setup was a thirty-man radio interception crew who worked in shifts around the clock in a concrete bunker crammed full of the most delicate radio equipment. Their job was to listen, nothing more. But each man was an expert who spoke three languages fluently, and there was hardly a word, hardly a single stutter of Morse code whispering through the ether from Allied sources that they did not hear.
Meyer's men were so experienced and their equipment was so sensitive that they were even able to pick up calls from radio transmitters in military-police jeeps in England more than a hundred miles away. This had been a great help to Meyer. American and British MPs, chatting with one another by radio as they directed troops convoys, had helped him no end in compiling a list of the various divisions stationed in England. But for some time now Meyer's operators had been unable to pick up any more of these calls. This was also significant to Meyer; it meant that a strict radio silence had been imposed. It was just one more clue to add to the many he already had that the invasion was close at hand.
With all the other intelligence reports available to him, items like this helped Meyer develop a picture of Allied planning. And he was good at his job. Several times a day he sifted through sheaves of monitored reports, always searching for the suspicious, the unusual -- and even the unbelievable.
During the night his men had picked up the unbelievable. The message, a high-speed press cable, had been monitored just after dark. It read: "URGENT PRESS ASSOCIATED NYK FLASH EISENHOWER'S HQ ANNOUNCES ALLIED LANDINGS IN FRANCE."
Meyer was dumbfounded. His first impulse was to alert the headquarters staff. But he had paused and calmed down, because Meyer knew the message had to be wrong.
There were two reasons why. First, there was the complete absence of any activity along the invasion front -- he would have known immediately if there had been an attack. Second, in January, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, then chief of German intelligence, had given Meyer the details of a fantastic two-part signal which he said the Allies would use to alert the underground prior to the invasion.
Canaris had warned that the Allies would broadcast hundreds of messages to the underground in the months preceding the attack. Only a few of these would actually relate to D Day; the remainder would be fake, deliberately designed to mislead and confuse. Canaris had been explicit: Meyer was to monitor all these messages in order not to miss the all-important one.
At first Meyer had been skeptical. It had seemed madness to him to depend entirely on only one message. Besides, he knew from past experience that Berlin's sources of information were inaccurate ninety percent of the time. He had a whole file of false reports to prove his point; the Allies seemed to have fed every German agent from Stockholm to Ankara with the "exact" place and date of the invasion -- and no two of the reports agreed.
But this time Meyer knew Berlin was right. On the night of June 1, Meyer's men, after months of monitoring, had intercepted the first part of the Allied message -- exactly as described by Canaris. It was not unlike the hundreds of other coded sentences that Meyer's men had picked up during the previous months. Daily, after the regular BBC news broadcasts, coded instructions in French, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian were read out to the underground. Most of the messages were meaningless to Meyer, and it was exasperating not to be able to decode such cryptic fragments as "The Trojan War will not be held," "Molasses tomorrow will spurt forth cognac," "John has a long mustache" or "Sabine has just had mumps and jaundice." But the message that followed the 9:00 P.M. BBC news on the night of June 1 was one that Meyer understood only too well.
"Kindly listen now to a few personal messages," said the voice in French. Instantly Sergeant Walter Reichling switched on a wire recorder. There was a pause, and then: "Les sanglots longs des violons de l'automne [The long sobs of the violins of autumn]."
Reichling suddenly clapped his hands over his earphones. Then he tore them off and rushed out of the bunker for Meyer's quarters. The sergeant burst into Meyer's office and excitedly said, "Sir, the first part of the message -- it's here."
Together they returned to the radio bunker, where Meyer listened to the recording. There it was -- the message that Canaris had warned them to expect. It was the first line of "Chanson d'Automne [Song of Autumn]" by the nineteenth-century French poet Paul Verlaine. According to Canaris's information, this line from Verlaine was to be transmitted on the "first or fifteenth of a month...and will represent the first half of a message announcing the Anglo-American invasion."
The last half of the message would be the second line of the Verlaine poem, "Blessent mon coeur d'une langueur monotone [Wound my heart with a monotonous languor]." When this was broadcast it would mean, according to Canaris, that "the invasion will begin within forty-eight hours...the count starting at 0000 hours of the day following the transmission."
Immediately on hearing the recording of the first line from Verlaine, Meyer informed the Fifteenth Army's chief of staff, Major General Rudolf Hofmann. "The first message has come," he told Hofmann. "Now something is going to happen,"
"Are you absolutely sure?" Hofmann asked.
"We recorded it," Meyer replied.
Hofmann immediately gave the alarm to alert the whole of the Fifteenth Army.
Meyer meanwhile sent the message by teletype to OKW. Next he telephoned Rundstedt's headquarters (OB West) and Rommel's headquarters (Army Group B).
At OKW the message was delivered to Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations. The message remained on Jodl's desk. He did not order an alert. He assumed Rundstedt had done so; but Rundstedt thought Rommel's headquarters had issued the order.
Along the invasion coast only one army was placed on readiness: the Fifteenth. The Seventh Army, holding the coast of Normandy, heard nothing about the message and was not alerted.
On the nights of the second and third of June the first part of the message was again broadcast. This worried Meyer; according to his information it should have been broadcast only once. He could only assume that the Allies were repeating the alert in order to make sure it was received by the underground.
Within the hour after the message was repeated on the night of June 3, the AP flash regarding the Allied landings in France had been picked up. If the Canaris warning was right, the AP report must be wrong. After his first moment of panic, Meyer had bet on Canaris. Now he was weary, but elated. The coming of the dawn and the continued peacefulness along the front had more than proved him fight.
Now there was nothing to do but wait for the last half of the vital alert, which might come at any moment. Its awesome significance overwhelmed Meyer. The defeat of the Allied invasion, the lives of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, the very existence of his country would depend on the speed with which he and his men monitored the broadcast and alerted the front. Meyer and his men would be ready as never before. He could only hope that his superiors also realized the importance of the message.
As Meyer settled down to wait, 125 miles away the commander of Army Group B was preparing to leave for Germany.
Field Marshal Rommel carefully spread a little honey on a slice of buttered bread. At the breakfast table sat his brilliant chief of staff, Major General Dr. Hans Speidel, and several members of his staff. There was no formality. The table talk was easy and uninhibited; it was almost like a family gathering with the father sitting at the head of the table. In a way it was a kind of close-knit family. Each of the officers had been handpicked by Rommel and they were devoted to him. All of them this morning had briefed Rommel on various questions which they hoped he would raise with Hitler. Rommel had said little. He had simply listened. Now he was impatient to leave. He looked at his watch. "Gentlemen," he said abruptly, "I must go."
Outside the main entrance Rommel's chauffeur, Daniel, stood by the field marshal's car with the door open. Rommel invited Colonel von Tempelhof, besides Lang the only other staff officer going with them, to ride with him in the Horch. Tempelhof's car could follow behind. Rommel shook hands with each member of his official family, spoke briefly to his chief of staff and then took his usual seat next to the chauffeur. Lang and Colonel von Tempelhof sat in the back. "We can go now, Daniel," said Rommel.
Slowly the car circled the courtyard and drove out through the main gate, passing the sixteen square-cut linden trees along the driveway. In the village it turned left onto the main Paris road.
It was 7:00 A.M. Leaving La Rouche-Guyon on this particular dismal Sunday morning, June 4, suited Rommel fine. The timing of the trip could not have been better. Beside him on the seat was a cardboard box containing a pair of handmade gray suede shoes, size five and a half, for his wife. There was a particular and very human reason why he wanted to be with her on Tuesday, June 6. It was her birthday.
In England it was 8:00 A.M. (There was one hour's difference between British Double Summer Time and German Central Time.) In a house trailer in a wood near Ports-mouth, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander, was sound asleep after having been up nearly all night. For several hours now coded messages had been going out by telephone, by messenger and by radio from his headquarters nearby. Eisenhower, at about the time Rommel got up, had made a fateful decision: Because of unfavorable weather conditions he had postponed the Allied invasion by twenty-four hours. If conditions were right, D-Day would be Tuesday, June 6.
Lieutenant Commander George D. Hoffman, thirty-three-year-old skipper of the destroyer U.S.S. Corry, looked through his binoculars at the long column of ships plowing steadily across the English Channel behind him. It seemed incredible to him that they had got this far without an attack of some sort. They were on course and exactly on time. The crawling convoy, following a circuitous route and moving less than four miles an hour, had sailed more than eighty miles since leaving Plymouth the night before. But at any moment now Hoffman expected to meet trouble-U-boat or aircraft attack or both. At the very least he expected to encounter mine fields, for as every minute passed they were sailing farther into enemy waters. France lay ahead, now only forty miles away.
The young commander -- he had "fleeted up" on the Corry from a lieutenant to skipper in less than three years -- was immensely proud to be leading this magnificent convoy. But as he looked at it through his glasses he knew that it was a sitting duck for the enemy.
Ahead were the mine sweepers, six small ships spread out in a diagonal formation, like one side of an inverted V, each one trailing in the water, off to its right, a long, saw-toothed wire sweep to cut through the moorings and detonate floating mines. Behind the mine sweepers came the lean, sleek shapes of the "shepherds," the escorting destroyers. And behind them, stretching back as far as the eye could see, came the convoy, a great procession of lumbering, unwieldy landing ships carrying thousands of troops, tanks, guns, vehicles, and ammunition. Each of the heavily laden ships flew an antiaircraft barrage balloon at the end of a stout cable. And because these protective balloons, all flying at the same altitude, swung out in the face of the brisk wind, the entire convoy appeared to be listing drunkenly to one side.
To Hoffmann it was quite a sight. Estimating the distance separating one ship from the next and knowing the total number of vessels, he figured that the tail end of this fantastic parade must still be back in England, in Plymouth Harbor.
And this was only one convoy. Hoffman knew that dozens of others had been due to sail when he did, or would leave England during the day. That night all of them would converge on the Bay of the Seine. By morning an immense fleet of five thousand ships would stand off the invasion beaches of Normandy.
Hoffman could hardly wait to see it. The convoy that he led had left England early because it had the farthest to go. It was part of a massive American force, the 4th Division, destined for a place that Hoffman, like millions of other Americans, had never heard of before -- a stretch of wind-blown sand on the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula that had been given the code name "Utah." Twelve miles to the southeast, in front of the seaside villages of Vierville and Colleville, lay the other American beach, "Omaha," a crescent-shaped strip of silvery strand where the men of the 1st and 29th divisions would land.
The Corry's captain had expected to see other convoys near him this morning, but he seemed to have the Channel all to himself. He wasn't disturbed. Somewhere in the vicinity, he knew, other convoys attached to either "Force U" or "Force O" were sailing for Normandy. Hoffman did not know that because of the uncertain weather conditions a worried Eisenhower had permitted fewer than a score of slow-moving convoys to set sail during the night.
Suddenly the bridge telephone buzzed. One of the deck officers reached for it, but Hoffman, who was closer, picked up the phone. "Bridge," he said. "This is the captain." He listened for a moment. "Are you quite sure?" he asked. "Has the message been repeated?" Hoffman listened a moment longer, then he replaced the receiver on its cradle. It was unbelievable: The whole convoy had been ordered back to England -- no reason given. What could have happened? Had the invasion been postponed?
Hoffman looked through his glasses at the mine sweepers ahead; they hadn't changed course. Neither had the destroyers behind them. Had they received the message? Before doing anything else he decided to see the turnabout message for himself -- he had to be sure. Quickly he climbed down to the radio shack one deck below.
Radioman Third Class Bennie Glisson had made no mistake. Showing his skipper the radio logbook, he said, "I checked it twice just to be certain." Hoffman hurried back to the bridge.
His job and that of the other destroyers now was to wheel this monstrous convoy around, and quickly. Because he was in the lead his immediate concern was the flotilla of mine sweepers several miles ahead. He could not contact them by radio because a strict radio silence had been imposed. "All engines ahead full speed," Hoffman ordered. "Close up on the mine sweepers. Signalman on the light."
As the Corry raced forward Hoffman looked back and saw the destroyers behind him wheel and swing around the flanks of the convoy. Now, with signal lights blinking, they began the huge job of turning the convoy around. A worried Hoffman realized that they were dangerously close to France -- just thirty-eight miles. Had they been spotted yet? It would be a miracle if they got away with the turnabout undetected.
Down in the radio shack Bennie Glisson continued to pick up the coded postponement message every fifteen minutes. To him it was the worst news he had received in a long time, for it seemed to confirm a nagging suspicion: that the Germans knew all about the invasion. Had D Day been called off because the Germans had found out? Like thousands of other men, Bennie did not see how the invasion preparations -- the convoys, the ships, men and supplies that filled every port, inlet and harbor from Land's End to Portsmouth -- could possibly have gone unnoticed by Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes. And if the message simply meant that the invasion had been postponed for some other reason, then it followed that the Germans had still more time to spot the Allied armada.
The twenty-three-year-old radio operator turned the dial of another set and tuned in Radio Paris, the German propaganda station. He wanted to hear sexy-voiced "Axis Sally." Her taunting broadcasts were amusing because they were so inaccurate, but you never could tell. There was another reason: The "Berlin Bitch," as she was often irreverently called, seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of the latest hit tunes.
Bennie didn't get a chance to listen because just then a long string of coded weather reports began coming in. But as he finished typing up these messages "Axis Sally" put on her first record of the day. Bennie instantly recognized the opening bars of the popular wartime tune "I Double Dare You." But new lyrics had been written for the song. As he listened, they confirmed his worst fears. That morning a little before eight Bennie and many thousands of Allied troops who had steeled themselves for the invasion of Normandy on June 5, and who now had another agonizing twenty-four hours to wait, heard "I Double Dare You" with these pertinent, if chilling, lines:
"I double dare you to come over here.
I double dare you to venture too near.
Take off your high hat and quit that bragging.
Cut out that claptrap and keep your hair on.
Can't you take a dare on?
I double dare you to venture a raid.
I double dare you to try and invade.
And if your loud propaganda means half of what it says,
I double dare you to come over here.
I double dare you."
In the huge Operations Center at Allied naval headquarters in Southwick House outside Portsmouth, they waited for the ships to come back.
The long, high room with its white-and-gold wallpaper was the scene of intense activity. One entire wall was covered by a gigantic chart of the English Channel. Every few minutes two Wrens, working from a traveling stepladder, moved colored markers over the face of the chart as they plotted the new positions of each returning convoy. Clustered in groups of two and three, staff officers from the various Allied services watched in silence as each new report came in. Outwardly they appeared calm, but there was no disguising the strain that everybody felt. Not only must the convoys wheel about, almost under the very noses of the enemy, and return to England along specific, mineswept tracks; they were now faced with the threat of another enemy -- a storm at sea. For the slow-moving landing craft, heavily loaded with troops and supplies, a storm could be disastrous. Already the wind in the Channel was blowing up to thirty miles an hour, with waves up to five feet, and the weather was due to get worse.
As the minutes passed, the face of the chart reflected the orderly pattern of the recall. There were streams of markers backtracking up the Irish Sea, clustered in the vicinity of the Isle of Wight and huddled together in various ports and anchorages along the southwest coast of England. It would take some of the convoys nearly all day to put back to port.
The location of each convoy and that of nearly every other ship of the Allied fleet could be seen at a glance on the board. But two vessels were not shown -- a pair of midget submarines. They seemed to have disappeared completely off the chart.
In an office nearby, a pretty twenty-four-year-old Wren lieutenant wondered how soon her husband would make it back to his home port. Naomi Coles Honour was a bit anxious but not unduly worried yet, even though her friends in "Ops" seemed to know nothing about the whereabouts of her husband, Lieutenant George Honour, and his fifty-seven-foot-long midget submarine, the X23.
One mile off the coast of France a periscope broke the surface of the water. Thirty feet below, crouching in the cramped control room of the X23, Lieutenant George Honour pushed his cap back. "Well, gentlemen," he recalls saying, "let's take a look-see."
Cushioning one eye against the rubber-cupped eyepiece, he slowly pivoted the periscope around, and as the distorting shimmer of water disappeared from the lens the blurred image before him straightened out and became the sleepy resort town of Ouistreham near the mouth of the Orne. They were so close in and his view was so magnified that Honour could see smoke rising from chimneys and, in the far distance, a plane that had just taken off from Carpiquet Airport near Caen. He could also see the enemy. Fascinated, he watched German troops calmly working among the anti-invasion obstacles on the sandy beaches that stretched away on either side.
It was a great moment for the twenty-six-year-old Royal Navy Reserve lieutenant. Standing back from the periscope, he said to Lieutenant Lionel G. Lyne, the navigational expert in charge of the operation, "Take a look, Thin -- we're almost bang on the target."
In a way the invasion had already begun. The first craft and the first men of the Allied forces were in position off the beaches of Normandy. Directly ahead of the X23 lay the British-Canadian assault sector. Lieutenant Honour and his crew were not unaware of the significance of this particular date. On another June 4, four years earlier, at a place less than two hundred miles away, the last of 338,000 British troops had been evacuated from a blazing port called Dunkirk. On the X23 it was a tense, proud moment for the five specially chosen Englishmen. They were the British vanguard; the men of the X23 were leading the way back to France for the thousands of their countrymen who would soon follow.
These five men crouching in the tiny all-purpose cabin of the X23 wore rubber frogmen's suits, and they carried ingeniously falsified papers that would have passed the scrutiny of the most suspicious German sentry. Each had a false French identity card complete with photograph, plus work permits and ration cards bearing official-looking German rubber-stamped impressions, and other letters and documents. In case anything went wrong and the X23 was sunk or had to be abandoned, her crew members were to swim ashore and, armed with new identities, try to escape capture and make contact with the French underground.
The X23's mission was a particularly hazardous one. Twenty minutes before H Hour, the midget sub and her sister ship, the X20 -- some twenty miles farther down the coast, opposite the little village of Le Hamel -- would boldly come to the surface to act as navigational markers, clearly defining the extreme limits of the British-Canadian assault zone: three beaches that had been given the code names Sword, Juno and Gold.
The plan they were to follow was involved and elaborate. An automatic radio beacon capable of sending out a continuous signal was to be switched on the moment they surfaced. At the same time sonar apparatus would automatically broadcast sound waves through the water which could be picked up by underwater listening devices. The fleet carrying British and Canadian troops would home in on either one or both of the signals.
Each midget also carried an eighteen-foot telescopic mast to which was attached a small but powerful searchlight that could send out a flashing beam capable of being seen more than five miles away. If the light showed green, it would mean that the subs were on target; if not, the light would be red.
As additional navigation aids, the plan called for each midget to launch a moored rubber dinghy with a man in it and allow it to drift a certain distance toward shore. The dinghies had been outfitted with searchlights which would be operated by their crewmen. By taking bearings on the lights of the midgets and their drifting dinghies, approaching ships would be able to pinpoint the exact positions of the three assault beaches.
Nothing had been forgotten, not even the danger that the little sub might be run over by some lumbering landing craft. As protection the X23 would be clearly marked by a large yellow flag. The point had not escaped Honour that the flag would also make them a fine target for the Germans. Notwithstanding, he planned to fly a second flag, a large white Navy "battle duster." Honour and his crew were prepared to risk enemy shellfire, but they were taking no chances on being rammed and sunk.
All this paraphernalia and more had been packed into the already cramped innards of the X23. Two extra crewmen, both navigation experts, had also been added to the sub's normal complement of three men. There was scarcely room now to stand up or sit down in the X23's single allpurpose cabin, which was only five feet eight inches high, five feet wide and barely eight feet long. Already it was hot and stuffy, and the atmosphere would get much worse before they dared surface, which would not be until after dark.
Even in daylight in these shallow coastal waters, Honour knew that there was always the possibility of being spotted by low-flying reconnaissance planes or patrol boats -- and the longer they stayed at periscope depth the greater was the risk.
At the periscope, Lieutenant Lyne took a series of bearings. He quickly identified several landmarks: the Ouistreham lighthouse, the town church and the spires of two others in the villages of Langrune and St.-Aubin-sur-Mer a few miles away. Honour had been right. They were almost "bang on the target," barely three quarters of a mile from their plotted position.
Honour was relieved to be this close. It had been a long, harrowing trip. They had covered the ninety miles from Portsmouth in a little under two days, and much of that time they had traveled through mine fields. Now they would get into position and then drop to the bottom. "Operation Gambit" was off to a good start. Secretly he wished that some other code word had been chosen. Although he was not superstitious, on looking up the meaning of the word the young skipper had been shocked to discover that "gambit" meant "throwing away the opening pawns."
Honour took one last look through the periscope at the Germans working on the beaches. All hell would break loose on those beaches by this time tomorrow, he thought. "Down periscope," he ordered. Submerged, and out of radio communication with their base, Honour and the crew of the X23 did not know that the invasion had been postponed.
BY 11:00 A.M. the gale in the Channel was blowing hard. In the restricted coastal areas of Britain, sealed off from the remainder of the country, the invasion forces sweated it out. Their world now was the assembly areas, the airfields and the ships. It was almost as though they were physically severed from the mainland -- caught up strangely between the familiar world of England and the unknown world of Normandy. Separating them from the world they knew was a tight curtain of security.
On the other side of that curtain life went on as usual. People went about their accustomed routines unaware that hundreds of thousands of men waited out an order that would mark the beginning of the end of World War II.
In the town of Leatherhead, Surrey, a slight, fifty-four-year-old physics teacher was walking his dog. Leonard Sidney Dawe was a quiet, unassuming sort of man and outside of a small circle of friends he was unknown. Yet the retiring Dawe enjoyed a public following far exceeding that of a film star. Every day upwards of a million people struggled over the crossword puzzle that he and his friend Melville Jones, another schoolteacher, prepared for each morning's London Daily Telegraph.
For more than twenty years Dawe had been the Telegraph's senior crossword compiler and in that time his tough, intricate puzzles had both exasperated and satisfied countless millions. Some addicts claimed that the Times's puzzle was tougher, but Dawe's fans were quick to point out that the Telegraph's crossword had never repeated the same clue twice. That was a matter of considerable pride to the reserved Dawe.
Dawe would have been astonished to know that ever since May 2 he had been the subject of a most discreet inquiry by a certain department in Scotland Yard charged with counterespionage, M.I.5. For over a month his puzzles had thrown one scare after another into many sections of the Allied High Command.
On this particular Sunday morning M.I.5 had decided to talk to Dawe. When he returned home he found two men waiting for him. Dawe, like everybody else, had heard of M.I.5, but what could they possibly want with him?
"Mr. Dawe," said one of the men as the questioning began, "during the last month a number of highly confidential code words concerning a certain Allied operation have appeared in the Telegraph crossword puzzles. Can you tell us what prompted you to use them -- or where you got them?"
Before the surprised Dawe could answer, the M.I.5 man pulled a list out of his pocket and said, "We are particularly interested in finding out how you came to choose this word." He pointed to the list. The prize competition crossword in the Telegraph for May 27 included the clue (11 across), "But some big-wig like this has stolen some of it at times." This mystifying clue through some strange alchemy made sense to Dawe's devoted followers. The answer, published just two days before on June 2, was the code name for the entire Allied invasion plan -- "Overlord."
rDawe did not know what Allied operation they were talking about, so he was not unduly startled or even indignant at these questions. He could not explain, he told them, just how or why he had chosen that particular word. It was quite a common word in history books, he pointed out. "But how," he protested, "can I tell what is being used as a code word and what isn't?"
The two M.I.5 men were extemely courteous: They agreed that it was difficult. But wasn't it strange that all these code words should appear in the same month?
One by one they went over the list with the now slightly harassed bespectacled schoolmaster. In the puzzle for May 2, the clue "One of the U.S." (seventeen across) had produced the solution "Utah." The answer to three down, "Red Indian on the Missouri," on May 22, turned out to be "Omaha."
In the May 30 crossword (eleven across), "This bush is a center of nursery revolutions" required the word "Mulberry" -- the code name for the two artificial harbors that were to be placed in position off the beaches. And the solution to fifteen down on June 1, "Britannia and he hold to the same thing," had been "Neptune" -- the code word for the naval operations in the invasion.
Dawe had no explanation for the use of these words. For all he knew, he said, the crosswords mentioned on the list could have been completed six months before. Was there any explanation? Dawe could suggest only one: fantastic coincidence.
There had been other hair-raising scares. Three months before in Chicago's central post office a bulky, improperly wrapped envelope had burst open on the sorting table, revealing a number of suspicious-looking documents. At least a dozen sorters saw the contents: something about an operation called Overlord.
Intelligence officers were soon swarming all over the scene. The sorters were questioned and told to forget everything they might have seen. Next the completely innocent addressee was interrogated: a girl. She could not explain why these papers were en route to her, but she did recognize the handwriting on the envelope. Through her the papers were traced back to their point of origin, an equally innocent sergeant at American headquarters in London. He had wrongly addressed the envelope. By mistake he had sent it to his sister in Chicago.
Minor as this incident was it might have assumed even greater proportions had Supreme Headquarters known that the German intelligence service, the Abwehr, had already discovered the meaning of the code word "Overlord." One of their agents, an Albanian named Diello but better known to the Abwehr as "Cicero," had sent Berlin the information in January. At first Cicero had identified the plan as "Overlock," but later he had corrected it. And Berlin believed Cicero -- he worked as a valet in the British embassy in Turkey.
But Cicero was unable to discover the big Overlord secret: the time and place of D Day itself. So scrupulously guarded was this information that up to the end of April only a few hundred Allied officers knew it. But that month, despite constant warnings by counterintelligence that agents were active throughout the British Isles, two senior officers, an American general and a British colonel, carelessly violated security. At a cocktail party in Claridge's Hotel, London, the general mentioned to some brother officers that the invasion would take place before June 15. Elsewhere in England, the colonel, a battalion commander, was even more indiscreet. He told some civilian friends that his men were training to capture a specific target and he hinted that its location was in Normandy. Both officers were immediately demoted and removed from their commands.
And now, on this tense Sunday, June 4, Supreme Headquarters was stunned by the news that there had been yet another leak, far worse than any that had occurred before. During the night an AP teletype operator had been practicing on an idle machine in an effort to improve her speed. By error the perforated tape carrying her practice "flash" somehow preceded the ususal nightly Russian communiqué. It was corrected after only thirty seconds, but the word was out. The "bulletin" that reached the U.S. read: "URGENT PRESS ASSOCIATED NYK FLASH EISENHOWER'S HQ ANNOUNCED ALLIED LANDINGS IN FRANCE."
Grave as the consequences of the message might prove to be, it was much too late to do anything about it now. The gigantic machinery of the invasion had moved into high gear. Now, as the hours slipped by and the weather steadily worsened, the greatest airborne and amphibious force ever assembled waited for General Eisenhower's decision. Would Ike confirm June 6 as D Day? Or would he be compelled because of Channel weather -- the worst in twenty years -- to postpone the invasion once again?
In a rain-lashed wood two miles from the naval head-quarters at Southwick House, the American who had to make that great decision wrestled with the problem and tried to relax in his sparsely furnished three-and-a-half-ton trailer. Although he could have moved into more comfortable quarters at the big, sprawling Southwick House, Eisenhower had decided against it. He wanted to be as close as possible to the ports where his troops were loading. Several days before he had ordered a small compact battle headquarters set up -- a few tents for his immediate staff and several trailers, among them his own, which he had long ago named "my circus wagon."
Eisenhower's trailer, a long, low caravan somewhat resembling a moving van, had three small compartments serving as bedroom, living room and study. Besides these, neatly fitted into the trailer's length was a tiny galley, a miniature switchboard, a chemical toilet and, at one end, a glass-enclosed observation deck. But the Supreme Commander was rarely around long enough to make full use of the trailer. He hardly ever used the living room or the study; when staff conferences were called he generally held them in a tent next to the trailer. Only his bedroom had a "lived-in" look. It was definitely his: There was a large pile of Western paperbacks on the table near his bunk, and here, too, were the only pictures -- photographs of his wife, Mamie, and his twenty-one-year-old son, John, in the uniform of a West Point cadet.
From this trailer Eisenhower commanded almost three million Allied troops. More than half of his immense command were American: roughly 1.7 million soldiers, sailors, airmen and coastguardmen. British and Canadian forces together totaled around one million and in addition there were Fighting French, Polish, Czech, Belgian, Norwegian and Dutch contingents. Never before had an American commanded so many men from so many nations or shouldered such an awesome burden of responsibility.
Yet despite the magnitude of his assignment and his vast powers there was little about this tall, sunburned midwesterner with the infectious grin to indicate that he was the Supreme Commander. Unlike many other famous Allied commanders, who were instantly recognizable by some visible trademark such as eccentric headgear or garish uniforms layered shoulder-high with decorations, everything about Eisenhower was restrained. Apart from the four stars of his rank, a single ribbon of decorations above his breast pocket and the flaming-sword shoulder patch of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) Eisenhower shunned all distinguishing marks. Even in the trailer there was little evidence of his authority: no flags, maps, framed directives or signed photographs of the great or near-great who often visited him. But in his bedroom, close to his bunk, were three all-important telephones, each a different color; the red was for "scrambled" calls to Washington, the green was a direct line to Winston Churchill's residence at No. 10 Downing Street, London, and the black connected him to his brilliant chief of staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, the immediate headquarters and other senior members of the Allied High Command.
It was on the black phone, to add to all his other worries, that Eisenhower heard of the erroneous "flash" concerning the "landings." He said nothing when he was told the news. His naval aide, Captain Harry C. Butcher, recalls that the Supreme Commander merely grunted an acknowledgment. What was there to say or do now?
Four months before, in the directive appointing him Supreme Commander, the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington had spelled out his assignment in one precise paragraph. It read: "You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces..."
There in one sentence was the aim and purpose of the assault. But to the entire Allied world this was to be more than a military operation. Eisenhower called it "a great crusade" -- a crusade to end once and for all a monstrous tyranny that had plunged the world into its bloodiest war, shattered a continent and placed upwards of 300 million people in bondage. (Actually, nobody at this time could even imagine the full extent of the Nazi barbarism that had washed across Europe -- the millions who had disappeared into the gas chambers and furnaces of Heinrich Himmler's aseptic crematoria, the millions who had been herded out of their countries to work as slave laborers, a tremendous percentage of whom would never return, the millions more who had been tortured to death, executed as hostages or exterminated by the simple expedient of starvation.) The great crusade's unalterable purpose was not only to win the war, but to destroy Nazism and bring to an end an era of savagery which had never been surpassed in the world's history.
But first the invasion had to succeed. If it failed, the final defeat of Germany might take years.
To prepare for the all-out invasion on which so much depended, intensive military planning had been going on for more than a year. Long before anyone knew that Eisenhower would be named Supreme Commander, a small group of Anglo-American officers under Britain's Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan had been laying the groundwork for the assault. Their problems were incredibly involved -- there were few guideposts, few military precedents, but a plethora of question marks. Where should the attack be launched and when? How many divisions should be used? If X divisions were needed would they be available, trained and ready to go by Y date? How many transports would be required to carry them? What about naval bombardment, support ships and escorts? Where were all the landing craft going to come from -- could some be diverted from the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters of war? How many airfields would be needed to accommodate the thousands of planes necessary for the air attack? How long would it take to stockpile all the supplies, the equipment, guns, ammunition, transport and food, and how much was needed not only for the attack but to follow it up?
These were just a few of the staggering questions that Allied planners had to answer. There were thousands of others. Ultimately their studies, enlarged and modified into the final Overlord plan after Eisenhower took over, called for more men, more ships, more planes, more equipment and matériel than had ever been assembled before for a single military operation.
The build-up was enormous. Even before the plan reached its final form an unprecedented flow of men and supplies began pouring into England. Soon there were so many Americans in the small towns and villages that the British who lived in them were often hopelessly outnumbered. Their movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, dance halls and favorite pubs were suddenly swamped by a flood of troops from every state in the Union.
Airfields blossomed everywhere. For the great air offensive, 163 bases were constructed in addition to the scores already in existence, until at last there were so many that a standard gag among 8th and 9th Air Force crewmen was that they could taxi the length and breadth of the island without scratching a wing. Ports were jammed. A great supporting naval fleet of almost nine hundred ships, from battleships to PT boats, began to assemble. Convoys arrived in such great numbers that by spring they had delivered almost 2 million tons of goods and supplies -- so much that 170 miles of new railroad lines had to be laid down to move it.
By May southern England looked like a huge arsenal. Hidden in the forests were mountainous piles of ammunition. Stretching across the moors, bumper to bumper, were tanks, half-tracks, armored cars, trucks, jeeps and ambulances -- more than fifty thousand of them. In the fields were long lines of howitzers and antiaircraft guns, great quantities of prefabricated materials from Nissen huts to airstrips, and huge stocks of earth-moving equipment from bulldozers to excavators. At central depots there were immense quantities of food, clothing and medical supplies, from pills for combating seasickness to 124,000 hospital beds. But the most staggering sight of all were the valleys filled with long lines of railroad rolling stock: almost one thousand brand-new locomotives, and nearly twenty thousand tanker cars and freight cars which would be used to replace the shattered French equipment after the beachhead had been established.
There were also strange new devices of war. There were tanks that could swim, others that carried great rolls of lath to be used in antitank ditches or as stepping-stones over walls, and yet others equipped with great chain flails that beat the ground in front of them to explode mines. There were flat, block-long ships, each carrying a forest of pipes for the launching of warfare's newest weapon, rockets. Perhaps strangest of all were two man-made harbors that were to be towed across to the Normandy beaches. They were engineering miracles and one of the big Overlord secrets; they assured the constant flow of men and supplies into the beachhead during the first critical weeks until a port could be captured. The harbors, called "Mulberries," consisted first of an outer breakwater made up of great steel floats. Next came 145 huge concrete caissons in various sizes which were to be sunk butt to butt to make an inner breakwater. The largest of these caissons had crew quarters and antiaircraft guns and, when it was being towed, looked like a five-story apartment building lying on its side. Within these man-made harbors, freighters as large as Liberty ships could unload into barges ferrying back and forth to the beaches. Smaller ships, like coasters or landing craft, could dump their cargoes at massive steel pierheads where waiting trucks would run them to shore over floating pontoon-supported piers. Beyond the Mulberries a line of sixty concrete blockships was to be sunk as an additional breakwater. In position off the invasion beaches of Normandy, each harbor would be the size of the port of Dover.
All through May men and supplies began to move down to the ports and the loading areas. Congestion was a major problem, but somehow the quartermasters, military police and British railroad authorities kept everything moving and on time.
Trains loaded with troops and supplies backed and filled on every line as they waited to converge on the coast. Convoys jammed every road. Every little village and hamlet was covered with a fine dust, and throughout the quiet spring nights the whole of southern England resounded with the low whining sound of the trucks, the whirring and clacking of tanks and the unmistakable voices of Americans, all of whom seemed to be asking the same question: "How far away is this goddam place?"
Almost overnight, cities of Nissen huts and tents sprang up in the coastal regions as troops began to pour into the embarkation areas. Men slept in bunks stacked three and four deep. Showers and latrines were usually several fields away and the men had to queue up to use them. Chow lines were sometimes a quarter of a mile long. There were so many troops that it took some 54,000 men, 4,500 of them newly trained cooks, just to service American installations. The last week in May troops and supplies began loading onto the transports and the landing ships. The time had finally come.
The statistics staggered the imagination; the force seemed overwhelming. Now this great weapon -- the youth of the free world, the resources of the free world -- waited on the decision of one man: Eisenhower.
Throughout most of June 4, Eishenhower remained alone in his trailer. He and his commanders had done everything to ensure that the invasion would have every possible chance of success at the lowest cost in lives. But now, after all the months of political and military planning, Operation Overlord lay at the mercy of the elements. Eisenhower was helpless; all he could do was to wait and hope that the weather would improve. But no matter what happened he would be forced to make a momentous decision by the end of the day -- to go or to postpone the assault once again. Either way the success or failure of Operation Overlord might depend on that decision. And nobody could make that decision for him. The responsibility would be his and his alone.
Eisenhower was faced with a dreadful dilemma. On May 17 he had decided that D Day would have to be one of three days in June -- the fifth, sixth, or seventh. Meteorological studies had shown that two of the vital weather requirements for the invasion could be expected for Normandy on those days: a late-rising moon and, shortly after dawn, a low tide.
The paratroopers and glider-borne infantry who would launch the assault, some eighteen thousand men of the U.S. 101st and 82nd divisions and the British 6th Division, needed the moonlight. But their surprise attack depended on darkness up to the time they arrived over the dropping zones. Thus their critical demand was for a late-rising moon.
The seaborne landings had to take place when the tide was low enough to expose Rommel's beach obstacles. On this tide the timing of the whole invasion would depend. And to complicate the meteorological calculations further, follow-up troops landing much later in the day would also need a low tide -- and it had to come before darkness set in.
These two critical factors of moonlight and tide shackled Eisenhower. Tide alone reduced the number of days for the attack in any one month to six, and three of those were moonless.
But that was not all. There were many other considerations he had to take into account. First, all the services wanted long hours of daylight and good visibility -- to identify the beaches, for the naval and air forces to spot their targets and to reduce the hazard of collision when five thousand ships began maneuvering almost side by side in the Bay of the Seine. Second, a calm sea was required. Apart from the havoc a rough sea might cause to the fleet, seasickness could leave the troops helpless long before they even set foot on the beaches. Third, low winds, blowing inshore, were needed to clear the beaches of smoke so that targets would not be obscured. And finally the Allies required three more quiet days after D Day to facilitate the quick build-up of men and supplies.
Nobody at Supreme Headquarters expected perfect conditions on D Day, least of all Eisenhower. He had schooled himself, in countless dry runs with his meteorological staff, to recognize and weigh all the factors which would give him the bare minimum conditions acceptable for the attack. But according to his meteorologist the chances were about ten to one against Normandy having weather on any one day in June which would meet even the minimal requirements. On this stormy Sunday, as Eisenhower, alone in his trailer, considered every possibility, those odds appeared to have become astronomcial.
Of the three possible days for the invasion he had chosen the fifth so that if there was a postponement he could launch the assault on the sixth. But if he ordered the landings for the sixth and then had to cancel them again, the problem of refueling the returning convoys might prevent him from attacking on the seventh. There would then be two alternatives: He could postpone D Day until the next period when the tides were right, June 19; but if he did that the airborne armies would be forced to attack in darkness -- June 19 was moonless. The other alternative was to wait until July, and that long a postponement, as he was later to recall, "was too bitter to contemplate."
So terrifying was the thought of postponement that many of Eisenhower's most cautious commanders were even prepared to risk attack instead on the eighth or ninth. They did not see how more than 200,000 men, most of them already briefed, could be kept isolated and bottled up for weeks on ships, in embarkation areas and on airfields without the secret of the invasion leaking out. Even if security remained intact during the period, surely Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft would spot the massed fleet (if they hadn't done so already) or German agents would somehow learn of the plan. For everybody the prospect of a postponement was grim. But it was Eisenhower who would have to make the decision.
In the fading light of the afternoon the Supreme Commander occasionally came to the door of his trailer and gazed up through the wind-swept treetops at the blanket of clouds that covered the sky. At other times he would pace up and down outside the trailer, chain-smoking, kicking at the cinders on the little pathway -- a tall figure, shoulders slightly hunched, hands rammed deep into his pockets.
On these solitary strolls Eisenhower scarcely seemed to notice anybody, but during the afternoon he spotted one of the four pool correspondents accredited to his advance headquarters -- Merrill "Red" Mueller of NBC. "Let's take a walk, Red," said Ike abruptly, and without waiting for Mueller he strode off, hands in his pockets, at his usual brisk pace. The correspondent hurriedly caught up with him as he disappeared into the woods.
It was a strange, silent walk. Eisenhower uttered hardly a word. "Ike seemed completely preoccupied with his own thoughts, completely immersed in all his problems," Mueller remembers. "It was almost as though he had forgotten I was with him." There were many questions that Mueller wanted to put to the Supreme Commander, but he didn't ask them; he felt that he couldn't intrude.
When they returned to the encampment and Eisenhower had said goodbye, the correspondent watched him climb the little aluminum stairs leading to the trailer door. At that moment he appeared to Mueller to be "bowed down with worry...as though each of the four stars on either shoulder weighed a ton."
Shortly before nine-thirty that night, Eisenhower's senior commanders and their chiefs of staff gathered in the library of Southwick House. It was a large, comfortable room with a table covered by a green baize cloth, several easy chairs and two sofas. Dark oak bookcases lined three of the walls, but there were few books on the shelves and the room had a bare look. Heavy double blackout curtains hung at the windows and on this night they muffled the drumming of the rain and the flat buckling sound of the wind.
Standing about the room in little groups, the staff officers talked quietly. Near the fireplace Eisenhower's chief of staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, conversed with the pipe-smoking Deputy Supreme Commander, Air Chief Marshal Tedder. Seated to one side was the fiery Allied naval commander, Admiral Ramsay, and close by the Allied air commander, Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory. Only one officer was dressed informally, General Smith recalls. The peppery Montgomery, who would be in charge of the D-Day assault, wore his usual corduroy slacks and roll-necked sweater. These were the men who would translate the order for the attack when Eisenhower gave the word to go. Now they and their staff officers -- altogether there were twelve senior officers in the room -- waited for the arrival of the Supreme Commander and the decisive conference that would begin at nine-thirty. At that time they would hear the latest forecasts of the meteorologists.
At exactly nine-thirty the door opened and Eisenhower, neat in his dark-green battle dress, strode in. There was just the faintest flicker of the old Eisenhower grin as he greeted his old friends, but the mask of worry quickly returned to his face as he opened the conference. There was no need for a preamble; everybody knew the seriousness of the decision that had to be made. So almost immediately the three senior Overlord meteorologists, led by their chief, Group Captain J.N. Stagg of the Royal Air Force, came into the room.
There was a hushed silence as Stagg opened the briefing. Quickly he sketched the weather picture of the previous twenty-four hours and then he quietly said, "Gentlemen...there have been some rapid and unexpected developments in the situation..." All eyes were on Stagg now, as he presented the anxious-faced Eisenhower and his commanders with a slender ray of hope.
A new weather front had been spotted which, he said, would move up the Channel within the next few hours and cause a gradual clearing over the assault areas. These improving conditions would last throughout the next day and continue up to the morning of June 6. After that the weather would begin to deteriorate again. During this promised period of fair weather, the winds would drop appreciably and the skies would clear -- enough at least for bombers to operate on the night of the fifth and throughout the morning of the sixth. By noon the cloud layer would thicken and the skies would become overcast again. In short, what Eisenhower was being told was that a barely tolerable period of fair conditions, far below the minimal requirements, would prevail for just a little more than twenty-four hours.
The moment Stagg had finished, he and the other two meteorologists were subjected to a barrage of questions. Were all of them confident about the accuracy of their predictions? Could their forecasts be wrong -- had they checked their reports with every available source? Was there any chance of the weather continuing to improve in the few days immediately after the sixth?
Some of the questions were impossible for the weathermen to answer. Their report had been checked and double-checked and they were as optimistic as they could be about the forecast, but there was always the chance that the vagaries of the weather might prove them wrong. They answered as best they could, then they withdrew.
For the next fifteen minutes Eisenhower and his commanders deliberated. The urgency of making a decision was stressed by Admiral Ramsay. The American task force for Omaha and Utah beaches under the command of Rear Admiral A.G. Kirk would have to get the order within a half hour if Overlord was to take place on Tuesday. Ramsay's concern was prompted by the refueling problem; if those forces sailed later and were then recalled it would be impossible to get them ready again for a possible attack on Wednesday, the seventh.
Eisenhower now polled his commanders one by one. General Smith thought the attack should go in on the sixth -- it was a gamble, but one that should be taken. Tedder and Leigh-Mallory were both fearful that even the predicted cloud cover would prove too much for the air forces to operate effectively. It might mean that the assault would take place without adequate air support. They thought it was going to be "chancy." Montgomery stuck to the decision that he had made the night before when the June 5 D Day had been postponed. "I would say, Go," he said.
It was now up to Ike. The moment had come when only he could make the decision. There was a long silence as Eisenhower weighed all the possibilities. General Smith, watching, was struck by the "isolation and loneliness" of the Supreme Commander as he sat, hands clasped before him, looking down at the table. The minutes ticked by; some say two minutes passed, others as many as five. Then Eisenhower, his face strained, looked up and announced his decision. Slowly he said, "I am quite positive we must give the order...I don't like it, but there it is....I don't see how we can do anything else."
Eisenhower stood up. He looked tired, but some of the tension had left his face. Six hours later at a brief meeting to review the weather he would hold to his decision and reconfirm it -- Tuesday, June 6, would be D Day.
Eisenhower and his commanders left the room, hurrying now to set the great assault in motion. Behind them in the silent library a haze of blue smoke hung over the conference table, the fire reflected itself in the polished floor, and on the mantelpiece the hands of a clock pointed to 9:45.
It was about 10:00 P.M. when Private Arthur B. "Dutch" Schultz of the 82nd Airborne Division decided to get out of the crap game; he might never have this much money again. The game had been going on ever since the announcement that the airborne assault was off for at least twenty-four hours. It had begun behind a tent, next it had moved under the wing of a plane, and now the session was going full blast in the hangar, which had been converted into a huge dormitory. Even here it had done some traveling, moving up and down the corridors created by the rows of double-tiered bunks. And Dutch was one of the big winners.
How much he had won he didn't know. But he guessed that the bundle of crumpled greenbacks, English banknotes and fresh blue-green French invasion currency he held in his fist came to more than $2,500. That was more money than he had seen at any one time in all his twenty-one years.
Physically and spiritually he had done everything to prepare himself for the jump. Services for all denominations had been held on the airfield in the morning and Dutch, a Catholic, had gone to confession and communion. Now he knew exactly what he was going to do with his winnings. He mentally figured out the distribution. He would leave $1,000 with the adjutant's office; he could use that on pass when he got back to England. Another $1,000 he planned to send to his mother in San Francisco to keep for him, but he wanted her to have $500 of it as a gift -- she sure could use it. He had a special purpose for the remainder: that would go on a helluva blowout when his outfit, the 505th, reached Paris.
The young paratrooper felt good; he had taken care of everything -- but had he? Why did the incident of the morning keep coming back, filling him with so much uneasiness?
At mail call that morning he had received a letter from his mother. As he tore open the envelope a rosary slid out and fell at his feet. Quickly, so that the wisecracking crowd around him wouldn't notice, he had snatched up the beads and stuffed them into a barracks bag that he was leaving behind.
Now the thought of the rosary beads suddenly gave rise to a question that hadn't struck him before: What was he doing gambling at a time like this? He looked at the folded and crumpled bills sticking out between his fingers -- more money than he could have earned in a year. At that moment Private Dutch Schultz knew that if he pocketed all this money, he would surely be killed. Dutch decided to take no chances. "Move over," he said, "and let me get at the play." He glanced at his watch and wondered how long it would take to lose $2,500.
Schultz wasn't the only one who acted strangely this night. Nobody, from enlisted men to generals, seemed eager to challenge the fates. Over near Newbury at the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division, the commander, Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, was holding a long, informal session with his senior officers. There were perhaps half a dozen men in the room and one of them, Brigadier General Don Pratt, the assistant division commander, sat on a bed. While they were talking another officer arrived. Taking off his cap, he tossed it onto the bed. General Pratt leaped up, swept the cap onto the floor and said, "My God, that's damn bad luck!" Everybody laughed, but Pratt didn't sit on the bed again. He had chosen to lead the 101st's glider forces into Normandy.
As the night closed in, the invasion forces all over England continued to wait. Keyed up by months of training, they were ready to go, and the postponement had made them jittery. It was now about eighteen hours since the stand-down, and each hour had taken its toll of the patience and readiness of the troops. They did not know that D Day now was barely twenty-six hours away; it was still much too early for the news to filter down. And so, on this stormy Sunday night, men waited, in loneliness, anxiety and secret fear, for something, anything, to happen.
They did precisely what the world expects men to do under such circumstances: They thought of their families, their wives, their children, their sweethearts. And everybody talked about the fighting that lay ahead. What would the beaches really be like? Would the landings be as tough as everybody seemed to think? Nobody could visualize D Day, but each man prepared for it in his own way.
On the dark, wave-tossed Irish Sea, aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Herndon, Lieutenant (j.g.) Bartow Fart, Jr., tried to concentrate on a bridge game. It was difficult; there were too many sober reminders all around him that this was not just another social evening. Taped to the walls of the wardroom were large aerial reconnaissance photographs of German gun positions overlooking the Normandy beaches. These guns were the Herndon's D-Day targets. It occurred to Fart that the Herndon would also be theirs.
Farr was reasonably certain he would survive D Day. There had been a lot of kidding about who would come through and who wouldn't. Back in Belfast Harbor the crew of the Corry, their sister ship, had been giving odds of ten to one against the Herndon's return. The Herndon's crew retaliated by spreading the rumor that when the invasion fleet set out the Corry would remain in port, because of low morale aboard ship.
Lieutenant Farr had every confidence that the Herndon would return safe, and he with her. Still, he was glad he had written a long letter to his unborn son. It never occurred to Farr that his wife, Anne, back in New York, might give birth to a girl instead. (She didn't. That November the Farrs had a boy.)
In a staging area near Newhaven, Corporal Reginald Dale of the British 3rd Division sat up in his bunk and worried about his wife, Hilda. They had been married in 1940, and ever since both had longed for a child. On his last leave, just a few days before, Hilda had announced that she was pregnant. Dale was furious; all along he had sensed that the invasion was close and that he'd be in on it. "This is a hell of a time, I must say," he had snapped. In his mind he saw again the quick hurt that had come into her eyes, and he berated himself once again for the hasty words.
But it was too late now. He could not even telephone her. He lay back down on his bunk and, like thousands of others in British staging areas, tried to will himself to sleep.
A few men, nerveless and cool, slept soundly. At a British 50th Division embarkation area one man was Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis. Long ago he had learned to sleep whenever he could. The coming attack didn't worry Hollis too much; he had a good idea what to expect. He had been evacuated from Dunkirk, had fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa and had landed on the beaches of Sicily. Among the millions of troops in Britain that night Hollis was a rarity. He was looking forward to the invasion; he wanted to get back to France to kill some more Germans.
It was a personal matter with Hollis. He had been a dispatch rider at the time of Dunkirk, and in the town of Lille during the retreat he had seen a sight which he had never forgotten. Cut off from his unit, Hollis had taken a wrong turn in a part of the town that the Germans had apparently just passed through. He found himself in a cul-de-sac filled with the still warm bodies of over a hundred French men, women and children. They had been machine-gunned. Embedded in the wall behind the bodies and littering the ground were hundreds of spent bullets. From that moment Stan Hollis had become a superb hunter of the enemy. His score was now over ninety. At D Day's end, he would notch his Sten gun with his one hundred and second victory.
There were others who were also anxious to set foot in France. The waiting seemed interminable to Commander Philippe Kieffer and his 171 tough French commandos. With the exception of the few friends they had made in England, there had been no one for them to say goodbye to -- their families were still in France.
In their encampment near the mouth of the Hamble River, they spent the time checking weapons and studying the molded-foam-rubber terrain model of Sword Beach and their targets in the town of Ouistreham. One of the commandos, Count Guy de Montlaur, who was extremely proud to be a sergeant, was delighted to hear this night that there had been a slight change of plan: His squad would be leading the attack on the resort's gambling casino, now believed to be a strongly defended German command post. "It will be a pleasure," he told Commander Kieffer. "I have lost several fortunes in that place."
One hundred fifty miles away, in the U.S. 4th Infantry Division's staging area, near Plymouth, Sergeant Harry Brown came off duty and found a letter waiting for him. Many times he had seen the same sort of thing in war movies, but he never thought it would happen to him: The letter contained an advertisement for Adler Elevator Shoes. The ad particularly galled the sergeant. Everyone was so short in his section that they were called "Brown's midgets." The sergeant was the tallest -- five feet five and a half inches.
While he was wondering who had given his name to the Adler Company, one of his squad showed up. Corporal John Gwiadosky had decided to repay a loan. Sergeant Brown couldn't get over it as Gwiadosky solemnly handed him the money. "Don't get any wrong ideas," explained Gwiadosky. "I just don't want you chasing me all over hell trying to collect."
Across the bay, on the transport New Amsterdam anchored near Weymouth, Second Lieutenant George Kerchner of the 2nd Ranger Battalion was occupied with a routine chore. He was censoring his platoon's mail. It was particularly heavy tonight; everybody seemed to have written long letters home. The 2nd and 5th Rangers had been given one of the toughest D-Day assignments. They were to scale the almost sheer one-hundred-foot cliffs at a place called Pointe du Hoc and silence a battery of six long-range guns -- guns so powerful that they could zero in on Omaha Beach or the transport area of Utah Beach. The Rangers would have just thirty minutes to do the job.
Casualties were expected to be heavy -- some thought as high as sixty percent -- unless the air and naval bombardment could knock out the guns before the Rangers got there. Either way, nobody expected the attack to be a breeze. Nobody, that is, except Staff Sergeant Larry Johnson, one of Kerchner's section leaders.
The lieutenant was dumbfounded when he read Johnson's letter. Although none of the mail would be sent out until after D Day -- whenever that would be -- this letter couldn't even be delivered through ordinary channels. Kerchner sent for Johnson and, when the sergeant arrived, gave him back the letter. "Larry," said Kerchner dryly, "you better post this yourself -- after you get to France." Johnson had written a girl asking for a date early in June. She lived in Paris.
It struck the lieutenant as the sergeant left the cabin that as long as there were optimists like Johnson nothing was impossible.
Almost every man in the invasion forces wrote a letter to someone during the long hours of waiting. They had been penned up for a long time, and the letters seemed to give them emotional release. Many of them recorded their thoughts in a way that men seldom do.
Captain John E Dulligan of the 1st Infantry Division, slated to land on Omaha Beach, wrote his wife: "I love these men. They sleep all over the ship, on the decks, in, on top, and underneath the vehicles. They smoke, play cards, wrestle around and indulge in general horseplay. They gather around in groups and talk mostly about girls, home and experiences (with and without girls)....They are good soldiers, the best in the world....Before the invasion of North Africa, I was nervous and a little scared. During the Sicilian invasion I was so busy that the fear passed while I was working....This time we will hit a beach in France and from there on only God knows the answer. I want you to know that I love you with all my heart....I pray that God will see fit to spare me to you and Ann and Pat."
The men on heavy naval vessels or large transports, on airfields or in embarkation areas, were the lucky ones. They were restricted and overcrowded, but they were dry, warm and well. It was a different story for the troops on the flat-bottomed landing ships heaving at anchor outside nearly every harbor. Some men had been on these vessels for more than a week. The ships were overcrowded and foul, the men unbelievably miserable. For them the battle began long before they ever left England. It was a battle against continuous nausea and seasickness. Most of the men still remember that the ships smelled of just three things: diesel oil, backed-up toilets and vomit.
Conditions varied from ship to ship. On LCT 777, Signalman Third Class George Hackett Jr., was amazed to see waves so high that they smashed over one end of the wallowing craft and rolled out the other. LCT 6, a British landing craft, was so overloaded that Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Hupfer of the U.S. 4th Division thought it would sink. Water lapped at the gunwales and at times washed over into the craft. The galley was flooded and the troops were forced to eat cold food -- those who could eat at all.
LST 97, Sergeant Keith Bryan of the 5th Engineer Special Brigade remembers, was so overcrowded that men were stepping over one another, and it rolled so much that those lucky enough to have bunks had difficulty staying in them. And to Sergeant Morris Magee of the Canadian 3rd Division the heaving of his craft "was worse than being in a rowboat in the center of Lake Champlain." He was so sick he could no longer throw up.
But the troops who suffered most during the waiting period were the men in the recalled convoys. All day they had ridden out the storm in the Channel. Now, waterlogged and weary, they glumly lined the rails as the last of the straggling convoys dropped their anchors. By 11:00 P.M. all the ships were back.
Outside Plymouth Harbor, Lieutenant Commander Hoffman of the Corry stood on his bridge looking at the long lines of dark shadows, blacked-out landing ships of every size and description. It was cold. The wind was still high and he could hear the shallow-draft vessels slopping and slapping the water as they rolled in the trough of every wave.
Hoffman was weary. They had returned to port only a short while before to learn for the first time the reason for the postponement. Now they had been warned to stand to once again.
Below decks the news spread quickly. Bennie Glisson, the radio operator, heard it as he prepared to go on watch. He made his way to the mess hall and when he got there he found more than a dozen men having dinner -- tonight it was turkey with all the trimmings. Everybody seemed depressed. "You guys," he said, "act like you're eating your last meal." Bennie was nearly right. At least half of those present would go down with the Corry a little after H Hour on D Day.
Nearby, on LC1408, morale was also very low. The Coast Guard crew were convinced that the false start had been just another dry run. Private William Joseph Phillips of the 29th Infantry Division tried to cheer them up. "This outfit," he solemnly predicted, "will never see combat. We've been in England so long that our job won't start until the war is over. They're going to have us wipe the bluebird shit off the White Cliffs of Dover."
At midnight Coast Guard cutters and naval destroyers began the huge job of reassembling the convoys again. This time there would be no turning back.
Off the coast of France the midget submarine X23 slowly came to the surface. It was 1:00 A.M., June 5. Lieutenant George Honour quickly undid the hatch. Climbing up into the little conning tower, Honour and another crewman erected the antennae. Below, Lieutenant James Hodges flicked the dial on the radio to 1850 kilocycles and cupped his earphones with his hands. He hadn't long to wait. Very faintly he picked up their call sign: "PADFOOT...PADFOOT...PADFOOT." As he heard the one-word message that followed, he looked up in disbelief. Pressing his hands more firmly over the earphones, he listened again. But there was no mistake. He told the others. Nobody said anything. Glumly they looked at one another; ahead lay another full day under water.
In the early-morning light the beaches of Normandy were shrouded in mist. The intermittent rain of the previous day had become a steady drizzle, soaking everything. Beyond the beaches lay the ancient, irregularly shaped fields over which countless battles had been fought and countless more battles would be fought.
For four years the people of Normandy had lived with the Germans. This bondage had meant different things for different Normans. In the three major cities -- Le Havre and Cherbourg, the ports which bracketed the area on east and west, and between them (both geographically and in size) Caen, lying ten miles inland -- the occupation was a harsh and constant fact of life. Here were the headquarters of the Gestapo and the S.S. Here were the reminders of war -- the nightly roundups of hostages, the never-ending reprisals against the underground, the welcome but fearful Allied bombing attacks.
Beyond the cities, particularly between Caen and Cherbourg, lay the hedgerow country: the little fields bordered by great mounds of earth, each topped with thick bushes and saplings, that had been used as natural fortifications by invaders and defenders alike since the days of the Romans. Dotting the countryside were the timbered farm buildings with their thatched or red-filed roofs, and here and there stood the towns and villages like miniature citadels, nearly all with square-cut Norman churches surrounded by centuries-old gray stone houses. To most of the world their names were unknown -- Vierville, Colleville, La Madeleine, Ste.-Mère-Église, Chef-du-Pont, Ste. Marie-du-Mont, Arromanches, Luc. Here, in the sparsely populated countryside, the occupation had a different meaning than in the big cities. Caught up in a kind of pastoral backwash of the war, the Norman peasant had done what he could to adjust to the situation. Thousands of men and women had been shipped out of the towns and villages as slave laborers, and those who remained were forced to work part of their time in labor battalions for the coastal garrisons. But the fiercely independent peasants did no more than was absolutely necessary. They lived from day to day, hating the Germans with Norman tenaciousness, and stoically watching and waiting for the day of liberation.
In his mother's house on a hill overlooking the sleepy village of Vierville, a thirty-one-year-old lawyer, Michel Hardelay, stood at the living room windows, his binoculars focused on a German soldier tiding a large farm horse down the road to the sea front. On either side of his saddle hung several tin cans. It was a preposterous sight: the massive rump of the horse, the bounding cans and the soldier's bucketlike helmet topping it all.
As Hardelay watched, the German rode through the village, past the church with its tall, slender spire and on down to the concrete wall that sealed the main road off from the beach. Then he dismounted and took down all but one can. Suddenly three or four soldiers appeared mysteriously from around the cliffs and bluffs. They took the cans and disappeared again. Carrying the remaining can, the German climbed the wall and crossed to a large russet-colored summer villa surrounded by trees which stood astride the promenade at the end of the beach. There he got down on his knees and passed the can to a pair of waiting hands that appeared at ground level from under the building.
Every morning it was the same. The German was never late; he always brought the morning coffee down to the Vierville exit at this time. The day had begun for the gun crews in the cliffside pillboxes and camouflaged bunkers at this end of the beach -- a peaceful-looking, gently curving strip of sand that would be known to the world by the next day as Omaha Beach.
Michel Hardelay knew it was exactly 6:15 A.M.
He had watched the ritual many times before. It always struck Hardelay as a little comic, partly because of the soldier's appearance, partly because he found it amusing that the much vaunted technical know-how of the Germans fell apart when it came to a simple job like supplying men in the field with morning coffee. But Hardelay's was a bitter amusement. Like all Normans he had hated the Germans for a long time and he hated them particularly now.
For some months Hardelay had watched German troops and conscripted labor battalions digging, burrowing and tunneling all along the bluffs which backed up the beach and in the cliffs at either end where the sand stopped. He had seen them trellis the sands with obstacles and plant thousands of lethal, ugly mines. And they had not stopped there. With methodical thoroughness, they had demolished the line of pretty pink, white and red summer cottages and villas below the bluffs along the sea front. Now only seven out of ninety buildings remained. They had been destroyed not only to give the gunners clear arcs of fire, but because the Germans wanted the wood to panel their bunkers. Of the seven houses still standing, the largest -- an all-year-round house built of stone -- belonged to Hardelay. A few days before he had been officially told by the local commandant that his house would be destroyed. The Germans had decided they needed the bricks and the stone.
Hardelay wondered if maybe somebody, somewhere wouldn't countermand the decision. In some matters, the Germans were often unpredictable. He'd know for certain within twenty-four hours; he had been told the house would come down tomorrow -- Tuesday, June 6.
At six-thirty, Hardelay switched on his radio to catch the BBC news. It was forbidden, but like hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen he flouted the order. It was just one more way to resist. Still he kept the sound down to a whisper. As usual, at the end of the news "Colonel Britain" -- Douglas Ritchie, who was always identified as the voice of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force -- read an important message.
"Today, Monday, June fifth," he said, "the Supreme Commander directs me to say this: There now exists in these broadcasts a direct channel of communications between the Supreme Commander and yourselves in the occupied countries....In due course instructions of great importance will be given, but it will not be possible always to give them at a previously announced time; therefore, you must get into the habit, either personally or by arrangement with your friends, of listening at all hours. This is not as difficult as it sounds..." Hardelay guessed that the "instructions" would have something to do with the invasion. Everyone knew it was coming. He thought the Allies would attack at the narrowest part of the English Channel -- around Dunkirk or Calais, where there were ports. But certainly not here.
The Dubois and Davot families living in Vierville didn't hear the broadcast; they slept late this morning. They had held a big celebration the previous night that had gone on until the early hours. Similar family gatherings had taken place all over Normandy, for Sunday, June 4, had been set aside by the ecclesiastical authorities as First Communion Day. It was always a great occasion, an annual reason for families and relatives to get together.
Togged out in their best clothes, the Dubois and Davot children had made their first Communion in the little Vierville church before their proud parents and relatives. Some of these relatives, each armed with a special pass from the German authorities which had taken months to get, had come all the way from Paris. The trip had been exasperating and dangerous -- exasperating because the overcrowded trains no longer ran on time, dangerous because all locomotives were targets for Allied fighter-bombers.
But it had been worth it; a trip to Normandy always was. The region was still rich in all those things that Parisians rarely saw now -- fresh butter, cheese, eggs, meat and, of course, Calvados, the heady cider-and-apple-pulp cognac of the Normans. Besides, in these difficult times Normandy was a good place to be. It was quiet and peaceful, too far away from England to be invaded.
The reunion of the two families had been a great success. And it wasn't over yet. This evening everyone would sit down to another great meal with the best wines and cognacs that their hosts had been able to save. That would wind up the celebrations; the relatives would catch the train for Paris at dawn on Tuesday.
Their three-day Normandy vacation was due to last much longer; they would remain trapped in Vierville for the next four months.
Farther down the beach, near the Colleville exit, forty-year-old Fernand Broeckx was doing what he did every morning at six-thirty: He sat in his dripping barn, spectacles askew, head tucked down by the udders of a cow, directing a thin stream of milk into a pail. His farm, lying alongside a narrow dirt road, topped a slight rise barely a half mile from the sea. He hadn't been down that road or onto the beach in a long time -- not since the Germans had closed it off.
He had been farming in Normandy for five years. In World War I, Broeckx, a Belgian, had seen his home destroyed. He had never forgotten it. In 1939, when World War II began, he promptly gave up his job in an office and moved his wife and daughter to Normandy, where they would be safe.
Ten miles away in the cathedral town of Bayeux his pretty nineteen-year-old daughter Anne Marie prepared to set out for the school where she taught kindergarten. She was looking forward to the end of the day, for then summer vacations began. She would spend her holidays on the farm. She would cycle home tomorrow.
Tomorrow also, a tall, lean American from Rhode Island whom she had never met would land on the beach almost in line with her father's farm. She would marry him.
All along the Normandy coast people went about their usual daily chores. The farmers worked in the fields, tended their apple orchards, herded their white-and-liver-colored cows. In the little villages and towns the shops opened. For everyone it was just another routine day of occupation.
In the little hamlet of La Madeleine, back of the dunes and the wide expanse of sand that would soon be known as Utah Beach, Paul Gazengel opened up his tiny store and café as usual, although there was almost no business.
There had been a time when Gazengel had made a fair living -- not much, but sufficient for the needs of himself, his wife, Marthe, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Jeannine. But now the entire coastal area was sealed off. The families living just behind the seashore -- roughly from the mouth of the Vire (which emptied into the sea nearby) and all along this side of the Cherbourg peninsula -- had been moved out. Only those who owned farms had been permitted to remain. The café keeper's livelihood now depended on seven families that remained in La Madeleine and a few German troops in the vicinity whom he was forced to serve.
Gazengel would have liked to move away. As he sat in his café waiting for the first customer, he did not know that within twenty-four hours he would be making a trip. He and all the other men in the village would be rounded up and sent to England for questioning.
One of Gazengel's friends, the baker Pierre Caldron, had more serious problems on his mind this morning. In Dr. Jeanne's clinic at Carentan ten miles from the coast, he sat by the bedside of his five-year-old son Pierre, who had just had his tonsils removed. At midday Dr. Jeanne reexamined his son. "You've nothing to worry about," he told the anxious father. "He's all right. You'll be able to take him home tomorrow." But Caldron had been thinking. "No," he said. "I think his mother will be happier if I take little Pierre home today." Half an hour later, with the little boy in his arms, Caldron set out for his home in the village of Ste.-Marie-du-Mont, back of Utah Beach -- where the paratroopers would link up with the men of the 4th Division on D Day.
The day was quiet and uneventful for the Germans, too. Nothing was happening and nothing was expected to happen; the weather was much too bad. It was so bad, in fact, that in Paris, at the Luftwaffe's headquarters in the Luxembourg Palace, Colonel Professor Walter StÖbe, the chief meteorologist, told staff officers at the routine daily conference that they could relax. He doubted that Allied planes would even be operational this day. Antiaircraft crews were promptly ordered to stand down.
Next, StÖbe telephoned 20 Boulevard Victor Hugo in St.-Germain-en Laye, a suburb of Paris just twelve miles away. His call went to an immense, three-floored blockhouse, one hundred yards long, sixty feet deep and embedded in the side of a slope beneath a girl's high school -- OB West, Von Rundstedt's headquarters. StÖbe spoke to his liaison officer, weatherman Major Hermann Mueller, who dutifully recorded the forecast and then sent it along to the chief of staff, Major General Blumentritt. Weather reports were taken very seriously at OB West and Blumentritt was particularly anxious to see this one. He was putting the finishing touches to the itinerary of an inspection trip the Commander in Chief West planned to make. The report confirmed his belief that the trip could take place as scheduled. Von Rundstedt, accompanied by his son, a young lieutenant, planned to inspect the coastal defenses in Normandy on Tuesday.
Not many in St.-Germain-en-Laye were aware of the blockhouse's existence and even fewer knew that the most powerful field marshal in the German west lived in a small unpretentious villa back of the high school at 28 Rue Alexandre Dumas. It was surrounded by a high wall, the iron gates permanently closed. Entrance to the villa was by way of a specially constructed corridor that had been cut through the walls of the school, or by way of an unobtrusive door in the wall bordering the Rue Alexandre Dumas.
Von Rundstedt slept late as usual (the aged field marshal rarely got up now before ten-thirty) and it was almost noon before he sat down at his desk in the villa's first-floor study. It was there that he conferred with his chief of staff and approved OB West's "Estimate of Allied Intentions" so that it could be forwarded to Hitler's headquarters, OKW, later in the day. The estimate was another typical wrong guess. It read:
The systematic and distinct increase of air attacks indicates that the enemy has reached a high degree of readiness. The probable invasion front still remains the sector from the Scheldt [in Holland] to Normandy...and it is not impossible that the north front of Brittany might be included...[but] it is still not clear where the enemy will invade within this total area. Concentrated air attacks on the coast defenses between Dunkirk and Dieppe may mean that the main Allied invasion effort will be made there...[but] imminence of invasion is not recognizable....
With this vague estimate out of the way -- an estimate that placed the possible invasion area someplace along almost eight hundred miles of coast -- Von Rundstedt and his son set out for the field marshal's favorite restaurant, the Coq Hardi at Bougival nearby. It was a little after one; D Day was twelve hours away.
All along the chain of German command the continuing bad weather ated like a tranquilizer. The various headquarters were quite confident that there would be no attack in the immediate future. Their reasoning was based on carefully assessed weather evaluations that had been made of the Allied landings in North Africa, Italy and Sicily. In each case conditions had varied, but meteorologists like StÖbe and his chief in Berlin, Dr. Karl Sonntag, had noted that the Allies had never attempted a landing unless the prospects of favorable weather were almost certain, particularly for covering air operations. To the methodical German mind there was no deviation from this rule; the weather had to be just right or the Allies wouldn't attack. And the weather wasn't just right.
At Army Group B headquarters in La Roche-Guyon the work went on as though Rommel were still there, but the chief of staff, Major General Speidel, thought it was quiet enough to plan a little dinner party. He had invited several guests: Dr. Horst, his brother-in-law; Ernst Junger, the philosopher and author; and an old friend, Major Wilhelm yon Schramm, one of the official "war reporters." The intellectual Speidel was looking forward to the dinner. He hoped they'd discuss his favorite subject, French literature. There was something else to be discussed: a twenty-page manuscript that Junger had drafted and secretly passed on to Rommel and Speidel. Both of them fervently believed in the document; it outlined a plan for bringing about peace -- after Hitler had either been tried by a German court or been assassinated. "We can really have a night discussing things," Speidel had told Schramm.
In St.-Lô, at the headquarters of the 84th Corps, Major Friedrich Hayn, the intelligence officer, was making arrangements for another kind of party. He had ordered several bottles of excellent Chablis, for at midnight the staff planned to surprise the corps commander, General Erich Marcks. His birthday was June 6.
They were holding the surprise birthday party at midnight because Marcks had to leave for the city of Rennes in Brittany at daybreak. He and all the other senior commanders in Normandy were to take part in a big map exercise that was to begin early on Tuesday morning. Marcks was slightly amused at the role he was supposed to play: He would represent the "Allies." The war games had been arranged by General Eugen Meindl, and perhaps because he was a paratrooper the big feature of the exercise was to be an "invasion" beginning with a paratroop "assault" followed by "landing" from the sea. Everyone thought the Kriegsspiel would be interesting -- the theoretical invasion was supposed to take place in Normandy.
The Kriegsspiel worried the Seventh Army's chief of staff, Major General Max Pemsel. All afternoon at the headquarters in Le Mans he'd been thinking about it. It was bad enough that his senior commanders in Normandy and the Cherbourg peninsula would be away from their commands all at the same time. But it might be extremely dangerous if they Were away overnight. Rennes was a long way off for most of them and Pemsel was afraid that some might be planning to leave the front before dawn. It was the dawn that always worried Pemsel; if an invasion ever came in Normandy, he believed, the attack would be launched at first light. He decided to warn all those due to participate in the games. The order he sent out by teletype read: "Commanding generals and others scheduled to attend the Kriegsspiel are reminded not to leave for Rennes before dawn on June 6." But it was too late. Some had already gone.
And so it was that, one by one, senior officers from Rommel down had left the front on the very eve of the battle. All of them had reasons, but it was almost as though a capricious fate had manipulated their departure. Rommel was in Germany. So was Army Group B's operations officer, Von Tempelhof. Admiral Theodor Krancke, the naval commander in the west, after informing Rundstedt that patrol boats were unable to leave harbor because of rough seas, set out for Bordeaux. Lieutenant General Heinz Hellmich, commanding the 243rd Division, which was holding one side of the Cherbourg peninsula, departed for Rennes. So did Lieutenant General Karl von Schlieben of the 709th Division. Major General Wilhelm Falley of the tough 91st Air Landing Division, which had just moved into Normandy, prepared to go. Colonel Wilhelm Meyer-Detring, Rundstedt's intelligence officer, was on leave and the chief of staff of one division couldn't be reached at all -- he was off hunting with his French mistress.
At this point, with the officers in charge of beachhead defenses dispersed all over Europe, the German High Command decided to transfer the Luftwaffe's last remaining fighter squadrons in France far out of range of the Normandy beaches. The fliers were aghast.
The principal reason for the withdrawal was that the squadrons were needed for the defense of the Reich, which for months had been coming under increasingly heavy round-the-clock Allied bombing attack. Under the circumstances it just did not seem reasonable to the High Command to leave these vital planes on exposed airfields in France where they were being destroyed by Allied fighters and bombers. Hitler had promised his generals that a thousand Luftwaffe planes would hit the beaches on the day of invasion. Now that was patently impossible. On June 4 there were only 183 day fighter planes in the whole of France, of which about 160 were considered serviceable. Of the 160, one wing of 124, the 26th Fighter Wing, was being moved back from the coast that very afternoon.
At the headquarters of the 26th at Lille in the zone of the Fifteenth Army, Colonel Josef "Pips" Priller, one of the Luftwaffe's top aces (he had shot down ninety-six planes), stood on the airfield and fumed. Overhead was one of his three squadrons, heading for Metz in northeast France. His second squadron was about to take off. It had been ordered to Rheims, roughly halfway between Paris and the German border. The third squadron had already left for the south of France.
There was nothing the wing commander could do but protest. Priller was a flamboyant, temperamental pilot renowned in the Luftwaffe for his short temper. He had a reputation for telling off generals, and now he telephoned his group commander. "This is crazy!" Priller shouted. "If we're expecting an invasion the squadrons should be moved up, not back! And what happens if the attack comes during the transfer? My supplies can't reach the new bases until tomorrow or maybe the day after. You're all crazy!"
"Listen, Priller," said the group commander. "The invasion is out of the question. The weather is much too bad."
Priller slammed down the receiver. He walked back out onto the airfield. There were only two planes left, his and the one belonging to Sergeant Heinz Wodarczyk, his wing man. "What can we do?" he said to Wodarczyk. "If the invasion comes they'll probably expect us to hold it off all by ourselves. So we might as well start getting drunk now."
Of all the millions who watched and waited throughout France only a few men and women actually knew that the invasion was imminent. There were less than a dozen of them. They went about their affairs calmly and casually as usual. Being calm and casual was part of their business; they were the leaders of the French underground.
Most of them were in Paris. From there they commanded a vast and complicated organization. It was in fact an army with a full chain of command and countless departments and bureaus handling everything from the rescue of downed Allied pilots to sabotage, from espionage to assassination. There were regional chiefs, area commanders, section leaders and thousands of men and women in the rank and file. On paper the organization had so many overlapping nets of activity that it appeared to be unnecessarily complex. This apparent confusion was deliberate. In it lay the underground's strength. Overlapping commands gave greater protection; multiple nets of activity guaranteed the success of each operation; and so secret was the entire structure that leaders rarely knew one another except by code names and never did one group know what another was doing. It had to be this way if the underground was to survive at all. Even with all those precautions German retaliatory measures had become so crushing that by May of 1944 the life expectancy of an active underground fighter was considered to be less than six months.
This great secret resistance army of men and women had been fighting a silent war for more than four years -- a war that was often unspectacular, but always hazardous. Thousands had been executed, thousands more had died in concentration camps. But now, although the rank and file didn't know it yet, the day for which they had been fighting was close at hand.
In the previous days the underground's high command had picked up hundreds of coded messages from the BBC. A few of these had been alerts warning that the invasion might come at any moment. One of these messages had been the first line of the Verlaine poem, "Chanson d'Automne" -- the same alert that Lieutenant Colonel Meyer's men at the German Fifteenth Army headquarters had intercepted on June 1. (Canaris had been right.)
Now, even more excited than Meyer, the underground leaders waited for the second line of this poem and for other messgaes which would confirm the previously received information. None of these alerts was expected to be broadcast until the very last moment in the hours preceding the actual day of invasion. Even then the underground leaders knew that they would not learn from the messages the exact area where the landings were due to take place. For the underground at large the real tip-off would come when the Allies ordered the prearranged sabotage plans to go into effect. Two messages would trigger off the attacks. One, "It is hot in Suez," would put into effect the "Green Plan" -- the sabotaging of railroad tracks and equipment. The other, "The dice are on the table," would call for the "Red Plan" -- the cutting of telephone lines and cables. All regional, area and sector leaders had been warned to listen for these two messages.
On this Monday evening, the eve of D Day, the first message was broadcast by the BBC at 6:30 P.M. "It is hot in Suez....It is hot in Suez," said the voice of the announcer solemnly.
Guillaume Mercader, the intelligence chief for the Normandy coastal sector between Vierville and Port-en-Bessin (roughly the Omaha Beach area) was crouching by a hidden radio set in the cellar of his bicycle shop in Bayeux when he heard it. He was almost stunned by the impact of the words. It was a moment he would never forget. He didn't know where the invasion would take place or when, but it was coming at long last, after all these years.
There was a pause. Then came the second message that Mercader had been waiting for. "The dice are on the table," said the announcer. "The dice are on the table." This was immediately followed by a long string of messages, each one repeated' "Napoleon's hat is in the ring....John loves Mary....The Arrow will not pass...." Mercader switched off the radio. He had heard the only two messages that concerned him. The others were specific alerts for groups elsewhere in France.
Hurrying upstairs, he said to his wife, Madeleine, "I have to go out. I'll be back late tonight." Then he wheeled out a low racing bike from his bicycle shop and pedaled off to tell his section leaders. Mercader was the former Normandy cycling champion and he had represented the province several times in the famed Tour De France race. He knew the Germans wouldn't stop him. They had given him a special permit so that he could practice.
Everywhere now resistance groups were quietly told the news by their immediate leaders. Each unit had its own plan and knew exactly what had to be done. Albert Augé, the station-master at Caen, and his men were to destroy water pumps in the yards, smash the steam injectors on locomotives. André Farine, a café owner from Lieu Fontaine, near Isigny, had the job of strangling Normandy's communications; his forty-man team would cut the massive telephone cable feeding out of Cherbourg. Yves Gresselin, a Cherbourg grocer, had one of the toughest jobs of all: His men were to dynamite a network of railway lines between Cherbourg, St.-Lô and Paris. And these were just a few of the teams. It was a large order for the underground, Time was short and the attacks couldn't begin before dark. But everywhere along the invasion coast from Brittany to the Belgian border men prepared, all hoping that the attack would come in their areas.
For some men the messages posed quite different problems. In the seaside resort town of Grandcamp near the mouth of the Vire and almost centered between Omaha and Utah beaches, sector chief Jean Marion had vital information to pass on to London. He wondered how he'd get it there -- and if he still had time. Early in the afternoon his men had reported the arrival of a new antiaircraft battery group barely a mile away. Just to be sure, Marion had casually cycled over to see the guns. Even if he was stopped he knew he'd get through; among the many fake identification cards he had for such occasions was one stating that he was a construction worker on the Atlantic Wall.
Marion was shaken by the size of the unit and the area it covered. It was a motorized flak assault group with heavy, light and mixed antiaircraft guns. There were five batteries, twenty-five guns in all, and they were being moved into positions coveting the area from the mouth of the Vire all the way to the outskirts of Grandcamp. Their crews, Marion noted, were toiling feverishly to emplace the guns, almost as though they were working against time. The frantic activity worried Marion. It could mean that the invasion would be here and that somehow the Germans had learned of it.
Although Marion did not know it, the guns covered the precise route the planes and gliders of the 82nd and 101st paratroopers would take within a few hours. Yet if anybody in the German High Command had any knowledge of the impending attack, they hadn't told Colonel Werner von Kistowski, commander of Flak Assault Regiment 1. He was still wondering why his 2,500-man flak unit had been rushed up here. But Kistowski was used to sudden moves. His outfit had once been sent into the Caucasus all by itself. Nothing surprised him anymore.
Jean Marion, calmly cycling by the soldiers at work on the guns, began to wrestle with a big problem: how to get this vital information to the secret headquarters of Léonard Gille, Normandy's deputy military intelligence chief, in Caen, fifty miles away. Marion couldn't leave his sector now -- there was too much to do. So he decided to take a chance on sending the message by a chain of couriers to Mercader in Bayeux. He knew it might take hours, but if there was still time Marion was sure that Mercader would somehow get it to Caen.
There was one more thing Marion wanted London to know about. It wasn't as important as the antiaircraft gun positions -- simply a confirmation of the many messages he had sent in the previous days about the massive gun emplacements on the top of the nine-story-high cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. Marion wanted to pass on once again the news that the guns had not yet been installed. They were still en route, two miles away from the positions. (Despite Marion's frantic efforts to warn London, on D Day U.S. Rangers would lose 135 men out of 225 in their heroic attack to silence guns that had never been there.)
For some members of the underground, unaware of the imminence of the invasion, Tuesday, June 6, had a special significance of its own. For Léonard Gille it meant a meeting in Paris with his superiors. Even now, Gille was calmly sitting in a train bound for Paris, although he expected Green Plan sabotage teams to derail it at any moment. Gille was quite sure the invasion was not scheduled for Tuesday, at least not in his area. Surely his superiors would have canceled the meeting if the attack was due in Normandy.
But the date did bother him. That afternoon in Caen, one of Gille's section chiefs, the leader of an affiliated Communist group, had told him quite emphatically that the invasion was due at dawn on the sixth. The man's information had proved invariably right in the past. This raised an old question again in Gille's mind. Did the man get his information direct from Moscow? Gille decided not; it seemed inconceivable to him that the Russians would deliberately jeopardize Allied plans by breaking security.
For Janine Boitard, Gille's fiancée, back in Caen, Tuesday couldn't come soon enough. In three years of underground work, she had hidden more than sixty Allied pilots in her little ground-floor apartment at 15 Rue Laplace. It was dangerous, unrewarding, nerve-racking work; a slip could mean the firing squad. After Tuesday, Janine could breathe a little easier -- until the next time she hid a flier who was down -- for on Tuesday she was due to pass along the escape route two R.A.F. pilots who had been shot down over northern France. They had spent the last fifteen days in her apartment. She hoped her luck would continue to hold.
For others, luck had already run out. For Amélie Lechevalier, June 6 could mean nothing, or everything. She and her husband, Louis, had been arrested by the Gestapo on June 2. They had helped more than a hundred Allied fliers to escape; they had been turned in by one of their own farm boys. Now, in her cell in the Caen prison, Amélie Lechevalier sat on the bunk and wondered how soon she and her husband would be executed.
Off the French coast a little before 9:00 P.M. a dozen small ships appeared. They moved quietly along the horizon, so close that their crews could clearly see the houses of Normandy. The ships went unnoticed. They finished their job and then moved back. They were British mine sweepers -- the vanguard of the mightiest fleet ever assembled.
For now back in the Channel, plowing through the choppy gray waters, a phalanx of ships bore down on Hitler's Europe -- the might and fury of the free world unleashed at last. They came, rank after relentless rank, ten lanes wide, twenty miles across, five thousand ships of every description. There were fast new attack transports, slow rust-scarred freighters, small ocean liners, Channel steamers, hospital ships, weather-beaten tankers, coasters and swarms of fussing tugs. There were endless columns of shallow-draft landing ships -- great wallowing vessels, some of them almost 350 feet long. Many of these and the other heavier transports carried smaller landing craft for the actual beach assault -- more than fifteen hundred of them. Ahead of the convoys were processions of mine sweepers, Coast Guard cutters, buoy-layers and motor launches. Barrage balloons flew above the ships. Squadrons of fighter planes weaved below the clouds. And surrounding this fantastic cavalcade of ships packed with men, guns, tanks, motor vehicles and supplies, and excluding small naval vessels, was a formidable array of 702 warships.
There was the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Augusta, Rear Admiral Kirk's flagship, leading the American task force -- twenty-one convoys bound for Omaha and Utah beaches. Just four months before Pearl Harbor the queenly Augusta had carried President Roosevelt to a quiet Newfoundland bay for the first of his many historic meetings with Winston Churchill. Nearby, steaming majestically with all their battle flags flying, were the battleships: H.M.S. Nelson, Ramillies and Warspite, and U.S.S. Texas, Arkansas and the proud Nevada which the Japanese had sunk and written off at Pearl Harbor.
Leading the thirty-eight British and Canadian convoys bound for Sword, Juno and Gold beaches was the cruiser H.M.S. Scylla, the flagship of Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, the man who tracked down the German battleship Bismarck. And close by was one of Britain's most famous light cruisers -- H.M.S. Ajax, one of a trio which had hounded the pride of Hitler's fleet, the Graf Spee, to her doom in Montevideo harbor after the battle of the River Plate in December 1939. There were other famous cruisers -- the U.S.S. Tuscaloosa and Quincy, H.M.S. Enterprise and Black Prince, France's Georges Leygues -- twenty-two in all.
Along the edges of the convoys sailed a variety of ships: graceful sloops, chunky corvettes, slim gunboats like the Dutch Soemba, antisubmarine patrol craft, fast PT boats, and everywhere sleek destroyers. Besides the scores of American and British destroyers, there were Canada's Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan and Ristigouche, Norway's Svenner, and even a contribution from the Polish forces, the Poiron.
Slowly, ponderously this great armada moved across the Channel. It followed a minute-by-minute traffic pattern of a kind never attempted before. Ships poured out of British ports and, moving down the coasts in two-convoy lanes, converged on the assembly area south of the Isle of Wight. There they sorted themselves out and each took a carefully predetermined position with the force heading for the particular beach to which it had been assigned. Out of the assembly area, which was promptly nicknamed "Piccadilly Circus," the convoys headed for France along five buoy-marked lanes. And as they approached Normandy these five paths split up into ten channels, two for each beach -- one for fast traffic, the other for slow. Up front, just behind the spearhead of mine sweepers, battleships and cruisers, were the command ships, five attack transports bristling with radar and radio antennae. These floating command posts would be the nerve centers of the invasion.
Everywhere there were ships. To the men aboard, this historic armada is still remembered as "the most impressive, unforgettable" sight they had ever seen.
For the troops it was good to be on the way at last, despite the discomforts and the dangers ahead. Men were still tense, but some of the strain had lifted. Now everybody simply wanted to get the job over and done with. On the landing ships and transports men wrote last-minute letters, played cards, joined in long bull sessions. "Chaplains," Major Thomas Spencer Dallas of the 29th Division recalls, "did a land-office business."
One minister on a jam-packed landing craft, Captain Lewis Fulmer Koon, chaplain for the 4th Division's 12th Infantry Regiment, found himself serving as pastor for all denominations. A Jewish officer, Captain Irving Gray, asked Chaplain Koon if he would lead his company in prayer "to the God in whom we all believe, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic or Jew, that our mission may be accomplished and that, if possible, we may be brought safely home again." Koon gladly obliged. And in the gathering dusk, Gunner's Mate Third Class William Sweeney of a Coast Guard cutter remembers, the attack transport Samuel Chase blinked out a signal, "Mass is going on."
For most of the men the first few hours of the journey were spent quietly. Many grew introspective and talked of things men usually keep to themselves. Hundreds later recalled that they found themselves admitting their fears and talking of other personal matters with unusual candor. They drew closer to one another on this strange night and confided in men they had never even met before. "We talked a lot about home and what we had experienced in the past and what we would experience at the landing and what it would all be like," Private First Class Earlston Hern of the 146th Engineer Battalion recalls. On the slippery wet deck of his landing craft, Hern and a medic whose name he never learned had such a conversation. "The medic was having trouble at home. His wife, a model, wanted a divorce. He was a pretty worried guy. He said she'd have to wait until he got home. I remember, too, that the whole time we were talking there was a young kid nearby singing softly to himself. This kid made the remark that he could sing better than he ever had in the past and it really seemed to please him."
Aboard H.M.S. Empire Anvil, Corporal Michael Kurtz of the U.S. 1st Division, a veteran of the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy, was approached by a new replacement, Private Joseph Steinber of Wisconsin.
"Corporal," said Steinber, "do you honestly think we've got a chance?"
"Hell, yes, boy," said Kurtz. "Don't ever worry about getting killed. In this outfit we worry about battles when we get to them."
Sergeant Bill "L-Rod" Petty of the 2nd Ranger Battalion was doing his worrying now. With his friend, Private First Class Bill McHugh, Petty sat on the deck of the old Channel steamer Isle of Man watching the darkness close in. Petty took cold comfort from the long lines of ships all about them; his mind was on the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. Turning to McHugh, he said, "We haven't got a hope in hell of coming out of this alive."
"You're just a goddam pessimist," said McHugh.
"Maybe," replied Petty, "but only one of us will make it, Mac."
McHugh was unimpressed. "When you gotta go, you gotta go," he said.
Some men tried to read. Corporal Alan Bodet of the 1st Division began Kings Row by Henry Bellamann, but he found it difficult to concentrate because he was worrying about his jeep. Would the waterproofing hold out when he drove it into three or four feet of water? Gunner Arthur Henry Boon of the Canadian 3rd Division, on board a landing craft loaded with tanks, tried to get through a pocket book intriguingly titled A Maid and a Million Men. Chaplain Lawrence E. Deery of the 1st Division on the transport H.M.S. Empire Anvil was amazed to see a British naval officer reading Horace's odes in Latin. But Deery himself, who would land on Omaha Beach in the first wave with the 16th Infantry Regiment, spent the evening reading Symond's Life of Michelangelo. In another convoy, on a landing craft which was rolling so much that nearly everybody was seasick, Captain James Douglas Gilan, another Canadian, brought out the one volume which made sense this night. To quiet his own nerves and those of a brother officer, he opened to the Twenty-third Psalm and read aloud, "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want...."
It wasn't all solemn. There was lightheartedness, too. Aboard the transport H.M.S. Ben Machree, some Rangers strung three-quarter-inch ropes from the masts to the decks and began climbing all over the ship, much to the astonishment of the British crew. On another ship, members of the Canadian 3rd Division held an amateur night with assorted recitations, jigs and reels and choral offerings. Sergeant James Percival "Paddy" de Lacy of the King's Regiment became so emotional listening to the "Rose of Tralee" played on the bagpipes that he forgot where he was and stood up and offered a toast to Ireland's Eamon de Valera for "keepin' us out of the war."
Many men who had spent hours worrying about their chances of survival now couldn't wait to reach the beaches. The boat trip was proving more terrible than their worst fear of the Germans. Seasickness had struck through the fifty-nine convoys like a plague, especially in the rolling landing craft. Each man had been supplied with antisea-sickness pills, plus an article of equipment which was listed in the loading sheets with typical Army thoroughness as "Bag, vomit, one."
This was military efficiency at its best, but it still wasn't enough. "The puke bags were full, tin hats were full, the fire buckets were emptied of sand and filled," Technical Sergeant William James Wiedefeld of the 29th Division recalls. "The steel decks you couldn't stand on, and everywhere you heard men say, 'If they are going to kill us, get us out of these damn tubs.'" On some landing ships men were so ill that they threatened -- possibly more for effect than in earnest -- to throw themselves overboard. Private Gordon Laing of the Canadian 3rd Division found himself hanging on to a friend who "begged me to let go his belt." A Royal Marine commando, Sergeant Russel John Wither, remembers that on his landing ship "the spew bags were soon used up and in the end only one was left." It was passed from hand to hand.
Because of the seasickness, thousands of men lost the best meals they would see for many months to come. Special arrangements had been made to give all ships the finest food possible. The special menus, which the troops dubbed the "last meal," varied from ship to ship, and appetities varied from man to man. On board the attack transport Charles Carroll, Captain Carroll B. Smith of the 29th Division had a steak with eggs on top, sunny side up, and then topped it off with ice cream and loganberries. Two hours later he was fighting for a position at the rail. Second Lieutenant Joseph Rosenblatt, Jr., of the 112th Engineer Battalion ate seven helpings of chicken à la king and felt fine. So did Sergeant Keith Bryan of the 5th Engineer Special Brigade. He put away sandwiches and coffee and was still hungry. One of his buddies "lifted" a gallon of fruit cocktail from the galley and four of them finished that.
Aboard the H.M.S. Prince Charles, Sergeant Avery J. Thornhill of the 5th Rangers avoided all discomforts. He took an overdose of seasick pills and slept through it all.
Despite the common miseries and fears of the men who were there some memories are etched with surprising clarity. Second Lieutenant Donald Anderson of the 29th Division remembers how the sun broke through about an hour before dark, silhouetting the entire fleet. In honor of Sergeant Tom Ryan of the 2nd Rangers, the men of F Company gathered around him and sang "Happy Birthday." He was twenty-two. And for homesick nineteen-year-old Private Robert Marion Allen of the 1st Division it was "a night ready-made for a boat ride on the Mississippi."
All over, throughout the ships of the fleet, the men who would make history at dawn settled down to get what rest they could. As Commander Philippe Kieffer of the lone French commando unit rolled himself into his blankets aboard his landing ship, there came to his mind the prayer of Sir Jacob Astley at the battle of Edgehill in England in 1642. "O Lord," prayed Kieffer, "Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me..." He drew up the blankets and was almost immediately asleep.
It was a little after 10:15 P.M. when Lieutenant Colonel Meyer, counterintelligence chief of the German Fifteenth Army, rushed out of his office. In his hand was probably the most important message the Germans had intercepted throughout the whole of World War II. Meyer now knew that the invasion would take place within forty-eight hours. With this information the Allies could be thrown back into the sea. The message picked up from a BBC broadcast to the French underground was the second line of the Verlaine poem: "Blessent mon coeur d'une langueur monotone [Wound my heart with a monotonous languor]."
Meyer burst into the dining room where General Hans Von Salmuth, the Fifteenth Army's commanding officer, was playing bridge with his chief of staff and two others. "General!" Meyer said breathlessly. "The message, the second part -- it's here!"
Von Salmuth thought a moment, then gave the order to put the Fifteenth Army on full alert. As Meyer hurried out of the room, Von Salmuth was again looking at his bridge hand. "I'm too old a bunny," Von Salmuth recalls saying, "to get too excited about this."
Back in his office, Meyer and his staff immediately notified OB West, Von Rundstedt's headquarters, by telephone. They in turn alerted OKW, Hitler's headquarters. Simultaneously all other commands were informed by teletype.
Once again, for reasons that have never been explained satisfactorily, the Seventh Army was not notified. It would take the Allied fleet a little more than four hours now to reach the transport areas off the five Normandy beaches; within three hours eighteen thousand paratroopers would drop over the darkening fields and hedgerows -- into the zone of the one German army never alerted to D Day.
Private Arthur B. "Dutch" Schultz of the 82nd Airborne Division was ready. Like everybody else on the airfield, he was in his jump suit, a parachute hanging over his right arm. His face was blackened with charcoal; his head, in the crazy style affected by paratroopers everywhere this night, was shaven Iroquois fashion, with a narrow tuft of hair running back the center of his scalp. All around him was his gear; he was ready in every respect. Of the $2,500 he had won a few hours before he now had just $20 left.
Now the men waited for the trucks to carry them to the planes. Private Gerald Columbi, one of Dutch's friends, broke away from a small crap game that was still going and came running up. "Lend me twenty bucks quick!" he said.
"What for?" asked Schultz. "You might get killed."
"I'll let you have this," said Columbi, undoing his wristwatch.
"Okay," said Dutch, handing over his last $20.
Columbi ran back to the game. Dutch looked at the watch; it was a gold Bulova graduation model with Columbi's name and an inscription from his parents on the back. Just then someone yelled, "Okay, here we go."
Dutch picked up his gear and with the other paratroopers left the hangar. As he climbed aboard a truck he passed Columbi. "Here," he said, as he gave him back the watch, "I don't need two of them." Now all Dutch had left were the rosary beads his mother had sent him. He had decided to take them after all. The trucks moved across the airfield toward the waiting planes.
All over England the Allied airborne armies boarded their planes and gliders. The planes carrying the pathfinders, the men who would light the dropping zones for the airborne troops, had already left. At the 101st Airborne Division's headquarters at Newbury, the Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, with a small group of officers and four correspondents, watched the first planes get into position for take-off. He had spent more than an hour talking to the men. He was more worried about the airborne operation than about any other phase of the assault. Some of his commanders were convinced that the airborne assault might produce more than eighty percent casualties.
Eisenhower had said goodbye to the 101 st's commanding officer, Major General Maxwell D. Taylor, who was leading his men into battle. Taylor had walked away carrying himself very straight and stiff. He didn't want the Supreme Commander to know that he had torn a ligament in his right knee that afternoon playing squash. Eisenhower might have refused him permission to go.
Now Eisenhower stood watching as the planes trundled down the runways and lifted slowly into the air. One by one they followed each other into the darkness. Above the field, they circled as they assembled into formation. Eisenhower, his hands deep in his pockets, gazed up into the night sky. As the huge formation of planes roared one last time over the field and headed toward France, NBC's Red Mueller looked at the Supreme Commander. Eisenhower's eyes were filled with tears.
Minutes later, in the Channel, the men of the invasion fleet heard the roar of the planes. It grew louder by the second, and then wave after wave passed overhead. The formation took a long time to pass. Then the thunder of their engines began to fade. On the bridge of the U.S.S. Herndon, Lieutenant Bartow Farr, the watch officers and NEA's war correspondent, Tom Wolf, gazed up into the darkness. Nobody could say a word. And then as the last formation flew over, an amber light blinked down through the clouds on the fleet below. Slowly it flashed out in Morse code three dots and a dash: V for Victory.
Copyright © 1959 by Cornelius Ryan
Meet the Author
Cornelius Ryan was born in 1920 in Dublin, Ireland, where he was raised. He became one of the preeminent war correspondents of his time, flying fourteen bombing missions with the Eighth and Ninth U.S. Air Forces and covering the D-Day landings and the advance of General Patton's Third Army across France and Germany. After the end of hostilities in Europe, he covered the Pacific War. In addition to his classic works The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far, he is the author of numerous other books, which have appeared throughout the world in 19 languages. Awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government in 1973, Mr. Ryan was hailed at that time by Malcolm Muggeridge as "perhaps the most brilliant reporter now alive." He died in 1976.
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