June 6, 1944, is one of the most famous dates in world history, and, as David Howarth shows, a defining date in countless personal histories. In this intimate chronicle, the 7,000 vessels, 12,000 aircraft, and 750,000 men committed on D-Day are taken for granted. Instead, we see D-Day through the eyes of the men on the ground as Howarth weaves together the larger story of the beginning of the battle of Normandy with the stories of the beachhead itself. The scope of Howarth's visionfocusing on England and France, on sky, beach, and hedgerow, on divisions and squadsmakes Dawn of D-Day a franker portrayal than any other of the turning-point of the war on the Western Front and the greatest amphibious operation in history.
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All over the south of England, on the night of the fifth of June, people awoke, or else, if they were going late to bed, stopped what they were doing and went outside to listen. Those who had lived there for the past four years were used to noisy nights. The noise at nights had changed through the years, from the distinctive beat of German bombers and the din of airraids, to the sound of British bombers outward bound at dusk and homeward bound at dawn. But people who heard the noise on the fifth of June remember it as different from anything that had ever been heard before. Life in war had made them adept at guessing what was happening from what they could hear, and as they listened that night, with increasing excitement and pride, they knew that by far the greatest fleet of aircraft they had ever heard — and therefore the greatest fleet that anyone had ever heard — was passing overhead from north to south.
Nobody had much doubt of what the noise implied; even those who had nothing to do with military secrets had known it would happen soon. They simply said to themselves or to each other "This is it"; and probably most of them heard the sound with such deep emotion that they did not try to put their feelings into words. It was the invasion, as everybody either knew or guessed; and the invasion, if it succeeded, was to be the redemption of the defeat of Dunkirk, and the justification of the British refusal to admit defeat when everyone else in the world believed they were finished. It would be a reward for the four years' grinding labour by which they had dragged themselves up from the depths of 1940 to a state of national strength which made them an equal partner of the United States. And personally, to the British, it had a significance like a first gleam of sunshine after rain; it would be a sign, if it succeeded, of hope that the worst was over, the first glimpse of the beginning of the end of the sorrow, boredom, pain and frustration in which they had lived for so long.
That was to be its significance if it succeeded: what if it failed? People could not bring themselves to imagine what would happen if it failed; but they knew that failure would be a military disaster which at best would take years to retrieve, and in the back of their minds they doubted their own ability, exhausted by war as they were, to survive such a disappointment and start again, as they had at Dunkirk, and build everything up anew.
They went to sleep that night, if they slept any more, with a sense of great events impending, and of comradeship in a vast adventure, knowing the day would bring news of a battle which would influence all their lives for ever more. On the whole, they were certainly thankful the time had come to put everything to the test; but of course they thought anxiously of the thousands of their own people who even then, in the night, were on their way to battle, and of the Americans, whom many of them had met for the first time in the past few months. And many of these people, perhaps most, thought with special anxiety of one man who they imagined, rightly or wrongly, was on his way to France by air or sea.
In the morning, the main news in the papers and on the radio was still of the fall of Rome, which had been announced on the day before, and nothing was said of events which were nearer home. But just after nine o'clock the bare announcement came: "Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces supported by strong air forces began landing Allied armies this morning on the coast of France." Within a few minutes, this news, which the people of southern England had anticipated, was repeated all round the world.
The purpose of this book is to give an impression of what happened in the English Channel and on the coast of France that morning, roughly between the time when the aircraft were heard over England, and the time when the news was given. But to make the impression clear, one must start with a summary of eighteen months of concentrated thought and work which preceded the invasion, and of the reasoning which decided when and where it should be made, and the plans of what the high commanders intended to happen that morning.
The idea of an invasion of the continent from England could be said to have started at Dunkirk in 1940, when the more far-sighted British soldiers, struggling across the shore to escape from the German army, already knew that a British army would have to cross the shore of Europe in the opposite direction before the war was won. At that time, it seemed a very distant project: distant, but never impossible. In that same year, while most of Britain was preoccupied with improvising its own defence, the organisation called Combined Operations had already been founded, and was studying the technique of landing on hostile coasts. Eighteen months later, when Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten took over command of Combined Operations, Churchill told him "to plan for the offensive." When Russia and America joined Britain in the war, the prospect had become less distant; and in January 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt, meeting at Casablanca, agreed to appoint a joint staff to make a definite plan for the invasion. The head of this staff was Lieutenant General F. E. Morgan, who was appointed Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander — COSSAC for short — although the Supreme Commander himself had not yet been chosen.
For six months in 1943, COSSAC studied the coasts of Europe, and the Allied and German forces which might be joined in the battle, and the complicated technical details of the project. It was in that period — a year before the invasion — that the question of where to land in Europe was decided: a decision which had to remain an elaborately guarded secret till the very moment when the invasion fleet was sighted from the shore.
Many considerations were weighed and balanced in this decision: beaches suitable for landing, and country suitable for deploying an army behind the beaches; weather and tides; the distances from bases for short-range fighter aircraft, and from foreign ports which could be captured to help to support the army; and of course, the German defence. Of the whole of the coast of Europe from Norway to the Bay of Biscay, strict military logic narrowed the choice to two places: the district of Calais, or the coast of Normandy between Cherbourg and Le Havre. In the choice between these, there was room for opinion. Of course, Normandy is much further than Calais from English ports, but that made very little difference. The fleet which was planned was so large that all the ports from the Thames to the Bristol Channel would be needed to load it, and so most of the ships would have a long crossing wherever the landing was made. The Americans favoured Calais, although it was the most strongly defended part of the whole of the coast, because it offered a more direct route to Germany. The British rather more emphatically favoured Normandy, because its defences were weaker and because it could be cut off from the rest of Europe by bombing the bridges over the Seine and Loire. In the end, the COSSAC staff agreed to recommend Normandy, and their plan was approved by Churchill, Roosevelt and the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the conference in Quebec in August 1943. In Quebec it was also agreed that the Supreme Commander should be American, and that his deputy and his three commanders-in-chief should be British, and May 1944 was fixed as the target date.
It was not till December, after some weeks of hesitation, that Roosevelt appointed General Eisenhower, who was then Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean, to take command of the invasion of France; and in January the names of his British subordinates were announced: Air Chief Marshal Tedder as Deputy Supreme Commander, and Admiral Ramsay, General Montgomery and Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory to command the navies, armies and air forces. Already, at the Teheran conference at the end of November, Stalin had shown himself very impatient for the opening of what was called a second front, where the Americans and British could take a fairer share of the burden of fighting from the Russians. Roosevelt and Churchill had promised him the invasion would start in May; and so, when the commanders took up their appointments in January, there were only four months to go.
When Eisenhower and Montgomery saw the details of the COSSAC plan for the first time, they both declared the area of the landing was too narrow and the troops for the first assault too few. General Morgan had thought so himself, but as a chief of staff without a commander, he had had to plan with the forces which the two governments had told him could be used; and the size of the whole operation had been limited by the number of landing craft which existed or could be built in time. At Eisenhower's demand, landing craft were gathered in from all over the world; but still there were not enough for the extra forces he wanted. As a last resort, the landing was postponed till early June, so that another month's production of new craft would be available, although Churchill was worried by the thought of what Stalin would say when May was ended and the promise had not been fulfilled.
The exact date which was chosen in June was decided by the tides, the plan of attack, and the German defences. Reconniassance photographs of the coast of France were taken by aircraft every day that spring; and they showed Germans and French civilians hard at work building new gun emplacements and installing several kinds of obstacles on the beaches. The obstacles were wooden stakes and ramps, and steel barricades and spikes. Some of them were mined.
As the Germans intended, these obstacles offered a choice of evils. If a landing were made at high tide, when the obstacles were submerged and invisible, a large proportion of the landing craft might be lost by hitting them. If it were made at low tide, the troops would have to cross an open beach under German fire; and in Normandy the beaches slope gently and the range of tide is large, so that at low tide some beaches are three or four hundred yards wide.
Eisenhower and Montgomery chose to take the latter risk, and to minimise it by landing tanks ahead of the infantry, and by bombarding the defences very heavily just before the landing. They decided to land just after low tide, and planned to demolish the obstacles at once, so that landing could continue as the tide rose.
The navy wanted to approach the coast under cover of night, but both navy and air force needed an hour of daylight for the bombardment of the defences. These considerations fixed the time of the landing at an hour after dawn; and by combining this time with the state of the tide, the date of the landing was fixed. Low tide in Normandy was an hour after dawn on June 6th. On June 5th and 7th, it was near enough to be acceptable. After that, of course, the tides were not right again for a fortnight, until about June 20th; but by then the moon would have waned, and the airborne forces preferred moonlight for the parachute and glider landings which were planned. Besides, by June 20th, fulfilment of the promise to Stalin would be another fortnight overdue. So June 5th was chosen as D-Day, with the next two days as alternatives if the weather was bad. H Hour, the moment of landing, was 6.30 a.m. at the western end of the area of the landing, which the tide reached soonest, and 7.30 at the eastern end.
Of course, the Germans knew an invasion was coming. At that moment, the only front where America and Britain were fighting Germany on land was in Italy, and there was nothing like enough scope in Italy for the Allies to deploy their whole strength. To try an invasion of north west Europe was the only way they could get to grips with Germany. Just before Montgomery was appointed to command the invading army, his old adversary of the desert war in Africa, Field Marshal Rommel, was appointed to the defence of the coast of Europe. For two years, German propagandists had talked of the Atlantic Wall, which was supposed to be a chain of impregnable defences all along the coast. But Rommel found the Atlantic Wall was very little more than propaganda. Its strength had been exaggerated to discourage British or American raids, and to encourage the Germans. But in fact, the building of it had been given a low priority, its materials had often been diverted to other works which had seemed more urgent, and on many parts of the coast its construction had been neglected by local commanders who regarded an appointment to France as a rest cure from the Russian front. But Rommel was a man, as the British had reason to know, of tremendous energy, and during the last few months, while preparations for the invasion were being completed in Britain, he was working at top speed to build fortifications to defeat it: it was his work which reconnaissance showed in progress. But the work was still made difficult by shortages of material, and even more difficult by differences of opinion among the high command. Rommel himself believed an invasion could only be halted at sea and on the shore. His immediate senior, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, thought that was impossible, and put his trust in reserves which he proposed to keep intact till the exact intentions of the invading forces could be seen. The whole of the German high command, using the same logic which had guided COSSAC, had decided on Normandy or Calais as the most likely points of invasion, but they could not agree in the choice between the two places. Von Rundstedt was convinced the main landing would be in Calais, and so was the higher command of the army in Germany. Rommel favoured Normandy, and so, it is said, did Hitler.
These disagreements were the result, at least in part, of deliberate deception by the Allies. Having decided on Normandy, they did everything they could to persuade the Germans they had decided on Calais. While the armies and fleets were assembling in the south-west of England, dummy army camps and dummy fleets were assembled in the south-east. All the radio activity of an army was simulated in Kent. General Patton, whom the Germans knew well, was brought back from the Mediterranean to England with ample publicity to command this non-existent army. More reconnaissance flights and more preliminary bombing attacks were made in Calais than in Normandy. At the last moment, while the fleets were sailing to Normandy, dummy fleets of ships and aircraft sailed to Calais, using devices which made them appear on radar much larger than they were.
The British secret service was also at work to implant this false belief in the minds of the German commanders. Its task was probably simplified by disagreement between the German secret service and the Nazi leaders. Admiral Canaris, the head of the secret service, had recently been dismissed, and most of his organisation disbanded. A new all-Nazi service had been started under Himmler; but its agents are said to have been clumsy and amateurish, and easy game for the practised cunning of the British. After the war, in German files, about 250 reports from Himmler's men were found to predict the place and time of the invasion. All of them were wrong except one. The wrong ones simply repeated the rumours and false information which were circulated by British agents; and nobody in Berlin had taken any action on the single report which was right.
The deception was so successful that von Rundstedt, for one, went on believing for several weeks after the invasion that the landing in Normandy was a feint and that the main attack was still to come in Calais, and he still kept his reserves in the Calais area. In fact, it was much more successful than anyone expected at the time, and looking back at it now, it seems likely that some kind of deception more convincing than dummies or rumours was in use, and that the British had a direct method of giving false information to the German high command, and giving it with such authority that the Germans could not bring themselves to disbelieve it. Students of spy stories may imagine what the method might have been; but whatever it was, it is still kept secret and probably always will be.
During May, the troops who were to lead the attack had finished a long and arduous and often dangerous training. The seaborne forces had landed in exercises against live ammunition on beaches in Britain which resembled the beaches in Normandy, especially on Slapton Sands in Devon and at Burghead in the Moray Firth; and each unit had practised assaults on replicas of the particular German defences it was expected to attack. But none of them yet had been told where they would be going, or when. Most of the training had been as thorough as it possibly could have been; but the troops could not appreciate its thoroughness till they were told precisely what it was for, and in May, packed into great camps in the south of England with very little to do, men began to feel first bored and then apprehensive. The weather was perfect that month. There seemed to be no reason why they should not start and get it over. Waiting was enough to make anyone nervous.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dawn of D-DAY"
Copyright © 2008 David Howarth.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
The British Air Drop 39
The American Air Drop 69
Utah Beach 107
Omaha Beach 132
The British Beaches: Gold-Juno-Sword 167
The Announcement 248
Appearing between pages 96 and 97
Briefing in England
The invasion fleet
Eisenhower seeing off American Paratroopers
A paratrooper in full equipment
Major John Howard
First British objective: the Caen canal bridge
'A lethal game of hide and seek'
Colonel Wilson R. Wood
A Marauder over Utah
Landing craft make for Omaha beach
Beach obstacles on Omaha offer shelter
Dawn: a fire-swept beach ahead
Omaha: 'the whitest heat of war'
A footing on Omaha
Commandos land on Juno beach
A British beach during the landing
Canadians land at Bernieres
First-aid behind a tank
Canadian troops and French civilians
The assault over, the build up begins
The invasion beaches and dropping zones 8
The British Air Drop 40
The American Air Drop 81