Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die: How the Allies Won on D-Day

Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die: How the Allies Won on D-Day

by Giles Milton


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A ground-breaking account of the first 24 hours of the D-Day invasion told by a symphony of incredible accounts of unknown and unheralded members of the Allied – and Axis – forces.

An epic battle that involved 156,000 men, 7,000 ships and 20,000 armoured vehicles, D-Day was, above all, a tale of individual heroics – of men who were driven to keep fighting until the German defences were smashed and the precarious beachheads secured. This authentic human story – Allied, German, French – has never fully been told.

Giles Milton’s bold new history narrates the events of June 6th, 1944 through the tales of survivors from all sides: the teenage Allied conscript, the crack German defender, the French resistance fighter. From the military architects at Supreme Headquarters to the young schoolboy in the Wehrmacht’s bunkers, Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die lays bare the absolute terror of those trapped in the front line of Operation Overlord. It also gives voice to those who have hitherto remained unheard – the French butcher’s daughter, the Panzer Commander’s wife, the chauffeur to the General Staff.

This vast canvas of human bravado reveals “the longest day” as never before – less as a masterpiece of strategic planning than a day on which thousands of scared young men found themselves staring death in the face. It is drawn in its entirety from the raw, unvarnished experiences of those who were there.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250134929
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 745,332
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Giles Milton is a writer and historian. He is the internationally bestselling author of narrative history, including Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare and Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. His books - which include White Gold, Paradise Lost and Russian Roulette - have been translated into twenty languages worldwide. Milton lives in London.

Read an Excerpt


Behind Enemy Lines

George Lane viewed his life in much the same way as a professional gambler might view a game of poker: something to be played with a steady nerve, a dash of courage and a willingness to win or lose everything in the process.

His addiction to risk had driven him to join the commandos; it had also led him to volunteer for a perilous undercover mission codenamed Operation Tarbrush X. In the second week of May 1944, Lane was to smuggle himself into Nazi-occupied France using the cover of darkness to paddle ashore in a black rubber dinghy. His task was to investigate a new type of mine that the Germans were believed to be installing on the Normandy beaches.

Lane had the air of a quintessentially British adventurer, one whose tweedy façade would not have looked out of place on the great Scottish hunting estates. His hair was waxed in the fashion of a young Cary Grant and divided into two by a carefully scoured parting. But there the similarity ended. His stare was colder than any actor could contrive and it was overlaid with a rigid sense of purpose. Lane would later recount his derring-do stories in an accent of such cut-glass clarity that it almost sounded fake. There was good reason for this. He was actually Hungarian – his real name was Dyuri Lanyi – and his formative years had been spent as a member of the Hungarian water polo team.

He had pitched up in Britain almost a decade earlier and had volunteered for the Grenadier Guards on the outbreak of war. But his foreign ways and Central European background had caused officials in the Home Office to serve him with a deportation order. Only swift action by his high-flying contacts ensured that the order was rescinded.

'Absolutely English in outlook and mentality.' So thundered his mentor, Albert Baillie, the Dean of St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, who added that Lane had 'a genius for getting on with people'. This was just as well, for he was to need every last drop of that genius in the weeks preceding D-Day.

The shoddy treatment he received from Whitehall bureaucrats might have put him off the Allied cause for good. Instead, it galvanized his stubborn spirit. In 1943 he signed up for the elite X-Troop, a British-led commando unit consisting of foreign nationals whose countries had been overrun by the Nazis.

Once accepted into this polyglot squadron he was given a fake identity and an invented backstory. He was also allowed to choose a pseudonym. He elected for Smith on the grounds that it was as English as a cup of tea. 'Don't be a bloody fool,' was the reaction of Bryan Hilton-Jones, the guts-of-granite commander of X-Troop. 'You can't even pronounce it properly.' This was unfair – Lanyi's English was almost too perfect – but Hilton-Jones couldn't afford risks. He told him to settle for Lane (an Anglicization of Lanyi) and pretend to be Welsh, in order to explain away the occasional slips in his artificially clipped speech.

In the second week of May 1944, Lane was given a detailed briefing about his mission. Hilton-Jones told him that a new German mine had been discovered during an RAF bombing raid. A Spitfire had inadvertently dropped a bomb into the coastal shallows of northern France, triggering a series of spectacular detonations. It was fortuitous that these explosions had been caught on reconnaissance film, for it allowed scientists to assess them. They were concerned that the Nazis had developed 'some kind of new mine' that could be detonated along an entire length of foreshore. The film was too grainy to reveal the working mechanism of the mine, but it was clear that such a weapon represented a potentially catastrophic threat to the planned Allied landings.

Hilton-Jones knew there was only one way to discover more and that was to send a man ashore. To this end, he began planning an audacious act of burglary, one that would require stealth, guts and an extra-large dose of bravado.

The plan was this: a high-speed motor torpedo boat would escort Lane and three comrades across the English Channel. They would then paddle ashore in a small black dinghy. Once there, two of the party would remain with the dinghy while the other two would slither up the beach, photograph the mine with an infrared camera and then beat a hasty retreat. If all went well, they would be back in England in time for breakfast.

But there was also the possibility that everything would go wrong. If so, the consequences would be grim indeed. Hitler's Commando Order dictated that all captured commandos were to be executed. That was terrifying enough, but before being shot, Lane and company were certain to be tortured by the Gestapo, whose agents were desperate for information about when and where the Allied landings might take place.

Most men would have weighed up the pros and cons when asked to take part in such a deadly mission, but Lane gave the same unflinching answer as he had when Hilton-Jones first asked if he would like to join the commandos. 'You bet I would!'

Operation Tarbrush X was scheduled for 17 May, when a new moon promised near-total darkness. Lane selected a sapper named Roy Wooldridge to help him photograph the mines, while two officers, Sergeant Bluff and Corporal King, would remain at the shoreline with the dinghy. All four were fearless and highly trained. All four were confident of success.

The mission got off to a flying start. The men were ferried across the Channel in the motor torpedo boat and then transferred to the black rubber dinghy. They paddled themselves ashore and landed undetected at exactly 1.40 a.m. The elements were on their side. The rain was lashing down in liquid sheets and a stiff onshore squall was flinging freezing spray across the beach. For the German sentries patrolling the coast, visibility was little better than zero.

The four commandos now separated, as planned. Bluff and King remained with the dinghy, while Lane and Wooldridge crawled up the wet sand. They found the newly installed mines just a few hundred yards along the beach and Lane pulled out his infrared camera. But as he snapped his first photograph, the camera emitted a sharp flash. The reaction was immediate. 'A challenging shout in German rang out and within about ten seconds it was followed by a scream which sounded as if somebody had been knifed.' Soon after, three gunshots ricocheted across the beach.

It was the signal for a firework display unlike any other. The Germans triggered starshells and Very lights (two different types of flare) to illuminate the entire stretch of beach and then began firing wildly into the driving rain, unable to determine where the intruders were hiding.

Lane and Wooldridge scraped themselves deeper into the sand as they tried to avoid the bullets, but they remained desperately exposed and found themselves caught in a ferocious gun battle. Two enemy patrols had opened fire and it soon became apparent that they were shooting at each other. 'We might have laughed,' noted Lane after the incident, 'if we had felt a bit safer.'

It was almost 3 a.m. by the time the gunfight ended and the German flashlights were finally snapped off. Sergeant Bluff and Corporal King were convinced that Lane and Wooldridge were dead, but they left the dinghy for their erstwhile comrades and prepared themselves for a long and exhausting swim back to the motor torpedo launch. They eventually clambered aboard, bedraggled and freezing, and were taken back to England. They would get their cooked breakfast after all.

George Lane and Roy Wooldridge faced a rather less appetizing breakfast. They flashed signals out to sea, hoping to attract the motor torpedo boat and then flashed a continuous red light in the hope of attracting attention. But there was never any response. As they belly-crawled along the shoreline, wondering what to do, they stumbled across the little dinghy. Lane checked his watch. It was an hour before dawn, precious little time to get away, and the Atlantic gale was whipping the sea into a frenzy of crests and troughs. It was not the best weather to be crossing the English Channel in a dinghy the size of a bathtub.

'Shivering in our wet clothes, we tried to keep our spirits up by talking about the possibility of a Catalina flying boat being sent out to find us and take us home.' Wooldridge glanced at his watch and wryly remarked that it was the date on which he was meant to have been going off on his honeymoon. Lane laughed at the absurdity of it all. 'There he was, poor bugger, with me in a dinghy.'

Any hopes of being rescued by a flying boat were dealt a heavy blow in the hour before dawn. As the coastal town of Cayeux-sur-Mer slowly receded into the distance, Lane suddenly noticed a dot in the sea that was growing larger by the second. It was a German motor launch and it was approaching at high speed. He and Wooldridge immediately ditched their most incriminating equipment, including the camera, but kept their pistols and ammunition. Lane was considering a bold plan of action: 'shooting our way out, overpowering the crew and pinching their boat'. But as their German pursuers began circling the dinghy, Lane was left in no doubt that the game was up. 'We found four or five Schmeisser machine guns pointed at us menacingly.' The two of them threw their pistols into the sea and 'with a rather theatrical gesture, put up our hands'.

They were immediately arrested and taken back to Cayeux-sur-Mer, zigzagging a careful passage through the tidal waters. Lane swallowed hard. Only now did it dawn on him that he had paddled the dinghy through the middle of a huge minefield without even realizing it was there. 'It was an incredible bit of luck that we weren't blown to bits.'

The two men feared for their lives. They were separated on landing and Lane was manhandled into a windowless cellar, 'very damp and cold'. His clothes were drenched and his teeth were chattering because of the chill. He was also in need of sustenance, for he had not eaten since leaving England.

It was not long before an officer from the Gestapo paid him a visit. 'Of course you know we'll have to shoot you,' he was told, 'because you are obviously a saboteur and we have very strict orders to shoot all saboteurs and commandos.' Lane feigned defiance, telling his interrogators that killing him would be a very bad idea. The officer merely scowled. 'What were you doing?'

Lane and Wooldridge had cut the commando and parachute badges from their battledress while still at sea, aware that such badges would condemn them to a swift execution. They had also agreed on a story to explain their predicament. But such precautions proved in vain. The German interrogator examined Lane's battledress and told him that he 'could see where the badges had been'. Lane felt his first frisson of fear. 'They knew we were commandos.'

His interrogation took a turn for the worse when the Gestapo demanded information about the Allied landings, which they knew were imminent. 'They kept threatening me and I kept saying, "I'm sorry, I can't tell you anything important because I don't know anything important." ' He was refused food and water – the price to be paid for keeping silent – and faced increasingly aggressive questioning. Not until dusk did the interrogation come to an end. The two of them were locked into separate cellars and prepared themselves for a sleepless night.

Lane had been trained in psychological warfare and retained a clarity of purpose. With D-Day imminent, it was imperative for him and Wooldridge to make their escape. In pitch darkness, he groped his way around the cellar and discovered that the chimney pipe was tied to the wall with a piece of wire. He unhooked the wire, shaped it and then inserted it into the lock of his cell. After a moment of fumbling there was a click and the door sprang open. Not for nothing were the commandos known as the elite.

The corridor was completely dark. Lane groped his way forward using the walls as his guide, but as he did so he tripped over a German sentry lying on the floor. 'I'd go back if I were you,' barked the guard. 'There's another sentry around the corner.' His escape attempt was over before it began.

Lane was always cool under pressure but even he got the fright of his life when his cell door was opened at dawn by a doctor dressed in a white gown. 'I thought, My God, what's going to happen now?' He was blindfolded, as was Wooldridge, and the two of them had their hands roped behind their backs. They were then bundled into a car and driven off at high speed. Lane asked where they were going. He got no answer.

'As I lay back in the seat, I realized they had tied the blindfold so tightly that I could see underneath it, through the gaps on either side of the bridge of my nose.' Unlike in England, the Germans had not removed the road signs so Lane was able to snatch glimpses of the passing villages. 'Shortly before we stopped, I had been able to see a signpost that said: La Petite Roche Guyon.'

He assumed that this was his journey's end; that he would be dragged from the car and shot.

As the German military car came to a halt in a private drive, the doors were opened and Lane's blindfold was removed by one of the sentries. When he looked up, he blinked in disbelief. 'My God!' he whispered under his breath. 'What a strange place! Just look at it!' A fortified château stood bolted to the rock, a one-time feudal redoubt whose Enlightenment overlords had converted it into an eighteenth-century pleasure palace. The vertical outcrop behind was crowned by a medieval donjon, the original tower, while the castle itself still bristled with battlements and buttresses. Château de La Roche-Guyon was the hereditary fiefdom of the La Rochefoucauld dynasty, which had been ensconced here in pomp and splendour since the reign of the illustrious Sun King, Louis XIV. The addition of a sandstone façade had done much to tame the martial exterior, but the barbed-wire fences and concrete bunkers were testimony to the fact that this was once again a military edifice.

Lane had little time to admire the view. He and Wooldridge were shunted inside the entrance hall and led into two separate rooms. Just when Lane thought that his morning could not get any more bizarre, a guard appeared with a piping hot cup of tea.

The room in which he was being held had been left unlocked, so he unlatched the handle and peeked out. 'There was the fiercest looking dog' – an Alsatian – 'that I've ever seen in my life.' It growled and was heaved back by a guard. 'And I thought, I better stay put.'

Lane still had no idea why he had been brought here, but that was soon about to change. 'After a little while, a very elegant officer came in and, to my amazement, we shook hands.' The officer spoke English with an accent as sharp as a blade. 'How are things in England?' he asked. 'It's always very beautiful at this time of year, isn't it?' Lane pinched himself as this Alice in Wonderland world grew ever more strange. A sharp pang of hunger brought him to his senses: he told the officer that he hadn't eaten anything for almost forty-eight hours. The German apologized profusely and immediately ordered some food: fresh chicken sandwiches and coffee. 'Simply marvellous', thought Lane. His spirits were rising by the minute.

As he was eating, the officer turned to him and said, 'Do you realize you are about to meet someone very important?'

Lane shrugged. Nothing could surprise him any more.

'I must have your assurance,' said the German, 'that you're going to behave with the utmost dignity.'

Lane gave the officer an audacious dressing down, telling him 'that I happen to be an officer and a gentleman and I cannot behave in any other way'. But then he paused, for his curiosity was piqued, and he asked, 'But who am I going to meet?'

The officer stiffened slightly as he snapped out his reply. 'You are going to meet His Excellency Field Marshal Rommel.'

Lane was knocked sideways. Rommel, the Wüstenfuchs or Desert Fox, was one of the titans of the Third Reich, the seemingly invincible general who had won a string of victories in North Africa before meeting his nemesis in General Montgomery. Vanquished in the hot desert sands, yet still worshipped by his troops, he had been decorated by the Führer with the highest honour of all, the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. There were some who murmured that his finest days were behind him, but he had nevertheless been given command of Army Group B, defenders of the northern French coastline. Château de La Roche-Guyon was his operational headquarters.

'I'm delighted,' said Lane to his officer, 'because in the British army we have great admiration for him.' This was true enough: his conduct during the North Africa campaign had earned him a reputation for fair play and chivalry.

Lane was so enthused by the prospect of meeting Rommel that he forgot all fears of his probable execution. He was intrigued to come face to face with the man whose mission was to ensure that the Allied invasion of France would fail.

The officer suggested that he clean himself up as soon as he had finished the last of his sandwiches. Lane was the first to admit he was 'pretty grubby', but even he was taken aback when he was handed a nail file and asked to remove the dirt from his fingernails. Once the manicure was complete, he was led through the castle's corridors towards the library. It was here that his meeting with Field Marshal Rommel was to take place.


Excerpted from "Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Giles Milton.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents




1. Behind Enemy Lines
2. Atlantic Wall
3. The Weather Report
4. Codebreaking

5. The Midnight Hour
6. At German Headquarters
7. Landing by Moonlight

8. Sainte-Mère-Église
9. Night Assault
10. First Light

11. On Utah Beach
12. In Coastal Waters
13. Omaha
14. Easy Red

15. Gold
16. Juno
17. Cliff-top Guns
18. The Mad Bastard

19. Deadlock on Omaha
20. Cracks in the Wall
21. Race to the Bridge

22. The Bombing of Caen
23. Counter-Attack
24. Victory at Omaha

25. Frontier Fighting
26. Panzer Attack
27. Twilight
28. Night


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