D-Day: From Midnight to Dawn


The Final Embarkation: Four ‘stick’ commanders of 22nd Independent Parachute Company, British 6th Airborne Division, synchronising their watches in front of an Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle of No 38 Group, Royal Air Force, at about 11 pm on 5 June, just prior to take off from RAF Harwell, Oxfordshire. This pathfinder unit parachuted into Normandy in advance of the rest of the division in order to mark out the landing zones, and these officers, left to right, – Lieutenants,Bobby de la Tour, Don Wells, John Vischer,
Bob Midwood


The 6th Airborne Division positions in Normandy 6 June 1944

Five minutes before midnight on June 5, British infantrymen, members of the 6th Airborne Division, landed by gliders at the village of Bénouville, six miles north of Caen. Operation Overlord had begun. By dawn, 18,000 British, American, and Canadian parachutists were on the ground behind Utah and Sword Beaches, capturing bridges and strong points and disrupting German lines of communication.

During the night of June 5–6 the first three thousand of more than seven thousand Allied warships—British, American, Canadian, Polish, Dutch, Norwegian, French, and Greek, the combined forces of Operation Neptune—were crossing the Channel, bringing the first of more than 150,000 men who were to land during the day. As this vast armada drew ever closer to the Normandy beaches, a new series of deceptions was launched to draw German attention to other possible destinations. One deception, using motor launches and radio signals to simulate the movement of a large convoy, was a spurious cross-Channel assault toward the beaches between Le Havre and Dieppe. A second, designed to suggest a similar amphibious threat east of Le Havre, was carried out by motor launches off Harfleur. A third deception, Operation Glimmer, took the form of a substantial air attack on the fortifications in the Pas-de-Calais.

A fourth deception that night, the largest of the four, Operation Taxable, was twofold: the dropping of dummy parachutists near Boulogne, together with the dropping over the Channel of tens of thousands of radar-jamming metallic strips, known as Window. These strips were dropped in such a way as to produce on German radar screens the appearance of a large, slow-moving convoy making its way across the Channel toward the Pas-de-Calais. The Window drop was carried out by Group Captain Leonard Cheshire’s 617 Squadron. The operation had to be timed to perfection so that the clouds of metal strips, dropped at precise intervals by successive waves of aircraft, gave the impression to the German radar watchers of the steady approach of shipping at a speed of nine knots. “Any aberration,” explained Cheshire’s 1992 obituary in The Times of London, “would have given the game away.”

Underneath the clouds of Window as it fell were Royal Navy motor gunboats—in Operation Moonshine—carrying special electronic equipment that could respond to German radar signals by amplifying and repeating their pulse, so that a single gunboat showed all the symptoms of many large ships. Experimented with since 1942, Moonshine was the first use of this radar deception in a large-scale amphibious landing. It was yet another component of the vast, intricate assemblage that made up the D-Day plan.

The Pas-de-Calais deception worked. The phantom armada was clearly visible on German radar, diverting the attention of the German coastal and fighter defenses away from the real invasion force that was even then heading toward the beaches of Normandy, 150 miles to the southwest. Indeed, as the bogus convoy came within range of the massive German 12-inch gun batteries in the Pas-de-Calais, those guns fired salvo after salvo at the clouds of descending tinsel. In broadcasting the first German account of the Normandy landings on the following day, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, added that there were “landing troops” outside Calais and Dunkirk.

In the early hours of June 6, two groups of parachutists, a dozen in each group, dropped near the town of Isigny, ten miles southeast of Omaha Beach. It was the ultimate deception operation, ordered by the ever-inventive Colonel Bevan and the London Controlling Section. Code-named Titanic, its aim was to distract the Germans by pretending that it constituted a major parachute landing. One of its planners was Captain M. R. D. Foot, who had earlier been involved in choosing areas in France where German reinforcements to Normandy could most effectively be harried by the French Resistance under SOE guidance (Foot was later to be the historian of SOE in France).

Two groups of parachutists, each of five men, members of the Special Air Service Brigade, took part in Titanic. On landing on French soil they fired Very lights to illuminate the bogus dropping zone and played recordings on gramophone records of small-arms fire interspersed with soldiers’ conversation. In addition to the real drop, a thousand dummy parachutists were dropped, to give the impression of a major landing.

As its planners in Whitehall intended, Operation Titanic deceived the Germans. At three in the morning, which was 31/2 hours before the Omaha Beach landings, the German 915th Infantry Regiment (the reserve brigade of the division holding the sector) was sent eastward to “counter an airborne threat” near Isigny and spent the whole morning—while the Americans who had landed at Omaha were at their most vulnerable—searching for the spurious Titanic parachutists in the woods around Isigny and even exchanging fire with them. By the time the German regiment was sent to Omaha, where fighting had been particularly severe, the American troops there had finally managed to secure the beachhead. “In the regiment,” writes M. R. D. Foot, “Titanic is remembered as a disaster, for a sound regimental reason—of the ten men who went on it, only two came back.” But it was a masterpiece of successful deception. Without it, the Americans on Omaha might have been thrown back into the sea.

As the “real” parachutists at Utah and Sword worked in darkness on what had been enemy-occupied soil for the previous four years, a thousand aircraft of Royal Air Force Bomber Command began a sustained attack on the main German coastal batteries in the area soon to be assaulted from the sea.* Two of the bomber squadrons were in action for the first time—consisting of Free French pilots and aircrew—the Groupe Guyenne and the Groupe Tunisie, that were attached to a British bomber group. Their specific target was the fortified German gun emplacements outside Grandcamp-Maisy, with their clear line of fire on what within a few hours was to be Utah Beach.

As the planes of RAF Bomber Command left the assault area, more than a thousand United States bombers of the Eighth Air Force took over, and, in the thirty minutes before the troops were to land, they dropped 2,796 tons of bombs on the same coastal defenses. That morning, above the Irish Sea and the Bay of Biscay, a Czechoslovak air squadron took part in Operation Cork, a twenty-one-squadron operation to intercept and destroy all German submarines making their way to the Channel to interrupt the Allied armada. Ultra decrypts gave the British a clear picture of the movement of all thirty-six U-boats that had been ordered from their bases on the Atlantic coast of France to the Channel. Seventeen left from Brest, fourteen from St-Nazaire, four from La Pallice, and one from Lorient. All but nine of them, not fitted with a Schnorchel apparatus, had to surface regularly to recharge their batteries and top up their high-pressure air. That made them exceedingly vulnerable to air attack.

A Canadian pilot, a volunteer from Vancouver, Flying Officer Kenneth O. Moore, led his plane in an attack on two U-boats within twenty minutes of each other. Both were sunk. Moore was awarded an immediate Distinguished Service Order. His radio operator and navigator both received the Distinguished Flying Cross. One German submarine was sunk by a British warship, the destroyer escort Affleck, commanded by Captain Robert Lloyd. Four years earlier, at Dunkirk, when a sub-lieutenant, Lloyd had made three rescue journeys to and from the beach in a fishing boat. For his success on D-Day he was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Service Cross.

At 5.30 A.M. the warships of the Western (American) and Eastern (British) naval task forces, having navigated the ten lanes that had been cleared through the German minefields, began a sustained bombardment of the German coastal batteries and beach defenses. The closest ship was only two and a half miles offshore; the farthest, thirteen miles. For two and a half hours they kept up a relentless barrage of fire. (See the maps on pages 196 and 197.)

As day dawned off Sword and Juno Beaches, the two British midget submarines that had been off the coast of Normandy for three nights, struggling with their slow diving speed against a strong cross-tidal stream, rose to the surface and flashed their lights to seaward. They were in the correct position to mark the extremities of the landing area and to guide the oncoming assault craft. Immediately after the midget submarines, the first craft came in on Gold, Juno, and Sword, bringing, at first light, three battalions of British sappers. Going ashore at low tide, they used their explosives to make safe the thousands of mine-laden obstacles strewn on the beaches. Three-quarters of these men were killed by German machine-gun fire as they worked. There was nowhere they could take shelter on the vast expanse of sand if they were to complete their task. On the American beaches, Utah and Omaha, this dangerous, often fatal work was done by members of the Naval Combat Demolition Units (the NCDUs). They were among the first troops to go ashore at Utah—and also at Omaha.

Each demolition unit consisted of six or seven combat engineers and the same number of navy demolition experts. Each unit was given a fifty-yard sector of the beach, charged with clearing their section of all German beach obstacles that would impede, or damage, the subsequent landing craft when the tide came in and covered the obstacles. These men went ashore from landing ships just after six o’clock. “On our way in,” recalled Eugene D. Shales, then a nineteen-year-old sergeant, “we passed some landing crafts that may have encountered mines or been hit by German artillery. Floating bodies of GIs suddenly gave me a firsthand glimpse of what war is like.” As well as full combat gear, the men of the demolition units carried satchels with explosives, detonators, and fuses. The fuses were protected from the water by latex condoms taped at the open end.

The demolition units placed their explosive charges on the back side of the obstacles, so that the explosions “would hurl the fragments seaward,” Sergeant Shales later wrote. “It all worked out fairly smoothly. The job was finished around midmorning, but there was pain associated with it, due to the loss of a member of my squad, Leo Indelicato, who was killed by artillery fire during that task.”

Another member of the demolition units at Utah Beach, John E. Dunford, was forced by German artillery fire to drop his explosive charges before he could set them. Taking refuge in a shell crater, he was hit. Two of his colleagues also were wounded. They made their way up the beach to a German pillbox that had been overrun and turned it into a first-aid station. “The beach was getting crowded. The ships were piling up as the infantry were coming in. An Army Engineer blew a hole in the seawall just east of the pillbox where I was sitting.” Then the Germans began shelling again, and the wounded had to find somewhere else to shelter.

Another demolition man, James H. Burke, remembered the ten dead and twenty wounded among the demolition units on Utah Beach. “So it was difficult for us to accept the landing being called ‘a piece of cake,’” he wrote, and added, “I have been trying to make people aware of this fact for years.”

Preceding the troops on the two British beaches were men of the Landing Craft Obstacle Clearance Unit (LCOCU), the equivalent of the American demolition units. Drawn from the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, and the Royal Engineers, they went ashore in rubber dinghies, wearing frogmen’s suits, to place explosive charges against the larger beach obstacles. The first men to land on the beaches, they were confronted by deliberate German shooting, and accidental shooting from those making for the shore (now known as “friendly fire”). One of them later recalled the effect of the German snipers: “They were nipping us off as I was working with two blokes on a tough bit of element, when I suddenly found myself working alone. My two pals just gurgled and disappeared under the water.”

Many thousands of mined obstacles having been cleared, the main landing forces approached their respective beaches. Off all the landing beaches the sea was rough, with waves almost everywhere three to four feet high. Many of the men in their landing craft had been seasick during the all-night crossing. The wind generally was force 4—between thirteen and eighteen miles an hour. But when the leading landing craft—including those carrying the amphibious DD tanks—touched down, it was, in Admiral Ramsay’s words, “at the right place and at approximately the right time throughout the length of the front.” At six-thirty in the morning, more than six hours after the first parachute landings, American troops landed at Utah Beach with their amphibious tanks. They were followed almost immediately by their fellow Americans landing at Omaha Beach.

At 7:25 A.M. the first British soldiers were ashore at Gold and Sword Beaches, followed, at Juno Beach, by the Canadians, the first 2,400 of the 15,000 who were to land that morning, supported by seventy-six amphibious tanks. Unlike the other Allied forces, the Canadians were almost all civilian volunteers.

Seasickness on the crossing was widespread at all the landings. The wind had whipped up rough seas and made the crossing a torment for many. “It wasn’t too bad for us sailors,” commented a Royal Navy Commando, Ronald McKinlay, “but I think one of the main reasons why Normandy was a great success was that the soldiers would much rather have fought thousands of Germans than go back into those boats and be seasick again.”

At Juno, as on all the beaches, the warships offshore were starting their final hour of bombardment of the German batteries, in anticipation of the troops reaching them and advancing beyond them. Above the beachhead the Allied air forces flew a total of 13,688 sorties on June 6. These included reconnaissance flights above and beyond the beachhead, cross-Channel shipping protection, smokescreen cover, convoy and beach cover, artillery spotting, anti-U-boat patrols, parachutist and glider tugs, defensive patrols and offensive sweeps.

The German lacked the ability in the air to respond to the landings. When darkness fell, Allied night fighters patrolled above the shipping lanes and beachhead. To assist them, five tank landing ships had been converted into Fighter Direction Tenders (FDTs), with radar apparatus set up on the deck, and Royal Air Force as well as Royal Navy personnel. For a week, these vessels remained off each of the beaches, guiding the Allied fighter force.

The night air defenses on D-Day had been planned at Montgomery’s headquarters by his Anti-Aircraft Adviser, Brigadier Basil Hughes, an expert on the uses of radar, who was said to be able to walk into any radar cabin and diagnose its sets’ faults at once. In the run-up to D-Day, Hughes had both planned and established the system of coordination between British and American anti-aircraft units.

The German navy was unable to halt or even harass the cross-Channel invading forces. Navy Group West, based at Cherbourg, consisted of only sixty craft, which were under continual Allied air attack. The destroyer flotilla had been reduced to two operational vessels. The Allied naval operations during June 6 were of great complexity and daring, the culmination of more than a year of intense preparation, no less complex or difficult than the air and land operations. In all, seven thousand Allied ships took part on D-Day. The written orders for their maneuvering in the crowded offshore waters of the landing areas, bringing the men to the shore and bombarding the German shore defenses, filled a thousand pages.

The largest component of Neptune was more than four thousand landing craft. Half of these, including the main tank landing craft (the LSTs), could travel under their own power. The others were taken across the Channel by armed salvage tugs and protected by armed trawlers. Almost all the LSTs had been built in the United States. Each could carry eighteen tanks or thirty trucks, or 500 to 1,400 tons of supplies. This landing craft armada was preceded by 287 minesweepers clearing a path for it and by 138 warships bombarding the German coastal defenses.

Churchill had hoped to witness the landings on D-Day from a warship offshore, but both the king and Eisenhower had dissuaded him. General de Gaulle had also hoped to go ashore, as France’s liberator, as soon as possible. Both men had to wait, Churchill until D+6 and de Gaulle until D+8. It was not the visitors, however exalted, but the fighting men who were the focus of attention and bore the burden of fighting from the first hours, in the air, at sea, and on land.

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