‘In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’
The Allies had long agreed that the invasion of Northern France must have priority over all else – other operations in the Mediterranean were all secondary. The Russians, of course, regarded the defence of their country as paramount, but Stalin offered to time his next offensive to assist the invasion – in fact attacking in strength on the 23rd June 1944. The Americans also gave priority to the landing over their operations against the Japanese in the Pacific. By D-Day, 1.5 million US troops were stationed in Britain; troops who ridiculed British deference to concepts of class and the old school tie.
As a preliminary to D-Day, 6th June 1944, the French railway system suffered heavy bombing to disrupt German communications and reinforcements. Meanwhile, elaborate planning struggled to work out how best to transport 150,000 men and 20,000 vehicles to France in the first two days and how to convince the enemy that the attack would be directly across the Straits of Dover. This subterfuge, involving erecting dummy tanks guns and vehicles in the Kent countryside, was brilliantly successful and resulted in Panzer divisions being held back from the actual landings.
The invasion force comprised thirty five divisions carried in 4,000 ships supported by 11,000 aircraft of which 8,000 would go into action. In the early hours of D-Day, three airborne divisions landed behind the invasion beaches. They had mixed success: some of the gliders being blown off course; some landing too close to enemy strong points.
As dawn broke, the huge invasion fleet began its attack. German torpedo boats sank a Norwegian destroyer. An expected attack by U-boats was beaten off by aircraft which sank six of them.
The day yielded thousands of heroic actions. As an illustration, I tell that of Maurice Bennet, a civilian who had joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on the outbreak of war, and three times set out in capital ships to escort convoys to Malta. All three times, his ships had been disabled by torpedoes or bombs and with difficulty limped back to Gibraltar. When the North Africa campaign drew to a close, he had volunteered to command a tank landing craft, and successfully participated in the landings at Salerno before being ordered back to the UK in order to participate in the D-Day landings.
He and another officer volunteered for special duties. Could any such duty be more dangerous than driving a cumbersome landing craft on to a heavily defended beach? Well – yes.
Maurice was to command a landing craft modified to contain one tank and three guns – all with their barrels in fixed positions to fire straight ahead at a target one thousand yards away. He had orders to search out a shore battery; aim the guns by stearing straight at it, then fire at 1,000 yards.
D-Day dawned and Maurice and his sister craft went in at full speed ahead – such as their craft could manage – well ahead of the invasion fleet. The beach had been heavily bombed, but it seemed as though they were alone against the might of an invisible German army.
A mile out and no target identified. Suddenly, a loud explosion to port. A quick glance – the sister ship had received a direct hit and exploded into pieces. Zigzag. Just in time. Another battery closer to Maurice fired at him. This is it. He headed directly for it. Hold on – 1100 yards. Wait for it – fire.
Maurice and the battery fired more or less simutaeously. They missed; he did not. The shell from the tank hit the concrete bunker, but made precious little impression on it. The shells from the three guns exploded – – and produced red smoke. Red smoke, Maurice swore as he turned away from the beach to try another attack.
Suddenly, a tremendous explosion. The battery had gone – not only the battery but the low cliff on which it stood had collapsed into the sea.
Time to take on the second battery which had sunk his sister craft. Maurice had to cover half a mile before he was in range. Random zigzags and a lot of prayer. They fired but he made it. Once again red smoke; once again a huge explosion and the battery had half gone.
He received a signal: ‘Leave immediate’. No need to be told twice. He turned back out to sea – a sea now covered with scores of ships. As he did so, he saw the flash of heavy guns – a Rodney class battleship firing another broadside at the remains of the battery.
Could there be any survivors from the sister craft? Another signal: ‘Get out of the *** way.’ Dozens of landing craft were powering directly at him on their way to the beach and glory. He made it back – several of the others did not.
* * *
Generally, the Allies achieved complete tactical surprise, but on Omaha beach, the Americans ran into a full German division on the alert and had great difficulty in achieving a landing at all. Elsewhere, resistance proved to be lighter than expected – smashed into submission by the naval bombardment and the heavy bombing which effectively destroyed the German radar.
By nightfall on D-Day, 150,000 Allied troops had landed at a cost of approximately 10,000 killed. The Allies hoped to reach Caen, a few miles inland, but this was prevented by a force of fifty Panzers.
Inevitably, the early days after landing had times of chaos and improvisation. An infantry Colonel told me how his regiment rapidly fought their way out of the landing zone and into the Normandy countryside. Three days later, they had achieved their immediate objectives but had had no sleep and precious little food. No Germans in sight. He called a halt, requisitioned a convenient farm house as temporary headquarters, put his men into defensive positions and posted sentries.
He instructed his sergeant major that they were all exhausted and would fight better after a few hours rest, but he was to be called if any German troops were sighted. With which he threw himself on top of a bed. Too hot; he took his uniform off, but adhered to standing orders and left his loaded revolver, safety catch on, tied to his wrist with a lanyard.
The next thing he remembered was that the sergeant major burst into the room, shook him roughly by the shoulder, yelled: ‘Quick, sir. The Germans are surrounding the house.’ flung open the window and jumped out.
Had he dreamed it? He heard a voice shout in German. Hell. No time to get dressed. He flung himself through the open window and landed on his feet, just as two German soldiers came round the corner. They stared at the near naked man in astonishment. He fled for the further corner of the building, but as he ran jerked the revolver into his hand.
He heard a shouted challenge and in reply fired two rapid shots, hitting one of the soldiers in the arm. They returned fire but he was round the corner. A burst of fire from the sergeant major’s tommy gun and both Germans were dead. A quick dash to the nearest hedge, and there were a Company of his regiment lying in ambush. The Germans withdrew as rapidly as they had arrived.
This is Chapter 15 of BRITAIN AT WAR 1939 to 1945 What was life like during the war? by James Lingard which is available in paperback (ISBN 9781434359339) through local bookshops or on-line; or from AuthorHouse or Kindle as an e-book (ISBN 9781434359346).