D-Day


The Chapter on D-Day in BRITAIN AT WAR 1939 to 1945 What was life like during the war? by James Lingard (ISBN 9781434359339) is set out below. The book is recommended to members by the Historical Association.and provides an ‘excellent easy to digest overview of – – Britain during World War 2’ (History Times (May 2009). It is now also available from the Authorhouse bookstore as an ebook under ISBN 9781434359346 http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/BookSearchResults.aspx?Search=9781434359346 or as a paperback

 http://www.authorhouse.co.uk/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000242715.

D-DAY

‘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 – many 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.

In another sector of the battlefield, a bridge building unit had strict orders as to precisely where to bridge a canal which threatened to hold up the allied advance. They drove directly to the map reference – no sign of military activity in the vicinity.

Within a few hours the bridge was completed ready to be tested. The colonel always insisted on being the first to drive across and this he did. Still no sign of allied tanks – he reported the position and was ordered to sit and wait for them.

Suddenly the roar of engines and twenty Panzers quickly surrounded him and his men. They were disarmed and the German commander told him that they had been watching him for the past hour and his bridge would be most useful.

Three of the German tanks escorted the unit to a German base ten miles or so to the rear. There the British officers were entertained to dinner in the officers mess, while the men were marched off to another building.

Half way through the meal, a knock on the door and a British colour sergeant entered and saluted smartly. ‘A problem, sir,’ he said to the Panzer major. ‘May I have a word with my colonel?’Permission was readily given and the colonel walked over to the door. ‘The men are getting restless,’ he was told. ‘We have overpowered the handful of men guarding us and taken their weapons. There is a guard on the gate and four German officers with you, but that’s all. The tanks have gone. Permission to carry on, sir?’

The colonel consented and within moments the tables were turned and the bridge building unit drove out of the camp with four Panzer officers as their prisoners. They headed back towards their bridge. Two miles short of the bridge, they entered the square of a small town, and to their horror saw the Panzer tanks which had captured them. These were drawn up in a neat row with their crews sitting on or around them, relaxing and drinking beer.

They heard the tank engines starting up as they raced on. The colonel radioed his Head Quarters for help. They made the bridge in record time and raced across. The colonel jumped out to lay a charge and dynamite it. An American voice came over the radio: ‘Don’t do that. Let them come. We’re waiting for them. Just get lost will you.’

The unit sped on under no illusion that next time the Germans would not be so gentlemanly. Then, behind them gunfire erupted. A tank battle had begun; the Panzers had been ambushed. The colonel did not wait to see who won.

*   *   *

Heavy German reinforcements were hastening to the front, but equally the Allies planned to have twenty five divisions deployed within a month. The sixty German divisions – of which ten were Panzers – available to defend France against the invasion were widely spread around the coast; only nine infantry and one Panzer being on hand in Normandy. Such had been the success of the allied deception that they planned to attack Calais.

By 12th June, the Germans had brought four Panzer divisions into the battle – less than General Eisenhower expected. The air offensive had succeeded in disrupting communications. Cherbourg held out until the 26th June and the port suffered heavy demolition which put it out of action for a further ten weeks. The weather also deteriorated and storms destroyed one of the two floating harbours which had been towed across the Channel. Even so, good progress was made in supplying and building up the bridgeheads.

As in Russia, Hitler made the mistake of ordering his troops to stand and fight where they were, rather than making strategic withdrawals. In the last week of June, the British front was attacked by strong Panzer forces, but they were beaten off with heavy losses by air attack and accurate artillery fire. On 8th to 10th July, a British counterattack at last succeeded in taking Caen which had suffered heavy bombing.

By mid-July the Allies had thirty divisions ashore opposed by twenty seven German divisions weakened by heavy allied bombing whenever the weather permitted. Rommel himself suffered severe wounds from a low flying fighter. The Nazis could only respond at night with attacks by single aircraft. Then, on 20th July 1944, desperate anti-nazis attempted to assassinate Hitler, but failed – leading to a massive purge which included Rommel himself.

Hitler now released his Fifteenth Army to oppose the landings, but their intervention came too late to make much impact. The American break out under General Bradley began on the 25th July and cut the German escape route down the Normandy coast. Four Panzer divisions checked the Canadian advance on Falaise. Brest on the tip of the Cherbourg peninsular held out until the 19th September.

Hitler insisted on a major counterattack by five Panzer divisions on Mortain but this was beaten back. Much of the surviving armour succeeded in withdrawing before the gap in the allied advance at Falaise closed, but eight German divisions were effectively annihilated.

The allied advance continued and on 24th August entered Paris. The Germans are estimated at this stage to have lost 400,000 men – half prisoners – and 1,300 tanks.

Published reviews include:-

History Direct and History Times (May 2009)

‘James Lingard’s Britain at War 1939-1945 presents the reader with an excellent easy to digest overview of the key events that affected Britain during World War two. He has skillfully weaved personal accounts and his own experiences as a boy into the book to deliver a fascinating insight into the trials of civilian life in Britain at this key juncture in our nation’s history.’

Practical Family History (April 2009)

‘Written from the standpoint of the people who were involved, Britain at War brings the period alive with accurate facts and figures to illuminate the personal experiences described in their fascinating stories.’

The History Magazine (Spring Issue 2009)

For many older people the Second World War was the major event in their lives, but for the rest of us it is just history and it is hard to imagine what life was really like for them. In his book James Lingard tries to give us a picture of how a small boy saw life in the war interspersed with a potted history of the war to put things in context. He brings to life just how difficult it was to do even the most ordinary things in wartime such as travel from Bournemouth to Yorkshire. He also gives a graphic description of bombing raids and tells of how as a four year old boy he was nearly arrested as a spy just because he waved to a German plane. This book gives historically accurate facts and figures and cuts through the propaganda which was fed to the wartime public. I enjoyed this book giving as it does an insight into one person’s war. I would have liked to find out what happened to the young James and his parents after the war.’

UCL People (University College London) (March 2009)

‘A memoir of boyhood in Britain during World War II, this short but powerful book brings together personal reflections with the historical and political context. The author’s memories are interwoven with quotations from Churchill’s speeches and overviews of the major campaigns.’

Family Tree Magazine  

At the outbreak of war, the author was a young boy living in south London who later evacuated with his mother to her parents’ house in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, while his father joined the Army. The author’s personal recollections and stories are deftly interwoven with historical facts and figures to bring the period vividly to life.’

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