The Pas de Calais, as the shortest route across the Channel, would have had the best cover from fighter aircraft from the RAF’s Kentish airfields. The Abwehr also believed the information supplied by its spy network in the United Kingdom, centred on an anti-Fascist Catalan called Juan Pujol García, who lived in a safe house in Hendon and was codenamed Garbo by the Allies (who awarded him the MBE) and Arabel by the Germans (who awarded him the Iron Cross), his twenty-four fictitious sub-agents and other German spies who had been infiltrated into Britain, every single one of whom had been successfully ‘turned’ by MI5. These included the real and imagined agents Gelatine, Hamlet, Meteor, Brutus (Roman Garby-Czerniawski), Cobweb (Ib Riis), Beetle (Petur Thomsen), Bronx (Elvira Chaudoir), Tricycle, Artist, Freak, Tate, Mullet, Puppet and Treasure. As they fed the Abwehr with reports about FUSAG’s activities, all co-ordinated by Garbo (so called because he was such as accomplished actor), the spy network became completely trusted by the Germans. Meanwhile Ultra built up a picture of the enemy’s order of battle and command structure in France, helped by the French Resistance destroying landline connections, thus forcing the Germans to resort to wireless communications. It took the Germans nearly a week after the Normandy landings had begun to appreciate that they were not a southern feint, but the true invasion itself, and even up to 26 June half a million troops of the German Fifteenth Army stayed stationed around the Pas de Calais, guarding against an invasion that would not come.
At 00.16 hours on D-Day, Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork landed his Horsa glider a mere 50 yards from the road bridge over the Caen Canal, now known as Pegasus Bridge, and only 500 yards from the bridge over the River Orne. These two coastal road bridges were strategically vital, because any German counter-attack from the east would need to cross them, as would any Allied breakout to the plains east of Caen. ‘The Horsa seemed to skim the tall trees at the end of the field,’ recalled one of those on board, ‘and came in to land with an ear-splitting crash that shook us all to our bones.’ One minute later, at 00.17, a second glider landed and then at 00.18 a third. The pilots had flown 5 miles by moonlight with only a stopwatch and a flashlight attached to a finger to guide them, yet they landed precisely where the French Resistance had pinpointed, through the perimeter-wire defences of the bridge.
Ninety men from D Company of the 2nd Battalion, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, under the command of Major John Howard, debouched from the gliders and captured Pegasus Bridge without difficulty, so total was the Germans’ surprise. They then held it until relieved by Lord Lovat’s Commandos, who marched from the beach up the canal tow-path at 13.00 hours to the sound of bagpipes played by Lovat’s piper, Bill Millin, ‘blowing away for all he was worth’. Less accurate in their landing zones were the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, some units of which landed as far as 35 miles off target. Yet this, and the practice of dropping dummy parachutists, had the added advantage of so confusing German intelligence that it estimated that 100,000 Allied troops had landed by air, more than four times the true number. The majority of parachutists landed in the correct drop-zones, however, and were to play an invaluable part in attacking the beaches from the rear and holding back the inevitable German counter-attack.
The French Resistance had been ordered to ready itself for the invasion by the BBC broadcast on 1 June of the first line of the poem ‘Autumn Song’ by Paul Verlaine, which went: Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne (The long sobs of the autumn violins). The Abwehr had tortured a Maquis leader and learnt that when the second line – Blessent mon coeur d’une langeur monotone (wound my heart with monotonous langour) – was broadcast, it meant that the invasion was imminent. So when it was duly broadcast at 23.15 on 5 June, the commander of the Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais put his troops on alert, but no one warned the Seventh Army in Normandy. At Army Group B’s château headquarters at La Roche-Guyon it was assumed that it must be mere disinformation, as the Allies would hardly have announced the invasion over the BBC.
When shortly before 05.00 the Seventh Army’s chief of staff warned Army Group B that the attack was indeed taking place, Rommel himself was unavailable as he was in Germany celebrating his wife Lucie’s birthday which fell that day. He only made it back to La Roche-Guyon at 6 o’clock that evening. His chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Hans Speidel, ordered the 12th SS Hitler Youth Panzer Division to counter-attack at Caen at first light, but some of the 4,500 bombers that the Allies fielded that day severely blunted this assault. As Rommel later pointed out:
Even the movement of the most minor formations on the battlefield – artillery going into position, tanks forming up, etc. – is instantly attacked from the air with devastating effect. During the day fighting troops and headquarters alike are forced to seek cover in wooded and close country in order to escape the constant pounding of the air. Up to 640 [naval] guns have been used. The effect is so immense that no operation of any kind is possible in the area commanded by this rapid-fire artillery, either by infantry or tanks.
Interrogated after the war, Speidel quoted Rommel as having said, very perceptively:
Elements which are not in contact with the enemy at the moment of invasion will never get into action, because of the enormous air superiority of the enemy… If we do not succeed in carrying out our combat mission of warding off the Allies or hurling them from the mainland in the first 48 hours, the invasion has succeeded and the war is lost for lack of strategic reserves and lack of Luftwaffe in the west.
Although Hitler was not woken at Berchtesgaden with the news of the Normandy landings – he had been up with Goebbels until 3 o’clock the previous night, ‘exchanging reminiscences, taking pleasure in the many fine days and weeks we have had together’, recorded Goebbels; ‘the mood is like the good old times’ – it made very little difference. Even by the lunchtime conference OKW was unsure that this was the true attack rather than a diversion. Rundstedt was not certain either. So by the time two Panzer divisions were sent against the beaches 100 miles away, much valuable time had been lost.30 This was not the fault of the adjutants who failed to wake the Führer, so much as evidence of the success of the Allies’ deception operation in confusing the minds of the OKW and OKH about where the main attack was going to take place, and of the difference of opinion between Rundstedt and Rommel about what should be done. Rundstedt thought the Allies could not be prevented from landing and so needed to be flung back into the sea in a counter-attack; Rommel felt they had to be stopped from getting ashore, telling his Staff that ‘The first twenty-four hours will be decisive.’31 In all there were fifty-nine German divisions in the west at the time of D-Day, of which eight were in Holland and Belgium. More than half that total were mere coastal-defence or training divisions, and of the twenty-seven field divisions only ten were armoured, with three of these in the south and one near Antwerp. Six divisions, four of them coastal defence, were stationed along the 200 miles of Normandy coast west of the Seine where the Allies attacked. ‘These dispositions would more truly be described as “coast-protection” rather than as defence!’ stated Blumentritt later.
At 05.50 a massive naval bombardment opened up on the German beach fortifications and the villages along the Normandy coast. At H-hour, 06.30, the main American landings took place on Utah and Omaha beaches, with the British and Canadians arriving on their three beaches an hour later. The crossings had taken several hours in some cases. It had been feared that the Germans would use gas on the beaches, and the anti-gas chemical with which uniforms were sprinkled smelt so disgusting that, once added to the landing crafts’ tossing about in the waves, it induced vomiting in many troops who had not already been seasick.
At Utah 23,000 men got ashore with only 210 killed and wounded, partly because the current swept the 4th Division’s landing craft some 2,000 yards south of the original area designated for attack, on to a relatively lightly defended part of the coastline, and twenty-eight of the thirty-two amphibious Duplex Drive (DD) Sherman tanks got ashore. The one regiment facing them from the German 709th Division surrendered in large numbers once the 101st Airborne had secured at least four exits from the beaches.
On Omaha beach, however, where two-thirds of the American effort that day was to land, it was a very different state of affairs. The veteran US 1st Division (known as the Big Red One from its shoulder flash) and the 29th Division, which had never seen combat before, were to suffer ten times the losses as did the 4th Division at Utah. Despite all the intense preparation, with tourists’ photo albums pored over by Staff officers for years, the ground had been seemingly ill chosen for attack. However, once the decision had been taken to expand the lodgement area (that is, the territory to be secured by Overlord from which further operations could be conducted) as far as Utah beach to the west, Omaha beach was the only feasible landing area between Utah and the British and Canadian beaches. The cliffs and bluffs at Omaha were in some places more than 150 feet above the sea wall at the end of the dunes; the inward curvature of the coast at that stretch helped German fields of fire to overlap; underwater sand bars and ridges snagged landing craft; the powerful and well-placed fortifications (which can still be seen today) were not silenced by naval shelling; the anti-personnel mines, barbed wire and huge steel anti-tank ‘hedgehogs’ proved murderous obstacles; accurate German artillery fire, and above all a regiment of the 716th Infantry Division and units from the crack German 352nd Infantry Division, caused havoc. Ultra had conveyed that there would be eight enemy battalions at Omaha, rather than the four that had been planned for, but it was too late to alter the entire plan because of them. These battalions provided, in the words of Overlord’s historian Max Hastings, ‘by far the greatest concentration of German fire on the entire invasion front’. This nearly led to disaster for the Americans on Omaha.
‘With unbelieving eyes we could recognize individual landing craft,’ recalled Franz Gockel of the 726th Infantry Regiment of the 716th Division. ‘The hail of shells falling on us grew heavier, sending fountains of sand and debris into the air.’34 The opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan is the best cinematographic representation of those first monstrous minutes of the American landings on Omaha beach, but even that cannot begin to show the extent of the chaos and carnage on the beaches. This would have been even worse had Rommel been right about the Allies arriving at high tide, as every gun had been fixed for that eventuality. As it was they came in at low tide in order for the obstacles to be more visible. This had its own disadvantages, however, for as Signal Sergeant James Bellows of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment recalled of the men he had landed with on Sword: ‘A lot of them had been overridden by their landing craft as they came off. The landing craft became lighter as men came off and as it surged up the beach, and many who were in front went straight underneath.’
The 6,000 yards of Omaha beach along which the Americans landed were soon a scene of confusion and destruction. American soldiers – whose age averaged twenty and a half, far younger than the British twenty-four or Canadian twenty-nine years – had to leap out of their landing craft into a hail of machine-gun and mortar fire loaded down with 68 pounds of equipment, including gas-mask, grenades, TNT blocks, two ammunition bandoliers, rations, water bottle and related kit. Many simply drowned when the water they jumped into proved deeper than expected.
Although the British beaches were in part cleared of German killing apparatus by a series of specialized tank-based gadgets, known as Hobart’s funnies after Major-General Sir Percy Hobart of the 79th Armoured Division, which employed inventions such as giant thrashing metal chains to set off mines, Generals Bradley and Gerow preferred massive frontal assault. Because of heavy seas and being transferred from their transport vessels 11½ miles out, ten landing craft and twenty-six artillery pieces sank on the way to the beaches. ‘I never saw water that bad,’ recalled Sergeant Roy Stevens, ‘the seas were rolling and rolling, and there were whitecaps way out where we were, twelve miles from the coast.’ Most of the troops had been seasick on the three-hour journey in choppy seas. The British transferred only 6½ miles out, and suffered fewer sinkings as a result in less turbulent weather. The loss of twenty-seven of the twenty-nine DD ‘floating’ tanks, which were launched 6,000 yards from the Omaha shore but then sank when the waves came over their canvas screens, denied the Americans the necessary firepower to get off the beach early. ‘We could see a shambles ahead of us on the beach,’ recalled Leading Aircraftman Norman Phillips of the RAF who landed there, ‘burning tanks, jeeps, abandoned vehicles, a terrific crossfire.’
The official account of what happened to Able Company of the 116th Infantry, 29th Division, after its landing craft hit Omaha beach at 06.36 gives a sense of the horror of those next few minutes:
Ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man’s head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine gun fire from both ends of the beach… The first men out… are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning, doomed by the water-logging of their overloaded packs… Already the sea runs red… A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upwards, so that their nostrils are out of the water, they creep towards the land at the same rate as the tide. This is how most of the survivors make it… Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless.
It was not until 13.30, after seven hours being pinned down on the beaches, that Gerow could signal to Omar Bradley, who was on board a ship trying to make out what was going on through binoculars, that ‘Troops formerly pinned down on beaches’ were finally ‘advancing up heights behind beaches’. Although there were 2,000 Americans killed on Omaha beach, by nightfall a total of 34,000 men had made it ashore, including two Ranger battalions that had silenced the German coastal battery at Pointe du Hoc to the west after scaling cliffs with rope ladders. At one point the 5th Rangers had to don gas-masks in order to charge through the dense smoke coming from the undergrowth of a hillside that suddenly caught fire.
There were no high cliffs at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, and more time for the naval bombardment to soften up the German defences; however, by late afternoon part of the 21st Panzer Division attacked in the gap between Juno and Sword beaches and almost made it to the Channel before being turned back by naval fire. The British suffered over 3,000 casualties, but by the end the Canadians, who lost 1,074, got the furthest inland on the first day, with their 9th Brigade advancing to within 3 miles of the outskirts of Caen.
At 16.00 hours Hitler, who had dithered about the best way to react to what he still suspected was a diversionary attack, finally agreed to Rundstedt’s request to send two Panzer divisions into the battle in addition to the 12th SS and 21st Panzer Divisions already committed. But as the historian Gerhard Weinberg has pointed out:
The reinforcements dribbled into the invasion front were never enough, and the Allied air forces as well as the sabotage efforts of the French resistance and Allied special teams slowed down whatever was sent. The German armoured divisions, therefore, arrived one at a time and quite slowly, were never able to punch through, and ended up being mired in positional warfare because they continued to be needed at the front in the absence of infantry divisions.
Allied aerial supremacy over the battlefield made it impossible for the German tanks to be committed better than piecemeal in daylight. Yet five armoured divisions of the reserve in France, and no fewer than nineteen divisions of the Fifteenth Army 120 miles to the north, simply stayed in place waiting for the ‘real’ attack on the Pas de Calais. Meanwhile, Rundstedt and Rommel became increasingly certain that Normandy was indeed the true Schwerpunkt, whereas the Führer continued to doubt it.
D-Day itself saw around 9,000 casualties, of whom – very unusually – more than half were killed. The dead comprised 2,500 Americans, 1,641 Britons, 359 Canadians, thirty-seven Norwegians, nineteen Free French, thirteen Australians, two New Zealanders and one Belgian: 4,572 soldiers in total. Although Air Chief Marshal Tedder had predicted that the airborne troops would lose 80 per cent of their number, the actual figure was 15 per cent; still high, but not catastrophically so. The American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer above Omaha beach bears noble witness to the sacrifice.
The Germans were critically under-reinforced at Normandy, partly because of the success of the Allies’ elaborate but never suspiciously uniform deception plans. ‘The 7th Army had thrown into battle every major unit that stood in the Cotentin,’ records a history, ‘and committing units from Brittany and elsewhere would take time.’ Yet time was a commodity of which the Germans were rapidly running out, because if the invasion was not flung back into the English Channel immediately, such were the reinforcements alighting from the Arromanches Mulberry Harbour – only one, as the one off Omaha was rendered largely inoperable by a storm on 19 June – that by 1 July they would exceed a million men, 150,000 vehicles and 500,000 tons of supplies.
D-Day once again saw a determined German counter-attack on the ground being staved off by Allied air power. The capacity and willingness of the Wehrmacht to try to push the Allies back into the sea were still there, but were overwhelmed by the ability of the RAF and USAAF to attack the unprotected armour from above, where it was weakest. The bombing campaign against Luftwaffe factories and the attritional war against German fighters once they had been built had paid off spectacularly. (There had been an effort to build German aircraft factories underground before the war, but not enough resources had been devoted to it.)
The news of D-Day gave sudden, soaring hope to Occupied Europe. ‘The invasion has begun!’ wrote the German-Jewish Anne Frank, who was about to celebrate her fifteenth birthday, in a diary that she kept while living in her family’s hidden attic in Amsterdam. ‘Great commotion in the Secret Annexe! Would the long-awaited liberation that has been talked of so much but which still seems too wonderful, too much like a fairy-tale, ever come true? Could we be granted victory this year, 1944? We don’t know yet, but hope is revived within us; it gives us fresh courage, and makes us strong again.’ In her case the hope was misplaced: the Frank family were betrayed to the Gestapo in August 1944 and Anne perished at Bergen-Belsen in early March 1945.
Having got into the countryside behind the beaches, the Americans in particular were dismayed to find themselves among the bocage – high and wide, ancient (sometimes Viking-built) thick hedgerows that provided ideal cover for defence. German resistance around Carentan on 13 June and Caen on 18 June prevented Montgomery from taking either town, although the US VII Corps under Major-General J. Lawton Collins took Cherbourg on 27 June after five days’ heavy fighting and the destruction of the harbour by the Germans, which could not be used until 7 August. The Germans in Caen, which Montgomery called the ‘crucible’ of the battle, held out until 9 July, and the town was little more than rubble when it finally fell. (This hadn’t prevented the London Evening News from proclaiming its capture on D+1.) Basil Liddell Hart was thus right in his description of Overlord as having gone ‘according to plan, but not according to timetable’
From the German perspective, General Blumentritt wrote to a correspondent in 1965, saying that the German soldier had ‘bled to death through wrong politics and dilettante leadership of Hitler’. In particular, Normandy was lost because ‘Hitler ordered a rigid defence of the coasts. That was not possible over 2,000 kilometres,’ especially when considering ‘the Allied mastery of the air, the Allied masses of matériel, and the weakened German potential after 5 years of war.’ Rundstedt, he believed, was ‘a cavalier, gentleman, grand seigneur’ with a wider view than Hitler and Rommel. Rundstedt wanted to give up the whole of France south of the Loire and fight a fast-moving tank battle around Paris instead, but was prevented by Hitler and Rommel who ‘intended to carry out the defence with all forces on the beach and to use all tank-corps right in front, at the coast’