Relaxing On The Beach? You Need To Thank The Men Who Ran Over One 70 Years Ago …
Friday June 6th marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day. In what was the pivotal move during the Second World War, 156,000 Allied troops launched an offensive across land, sea, and air to reclaim France and the rest of occupied Europe from the grip of Nazi Germany.
At midnight on D-Day, ground troops landed across five beaches – code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
By the end of the day, the Allies had established themselves on shore and could begin the advance into France.
This week, world leaders from 17 nations, as well as elderly veterans, will gather in northern France to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the operation code-named ‘Overlord’.
Commemorations will include a ceremony at Sword Beach, one of the five Allied landing beaches across a 50-mile stretch of Normandy coastline, where the Queen will be in attendance.
By early 1944, victory against Nazi Germany seemed as elusive as ever.
In the East the Russians were defeating German troops but, throughout Europe, it was known that another campaign would have to sweep towards Berlin from the West if victory were to be won.
Lieutenant General Frederick Morgan was put in charge of planning the invasion to end all invasions. He and his officers began to draft the blueprint for D-Day.
If ports were well-defended, the best option was to aim for poorly defended beaches – but which ones?
In 1942, the BBC issued an appeal for postcards and photographs of the coast of Europe from Norway to the Pyrenees.
Millions were sent to the War Office and, together with the aid of the French Resistance and air reconnaissance, Morgan was able to pick his target beach landing spots.
All the research pointed to one region – Normandy.
In July 1943, Morgan submitted his plan for the attack, Operation Overlord.
It was accepted a month later by the US and British chiefs of staff meeting in Quebec.
Since US troops were to form 75 per cent of the total force, Morgan knew that an American would eventually lead Overlord.
That American was General Dwight D Eisenhower. He was aided by Britain’s hero of the battle of el Alamein, General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, who was given command of Overlord’s American and British ground troops. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was to command the vast naval invasion.
Maintaining security remained a problem from March 1943 right up until D-Day itself.
In September 1943, it was decided that all personnel granted access to top secret documents should be given an ID card stamped with a single word, BIGOT. It was assumed that no sane person was likely to brag about such a classification.
Secret documents were also stamped BIGOT and marked with a red cross.
From March 1944, British newspapers published countless stories about the invasion.
By the time Eisenhower had briefed senior officers about Operation Overlord at St Paul’s School on 15 May 1944, there were more then 100 journalists from newspapers and news agencies from both sides of the Atlantic accredited to SHAEAF, The Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force.
The huge numbers of men and resources that would be needed for the attack, however, could potentially be discovered by enemy reconnaissance aircraft.
Morgan, therefore, devised an elaborate deception strategy, later codenamed Operation Fortitude, alongside the real assault plan.
This would try to disguise where the attack was to take place.
On Friday 2 June 1944, all across Southern England, vast military conveys made their way from the embarkation camps towards Plymouth, Torquay and Exmouth, Southampton, Southsea and Eastbourne.
In every port, special vehicle slipways – or ‘hards’ – had been built, piers converted into ammunition dumps and, in the skies, hundreds of landing-craft silver barrage balloons where buffeted by the wind.
The stage was set for the biggest military operation in history…
On Monday 5 June, the day scheduled for D-Day, the weather closed in on the vast flotilla of ships making their way across the channel to Normandy.
To allow for an improvement in the weather, Eisenhower and the Allied command took the painstaking decision to delay the attack until early on 6 June.
At 5.30am, with a slight window in the atrocious conditions, the orders were finally given for the invasion to begin.
The Allied naval guns were immense weapons that lobbed shells, weighing up to a ton, across more than 10 miles of open sea.
This carefully planed attack targeted German bunkers, picking off strong gun positions on all target beaches, Sword, Juno, Utah, Omaha and Gold – before troops ever reached the shore.
For American troops from Company A, mostly made up from men from the small Virginian town of Bedford, the carefully orchestrated shelling of German gun positions made little difference; the company suffered 90 per cent casualties.
The next wave of men fared little better, meeting strong resistance from German forces; progress was slow and casualties were numerous.
For British forces landing on Sword Beach, the result was a little more encouraging; by 10.00am on 6 June, the beach was littered with burnt-out tanks, trucks and bodies, but the forces where moving slowly upwards.
By midday on the 6 June, as Allied forces landed more men, the tide was turning on all the beaches.
By late afternoon on 6 June, the Allied forces had finally gained a foothold in Hitler’s Fortress Europe, and the war was about to turn against the German occupying forces.
• D-Day planning took place at Norfolk House in London’s St James’s Square. The building had a private bar installed so staff could talk freely without risking loose talk in local pubs.
• Just weeks before D-Day, ‘Utah’ appeared as an answer to a crossword clue in The Daily Telegraph. Utah was the codename for one of the invasion beaches. On 22 May, ‘Omaha’ popped up as a crossword answer. ‘Overlord’ appeared on 27 May, and ‘Neptune’ (code word for the naval aspect of the invasion) on 1 June. MI5 cleared the compiler of wrong-doing but, to this day, there has been no satisfactory explanation.
• Rommel was in charge of defending northern France from Allied invasion. But he was nearly a thousand miles from Normandy on D-Day, celebrating his wife’s 50th birthday in their home in Herrlingen.
• When the D-Day forces landed, Hitler was asleep. None of his generals dared order re-enforcements without his permission, and no-one dared wake him. Crucial hours were lost in the battle to hold on to Normandy.
• More than 700 American servicemen died in one of the biggest full-scale rehearsals for D-Day, held off Slapton Sands in Devon. It involved all the 23,000 US soldiers who were preparing to land on the Normandy beach codenamed Utah. Due to an error in paperwork, the landing ships and their escorts were on different radio frequencies and couldn’t talk to each other. So when one of the ships, the HMS Scimitar, had to return to Plymouth after an accidental collision, the Americans could not be informed that they were inadequately protected and vulnerable. As bad luck would have it, nine German U-boats stumbled across the manoeuvres and torpedoed the ships, sinking two ships and damaging a third. At least 749 men died.
• Coded sentences were necessary to keep French resistance workers in the know before D-Day. ‘The dice is on the carpet’ was an order to destroy trains and railway lines, whilst ‘It’s hot in Suez’ instructed them to destroy cable and telephone lines.
• Having been given his top-secret mission to attack the Merville battery on D-Day, Terence Otway had to be certain his men wouldn’t spill the beans ahead of 6 June 1944. He sent 30 of the prettiest members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, in civilian clothes, into village pubs near where his soldiers were training. They were asked to do all they could to discover the men’s mission. None of the men gave anything away.
Garbo; the Spanish Spy …
A Spanish-born secret agent – codenamed Garbo – became the Allies’ top double agent, providing the Germans with misinformation on troop force and movement in the run-up to D-Day.
It was later discovered that he had encouraged the Germans to over-estimate the number of Allied divisions by 50 per cent.
From start to finish, the story of Garbo is almost beyond belief. The trust the Germans placed in him was wholly genuine and wholly misplaced. This included the fictitious First US Army Group (FUSAG), the ‘existence’ of which led the Germans to hold back seven of their divisions in the Pas de Calais uselessly for two weeks after D-Day. The FUSAG only ever existed on paper.
Whilst living in Portugal, Garbo managed to produce reports of life in England which the Germans accepted as true. At the time, he spoke no English, and used a French-English dictionary, supported by newspapers and the local library, to make up his reports. One of his most glaring errors was to suggest that there were men in Glasgow who would do anything for a litre of wine.