The British Beaches

Sword Beach looking east, allocated to 3rd British Division

Sword Beach was the most easterly beach and lay between Ouistreham and Luc-sur-mer.

 

The beaches between Ouistreham and Quinéville were divided into five sections for the British and Canadian assault divisions and the American divisional groups. Intelligence on all the beaches came from many sources including the French resistance, aerial photographs and especially clandestine means by Combined Operations Assault Pilotage Parties (COPPs). This unit was a highly specialised and skilled British team which undertook arduous and dangerous covert operations. They gathered detailed information on enemy held ground which maps and photographs did not show such as firmness of the sand, stretches of shingle and mud, including samples, as well as the precise positions and technical details of beach obstacles.

 

On the British and Canadian beaches the initial assault landings were led by specialised armour, known as funnies, with sappers to clear beach obstacles and mines, lay tracks and clear routes and provide direct fire support. They were followed immediately with infantry to take and hold ground, artillery, communications, follow-up and support units. The funnies included the Sherman DD (duplex drive fitted with a propeller and flotation equipment), flail tanks, bobbins and roly-poly tanks which laid tracking, fascines which carried log bundles to fill anti-tank ditches, self-propelled ramps which were turret-less tanks which provided a ramp up a sea wall for other tanks, and bridging tanks. After their primary task most of them were then used as normal tanks. Two other special tanks were the petards which threw a large bunker-busting bomb from a mortar and the crocodiles which threw flame.

Sword Beach looking west from the centre

The vast fleet assembled to carry, escort and support the invading ground forces involved about 5,500 vessels from warships to landing craft which in turn launched over 3,500 specialist vehicles such as DD tanks and Duplex Drive Amphibious Trucks (DUKWs). They were preceded by some of the COPPs team in two X craft, small three man submarines. They positioned themselves at each extremity of the British sector as markers for the landing craft. They were to be in position 36 hours before H hour on D Day. Due to the postponement they spent three nights and two days lying on the seabed or surfacing at night for fresh air and communications. On D Day they surfaced at 0445 hours, switched on their radio and acoustic beacons and flashed their signal light seawards until the first wave of assault vessels passed them.

The length of coast where the landings took place is marked by a series of monuments indicated on blue displays boards like the one shown here.

 

The stonework behind the board is part of the Atlantic Wall defences. This section has been incorporated into a residential building.

The only naval action of the invasion took place as the fleet approached to bombard the shore defences. It was led proudly by two Norwegian destroyers which steamed in and anchored at 0530 hours as aircraft laid a smoke screen between the fleet and German batteries at Le Havre. Minesweepers were clearing a channel ahead of them when three German torpedo boats appeared out of the smoke. The German commander had been told that six warships were approaching and he led his small group into the smoke at 28 knots. When they emerged they had the biggest shock of seeing a sea full of ships. Nevertheless they went into their attack formation and launched 17 torpedoes. As luck would have it all but one torpedo passed right through the fleet despite several near misses. The one which found a target hit the lead Norwegian vessel amidships and sunk her with the loss of 32 men. As they came under fire the three torpedo boats escaped into the smoke and scurried back to their harbour.

Sword Beach looking west at Lion-sur-mer

The landings were timed for low tide so that the beach obstacles could be seen and destroyed by engineers. As the tide swept up the channel eastwards the landing timings were adjusted accordingly. The beaches are all very flat so the tide goes out about ¼ mile but sweeps in quite quickly. The obstacles were steel stakes supporting mines, behind them were minefields, natural obstacles such as shingle, sea walls and dunes, wire entanglements and steel hedgehogs, with many gun positions covering the beaches to provide enfilade fire.

 

On the British beaches the landings were led by armour with the DD tanks following the flail tanks and other funnies. In the rough weather many of the Sherman DDs were swamped and sank with a heavy loss of their crews but those that made it ashore provided essential direct fire support for the infantry. Artillery units provided additional support from their landing craft as they came ashore. The force landed from a variety of craft after heavy bombing of the German defences and under cover of massive naval gunfire. The Germans had anticipated landings being made at high tide so low tide added an element of surprise but also risk because the gunfire lifted on schedule and could give the defenders a chance to strike the landings if they ran late, which many did.

One of many local memorials along the coast

Sword Beach: 3rd Division from Ouistreham west to Luc-sur-mer:

 

At dawn the sea off this most eastern beach was rough and the tide would run high. The German defences had survived the bombardment and an artillery battery beyond the River Orne had the beach in range. Four landing craft led the assault to launch Sherman DD tanks 4000 yards offshore at 0720 hours. The first squadron of 13th/18th Hussars lost two tanks sunk when the following LCTs collided with them, whilst others were swamped as they grounded and drove through the water up the beach.

 

Sherman Crab flail tanks of 22nd Dragoon Guards and sappers landed on schedule at 0725 hours. As the sappers tackled the obstacles the tanks moved forward and engaged the defences with their Shermans’ 75mm guns, Petard mortars and Crocodile flame-throwers. Other funnies cleared mines and laid tracks across the dunes to force a route past houses to reach the coast road. They achieved this despite enemy fire at very close range.

 

The armour was followed shortly by infantry elements of 1st South Lancashire Regiment, 2nd East Yorkshire Regiment, Commando units and beach control teams. The navy commanded up to the line of high water spring tides and the army was in charge above that line. Next came more sappers with bulldozers and funnies, artillery, more tanks, more infantry and more guns plus stores and ammunition. The Sword Beach landings were successful and the casualties relatively light compared to elsewhere although both lead battalions each lost nearly a dozen officers and 100 men.

Juno Beach looking east at Berniéres-sur-mer

Juno Beach: 3rd Canadian Division from Langrun-sur-mer west to Graye-sur-mer:

 

The sea was rough and the landings followed an air bombardment which mostly overflew the target due to poor visibility; consequently they were late. The fast rising tide was higher than expected and hid a reef as well as the beach obstacles. The delay and landing difficulties gave the Germans time to recover from the bombing before the Canadians got ashore and on to the beach.

 

Empty LCTs going astern hit the obstacles and hindered incoming vessels. 80% of the leading landing craft were effectively lost. 34 Centaur tanks became casualties leaving just 6 to provide close support for the lead battalions until the following Shermans caught up. The defences were in the dunes and houses close to the beach and once they were overcome the rest of the force was able to move. There was heavy fighting in Courselles-sur-mer, St Aubin-sur-mer and Berniéres-sur-mer but the Canadians were able to press on inland to their objectives further than any other units on D Day.

Looking west at Berniéres-sur-mer where the assault company suffered 50% casualties

"First house liberated" and memorial to the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada

Bunker memorial at Juno Beach

Gold Beach looking east at Asnelles

Gold Beach: 50th Division from La Riviére west to Port-en-Bessin:

 

The assault went in between La Riviére in the east and La Hamal, just west of Asnelles. The specialist tanks and sappers filled their critical role ahead of the four battalions in the first wave. The centre pair, 1 Dorsets and 6 Green Howards, came under intense fire from the German positions near Ver-sur-mer. Armour with its fire support was late in landing and the Centaur tanks suffered as they did on Juno beach. 41 Commando lost 46 men in their landing craft due to mines before advancing to Port-en-Bessin.

 

Despite the casualties on this beach as well as those on Juno and Sword the overall landing operation for the 2nd British Army was a great success. Nine artillery regiments, seven armoured regiments, fifteen battalions, seven commandos, two engineer regiments and many supporting units were ashore and moving on to take key points and ground inland.

6 Green Howards' beach west of La Riviére

Frank Hollis VC in 1971 - as a sergeant-major he single-handedly destroyed a pillbox, took 25 prisoners and distinguished himself in several similar successive actions

Lt Col Robin Hastings, former Commanding Officer of 6 Green Howards, at a battlefield tour in 1971

Memorial at Asnelles

German 88 mm gun position

Gold Beach museum in Ver-sur-mer and also of the aeroplane America making the first mail flight from the USA to Europe in 1927

Part of the heavy Mt Fleury Battery at Ver-sur-mer above Gold Beach, now a garage and store

Looking west from Asnelles towards Arromanches where remains of the Mulberry Harbour, built for ships to supply the invasion force, can still be seen

Port-en-Bassin - the objective for 47 Commando and where PLUTO (pipeline under the ocean) was subsequently terminated to supply the invasion force