Normandy, D Day 6th June 1944

" The arrow pierces steel "

Gold Beach at Asnelles

OPERATION OVERLORD

The invasion of occupied France on 6 June 1944 was the beginning of the end of the Second World War for Nazi Germany. The D Day landings, the immediate battle for Normandy and the subsequent breakout and advance through occupied territories to Germany proved to be a tougher nut than many had anticipated despite the skilful planning, massive troop numbers and air superiority. For D Day the ground forces alone comprised 20 American divisions, 14 British, 3 Canadian, one French and one Polish divisions. There was correspondingly considerable naval and air support with over 4,000 ships and about 8,000 aircraft. Nearly 3,000,000 service personnel took part in the invasion force and the day started in the early hours with airborne operations

Centre of Omaha Beach from a German defence position on the cliff top

In 1943 the defeat of Germany was the agreed priority for all the Allies and despite doubts, politics and personalities a remarkable force was assembled. The South of England and Wales became a vast assembly area and included a deception plan involving thousands of dummy vehicles, tanks and aircraft. The Germans were led to believe the invasion would come in the Pas de Calais whereas the Normandy beaches between Ouistreham in the east and Quinéville in the west on the Cotentin Peninsula had been selected. The German defence preparations had been developed intensely over 4 years with a system of strong points along the whole of the northern French channel coast. It was known as the Atlantic Wall and comprised many solid steel and concrete bunkers housing machine-gun and artillery posts. These defences were well sighted with interlocking arcs of fire and integrated using natural obstacles such as high steep cliffs and flooded inland areas.

Photo' of several "first house to be liberated" at Bernières-sur-mer, Juno Beach

The invasion was planned for 5th June but poor weather delayed it for 24 hours. The timeframe was tight as a combination of a full moon with a rising tide for simultaneous airborne and amphibious operations was needed. Although forecasts for bad weather encouraged the Germans to believe an invasion would not happen in June any further delay risked compromising the secret preparations. In the event the Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, gave the order for 6 June. Airborne operations began just after midnight and amphibious landings began at 0630 hours (GMT + 2). The selected coastline was about 60 miles (96 kilometres) from east to west and divided into five main sections for the assault groups. These were Sword, Juno, and Gold beaches for the British 2nd Army under Lieutenant General Dempsey and Omaha and Utah beaches for the US 1st Army under Lieutenant General Bradley.

The modern Pegasus Bridge with Café Gondrée beyond

The first combat troops to land in France on D Day were the British 6th Airborne Division and the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. They dropped by parachute or landed in Horsa gliders around 0100 hours.

 

The British task was to drop east of Caen between the rivers Orne and Dives to protect the beach landings from a potential German armoured counter-attack from the east. A coastal defence battery at Merville was to be captured and the five bridges over the Dives were to be destroyed. The single bridges over the Orne at Ranville and the Caen canal just west of it at Benouville were to be taken and held as they were needed for the seaborne forces to reinforce the airborne anti – armour defence. Gliders were used for the bridge attacks and for the Dives bridge demolition teamsin order to carry the amount of heavy equipment they would need. The order of drop would be for six gliders to land for the attack on the two bridges, pathfinders to drop and mark out drop zones for the main parachute force. The main force was to drop and destroy Dives bridges, defend Orne and canal bridges, capture the Merville battery, seize and hold ground between the rivers and clear landing zones for 72 more gliders carrying defence equipment and transport. Timings were tight and all had to be achieved between 0020 hours and dawn at 0530 hours.

Monuments mark the tight grouping of the glider landings right next to the bridge

The attack on the bridges was conducted by a reinforced company of 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. All three gliders targeting the canal bridge crash-landed very close to it, (see photo’ above) near the German command post on its east side. The bridge was captured intact, the defenders seen off, and the houses opposite cleared. At the Orne bridge one glider went astray, landing about 8 miles away beyond the Dives, one landed about 400 yards away but the third landed close by. As the platoon commander ran for the bridge the defenders fled. With both bridges captured the company commander, Major John Howard, tried to pass the code words “Ham and Jam” to HQ 5th Parachute Brigade but was unsuccessful due to the immense difficulties experienced by the parachutists who were consequently delayed. After surviving an attack by a German Panzer regiment Howard’s company was relieved that day by 7th Parachute Battalion. Together they survived further Panzer attacks and gunboats on the canal until the rest of 6th Airborne Division established the defence of the eastern approach to the landings. The bridge party was joined by 1st Commando Brigade and eventually D Company was replaced by 2nd Bn Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

Major John Howard, Distinguished Service Order, Croix de Guerre, addresses a battlefield tour at Pegasus Bridge in 1971. Chateau Benouville is in the background.

John Howard used to tell the story of how Pte Wally Parr, who had been specially trained on a German anti-tank gun like the one captured at the bridge, kept asking all day if he could fire it. Eventually when “some tanks were spotted over there” he gave Wally the word. There was a sudden hush in the noise of combat just as Wally’s young voice rang out with his exuberant order “Number One Gun – FIRE”.

North west casemates and encouvement at the Merville Battery

The second coup de main operation took place on the large German battery at Merville which covered Sword Beach just to its west. This task was given to 9th Parachute Regiment under command of Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway. There were four large bomb-proof gun casemates with command and living accommodation. They were protected by machine guns, barbed wire entanglements around the inner and outer perimeters and with a minefield up to 100 yards in depth. It was manned by up to 200 men with Forward Observation Officers on the coast to direct fire from the gun positions against invasion forces.

 

Otway’s plan was to conduct a battalion attack as 60 men in gliders crash landed inside the defences up against the four casemates. A heavy bombing attack at 0030 hours would precede the nearby parachute drops at 0050 hours. The battalion, accompanied by Sappers to deal with the mines and wire and anti-tank gunners to deal with the steel casemate doors, would reach the battery by 0400 hours. At 0430 hours a diversionary attack at the main gate would cover the landing of the three gliders as the remainder conducted the main assault using the paths cleared through the minefields and wire. If there was no success signal by 0530 hours the cruiser HMS Arethusa would open fire on the Merville Battery.

Casemate entrance

As the battalion’s aircraft crossed the French coastline and met anti-aircraft fire chaos started. Evasive action threw the paratroopers around in the aircraft as they stood up to jump, took the aircraft off course and caused widespread dispersal of the drop. Men drowned in flooded land or bogs beside the River Dives and much equipment was lost. Otway mustered 150 men by 0230 hours but had no heavy equipment, no radios and no recce party to clear the paths through the wire and minefields. They were 1½ miles from the battery and surprise was lost. At 0245 hours he gave the word to move and en route challenged and met the recce party. Their equipment had gone astray and as they jumped they were bombed by aircraft which were meant to be targeting the battery. The recce party reported that they had cut the outer wire and cleared a path through the minefield by hand and marked it by scrapes in the earth.

 

The depleted battalion was at the perimeter at 0430 hours when the gliders were due but had no means of giving the signal that they were ready to attack. Without the signal the gliders landed at a distance in accordance with the plan and at this Otway gave the order to attack. As the four lead sections blew gaps in the inner wire fence the Germans opened up and the paras charged in. They went straight for the casemates with grenades and very fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued until the defenders began to surrender. The guns were destroyed using German explosives in the breeches and Otway gave the success signal by Very pistol flare to a spotter aircraft circling overhead. The word was passed with just 15 minutes left before the naval bombardment was due to start. Of the 150 men of 9 Para 75 more were dead or wounded and of the Germans only 22 were left standing to surrender.

No.1 casemate

Memorial to Lt Col Otway

The site in 1971

The site can be found by following signs to the Merville Museum as it is now a major tourist attraction. It is well kept, neat and tidy with a signed path leading you around the whole position with clear information panels.

 

In one of the casemates there is an excellent multi-media presentation where children less than 8 years old are not allowed in and anyone with a heart condition, prone to epilepsy or of a nervous disposition are warned accordingly.

After the battle the survivors marched to a village near Amfreville and despite further casualties held it against German attacks until they were relieved by the Commando brigade. When the final muster was taken 192 men from the drop were never found, dead or alive.

Typical area for flooding inland from Utah Beach

The American airborne forces drop was even bigger and their problems were just as great. After various changes the plans for 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions were finalised just one week before D Day. The decision was based on the latest intelligence about German dispositions and their role was to protect the Utah Beach landings in depth. Extensive flooding in the immediate area of the Cotentin Peninsula west of the beach was about a mile wide leaving several causeways which had to be captured by 101st Airborne. Further south and seven miles inland the River Douve valley northwest of Carentan was flooded right up its tributary River Merderet where the main road and railway ran to the strategic harbour town of Cherbourg. 82nd Airborne’s task was to capture Sainte-Mére-Église, cut these vital routes and seize two bridges across the Merderet for the seaborne troops to use in sealing off the peninsula.

 

As the American aircraft crossed the French coastline they met a thick blanket of cloud which caused widespread dispersal of the aircraft before the sky cleared. The flooding of the Merderet was much more extensive than had been anticipated and soldiers and airmen were equally disorientated. The margin for error after the dropping zone was four minutes before they would have flown completely over the peninsula so they jumped to beat the clock. Although the men were widely dispersed they soon re-assembled in small groups to get on with their tasks but they suffered from the loss of heavy equipment in the flooded areas.

Memorial on church roof at Ste Mére-Église

Ste Marie-du-Mont

The one specific objective which was achieved was the capture of Sainte-Mére-Église but even this did not go smoothly. A fire was blazing in a shop and people were trying to douse it when two sticks were dropped in error over the town. Several died as the German garrison opened fire on them but one man who got hung up on the church roof survived by hanging there as if he was dead. The man, John Steele, was part of a regiment which mostly landed in their DZ, formed up and cleared the town before dawn and blocked the road as tasked. Steele survived his ordeal and the war.

 

Although the objectives were not all achieved initially 10,000 American paratroopers in small groups or individually sought out and hunted the enemy over a hundred square miles. The Germans were unsure about what was happening, lost their communications and were paralysed for the night. Such a deadly game of cat and mouse was played out around Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. The airborne regiment which dropped near this small town was scattered yet they knocked out a nearby strong point, destroyed a gun battery and shot it out with German troops in the town. Most importantly, and the overall success, was that no reinforcements reached the Germans manning the beach defences.