June 6, 2011

D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy: Sights and Sounds

 DAY 6/6/44

D-Day will forever be remembered by the world. It was the greatest - the largest amphibious invasion in the history of mankind. 

On Tuesday, June 6, 1944 at 6:30 British Double Summertime (GMT+2) over 160,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. They were supported by over 5,000 ships manned by more than 195,000 Allied naval and merchant navy personnel and accompanied by 13,000 aircraft. This was Operation Neptune. The first phase was an airborne assault launched shortly after midnight in which over 24,000 British, American, Canadian and Free French troops, which was followed by the amphibious landing beginning at 06:30 hours.

Troops from the United States, United Kingdom, Free France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway and, little known to many people, the Polish troops of the 1st Armoured Division, took part in this massive Operation which ultimately freed Fortress Europe from the Nazi scourge.

D-Day Polish Army, Brutus Fortitude operation (00:03:39m)

Eisenhower statement, in case of failure
Just before the start of the invasion, General Eisenhower gave an historic speech to the Allied Expeditionary Force.

His opening words were, "You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months......" 

Despite the enormous magnitude of this Operation, there existed a unspoken yet palpable trepidation that the invasion might not succeed.  For in his pocket, General Eisenhower had prepared a statement to be read in the event that the invasion failed. It was dated July 6 in error.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower's D-Day Speech

George Hicks, London Bureau Chief for the Blue Network (later to become ABC) was aboard the Allied communications ship, the U.S.S. Ancon, and gave an eye-witness radio report of the D Day invasion on the 7th of June, 1944.  Click here to listen

The Invasion was slated to begin on June 5th but bad weather postponed the Operation.  There were only a few days each month suitable to launch an attack, that is, during a full moon and high tide. The illumination of navigational landmarks were vital for the airborne landing divisions, and the latter made it possible for landing craft to maneuver safely and avoid defensive obstacles beneath. There was a full moon on June the 6th however overcast skies limited the field of vision of Allied air support.

Due to bad weather conditions, the Germans had a false sense of security believing that the Allied invasion would be delayed. They had no idea that the invasion was already underway. Though the Allied Expeditionary Force was a formidable presence indeed, its landing troops  faced horrendous fire from the German defenses.

By June 6th, 1944 the German troops were solidly entrenched - 157 divisions in the Soviet Union,  6 in Finland,  12 in Norway,  6 in Denmark, 9 in Germany, 21 in the Balkans, 26 in Italy,  and 59 in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.  However, according to German statistics, their divisions in the east were greatly depleted due to heavy fighting, and by spring 1944 the average personnel was roughly half of its original size.

What made the German defenses so invincible was their interlocking firing style, a tactic which permitted them to protect areas that were under heavy fire. Moreover, the Germans had, during the past four years, constructed impenetrable concrete bunkers, atop the cliffs and hills from which their machine gunners had clear views of the beaches.

German tobrouk manning MG-42 machine guns.
Rommel, assigned to command the Normandy coast, fortified German positions along the Atlantic Wall with tank top turrets, laid hundreds of thousands of mines along the littoral, and flooded the meadows to impede the Allied advance.  German power was indeed a force to contend with. Between Barfleur and Le Havre, the Germans had at least six coastal artillery batteries: located at Merville, Long-sur-Mer, Pointe du Hoc, Maisy, Azeville, and Crisbecq. From these positions, German gunners were able to fire at a range of 30 kilometers.

50mm German gun near Merville battery
The Atlantic Wall, as outlined in the map above, was a virtual German fortress comprising of a web of radar tracking stations, many of them defended with 88 mm anti-aircraft guns.  From the Norwegian coast all the way to Spain, the Germans not only had radar stations but also "listening" stations: between Cherbourg, Vire and Le Havre, there were 1 identification radar, 2 "Freya" type radars, 5 long-range coastal radars,  7 mid-range radars,  and 14 "Wurzburg" giant radars.

German sentinel watching the horizon
The Germans knew of the impeding invasion though not the exact time - nor place.  Nevertheless, German armoured and infantry divisions were dug in and waiting. German Command believed that the Invasion would begin at the Pas-de Calais area - the shortest route from the British mainland. This belief was due entirely to Operation Fortitude, Churchill's ingenious plan by which the Allied forces staged fake military activity in the south-east England, using inflatable tanks and wooden guns and warships as props. From the perspective of German reconnaissance aircraft, they looked quite real. In addition to this, Allied intelligence fed misinformation to the enemy that the Allied units were under the command of the feared General Patton. The Germans fell for it. 

It was vital to the success of the Allied invasion that the Germans believed that the invasion would begin at Pas-de-Calais, the consequence of which was to delay the full brunt of their military presence on the Normandy beachhead.

Under the command of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force, the Allied armada comprised of warships from eight different navies including that of Poland. In all there were 6,939 vessels: 1,213 warships,  4,126 transport vessels, 736 ancillary craft and 864 merchant vessels.  The flotilla was divided into two task forces:  Western, under the command of Rear-Admiral Alan G. Kirk, and Eastern, under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian.

Leo Pikulski was part of the Polish contingent which fought on the Normandy Beaches, together with the First Canadian Corps and at the Battle of Falaise.

HMS X-24
In Operation Gambit, British X class submarines (midget submarines) HMS X20 and HMS X23 were already in position on June 4th, 1944.  Their mission was to provide navigational aids to incoming Allied troops: an 18-foot telescopic mast with a light shining to seaward, a radio beacon and echo sounder tapping out a message for the minelayers approaching 'Sword' and 'Juno' beaches.

The main thrust of Operation Neptune was to ensure the isolation of invasion routes and beaches from any intervention by the Kriegsmarine, the Germany Navy. According to the Royal Navy Home Fleet, the threat was two-fold: a surface attack by German vessels coming from Scandinavian ports and the Baltic Sea and that of U-boats transferred from the Atlantic. However, German warships were seriously damaged and fuel supplies cut by a third. As for the latter, few U-boats were spotted by the RAF air surveillance. In any event, the Royal Navy was fully capable of repelling any enemy attack, and had mined the Kiel Canal area while the RAF maintained a cordon well west of Land's end.

The HMS Ramillies and Warspite and the monitor HMS Roberts were old battleships used to suppress shore batteries located east of the Orne; cruisers targeted shore batteries at Ver-sur-Mer and Moulineaux; eleven destroyers provided local fire support.  In addition, there were modified landing-craft: 8 "Landing Craft Gun", each having two 4.7-inch guns; 4 "Landing Craft Support" with automatic cannon; 8 Landing Craft Tank, each with a single salvo of 1,100 5-inch rockets; 8 Landing Craft Assault (Hedgerow), each with twenty-four bombs intended to detonate beach mines prematurely. Twenty-four Landing Craft Tank carried "Priest" self-propelled howitzers which also fired while they were on the run-in to the beach.  The Allies had similar arrangements at other beaches.

During D Day there was minimal naval contact - four German torpedo boats launching eighteen torpedoes sank the Norwegian destroyer Svenner off the coast of Sword beach but missed the battleships HMS Warspite and HMS Ramillies. Immediately after having fired, the enemy vessels veered away and escaped into a smoke screen. A great debt of gratitude goes to ULTRA, whose intelligence work discovered the location of German channels through their own minefields, and thus the Allies were able to limit their losses. Unfortunately,the USS Corry sank off the coast of Utah, as well as the USS PC-1261, a 173-foot patrol craft; three LCTs and two LCIs.)

The mission of Naval operations was to provide cover for transport vessels from the threat of enemy ships, submarines and aircraft. More importantly, their purpose was to support Allied landings by launching continuous bombardment of enemy positions ashore, to suppress shore defenses as well as to break up enemy concentrations as the troops began to move inland.

Normandy veteran remembers D-Day invasion (00:06:45m)

The amphibious landings were particularly vulnerable to very strong German counterattacks and depended on the establishment of a secure lodgement in order to expand the beachhead and build up a sufficient force capable of breaking out.  During this most critical period, Allied bombers were the key to slowing down the German's ability to prepare and launch counterattacks. Their main targets were bridges, roads and the eastern and western flanks of landing areas. The U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were assigned to objectives west of Utah Beach while the British 6th Airborne Division were assigned to similar objectives on the eastern flank; and 530 Free French paratroopers from the British Special Air Service Brigade were assigned to objectives in Brittany (from 5 June to August.)

East of the landing area, the open, flat, floodplain between the Orne and Dives Rivers was an ideal position from which the Germans could launch counterattacks.  However, the landing area and floodplain were separated by the Orne River, which flowed northeast from Caen into the bay of the Seine and the only crossing of the Orne River north of Caen was 7 kilometres (4.5 mi) from the coast, near Bénouville and Ranville. The crossing was vital to the Germans as well as to the Allies:  to the Germans, it provided the only route for a flanking attack on the beaches from the east, and to the Allies, the crossing was vital for any attack on Caen from the east.

The tactical objectives of the British 6th Airborne Division were to capture intact the bridges of the Bénouville-Ranville crossing, defend the crossing against the inevitable armoured counter-attacks,  destroy German artillery at the Merville battery which threatened Sword Beach, and destroy five bridges over the Dives River to further restrict movement of ground forces from the east.

Shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944,  paratroopers of the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades, including the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, began landing and immediately encountered elements of the German 716th Infantry Division.  At dawn the Battle Group von Luck of the 21st Panzer Division counterattacked from the south on both sides of the Orne River. By this time the paratroopers had established a defensive perimeter surrounding the bridgehead. Casualties were heavy on both sides but the airborne troops held. By afternoon, they were received reinforcements of commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade.

By the end of D-Day, 6th Airborne had accomplished each of its objectives. For several days, both British and German forces took heavy casualties as they struggled for positions around the Orne bridgehead.  On June 10th, the German 346th Infantry Division succeeded in breaking through the eastern edge of the defensive line but finally, British paratroopers were able to overwhelm the panzergrenadiers (Battle of Bréville on 12 June). The Germans did not post a threat to the bridgehead again and the 6th Airborne remained on the line until it was evacuated in early September.

Over 13,000 American paratroopers of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions landed from 12 troop carrier groups of the IX Troop Carrier Command.  These courageous men were less fortunate in completing their mission.  In order to maintain the element of surprise, the drops were planned to approach Normandy from the west however various factors affected their plans. That the drop was to commence under the cover of night, was itself a serious impediment, and a tactic not used again during the war.  The result was that about 45 % of the units were scattered over a wide area and unable to rally.  Moreover, landing zones were not effectively marked by the early pathfinder teams, and the most serious impediment was the unreliability of the Rebecca/Eureka transponding radar beacons to guide in the C-47 Skytrains.

America the Story of the US:  D-Day Invasion (00:03:07)

Between the hours of 00:48 and 01:40 three regiments of 101st Airborne paratroopers were the first to be air dropped, quickly followed by the 82nd Airborne's drops between 01:51 and 02:42.  Each operation was a massive undertaking requiring about 400 C-47 aircraft.  Just before dawn, two glider landings brought in anti-tank guns and support troops for each division. By the evening on D-Day, two additional glider landings brought in two battalions of artillery and 24 howitzers to the 82nd Airborne. Additional glider operations on 7 June delivered the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment to the 82nd Airborne, and two large supply parachute drops that date were ineffective. After 24 hours, only 2,500 troops (a third)of the 101st and 2,000 of the 82nd were under the control of their divisions. The dispersal of the American airborne troops, however, had the effect of confusing the Germans and fragmenting their response. Moreover, the defensive flooding created by German units, at least in the early stages, posed an advantage to American troops, protecting their southern flank. For the next several days paratroopers continued to roam and fight behind enemy lines, many of them consolidated into small groups. Many of them rallied with NCOs or junior officers, and comprised a mix of soldiers from different companies, battalions, regiments, and even divisions. 

The first town to be liberated during the invasion was Sainte-Mère-Église in the early morning hours of June 6th, 1944, by the troops of the 82nd Division. The Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy at  Sword -  Juno - Gold -  Omaha - Utah.   Of 73,000 Americans who landed, 23,250 were on Utah beach; 34,250 on Omaha; and 15,500 were airborne units. British (61,715) and Canadian (21,400) troops landed - more precisely, 24,970 on Gold beach, 21,400 on Juno, 28,845 on Sword, and 7,900 airborne troops.  On D Day, Allied aircraft flew 14,674 sorties, and lost 127 planes. 

During the airborne landings on D Day, 2,395 aircraft and 867 gliders were used by the RAF and USAAF.  Of the thousands of Allied Vessels in operation on June 6th, included 1,213 naval combat ships, 4,126 landing ships and craft, 736 ancillary craft and 864 merchant vessels.  Of the 195,700 personnel assigned to Operation Neptune, 52,889 were American, 112,824 were British and the remaining 4,988 from other Allied countries (including Poland). By the end of June 11th (that is D + 5), about 326,547 troops, 54,186 vehicles and 104,428 tons of supplies had landed on the beaches of Normandy. Casualties were very heavy except for Sword where in comparison, British infantry suffered light casualties and at Utah where 197 men were killed of a total of 23,000 troops that landed there.  By a twist of fate, the 4th Infantry Division had landed at the wrong place at Victor Sector instead of Tare Green and Uncle Red Sectors. Those soldiers met with minimal German opposition and by afternoon they were able to rendezvous with the 101st Airborne and advance inland quickly.  

By the days end about 10,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded in action.  Total German casualties on D-Day are not known but have been estimated between 4,000 and 9,000 men. During the Battle of Normandy,  the Allies suffered 209,000 casualties with about 37,000 ground forces killed, and another 16,714 killed from Allied air forces. Of these casualties, 83,045 were from the 21st Army Group comprising British, Canadian and Polish ground forces) and 125,847 from US ground forces.  The Allies captured 200,000 prisoners of war.  Allied naval losses for June 1944 included 24 warships and 35 merchantmen or auxiliaries sunk and an additional 120 vessels damaged. German casualties on D-Day are not known but have been estimated between 4,000 and 9,000 men.  Roughly 200,000 German troops were killed or wounded during the Battle of Normandy.  The fighting around the Falaise Pocket in August 1944, resulted in German casualties of approximately 90,000 including prisoners. There are 27 war cemeteries which hold the remains of over 110,000 remains of soldiers who fought during the Battle of Normandy:  77,866 German,  9,386 American, 17,769 British, 5,002 Canadians and 650 Poles.

 Winston S.Churchill - We Shall Fight on the Beaches (00:02:25m)



Sources:  Wikipedia The Memory Project: Stories of the Second World War (Leo Pikulski) BBC History - Voices of D Day The US National Archives and Records Administration (Eisenhower Statement) Radio News The D-Day and Normandy Fellowship (D Day Memories) Preparations of the Normandy Landing - Operation Fortitude D-Day Museum Atlantic Wall in Normandy Internet Archive - Old Time Radio  

Suggested Links: The Battle of Normandy: Minute by Minute X Class Submarine Eye-witness memories of World War II (D Day Normandy and beyond) Polish hero honoured 66 years later Invasion of Normandy A Civilian's View Naval History and Heritage Command(USA)  Rundstedt report on Allied Invasion of Normandy

 Special Mention: The National D Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia


  1. My father, Sgt. Edward Zyrmont, served in the 1st Polish Armoured Division, and fought as a tank commander in the Battle of Falaise, and was killed in action on August 20,1944. He is buried in the Polish Military Cemetery in Grainville - Langannerie, France. I have written his story in my book: As Long As We Still Live, (Kiedy My Zyjemy.)

  2. My father-in-law, Lieutenant Wieslaw Beczkowicz, also served in the 1st Polish Armoured Division. He fought in France in 1940, was driven out by the Germans, regrouped in England and, after the invasion, fought from Caen to Wilhelmshafen. He survived the war and emigrated to the US. He kept a daily journal from 1939 to 1946.

  3. my father was a American M.P attached to the 30th infantry, GO Normandy on his army discharge papers under campaigns and battles.

  4. Dear Sir: It is always an honour for me to receive messages such as yours. I recognize and praise the great sacrifices and courage of our American allies. They will never be forgotten. God Bless.