At 6.30 in the morning – H-Hour – on the 6 June 1944, the largest opposed amphibious landing in the history of the world began on the Normandy coast. American troops prepared to fight their way onto two beaches, codenamed Utah and Omaha. British and Canadian soldiers would arrive on their own designated beaches – Gold, Juno and Sword – shortly after.
It was the culmination of years of planning – and argument. Because even as the massive fleet of more than 5,000 ships gathered in the Channel for the attack, Britain’s most senior military commander had doubts about the prospects of success. ‘I am very uneasy about the whole operation,’ wrote Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke), the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, in his diary on 5 June. ‘At the best it will fall so very short of the expectations of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing of its difficulties. At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war.’i
And these were doubts shared by Brooke’s boss, Winston Churchill, who had repeatedly voiced his concerns about a major landing in France. In fact, the British – or so it seemed to both the Americans and the Soviets – had been dragging their feet about D-Day for sometime.
‘I found I was shocked myself,’ says Sir Max Hastings, ‘coming across one reference. Late in 1943 at Quebec, in October 1943, at the Quebec Conference, there’s a fantastic passage in the minutes of the meeting which I could scarcely believe when I read it. Alanbrooke suddenly said to the combined chiefs of staff: ‘Of course it’s not going to be possible to launch D-Day until 1945 or 1946 because we shan’t have the help of the French army which in the past has always contributed 90 divisions to operations on the continent. It is almost unbelievable that seven or eight months before D-Day, as late as that, the head of the British army, Churchill’s senior ministry advisor, was still talking in those terms at combined conferences, and one cannot blame the Americans at that stage of the war for being angry and appalled by the British attitude. I don’t think one can blame the Americans. One always has to remember the Americans were always pretty polite to us face to face, but really, although the Americans did have a respect for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, I don’t think the Americans ever really respected the British army. They developed a contempt for the British army on the basis of its defeats, and they were pretty abject defeats from 1940 through to 1942. They were absolutely astounded when Tobruk fell, when 35,000 men surrendered almost without a shot being fired in 1942, when America had already been in the war for five months and the tide of the war was starting to turn, and still the British army could not manage to defeat a seriously inferior number of Germans. So I do think that American [feelings of] something close to contempt for the British army coloured their thinking about allied strategy all the way through the war.’
Andrew Roberts, who has made a special study of the military and strategic relationship between the British and the Americans, agrees with much of Sir Max Hastings' analysis: ‘General Marshall [head of the American Armed Forces] always wanted to have an early return to the continent, and it was General Brooke and the British Chiefs of Staff that held it up again and again. Winston Churchill, even up until the day of D-Day, thought that you could expect 20,000 killed the following morning and often spoke to people like Harry Hopkins [Roosevelt’s close advisor] of dead bodies floating in the Channel, and the Channel being awash with the corpses of Allied troops. He was tremendously pessimistic about D-Day.’
It wasn’t just the inadequacies of the British army that contributed to Churchill’s pessimistic attitude, but the memory of the ill-fated landing at Gallipoli during the First World War – a disastrous undertaking that had damaged Churchill’s own career. Indeed, one of the reasons that Churchill had focused his attention so much on the actions of British Bomber Command – vividly describing, for example, the destruction that RAF bombers had wrought on Germany to Stalin, at their first meeting in Moscow in 1942 – was because he cherished a hope that Germany might be defeated without the need for a dangerous and costly landing in France.
At the Tehran Conference in November 1943 there had been a heated exchange over this issue, with Stalin demanding to know: ‘Did the British believe in Overlord [the code name for the D-Day operation], or were they just saying so in order to pacify the Russians?’ii
Churchill had answered that the British did believe in the venture, but only if the right conditions were met. Not surprisingly, this response did not reassure Stalin about the British commitment to the operation.
But still, D-Day went ahead in June 1944. And the constant efforts of the British to delay the date had meant, at least, that the operation was launched with complete Allied command of the air and the sea. In addition, there had also been time to establish an elaborate deception plan, centered on a fake army, allegedly commanded by General Patton, which the Germans believed had assembled in the east of England and so was targeting a landing at the Pas de Calais.
And then there was the sheer power of the force directed against the Normandy beaches. Not only the several thousand ships assembled in the English Channel, but bombing raids of gargantuan proportions. And, in the process of this ‘liberation’, the citizens of Normandy were themselves about to be caught in a terrible conflagration, as Professor William Hitchcock reveals: ‘On June 5th, that terrible night, the heaviest bombing of the Second World War up to that point occurred in Normandy, so the beaches and the towns just beyond the beaches were absolutely flattened by heavy, saturation RAF/American bombing the night before the landings. The day of June 6th itself is a moment of intense terror for the residents because their towns, villages and schools are all going up in smoke and they know that this is the liberators doing the work of defeating the Germans militarily.
‘I think there’s an intellectual understanding [amongst the population of Normandy] that this is the beginning of what might become liberation. But they don’t know yet what’s around the corner. It's only June 6th 1944 so there’s almost a whole year of the Second World War still to come, and they don’t know if these landings will be successful. All they know is that intensive bombing has shattered their homes and their towns and that they have paid a very heavy price. About 20,000 French civilians will die in the summer of 1944 in the Battle of Normandy. These are civilians who had no military training, no preparations and had already suffered through four years of occupation… and I think as historians of the Second World War we have focused principally on the Anglo-American military story and we do tend to lose perspective that there were people for whom the war was being fought in many respects, but who did themselves have to pay a terrible price. We fail to fully integrate their particular story into our account of what liberation really is. What liberation is, is the ripping out of a political and social order of one kind that you don’t like and replacing it with a very different kind of political and social order. There’s a dramatic sense of transformation and it comes in a period of intense violence as well.’
And that ‘period of intense violence’ erupted in particular on the beaches on the morning of 6 June – with more than 150,000 Allied soldiers landing in Normandy on this one single day. Famously, it was at Omaha Beach that the Allied soldiers faced the toughest opposition. Despite the intensity of the naval bombardment, the Germans were still able to direct fire from their concrete bunkers high above the beach on the Americans below.
‘I saw a lot of chaos,’ says Joseph Argenzio, one of the Americans who landed on Omaha Beach that day. ‘It was devastating. Smoke and the smell of cordite, the burning tanks, people dying, people being blown apart... I had bullets all around me, oh, they were snapping over my head and they were snapping around my feet. I don’t know to this day why I wasn’t killed in the water, number one. Number two, why I survived when I came out of the water, and, why me? They were dying by the hundreds, you know, why me? Who knows?
‘So I finally made it by the grace of God, and heard guys screaming and yelling and crying, and I made it up to the sea wall, and I just dropped down and all I could hear was echoing right from the water’s edge, it was staying on my mind, I heard men yelling, ‘I’m hit. Oh, god! Medic,’ and as they were dying, ‘Mamma.’
‘Then Colonel Taylor, our Regimental Commander, came in and started yelling, ‘There’s only two kinds of men on this beach, those who are dead and those who are gonna die, so let’s get the hell out of here.’’
Argenzio and his comrades managed to make it to the top of the bluffs overlooking the beach: ‘And so I lay down and tried to get my breath and this fella comes plopping up behind me, reaches in his jacket, pulls out a little American flag and starts to wave it yelling, ‘I made it, North Africa, Sicily and Omaha Beach, I made it.’’
And despite the problems that day at Omaha Beach – where the Americans lost 2,000 dead – the total death toll for D-Day was less than the Allied commanders had predicted, with 4,500 Allied servicemen losing their lives. ‘I think one must recognise with D-Day that the Allies were incredibly lucky,’ says Antony Beevor. ‘We were extremely lucky with the weather and that break in the weather which the Germans had not been able to foretell. So as a result, although the troops had in no way been withdrawn or anything like that, key commanders were away from the battlefront, both in Rennes on war games and Rommel back in Germany. Also it meant, actually, that the Kriegsmarine didn’t put out any patrols that night. It’s impossible really to estimate what would have been the result if they had been fully aware of what was coming… The planning of the invasion itself was incredible, I mean, every eventuality had been looked into. Okay, they got some things wrong, but overall it was an astonishing piece of staff work to say the least, and of organization.’
However, all was most certainly not going to go so well with the Battle for Normandy, which began immediately the soldiers had established a beachhead. For, as Antony Beevor says, ‘the problem was that nobody had really thought through stage two.’ And the bloody fighting amongst the hedgerows here would make Normandy ‘the martyr for France.’
Entry for 5 June 1944 in Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman (eds.), Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, War Diaries 1939-1945
, Phoenix, 2002, p. 554ii
Quoted in Laurence Rees, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors
, BBC Books, 2009, p. 229