D-Day is justifiably referred to as “the Longest Day”, achieving the landing of 160,000 men on those five beaches, along with the parachute and glider landings which took place during the early hours after midnight. Inevitably, the drama of that single day is the natural focus of attention from historians and all those looking back at that event after nearly 70 years. To the survivors of D-Day, it is an unforgettable moment to recall wading ashore on enemy held territory, or the moment of hitting the ground by parachute, or in a flimsy glider.
However, the days following 6th June 1944 saw a continuation of the beach landings and establishment of that formidable beach head. After years of planning and construction, the massive Mulberry Harbour became a reality, so strong and resilient that parts of it remain in clear evidence off the shoreline today. As troops, vehicles and war material poured through Mulberry Harbour into that concentrated coastal region, the essential break out followed.
The military strategy was clear, yet the old adage came into play that once contact was made with the enemy, all plans change.
In principle, the American forces from UTAH & OMAHA in the east were to take the Cotentin Peninsula and secure the Port of Cherbourg. Their planned Break-Out was to sweep south and west, liberating Brittany to join up with General Dempsey’s British and Canadian advance out of Normandy towards Paris.
The plan included a main expectation that the Normandy capital city of Caen could be captured and liberated within days of the Landings. Although it took three weeks for the US Army to take Cherbourg, Caen remained a formidable obstacle to the main Break Out.
The German Army judged Caen as a critical and strategic stronghold, defending it fiercely. Historians agree that Caen drew the enemy’s strength and attention, leaving the American advance less opposed.
Once it had become clear to the German High Command that Normandy was the Invasion they had been waiting for, fast and efficient re-organisation successfully galvanised the defence. Under command of Field Marshall Rommel, there remained a belief, even a confidence for some time, that the invasion could be repelled at Caen. Accordingly, the enemy concentrated its armour in defence of Caen and its surrounding region, pouring in reinforcements to bring the British & Canadian advance to an abrupt halt.
It was Field Marshall Alan Brooke, later Viscount Alanbrooke, who was wise to the military danger presented by the bocage countryside. On retreat through France in 1939/40, the British Expeditionary Force had experienced both advantage and disadvantage from the high hedgerows and undulating fields. Used correctly, this terrain was perfect for defensive action.
In this final section, we should allow the Veterans to tell their own story. Once away from the beaches and into the hinterland, British divisions suffered casualty rates which had not been seen since the 1916 Somme battlefields. Two months after D-Day, the 59th Staffordshire Division took 90% casualties during the battle for Thury-Harcourt and its surroundings.
Our veterans explain the typical tactics used against them and held great respect for the fighting strength and quality of the German Army. Whenever the British offensive showed any sign of faltering as lines became extended, the enemy was quick to launch an effective counter attack. Every field was fought for and every advance was costly. Snipers were used to great effect and greatly feared, although their success was more perceived than actual.
British troops were directed to attack in the face of snipers; the reason being that dropping to the ground would draw devastating mortar fire and a counter attack. The prevailing military theory was: maintain your advance and the defenders will be unnerved enough to fall back.
The British & Canadian advance from Sword Beach moved swiftly towards Caen, the city being the main target after the beach head was secure. Despite the outstanding success of the Landings, the advance was halted just 3½ miles from Caen. The enemy brought up the 21st Panzer Division which put up a determined defence to protect the city approaches.
On 9th June Montgomery changed tactics and tried a pincer movement. The 51st Highland Infantry Division attacked the southeast at Cagny, whilst XXX Corps battled for the town of Tilly sur Seulles. Meanwhile, the 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) crossed the River Odon advancing to Evrecy. In retaliation, the Panzer Lehr Division fiercely defended, supported by the 12th SS Panzer Division. In the face of co-ordinated resistance, by 13th June the offensive to the east of Caen was called off.
“Most villages had been abandoned so we would look out for what we could. We took a few casualties that way because the Germans would leave booby traps wherever there was food. Coming up against heavy armour was our biggest problem, but the infantry’s favourite reaction to this was to call in the Tiffys (RAF Typhoons). Rockets from one of the Tiffys could blow a tank turret clean off and drop it two fields away!”
Faced with a combination of American and British forces west of Caen, the Germans were forced to retreat. This opened a gap in their lines into which General Dempsey ordered the 7th Armoured Division to take Villers Bocage. After two days of intense fighting, the Desert Rats were withdrawn to be reinforced by the 33rd Armoured Brigade which was by that time just coming off the Mulberry Harbour roadways.
“The enemy held a chateau in the hinterland of the landing beach so they had good command of the terrain. We took it off them but it was hard fighting all the way. As darkness fell there was confusion and I found myself on my own entering the building, or what was left of it. After some poking about I came across a young officer who directed me forward, saying: ‘We’re under mortar fire but we’ve taken a German trench over there where you can get your head down for the night.’ Well, I had been soldiering long enough to know it was risky to occupy an enemy trench as they would have its co-ordinates exactly ranged. It seemed alright and I was tired out, so I took his advice. It was a very neat trench with duckboards laid in an orderly fashion. Sheltered from ground fire, given that it had been a long day, I nodded off straight away, although people were walking over me throughout the night!”
Inevitably there was some degree of conflict between the main allies, British and American. Most of this was good hearted rivalry, yet there was significant loss to the prestige of Field Marshall Montgomery through the inability of the main British & Canadian Force to liberate Caen. Senior military commanders were aware of the tactical truths that German defensive priority was focused on Caen, allowing the Americans to take advantage of a lesser resistance to their advance. However, lower ranks were less informed, and American public opinion saw the lack of progress around Caen as a reason to blame Montgomery. American media reported relatively detailed military news more openly and it was easy for amateur strategists to find fault. Whilst all this had to be ignored, German propaganda was quick to drive a wedge between allied forces.
“In early August, we were moved to the left of Caen. This was a really poor situation as the enemy was able to oversee the whole region and form its positions on the hills to the south. Consequently we came in for a lot of shelling and there were signs on the roads saying 'Slow, dust means death'. At the end of August that we went through Mezidon, east of Caen and for the first time. We were attacked from the air by the Luftwaffe. Our 70th Brigade was broken up and replaced by the 56th Brigade as we pushed towards the River Seine.
“One of the first three battalions in the 56 Brigade was the 2nd Essex, 'The Pompadours'. This proud battalion had landed with 50th Division on D-Day. The day we were landing, 12th June, they had come up against the Panzer Lehr Division. This was the best trained and most powerful armoured division in the German Army, and the Essex had no armoured support. Despite being fiercely attacked by the enemy armour including flame throwers mounted on half tracks, they held their positions.”
Certainly it was control of the city of Caen which was the central battle. All sides in the conflict saw Caen as the pivotal point strategically. It was the regional city and the main cross roads of all routes. The occupying force was well dug in and held high ground with a commanding view of all military movements.
OPERATION WINDSOR was carried out by the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade to break through strongly held German positions to take Carpiquet Airfield. Reinforced by other Canadian units, the 10th Armoured Regiment, RAF Typhoons along with gunfire from HMS Rodney, this offensive managed to break through heavy airfield defences. Carpiquest village was eventually taken on 5th July, followed by occupation of the airfield itself three days later.
OPERATION CHARNWOOD employed new tactics of combined tank and infantry assaults, whilst using RAF bombing across the north of the city. By 9th July British and Canadian patrols had penetrated the city limits and by late afternoon the northern half of the city was in British control. The widespread destruction prevented tanks manoeuvring, but it became apparent that German troops were crossing the river south in retreat.
“It wasn’t until 19 July, after the Germans had withdrawn across the whole division front, that the village was finally securely in British hands.”
In order to build on this advance, in OPERATION JUPITER the Wessex Infantry Division attempted to take Hill 112 on 10th July. Tactically important to push the enemy off the higher ground, the operation came up against a well dug in defence force of five German infantry battalions, as well as elements of the 10th SS Panzer Division. The Wessex Division lost over 2,000 men in their attacks and were forced to withdraw.
“The German forces had retreated under this onslaught but fierce fighting continued as the Battle of Normandy slowly progressed South & East.
“One evening we pulled in by a farm house. We put the netting up over the Carrier and set up the radio mast to get an update and receive orders. One side of the Carrier sank into the ground and we uncovered a food store. The locals had a habit of secreting food in such places and we pulled out a whole ham along with lots of other food. We had a real feast that night! In fact, having the Bren Carrier provided us with a very useful mobile larder and we used the storage bins for all sorts of goodies as we progressed through the countryside. It was just as well since we were rarely in the right place to get our issue of rations. Despite the heavy bombing, the retreating enemy remained in force and fighting was as tough as it could be. There were always casualties. The way I see it is that there were two main battles: Caen & Noyers Bocage.”
Finally it was OPERATION GOODWOOD which led to the liberation of Caen. After American and RAF aerial bombing and a massed armoured advance, the city was at last in British and Canadian hands on 18th July. Although the city itself was widely devastated, troops report French citizens coming out in celebration once they knew the main battle was over.
“In the early morning, the German troops became very active. For many hours, convoys of military lorries, soldiers, ammunition, ambulances, canons of all kinds and infernal noisy tanks were moving in the direction of Caen. It was midday before we could get any information. The first refugees from Caen arrived, fleeing the intense bombardment. They were completely exhausted and the news they brought from the city was worse than we could ever have imagined.
“They said the town was completely bombed out, standing in fire. The smoke was so thick one couldn’t breathe and there were already a few ten thousand victims. Yes, it seemed the Allied troops had landed, but they were in a terrible situation and with heavy losses they were ready to turn back!”
OPERATION COBRA was the codename of the American offensive to drive deep into Normandy. Under command of Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, the US 1st Army grasped the opportunity to launch their offensive whilst enemy forces were fully occupied in defence of Caen. The Americans had been held in the Cotentin Peninsula by organised and strong resistance put up by the defending German Army.
The Americans were having their first taste of the Normandy Bocage countryside and wanted to break out to clear their flanks. Wet weather and storms had made the countryside resistant to movement. The offensive started slowly on 25th July but built momentum as the overwhelming resources forced the defending German Army into retreat towards the Seine. The bloodiest phase of the battle raged during early August in the area around Mortain and Avranches.
In command of the German Army defences, and pressed almost insanely by Adolf Hitler to resist to the last man, Von Kluge tried to gather every available division for counter attack. Despite this maximum effort, the US Army achieved the strategic success needed to conclude the break-out to break the blockage of close contact fighting, leading to faster movement and on to the creation of the ‘Falaise Gap’.
Although Falaise is the big event, and certainly the memorable culmination of the Normandy Campaign leading to the sweep west to Paris, the small towns of Normandy all have their stories to tell. Just as combat troops took casualties, so did the French citizens of towns and villages across Normandy. The town of Thury Harcourt is a prime example, and one which many British Veterans of the 59th Staffordshire Division understandably hold dear.
The town of Thury Harcourt was taken in the early hours of the morning of 14th August. Casualties were so severe that Montgomery took the decision to disband the 59th Division, using the ranks to reinforce the 2nd Army which was by then well under strength. Ralph Jackson and Bob Laverty recall the campaign came to an end with the enemy trapped in an area of sunken roads at Falaise. This became known as the Battle of Falaise Gap, or in French ‘La Poche de Falaise’ where, after concentrated heavy shelling, the 59th Division joined with Polish, Free French and Canadian forces, the enemy was routed. Ralph explained the scene was just a mess of dead horses, troops and burned out armoured vehicles.
“We teenagers who lived through those days of the invasion in the Summer of 1944 witnessed all the carnage, and will never forget what those men did for us. We will always be grateful and I want to say a big thank you to all the Normandy Veterans from a French teenager who owes them so much.”
“After heavy aerial bombardment we took Caen, although the city was in ruins by that time. After that we moved on to what became known as the Falaise Gap where the enemy became trapped between British and American advances, with their escape routes very restricted. We managed to take the objective which was really just another hedge line in this treacherous bocage countryside. We had one prisoner and I was ordered to take him back to our main lines for interrogation. I made him walk slowly in front of me; there was no point trying to dodge around trying to remain completely out of sight, but I looked for cover wherever possible. I fixed my bayonet and held it firmly and close against the middle of his back. My belief was that I might be safe if the snipers believed I could run this chap through with my last breath. On my way back I was caught in the open and had to dive into the nearest trench. Everyone did the same and I soon had four or five men on top of me. I could hardly breathe and passed out for a while. I could see my bren carrier withdrawing and they were shouting my name. I ran like hell and managed to jump onto the back of the carrier.”
Realising the remains of the German Army were on the run eastwards, General Bradley could declare: “This is an opportunity that comes to a Commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy an entire hostile army and go all the way to the German border.”
More fluid in movement now, the Allied intention was to trap the German 7th & 5th Panzer Divisions near the town of Falaise. By 19th August the encirclement was complete as American, British, Polish and Canadian forces operated in concert. With the ‘Poche de Falaise’ sealed, this closed the enemy’s escape. With this strategic victory, the Battle of Normandy came to an end.
It was estimated that around 100,000 German troops had escaped, yet they left behind nearly 50,000 taken prisoner and at least 10,000 killed in action. Weapons, tanks and self-propelled artillery pieces had been abandoned in huge quantities in the bid to escape before the Falaise Gap was closed off by the advancing Allies.
On 25th August the French 2nd Armoured Division under US Army 5 Corps entered the outskirts of Paris. Agreement had been reached at the highest political level that it should be De Gaulle’s Free French who should symbolically enter Paris as liberators.
D–Day, the invasion of Normandy is often referred to as the ‘Second Front’. In Europe there had already been an invasion of Italy, through Sicily, establishing a ‘Front’ in the south. On 15th August 1944, OPERATION DRAGOON saw the invasion of the South of France as the US 7th Army and the French 1st Army carried out airborne and beach landings in the South of France. These landings were nothing like the same scale as Normandy, yet the strategy of attacking on so many fronts made defence of Europe an impossible challenge.
Such beaches which became jet-set names in the second half of the 20th Century were part of war torn Europe in 1944. Seaborne landings were carried out at Cavalaire, the Pampelonne Beach near St Tropez, along with beaches at St Maxime and St Raphael. Advancing troops later linked up around Dijon with those from Normandy, ready for crossing into Germany.
Codenamed OPERATION MARKET GARDEN, massive airborne landings took place around the Dutch town of Arnhem during the period of 17th to 25th September. Although unsuccessful in its planning and execution, many towns in Holland were liberated and the onward drive to the Rhine continued.
The counter attack in the Ardennes started on 16th December 1944. Known as the Battle of the Bulge, this was the last major German offensive.
On 23rd March 1945 Field Marshall Montgomery’s British Army crossed the Rhine and marched into the heart of Germany, with the US 9th Army crossing the following day.
By 22nd April 1945 the Russian Army was entering the eastern outskirts of Berlin. A week later, on 29th April, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his command bunker. The German surrender was taken on 7th May and British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, announced that 9th May shall be known as V-E Day;
Victory in Europe.
By all measures, the D-Day invasion was a success. Less than a year later, the whole of Europe had been liberated. Most of the British troops who landed on those Normandy beaches continued all the way through into Germany, and were there at the surrender.