During the Second World War, Operation Overlord attack involved over 5,000 craft and succeeded in landing 156,000 troops within its first 24 hours. Indeed, by the end of the so-called ‘Longest Day’, Hitler’s much vaunted defensive wall had been breached…
Its success and the subsequent, albeit bloody, victory that secured Normandy not only shortened the war but also ensured the liberation of western Europe from Nazi Germany. Here, we take a look at the D-Day landings in the words of the soldiers, seamen and air crew who took part:
John Houston, US 101st Airborne Division
Left foot forward, on the edge of the door to push off, swing the right leg out to make a half turn, and get your back to the prop blast, feet together, knees bent, arms on the reserve chute, head down. The static line jerks and the chute snaps open perfectly. We are so close to the ground that there is no time to do any sightseeing on the way down. Hands on the risers to pull up against the shock of landing. The ground is coming fast. Thump, one roll. This is France…
Each man in the division had been issued a little cricket snapper to use in place of a password. One click is the challenge and two clicks the answer. I hear someone moving along the hedgerow and click the cricket. Two clicks come back, and Shedio and Spitz come out of the shadows. We whisper together for a minute. There is no firing nearby, but we don’t want to announce that we are here. Mac hears us and joins the group. We move along in the direction of the flight of our plane, and soon gather fifteen men.
Donald Burgett, US 101st Airborne Division
“What’s your plan?” one of the men asked. After a little thought the Lieutenant answered, “A head-on attack and the sooner the better, so let’s go.” He jumped up and started running toward the group of houses across the field, yelling as he went. We all jumped up and followed him, yelling and screaming at the top of our lungs. We automatically spread out and fired as we ran through the fields, apple orchards and right up to the houses themselves. I saw my first Kraut running through the trees on an angle toward our right flank. I stopped, took a good sight on him and squeezed the trigger. The rifle bucked against my shoulder. I don’t remember hearing the shot or feeling the recoil, but the German spun sideways and fell face first out of sight in the grass. Another Kraut stepped around the corner of a building, stopped and just stood there looking down at the spot where the first soldier fell. He was facing me. I had a good straight-on shot at his chest and took careful aim. Again the rifle bucked against my shoulder, and he too fell face forward.
Meanwhile, as British and American paratroopers landed behind enemy lines during the early hours of the 6th, their nations’ navies were forming the most formidable armada the world had ever seen. At around dawn the ships began their bombardment of German positions above the beaches…
Ken Wright, 1st Special Reserve Brigade
Up at 4:15am. Breakfast 4:45. It was quite unpleasantly rough, and I did not feel much like eating. Went on to the upper deck about 5 o’clock just in time to see a destroyer blow up and sink within 5 minutes, a mile or two to port: I think through striking a mine. It was rather appalling. The ship just cracked in half, and the two ends folded together as if it were a pocket knife.
Frederick Wright, Royal Navy
Diary, 6th June
The big battleships have opened up a heavy bombardment – the air is absolutely full of planes. I have just been up on our gun turret – a fine view from there. Our lads are singing ‘You are my sunshine’ – full of good spirits… What a wonderful sight – clear visibility… Still the big battleships are banging away like Hell… All I can hear is Bang! Crash! Bang! Crash! – We are all amazed! Cannot realise the truth – not one German plane to be seen.
Able Seaman R.E. Hughes, onboard the HMS Glasgow
Diary, 6th June
05:45 I said a few prayers and am thinking of you all at home. We started shelling the beaches and approaches. RAF still bombing. Y turret is the first to open fire, our targets being gun batteries and insistent smoke mortars. Continuing patrol by RAF gives us a grand feeling.
For those onboard the landing crafts, however, things were far from cheery…
Marine Stanley Blacker, Royal Navy
As we went in to land the noise, the noise was deafening. Behind us the Rodney was firing ten-ton salvos, which almost shattered your ears. In front, I could see all the coast and villages in smoke and flames.
Donald S. Vaughan, 79th Armoured Division
There was an awful lot of noise going on, planes were going over, the Germans were firing, and there were big warships behind us firing 15-inch shells over the top – I’d never heard them before, and they sounded like locomotives going through the air.
T. Tateson, Green Howards
The assault landing craft held about thirty men tightly packed. They were low-lying, flattish boats and we were seated so that our heads were below the level of the gunwale. We were ordered to keep our heads down as we approached the coast to avoid enemy fire. However, our landing craft was disabled by some underwater mine or obstacle and became impossible to steer. One of the other boats was brought alongside and although it was already fully loaded with a similar number of men, we had to clamber aboard and abandon our boat. We were now exposed to enemy fire as well as being grossly overloaded.
Lieutenant Clark Houghton, US Navy
So we were amid sniper fire and machine-gun fire and flak. When we got to the beach we saw the obstructions that Jerry had put up, and all became more tense. The skipper picked his spot and headed in. How close we came to tragedy at this point. We headed between two stakes on which were fastened mines. There was just room and we made it. Then all hell broke loose.
At 06:25 – H-Hour – the Americans began to land on beaches Utah and Omaha. Those who landed on Utah met relatively little resistance and suffered relatively few casualties. Some soldiers even commented that it was something of an anti-climax. Sadly, the same could not be said for the landing at Omaha, where the battle-hardened 352nd German Infantry Division was waiting…
Russell Stover, 116th Infantry Regiment, US 29th Infantry Division
The ramp went down and we leaped out, into waist-deep water and three-foot waves. Some lost their footing, some their weapons. We had more than two hundred yards to go to the high water mark. Some engineers were working to our left. There was only one tank ahead and to the left but it wasn’t firing or moving. There were no ‘instant fox holes’ either; there wasn’t one crater for cover. There wasn’t even one DUKW [Duplex-Drive amphibious truck] with artillery firing on the machine-gun placements on top of the bluffs. No Piper Cubs overhead to direct the naval fire. It was very obvious to me that many plans were going wrong. There was a boat burning to our right, heading back out. We waded through the surf and floating debris. I looked back and saw that we were in good formation, well spread out, just as we had practiced dozens of times before. Reaching the sand, I tried to run, but found it was very difficult, my impregnated pant legs were filled with water. The extra weight took its toll and about half way in I fell to the sand exhausted. I thanked the Good Lord for the smoke that still covered the bluffs. A shell had started a grass fire. If not for that smoke, we would not have made it in. Recovering, I started running again. The man to my right didn’t follow, I think he was our first casualty.
Captain Joseph T. Dawson, 16th Infantry Regiment, US 1st Infantry Division
The beach was a total chaos, with men’s bodies everywhere, with wounded men crying, both in the water and on the shingle. We landed at high tide, when the water was right up to the shoreline, which was marked by a sharp-edged crystal-line sand, like a gravel, but very, very sharp. That was the only defilade which was present on the beach to give any protection from the fire above. That was where all the men who had landed earlier were present, except for a handful who had made their way forward, most of them being killed… The beach sounded like a beehive with the bullets flying around. You could hear them hit and you could hear them pass through the air.
Sergeant Richard W. Herklotz, US 29th Division
As we got closer to the beach we saw that casualties were floating in the water just like refuse in a harbour. There was this and that equipment floating, soldiers, sailors – it was very disheartening. For hours off the coast we watched the tide bring out the debris and the bodies of those who had died.
The landing at Omaha was going terribly. Hundreds of the initial assault waves lay dead. Indeed, by the end of the day, over 2,000 Allied men had been killed on the beach. And yet sheer weight of numbers and a steely determination meant that soldiers eventually began making inroads up the hill towards the German bunkers…
Don Whitehead, Associated Press war correspondent
Then the brigadier began working to get troops off the beach. It was jammed with men and vehicles. He sent a group to the right flank to help clean out the enemy firing directly on the beach. Quietly he talked to the men, suggesting next moves. He never raised his voice and he showed not the least excitement. Gradually the troops on the beach thinned out and we could see them moving over the ridge.
Captain Edward W. McGregor, US 1st Infantry Division
We hit the sand and found ourselves behind the bodies of the amphibious engineers, who had taken a terrible beating. Eventually, we started moving up a draw, where some engineers had been and which was marked with tape. We had several casualties, and I know at least one officer right near me was killed, stepping on a mine. We came up to the top of the ridge and tried to advance a bit, but there was a large German bunker in front of us, and its machine-gun fire hit us every time we tried to move. At this point we didn’t have any communication with the American destroyer behind us because within five minutes of landing on the beach the naval ensign officer had been killed – his driver too – and the radio set destroyed by a shell which landed right on top of them. So we planned an assault against the bunker. I volunteered to take some troops with me but before we could get organized there were huge demolitions around the bunker. An American destroyer had moved in and was firing direct with 4-inch guns into the bunker.
By late morning, the Americans had secured both Utah and Omaha and were now fighting their way inland. US Rangers had also successfully assaulted a German gun battery at Pointe du Hoc, between the two beaches. A little further east, among dunes and marshes, the British had also begun their assaults on beaches Sword and Gold, while the Canadian’s 3rd Division stormed Juno. Like the Americans at Omaha, the men of both nations faced brutality on a scale not seen since World War I…
Lieutenant K.P. Baxter, 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment
Closing to the shore rapidly, eyes scanned the clearing haze for familiar landmarks. There were none. A burst of machine-gun fire uncomfortably close overhead brought curses upon those in following craft for their enthusiastic ‘covering fire’. Suddenly a burst ricocheted off the front of the craft, telling us that this was no covering fire. The opposition was very much alive and well.
Anonymous Private, East Yorkshire Regiment
It was like a bloody skittle alley. The lads were being bowled over right left and centre. I thought to myself, “You’ll be a lucky bugger if you make it up there.” Christ, it were bad.
Alfred Leonard, Merchant Navy
There were dismembered personnel in the water which was upsetting. From a young man’s point of view, up to then D-Day had been exciting, with all the guns going off, everything on the move and nobody getting killed. It was pure excitement. But when you see dead chaps in the water, you think, “Crikey, what is this all about?”
Captain Peter Young, 1st Special Service Brigade
Land ahead now – a hundred yards away a column of water shoots into the air. Away to port a tank landing craft burns fiercely, ammunition exploding as the crew go over the side. Ashore is a line of battered houses whose silhouette looks familiar from the photographs. They must surely mark our landing-place. On the beach a few tanks creep about and fire occasional shots at an unseen foe. Ouistreham is not much more than a thousand yards to port now. Somewhere on the front are the guns that are shelling us; the flashes are plainly visible every few seconds. The craft slows down.
“What are you waiting for?”
“There are still five minutes to go before H + 90,” the Captain, a young RNVR [Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve] officer replies.
“I don’t think anyone will mind if we’re five minutes early on D-Day.”
“Then in we go.”
Unfortunately for the men aboard the D-Day landing crafts, things weren’t any better on terra firma…
George Collard, 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment
A number of wounded and dead were on the beach, including some killed where our own tanks had run over them, pushing – it appeared – the bile in the liver up to their faces.
Ken Coney, Royal Corps of Signals
Diary, 6th June
08:30. Now we have dug in before a Jerry strong point. A CEP is there. Dead and dying are everywhere. I can’t understand why I am not frightened. The shelling is getting worse. MG [Machine-gun fire] opens up from the flank. I see a few POWs huddled in the sea, terror-stricken of their own fire. I have exultation at the sight.
10:00. Still hell on the beach.
Anonymous Sergeant, Royal Engineers
We got to the top of the rise [when] I saw my first German. He was alive, but not for long. These two Canadians behind me… went up through this opening in the sea wall… The Jerry came out of the emplacement with a Schmeisser. I thought, Christ! They haven’t seen him… But they just didn’t stop running. They just cracked their rifle butts down on the German and that was that.
Major F.D. Goode, Gloucestershire Regiment
We were now in an area of the main German beach defences, which had been heavily plastered by the Navy and RAF. Pill-boxes and blockhouses were shattered and I have a clear recollection of one embrasure out of which a German officer had tried to climb; it had descended on top of him and squashed hit top half, leaving his legs with a pair of well-polished boots protruding.
Despite the horrors, the Allied soldiers had broken through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. As morning progressed into afternoon, they were now making their way inland through marshes, narrow lanes and villages…
Report: 79th Armoured Division
The crew made their way to Hermanville on foot, led by the crew commander, Sgt Kilvert. Reaching a high farm wall they were checked by heavy small arms fire, which they answered with Brens. Then Sgt Kilvert burst open the farm door and, covered by his crew, raked the farmhouse with fire killing eleven Germans. They later routed an enemy patrol on the same road and handed over to the infantry.
Platoon Commander, Canadian Scottish
An LMG [Light Machine Gun] which sounded like a Bren opened up from a position about 150 yards away. We hit the dirt and I shouted. “This must be the Winnipegs. When I say “UP” – all up together and shout “WINNIPEGS”.” We did, and to our surprise two enemy infantry sections stood up just 125-150 yards ahead. They too were a picture of amazement. Their camouflage was perfect and it was no wonder we did not see them earlier. But the stunned silence did not last long. There was only one course of action, and to a man the platoon rushed the enemy positions. It was a bitter encounter with much hand-to-hand fighting.
Major F.D. Goode, Gloucestershire Regiment
The village had been heavily shelled and most of the trees were cut down, some across the road. There were a number of dead Germans lying about and there was a sickly smell of death in the air.
Despite the bloody battles still raging, Allied forces would soon liberate the first of the French villages…
Trooper Peter Davies, 1st East Riding, Yeomanry
When we stopped outside Colleville there were two infantrymen, one standing guard on the corner of the road and one digging a trench. Two young French girls came out, walking around, from this house and stopped and chatted to these infantrymen. The first thing I saw that made me smile that day was their emergency ration of chocolate being handed over to these two French Mesdemoiselles that were chatting to them. It proved we were in France.
Throughout the rest of D-Day, troops continued to pour over the Channel. Some met little resistance, while others were forced into bloody combat. At Omaha, in particular, every inch of ground was fiercely fought for. All the while, Allied planes continued to bomb targets throughout Normandy, as their peers inland fraternised at an increasing rate on the ground. And yet even as night fell, D-Day battles continued. Indeed, although the Allies were securing land, it had come at a cost of 12,000 men. Figures were similar on the German side. Sadly, it was only the beginning. Next came the Battle of Normandy.
| ‘D-Day to Bastogne’, 1991, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, pp.79-80.|
| ‘Screaming Eagles’, 1962, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, pp.85-86.|
| Letter, 1944, featured in the unpublished ‘D-Day Chronicles’ by R. Curtis, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.93.|
| Diary, 1944, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, pp.93-94.|
| Diary, 1944, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.94.|
| Interview with Jon E. Lewis, 1993, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.95.|
| Interview with Jon E. Lewis, 1993, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.96.|
| Unpublished narrative, Imperial War Museum, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, pp.98-99.|
| ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.100.|
| Memoir, ‘Twenty-Niner Newsletter’, journal of the 29th Division Association, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, pp.104-105.|
| Interview with Jon E. Lewis, 1993, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.104.|
| Interview with Jon E. Lewis, 1993, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.105.|
| ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.107.|
| Interview with Jon E. Lewis, 1993, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, pp.107-108.|
| ‘D-Day’, 1974, Warren Tute, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.116.|
| ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.120.|
| Interview with Jon E. Lewis, 1993, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.123.|
| ‘Storm from the Sea’, 1974, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.126.|
| Letter to Jon E. Lewis, 1993, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.128.|
| Quoted in Alan Hart, diary, 1944, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.129.|
| ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.130.|
| Unpublished memoir, Imperial War Museum, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.131.|
| ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.134.|
| ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.136.|
| Unpublished memoir, Imperial War Museum, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.138.|
| Interview with Jon E. Lewis, 1993, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.140.|