D-Day: 24 hours that changed the world

Gavin Mortimer recounts the momentous events of D-Day, from the first airborne landings in the small hours, through the battle for the beaches as dawn broke, to attempts to consolidate captured positions as night fell on the longest day

The killing zone: This photograph by Robert F Sargent, known as ‘Taxis to Hell – and Back – into the Jaws of Death’, shows American troops wading towards Omaha Beach on the morning of 6 June 1944. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

00:00 D-Day begins

Shortly after midnight on 6 June 1944, the Allied plan to invade German-occupied Europe – Operation Overlord – is already under way. The destination for the largest seaborne invasion in history is Normandy in northern France, and if successful, ‘D-Day’ (the first day of operations) will be the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime.

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00:15 US Pathfinders lead the way

After a flight across the Channel, 120 American Pathfinders jump into Normandy. “The morale was wonderful,” said their leader, captain Frank Lillyman. “In the air, the men, instead of sitting glumly and thinking whatever men may think going into battle, sang ribald songs all the way across.” Using fluorescent panels and radar beacons, the Pathfinders have one hour to light a series of Drop Zones [DZ] for the impending air assault by the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions over a 50-mile square area of the Cotentin peninsula.

The paratroopers charge the German battery, seizing the guns after a short but fierce fight

Fifty miles east, 60 British Pathfinders from the 22nd Independent Parachute Company are floating to earth ready to perform a similar task on the eastern edge of the invasion zone. They have 30 minutes to establish three DZs using their lights and transponding ground radar (known as Eureka) before 4,255 soldiers from the 6th Airborne Division start jumping over Ranville, Merville, Trouffeville and Troarn.

Invasion force: men and materiel come ashore. By the end of D-Day, some 156,000 Allied troops had established a toehold on the Normandy coastline. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Invasion force: men and materiel come ashore. By the end of D-Day, some 156,000 Allied troops had established a toehold on the Normandy coastline. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

00:31 The British seize a brace of bridges

Major John Howard and 180 men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry swoop down, at 0016 hours, in six Horsa gliders close to two small bridges over the river Orne (Ranville Bridge) and Caen Canal (Bénouville Bridge) in Normandy. The objective of Operation ‘Deadstick’ is to seize the bridges and hold them until reinforcements arrive.

Howard’s glider contains Lt Den Brotheridge’s 25 Platoon and he leads his men out of the aircraft and across the 30 metres of open ground to Bénouville bridge. “Come on 25!” shouts Brotheridge as he runs across the bridge, only to be cut down by a burst of machine gun fire. “I just knelt down beside him,” remembered private Wally Parr. “His eyes were open and his lips were moving… he just choked and lay back.” Brotheridge is the first Allied soldier to die on D-Day but by 0031 the bridges are in British hands. The cafe by the bridge is opened by its joyous owners, as is a bottle of champagne.

01:15 The airborne armada arrives

The main American airborne assault begins with 6,600 men of the 101st and 6,400 men of the 82nd parachuting from 882 planes onto the six DZs at the western end, or right flank, of the invasion zone marked by Frank Lillyman’s Pathfinders.

The airborne troops’ objective is to seize strategically vital locations and defend them against any German counter-attack. This will allow the Allied armour and infantry to secure their positions at the five invasion beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – and then push inland.

The 101st are to seize four roads between Saint-Martin-de-Varreville and Pouppeville, and the 82nd Airborne must secure strategic crossing points on the Douve river and the Merderet river. “When we got the order to stand up and hook up, my heart was a pounding,” recalled private Joe Lofthouse of the 101st. “My knees were weak and my belly was a flip-flopping. I figured I was going to die in the next five minutes.” Lofthouse receives a couple of bullets through his parachute on his descent but he survives, and must now find the rest of his company which, like so many, is widely dispersed.

04:45 The storming of the Merville battery

At 00.50 hours Lt-Col Terence Otway had jumped with his 9th Parachute Battalion as part of the 6th Airborne Division assault, but only 150 of his 750 men have reached the rendezvous point on time. Their mission is to destroy the Merville battery, a well-fortified German position with four 150mm calibre guns that could inflict terrible casualties on Sword beach. Guarded by a garrison of 130 soldiers, encircled by a 15ft-thick barbed wire fence and ringed by a minefield, the battery must be attacked with Otway’s diminished force.

Two soldiers go ahead to clear the mines, defusing them in the dark with their hands. “Luckily there was enough moon,” said Otway. “Then they crawled back and turned round on their backsides and went through backwards dragging a path for us to follow.” Two gaps are blown in the barbed wire and the paratroopers charge the battery, seizing the guns after a short but fierce fight. The guns are disabled and the victory flare fired. “Out of the 150 men who actually attacked, when we came out… there were 65–70, including myself, on our feet, the rest were killed or wounded,” said Otway.

Hitler’s initial reaction on learning of the news is one of excitement but his mood soon changes

06:30 The Americans attack Utah and Omaha

Half an hour after daybreak, US troops start coming ashore on Utah, the most westerly of the invasion beaches, and Omaha, a few miles east. A rough swell with 2 metre waves and a force 4 wind are an added natural defence for the German soldiers, who are positioned in eight concrete bunkers with guns of 75mm or larger and 35 pillboxes. Heinrich Severloh, in a pillbox at Omaha, is told by his officer: “You must open fire when the enemy is knee-deep in the water and is still unable to run quickly.”

The 23,000 men of the US 4th Infantry Division land 2,000 yards south of their original target because of strong currents and quickly establish a beachhead on Utah, but on Omaha, the 34,000 men of the 1st and 29th Divisions encounter a murderous fire as they approach the beach in their small barges called Landing Craft Assault. The pilot of one, Jimmy Green, recalled the gallant stoicism of the troops as the ramp came down. “They went out in very good order. They didn’t need to be ushered out – they knew what they had to do.”

07:25 British troops hit the beaches

H-Hour, the scheduled time for the first assault wave to attack the beach, goes to plan on Sword and Gold beaches. The latter is the middle of the five invasion beaches and 25,000 soldiers of the British 50th Division are tasked with establishing a beachhead before pushing inland to capture the town of Bayeux and link up with the Americans at Omaha.

Naval and aerial bombardment help the 50th Division get ashore with relatively few casualties, but on Sword Beach – the most easterly of the five – the 3rd British Division come under heavy fire as the rising tide narrows the beach-front and causes congestion. “They were met by machine gun fire and shells,” recalled Lt Michael Irwin, a Royal Naval officer who had piloted one of the assault craft containing soldiers from the East Yorkshire regiment to within 150 yards of the beach. “I watched, shocked… and saw how they dashed to a beach wall where German troops suddenly appeared and dropped grenades on them.”

Fierce German resistance will prevent the 3rd British Division from achieving their day’s objective of capturing the city of Caen.

07:45 The Canadians land on Juno

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division start landing on Juno beach but they are 10 minutes behind schedule because strong winds have buffeted the 366-strong invasion fleet. The Canadians’ objective is to establish a beachhead and link up with British troops on Gold to the west and Sword to the east. But the delay means they are landing at a higher tide, narrowing the width of the beach.

Landing craft are driven onto obstacles and mines, and seven of their 29 amphibious tanks sink. “We had to go at least 50 yards before we got out of the sea,” recalled Lockie Fulton, commanding a company of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. “We simply struggled through it. You’d see a guy fall next to you. You couldn’t help him, but you’d try to drag him along anyway. It was something to see those bullets skipping at you like stones across the water.” Thirty per cent of landing craft are destroyed and, by the end of the day, 1,200 soldiers out of 21,400 Canadians who landed at Juno are casualties.

09:00 Adolf Hitler receives some bad news

For several hours Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, supreme German commander in the west, has been asking Berlin for permission to move two reserve Panzer Divisions – the 12th SS and Lehr – to Normandy. But Colonel-General Alfred Jodl, chief of operations, has insisted the decision rests with Adolf Hitler, who went to bed at 0400 hours with orders not to be woken before 0900. Once awake at his Bavarian mountain retreat, the Nazi leader is briefed by Jodl about the situation in Normandy. His initial reaction is one of excitement and he declares the assaults to be diversionary operations ahead of the main landing in Pas-de-Calais.

But Hitler’s mood changes as he learns more about the Allied landings, and he asks of Jodl: “Well, is it or isn’t it the invasion?” Meanwhile Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel, in command of Army Group B, is visiting his wife in Germany and nobody thinks to inform him of the landings until 10.15.

10:00–12:00 The deadlock on Omaha is broken

Solid progress is being made on all the landing beaches except for Omaha, where hundreds lie dead and wounded with the latter at risk from drowning from the incoming tide. Two destroyers approach the coast to within 1,100 metres and knock out the two 75mm guns of Pointe de la Percée that have caused carnage.

On the beach, Colonel George Taylor rallies the survivors and cries: “Two sorts of people are going to stay on this beach – those who are dead and those who are going to die. Let’s get the hell out of here!”

G Company, 16th Infantry Regiment, have succeeded in blowing gaps in the German wire with Bangalore torpedoes, and captain Joe Dawson crawls forward to reconnoitre. “I saw what was ahead,” he recalled. “From the beach flat to the top of the bluffs was a little over 250 feet, and it was almost sheer.” The route of the beach is guarded by a machine-gun nest but Dawson destroys it with a grenade and he and his men begin advancing off Omaha beach and towards the village of Colleville-sur-Mer.

Out of action: wounded soldiers on Omaha, the bloodiest of the five beaches, where the Americans sustained more than 2,000 casualties. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Out of action: wounded soldiers on Omaha, the bloodiest of the five beaches, where the Americans sustained more than 2,000 casualties. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

15:00 Mobile harbours approach Normandy

On their way across the Channel are the first 400 components of two huge mobile harbours codenamed Mulberry, one of which will be assembled off Omaha Beach in front of Colleville-sur-Mer, and the other off Gold Beach in front of the town of Arromanches. Constructed from concrete and steel, they will help the Allies to resupply the invasion force until an existing port on the northern French coast is captured.

15:30 German defenders flee their positions

Heinrich Severloh and Lieutenant Bernhard Frerking – the last two defenders of bunker Wn62, from which the Germans have inflicted considerable casualties on the enemy – abandon their position on Omaha as the Americans approach. “I ran from bomb crater to bomb crater behind our bunker complex. I waited but he never came,” recalled Severloh, who has fired an estimated 12,500 rounds with his Karabiner 98k rifle and his MG 42 machine gun. Although Frerking is killed as he tries to escape, Severloh is captured in the evening and sent to a PoW camp in the USA.

16:20 Allied tanks snuff out a German counter-attack

The 16,242 seasoned troops of the 21st Panzer Division prepare to fall upon the British forces cautiously advancing inland. “If we don’t throw the British back into the sea, we shall have lost the war,” declares General Erich Marcks. The Panzers attack in two columns but as the right-hand column climbs the rise at Biéville, 3 miles from the coast, they come under fire from Sherman ‘Firefly’ tanks armed with the new 17-pounder cannon. Six Panzers are knocked out in 15 minutes, and the left-hand column loses 10 of 35 tanks at Periers before pulling back to Lebissey. In the early evening, retreating German soldiers pass the tank crews on their way to Caen. Some are exhausted, others are drunk. “The war is lost,” remarks a Panzer officer.

21:00 Gliders fly-in to consolidate Allied gains

As D-Day draws to a close, two glider operations get under way to reinforce and resupply the airborne troops who parachuted into Normandy 20 hours earlier. The 176 gliders of Operation Elmira descend on the western end of the landing zone to the relief of the American 82nd Airborne, while to the east Operation Mallard is in progress. On two landing zones north-east of Caen, 249 gliders swoop down to reinforce the 6th British Airborne Division. “There was a feeling of great elation as we neared the field into which we were to land,” said captain John Morrison of the Glider Pilot Regiment, whose aircraft contained an infantry platoon. “The immediate task of our force was to unload our glider and get to the RV [rendezvous] as soon as possible. This we did… the men were in high spirits and went to work magnificently.”

23:59 The Longest Day comes to an end

As midnight approaches, 156,000 Allied personnel are ashore in France. Casualties are estimated to be 10,000 killed, wounded and missing in action, of which 6,603 are Americans, 2,700 British, and 946 Canadians. Estimates of German losses range from 4,000 to 9,000. None of the assault forces have secured their first-day objectives but a beachhead has been established and German forces repelled. The Allies have gained a vital toehold in north-west Europe.

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Gavin Mortimer is a bestselling writer, historian and television consultant. His books include The Long Range Desert Group in World War II (Osprey, 2017)