D-Day: the WW2 battle through the eyes of the men who were there

The fate of World War II turned on 6 June 1944, the day of the Normandy landings. Historian Giles Milton recounts key moments of an outlandishly ambitious offensive through the words of those – Allied and German – who lived them

Allied troops on D-Day landing crafts

It was shortly after midnight on Tuesday, 6 June 1944, when a young German officer named Helmut Liebeskind slipped on his jacket and stepped outside into the damp night air. He was disturbed by the noise of Allied bombers flying overhead and wanted to see if anything untoward was taking place.

Advertisement

As he looked up at the sky, he got the shock of his life. Through a break in the cloud he could see “the shadowy forms of multi-engine bombers with freighter gliders attached”. “is was not one of the routine bombing raids that happened most nights – the gliders were designed to land enemy troops.

Liebeskind was quite possibly the first German soldier to witness the opening action of D-Day: a mass glider drop into Normandy, as part of a number of airborne operations. He rushed back into his headquarters and snatched at the staff telephone. “Major,” he shouted down the line. “Gliders are landing in our section. I’m trying to make contact with No II Battalion.

A few miles away, in an underground command bunker in the Normandy town of Caen, a German wireless operator named Eva Eifler had just started her night shift. She was looking forward to a quiet few hours, for it was tipping down with rain and the wind was blowing a gale. It was not the sort of night on which the enemy would launch their much-anticipated invasion.

But at the same time that Liebeskind spotted the gliders, Eifler began receiving coded messages from German field posts across Normandy. Something was not quite right. Reports were flashing in from all along the coast – reports that suggested an airborne landing was already underway.

Capture the bridges

This was indeed correct. During the night, no fewer than 13,000 US and 8,500 British soldiers were dropped into Normandy. Among the latter was Wally Parr, who had boarded his glider at around 10pm. His task, and that of the 180 comrades from the 6th Airborne Division, was to capture two strategically vital bridges – one at Bénouville (better known as Pegasus Bridge) and its neighbour at Ranville.

It was a mission of vital importance for everything that was to follow. If the bridges were not captured, German Panzer tanks would be able to sweep see was sparks. In a shower of fire and debris, the crippled remnants of the glider slammed to a violent halt and for a few moments, the men on board were knocked unconscious.

“Charlie, get out!” shouted Parr to his buddy, Charles Gardner, when he finally came round. !e pair were part of a fiveman team – the Scout Section. Fearless and highly motivated, they were first to reach Bénouville Bridge. “Come out and fight, you square-headed bastards,” screamed Parr. He and Gardner began. working as a dangerous double-act, pitching grenades (explosive and phosphorus) into the German dugouts surrounding the bridge while their teammates provided covering fire. “If the shrapnel didn’t get them,” said Parr, “the phosphorus would.”

US soldiers are helped on to Omaha beach during D-Day
US soldiers are helped on to Omaha beach during D-Day. (Photo by US Army/Interim Archives/Getty Images)

The men worked with clinical efficiency, aware that it was kill or be killed, until one of Parr’s comrades sensed that the enemy were losing heart. “As we neared the far side of the bridge, still shouting, firing our weapons and lobbing hand grenades, the Germans ran for their lives, scattering in all directions.” It marked the end of the firefight, with the battle for Bénouville Bridge over as dramatically as it began. The Allies had won their first victory. While the British captured Bénouville, and also Ranville, the US paratroopers were fighting their way through the night to Sainte-Mère-Église. This was also a critical target. Not only did the town straddle the main road to Cherbourg, but it was also just a stone’s throw from Utah Beach, the most westerly of the five landing beaches.

Utah was the destination of 25-year-old Captain Leonard Schroeder and his men from F Company, 8th Infantry Regiment. If all went to plan, they would land at dawn and so become the first Allied soldiers to set foot in Normandy. Following in their wake would be hundreds of vessels laden with jeeps, tanks and armoured vehicles, as well as 21,000 men of the 4th Infantry Division.

Schroeder was a bulldozer of a man, with a thick-set face, a pronounced nose and the nickname Moose – an appropriate moniker for someone as stock-solid as the giant animal of his native through mock landings and using live ammunition. In doing so, he transformed them from teenage volunteers into a highly competent force.

As Schroeder boarded his landing craft at around 2.30am, he was given encouragement from his battalion commander, Carlton McNeely. “Well, Moose, this is it. Give ’em hell.” But for all the fighting talk, the two men choked up as emotion got the better of them. Each knew they might well be killed.

General Dwight D Eisenhower speaks to men of 101st Airborne before D-Day
General Dwight D Eisenhower speaks to men of 101st Airborne before they set off. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

On the beach

Schroeder’s landing craft led from the front, scouring the shingle as closed in on Utah Beach in the early morning light. He jumped into the waist-deep water and surged through the waves, dodging mines, barbed wire and small arms fire. A few more paces and he hit the beach. Schroeder had just made history. He was the first Allied soldier to land from the sea on D-Day, and the moment hit him: “Goddam, we’re on French soil!”

His lads made a spirited dash across the sand and eventually reached the low seawall, which offered a refuge of sorts. In the matter of a few minutes, Schroeder’s troop was ashore, and thankfully only a few men were down. If the other four beach landings went as smoothly, D-Day would be a walkover.

That was not to be. There was a verydifferent story unfolding on Omaha Beach, just a few miles to the east. Here, the 19-year-old German conscript Karl Wegner was crouched in one of the concrete strongholds, WN-72, and glued to his binoculars, growing more and more scared at the sight of the Allied fleet off shore. No less frightening were the approaching landing craft.

“Suddenly, they all turned and began to come straight in towards the beach. The sweat rolled down my brow as I watched these boats come closer and closer. My stomach was in knots.”

“Feuer, Wegner, feuer!” His commanding officer, Lance-Corporal Lang, was screaming at him. But Wegner had frozen out of panic at the thought of killing “all those men in olive brown uniforms splashing through the water towards the sand”. Lang took the butt of his pistol and, as Wegner put it, “crashed it down on the top of my helmet”. This had the desired effect. “The metallic clang brought me to life and I pulled the trigger up tight.”

The fatal flaw in Nazi intelligence

Colonel Helmuth Meyer was in charge of counterintelligence for the 15th Army of the Wehrmacht, responsible for eavesdropping on the messages broadcast by the BBC each evening that contained coded orders for the French Resistance. Meyer had been told the Allies were intending to use these messages personnels to send out information on the date of the forthcoming invasion. The opening verse of a 1866 poem by Paul Verlaine was to be transmitted exactly a week before the planned invasion, then a second verse would be transmitted on the eve of the landings.

Meyer picked up the first verse of the poem at 9.20pm on Thursday, 1 June: “Les sanglots longs, des violons de l’automne” (The long sighs of the violins of autumn). “Now something’s going to happen,” he said to his intelligence staff. It was vital for them not to miss the second verse, which would alert them to the fact that the invasion was imminent. It duly came at 9.33pm on Monday, 5 June. The message went: “Blessent mon coeur, d’une langeur monotone” (Wound my heart with a languor of sameness).

It was the breakthrough Meyer needed. Unless it was an elaborate hoax by the Allies, he now knew that Eisenhower’s troops would be landing within hours. He flashed the news through to Hitler’s headquarters in Bavaria, where it was transmitted to General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations Staff.

He was in a position to order a general alert and send a warning to every command post in northern France, as well as to the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. But Jodl did not trust Meyer’s intelligence, for there had been too many false alarms over previous weeks. He declined to warn the army charged with defending the coastline of Normandy once D-Day had begun.

“This was war”

As Wegner opened fire with his machine gun, he saw men collapse into the sand while others desperately sought cover on the exposed beach. He was struck by how easy it was to kill, how little energy it needed. “My mind rationalised it: this was war. Even so, it left a sour taste in my mouth.”

To the US troops on the receiving end – young men like Private Harold ‘Hal’ Baumgarten – it was as if they’d landed in hell. Baumgarten jumped into the water just as a German machine gun opened up on the ramp of his landing craft. His comrade, Clarius Riggs, was first to be mown down, killed in a spray of bullets. Baumgarten saw the surf around him froth bright red. It was a tableau so macabre that it seemed surreal: “Men with guts hanging out of their wounds and body parts lying along our path.”

There was a cataclysmic bang and a shower of lethal fragments. Baumgarten felt as if he had been hit with a baseball bat. “My upper jaw was shattered, the left cheek was blown open. The roof of my mouth was cut up and teeth and gums were laying all over my mouth.”

As blood gushed from the wound, Baumgarten looked along the beach. For as far as he could see to both the left and right, his friends and comrades of B Company, 116th Infantry Regiment, were being cut down. He would be wounded twice more that day. Omaha Beach was a hellish massacre from which there was no escape.

The first wave to land on Sword Beach – some 30 miles further to the east – had met with a similar fate. When Cliff Morris, a soldier with No 6 Commando, came ashore at around 8.40am, the beach told a sorry tale of what had happened to the lads of the East Yorkshire Regiment. “Bodies lay sprawled all over the beach, some with legs, arms and heads missing, the blood clotting in the sand.”

The sound was even worse, like the amplified wail of an animal in pain: “The moans and screams of those in agony blended with the shriek of bullets and whining of shells,” said Morris.

Among those who came ashore with him was Stanley ‘Scotty’ Scott of No 3 Commando, who saw no reason why his troop couldn’t be first to reach Bénouville Bridge, where Wally Parr and the men of 6th Airborne had been holding out since capturing it shortly after midnight. To this end, he and four others made a dash for the bridge in a welter of fire.

Funny tanks of D-Day

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D Eisenhower was aware of the dangers of lightly armed infantry landing on a heavily defended beach. He therefore decided to make use of the latest technology – which would allow amphibious tanks to come ashore, emerging from the sea, at the same time as the infantry.

These were called DD tanks (meaning Duplex Drive, but they were known to the troops as Donald Duck), the invention of a maverick genius named Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart.

He was in charge of the 79th (Experimental) Armoured Division Royal Engineers, which was to develop and champion the use of ‘Hobart’s Funnies’, a bewildering array of unconventional vehicles. These included the amphibious tank, armoured bulldozers and anti-landmine flail tanks, which had a revolving drum with chains attached to flail the ground in front of the tank and neutralise any mines.

To one observer, the DD tanks looked like “odd-shaped sea monsters, depending upon huge, doughnut-like, canvas balloons for flotation”. They were, in fact, 33-ton Sherman tanks that sat alarmingly low in the water. It must have been nerve-wracking to drive them through the choppy seas. If a wave crashed over their canvas flotation screens – or if the screens became waterlogged – they sank like stones, and there was little chance of escaping alive.

Hobart’s Funnies were a triumph on Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, providing much needed armoured support. But they arrived late at Utah, landing after the first wave of infantry, while many of the tanks destined for Omaha sank in the rough seas. If they had successfully made it to the shore, the battle for Omaha might have been.

Moving inland

Scott and his unit moved swiftly inland after a bruising beach landing. “Blokes going down left and right,” said Scott. As they reached the farthest end of Le Port, a village close to the bridge, they came across a lone British paratrooper seated on the ground with his shattered leg propped up on a chair. He looked Scott up and down and cried: “Where the **** have you been?!”

From there, the last 100 metres to the bridge were extremely perilous. “Rounds hitting from all sides, there was rounds ricocheting off and splatting and hitting,” said Scott. Four of the men sailed through the gunfire, with Scott himself in the lead, but the fifth got caught in crossfire. “Campbell was just the unlucky one. He got clobbered. He got hit through the neck, fell down in one big lump.”

Scott tore across the bridge at high speed before taking refuge behind a burned-out German vehicle. He had made remarkable progress, reaching the bridge in advance of their commander, Lord Lovat. But his day was not over yet.

He, Morris and their fellow commandos were tasked with seizing the high ground inland from the bridge, and to do so before nightfall to prevent the Germans from being able to launch a counter-attack.

During the afternoon, they were to suffer some serious setbacks, and none more so than when they were bowling towards the village of Amfreville. “There was an gun, a dirty great Russian thing on wheels with a shield, and when we came around that bloody corner, wallop, we got hit,” said Scott. “Dixie Dean got it in the guts … I couldn’t do a thing for him; he was just looking at me.”

Les Hill got a bullet through his head, while “Westley got hit in the wrist. And Bud Arnott, he lost a foot.” In one burst of fire, Scott’s team had been decimated, a devastating blow to this band of closeknit comrades. It was also a reminder of the dangers of being in the front line, the tip of the spear: the first to advance were the first to be hit.

Yet even in times of such crisis, when the situation hardly warranted it, there were flashes of dark humour. One of Scott’s mates, Paddy Harnett, was worried he’d taken a bullet in the groin, right between his legs. “All he kept saying was, ‘Scotty, is my wedding tackle all right? Scotty, is my wedding tackle all right?’ And I said, ‘For Christ’s sake, Paddy, you’ve got it through the arse, you haven’t got it through anything else.’”

The men pushed on until they reached Amfreville, where they dug in for the night, but there was to be one final twist to that longest of days. And it was one that came as a bolt from the blue.

“We had only been here a few minutes when all was excitement.” The French inhabitants of the town had burst out of their houses, yelling as they pointed at the sky: “Avion! Boche avion!”

It took seconds to realise what was happening. While the Luftwaffe had been absent for much of the day, it had now taken to the skies and spotted the commandos in their exposed frontline positions. The troops on the ground stared at the planes, approaching at a very low altitude, in gut-wrenching anguish. “The sky,” said Cliff Morris, “was black with planes”.

But the locals had made a mistake, which became apparent as the huge formation wheeled overhead. Morris was among the first to see that they were not “Boche” planes. They were friendlies: British and Canadians bringing in a whole new wave of the Airborne Division. War correspondent Noel Monks saw it too: “They came over us so low we felt our cheers would have been heard in the noiseless gliders as they slipped their tows,” he wrote.

Victorious day

For many Allied soldiers, the short summer night that ended D-Day was spent in shallow foxholes. The vast full Moon might have provided comfort against the darkness, but instead it felt like the carbide beam of a spotlight. Morris and two comrades had dug a shelter of sorts that offered only rudimentary protection. “Mortars kept banging away, heavy fire broke out in front of us and flares blazed up at regular intervals,” he would recall.

Troops were famished, for they had eaten next to nothing since vomiting their grease-slicked breakfasts. John Madden, a Canadian paratrooper, managed to gulp down a hearty feast of meat stew, two eggs and a hunk of rough brown bread, and long before it was digested, the day’s exertions dealt him a blow of fatigue. He was so exhausted he could scarcely move.

There were to be many incongruous sights that night following the landings, and the strangest of all was taking place inland from Gold Beach. Major Peter Martin had landed that morning with his kit and weaponry – and a wind-up gramophone. Now, in the midnight air, he opened its cover and slipped on Paper Doll by the Mills Brothers.

Here was a upbeat number to lift men’s spirits; a means to escape the horrors of the day. Elsewhere on the Normandy coast, Allied soldiers hid in fear of their lives, but in this particular field, far from German earshot, the Mills Brothers crooned into the moonlight.

It was a joyous end to a victorious day. Some 11,000 Allied soldiers had fallen in battle or been seriously wounded. Yet against all the odds, the Allies had secured a foothold in Normandy. It was a foothold that would lead to their ultimate victory in World War II.

Giles Milton is a writer who specialises in history. His books include Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare (John Murray, 2017)

Advertisement

This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed