The road to D-Day: getting ready for action

As their plans to liberate Europe gathered pace, the Allies knew that every stage of the invasion would have to be carried out with razor-like precision. Soon, thousands of troops were being put through rigorous training exercises – some of which turned out to be as deadly as the real thing | By Peter Caddick-Adams

Members of a British parachute regiment consult their maps during a training exercise just weeks before D-Day. Training was intensive – and dangerous. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post /Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Land: Before the troops could leave Britain’s 
shores, they would have to conquer Devon first

On the eve of the invasion, the build-up of troops in the British Isles was so large, servicemen joked that Britain was only being kept afloat by the number 
of barrage balloons attached to her. 
Indeed, a total of 2,876,600 soldiers, sailors and airmen were awaiting the call in southern England, and key to their success on D-Day would be the fact that each and every one of them had experienced far longer and more meaningful combat preparation than their opponents across the Channel.

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However, as US infantry divisions underwent extensive training along the coast of Devon, accidents were not uncommon. Many of the exercises were necessarily dangerous, involving live artillery, mines and machine gun fire.

Captain Charles R Cawthon remembered the sad fate that befell one member of his platoon, who triggered a mine laid in the dunes: “There was a blinding flash and a clap of sound, and he disappeared as if by a magician’s sleight of hand. The illusion terminated in pieces of anatomy plopping into the sand around us.”

Another American officer, Second-Lieutenant Wesley R Ross, recalled: 
“The day before we left for the marshalling area, we lost Melvin Vest, who was killed when a quarter-pound block of TNT exploded in his hand. I bundled 
up Vest and hustled him by truck to 
a nearby hospital, but he died of shock four hours later from extensive damage to his hands, legs and groin. This was 
a gut-wrenching disaster, and the fact that he was such a neat guitar-playing soldier and so well liked by everyone, made it even more of a tragedy.”
When the time finally came to head across to Normandy, large crowds of locals lined the streets to wish the departing men both goodbye and good luck, sensing this time that the troops would not be returning.

Omaha beach-bound Sergeant Hyam Haas, a draftee from Brooklyn, remembered a moving sight as they travelled towards their marshalling areas. “When we left Exmouth on 
30 May, the townsfolk lined the streets 
and cheered us on – many of them 
in tears. It seemed as if the entire 
nation was in motion… This was the biggest parade ever; the only thing missing were the marching bands. There was constant cheering as we went through towns – everyone knew what was happening.”

Airborne troops await deployment in an aircraft
Airborne troops resolutely await their deployment. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Air: If the opening stages of D-Day were to go to plan, those taking to the skies would require 
a realistic dress rehearsal

Tasked with capturing bridges, coastal routes and key points in Normandy’s road network, paratroopers and glider troops would be vital to D-Day’s success. As such, their fitness training was rigorous and often gruelling. Lance-Corporal John Ross, who joined the Canadian Parachute Battalion of the British 6th Airborne Division, remembered: “In August and September 1943, we ran five miles every morning and completed a 50-mile march with full gear in 18 hours.”

Two US Airborne Divisions, the 82nd and 101st, were also stationed in England. On 11–14 May, their preparations culminated with ‘Exercise Eagle’, where paratroopers and glider troops descended on Berkshire to take on their ‘enemy’ – in reality, members of the US 28th Infantry Division. Keen to replicate the impending events as much as possible, they flew out of the airfields they would use for the actual invasion.

Ominously, eight of the nine C-47 aircraft carrying men of the 502nd Parachute Infantry dropped their jumpers nine miles from the intended drop zone, anticipating what would happen on D-Day a month later.

While bombers pounded coastal fortifications and fighters practised air-to-ground attacks, a 33-year-old Californian – Lieutenant-Colonel Joel 
L Crouch – rehearsed with plane-loads of navigational pathfinders.

Airborne forces had suffered heavily from fratricide over Sicily in July 1943, 
and Crouch’s own aircrew had been responsible for some of the errors. Fine pilots they may have been, but they struggled at flying in formation in poor weather or under fire. To iron out these shortcomings, Crouch ran a Pathfinder School to train the men for their perilous job of being “the spearhead 
of the spearhead”.

In order to transport the two US divisions, 1,116 aircrew were assembled, albeit with only enough trained navigators for 40 per cent of the fleet. Together, they would tow 1,118 small gliders capable of carrying 13 men (and two pilots) each, as well as 301 larger British-manufactured Horsas.

As Lieutenant Russell Chandler Jr, flying with the 44th Squadron, 316th Troop Carrier Group of the Ninth Air Force, recollected: “We started on daytime jumps, moving on to night-time work, dropping those guys at 600 feet. Once the shroud line was pulled, they were on the ground in seconds. Our biggest fear in training was friendly fire as we had lost many aircraft that way in Sicily, but the one thing we couldn’t replicate was the German flak we would receive over Normandy.”

It was during this time that Chandler also witnessed an unnerving training accident, which set the men on edge: “The lead aircraft in front of me suddenly climbed up out of formation, for what reason we will never know, and collided with another plane crossing overhead. That aircraft was carrying the commander, the chaplain and other high-ranking officers. We flew directly through the flames and debris, which gave us a horrible foretaste of what the ‘Big Day’ might be like.”

A British paratrooper lies on the ground, gripping the lines of his parachute
A British paratrooper grips the lines of his parachute after a rough landing during training. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post /Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sea: An operation dubbed ‘Exercise Tiger’ was 
to be a crucial part of naval preparations –
but ended up a costly disaster

Up in Scotland, young American, British and Canadian naval crewmen were taught how to communicate by light and flag, maintain position, turn in formation, and deploy from a column formation into line abreast (side by side).

They also learned the rudiments 
of small boat handling, seamanship and – vitally important for D-Day – tides and coastal navigation. For, as an admiral pointed out: “If you were in a landing craft looking towards the coast of France, from 10 miles away, with a freeboard [the distance from deck to waterline] of six or seven feet, you just wouldn’t see the shore.”

On 27–28 April 1944, US troops rehearsed their upcoming assault on Utah beach in a large operation off the coast of Devon named ‘Exercise Tiger’. On the second day, however, disaster struck when the ships were attacked by nine Kriegsmarine E-boats. To add to the confusion, many soldiers thought the attack was part of the exercise.

As Lieutenant Eugene E Eckstam, medical officer aboard the tank landing ship LST-507, remembered: “General quarters rudely aroused us about 01:30. I remember hearing gunfire and saying they had better watch where they were shooting or someone would get hurt. Suddenly there was a horrendous noise accompanied by the sound of crunching metal and dust everywhere.”

Eckstam’s vessel was one of three hit by torpedoes; it lost all power and was dead in the water. He opened a hatch and “… found myself looking into a raging inferno. It was impossible to enter. The screams and cries of those army troops in there still haunt me.”

The fire forced those who survived the initial carnage to abandon ship at 02:30, when Eckstam “…watched the most spectacular fireworks ever. Gas cans exploding and the enormous fire blazing only a few yards away are sights forever etched in my memory.”

An estimated 946 US servicemen lost their lives in Exercise Tiger. The disastrous incident was then covered up from fear that it would destroy morale ahead of the pivotal invasion.

When the time came for the final departure, King George VI reviewed the assembled fleets of nearly 7,000 craft in a US patrol boat. “The cook provided His Majesty with coffee,” recalled its skipper, Harold B Sherwood. “On leaving, the king complimented our cook on a most excellent cup of coffee. After that, any complaints about his chow were silenced by: ‘If it’s good enough for the King of England, it’s good enough for youse guys’.”

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For many of those awaiting the call to action, the impending invasion was hard to process. Seaman Charles ‘Buster’ Shaeff from Norristown, Pennsylvania, had volunteered for the US Navy at 17. As he left Weymouth, he “…wasn’t apprehensive about going in; I was an 18-year-old kid who figured nothing would happen to me. You 
think – if it happens, it’ll happen to someone else.”