D-Day: why the training was deadlier than the assault

Amid live-ammo mishaps and landing craft sinkings, more troops were lost in training for 6 June than on the day itself, reveals Peter Caddick-Adams

British troops learn to swim in full kit on a training course in May 1944. "A blind man could see something big was about to happen," said one soldier. (Image by Getty Images)

“Let’s start at the beginning, because by far the most important part was rehearsing for it, getting it right.” This is what D-Day platoon commander Kingston Adams told me when I interviewed him in 1991 about his wartime experiences. He was quite correct. From him and many other interviewees came the dawning realisation that D-Day had a vitally important hinterland. For those associated with that iconic day, 6 June 1944 was simply the culmination of months – sometimes years – of dedicated training. The first day of the landings in Normandy and the subsequent campaign was only half the story. Most accounts plunge straight into the combat, with no more than a cursory nod to what went before. Yet without often dangerous preparation, the airborne troops would not have prevailed and the seaborne warriors – wet, miserable with seasickness, cold and under intense fire – would not have known how to drag themselves through the obstacles and off the shingle.

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When compared with their opponents, the Allied servicemen who invaded northern France on 6 June 1944 had experienced an incredible degree of rugged and realistic training that put them at the peak of physical fitness, acclimatised them to battle and equipped them mentally and physically to win. In fact, according to my research, more lives were lost preparing for D-Day than in its first 24 hours. This uncomfortable aspect of Operation Overlord has been entirely air-brushed from history.

From the autumn of 1943, all the assault troops due to land in the first few days were given amphibious training at the Combined Training Centres in Inveraray and Castle Toward (the latter rhyming counterintuitively with ‘coward’) in western Scotland. At both, units practised disembarking from landing ships into smaller craft, which were carried on the larger vessels instead of lifeboats. They studied how to make beach assaults – eventually under live fire, to acclimatise soldiers to the feeling of a real battle. These courses were usually a soldier’s first introduction to seaborne operations.

Troops visiting the Inveraray CTC – including every D-Day assault formation – were pushed through on two-week courses, catering to the specific needs of infantry, armour, artillery, engineer, signals, ordnance, medical and commando units, at regiment, brigade, battalion and company levels. Gunners were trained to fire their weapons from craft afloat at sea; drivers were shown how to waterproof their vehicles, manoeuvre them onto wet decks and drive them ashore through several feet of water; medical staff rehearsed lowering stretcher cases into and out of boats. For all, there were endless beach assaults on the many islands and inlets in the vicinity, under simulated and live fire, from machine guns, mortars, artillery and aircraft, with equal emphasis on day and night operations.

Major Francis Goode, who would land in the area codenamed ‘Gold’ with D Company, 2nd Glosters, took his men through an Inveraray course in March 1944. “We practised getting in and out of the landing craft, which were manned by enthusiastic marines. One of them, we were told, had been too enthusiastic, and steering his assault craft across the loch in semi-darkness, hit a buoy. Thinking it was the beach, he ordered: ‘Down Ramp!’ Some 10 fully equipped infantrymen dashed into the loch – and vanished for ever.”

Ten fully equipped infantry men dashed into the loch and vanished for ever

In south-west England, the US Army opened its own version of Inveraray – the Assault Training Centre (ATC) – at Woolacombe on the north Devon coast, with training beginning there in September 1943. In a complex stretching over 16 square miles, and including beaches, cliffs, headlands, sand dunes and 10 miles of Atlantic coastline, the ATC trained commanders and machine-gun, mortar, rocket launcher, demolition and flamethrower teams in the assault techniques they would need to overwhelm the defenders of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Each course was tough, taking no account of the weather: on 18 December 1943, three landing craft foundered in the surf, swamping the tanks on board and drowning 14; amphibious DUKW vehicles turned turtle in other incidents. Meanwhile, on 25 October 1943, five GIs were killed and 14 wounded by machine-gun fire intended to pass over their heads on the ATC’s Exmoor firing range. Altogether 98 troops died at Woolacombe preparing for D-Day, most of them Americans.

Harder than the real thing

Looking back on the assault training, Lieutenant Colonel Trevor Hart Dyke, commanding the Hallamshire Battalion of the British 49th Division, wrote: “Like other units we had our toll of accidents, but to make the training more realistic, normal safety procedures had to be relaxed. This policy was well rewarded when we went into battle, as we were not then unduly perturbed by the noise and danger of war.” Many men would echo the observation of Corporal Chris Portway, from the 4th Dorsets of the 43rd Wessex Division, that “all those ghastly exercises that preceded Normandy were far more painful than the real thing”. Due to the insistence of the first commander of the 21st Army Group, General Sir Bernard Paget, and his successor, Montgomery, that training be as realistic as possible, the casualty bill was high, but not as noticeable as it was spread evenly through every unit.

Captain Charles R Cawthon of the 116th Infantry (US First Army), based at Tidworth Barracks in Wiltshire, recalled that “a British glider troop’s training camp nearby appeared wasteful of human life to the point of disregard; few days passed, it seemed, that a caisson bearing a flag-draped coffin, escorted by troopers in red berets, did not rumble by on the way to the British Army cemetery”. He may have been recalling Exercise Dreme, when on 4 April 1944 a Stirling bomber towing a Horsa glider hit a tree during a night-navigation practice involving 140 gliders. Both aircraft crashed, with the loss of all six Stirling aircrew, both Horsa pilots and the glider’s 24 passengers – an entire platoon of the 7th King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

The two US airborne divisions rehearsed endlessly, culminating on 11–14 May with Exercise Eagle, where paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st dropped by night in the Hungerford–Newbury area, followed by their glider troops the following day. Two C-47s (‘Dakotas’ in RAF terminology) of the 316th Troop Carrier Group collided mid-air, killing all 14 on board, including the commander of the 36th Squadron and two officers of the 505th Parachute Infantry. As one pilot recollected, “the lead aircraft 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”.

Airborne forces were particularly prone to accidents, and Exercise Eagle resulted in a reported 500 breaks and sprains due to high winds. The regimental surgeon of the 508th Parachute Infantry noted that it took three days to find the remains of a trooper whose parachute was seen to malfunction. “When we found him, I took his gloves and laundered them carefully three or four times to get the sweet odour of death out of them,” said Major David Thomas, who then wore them himself on D-Day. “I’m not superstitious, but I figured that those gloves couldn’t be unlucky twice.”

A Stirling bomber towing a glider hit a tree during a night practice, killing an entire platoon

A month earlier, from Fort Henry – a 90ft-long concrete observation post on Redend Point at Studland, Dorset – King George VI, Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower watched a huge live-firing amphibious exercise, Smash One. It included the first combat trial of swimming tanks. Although the dignitaries could not see the incidents, of the 32 Valentine floating tanks launched by the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards that morning, six sank when the sea state suddenly worsened and a seventh was abandoned, later sinking. One of the tank commanders, Lieutenant Robert Ford, recalled: “We were on the surface of the water after coming off the landing craft, and [were] increasingly apprehensive. The water was coming in very fast and although we had small pumps, they were just not effective. We were still floating, with all four of us standing on top of the tank; then a great wave crashed over the top and we sank to the bottom. I was in an air pocket, formed when the canvas screen fell over and trapped us. I had air to breathe and with my life jacket I managed to rise to the surface. It seemed a long way up. Unfortunately, my colleagues did not make it.”

Institutional cover-up

Every war diary and log reveals the same: each unit or organisation preparing for France had suffered fatalities and violent injuries in their preparations over the preceding year. Perhaps the best-known D-Day training disaster was Exercise Tiger of 27–28 April, when the whole of Force U, comprising over 30,000 men bound for Utah beach, was exercising at Slapton Sands (the scene of many other US rehearsals). Following the landings, when some ‘friendly-fire’ casualties were alleged, a force of German E-boats discovered the assault convoy, and – unaware of its true purpose – loosed several torpedoes before heading back to France.

In the ensuing chaos up to 946 US soldiers and sailors lost their lives. Due to the proximity of D-Day, Eisenhower instituted a huge cover-up to protect morale, which continued into the 1970s, and even today the true number of casualties is contested.

However, Tiger has distracted attention from the final rehearsals for the other four Normandy task forces, held in May 1944. These saw the assault-wave forces bound for Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – each of more than 30,000 personnel – mount dress rehearsals of everything learned, amounting to the world’s largest ever simultaneous amphibious exercise. The ‘invasion’ was originally scheduled for 2 May, but was postponed by poor weather for 24 hours – fortuitously, just as the real D-Day would be. Thus, on 3–4 May 1944, Exercise Fabius I put the Omaha assault troops (Force O) through their paces at Slapton Sands. As Sergeant Bob Slaughter observed, “some of the men remarked that the code name, Fabius I, stood for Final Assault Before Invasion, US Infantry. Even a blind man could see that something big was about to happen.”

Destined to land on Gold beach, Brigadier ‘Sammy’ Stanier said of Fabius II, the second of six simultaneous exercises: “The plan was exactly the same as the real thing, but nobody below the rank of lieutenant colonel knew that. These exercises gave us the opportunity to meet the Royal Navy personnel who would be transporting us over and providing additional gunfire from offshore.” Private Stan Hodge, a newly arrived soldier with the 2nd Essex, was afraid because he had never learned to swim: “My biggest fear was that my landing craft would be sunk and I’d drown. I wanted to be part of it; I wouldn’t have minded taking a bullet later on, but I did not want to die on the first day.” In the event, the nervous 18-year-old would win a Military Medal for bravery on 6 June – his first day in action.

Several drowned when a vicious undertow sucked them away during the disembarkation

Fabius III at Bracklesham Bay witnessed the landing on East Wittering beach of those Canadian troops soon to head for Juno, and was observed by Winston Churchill. Lieutenant Peter Hinton with the 262nd Landing Craft Infantry Flotilla recalled watching several of the heavily laden troops drown after a vicious undertow sucked them away during the disembarkation. He thought this “a bitter lesson in how not to do things”, but it emphasised that casualties were inevitable with realistic training.

Eighteen-year-old Private Richard Harris of the 1st Suffolks was one of those splashing ashore during Fabius IV. He recalled embarking on SS Empire Broadsword on 3 May 1944 for what he thought was ‘the Day’. “After sailing all night somewhere in the direction of France, we were lowered in assault craft at dawn and found we were storming the beaches of Angleterre, between Littlehampton and Bognor Regis.” Captain Peter R Cruden, a Cambridge graduate with No 6 Commando, who would be wounded on 6 June, also recollected disembarking “at about 0900 hours, more or less the same timing as on D-Day. I seem to remember it was a rather nice spring morning and the weather was calm: quite different from the real thing. There were background effects in the form of smoke and explosions to make the whole thing more warlike.”

Everything possible was rehearsed and umpired: minesweepers cleared the sea; aircraft dropped ordnance; the coast was bombarded with live ammunition; command ships issued orders and monitored frequencies. Alongside swimming tanks, landing craft tanks shipped armour onto beaches; obstacles and real minefields were removed by engineers; troops waded through the surf covered by smoke screens; the three Ranger companies attached to Force O landed away from the main body to destroy artillery positions, as they would on 6 June on the Pointe du Hoc. Bridge-laying tanks spanned anti-tank ditches, while engineers and infantry attacked pillboxes. Later on, supplies were landed, simulated casualties treated and prisoners processed. In theory, everyone landing on D-Day was present on a Fabius exercise. In retrospect, it is remarkable how much attention has been paid by journalists and historians to Exercise Tiger because of its unexpected casualties, while the series of Fabius exercises, far larger and more important, have lapsed into obscurity.

Pre-invasion nerves

Though suffering none of the setbacks of Tiger, the Fabius exercises still resulted in significant numbers of killed and wounded, news of which the War Office felt obliged to suppress until after the real invasion. When details of the last pre-invasion fatalities were sent to next of kin, it was implied that they had died during the actual landings in France. Francis Goode with the 2nd Glosters recorded how “one unfortunate who was playing in his tent with a loaded rifle accidentally shot himself in the heart. I arrived a minute after to find blood spurting literally six feet and no hope. We notified his next of kin after the landing [on Gold Beach] that he had been killed in action. It seemed kinder.”

When details of fatalities were sent to next of kin, it was implied they had died in France

However, the errors and mishaps continued right up until H-Hour (the moment of assault) on D-Day. Having set sail, several of the 2nd East Yorks on their way to Sword beach fell victim to a Sten gun, loaded with a fresh magazine by its owner and put on a mess table. The pitching and rolling of their landing craft caused the sub-machine gun to fall onto the deck. A witness reported: “It went off, with several rounds ricocheting round the steel bulkheads. A lad got hit in the heel. Another, Sergeant Eric Ibbetson, bled to death when a bullet cut his femoral artery.”

Perhaps one of the saddest incidents was when the famous commando Brigadier ‘Shimi’ Lovat asked a new padre to hold a pre-battle service. The chaplain “preached a rotten sermon about death and destruction, which caused surprise. There were a number of complaints; the cleric was suspended and told to return from whence he came. The incident was forgotten but the dismissal was taken badly. On the last day in camp the unfortunate man took his own life. He was put down as a battle casualty.” Yet it was Lovat who best caught the eve-of-invasion mood of optimism. He had kept his men busy with swimming and athletics competitions.

In the brigade football final, the Navy beat the Army – 45 Royal Marine Commando triumphing over No 3 Commando. Then followed a service in a sodden Hampshire field. “I wish you all the best of luck in what lies ahead,” Lovat told his men. “This will be the greatest military venture of all time. The Commando Brigade has an important role to play, and 100 years from now your children’s children will say: ‘They must have been giants in those days.’”

Peter Caddick-Adams is a military historian at Wolverhampton University. His latest book, Sand and Steel: A New History of D-Day, is published by Random House in May

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This article was first published in the June 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine