<i>This article was originally published in June 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.</i>
"Soldiers, sailors and airman of the Allied Expeditionary Force:
You are about to embark on a great crusade. The eyes of the world are upon you and the hopes and prayers of all liberty loving people go with you."
-- Order of the Day,
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower,
Allied Expeditionary Force,
June 6, 1944.
Fifty years ago, from May to June 1944, everyone knew the Allied invasion of France was coming.
It was the sixth year of World War II in Europe, the fourth year in the Pacific. By 1944, the Soviet army and people, after four years of fighting, and at a tremendous cost, had driven back the Germans from Moscow and Leningrad. That June they were getting ready for a summer offensive to drive the invader from Russia.
Americans had just entered Rome, breaking the German hold on central Italy. But dictator Adolf Hitler supplied his ally and Fascist leader Benito Mussolini's puppet government with German troops. They promised tough fighting for American GIs into the foothills of the Alps.
On the other side of the globe, American troops were slowly island hopping their way to Japan. The American military estimated it would be 1948 before an invasion of that island nation, estimated to cost at least a million American lives, brought the war in the Pacific to a close.
In 1940, France had been conquered by the Germans. England had barely gotten her forces out at Dunkirk. Until Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 and Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the English fought on against the Third Reich alone.
Since 1942 Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had been demanding the Allies open a second front in Europe against the Germans. He derided the American and British efforts in Italy and North Africa. But now, in the spring of 1944, the war machine of what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the "arsenal of democracy" was ready.
In English coastal towns an armada of 5,000 ships and armies of hundreds of thousands of men waited. French resistance fighters, huddled around their radios listening for the code that would mean the day of liberation was at hand. In the United States, censored letters from sons and daughters in the military offered hints to concerned relatives and friends.
Even the Germans knew that the Allies were coming -- and soon. But the exact date and place remained a secret. Most German officers thought it would be at the Pas de Calais, the narrowest point of the English Channel. But since March 1944 Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, looking at the intelligence information on Allied troop locations in England, had said Normandy would be where the invasion would take place. Fortunately for the Allies, the Third Reich was getting its best troops chewed up on the Russian front. It had little to spare for France.
Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German intelligence, had discovered that 48 hours before the invasion a code would be broadcast to the French underground over the BBC. It was the first line from the "Chanson d' Automne" ("Song of Autumn") by the 19th-century French poet Paul Verlaine: "The long sobs of the violins of autumn, wound my heart with a monotonous languor." This knowledge, it was felt, would give the Third Reich more than adequate warning.
The German High Command was divided as to how to repel the invasion. The overall commander for France, Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt argued that the Allies should be allowed to establish their beachhead and then be hit in a decisive battle.
Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who was in charge of the coastal fortifications known as the Atlantic Wall, disagreed. The Allies must be met on the beach with everything the Germans had. They had to be beaten before their superiority in men and material could make a difference. "Believe me, Lang," Rommel told an aide on April 22, 1944, "the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive ... for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day."
To make sure the Atlantic Wall held, Rommel ordered mines, mines and more mines. By June 1944, more than 5 million mines were spread along the coast in the water and on the beach. But Rommel wanted 60 million mines. Where French families once vacationed he created inventive beach obstacles designed to rip open a landing craft or blow apart a man. The fields behind the beach were flooded, turning pasture into swamp. Spiked poles with mines, called by the Germans "Rommel's asparagus," were set up to prevent glider and parachute landings.
But it was not enough for Rommel. On the morning of June 4, 1944, he left by car for Germany. With bad weather settling in over the Channel, Rommel was convinced it would be late June at the earliest before the invasion would take place. He planned to request that Hitler give him control of a Panzer division, a control the German dictator jealously guarded, so he could meet the Allies on the beach.
There was another reason that Rommel was going to Germany. On the seat next to him was a box with a pair of handmade woman's size 5-1/2 shoes, a present for his wife, Lucie-Maria. June 6 was her birthday.
Across the English Channel, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower stepped into the library of Southwick House, a large country home. Around him were military leaders of the United States and Britain. Everyone there knew June 5, 6, and 7 were possible D-Day dates. Ike had even ordered the invasion for June 5, but was forced to pull back because of rough weather.
As Group Capt. J.N. Stagg of the Royal Air Force, chief meteorologist for the invasion, walked into the library all eyes were on him. "Gentlemen" he began, "there have been some rapid and unexpected developments in the situation." Stagg said a fair-weather front had begun to cross the English Channel. From the night of June 5 to the morning of June 6 it would be clear enough for bombers to see their targets. After that skies would cloud up again.
"In short," writes Cornelius Ryan in his classic 1959 book on the invasion "The Longest Day," (Simon and Schuster; $5.95; 302 pp.) "what Eisenhower was being told was that a barely tolerable period of fair conditions, far below the minimal requirements, would prevail for just a little more than 24 hours."
After answering a barrage of questions Stagg departed. Eisenhower turned to his fellow Allied officers. His chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, said that an invasion on June 6 was risky but worth it. Two British officers, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur William Tedder and Air Chief Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, opposed the plan. They said weather conditions would still not be good enough for accurate bombing. British Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, in direct charge of the D-Day assault, called it "chancy," but "I would say `Go.' "
Eisenhower hesitated. For what some remember as two minutes, others as five, he seemed lost in thought. Then the decision came. "I am quite positive we must give the order ... I don't like it, but there it is ... I don't see how we could do anything else," he said. With that the meeting broke up. Six hours later Eisenhower reconfirmed his decision.
As fate would have it Eisenhower could not have picked a better date for the invasion. All over France the damp, dreary weather seemed to have put the German army in a daze. Intelligence had already heard the Verline code message to the underground. Word was flashed to Germany.
But German Chief of Operations, Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl did not order an alert. He assumed Rundstedt would do so. But Rundstedt, thinking Rommel's headquarters would issue the order, did nothing. As it was, only the 15th Army at the Pas de Calais was put on alert by its commanding officer. And even he thought it was a false alarm. "I am too old a bunny to get too excited about this," said Gen. Hans von Salmuth, turning back to his bridge game.
Many of the German officers in Normandy were either about to take off for a war game in Brittany or on vacation. The head of German army intelligence was hunting on his country estate with his French mistress.
While the Germans relaxed, Allied paratroops were dropping over Normandy. First came the pathfinders. They were to mark the landing sites. Most of the American pathfinders landed on target. The British were not so lucky. The wind carried one pathfinder to the headquarters of Maj. Gen. Joseph Reichart, commanding officer of the German 711th Division. "Where have you come from?" a stunned Reichart asked. "Awfully sorry, old man," responded the pathfinder like a character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, "but we simply landed here by accident."
Soon 570 British and American paratroops were falling out of the sky. Some landed in the flooded swamps and drowned before they got out of their parachutes. Others were killed by mines. And still others were spotted by the Germans and shot as they drifted to Earth. One ended up on the church steeple of the small town of Ste.-Mere-Eglise. The Germans thought he was dead and left him there until the Allies liberated the town.
Enough of the paratroops ended up on target to convince the Germans something big was up. Some commanders in Normandy put themselves on alert at 3 a.m. But was it the invasion or just a feint for the real assault at the Pas de Calais? Nobody at German high command seemed to know for sure. Should they wake Hitler? He had taken a strong sleeping pill. His staff, long familiar with the German dictator's "endless nervous scenes" when abruptly awakened, decided against it. Perhaps someone should awaken Rommel. But suppose it wasn't the invasion and they got him out of bed for nothing? Maybe it was just better, they decided, to let him sleep.
As the German military bureaucrats dithered, the Allied-invasion fleet of 5,000 ships proceeded through the morning mist toward the Normandy coast. The Americans were to land at beaches code named Utah and Omaha. The British-and-Canadian landing zones were code named Gold, Juno and Sword. Utah was was a flat, sandy beach. Gold, Juno and Sword were made up of resort towns. But Omaha would be different. It had high cliffs. Any army trying to take the bunkers on that beach would be in for a rough time.
As dawn broke German Maj. Gen. Werner Pluskat gazed out of his bunker at Omaha beach. A member of the battle-hardened 352nd Infantry Division, he had been awakened at 1 a.m. by Allied planes. But Pluskat had heard nothing for a long time. For hours he had swept the horizon with his artillery field telescope. But where the gray green waters of the English Channel met the leaden sky Pluskat could still see nothing.
Sometime just before 5 a.m. Pluskat decided to look one last time. Sweeping from left to right his eyes suddenly stopped. Dead ahead the mist was lifting. From under it, ships of every size and description were appearing on the horizon. Pluskat called his superiors. He told them he was looking at 10,000 ships. They thought he was hysterical. "If you don't believe me come up and see for yourself," Pluskat shouted. Asked where the ships were headed he said, "Right for me."
Even if Pluskat was off by 5,000 ships it was the greatest armada in the long history of warfare on the English Channel. On board the ships, troops, nervous and anxious, waited. At exactly 5:05 a.m. a German shore battery along Utah beach opened up on the destroyers Fitch and Corry. The ships fired back and the roll of gunfire rippled across the channel. Just before sunup a small support ship hit a mine and sunk. Fleets of Allied planes joined the ships and began to pulverize German positions. A few German torpedo boats headed out after the Allied ships. They sunk a Norwegian destroyer but were forced to withdraw.
At 6:15 a.m., the landing craft moved toward the beach. H-Hour, the time the first troops would hit the beach was set for 6:30 a.m. The little vessels bounced wildly. Some soldiers slipped climbing down the side of the troop transports. Weighted down by equipment, they drowned. Those that made it to the landing craft did not feel very heroic. Most, according to several accounts, put to good use the little containers they carried marked, "Bags, Vomit."
At 6:30 a.m., some 600 GIs hit Utah Beach. Through a lucky mischance of war they landed on the wrong part of the beach but one that was lightly defended. The paratroops did their work well and distracted the Germans. The British met with fierce fighting at Gold Beach. It took hours to clean out elements of the 352nd German Infantry Division. But at Juno and Sword the paratroops in the rear and the bombardment occupied the Germans undermining the morale of the defenders of the Atlantic Wall.
At Omaha Beach nothing was going right. The Allied bombers flying above the clouds misjudged the Germans' location. Not a single bomb landed on them. Even before the Americans got off the landing craft, they were peppered with German bullets. An entire boatload of troops was killed before it could disembark. Heavy seas swamped the landing craft, sending the heavily weighted down men into the surf to drown.
As the tide rose, attempts were made to defuse the mines and beach obstacles. But it was almost impossible under the murderous fire. American troops huddled behind a seawall or a bulldozer abandoned by the engineers. Company and division commanders were being killed so rapidly that it seemed to many GIs that no one was in charge. At 1:30 p.m., it seemed to the Germans that they were winning. A report was sent back to von Rundstedt that the Atlantic Wall was holding.
But painfully and slowly the tide against the Germans began to turn -- even on Omaha Beach. American battleships were able to score several direct hits on the Nazi bunkers. Once they were out of action the Germans had no backup troops. But mostly it was the sheer courage of desperate men that broke the horror of Omaha beach. Perhaps this feeling was best summed up by Col. Charles Canham of the 116th Regiment. "They're murdering us here," he said, "Let's move inland and get murdered."
By nightfall on June 6, after seven hours of fighting, Americans had only a toehold on Omaha Beach. But it was more then they had all day and the tide of battle was turning. Men and material were beating down the Germans. And the soldiers of the Third Reich knew this. It was 10 a.m. when Rommel first learned of the landings. "How stupid of me, how stupid of me," was his first reaction. Hitler, for all his early concerns about Normandy, told his generals that this was not the invasion. It was to take days before reality sunk in.
By the third week in June "The Great Crusade" was firmly established in France. Over the phone, a gloomy Von Rundstedt reported this depressing news to German army overall commander Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel.
"What shall we do?" Keitel asked with a sigh.
"End the war! What else can you do?" shouted von Rundstedt.
Von Rundstedt was removed from command a few weeks later, but D-Day had already settled Germany's fate and reshaped world history. Less then a year later the war in Europe would be over with an Allied victory.