I had my hair cut on June 5, 1944. I remember that with certainty because, precociously, I tried to start a conversation with the barber on the entry of Allied troops into Rome, which had been reported that day. He did not seem to be interested in joining a ten-year-old prep-school boy in a discussion of war news.
I was obsessed by it. My only memories were of a world at war. They began with the trial evacuation of children from British cities during the Munich crisis of 1938 and included the real evacuation in September 1939, encounters with soldiers who had escaped from Dunkirk in 1940, the glow of Bristol burning on the horizon during the blitz of 1941, and the discovery of bits of crashed German bombers in the fields around our house. They also included the arrival of the Americans of the ist and 29th infantry divisions in 1943, an extraordinary and exciting upheaval of rustic life, which was last disturbed by the building of the railways in the nineteenth century. The Americans, whom the English country people knew only through Hollywood, brought Detroit to their narrow lanes and medieval villages. Tanks, bulldozers, trucks in numbers not even imagined before, gave promise of a new way of making war—above all, of victory. After four years of hardship, danger, and anxiety, the arrival of the Americans kindled hope that there might, after all, be a successful end to an apparently interminable conflict.
I had never doubted. With the fierce patriotism of a war child, I was possessed by the certainty that Hitler would be beaten, and I loved the exuberant American incomers because their self-confidence and vitality spoke to me of a predestined triumph. The gloomy barber was not my sort of person. The Americans were. That night I slipped out of bed to join my parents in the garden, which boomed with the row of American aircraft carrying the
82nd and 101st divisions to their drop zones in the Cotentin Peninsula. Next day we awoke to hear the radio broadcasting the announcement, constantly repeated throughout June 6, that “early this morning the Allied navies, supported by strong Allied air forces, began landing Allied armies on the coast of France.”
I brimmed with elation. With a ten-year-old’s authority, I knew that the war was nearly over. I could find no patience with the grown-ups who huddled over the radio in expectation of solid confirmation that the landings had succeeded. Of course they had succeeded. I had seen the scale of the preparations: endless columns of tanks, skies filled with gliders and their tugs training for the airborne landings, the little south-coast harbors choked with ships waiting to transport the assault troops. If I were a German over there on the other side of the narrow English Channel—I remembered how fragile were the defenses of our vacation swimming beaches when the threat of invasion lay in the opposite direction in 1940 and ’41—I would, I thought, merely be waiting to put up my hands.
The Germans, we now know, were not in good heart. Not until the previous November had Hitler issued the fifty-first of his Führer directives, at last admitting that the threat to the Atlantic Wall was real. Hitherto, three quarters of his resources had gone into the war against Russia. Now he admitted that “a greater danger appears in the West. . . . Should the enemy succeed in breaching our defenses on a wide front here, the immediate consequences would be unpredictable. . . . I have therefore decided to reinforce its defenses, particularly those places from which a long-range bombardment of the English will begin.”
Not only Hitler had neglected the defenses of the West; so, too, had the German defenders themselves. Supreme Commander West, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, was old and tired. Dismissed from command in Russia after the failure to capture Moscow in December 1941, he had settled into comfortable headquarters in France, where he spent much of his day reading detective stories. The building of the Atlantic Wall, the coastal fortification that was to block every beach between Holland and Spain, proceeded methodically but without urgency. His forces comprised divisions worn out in the terrible battles with the Red army and consisted, in his words, of cooks and drivers. It was an exaggeration, but it had poetic truth. The sixty divisions in the West lacked transport, tanks, young men.
Führer Directive Number 51 brought a new broom: Rommel. The Desert Fox had taken months to recover from the illness that had struck him down just before the triumph of the Americans and British in Tunisia in May 1943, but the new job revived his energies. Driving hundreds of miles a day, he descended on the lethargic Westheer (Hitler’s army in France and the Low Countries) like a whirlwind. Mines, he rightly insisted, were to be the first obstacles the Allies would meet. Since 1941, he discovered, only 1.7 million had been laid. Within a week of his arrival he raised the rate of mine-laying to a million a month; by mid-May four million were in place. So, too, were thousands of beach obstacles designed to tear the bottoms out of landing craft, and anti-glider obstacles that would rip off the planes’ wings and detonate explosive charges.
Rommel’s dynamism put new heart into the defenders—to whom Hitler now began to send some first-class tank divisions. It did little to rouse Rundstedt from his ' lethargy. An orthodox strategist, he believed in “wait and see”: Wait and see where the Allies landed, and only then launch the tank divisions to deliver a blow that would drive them back into the sea. Rommel knew differently. He had fought under the scourge of Allied air superiority in the desert and recognized that if the Allies got a foothold, their aircraft would devastate any tank counterattack mounted against them. “It is more important,” he said, “to have one panzer division in the assaulted area on D-day than to have three there by D plus three. ... The enemy must be immobilized before he reaches our main battlefield. We must stop him in the water.”
This dispute could be settled only by Hitler. Typically, he decided to resolve the argument by making himself the chief decision maker. Rundstedt was to be left some tank divisions (there were to be ten in Normandy by June), Rommel given some for his plan, and a reserve left to the Führer that could be released only on his say-so.
The compromise was to prove disastrous. Nevertheless, Rommel was overoptimistic in thinking that an armored drive to the beaches would stop the invasion dead in the water: Nearly half of the divisions allotted by the Allies to D-day were to come not by sea but by air.
The Allied airborne army consisted of four divisions, two American, two British, of which the U. S. 82nd and 101st and the British 6th were to be dropped at each end of the chosen landing sector to blow the bridges and block the roads along which Rommel’s tanks were to make their drive. These were wonderful formations filled with young men brimming with self-confidence and physical fitness. Their officers included some of the future leaders of the United States Army—Matthew Ridgway, Maxwell Taylor— but every man from private to general believed himself to be a war winner. At his final briefing to his men, Colonel Howard “Skeets” Johnson of the 501st Parachute Infantry whipped out his jump knife, brandished it above his head, and roared, “I swear to you that before tomorrow night this knife will be buried in the back of the blackest German in Normandy.” His men roared back in exultation.
The seaborne infantry was less exuberant. The parachutists knew that the Luftwaffe, outnumbered ten to one over the battle zone, could not prevent them from landing. Their ordeal would begin once they were on terra firma. The others faced a hazardous cross-channel voyage, the transfer to landing craft from attack transports on the open sea, the run-in under intense enemy fire, a touchdown on a beach sown with obstacles and explosives, the crossing of the beach itself, swept by machine guns, then the closequarter fight to seize and clear the strong points on the Atlantic Wall. Rommel may have called the wall a “cloudcuckoo land” of the Führers imagination, but to the infantrymen who had to land underneath its concrete pillboxes and artillery bunkers, any single sector of it had a menacing reality. “The high-water line,” Rommel had told his generals, “must be the main fighting line,” and the Allied infantry of the five landing divisions—the U. S. ist and 29th, the British 3rd and 50 th, the Canadian 3rd—knew that many of their number would die before it was reached.
Montgomery, the British general who was to direct the invasion under Eisenhower’s supreme command, counted heavily on a deception plan, code-named Fortitude, to distract the Germans’ attention from the chosen sector in Normandy. Fortitude was designed to persuade Hitler that the main attack would fall 150 miles to the east, on the sandy vacation beaches of the Pas-de-Calais, closer to Germany and to the level plains where the Allied tanks could operate in freedom. Hitler took that view—though on the eve of D-day he was to have second thoughts—and accordingly kept the defenses of that sector strong. Bletchley Park, the secret British establishment that cracked the German ciphers and produced the now-famous Ultra intelligence, had successfully constructed an order-of-battle map showing that the German Fifteenth Army east of the Seine river in the Pas-deCalais had more divisions than the Seventh in Normandy. The Fortitude deceivers’ task was to keep it that way. A phantom Allied force, First U. S. Army Group, was conjured into existence. False radio traffic located it in Kent, opposite the Pas-de-Calais on the Channel narrows. Patton, best known of American generals, was discreetly revealed to be its commander. The Ultra listeners eavesdropped to detect signs that the bait had been swallowed. By mid-April, when they decrypted a signal revealing that the majority of German tank divisions were concentrated to oppose a landing in the Pas-de-Calais, they knew they had been successful.
The Allied air forces contributed to the deception. The U. S. Eighth Air Force and RAF Bomber Command, in the months before D-day, reduced their strategic offensive against German cities to prepare and “shape” the battleground in France. Normandy is enclosed by the Seine and the Loire, two of France’s four great rivers. The air plan was to cut all the bridges across them, so that Normandy could be reinforced by the Germans only across a narrow land bridge south of Paris. Well before D-day all the bridges had been cut and much of the northern French railway system devastated as well. Because of the Allies’ overwhelming air superiority—on D-day their air forces would fly 12,015 sor' ties; the Luftwaffe, only 319—they were able to go farther. Using an effective superfluity of aircraft, they dropped twice as many bombs in the Pas-de-Calais area as in Normandy, in a successful attempt to persuade Hitler that it was there the danger to Fortress Europe really lay.
V-weapons were the technology on which Hitler counted to disrupt the invasion before it began or to bring Britain to its knees if an attack were launched. The V-i was a subsonic cruise missile, crudely guided and with a range of only two hundred miles but simple enough to be mass-produced and delivering a one-ton warhead; the V-2 had a smaller warhead and was more difficult to manufacture but was inertially guided and could not be intercepted in flight. Hitler believed that mass Vweapon attacks on London would arouse “such a storm of protest and war-weariness that the government will be overthrown.” As the invasion fleet gathered in the British south-coast ports, the flying-bomb launch platforms were being readied for action in France. For each side it was a race against time: for the Germans, to terrorize Britain’s civilian population before the invasion succeeded; for the Allies, to capture the V-i deployment area before Hitler wreaked his worst.
The V-i’s promised to be ready for action by the third week of June. Eisenhower and Montgomery decided to take their great risk in the first week. The tides were right and so was the moon. Any further delay and they would not seize enough of France to be sure of holding a secure base before winter came. June 5 was to be D-day. Then, at the last moment, the meteorologist forecast bad weather in the Channel. A twenty-four-hour postponement was imposed. Some of the ships from the more distant ports turned back to harbor to await news of a calm. It came on the morning of June 5, a Monday. Tuesday would be D-day.
Marie-Louise Osmont, lady of the château of Périerssur-le-Dan, just behind the British-assigned beach codenamed Sword, had a houseful of Germans. They belonged to the 716th Division. Too old or too young for duty in Russia, they were fearful warriors. She was awakened by the noise of bombardment and ran to find a neighbor. “ ‘Well,’ I say,” her diary records, “ ‘is this it, this time?’ ‘Yes ... I think so, and I’m really afraid we’re in a sector that’s going to be attacked; that’s going to be really something.’ ” A trench had been dug in the farmyard and she jumped into it. She found four Germans: “Leo, the cook, his helper, and two others, crouching, not proud. . . . We ask them, ‘Tommy come?’ They say yes, with conviction. . . . Each time a shell hisses by too low I cling to the back of the cook’s helper; it makes me feel a little more secure and he turns around with a vague smile. The fact is that we’re all afraid.”
During the afternoon some Tommies appeared, Royal Marine commandos who had debarked at Luc-sur-Mer and made good progress inland. The first British to land near Madame Osmont, however, had arrived in the night. Their mission was to seize the bridge across the Orne canal to keep a way open from the beaches to the 6th Airborne Division’s drop zone. Crammed into three gliders, they had piloted to a crash landing within a few yards of their target, an accomplishment best described as the finest feat of airmanship in the campaign. The bridge keeper, Georges Gondrée, awakened by their pounding on his front door, had demanded from his bedroom window to know who they were, fearful that this was just another commando raid and that he would be deported by the Germans should he let them in.
As dawn approached, the sky began to fill with the parachutes of the 6th Airborne Division’s main body; their mission—to hold the high ground on the beachhead’s eastern flank and to seize the Merville battery, whose guns commanded the foreshore. Fifty miles away on the western flank, the Screaming Eagles and All-Americans of the U. S. Airborne Corps were floating to earth behind the beach code-named Utah, their drop zone centered on the village of Ste.-Mère-Église. The river valley around it had been flooded by the Germans as an antiparachutist measure. In the dark the floods were invisible from the air. Many of the parachute infantry, encumbered with a body’s-weight of equipment, went in over their heads. James Blue, a North Carolina farm boy, strong as well as fit, had the good luck to touch hard ground. “Before he found his balance,” the divisional history records, “his parachute dragged him over backwards and he went under, weighted down by this equipment, fumbling at the buckles of his harness. . . . He was half-dead when he got clear, sick from the water he had swallowed and trembling from the shock.”
Many of his comrades were less lucky and were drowned. Another casualty was the German commander of the 91st Division, shot dead by American parachutists on his way back by car from an anti-invasion conference. The paratroopers had been badly scattered on the run-in, when their pilots flew into unexpected clouds. The dispersion ruined their commander’s plan, but had the fortuitous effect of confusing the enemy even more than a neat drop would have. Not until eleven minutes past 1:00 on the morning of June 6 did the German headquarters in Normandy issue a parachute alert, and it was by then so deluged by reports that it located parachutists all over the invasion area, not just in the zones where they were actually landing.
Confusion was worse at Rommel’s headquarters. There at 2:15 his chief of staff, Hans Speidel (in the postwar years to become, ironically, a senior NATO general), received reports of “engine noises from sea east of Cotentin,” which meant the Americans’ Utah Beach. The reports were passed to Rundstedt, who advised that “Supreme Command West does not consider this to be a major operation.” Perhaps he was not to be blamed; there had been almost nightly false alarms since April. Many ordinary German soldiers in the bunkers reckoned that local alerts reaching them were just recipes for more lost sleep.
Then, as light came, they saw an astounding sight. Even among the embarked Allies, there were some who felt they “wouldn’t have missed the astonishing spectacle for anything in the world.” Ashore, the Germans were filled with a mixture of terror and bewilderment. The sea was covered with ships from horizon to horizon. Joseph Cassigneul, a resident of St. Aubin, behind the Canadians’ Juno Beach, rose early and met a German he knew, who told him that there were eleven hundred boats offshore. “I said, ‘Don’t be daft,’ ” Cassigneul was later to recall. “So we went down to the coast and when we got there you couldn’t see the sea anymore. It was nothing but boats—it was black! He said to me, ‘That’s it then, that’s the invasion. We’ll never see each other again!’ ”
Juno, like Sword, Gold, and the American beaches, was soon shaking under a thunderous naval bombardment. An observer near the old U. S. battleships Nevada and Texas remembers that “you had to force yourself not to duck as the great shells tore overhead. . . . They were dropping on the enemy emplacements and supporting roads from each battleship at the rate of ten tons a minute.” Between 5:30 and 5:50 a.m., five battleships, eighteen cruisers, and sixty destroyers took the line of German emplacements under fire.
The men shipped in from the attack transports had by then been pitching in their tiny landing craft for three hours or more. As they waited, other craft began to launch the Allies’ secret weapon, on which great hopes hung—the swimming Sherman tanks. Encased in tall canvas screens, they plopped off the ramps into the sea “like toads into a pond,” started their propellers, and began to motor slowly toward the shore, in some sectors as much as four miles distant.
Onshore at Omaha Beach, German Artillery Regiment 352 reported soon after 6:00, “Something like sixty to eighty fast-landing craft are approaching the coast near Colleville.” In fact, the progress of the craft was slow in the turbulent seas. The men aboard were wet, cold, and miserable with nausea. Lieutenant Carroll of the 116th Regiment, approaching Omaha, later remembered “people throwing up all over the boat, trying to avoid each other. Some just stood stoically and said not a word the whole way in. It took us a long time to cover those six miles—a long time!”
Some in the landing craft were puzzled to pass soldiers in the water, wearing life jackets. They could not stop to pick them up. These were the very few survivors of the tank launch. Off Omaha it had been a disaster. Of thirty-two tanks launched, twenty-seven were swamped within two minutes by the three-foot waves. Only two made the beach. Most of the 135 crewmen were drowned.
Far worse was about to happen. Omaha was defended by one of the rare German divisions of good quality in Normandy, the 352nd. It was at full strength, well equipped, and led by officers and NCOs experienced on the Eastern Front. As the ramps went down from the landing craft, an observer recorded, the infantrymen “were instantly enveloped in a crossing automatic fire that was accurate and in great volume. ... It seemed to the men aboard that the only way to get ashore with a chance of safety was to dive headfirst into the water.” Many went in over their depth, others were killed immediately, many were wounded and dragged themselves to the water’s edge, there to be hit again. Survivors used the beach obstacles for cover, but the incoming tide drove them forward into the fire zone. Soon there was chaos the length of Omaha. A battalion of rangers gallantly organized a cliff assault with rocket-fired grappling ropes. Elsewhere, leaderless little groups that got as far as the foot of the cliff huddled for protection, too shocked and terrified to organize attacks against their tormentors.
Montgomery and Eisenhower had expected the slaughter at Omaha to be repeated at all the other beaches. The hospitals in England stood ready to receive tens of thousands of casualties. Against all anticipation, the other landings brought no such losses. At Utah the American parachutists had collapsed the German beach defenses from the rear. The swimming tanks there had had a less turbulent passage, and a higher proportion reached shore. Soon after 9:00 A.M. men of the 501st Parachute Infantry, who had worked their way down to the shore during the dawn, watched a tank emerge from the sea. For safety’s sake they fired at it, then saw an orange recognition panel displayed from the turret. That was the agreed-upon sign. Other orange cloth appeared above a ditch, where seaborne infantry of the 4th Division were taking cover. One of their officers, Captain George Mabrey, walked forward to shake hands with airborne major Luther Knowlton. The Utah landing had worked.
So, too, had those on the British and Canadian beaches, defended by the elderly 716th Division. Their swimming tanks, launched closer to shore onto seas less rough than Omaha’s, touched down as was planned with the first waves of infantry. Soon tank infantry teams were attacking the lanes of beach cottages that formed the German front defenses and then coming inland across the gently shelving flats that led to open country beyond. Units of specialized armor followed to explode tracks through the minefields, lay matting across the marshland, and discharge concretebusting missiles at the German blockhouses. Progress was methodical, rapid, and bought at a lower cost in lives than in the American sector.
As the day drew on, however, the British and Canadians had to face a threat not leveled elsewhere, a tank counterattack. Caen, the capital of Normandy, was the base of the 21st Panzer Division, one of those under Rommel’s direct command, and by 9:00 A.M. it had orders to move against the British and Canadian footholds. Rocket-firing Allied fighters attacked the 21st as it moved off, but by midafternoon it had its ninety tanks in position to drive to the sea, aligned, as it happened, on the gap between the Canadian Juno and British Sword beaches. German general Erich Marcks told the leading tank commander, “Oppeln, if you don’t succeed in throwing the British into the sea, I suspect we shall have lost the war.”
Ahead of Oppeln’s tanks lay the only high ground in the line of attack, the Périers ridge, under which stood Marie-Louise Osmont’s château. She recorded in her diary that she watched the progress of the battle from her trench, occasionally talking to Germans she knew who were dodging among the buildings with boxes of fresh ammunition, then taking cover as the fire intensified. In the middle of the afternoon she saw Tommies, who, she was surprised to note, were walking upright on their way inland. There was a great outburst of firing. “Then, about seven o’clock, a lull.” Madame Osmont, unknown to her, had been present at one of the decisive moments of military history. The tanks of the 21st Panzer Division, climbing the ridge beside her house, “had run into a line of concealed British tanks and antitank guns on the crest. Within a brief space of time,” the unit’s war diary records, “the armored regiment of 21st Panzer Division had lost a total of sixteen tanks, a decisive defeat from which, especially in morale, it never recovered.”
Nor did Hitler’s chance of throwing the Allies back into the sea. Marie-Louise Osmont was to be wounded the next morning by a stray piece of shrapnel, but it was from an exchange of fire moving away inland from her house. The tide of battle was never again to flow over it. The Allies had won their foothold and six days later would consolidate their five beachheads—Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah— into a continuous lodgment fifty miles long and up to twenty deep. That night the first of Hitler’s V-weapons was launched from a nearby site toward London. It flew a week too late. General Marcks’s foreboding had been accurate. Hitler had lost the Second World War.
Since I had never doubted the outcome, I went to bed on D-day night as irritated by my parents’ concern to hear the 9:00 news as I had been by their anxieties at breakfast time. There seemed to be fewer Americans in the streets, fewer trucks in the lanes than the day before. That, as far as I was concerned, was the only matter of note.
Later, of course, I was to learn how much less certain was the victory in which I had trusted so completely. I was also to see in the Norman countryside the scars that D-day and the eighty days of desperate fighting that followed had inflicted. When I first went there, as a schoolboy in 1951, it was still a forlorn region, the villages un-mended and unkempt, many of the farm buildings roofless from shelling and the seafronts of the little vacation settlement along the shore gapped by the bombardment under which the invaders had made their landings. There was no great love for “Anglo-Saxons” among the Normans. The German occupiers had behaved “correctly.” The liberators had destroyed much of what they had come to save, particularly William the Conqueror’s beautiful city of Caen, which had been bombed as flat as central Berlin. Finding I was English, the locals would blame les Américains for the destruction. Had I been American, I am sure it would have been les Anglais.
Now when I return, fifty years after the great day, I find Normandy transformed. France has again become a prosperous country, and Normandy was always one of its richest regions. The lush pastures are filled with the fat cattle of its dairy industry—this is the land of Camembert—and the dense hedges, in which so many Americans died during the “battle of the bocage,” are clipped and neat. The European Community’s Common Agricultural Policy has brought wealth to the farmers, whose yards stand full of modern machinery. The villages glow with paint, much of it on prettified second homes used by Parisians on the weekends, while the seafronts where the shingle ran with blood on June 6, 1944, are crowded in summer with parents and toddlers taking the Channel air. Offshore a few rusted hulks and concrete caissons remain as a reminder that the Allies brought here the largest artificial harbor ever extemporized. Otherwise, it is as if no war had ever touched this fair and tranquil landscape.
Yet, curiously, D-day has taken on a psychic reality in the Norman mind as strong as the physical reality of fifty years ago. The commemoration of “les débarquements” is a local industry. The towns—Caen, Bayeaux, Arromanches—all have their D-day museums, every village its D-day memorials. At Ste.-Mère-Eglise the church steeple is hung with a replica of the American parachutist who hooked himself on its point in the darkness on June 6. Taken down each winter, it is restored to its place in the spring in anticipation of the tourist season.
Tourism does not altogether explain, however, the importance D-day now has for Normandy’s inhabitants. The horrors have faded, to be replaced by pride in the region’s centrality to the great event. Over the years, as the veterans have returned in increasing numbers to revisit the places in which they spent the least forgettable weeks of their lives, a network of close, personal friendships has grown up between liberators and liberated. Each summer there are solemn ceremonies of commemoration in village squares, jolly vins d’honneur in town halls, warmhearted speeches of recollection made by mayors and colonels to a new generation of Normans who have heard of les débarquements from parents and grandparents. Soldiers who devastated dwellings in the bitter house-to-house fighting behind the beaches are now received as honored guests by the occupants, and memories are kindled of help and kindnesses for which, truth to tell, there was no time or inclination in the heat of battle. It is a peculiarly local geography of emotion, linking a very small part of occupied Europe to a patchwork of veterans’ associations centered on the recruiting areas of the British, Canadian, and American divisions that stumbled up the beaches to lock themselves in combat with the frightened and desperate Germans of Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich.
Would the Normans surrender this afterglow for a past in which the landings had not happened? Would the liberators, old men now, few short of seventy and many older than that? Somehow, for all the horror the survivors underwent, I doubt it. My D-day was a flash of sensation in a happy childhood. Yet even as a ten-year-old I grasped that I was a bystander at a world-shaking event—one we now know can never be repeated, for the era of grand amphibious operations is over forever. How much stronger was the sensation of those who witnessed it at firsthand. Hitler’s conquest and domination of Europe was a terrible thing, the instrument of a more concentrated passage of cruelty than any ever inflicted on mankind. The peace, prosperity, and beauty that have returned to the Norman countryside are proof enough of the value given by those young men who saw its coastline for the first and often for the last time on the morning of June 6, 1944.