Beginning on June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed on a broad stretch of beaches on the coast of Normandy, in German-held France. Entrenched behind concrete walls and bunkers were more than 50,000 German soldiers. Seventy years later, four veterans of the largest amphibious invasion in history recall their experiences.
SWEETWATER, Tenn. — We awoke at 2 a.m. on June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day. After a hearty breakfast at our base in Britain, we secured our equipment and walked a mile to our British Horsa gliders. The first glider, towed by a cargo plane, took off at 4:35 a.m. for Normandy, a little over two hours away. It was still dark.
The gliders, which carried up to 25 men, were a critical part of the invasion: Silent and fast, they were used to insert advance troops behind enemy lines. Hundreds of them flew into France during those first few days.
I remember looking out the canopy and seeing the moon break through the clouds. I was sitting next to the pilot, and I could see thousands of invasion ships in the English Channel.
About halfway over the channel, the tow plane lost power, and we were going down. When the tow plane pilot regained power, we realized the tow rope had become wrapped around our landing gear, and when the rope stretched out it flipped the glider and we almost went into the channel — but then the glider pilot was able to wiggle the controls and shake the rope into place.
Everything went well after we got through the antiaircraft fire along the coast, except that we were unable to land in our designated zone. We could see that the Germans, suspecting a glider-borne attack, had set up explosives-tipped posts in the landing field.
By now the tow plane had disengaged, so we had to act fast. The pilot saw a small plot nearby, surrounded by hedges and trees. As we landed our wing cut the top out of a big tree. The glider hit the ground so hard it broke the antenna off my field radio. We bounced two or three times before rolling to a stop.
While I was replacing the antenna, two German Me-109 fighter planes flew over and strafed us good. We had landed near the town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, next to an apple orchard, and I remember seeing an old Frenchman milking a cow nearby, with the shells bursting all around him.
That day we pushed through to the strategically important village of Sainte-Mère-Église. Our mission was to keep the roads and bridges to the beaches open for the troops coming in by landing craft.
Our first real engagement came on June 9, when we attacked a German unit a little after midnight. We soon found ourselves in a trap. Out of the little more than 100 men in my unit, Company B, we lost 19 that day.
— Clinton Riddle served in the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.
KENT, England —I have no idea what time it was on June 6, 1944, when we boarded an enormous troop ship in Newhaven, England, but it was dark.
Some hours later the order was given to line up to board the assault craft — the small boats tied up alongside the ship that would take us to the beach. So there we were, in a line across the deck, with a small pack containing explosives, tin hat, loaded rifle, full ammunition packs and a bandoleer with even more ammunition.
We were all nervous, but one of my abiding memories is standing with a whole tin of corned beef in one hand and a hunk of bread covered with thick butter in the other and thinking, “If I am killed and this is the condemned man’s last meal, I wish it was some of my mum’s home cooking.” (As it turned out, that was the last piece of bread I ate for about four months — it was hardtack biscuits from then on.)
When we were about four miles from the shore we were ordered to get into the craft, which bobbed several feet below the deck. We lined up to make the jump one by one, from one moving deck to another.
The sea was choppy, rising up and down by about 16 feet, bringing the smaller craft up next to the ship and then moving them out of reach, so we had to judge the right time to jump and hope for the best. A few of our blokes misjudged it and were crushed between the hulls.
Once we were in the craft we took off for shore. Everyone knew that they might be dead within minutes. I feel sure we all prayed; I certainly did. And I remember thinking of home: my mum and dad and my sister, Marian, and my girlfriend, Eileen, and that we might never see each other again.
The ramp went down at Gold Beach and our training took over. I didn’t think about the other men. There was no time; it was all about keeping yourself alive. We jumped into water that came up to our chests and waded to shore, loaded with equipment that was only getting heavier as it got wetter.
We ran up the beach, looking for cover. The Germans were firing along the beach from houses at Le Hamel; casualties were mounting. When I got up against the sea wall, I looked back and saw dead and mutilated bodies everywhere, in the sea and on the beach. I had arrived in France.
— George Batts served with the Royal Engineers.
BERLIN — It was a few days after the invasion at Normandy had begun, and we had been under intense fire from American naval artillery since daybreak. Mercilessly and without pause, shells of every caliber plowed toward us, shredding everything that stood in their way.
I could feel my breath getting heavy as the pressure from the explosions sucked the air out of my lungs. When the ground shook under the force of the impacts, there was no one in our unit, not even the most hard-boiled, who was not brought low by fear and a sense of total powerlessness in his foxhole.
When, after five hours, the barrage finally ended, I regained my senses and looked around. I saw nothing but a destroyed landscape, bare trees and leafless branches that stretched up their stumps as a reminder of peace in the overcast sky. I couldn’t count all the craters made by artillery shells, which had turned Normandy’s green fields and meadows into a moonscape.
There in the village of Carentan, inland from the landing zone at Utah Beach, a dogged battle unfolded between my unit, the Sixth Paratrooper Regiment, and the American 101st Airborne Division. I was just 21 years old. There was no place for pity or compassion, and I had no idea that the enemy I was ordered to shoot at would be, decades later, the same people I would greet as friends every year at the anniversary of the invasion.
It was there, at Carentan, that I decided I had had enough of the war. I took cover behind the cadavers of some cows and calves that had been hit by artillery shells, their massive bodies riddled with holes. The smell of rot and excrement was everywhere. One of the animals was still alive, and I used her bloated body as protection.
Was this the first sign of a nascent brutalization within me? What else was I capable of? Had my parents raised me to die here, in a senseless death-struggle for the fatherland?
My regiment paid a disproportionately high price for the fighting spirit it displayed at the Battle of Carentan in June 1944. Out of somewhat less than 1,000 men, 43 died and 89 were wounded. They bled as much from the incompetence of German generals as the material superiority of the enemy.
— Joachim Dahms served in the Sixth Paratrooper Regiment of the German Army.
OTTAWA — In early 1943 my division, the Third Canadian Infantry, was selected to be part of an Allied invasion armada, then still in the early planning stages. That October we participated in landing exercises on Bournemouth Bay, on England’s south coast.
Live ammunition whistled overhead as we practiced under the watchful eye of Bernard Montgomery, the commander in chief of the British and Canadian forces. Our training continued through that winter, in England and Scotland.
On Jan. 6, General Montgomery told a few of us at headquarters exactly where our division would land in Normandy: on Juno Beach, the second most eastern of the landing zones. This was a closely guarded secret, because most Germans believed that the Pas de Calais, to the north, would be the main landing area.
Even though the Germans had concentrated their troops at Calais, we would still have to get past the fortifications of the Atlantic Wall, which the Germans had been building for years. Juno was particularly well defended.
We knew we would not be able to destroy the beach’s huge bunkers with shells, so that spring we asked the British to send frogmen, on a moonless night, to measure them. We used those measurements to build replicas on Bournemouth Bay, and our chief engineer devised an ingenious way for the first wave of troops to remove them: soldiers crawled up to them and hooked ropes to the wall; armored tractors then pulled at the other end of the rope until the wall gave way.
On D-Day our division was reinforced with a brigade of tanks and a detachment of British troops. The latter’s task was to help guide incoming troops and clear the beaches of debris and explosives. As more troops arrived, we gave them folding bicycles to speed up their push inland.
I landed about 11 a.m. Though there was much damage and many civilians wounded or killed, the French were overjoyed to see the Germans routed by the Canadians and other allies. But seeing so many of my comrades who gave up their lives or were wounded left me with a feeling of how costly liberty is.
— Ernest Côté served in the Third Canadian Infantry Division.