Peter Takes Us to Normandy

75 years ago, on June 6th, 1944, the western Allies began to kick in the front door of “Festung Europa” a). Almost four years to the day since being expelled from the continent by the victorious Wehrmacht b), they were returning….with a vengeance.

The intervening four years had been hectic. The ground war had been extended not only southward to North Africa, but also eastward, as Hitler had invaded Russia in June, 1941. The two dictators had embarked their respective peoples on an ideological struggle to the death.

In the Atlantic, naval warfare both above, but more importantly below, the surface had erupted as the Germans attempted to strangle England into submission through the use of unrestricted submarine warfare c). Only advances in technology eventually tipped the balance in the Allies’ favour, but only at the cost of many lives on both sides.

There was very little ground combat in the European Theatre during this period, mostly a number of “commando” raids with such varied goals as the capture of a German radar set or the destruction of stocks of fish oil d). The largest and most controversial was, of course, the raid on the French port of Dieppe e).

As a result, the main opportunity for offensive action offered to the western Allies was in the air. A combined bombing offensive, “bombing around the clock” was therefore initiated. Over a million personnel and untold numbers of weapons were based in the West to counter this offensive. This provided some measure of relief to the embattled Russians as these resources were diverted from otherwise being used against them. f)

Finally however, they were ready to launch the invasion of the Continent. Since it went without saying that this “was” going to happen, careful planning was employed to keep the Germans guessing as to “where” and “when” it was going to happen. Operation “Fortitude” was therefore launched, an attempt to keep the Germans guessing and distracted by the skillful use of double agents, fictitious radio traffic and decoy buildings and aircraft. The fictional 1st U.S. Army Group was formed, under the command of General George S Patton, and much press was generated as he visited the various installations of his “phantom army”. This coverage was duly noted by German Intelligence. g)

There is even a documentary about Operation Fortitude ….

Since we know how D-Day ended, and in the interests of avoiding a “run-on” column I will end the first part here. There are many resources available for those interested in further study of this event, but off the top of my head “The Longest Day” is surprisingly good, albeit there is the prerequisite “Hollywood hokum”. You may also find the Facebook posts of Steven Zaloga interesting. He is an accomplished author, a recognized authority on military history and an outstanding armour modeller.

I am closing this week with a film clip, parts of which were obviously filmed during training exercises. The soundtrack is a rather macabre song about a young paratrooper being killed in a training accident. You may want to mute the sound, you may want to crank the sound, your choice. However, do watch this video. There are some interesting points which I want to make.

Firstly, look at how young the paratroopers are. They are in prime physical condition, all volunteers who passed rigorous testing and training to serve as paratroops. h) See how disciplined they are, how well equipped, how confident they look i). (This part was filmed as they got ready to board on the night of June 5th, by the way.)

Note how they help each other to prepare, right down to applying each other’s “warpaint”. In an orderly fashion, they board their aircraft. You can see how laden with extra equipment they are j) and you can also see that many of the aircraft have extra packs of supplies attached as well to deliver in support of the paratroops.

The type of aircraft they are boarding is the Douglas C-47 “Dakota”, the pre eminent Allied transport aircraft of World War II. Although the first one flew in 1935, many are still flying today, The “Dak” is truly a classic aircraft and worthy of further study. The black and white stripes are for aircraft recognition purposes and were hastily applied on the afternoon of June 5th. All Allied aircraft that could come within view (and gun range!) of Allied ground troops wore these k).

During their takeoff run, the planes have their navigation and landing lights on. They would keep these on until they had climbed to their operational altitude and joined up in formation, because in order for the paratroops to be most effective, they would all have to land within a reasonable proximity of each other. Once the transports had achieved formation , the lights would be turned off. (In the event, navigational errors or winds which had been incorrectly forecast could, (and often did!) result in the paratroop force being scattered across the countryside.)

Notice the brief glimpse of just part of the fleet assembled to convey the invasion force to the beaches. Not many people know  that at around this time, a similarly sized fleet was preparing to launch an invasion in the Pacific. Just over 2 months after D-Day, yet another invasion fleet stormed the beaches of Southern France. While all of this was going on, there was also heavy fighting in Italy.

Returning to the paratroops, you can see them all stand and hook up to the “static line”, which will pull out their parachute and enable it to deploy properly. Notice how they check the next person in line as well. You see the first paratrooper standing in the doorway? When that light comes on, he’s leading them all to war l).

Now as the footage of the parachute drop was taken during the day, on an exercise, you can see how concentrated the jumpers can get. Remember though, that this operation went on at night.

Because of navigational errors and unforeseen winds, the drops were scattered across the drop zone, in the event. Somehow many of the Allied airborne troops were able to regroup without access to Night Vision Goggles, GPS equipment or even radios ( in most cases). They seized their assigned objectives and held them against fierce resistance until the troops who had landed on the beaches advanced far enough inland to relieve them.

While there were gliders used in the British area on the evening of June 5th/6th, they were not employed by the Americans until the morning of June 6th, when they brought in reinforcements, light vehicles and medium anti tank weapons m).

So the relentless push was begun. Progress was made inland as they started to inexorably remove the Germans from France. Within a couple of weeks, Allied aircraft were based on the Continent n). If you look at the footage showing the troop carriers and gliders lined up on a taxiway ready for use, remember this. Each airfield had 2 or 3 taxiways. The 9th Troop Carrier Command itself had 15 airfields for use, and the Royal Air Force had more. Here is one taxiway full of aircraft out of any number between 30 and 45, and that is just the American contribution.

You can easily see how the Allies had an overwhelming superiority in numbers.

Now there was also fierce fighting both on the beaches and in the British section, sadly I can’t give them the detail examination which their efforts deserve. Suffice it to say that General Eisenhower was able to tear up one of the two radio addresses which he had had prepared o)

While the Germans still had a few nasty surprises in store for the Allied troops in Western Europe, the tide was turning. To show you how quickly things moved in those uncertain days, within a year of the D-Day landings, World War Two in Europe was over, the Third Reich had been vanquished.

So yes, I will pause today to think of those brave people, not to glorify War, but to praise the heroism and devotion to duty which so many of us have inside, and so many of them showed.

See you soon..

  1. a) German for “Fortress Europe”, as Hitler referred to the continent.
  2. b) The German army.
  3. c) While it’s not common knowledge, the fact is that the Allies came very close to losing World War II because of the successes of the German submarine force.
  4. d) Believe it or not, a vital raw material in some wartime production.
  5. e) I highly recommend “One Day In August” by David O’Keefe for those interested in further study of this subject.
  6. f) While the German 88 millimetre gun was a very effective and feared weapon, every one based in the Ruhr was one less available to be used at Kursk, or Orel or Cherkassy.
  7. g) Further examples of deception employed during the invasion include Operations “Taxable” and “Glimmer”.
  8. h) Paratroopers also got extra danger pay because of added risks.
  9. i) Although I do remember a ‘vet’ telling me “If someone says that ‘they were there and they weren’t scared’, they weren’t there!”
  10. j) Paratroops were lightly armed self sufficient soldiers, dropped en masse behind enemy lines to create confusion and disruption and do things such as seize and hold an objective until their infantry and tanks could reach and relieve them They were, on their own, no match for an enemy armoured unit, for example.
  11. k) Allied aviators were heard to say that the aircraft identification mantra of the other branches of the armed forces was “If it flaps its wings, it’s friendly!”
  12. l) In training, if a jumper “froze” at the door, they were returned to their unit of origin.
  13. m) The Germans had several Panzer divisions in reserve near the coast. Hitler ordered that they were not to be deployed without his consent. When his headquarters received the phone call about the invasion in the early hours of June 6th, Hitler was asleep. No one dared wake him up, and he slept through the morning. Thankfully the best chance that the Germans had to smash the invasion was missed.
  14. n) Shortly thereafter, aircraft began flying beer to the troops. Spitfires toted steam cleaned “drop tanks” filled with Henty & Constable beer.
  15. o) In it, he took full responsibility for the failure of the landings.
=PJM=

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