Sunday, 5 June 2016

Remembering Operation Overlord: D-Day 6th June 1944

D-Day, 6th June 1944: Operation Overlord was the largest air, land and sea operation launched by the Allies. There were more than 5000 ships, 11000 aircraft, and 150,000 troops. Training for the operation had begun some months before in England. Equipment and vehicles lined streets in England, waiting for the order to ship out.

The airborne invasion was to commence first and pave the way for the amphibious landings.
Easy Company (now immortalised as the "Band of Brothers"), part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, had their marshaling area in Upottery, Devon next to an airstrip. On the 4th June, in preparation for the mission, many of the men had their heads shaved or got a Mohawk haircut. On the afternoon of the 5th, someone found some cans of paint and they painted their faces like the Sioux, dubbing streaks of white, green or black down their noses and across their foreheads and cheekbones. Some used charcoal to blacken their faces. At 2030 hours, they lined up in groups of eighteen and marched towards the hangars, silently.

Second Lieutenant Richard D. Winters recalled marching past some British antiaircraft units at RAF Upottery and he said, "that was the first time I'd ever seen any real emotion from a Limey, they actually had tears in their eyes." The men were told, "No prisoners. We are not taking any prisoners." At 2200 hours, they boarded and at 2310, 81 Dakotas carrying more than 1300 men, hurtled down the runway. As they crossed the Channel, those who looked down below saw the invasion fleet sailing towards Normandy, 6000 vessels, a sight they'd never see again. Overall, more than 13,000 young American paratroopers took part in the operation.

General Eisenhower with the 101st Airborne on D-Day
While Hitler had information that there would be an Allied invasion, he did not know when or where they would strike. The Allies launched a series of false operations in a bid to deceive the German forces and lead them to believe that the invasion target was the Pas-de-Calais. Norway and other targets were also leaked. The deception was to prove very effective, leaving the Germans with little defences at the Normandy beaches.

The 5th June was originally chosen as the day to invade, but due to bad weather conditions, Operation Overlord was postponed another day. On the morning of the 5th June, the meteorologist predicted improved weather conditions, and Supreme Commander General Eisenhower gave the order to commence Operation Overlord. He told troops, " You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. Your task won't be an easy one, but this is the year, 1944. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory. Good luck."

A number of troops landed by air, which was crucial to the mission and it was their job to protect the men landing on the beaches from German counter-attacks. Hundreds of aircraft dropped Allied paratroopers on enemy targets over Normandy. The aircraft involved were the DC-3/C-47 Dakota.

And then there were the gliders. The 6th Airborne Division was led by Major General Richard Gale, who commanded the parachutists and glider-borne troops. Their mission was to hold the eastern flank of the invasion forces and to prevent German counter-attacks from the east. 


In order to do this, they had to capture the bridges over the River Orne and the Caen canal, this latter bridge was known as Pegasus Bridge. These would enable the seaborne troops to cross. Secondly, they had to disable the Merville gun battery, whose 100mm calibre guns fired down on Sword Beach and the amphibious landings. Third, the bridges over the River Dives had to be destroyed in order to prevent the Germans from crossing. Just before dawn on D-Day, the 6th Airborne Division achieved their mission objectives but suffered heavy losses. More than 2000 soldiers are buried at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Ranville.

Pegasus Bridge 9th June 1944; Horsa Gliders can be seen where they landed.
On the 6th June 1944, American, Canadian and British forces landed along a fifty mile stretch of beach in the Normandy region of France. The Americans were tasked with attacking the beaches, Utah and Omaha. The Canadians, Juno and the British, Gold and Sword.


Scottish piper, Bill Millin, known as 'Piper Bill,' defied orders and took his bagpipes with him and led the troops onto the beaches as he piped. He was completely unarmed. The Germans thought he was completely mad and that was why they did not shoot at him. As Bill piped, walking up and down the length of the beach, men fell all around him and bodies bobbed in the water while shells and bullets hurtled overhead. 

By the end of the day, more than 150,000 troops had landed and pushed their way inland by up to five miles in some places and despite the heavy losses, it had been a success.