This edited article about D-Day originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 731 published on 17 January 1976.
Hitler was convinced that the Allied invasion of France would take place simultaneously with the Russian Army’s inevitable summer offensive. Madman though he often seemed, in this case his thinking made sense. It was moreover, a view which was shared by the German High Command, and by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander in chief of more than half a million men manning the defences along a coastline of some 800 miles, stretching from the Brittany peninsula to Holland.
So convinced was Rommel that the invasion would not take place until the summer, that on June 4th, 1944, he departed for Germany on leave, so that he might be home for his wife’s birthday. There was also a certain matter which he wished to discuss with Hitler – the ill-advised placing of the massive panzer divisions which were lying in reserve, too far from the coast to be of any immediate use when the invasion did come.
It would, he knew, need a lot of persuasion on his part to get Hitler to place these divisions under his command. But at least he had a certain amount of time on his side.
As it happened, he had no time at all.
On the morning of the day that Rommel set off for Germany, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was pacing anxiously up and down within the narrow confines of a caravan hidden in a wood near Portsmouth. It was a small caravan, consisting of three tiny rooms, ideal, perhaps, for a holiday couple in peacetime, but hardly the sort of place you would have expected the Allied Supreme Commander to use as his headquarters.
But Eisenhower had chosen it for a very good reason. He wanted to be as near as possible to his troops who were at this very moment embarking for the invasion that was to take place within the next three days.
Secrecy had been the essential factor for the operation, code named Overlord. And so far that secrecy had been maintained, even though the whole of England was now a huge arsenal.
But now Eisenhower was worried. The weather had taken a turn for the worse, which meant there would be no moon for the 22,000 paratroopers and glider borne infantry who were to be the spearhead of the assault. Also the seaborne landing had to take place at low tide when Rommel’s beach obstacles would be revealed.
These two factors of moonlight and tide had reduced the ideal day for the attack to June 5th, 6th or 7th. If the weather did not clear within that period, it would mean that the invasion would have to be postponed.
The problem that Eisenhower had to face was the fact that a quarter of a million men had already been kept bottled up in the area for a month without the secret of the invasion leaking out. The question was, could that secrecy be maintained?
After a great deal of discussion with his commanders, Eisenhower made his decision. If the weather conditions improved, D Day would take place on June 6th.
The hours went by – and the weather conditions steadily worsened.
Then just as suddenly the weather began to change. The three meteorologists assigned to Overlord came to Eisenhower with the news that a new weather front was moving up the channel and would cause a gradual clearing of the assault areas. These conditions, they informed Eisenhower, would last only until the morning of the 6th. Then the weather would deteriorate again.
It was therefore really only a marginal improvement on the situation, but it was enough for Eisenhower to confirm his decision that the attack would begin on the 6th.
On the other side of the channel, the Germans were still convinced that the invasion was not imminent. By a strange quirk of fate most of the senior officers had left the front for various reasons. As an added bonus for the Allies, it was at that very time that the German High Command decided to transfer the Luftwaffe’s remaining squadrons in France to Germany, in order to defend the Third Reich against the round-the-clock bombing of the Allies.
D-Day, when it came, began precisely at 15 minutes past midnight. A vast armada of 2,727 ships of every description, carrying more than 200,000 soldiers, sailors and marines, ploughed through the choppy waters to rendezvous off the five beaches chosen by the Allied Commanders for the landings. Ahead of the convoys were processions of mine sweepers and motor launches, and guarding them all was an array of more than 700 warships.
Early in the morning, the first waves of American and British bombers attacked the French coast. These were followed by thousands of other planes, whose formations took more than an hour to pass over the convoys moving slowly towards their rendezvous. Reaching the coast they kept up the relentless barrage which lasted for hours.
Massed parachute forces were dropped behind the enemy lines to seize roads and bridges before they could be destroyed by the enemy. Then the assault craft came in from the landing ships which had formed an essential part of the armada whose presence earlier on the skyline had made it evident for the first time to the German defences just how badly their leader had miscalculated.
Disgorged from the landing craft, the first wave of troops stumbled up the sandy beach. The Allied invasion of Europe had begun.
As we all know, the D-Day landings were successful, though inevitably mistakes were made and many lives were lost before the bridgeheads on the various beaches had been established. That they succeeded at all, lay in no small part to the fact that the secret of the invasion which was known to thousands was kept from the enemy to the very last.
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