The explanation, as I have said, seems to be that this operation took the Germans completely by surprise. They knew that it was coming very soon, no doubt, and they were strengthening their defences on the coast of France as quickly as they could. But when it actually happened it surprised them. In part this was due to the bold decisions taken by the Allied Staffs in regard to weather, but this is not the whole story. German air reconnaissance seems to have been so cautious as to be practically useless to them. Our own experience has been that to be effective air reconnaissance must be bold; you can learn a little of your enemy by taking vertical photographs of his harbors from thirty thousand feet on the occasional cloudless day, but it is very little. If you really want to find out what he is doing you must take a Spitfire or a Lightening and plaster it with automatic cameras, and pick a fearless young pilot, and brief him to fly at zero feet immediately beside what you want to see, with all his cameras whizzing at top speed. The Germans never did that to us. We did it to them. We wanted to find out whether they had mines attached to their underwater obstacles upon the beaches so we put cameras into the nose of a Lightning and flew it up and down the beaches of France at low tide at about ten feet altitude. I do not know how many pilots lost their lives upon this duty, but their photographs were invaluable in showing the condition of the beach obstacles. They showed first or all that there were no mines on the tetrahedrons; a month later they showed that the Germans were improvising by tying ordinary land Teller mines on to the tetrahedrons, one in every seven; sometimes they were using ordinary shells with some sensitive fuse. They were doing this as fast as they could. At the time of our assault, in some places every third tetrahedron had a charge attached to it. Those British and American pilots who secured this information deserve more than a passing thought; they had a grim and difficult assignment flyin straight and steadily and low along the beaches under fire from every slit trench on the coast, and they saved many of our lives by giving us the information that we sought.
A third factor ln the surprise concerns the use of radar. I know very little about radar, and if I knew more I certainly could not write about it at this time. But I can say this much. In normal circumstances we would have expected that the Germans would have known by radar when great convoys sailed out of the Solent or from the London River. Apparently they did not know on this occasion. All radio signals can be jammed, bedeviled, and foxed by scientists who have sufficient wit and access to the complicated equipment that they need. British and American scientists are more advanced in radio technique than any in the world, and so we sailed unnoticed those June days and nights, from London River to Courseulles in Normandy.
So we sailed quietly in convoy from the London River, round the Foreland, through the Straits of Dover and down the south coast of England in the growing dusk. We went slowly, as a convoy must. Over our heads a couple of Spitfires circled in relays most of the day; we saw no other aircraft worth mentioning. The ships officers did not sleep at all that night and I slept very little, because each moment we expected an attack by E-boats and so we were continuously alert.
About three ln the morning of Tuesday June 6th, D-Day, a squadron or two of heavy four engined aircraft passed above us, towing Horsa gliders on their way to France. We wished them luck, and soon after that far off beyond the horizon to the south we saw the flash of bursting bombs reflected in the sky and the bright stars of flares descending upon parachutes and the deep cherry glow upon the clouds that means a burning town. At that time we were off the Owers, about twenty miles east of the Isle of Wight; we took a bearing of the glow and said, Cherbourg. It lasted from about an hour and then died down, and we turned at the marker buoy and set our course towards the south.
It was a fine dawn, with thin cloud at a great altitude; the wind had fallen to a light breeze but the sea was still running high enough to make the journey difficult for landing craft, though not impossible. In the first light of dawn we saw great numbers of aircraft of all sorts going over in the gaps of cloud, high up and ln among the clouds. We did not so many as we had thought we should. We had been told that there would be three thousand always in the air above the beaches; there may well have been, but I only saw about two hundred going over. But the fact is that the air is a vast place. Three thousand aircraft over a wide area of country, and perhaps dispersed between the coast of England and the shore of Normandy upon their journeys to and fro, do not look very dense as you look at the sky. They tend to concentrate, besides, where the battle is hottest, and then you don't have time to look about for them.
We sailed all day with little incident, save that our steering failed on two occasions swinging us round at right angles to our course. The steering on an LST is electrical and relays sometimes get tired and fall out of clutch, and if you are the leading ship in a convoy you have a lot of fun when that happens. We ambled on all day across a sunlit sea, down channels swept by minesweepers a day or so before and marked with can buoys for us. At 1300 on this pleasant summer day we passed close by an object floating which looked rather like a black tennis court washed by the sea; it had about two feet of freeboard and below the water it showed white and pastel camouflage. It was a little time before I realized with a shock that it was an LCT Mark V floating upside down.
That evening, when we were at anchored off Courseulles, the crew of two officers and nine men from this LCT were brought on board us, because they were. Americans of the U.S. Navy and we were an American flagship. I heard their story from the officers. They were in an LCT (A), detailed to take part in the assault, loaded with work vehicles and engineer tanks. These things were designed to be put on the beach first of all, to clear away beach obstacles, to breach sea walls, to detonate the mines upon the beach, to ramp down roadways through the sandhills. Their LCT was not very sound when they set out from the Solent and they had reported many defects; they did not think that she would sink upon the way but they were fully aware that they would have some trouble. The sea was still running quite high from the wind the day before when they set out and their deck was washed continuously by the sea; presently their raft-like hull began to flex alarmingly and leaks started at the welded seams. I think those leaks may have put water in their fuel tanks because they began to have trouble with engine stoppages till in the end all three engines died on them for ever when they were half way to France. For pumps they had a couple or portable two stroke motor units which stand on the deck and pump through hoses, but the deck was washed by the sea and it was difficult to keep these units running. In the end it became evident that they were sinking and they signaled an American coastguard cutter to come and stand by. She tried to take off the personnel but was not able to approach because her light construction would not stand collision in that heavy sea; she advised them all to get in to the water and swim and she would pick them up. While they were hesitating at this unattractive prospect a British minesweeping trawler came up, massively built and fearing no collision; she took them off dry-shod; they said that she was handled beautifully. They tried to tow the LCT with the trawler but presently she turned turtle They tried to sink her with a depth charge, failed, and left her so.
I heard of one other landing craft that floundered on the way to France; so far as I know that was all. The meteorologists wore absolutely right; the weather was not good, but it was good enough.
We came to the coast of Normandy about 1600 on the afternoon of D-Day, and we anchored off the little town of Courseulles about 1700. The beach was littered with wrecked landing craft and shot up vehicles, and yet it did not look too bad. The tide, which at this place has a rise and fall of about 23 feet, was ebbing disclosing a long stretch of sand; the beach here has a gradient of about 1 ln 100. Beyond the beach were sandhills. Behind the sandhills was about a mile of low, marshy land with a few scattered houses on it, farms and estaminets beside the coastal road; these houses were much shot up. Behind this stretch of marsh the country rose up in to low, undulating hills of farm land, perhaps twenty per cent wooded. It was pretty country. On the skyline of those hills we could see a few shell bursts.
The craft upon the beach did not look too bad, from where we were. Some had obviously been shelled, but many of them seemed merely to have been beached and left by the receding tide, as if they would get off next tide. In fact, many of them did.
We anchored about two miles from the shore. The anchorage was already crowded with other LSTs and coasters and a few warships, before we arrived. The wind had risen again, and the sea in the anchorage was fairly rough for boat work.
The normal way to unload an LST on to a beach is by means of a Rhino Ferry. The Rhino Ferry is a long, wide raft, perhaps two hundred feet in length and seventy feet beam, and drawing when loaded about three feet of water, It is built of square steel N.L. pontoons joined together by steel angle irons to make the raft, and it is powered by two sixty horsepower engines driving their propellers through vertical shafts like outboard motors. Those Rhino Ferries can carry about forty vehicles so that in two trips they can unload an LST, but their speed to the shore is only about three knots. They take their vehicles on board ln this manner. The LST anchors by the stern and opens her bow doors, and lets down her ramp. The Rhino Ferry approaches up wind to her bow and secures to the LST by cables to each bow, so that the ramp can lie upon the deck of the Rhino. The vehicles then drive off on to the Rhino and are ferried to the beach, where the Rhino grounds in about three feet of water. The vehicles drive through this water, and up the sand.
When we anchored the Rhino Ferries were still unloading LSTs that had arrived before us; as we watched their work through glasses we could see how badly they were being swept by the rising sea. Presently they had to stop work; they could no longer approach the LSTs without danger of being sunk by collision with the larger ship in the rough sea; moreover they were having trouble with their engines as the sea washed over then. At about 1800 on D-Day all unloading virtually stopped in Juno sector. The troops of the first wave were on shore and fighting well inland, the beaches were virtually clear of shell fire - and we were unable to land any more vehicles or stores or reinforcements to support the men on shore, except for the small loads that could be landed from LCTs and LCIs. And even these were now uncertain, because the wind was rising so that lt was uncertain whether the landing craft could make the trip from England.
As soon as this position became apparent it was terribly distressing. The success of the whole operation depended, we felt on landing the reinforcements we had brought, and that was now difficult. Captain Shaw had a boat lowered and went off to the flagship of the sector, HMS Hilary, accompanied by his liaison officer, to ask lf he might put his ships upon the beach to unload. He got rather a chilly reception from a very junior officer in the flagship, who told him that he must go back to his flotilla and wait for orders.
I was concerned when he came back and I heard this story from his liaison officer. I had been for exercises in Hilary and I knew a number of her staff officers fairly well; I knew them to be both courteous and competent, and not in the least likely to behave discourteously to an American Post Captain, however busy they might be. I had a tenuous duty to report myself in Hilary as a naval officer functioning on his own as a writer within the diocese; I offered to go to Hilary for this purpose if Captain Shaw wished, and to present his case among my friends in the right quarters on the flagship. It was decided that we should leave it till the morning; if no orders had then came I should go and try my hand as an ambassador.
By that time it was dusk. From our anchorage we could see a long stretch of the coastline to the eastwards. Bernieres was the next town down the coast from Courseulles, two or three miles on, and that town seemed to be continuous with St Aubin, further on again. There were fires in these towns. The warships in the anchorage behind us were bombarding the coast in support of the troops on shore; we could see the shell bursts on the beaches and in the town. Presently as night fell the shelling stop and the fires died down, but an hour later fresh fires started up in Bernieres. We could see large buildings, probably hotels, commence with a faint glow inside that showed the windows, and gradually turn in to a flaming beacon in the night. It seemed to us that the Germans were getting out, and setting fire to the important buildings in the town before they went. They had been there four years; no doubt they had whole buildings full of papers and files that they could not remove and had to burn. Alternatively, it may have been mere wanton destruction to prevent us from having the use of the buildings.
We had several air raids in the night. They were not very strong; they seemed to be by no more than half a dozen German aircraft at a time, if that. A few bombs fell in the anchorage and we felt strong concussions through the ship, but I did not hear of any vessel that was sunk. We made smoke at an order from the flagship and stood for many hours in the white chemical fumes; from time to time an aircraft would come over and all the gunners in the fleet would open up on it, with bright streams of red tracer flying through the night in all directions, pretty to watch but not much use otherwise, for few of the gunners could see what they were firing at. Fingers were light upon the triggers that night. Few of the gunners had seen war before, and many times ln those first days our own aircraft were fired on. One nervous man, too flurried to look properly, would open fire against a Spitfire; the others, seeing the stream of tracer would open fire as well, thinking nervously that they must be wrong in thinking that it was a Spitfire, until the whole beach was firing at the Spitfire with the officers raving up and down trying to stop it. Fortunately the gunners seldom hit anything.
So passed the night of D-Day. And now, this seems a proper moment to digress and tell a story of the assault, which I did not see. I traveled back from Courseulles to England on the night of D+2 with a Brigadier who had gone in with the assaulting tanks in the vicinity of St Aubin; I must not tell his name, because on D-Day he ought to have been sitting at his desk in England, and he was hurrying back to England after a breath of the fresh air of war to try and slip back in to his office chair and look as if he had only just been out for a cup of coffee.
He had gone in with the assault tanks, manned by the Royal Engineers. Each tank in this party is a little different from the others. One may carry on its nose an apparatus for exploding land mines, another bears a bridge upon its back which it can throw over a ravine, a third can breach a six foot concrete wall, a fourth can ramp down sandhills for a passage with a spade like a bulldozer, and so on. With them go the wading Shermans and the wading bulldozers which destroy or tow away the beach obstacles. This very diverse party go in first of all in the LCT(A)s, to land among the beach obstacles and get to work, each to his own job. A second wave of simple tanks and infantry follow up close behind them.
These assault tanks should be covered and protected by the D.D. tanks, which swim in to the beach and pause in five feet of water with the turret and gun just sticking out, where they form forts to engage the enemy's shore guns. A heavy bombardment from rocket ships and Priests in LCTs precedes everything.
In fact, he said, it did not work out quite like that. The Assault tanks, his party, were a quarter or an hour late due to the bad weather on their crossing; they had all been seasick, but in the stress of battle they recovered very quickly. The D.D. tanks which should have been ahead of them were later still, but the bombardment stopped exactly at the right time. It would.
The effect was that the D.D. tanks which should have gone ahead of him in shallow water, grounded, and covered his approach, actually came in behind him. The bombardment from behind him stopped altogether ten minutes before he reached the shore, and for the last ten minutes he was steaming in towards the beach in a still, deathly silence after the shattering noise of the bombardment from the rocket ships and Priests. In that ten minutes the Germans did not fire a shot at him, and he steamed forward to the beach not daring to fire at them for fear of waking up the Sleeping Beauty. They did not open fire till most of his odd tanks had actually disembarked upon the sand.
He ascribed their silence to the stunning effect of the bombardment, especially from the rocket ships. A man may be so protected in a concrete pill box or gun shelter that you cannot reach him with the flying shards of any shell or bomb. But that man is still subject to blast; he cannot escape that while he still breathes air, for blast is a shock wave of air. A number of twenty pound charges of high explosive set off outside his pillbox will not kill him, but they will make him so stunned and dizzy that for a long time, a quarter of an hour or more, he cannot control his eyes to read the range scale of his gun, cannot control his fingers to set sights, cannot hear anything, perhaps cannot stop vomiting. A man in that condition cannot fight or fire a gun until he has recovered, and in those precious minutes the LCTs of this assault sailed in and grounded, dropped their ramps, and the strange tanks with all their strange equipment poured on to the beach. Only one tank all that party was destroyed upon the beach. The beach guns were quickly silenced by the tanks which lobbed shells in to the embrasures, and the tanks pressed on through the sandhills inland, the infantry following behind then. The Germans fought well in their concrete positions and slit trenches till they were surrounded; then they surrendered, sustaining very few casualties.