During the night of June 6 1944 rough Channel waters battered a vast armada of craft carrying a hundred and thirty three thousand troops. They were heading for the north-western cliffs of Normandy in France. The allies were hoping to take the German forces by surprise. A forecasted wind force four had indeed assured the Germans that their opponents would not risk an invasion during these couple of days. Besides, if the allies were to invade the continent it would probably be near Calais, or so they thought. Past false allied movements had convincingly misled the German High Command. On this particular night Field Marshall Rommel had therefore decided it would be safe to celebrate his wife’s birthday at home. Many German senior commanders, in charge of defending the west Normandy coast, were away involved in war-game exercises. The largest amphibious landing ever was carried out by the allies at around 6.30 in the morning.
The allies landed at five beaches - the Americans at Utah and Omaha, the British and Canadians at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches
Pointe-du-Hoc, view from German bunker
Yet, in spite of the unpreparedness of the German opponent, Operation Overlord was by no means a piece of cake. Although the allied naval and airborne troops had successfully crossed the Channel, the strong winds had impacted on progress, had slowed down the attack and diminished the surprise effect. A visit to various D-day sites brings home the reality of this enormous undertaking.
German bunker at Pointe-du-Hoc
One of the spots that was heavily fortified by the German forces was Pointe du Hoc between Utah and Omaha beach. To defend this part of the Normandy coast, bunkers and a battery of heavy guns had been set up as part of the German Atlantic Wall. To clear the way for an allied invasion Pointe du Hoc needed to be bombarded first. Not an easy task when precision bombarding was hindered by heavy fog.
Crater at Pointe-du-Hoc as a result of pre-invasion bombarding
The next step in the invasion procedure was to neutralise the German 155 mm guns set up here, aimed at possible invaders from the Channel. This was the task of the US Army Rangers, a special forces unit who had a crucial role in the invasion. Under heavy German gunfire the Rangers were brought ashore by a special flotilla of Landing Craft Assaults (LCA’s).
“The officers said everyone that even gets close to the cliff ought to get an award.” - Salva Maimone, 2nd ranger battalion.
If the Rangers were lucky enough to survive and reach the beach, they then had to scale the 100 foot (30 metre) cliffs. Barely recovered from their sea-sickness, and with lots of their rocket-propelled ropes soaked and useless due to the rough sailing, many of the Rangers still succeeded in surmounting the giant cliffs.
Arromanches-les-Bains and Gold Beach
While the Americans were busy at Utah and Omaha beaches, the British and Canadians landed at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches securing the coast to the east of Arromanches-les-Bains. Arromanches was chosen by the allies as one of two locations to set up a prefabricated artificial harbour which would be necessary to provide the troops with supplies after the initial invasion.
Problems of a different kind needed to be overcome by the allied troops here. Arromanches was an area well defended by a German radar station, many mines anchored to the seabed, a beach blocked with obstacles and an anti-tank wall at the slip of the village. But by dusk Arromanches was also freed and in spite of strong German opposition the allies had managed to secure an eighty kilometer wide section of the Normandy coast.
Remnants of breakwaters of Mulberry B at Arromanches-les-Bains
As said, the success of D-Day could only be maintained if the troops advancing from Normandy could be steadily provided with necessary fuel and equipment. For this reason the following day a start was made with the construction of two artificial harbours, Mulberry A and B. These harbours consisted of massive prefabricated elements which were towed across the Channel. Once in place in front of the beaches they were anchored to ships which were sunk to the seabed. Mulberry Harbour A was assembled at Vierville but was destroyed by a fierce storm not long after D-Day. Mulberry B at Arromanches played a crucial role in the follow up of D-Day. This ingenious idea of a floating instant harbour was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, hence the name of the harbour, Port Winston. Most of the Mulberry is now lying on the bottom of the Channel. But remnants of the breakwaters, another English wartime invention to steady the waters inside the artificial harbour,
are still bobbing on the water like lost souls.
Remnants of pontoon bridge at Arromanches-les-Bains
Another reminder of the Mulberry harbour are the pontoons scattered over Gold Beach at Arromanches. Where before trucks, tanks and artillery were rolling out over this bridge, children are now playing, enjoying (and perhaps taking for granted) the freedom these brave men fought for.
American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer
Perhaps the most sensitive reminder of the invasion are the various cemeteries with endless rows of crosses marking the graves. Both allies as well as their opponents are remembered here with the utmost respect. At a beautiful place overlooking Omaha beach and the sea, lies the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. Work is still in progress to piece together the stories of each individual person buried here to make sure they will not be forgotten. Innumerable lives cut short was the high price that came with our freedom.
Sources of information
Pointe-du-Hoc Visitor Centre, Cricqueville-en-Bessin, France
American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France
Musée du Débarquement, Arromanches, France
"Normandy '44. The battle beyond D-Day" - BBC documentary written by James Holland
Map of the Normandy sites - by Anke ter Doest
Photo's - by Anke and Ineke ter Doest