By the early hours of 6 June, an enormous armada of almost 7,000 ships carrying over 150,000 men had assembled off the Isle of Wight, ready to sail for France.
Five Normandy beaches – codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – were their destination. But before the invasion could begin, the boats had to navigate the English Channel, and that meant negotiating marauding German warships, enemy mines and rough seas.
The Royal Navy neutralised the first two threats courtesy of a huge naval protection screen and a 15-mile-wide mine-swept corridor across the Channel. Yet the third hazard proved far more problematic. The tail end of a massive storm was creating mountainous waves and made the crossing hellish for the troops crammed below decks in bunks.
“I dozed off before we really turned on full steam, only to be awoken by a horribly sickly feeling inside,” recalled Eric Broadhead of the Durham Light Infantry.
“[The ship] was rolling in every imaginable direction. The seasickness pills had failed if ever anything did fail.”
A few hours later, however, the fleet had arrived off the Normandy coast and the boats had fanned out to their allotted targets. The landing craft were lowered into the waves, the troops clambered down netting into them, and headed for the beaches.
Success at Utah
Casualties on Utah were the lightest of all the beaches – 197 out of 23,000 men. By the end of the day, US infantry had made far better progress than their commanders expected, linking up with paratroopers who had been dropped inland in the early hours.
“We should have unloaded and backed off the beach,” said British sailor Michael Jennings, “but due to the flatness the tide ran out leaving us high and dry. We decided it would be safer ashore, so we left the craft and ran, dropping whenever a shell burst.
“We jumped into a trench with an American soldier chewing gum, who asked if we were commandos. Our reply was that we were sailors waiting to get out as fast as we could!”
Carnage on Omaha
More Allied troops died on Omaha than any other beach. It was bristling with mortars, machines guns and artillery that cut the first wave of mainly American troops down in their hundreds.
“The noise was deafening,” said Bob Shotwell of the US 149th Amphibious Combat Engineers. “Big guns fired, engines on wheels roared, men shouted and geysers
of water erupted around our craft. It seemed like mass confusion.
“Bits and pieces pop into focus… a hand. An arm with no body around it. A helmet with a head in it. I wondered if the next shell would be mine.”
Sprinting for Gold
The chiefly British assailants of Gold Beach also met with stiff resistance, partly because the Germans had heavily fortified a village on the beach.
“Down the ramps we went,” said Durham Light Infantryman Eric Broadhead. “Then came 10 horrible yards between ship and shore with water in between. Each one of us let out a gasp as the water swirled around and we struggled for shore. It was the hardest 10 yards I ever did.
“After five minutes regrouping as a battalion, I saw a real-life German soldier for the first time. He was being brought in as a prisoner by the lads who beat us ashore.”
Jumping off at Juno
The first wave ashore on Juno – primarily Canadian troops – suffered 50 per cent casualties, the second highest of the D-Day beaches. Despite this heavy toll, the Canadians were off the beach and heading inland within a few hours.
“I wanted to be one of the first to land, not because of any heroics, but waiting your turn on the exposed ramp was much worse than going in,” said one Canadian soldier of the moment his landing craft reached the beach.
“Our beach was littered with those who had been a jump ahead of us. A captured blockhouse being used as a dressing station was literally surrounded by piles of bodies.”
Almost 30,000 men – most of them British – came ashore at the most easterly beach. Some of them had advanced five miles inland by the end of the day, yet they failed to achieve one key first-day objective: the capture of the city of Caen.
WW Jeffries, who served with No 6 Commando and landed at Sword, recalled: “After leaving the beach we made our way through open grassland… we moved so fast that we were on to one group of Germans drinking coffee in the edge of a field.”