Kittie Howard

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Beaches of Normandy--June 6, 1944: The Air Campaign; Tips for Visitors

The Invasion of Normandy by Allied forces on June 6, 1944--code-named Operation Overlord--combined air, naval, and ground forces in the successful campaign. A previous post ((here) focused on our over-all two-week, self-guided visit to Normandy's historic--and sacred!--beaches this summer. My previous post HERE focused on the Ground Campaign. This post focuses on the Air Campaign. I spent considerable time researching historic film footage to link whenever I could.

Photos and historical notes will follow after the tips.

TIP: We met many Canadian and American tourists who were disappointed--some angry--at how little they got to see on their professional tours. The Beaches of Normandy are not a complicated area to navigate. Tourists should be especially wary of operators who offer tours that enter at one airport and exit at another. Lodging isn't as expensive as you'd think. We flew into Paris, took the train to Caen, picked up our rental car, and after two days at the Best Western, hit the road. Since we'd lived in Africa, we knew the often inexpensive Mercure Hotel, a French chain, gave good value for the money. It was our choice to spend two weeks in Normandy, but the circuit could be done in a week.

TIP: Pick up your rental car in either Paris or Caen, not Bayeux as there aren't as many rental cars available there. Caen was in and out, no problems. TIP: Rent a diesel car. By the end of the first week, 500 miles later, we hadn't used half a tank. TIP: It surprised how close many sites were. Tour operators pick one, allow little time and move on, when, in truth, with little effort, the visitor could see much more. Visiting Pegasus Bridge and nearby Merville gun battery set the stage for the Invasion's force and power and what troops/airmen encountered throughout. When you reach the beaches, the impact of what they went through is beyond words.

TIP: Be wary of tours that stop in Bayeux but don't allow time to visit the Bayeux Tapestry. This was where we encountered the angriest tourists. Buyer Beware definitely applies!

The bottom sign accompanied local road signs throughout Normandy, making it very easy to get around. The beaches (Sword, Gold, Juno, Omaha, Utah) are along a 50-mile stretch. With so many liberation markers, we didn't have a problem finding interior sites as well. We used our road map more more for short cuts to leave country roads for Interstate-type highways for the cities.

Quiet country roads. (Personal photo)

But the beach road leading into Honfleur to the north of Sword Beach, a gorgeous historic town, was congested, more so to Le Harve, but worth it. During our two-week trip, we didn't see one road accident anywhere. (Personal photo)

When I told someone about the trip my husband and I took to Normandy, he said he'd visited a few years ago and that the experience "brought me to my knees." Whether physically or mentally, he was right. It was a matter of considerable internal debate about whether or not to take my shoes off and let waves at Omaha Beach that had once run red with blood lap my feet.

When my husband, a career U. S. Marine with the Silver Star from Vietnam, learned of my quandary, he said, taking my camera. "Go. That's why they were here--so you could go." So I did. . . an overwhelming experience for which I lack the words.

The Invasion of Normandy by Allied Forces on June 6,1944 actually began at 2200 hours on June 5. During Operation Neptune. Five assault groups (130,000 men) departed the English Coast in 6,939 vessels to cross the English Channel in convoys via mine-swept corridors.

Units involved in the Allied Airborne operations were:

American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions : 15,500 men; 1,662 aircrafts and 512 gliders;

British 6th Airborne Division: 7,990 men, 733 aircraft and 355 gliders;

1st Canadian Parachute Battalion came under the command of the 3rd Parachute Brigade of the British 6th Airborne Division. Historic footage of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion is HERE.

General Dwight David Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, addresses paratroopers prior to D-Day, U.S. Co. E, 502nd Parachute Infantry Brigade (Strike), 101st Airborne Division ("Screaming Eagles), Greenham Common Airfield, England, at approximately 8:30 p.m, June 5, 1944. This photo and a video are at the Visitor's Memorial Hall at Omaha Beach. The photo above is from Wikipedia because mine from a museum had too many reflections.

D-Day drop by 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. The unit was also at the Battle of the Bulge and the airborne assault on the Rhine River and elsewhere as the war came to a victorious end.

At 0005 hour Allied aerial attacks began, specifically targeting coastal German batteries between Le Harve and Cherbourg, France.

C-47 airplane at the Pegasus Museum. When my husband and I lived in Kenya, we flew in a privately owned C-47 to the Masai Mara. Awesome experience! (Personal photo)

Interior view. (Personal Photo)

The YouTube link to archival footage of what the air campaign accomplished with these bombs is HERE.  The video is inclusive of Allied participants. About six minutes into the video, you'll see the Pegasus patch, for example. The footage opens with naval bombardments, then about two minutes into the approximate seven-minute footage, the aerial bombardment and paratrooper drops begin.  It's the best air/naval/ground campaign footage I found.

During the Invasion of Normandy, the British objective was to neutralize the zone between the Orm River and the Dives River, capture the German's Merville gun battery and designated bridges. At 12:16 on 6 June, 181 men in six Horsa gliders, five landing within yards of Pegasus Bridge, surprised the Germans and took control of the bridge in 10 minutes, losing two men in the process.

(Note: for those interested in an in-depth description about securing the Merville gun battery, an article by Neil Barber for the UK's 1940s Society is here.)

Pegasus Bridge as it looked on June 9, 1944. You can see the Hosa gliders lying around. (Wikipedia)

German bunker near Pegasus Bridge. You can see it in the above photo, across the river, a bit to the right of the bridge. (Personal photo)

One of the jeeps that crossed the old Pegasus Bridge, originally called Benouville Bridge and built in 1934. Along with the old bridge, this is one of several jeeps at the Pegasus Museum complex. (Personal photo)

The new Pegasus Bridge, built in 1944 and in much the same location as the old one, was re-named Pegasus Bridge in 1944 in honor of the British forces. The name's derived from the shoulder emblem work by the forces, the flying horse Pegasus. (Wikipedia/Personal photo) Pegasus and the nearby Ranville Bridge were major objectives of Operation Deadstick, part of Operation Tonga in the opening minutes of the Invasion of Normandy.  Major John Howard's unit also took Ranville Bridge, thus significantly limiting the effectiveness of a German counter attack.
A note about the bagpiper in the re-enactment above: William "Bill" Millin, July 14, 1922-August 17, 2010, popularly known as "Piper Bill" was the personal piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, Commander of Special Services Brigade. Although military rules restricted bagpipes to a unit's rear, Lord Lovat asked Piper Bill to play while British forces were under fire. Captured German prisoners said they hadn't shot Piper Bill because they thought he was crazy. 
For many bagpipers it's one of life's goals to play the pipes while crossing the bridge. 

One of the hundreds of German bunkers along the Normandy coast and inland. It took raw courage to drift toward the ground hanging from a parachute as weapons in fortifications blasted. But there's a military expression that says the one who controls the night controls the terrain. 

Interior of bunker. (Personal photo)
By August 23rd, when Allied Force and the Free French Resistance had secured all of Normandy, they controlled the night and the terrain, the beginning of Hitler's trip to hell.

One of the victorious newspaper headlines across the United States. (Bayeux Museum)

( Personal photo)

An overall summary of the timeline:

At 0010 hour on June 6, 1944, parachuting of reconnaissance groups began.

At 0020-0040 hour, commando attacks with the British 6th Airborne Division Gliders on bridges began.

At 0100 - 0230 hours, parachuting of successive waves of troops from regiments and brigades forming British and American divisions commenced.

At 0320 hours, heavy equipment and and reinforcements by glider arrived.

At 0430 hours, assault on St. Mere-Eglise (St. Mary's Church, but it's also a village)) began by 82nd U. S. Division, 505th Regiment.

At 0550, naval bombardment of German positions began, preceding the approach of amphibious ships and landing crafts.

At 0600 hours, attacks by medium and heavy bombers on German fortifications along the Normandy Coast totaled 1,333 bombers and 5,316 tons of bombs. Bombardments ceased five minutes before H- hour and troop disembarkation:

                         0630 for American Forces (Utah Beach and Omaha Beach);
                         0710 attack on Pointe du Hoc, 2nd U. S. Ranger Battalion;
                         0730 for British Forces (Gold Beach and Sword Beach)
                         0800 for Canadian Forces (Juno Beach)

Historic footage of the Air/Ground Invasion from the History Channel uploaded to YouTube (2:53 min) is HERE! (Give it a few seconds to start.)

The American Airborne objective was the establishment of a bridgehead on the west bank of the Merderet River; capture St.-Mere-Eglise, Beuzeville, Pont l'Abbe, and close roads to Utah Beach.

St. Mere-Eglise:

Founded in the 11th century, St. Mere-Eglise was one of the significant battle sites during the Hundred Years War and the War of Religions fought in Europe. During the Allies Invasion of Normandy, the village stood in the middle of route N13, which the Germans would have most likely used on any counterattack on the American troops landing on Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. Units of the U. S. 82nd Airborne and the U. S. 101st Airborne occupied the village during Operation Boston, but not without re-enforcements from nearby Utah Beach. Elements of the parachute drop did not go well. . . 

Monument to American paratroopers. All but three of the 25 men listed were killed on June 6, 1944. Many were from Easy Company, made famous by the mini series, "Band of Brothers." I'm listing the names on the monument of those who died because it's the names that define "ultimate sacrifice": William S. Evans, Joseph M. Jordan,  Robert L. Mathews, Thomas Meehan, William S. Metzler, Sergio G. Moya, Elmer L. Murray Jr., Richard E. Owen, Murray B. Roberts, Gerald R. Snider, Benjamin J. Stoney, Jerry A. Wentzel, Ralph H. Wimer, George L. Elliot, Herman F. Collins, John N. Miller, Carl N. Riggs, Elmer L. Telstad, Thomas W. Warren, George Lavenson, Robert J. Everett J. Gray, Terrance C. Harris.

Re-enforcements arrive at St. Mere-Englise. My photo of the photo wasn't clear. This copy: Always Free Hub Pages; link to site is here.  

The same street today. When we visited it was a bright sunny day with many people out. Note the arch in both photos.  (Photo link credit is here as above.)
To the left, directly across the street is St. Mere-Eglise church. Note the parachute on the bell tower. (Personal photo)

Private John M. Steele (1912-1969), made famous by the 1962 movie The Longest Day, hung from the church as depicted in this monument. American soldiers from the U. S. 82nd Airborne parachuted into the area west of St. Mere-Eglise in successive waves. The village had been the target of an aerial attack. A stray incendiary mom had set fire to a house east of the village. The church bell called villagers to form a bucket brigade that German soldiers supervised. 

However, the fire had lit up the area when two planeloads of paratroopers from the 1st and 2nd Battalions were dropped in error directly over the village. They were easy targets for the Germans. However, the Germans thought Private Steele was dead, hanging from from his stretched parachute cable and ignored him. Even though he was injured during the entrapment, he played dead and was one of the few to survive the carnage. 

The Germans realized he wasn't dead when they later cut him down. Taken prisoner, Private Steele escaped and rejoined his unit, 3rd Battalion, 505th Regiment, and fought with his unit's attack on the village. St. Mere-Eglise was the first village in Normandy liberated by American forces. A YouTube link to historic footage is HERE. Although parts are somewhat dark and grainy, I wish I'd seen this before our trip. (Wikipedia/Personal photo)

The next battle awaits . . . (Airborne Museum, St. Mere-Eglise)

Monument in St. Mere-Eglise to American paratroopers. (Personal photo)

There are so many monuments throughout Normandy that are unit specific or smaller ones that are fallen hero specific. (Personal photo) Many families pay visits to lay a refreshed poppy wreath, often with a child old enough to understand placing the wreath. Although visitors remained at discreet distances, the private ceremony tugged at hearts. (This photo and the ones that follow are personal photos.)

Poppies grow along the road in a rural countryside . . .