The D-Day Assault
June 1944 saw the highest winds and roughest seas experienced in the English Channel in June for 20 years.
From 1 June onward, my commanders and I met daily to correlate our last-minute preparations and to receive the weather forecasts upon which we had to base our final decision as to the date of launching the assault. The provisional D-day was 5 June, but the meteorological predictions which came in on the 3d were so unfavorable that at our meeting on the morning of the 4th I decided that a postponement of at least 24 hours would be necessary. By that time part of the American assault force had already put out into the Channel, but so heavy were the seas that the craft were compelled to turn about and seek shelter.
By the morning of 5 June conditions in the Channel showed little improvement, but the forecast for the following day contained a gleam of hope. An interval of fair conditions was anticipated, beginning late on the 5th and lasting until the next morning, with a drop in the wind and with broken clouds not lower than 3,000 feet. Toward evening on the 6th, however, a return to high winds and rough seas was predicted, and these conditions were then likely to continue for an indefinite period.
The latest possible date for the invasion on the present tides was 7 June, but a further 24-hour postponement until then was impracticable as the naval bombardment forces which had already sailed from their northern bases on the 3d would have had to put back into port to refuel and the whole schedule of the operation would thus have been upset. I was, therefore, faced with the alternatives of taking the risks involved in an assault during what was likely to be only a partial and temporary break in the bad weather, or of putting off the operation for several weeks until tide and moon should again be favorable. Such a postponement, however, would have been most harmful to the morale of our troops, apart from the likelihood of our losing the benefits of tactical surprise. At 0400 hours of 5 June, I took the final and irrevocable decision: the invasion of France would take place on the following day.
On D-day the wind had, as forecast, moderated and the cloud was well broken, with a base generally above 4,000 feet. This afforded conditions which would permit of our airborne operations, and during the hour preceding the landings from the sea large areas of temporarily clear sky gave opportunities for the visual bombing of the shore defenses. The sea was still rough, and large numbers of our men were sick during the crossing. The waves also caused some of the major landing craft to lag astern, while other elements were forced to turn back.
As events proved, the decision to launch the assault at a time when the weather was so unsettled was largely responsible for the surprise which we achieved. The enemy had concluded that any cross-Channel expedition was impossible while the seas ran so high and, with his radar installations rendered ineffective as a result of our air attacks, his consequent unpreparedness for our arrival more than offset the difficulties which we experienced.
The weather was not the only circumstance surrounding the Allied landings which was contrary to the enemy's expectations. Apparently he had assumed that we should make our attempt only when there was a new moon and on a high tide, and that in choosing the place of main assault we should pick the immediate neighborhood of a good harbor and avoid cliffs and shallow, dangerous waters. In point of fact, we assaulted shortly after low tide, when the moon was full; we landed away from large harbors and at some points below sheer cliffs; and the waters through which we approached the shore were so strewn with reefs and subjected to strong currents that the German naval experts had earlier declared them to be impassable for landing craft.
While our assault forces were tossing on the dark waters of the Channel en route for France, the night bombers which were to herald our approach passed overhead. Shortly after midnight the bombing commenced, and by dawn 1,136 aircraft of RAF Bomber Command had dropped 5,853 tons of bombs on 10 selected coastal batteries lining the Bay of the Seine between Cherbourg and Le Havre. As the day broke, the bombers of the U.S. Eighth Air Force took up the attacks, 1,083 aircraft dropping 1,763 tons on the shore defenses during the half-hour preceding the touchdown. Then medium, light, and fighter-bombers of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force swarmed in to attack individual targets along the shores and artillery positions farther inland. The seaborne forces bore witness to the inspiring moral effect produced by this spectacle of Allied air might and its results as they drew in toward the beaches.
During the remainder of the day, the heavy bombers concentrated their attacks upon the key centers of communication behind the enemy's lines, through which he would have to bring up his reinforcements. Fighters and fighter-bombers of the AEAF roamed over the entire battle area, attacking the German defensive positions, shooting up buildings known to house headquarters, strafing troop concentrations, and destroying transport. During the 24 hours of 6 June, the Strategic Air Forces flew 5,309 sorties to drop 10,395 tons of bombs, while aircraft of the tactical forces flew a further 5,276 sorties.
The lightness of the losses which we sustained on all these operations is eloquent of the feeble enemy air reactions and testifies to the effectiveness of our diversionary operations. Such reconnaissance and defense 20 patrols as were flown by the Germans were mainly over the Pas-de-Calais area while over the assault beaches and their approaches only some 50 half-hearted sorties were attempted. Our heavy bombers were permitted to carry out their allotted tasks without any interference from enemy fighters. One result of this absence of opposition was that our own fighter-bombers were able to operate in small units of one or two squadrons, thus permitting their all-important harassing attacks to be more continuously maintained and their activities to cover a wider field. Not until two days after the initial landings did the enemy reinforce his air strength over the invasion zone to any appreciable extent.
As the night bombers were finishing their work in the early hours of 6 June, the Allied sea armada drew in toward the coast of France. The crossing had, as Admiral Ramsay reported, an air of unreality about it, so completely absent was any sign that the enemy was aware of what was happening. No U-boats were encountered, the bad weather had driven the enemy surface patrol craft into port, the German radar system was upset as a result of our air attack and scientific countermeasures, and no reconnaissance aircraft put in an appearance. Not until after the naval escort fleets had taken up their positions and commenced their bombardment of the shore defenses was there any enemy activity, and then, taken unprepared as the Germans were, it was mainly ineffective. We achieved a degree of tactical surprise for which we had hardly dared to hope. The naval operations were carried out almost entirely according to plan. The damage to his communications by the Allied bombing caused the enemy to remain in the dark as to the extent and significance of the airborne landings which had already been carried out. He was still uncertain as to whether he had to deal with invasion or merely a large-scale raid while our first assault wave was plunging shoreward to discover the truth about the vaunted Atlantic Wall.
The D-Day Assault Part2