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Battle for the beaches: D-Day and Normandy, June 1944

Press/Media: Relating to Research

School of History

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‘The battle of the beaches’: D-Day and Normandy, June 1944

 

Dr Derek J. Patrick

University of St Andrews

 

On 7 June 1944 an editorial in The Evening Telegraph reflected on the invasion of France, ‘which holds first place in British hearts and minds … There must be few families in the land who have not husband or son or brother or near relative engaged in the gigantic adventure by land, sea, and air which culminated in the early hours of yesterday morning in the landing of the United Nations’ hosts on the other side of the Channel … Upon it depends, not the ultimate issue of the war for that is settled already by the greater resources of the United Nations, but the hope of ending the struggle quickly and saving the world many more dreary months of death and destruction. So the eyes of all the earth are turned on a little area of Normandy and every scrap of news from it is being scanned eagerly to-day and will be for many days from China to Peru’.

 

Much would rest on that little part of Normandy. Some 6,939 ships, more than 11,000 aircraft, and over 195,000 naval and 156,000 army personnel, would participate in the largest seaborne invasion in history, a remarkable feat considering the necessary levels of secrecy, and the fact that operations had been delayed 24-hours due to bad weather. 

The invasion began the liberation of German-occupied France and laid foundations for victory on the Western Front. An anonymous military observer, who landed with the first assault forces, reported how the ‘umbrella bombardment from Allied warships began to-day [6 June] as soon as dawn broke … It seemed that hell itself had been let loose. From our vantage point at sea we could see that targets ashore were being pounded out of existence as the assaulting infantry sailed slowly and surely ahead to let bayonets do whatever work remained. From sea and sky the bombardment continued, until our infantry went ashore. It was a magnificent sight. Wave upon wave of khaki-clad figures surged up the beaches, overcoming any opposition in their way’.

 

Describing the allied naval bombardment, A.B. Leonard McHardy, an Aberdeen sailor serving aboard a Royal Navy minesweeper, recalled ‘how the big ships got in line and started bombarding the coast. It was a grand sight. It lasted for an hour and a half. Then the time came for the first landing’. Considering the extent of the fleet he wrote: ‘All around was nothing but landing craft of all types, and huge invasion ships, and other various types of vessels … It was really gigantic. When we were about three or four hours out we could still see the big ships leaving harbour in one great procession’. A Perthshire naval officer made a similar observation, commenting on ‘the vast and varied number of ships lying of the coast’, it was ‘a most amazing sight’. He praised the infantry who, ‘passing his ship in rough seas to land on the beaches, waved and shouted cheery remarks’. 

Brechin man, Sergeant Harry Sherlow, landed with the first wave of Canadian assault troops. He was part of a small R.A.F. party charged with establishing a beach landing office to control the unloading of supplies. Typhoons commanded by Squadron-Leader James William Hastie Wilson, D.F.C., a native of Kirkcaldy and law student at the University of St Andrews, were landing on the beach strips four or five days later. On 7 August the wing of which his squadron was part destroyed more than 80 German tanks.

 

In a letter to his mother A.B. McHardy described ‘the establishment of a beachhead [as] a walk over’. However, many of those fighting to secure the beaches would have considered this rather optimistic. Dundee man, John Young McGregor Sayers Reid, an R.A.F. medical orderly, was awarded the Military Medal for his ‘great courage’ on the beaches. Whilst under intense fire for several hours he attended to some 100 wounded, moving many times across the whole beach. Allied casualties on D-Day numbered at least 10,000 including over 4,000 dead, with the German defenders suffering an estimated 4,000-9,000 killed and wounded. 

In anticipation of the Normandy landings leading war correspondent, Gault MacGowan, reflected on what he considered ‘war winners’. ‘Not until the infantryman has his feet firmly fixed on the shores beyond the North Sea or English Channel will the man in the street really believe that the so-called Second Front has begun in earnest … Though the men who are dropping the bombs and the men behind the big guns will hold the preliminary headlines, in the final analysis it is the P.B.I. [Poor Bloody Infantry] – as the infantry were called in the last war – that emerges as the King of Battles’.

 

Two days after the initial landings, from his ship, over a mile off the coast of Normandy, the Perthshire naval officer watched ‘a stiff tank battle going on inland, whilst on the beach there is a German strong-point still holding out. We shelled it first, then the soldiers went in using hand grenades. We watched the Germans coming out with their hands up, being searched, and then being marched off. There are still other strong-points mortaring the beaches and snipers sniping’. 

Captain P. Cattle, 6th Airborne Division, described similar fighting when he addressed a crowd in the Caird Hall in Dundee on 26 June. The airborne invasion was intended to slow or eliminate the Germans’ ability to launch counterattacks by seizing key objectives. The Perthshire naval officer described how the airborne forces ‘appeared like a huge swarm of locusts on the horizon’. The ‘gliders circled round and landed, whilst the towing planes turned back home. Paratroops also descended in hundreds, aye, I suppose thousands, in different coloured parachutes – red, blue, green mauve … it was the colossal scale which impressed us so much’.

 

Cattle’s unit had been tasked with capturing two bridges over the River Orne, reducing a coastline battery, destroying bridges over the Dives, and holding the area around Ranville. ‘Prisoners taken on the first day were a motley crowd. Young lads of 17 and 18 and old men of 50 – old men for fighting. There were some Russians and Poles. Later on they ran up against better troops, including the 21st Panzers and 12th S.S. They were fighting very well indeed. Anybody who had the idea that German morale was finished had better start thinking again’. 

It was not until 12 June that General Montgomery would conclude that the allies had won the ‘battle of the beaches’ (only two beaches, Juno and Gold, were linked on 6 June). ‘The situation to-day is that these landings that we have made on the coast of Normandy have all been joined up into a solid line – a continuous lodgement area from right to left … The support given to our armies by the Navy and Air Force has been superb – without it we could not have done it’. Mr Churchill visited Normandy and the King would cross the Channel to meet allied leaders some four days later. However, on 12 June, The Courier reported that the battle was still ‘raging furiously’, and though allied advances had been made, the ‘situation is still fluid’. The Germans ‘are putting up a determined resistance against equally determined attacks’, with bitter fighting at Caen and Carentan.

 

The 5th Black Watch landed on the afternoon of 6 June 1944, the men wading through ‘three feet of surf’ before scrambling ashore between Graye sur Mer and Courseulles sur Mer. Directed to support the 6th Airborne Division who were holding a dangerous salient projecting east across the River Orne, the battalion took up its position near Bréville. On 11 June, A Company advanced on the village in open order believing that it was not strongly held but came under a heavy machine-gun fire. ‘The enemy mortar bombs rained down, covering most of the area with shrapnel … and tanks could be heard moving in the area of the crossroads’. John McGregor, an officer serving with the 5th Black Watch, wrote ‘[by] 0900 ‘A’ Company numbered less than a Platoon strength with only Lt. Bill McDonald left, the other Officers having been killed or wounded, as were many of the NCOs and ORs. Both ‘B’ Company, who had lost three Platoon Officers, and ‘C’ Company with Major East wounded, had also suffered many casualties’.

The following afternoon at around 3.00 p.m. German infantry, closely supported by tanks and self-propelled guns, attacked from the direction of Bréville. The battalion was holding positions around the local Chateâu. A German soldier, with ‘a strong American accent’, shouted ‘Come on, Jock, surrender: there are more of us here than you’. The reply was a burst of fire from a Black Watch Bren gun. 

According to an officer of the 5th Black Watch, the Bréville battle was ‘one of the nastiest ever fought by the Battalion in N.W. Europe’. The fighting lasted for some three hours with the men of the battalion repulsing wave after wave of enemy attacks. Over 20 men were killed and more than 90 wounded. One Black Watch flank section was overrun, and the survivors lined up and shot in the back as they stood. ‘Despite the toll they had held their ground and inflicted even greater losses on the enemy’.

 

The village of Bréville was captured later that evening. In just one week the 5th Black Watch had lost 6 officers and 92 other ranks killed, and 11 officers and 198 other ranks wounded. After the war Bréville would be one of many battle honours awarded to the regiment. The battle for the beaches may well have been over but the war was far still far from won.

Media contributions

TitleBattle for the beaches: D-Day and Normandy, June 1944
Degree of recognitionRegional
Media name/outletThe Courier Secord World War 80th Anniversary Supplement
Media typePrint
CountryUnited Kingdom
Date29/08/19
DescriptionThe Courier Secord World War 80th Anniversary Supplement
PersonsDerek John Patrick

ID: 260937060

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