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June 6, 1944 D-Day; The beginning of the end for fortress Europe

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Posted: Sunday, June 5, 1994 12:00 am

Discordantly, a poem of languor tipped the Germans that the drumfire of the Allied invasion was coming.

Nightly, the BBC broadcast cryptic messages to the underground resistance in Hitler's Europe: ''The Trojan War will not be held'' ... ''Sabine has just had mumps.''

On June 1, 1944, Hitler's 15th Army on the English Channel heard a line by the French poet Paul Verlaine: ''The long sobs of the violins of autumn.'' From a captured Frenchman, they knew this was an alert.

The next line ''Wounding my heart with a monotonous languor'' meant invasion within 48 hours. On June 5, they heard it.

But where was the invasion coming?

Maj. Werner Pluskat found out at dawn the next day when from his bunker on the Normandy coast he saw nothing but ships from horizon to horizon. His superiors inland asked where they were headed. ''Straight for me!'' Pluskat cried.

In a war of incessant Allied amphibious landings, D-Day was the biggest. The biggest gamble. The longest awaited. The most brilliantly disguised.

Hitler's intuition told him Normandy would be the place. Yet he kept his best divisions in the Pas de Calais, opposite England's Kentish coast.

His commander in Normandy, Erwin Rommel, an enemy of genius in North Africa and the conquest of France in 1940, suspected Calais. Wherever, he said the Germans must repulse the Allies at water's edge or eventually lose the war. It would be, he predicted, ''the longest day.''

In a sense, D-Day began when Pfc. Milburn Henke, ironically the son of a naturalized German, was greeted Jan. 26, 1942, in Belfast as the first American soldier to step ashore in Great Britain. By May 1944, he had been followed by 1,526,964 more Americans.

Southern England had turned from a picturesque pastorale into an armed

camp, kept from sinking, locals joked, only by the barrage balloons tethered to it. (They also said, only half-jokingly, that the Yanks were ''overpaid, oversexed and over here.'')

GIs crammed into manor houses, schools, barns, Quonset huts from Straight Stolley, Crooked Stolley and Middle Wallop to Lower Slaughter and Ogbourne St. George. Fields and warehouses were packed with an inventory of 700,000 items, from 8,000 planes, 1,000 locomotives, and fingerprint ink to identify the dead to 100,000 packs of gum to comfort the living. Some 54,000 quartermasters kept track of it all.

Britons received their American cousins with mixed emotions. They jibed with a play on a popular novel ''How Green Was My Valley'' by substituting Ally for the last word. But 70,000 Englishwomen became war brides, and the illegitimacy rate tripled.

Yanks choked down the bland British diet. ''If you make a forced landing,'' one American officer told a flier, ''do it in a patch of Brussels sprouts.''

Despite the instant rage in the United States at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Washington already had decided defeating Hitler would have priority over a war in the Pacific. This left Winston Churchill exultant.

But his military, like a child wavering on a high diving board, was ever reluctant to take the plunge across the channel.

They were bled after their lonely war against Germany. They had but one army left to lose. Churchill looked for softer points of attack: Norway, Yugoslavia, even Portugal.

The Americans were adamant: France. The sooner the better. To help Russia. To finish Hitler. To get on to Japan.

On the very eve of D-Day, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, British chief of staff, predicted the invasion would fall short of expectations at best and, at worst, would be ''the most ghastly failure of the whole war.'' But on a rainy and windswept predawn, Allied commander D

wight D. Eisenhower weighed the calamatous choice and finally said: ''OK, we'll go.''

The weather was so bad June 5 the Germans even kept their remaining patrol craft in port. No one would be out in that storm, they figured, so they went ahead with a war game scheduled for many of the top brass in Rennes in Brittany. Rommel went home for his wife's birthday.

Having lost the U-boat war in the North Atlantic, the Germans had no weather input from submarines to tell them a calm break was moving in from the Bay of Biscay. The Allies were coming with it.

British reluctance was fueled in part by the debacle of a one-day raid by Canadians on Dieppe in which 2,110 of 4,963 men failed to return. Yet if Britain was to play a role in postwar Europe, it could not leave the fighting on the Continent to Russia, which had already pushed the Germans back into Poland.

Normandy had been chosen because it had sloping beaches, not the cliffs of Calais, with ready access to the interior. The port of Cherbourg was nearby.

A massive cam

paign of disinformation, Operation Fortitude, tried to persuade the Germans that Calais was the target. A phony army was ''created'' in Scotland, down to fake wedding announcements of its soldiers and soccer scores of its teams to convince Hitler that Norway was the target.

Germany didn't bite, but did give credence to another ruse a phantom 1st Army Group under Gen. George S. Patton seemingly stationed in Kent. Constant radio chatter, tank tracks ostentatiously left through the orchards, dummy landing barges in the Thames complete with smoking stacks, and laundry hanging in the rigging deluded German intelligence into believing this was the main Allied force.

Command of the skies over England by the home team kept German reconnaissance from learning better.

All German spies in Britain had been caught and were ''turned'' to radio false reports back to Berlin. A double of Bernard Montgomery, the British invasion commander, popped up in the Mediterannean to make the Germans think something was cooking there.

The deception nudged the Germans into believing what they already wanted to: The channel coast was where, logically, they would invade, so their enemy must cho

ose there as well.

While Eisenhower and his staff bit nails about the weather, troops began moving to embarkation ports and parachute bases.

Lighthouse keeper Percy Wallace watched part of an armada of 5,700 vessels sailing to Normandy and asked his wife to kneel with him: ''A lot of men are going to die tonight. We should pray for them.''

The parachutists were the first to go 13,000 Americans of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions landing behind Omaha and Utah and 4,800 men of the British 6th Airborne around Caen behind the Anglo-Canadian beaches of Sword, Juno and Gold to the east.

Before takeoff, the Americans had feasted on ice cream for the first time in months and been treated to a movie, ''Mr. Luc

ky,'' starring Cary Grant and Laraine Day.

The precise formations of 882 C-47s (DC-3s in civilian life) broke up in clouds over Normandy. Paratroopers spilled all over the Cogtentin Peninsula. Some soldiers, burdened with up to 150 pounds of gear rifle, .45 automatic, seven grenades, four blocks of TNT, a mine, ammo, rations and a carton of cigarettes fell into the sea and drowned.

The confused drop had the unintended effect of baffling the Germans.

''They knew where they were, b

ut none of them knew what was happening,'' writes historian Max Hastings. ''The Americans knew what was happening, but didn't know where they were.''

The Germans were further befuddled by parachuted dummies that landed with prerecorded shouted commands, then exploded with simulated gunfire. Off Calais, loudspeakers on small vessels sounded anchoring and engine noises. No landing feint was staged along the channel coast to keep open the possibility that a major attack was in the offing.

In the dark, the paratroopoers gradually coalesced into fighting units. After dawn, Sgt. Harrison Summers waged a one-man war, bursting into one farm building after another, spraying the Germans inside with his Tommy gun while his battle-shy colleagues watched in amazement.

''Why are you doing this?'' one of them asked. ''I can't tell you,'' Summers answered. ''It was all kind of crazy.''

Pvt. John Steele's parachute snagged on the church steeple of St. Mere-Eglise, giving him a ringside balcony seat as he watched the 82nd Airborne capture the key road hub. Lynn Compton, an All-American catcher at UCLA, hit a German with a grenade and blew his head off. Lt. Mike Dowling had until 0530 to silence a German battery. He made it by 15 minutes and reported: ''Battery taken as ordered, sir. Guns destroyed,'' then fell dead.

At dawn, the guns of the invasion fleet nine battleships, 23 cruisers, 175 destroyers and corvettes opened up. O

ne thousand bombers were to carpet bomb the beach, but dropped

inland to avoid the landing troops, minimizing the damage.

Aboard the transports, men prayed, napped, gambled Pvt. Chuck Vella won $1,200 at craps sharpened bayonets and got seasick. One blue-blooded Brit asked which were the officers' lifeboats.

At H-Hour, the invaders clambered into landing craft and headed to the shore. On the bridge of his destroyer, Cmdr. Angus Mackenzie in Highland bonnet saluted them on his bagpipe.

Luck was with the 4th Division. Poor navigation in battle smoke along Utah swept them to an unplanned landing on the lightest defended sector of the beach. Twenty-eight of their duplex-drive tanks vehicles with propellors in inflatable skirts landed. Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the former president, calmly scouting the terrain as if he were buying instead of invading it, decided: ''We're going to start the war from here.''

By dusk, 23,000 GIs were ashore, with only 197 casualties, and linkups were made with the paratroops.

Omaha was worse the worst. The green 29th and veterans of the 1st divisions landed in four-foot surf, then faced 200-foot cliffs beyond the sand. German guns were zeroed in for high tide it had been low so the landing vessels could float off after unloading but machine guns raked the shore. Hein Severloh fired 12,000 rounds at the Americans until only tracers were left, revealing his position to Allied guns.

One landing craft was cravenly abandoned to its passengers by its crew. Others bravely plowed through the millions of mines and obstructions laid by Rommel's men. Only five of the 32 duplex-drive tanks reached land, and three of 16 armored bulldozers.

The 92nd Aviation Engineers Regiment had been waiting to go in when a beachhead was won, but were volunteered by their major when a passing landing craft said it had room. The major waved farewell as his men suddenly found themselves in an assault wave.

''Who the hell sent you?'' they were asked on the beach. ''Some sonofabitch,'' came the reply.

Col. Charles Canham rallied his men. ''They're murdering us here. Let's move inland and get murdered!''

Led by isolated vignettes of combat by veterans of the Big Red One, the men fought over the cliffs. Omaha cost 4,500 American casualties and U.S. landing boss Gen. Omar Bradley had considered abandoning the beach. But by nightfall, the GIs had a firm toehold.

The British on Gold and Sword and Canadians on Juno had a somewhat better time of it. Twenty of 24 first-wave landing craft on Juno were sunk or damaged. Landing craft fitted for howitzers were capsized by the guns' recoil, but the Candians, with flamethrowing and mine-flailing tanks the Americans had eschewed, fought their way beyond the beach.

On Gold, an officer pointed for Stan Hollis: ''There's a pillbox in there, sergeant major.'' Hollis charged, spraying his gun through a gun slit, took after a second pillbox and returned with 25 prisoners and subsequently the Victoria Cross.

Montgomery had predicted his men would capture Caen the first day. It took a month and cost him prestige with the Americans he never recovered. But the Allies had landed. And stayed.

Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was still not convinced Normandy was the main landing. He delayed fatally in committing his reserve. Not that he could have. Due to months of Allied bombing of transportation, rails and roads in France were wrecked.

Rommel realized immediately this was it and raced to the front from Germany, a very late start on his longest day.

Aides did not inform Hitler, a late sleeper, until he awoke in midmorning. He seemed pleased. ''In Britain, we couldn't get at them. Now, we have them where we can destroy them,'' he said. Then he went to lunch with the new Hungarian prime minister. And he forbade von Rundstedt to release his reserve to Normandy even if they could have gotten there.

The one concerted German attack that D-Day was ordered by Gen. Erich Marcks of the Hitler Youth 2nd Panzer Division, whose zealots had been murdering prisoners all day. ''If you don't succeed in throwing the British into the sea, you will have lost the war,'' he said. But the offensive failed with the loss of 70 of 124 tanks.

On Omaha, Lt. P.K. Smith of the 1st called in some battleship fire, as much to help the battle along as if was out of curiosity. He wondered what an exploding 16-inch shell looked like.

As night fell over Normandy June 6, 1944, there was now room for whimsy.

© 2015 The Lewiston Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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