It was the largest seaborne invasion in the history of warfare – a battle fought on such an epic scale that it has spawned thousands of books, TV series and Hollywood movies.
Although millions of words have been written about the events that unfolded on D-Day, June 6, 1944, almost all have come from the viewpoint of the officer class – from Winston Churchill down – as well as an army of military historians. But what of the men on the front line who fought themselves to a standstill driving the Germans off the blood-soaked beaches? Their raw, unvarnished stories paint a very different picture from the one recounted by their superiors. Never intended for publication, these tales of quiet heroism are to be found in private diaries and letters to loved ones and long-neglected interviews, as well as in the extraordinary sound archive of the Imperial War Museum. They reveal that from the troops’ point of view, D-Day was less a masterpiece of strategic planning than a chaotic day of courage and terror.
Troops of the British 3rd Infantry help the wounded ashore at Sword Beach. In the foreground are sappers, and in the background Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade disembarks
Now, 75 years on, those soldiers leap from the pages of a dramatic new book, D-Day: The Soldiers’ Story.
Here, author Giles Milton reveals some of its most remakable stories.
THE AIRBORNE COMMANDO
‘Come out and fight, you squareheaded b*******!’
The gliders plunged steeply through the night air, shuddering and groaning as they swooped towards Normandy. Inside each, 30 men were praying they would survive the landing and the assault to follow.
Wrecked Horsa gliders beside Pegasus Bridge, scene of Wally Parr’s heroic assault
Bénouville Bridge – soon to be renamed Pegasus – was now in Allied hands. But their troubles were far from over
Their task that night was to capture the bridge in the village of Bénouville, a small but vital crossing over the Caen Canal. This audacious D-Day mission had been entrusted to Wally Parr and 181 of his comrades in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Six hours before the seaborne assault on the coast of Normandy, they were spearheading a perilous surprise attack. If successful, their action would block any German counter-attack against the Allied assault. If they failed, German panzer divisions would be able to sweep across the Caen Canal and drive the Allies back into the sea.
Seizing the bridge was a hazardous task, yet this was just the first part of their mission. They then had to hold it for 12 hours until the commandos – scheduled to land on nearby Sword Beach – relieved them.
In a rare interview recorded in 1990 by a sound archivist at the Imperial War Museum, Wally Parr recalled the most dramatic events of that night. As the lead glider came in to land, it lurched forwards, filling the darkness with a stream of sparks. Parr was jack-knifed forwards as it smashed to a halt.
‘Charlie, get out!’ Parr remembered shouting to his buddy, Charles Gardner. He and Gardner were suddenly pumped with adrenaline. They jumped out of the glider and ran towards the steel girder bridge. ‘Charge!’ roared their leader, John Howard. Parr and Gardner were first to the bridge. ‘Come out and fight, you square-headed b*******,’ screamed Parr at no one in particular. As he pitched explosives into a German dug-out, Gardner was ready with his Bren gun. ‘I slung open the door, pulled the pin, slung it in, shut the door and waited,’ said Parr. There was a booming explosion from beneath their feet. Then Parr kicked open the door again and sprayed the dug-out with his machine gun.
The soldiers worked with clinical efficiency, aware that it was kill or be killed. As Parr ran across the bridge, he saw a body on the ground. The uniform gave him a jolt: it was his comrade, Den ‘Danny’ Brotheridge. Parr knelt down and lifted his head. Brotheridge tried to speak, but then ‘he just closed his eyes and gave a big sigh and lay back’. He was mortally wounded, with a bullet through his neck. ‘It’s Danny,’ Parr said to his comrade, Jack Bailey. ‘He’s had it.’ ‘Christ almighty,’ said Bailey. He knew that Brotheridge’s wife, Margaret, was about to give birth to their first child.
As more British troops ran across the bridge, the German defenders leapt to their feet and ran for their lives. It marked the end of the battle: Bénouville Bridge – soon to be renamed Pegasus – was now in Allied hands. But their troubles were far from over, for they were deep inside enemy territory. It was still night when the Germans launched their first counter-attack. The growl of tanks could be heard approaching the western end of the bridge. Howard’s lads had only one gun capable of stopping these vehicles – an anti-tank mortar. This was placed in the hands of one of Parr’s capable young comrades, Charles ‘Wagger’ Thornton, who fired at a range of 30 yards. He scored a direct hit and the mortar exploded with unbelievable violence, burning the crew trapped inside. The other tanks beat a hasty retreat. For the next ten hours, Howard’s men would fight a constant battle against German counter-attacks from both the land and the canal.
The greatest danger came from German snipers firing at them from concealed positions in fields and trees. They were lethally accurate and began picking off men one by one. Wally Parr found a solution of sorts. He had been scouting through a German gun pit when he found the latest model of anti-tank gun, both powerful and deadly. The retort from the first shot flung him backwards and left him reeling. But once he worked out how to aim it, he began taking out individual snipers. At one point he spotted Germans hiding on the roof of a nearby water tower: they were using its elevated position as an observation post for sharp-shooters on the ground. Parr targeted them and fired his weapon. When he looked up, he saw the huge tower burst into an elevated waterfall as his shell went smack through the middle. The water sprayed far and wide and the German snipers were forced to abandon their position. He would later say that ‘it gave me the greatest personal delight to sit behind a captured German gun, firing German ammunition up German a***holes’.
THE FROGMAN MINESWEEPER
‘Bullets were pinging and clanging off me like rain’
Meanwhile, an equally extraordinary operation was unfolding in the chill waters just offshore from Gold Beach, one of the two Normandy beaches selected for the British landings. Here Wally Blanchard was undertaking a highly perilous mission. A 19-year-old frogman, Blanchard’s task was to locate all the underwater mines that the Germans had laid in the coastal shallows. He then had to detonate them in a series of controlled explosions. If this was not completed before dawn, hundreds of landing craft would be at risk of being blown apart.
Thanks to the bravery of Walter Blanchard and his comrades, Gold Beach is safe for USS LST-21 to unload British Army tanks
In an interview for the Imperial War Museum, Blanchard described his task that day. ‘There was a diver working below me with diving gear and I had snorkel gear. Our first, primary objective was to disable whatever mines or explosives we could lay our hands on, so you could get more landing craft in.’ Blanchard had to time the explosions to coincide with the pre-dawn naval bombardment. It was to be hoped that in the general confusion, the Germans would not realise that Allied frogmen were defusing a passage through the submerged minefield. He and his comrades slipped into the frigid water at about 3am on June 6: it was lonely work and physically gruelling. Blanchard spent more than an hour marking a passage to the shore with white tape attached to marker buoys, treading water as he did so. This passage marked the mine-free area through which the Allied landing craft could reach the shore without risk of being blown sky-high. His comrade Peter Jones remembered sea obstacles made of metal poles welded together and large concrete blocks ‘being covered in clusters of mines and some of them even had shells attached to them pointing seawards, so that if a landing barge ran into it, it would instantly be shelled’. They had to identify these mines and shells in the near darkness and then strap charges to each one.
Their work went according to plan: the mines were detonated at exactly the same time as the naval bombardment began.
At about 7am, Blanchard glanced back towards the mighty Allied armada anchored offshore. Hundreds of landing craft could be seen heading for the beach. Most made it safely through the cleared minefield, but one craft struck a mine that Blanchard and his team had missed. As it burst into a fireball, it went up in a fountain of blood and water.
According to Jones, it was a horrific sight. ‘At the top of this fountain the bodies and parts of bodies spread out like drops of water.’ Despite this tragedy, Blanchard and his team knew that their work had saved many hundreds of men from a similar fate.
As he swam back to the fleet anchored offshore, Blanchard was looking forward to a cup of piping hot tea. But it was not to be: he was told that the Americans were being massacred on neighbouring Omaha Beach and he was ordered to go there and provide support.
Blanchard vividly recalled the hell of Omaha. ‘The noise, the confusion, the stink were overpowering. You heard the cries and the screams – an awful lot of men, bodies, nudging you in the water.’ Blanchard began detonating mines, just as he had done on Gold Beach, with the aim of clearing safe passages for the American landing craft. But the situation was so desperate that he found himself fighting alongside the American troops trying to get ashore. Equipped with a Remington carbine, he helped them knock out German machine-gun nests from the tidal shallows. ‘I only thank my lucky stars that I knew how and when to use weapons.’ Blanchard nevertheless found himself in grave danger. ‘I was clipped more than once by bullets and ammunition. It was pinging and clanging off you like rain.’ He eventually battled his way ashore alongside the elite American Rangers. At one point during the fight to get off the beach, he found himself face to face with a terrified German conscript. ‘My Remington carbine was up his nose in an instant, but he was only trying to surrender.’ He was wounded and exhausted and seemed grateful to be taken prisoner by Blanchard, who took him to a Red Cross landing craft that had by now made it to the beach. As Blanchard turned to carry on fighting, the German gave him a treasured medal from his tunic pocket – a long-service police medal in the shape of an Iron Cross. Blanchard would continue to fight on Omaha Beach for much of the morning, supporting the Americans.
It would be many more hours before he got that cuppa.
THE LORD AND HIS FAITHFUL PIER
‘Piper, would you mind giving us a tune?’
Sword Beach had been selected as the landing zone for the elite commandos, led by one of the most flamboyant characters to participate in D-Day. Simon Fraser was better known as the 15th Lord Lovat, a colourful Highland chieftain. Just 33, he was commander of the 1st Special Service Brigade. Only Lovat would have the chutzpah to wear a monogrammed shirt under his battle dress. And only he would have the verve to go into battle with a Highland piper at his side. It was 8.40am when the commandos hit Sword Beach. Lovat’s bagpiper, Bill Millin, leapt off the ramp just behind his lordship and landed in waist-deep water. The commando in front of him was hit in the face by shrapnel.
Simon Fraser was better known as the 15th Lord Lovat, a colourful Highland chieftain
Lovat’s bagpiper, Bill Millin. As they hit Sword Beach, Lovat turned to Millin and asked him to play Road To The Isles on his bagpipes
Bill Millin disembarking. He would later learn from captured Germans that they didn’t shoot him because they thought he was mad
Lovat seemed immune to the danger, turning to Millin and asking him to play Road To The Isles on his bagpipes. The conversation was so bizarre and unexpected that Millin would later recall the exact words in interviews. ‘Would you mind giving us a tune?’ asked Lovat. ‘You must be joking, surely?’ said Millin. ‘What was that?’ asked Lovat. ‘Well what tune would you have in mind, sir?’ ‘How about Road To The Isles?’ ‘Now would you like me to walk up and down, sir?’ ‘Yes. That would be nice. Yes, walk up and down.’
As shellfire exploded and mortars thumped into the dunes, Millin strolled up and down the beach blasting his pipes. He would later learn from captured Germans that they didn’t shoot him because they thought he was mad.
Lovat was in his element, chuckling wildly as his men crushed the German defenders. No sooner was the beach secure than the commandos had another task: to relieve John Howard’s men still holding out against the Germans at Pegasus Bridge five miles away.
It was a highly dangerous advance, as Cliff Morris and his troop were to discover. ‘Suddenly we ran into trouble,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Heavy machine-gun fire from the woods sprayed around us, making us get down and pinning us to the ground.’ One of his lads, known as Young Adams, poked his head over the ditch. ‘He received a bullet through the neck and was grievously wounded.’ Bleeding profusely, he had to be abandoned once the German position had been knocked out. ‘Not a nice feeling,’ wrote Morris, ‘but orders had to be obeyed.’
As the commandos advanced from Sword, the British troops on Gold Beach, ten miles to the west, were in trouble. They were being targeted by hundreds of German defenders hidden in bunkers and machine-gun nests.
But help was at hand. As the exposed infantrymen struggled ashore, so did an army of mechanised vehicles: amphibious Shermans, Crocodile tanks (fitted with flame-throwers) and armoured bulldozers. Among the men driving these extraordinary vehicles was Robert Palmer, the 28-year-old commander of a Sexton self-propelled gun – a vehicle that looked like a tank without a turret.
As he advanced off the beach, a salvo of enemy mortars slammed into the five tanks in front of him, turning them to fireballs. In an interview conducted by one of the Imperial War Museum’s sound archivists in 2000, when Palmer was in his 80s, he recalled what happened next. ‘Sergeant!’ shouted one of his men who had spotted a concealed German bunker. ‘Quick! You’ve got the best gun nearest to that! Put it out of action!’
Palmer knew his vehicle would be next to be hit. He had no option but to attempt to destroy the bunker. His Sexton was a sluggish beast that weighed 35 tons, but if driven hard it could travel at more than 30mph. Now, he issued his men with a daring plan. ‘When I say “Go”, go. Put your foot down.’ His idea was to drive toward the bunker at top speed, before slamming the Sexton to a halt. The gun was to be swung to 45 degrees and fired. If they got the correct angle, they might just put a shell through the gun slot. Palmer revved the engine before charging forwards. As he approached the bunker, he hit the brakes and gave the order to fire. The first shell crashed on to the edge of the aperture. ‘A fraction high,’ yelled Palmer. ‘A fraction to the left.’ The second shot was a bullseye, passing directly inside the bunker and exploding with devastating consequences. ‘If we’d practised it all the morning, we couldn’t have got better than that,’ said Palmer. ‘It was marvellous.’
THE CHARGE OF THE BIKE BRIGADE
Among those advancing inland was a troop of commandos led by a London bruiser named Stan ‘Scotty’ Scott. He would later record an interview with the National Army Museum, in which he set out the vital role of his men. Equipped with fold-up bicycles, he gathered a group of his hardest-hitters and made a dash for Pegasus Bridge in a welter of fire – enacting their own version of the Tour de France. ‘There was five of us,’ he said, ‘like yellow jerseys going first.’ Other commandos were also racing towards the bridge, but Scott and his lads were out in front, cycling through the village of Le Port – still full of German snipers – before pressing onwards to the bridge.
Soon after, the main body of commandos arrived, with Lovat leading. It was a moment recalled by 19-year-old Denis Edwards in his diary. ‘It’s them! It’s the commandos!’ yelled Edwards. He and his comrades erupted into cheers. ‘Shouting and cheering, we all expressed our joy together,’ wrote Edwards, ‘yelling things like, “Now you Jerry b*******, you’ve got a real fight on your hands.” ’
Wally Parr emerged from his gun pit just in time to see the unmistakable figure of Lovat. ‘He was wearing a roll-neck white or cream pullover, a green beret and a pack on his back.’
Parr stepped into the roadway and clipped a salute. ‘Well done, well done,’ said Lovat, before asking after John Howard. Howard appeared seconds later and held out his hand, addressing Lovat with evident relief. ‘We are very pleased to see you, old boy,’ he said.
‘Aye,’ replied Lovat. ‘We are pleased to see you.’ Then he glanced at his watch. ‘Sorry, we are two-and-a-half minutes late.’
‘About bloody time!’ Howard said with a grin. Against all the odds, he had held this strategically vital bridge for over 12 hours.
In doing so, he and his heroic band of men had made a key contribution to the success of D-Day. By the end of that day, the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe had begun.
‘D-Day: The Soldiers’ Story’ by Giles Milton is out now in paperback (John Murray £8.99)
‘D-Day: Before And After’ by Mirrorpix is published by The History Press, priced £12.99.