Tuesday, 6 June 2017

June 6th - "The Longest Day"

Today, June 6th, marks the 73rd anniversary of the allied invasion, and subsequent liberation, of occupied Europe - D Day.

It was a Tuesday, like today, and the weather was miserable, just as it is in south-eastern England again today. 

England was on lock-down in the weeks leading up to the invasion - the largest seaborne assault in history, but everybody knew something was coming. People who lived through those days witnessed American and Canadian troops camped out everywhere, with tanks and other armoured vehicles streaming towards the coastal towns and harbours. Even by the standards of austere war-time Britain food became harder than ever to obtain, and train stations were often out of bounds to all but essential personnel. 

I well remember my grandmother telling me about the morning. Her memories of the war years were most profound; my father was nursed in an air raid shelter, with the sound of anti-aircraft fire a backdrop to everyday life.

In the early hours of June 6th, as she recalled, there were no air raid sirens, but the deafening noise of heavy aircraft overhead. As dawn broke the sky was black with aircraft heading east, and especially she remembered the strange sight of hundreds of gliders being towed by bombers (she was probably looking at Dakotas, not bombers).

The noise of aircraft did not let up until nightfall, and even then was punctuated by the familiar sound of the bombers on their way to wreak havoc on the enemy.

The landings began shortly after midnight. Official figures state that 75,216 British and Canadian troops, and 57,000 Americans landed by sea
HMS Belfast: The guns behind George fired the very first shots on D-Day.
that day, with 7,900 British and 15,500 Americans arriving from the air. Eventually, over one million troops were to be landed.

Casualties were horrendous; some 4,400 troops died in the initial onslaught, but by the end of the day the beachhead had been established, and the armies were moving inland.

French civilian casualties - and this is rarely discussed - were very high. As the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force pounded the coastal defences, entire villages were obliterated. 

The French city of Caen was bombed on the day, with the loss of at least 2,000 civilians.

But to warn the French would have been to betray the entire operation. De Gaulle et al had proven that they could not be trusted, and so the French were kept in the dark until the last minute - there was some time to mobilise the small number of resistance fighters in the area, but tragically no time to evacuate the civil population. 

The German forces were under strength, with very low morale. Many were low quality 'volunteers' from conquered territories, mainly from Russia, and, somewhat bizarrely, Mongolia.

The Battle of Normandy raged on until mid-July: Over 425,000 from both sides were to be killed, wounded, or went missing. 

And we moan about how we may have had a hard day.....  

HMS Belfast can be visited in the Pool of London, she is moored between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, on the south bank of the Thames. http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/hms-belfast

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