Saturday, June 13, 2009


Well, it might be summer in the rest of the northern hemisphere, but here in Southern Alberta, things are just starting to finally grow! Waterton Lakes National Park

Monday, June 8, 2009

June 6 1944 | Normandy, France: D-Day

65 years ago (+one day...), Dwight D. Eisenhower let the famous D-Day invasion of allied forces on the beaches of Northern France. D-Day was the beginning of Operation Overlord, the massive campaign that took years to plan and organize and prepare for, and which lead to the defeat of Nazi Germany on the European continent.

I don't claim to know tons and tons about this, but it is something that interests me greatly, and I am gradually reading history books (John Keegan's "Six Armies in Normandy" is my current read on this topic...) and other accounts of these events.

A little over a year ago I was able to go on a three week trip to Europe, mainly to tour World War II sites in Northern France. We stayed in a hotel right on the water in Arromanches, France, the town where the famous Mulberry Harbour A (B, the American Harbour set up at Omaha Beach, was destroyed in a storm on 19 June, 1944, only 10 days after being set up) was set up just three days after D-Day. This harbour was designed to last 3 months, just long enough to unload the heavy equipment needed for the invasion force. The harbour was used heavily for 8 months, and remained semi-active for some time after. In the 10 months following D-Day, it was used to land over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and over 4 million tonnes of supplies to reinforce the efforts in France.

A complete Mulberry harbour was constructed out of 600,000 tons of concrete between 33 jetties, and had 10 miles (15 km) of floating roadways to land men and vehicles on the beach. This artificial harbor, which became known as Port Winston, is commonly upheld as one of the best examples of military engineering (according to Wikipedia...). Its remains are still visible today from the beaches at Arromanches, and we walked out to them several times while there. They are basically huge cement boats that were designed to float across the English Channel, then be filled with water and sunk, creating a break-tide around the harbour. This wall of sunken-cement "barges" extends several miles into the ocean from the beach on both sides, and then these two arms are connected, forming a giant "C" around the beach, closing it in from rough seas... Then Giant floating barges were anchored and had roads on top of them leading from the beach to giant floating docks where the huge ocean ships would dock. There were over 10 miles of these floating roads in the harbour. All-in-all, the harbour had the same capacity as Port Dover, a HUGE port in Dover, England. And all this was set up in just three days, as it was fully engineered and constructed in England, then towed by boat.

Here are some pictures showing what remains of the harbour. Mainly you can still see an outline of the breakwater circling the beach, and when the tide is low there are several of the floating caissons that held up the dock and roadways to them.

Here you can see the beautiful town of Arromanches, France, with parts of the breakwater in the distance, and people walking around several of the "Phoenix" and "Whale" caissons left over from the roads leading out to the floating docks.

A lonely bunker or storage depot overlooking the remains of the Mulberry Harbour:

One of the "Phoenix" Caissons being checked out by my dad and brother at low tide:

Not 100% sure, but I think these are "Whale" caissons, used to hold up the roadways out to the "Phoenix" caissons which supported the main docks:

Here are a few pictures I found online of the Mulberry Harbour at the time it was in operation to give a better idea of what it was like:

Pointe du Hoc:

In the interest of time and laziness I will copy paste a bit from the Wikipedia article about Pointe du Hoc.
Pointe du Hoc is a clifftop location on the coast of Normandy in northern France. It lies 4 miles west of Omaha Beach, and stands on 100 ft tall cliffs overlooking the sea. It was a point of attack by the United States Army Ranger Assault Group during Operation Overlord in World War II.

The Germans had built, as part of the Atlantic Wall, six casemates (basically huge bunkers) to house a battery of captured French 155mm guns. With Pointe Du Hoc situated between Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east, these guns threatened Allied landings on both beaches, risking heavy casualties in the landing forces. Although there were several bombardments from the air and by naval guns, intelligence reports assumed that the fortifications were too strong, and would also require attack by ground forces. The U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion was therefore given the task of destroying the strongpoint early on D-Day.

 As you can see from the following pictures, the cliffs alone posed a formidable threat, as they were tall, shear, and had lots of barbed wire and enemy soldiers at the top.  The 225 soldiers of the landing scaled the cliffs using grapples, ropes, and rope ladders, all while under heavy fire.

I learned something very interesting while doing some quick research to refresh my memory and write this post.  The mission of the assaulting Ranger Battalion was to destroy the big guns placed on Pointe du Hoc by the Germans.  When they finally made it to the top of the cliffs, they found that the guns had actually been removed already.  While reading about it, and while there, I was under the impression that this came as a surprise to the Rangers, and that their mission had really been in vain.

However, according to good ol' Wikipedia, the allied forces were informed that the guns had been moved just days before (June 4), and decided to go ahead with the mission anyways.  Here is another quote from Wiki land.   I'll have to research this more to see if it checks out, but it seems legit.

Prior to the attack, the guns were moved approximately 1 mile away. However, the concrete fortifications were intact, and would still present a major threat to the landings if they were occupied by artillery forward observers. The Ranger Battalion commanders and executive officers knew the guns had moved, but the rest of the Rangers were not informed prior to the attack. The popular perception that the guns were "missing" on D-Day may be attributed to this decision not to inform the troops prior to the attack.

Major Cleveland A. Lytle was to command three companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion in the assault at Point du Hoc. During a briefing he heard that Free French sources reported the guns thought to be there had been removed. Lytle became quite vocal that the assault would be unnecessary and suicidal and was relieved of his command at the last minute by Provisional Ranger Force commander Rudder.  Rudder felt that Lytle could not convicingly lead a force with a mission that he did not believe in.  Lytle was later transferred to the 90th Infantry Division where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Upon reaching the fortifications, most of the Rangers learned for the first time that the main objective of the assault, the artillery battery, had been moved out of position, possibly as a result of air attacks during the buildup to the invasion. It is said that German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel gave the order to move the battery since he had recently been placed in charge of the coastal defenses of Normandy. Removal of the guns had actually been completed on June 4, 1944, but poor weather conditions prior to the invasion limited a final reconnaissance effort which would have revealed the guns' removal. The Rangers regrouped at the top of the cliffs, and a small patrol went off in search of the guns. This patrol found the guns nearby and destroyed them with thermite grenades. The new battery location inland was sited solely for Utah beach.

Interesting stuff.  So if the guns had not been destroyed by the Rangers, they still would have posed a threat to Utah Beach, and therefore the whole thing was not a waste, but a success.

The center post visable below is where one of the huge guns had been mounted:

Perhaps I will look for a picture that shows the destruction of the area better.  The entire hilltop was shelled by destroyers, leaving craters that are easily 20 feet deep and 40 or 50 feet across.

Here are some pictures of what similar gun emplacements looked like.  This particular emplacement, at Longues-sur-Mer, France, was part of Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" defense network, and consisted of four 115mm batteries.  They could fire accurately up to 13 miles, and were a serious problem for the ships of the invasion.  Three of the four guns at this battery were dissabled by British ships, and the last was captured by infantry soldiers late in the day on June 6, 1944.  This battery is the only one left intact in the entire Normandy area, and was quite a site to see.  The barrel obviously has an inner diameter of 15 cm, and the barrel was probably almost 20 feet long.  Quite the guns...

Here are a few random pictures of differently landing craft used in the D-Day Invasion:

Another element of the invasion:  The Glider Infantry

The Glider Infantry were towed in wooden gliders by tug-planes, and then would glide silently to a landing at their targets.  I had never heard of this part of the Airborne component of Operation Overloard, Operation Neptune.  Over 500 gliders in total were used in the operation.  The first wave of over 200 gliders landed only hours after the first paratroopers landed behind enemy lines.  One of the most successful and well known Glider assault was when Horsa gliders delivered troops who seized vital bridges over the River Orne.  The following pictures are from a museum at that location.

The gliders were made completely from wood.  I was going to say this helped them not be visible on Radar, but then I'm not too sure radar played a part in WWII?  Its too late at night...  Probably wood was available and cheap.  In any case, they were wood.  If I remember correctly, the landing gear was only strapped on or otherwise detachable, and would stay on the runway as the gliders took off.  They would land on their bellies.  This is a replica of the Horsa gliders.  They have an original Horsa glider that landed on D-Day in a building nearby.

The Gliders had several problems, including a combination of wind and poor visability, which led to a number of them crashing or being lost.  Another problem resulted from their light wood construction.  Small-arms fire could rip through the floor and strike the soldiers inside as the gliders flew over enemy infantry.  Anti-aircraft guns like the one below posed even greater problems.

And finally, what would a WWII/Normandy post be without a few pictures of tanks?!

Well, that took a lot longer than I thought it would, and now it is the 7th, and the post is 2 days late...