Thursday, 26 June 2014

Recollections of War: 70 Years Ago . . .

Archival Map showing Allied Positions on June 28,
just after the liberation of Cherbourg.  (Credit)

        70 years ago this day, the American Armed Forces, under the command of Major General J. Collins, finally captured Lieutenant General Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben, who had been leading the defense of the Port of Cherbourg, just north of Normandy, and the major opposition in the city ceased.
        The Battle for Cherbourg had begun eight days earlier with the American 4th, 9th and 79th Infantry Divisions heading north up the Cherbourg Peninsula.  Ordered by Collins, the main assault began on June 22, but progress was slow.  The German defenders were well situated in the city, but on the 25th Allied naval vessels bombarded the city, and with an effort, the 79th Infantry Div. captured Fort du Roule, and effective resistance ceased.
German prisoners being marched through the
streets of Cherbourg by American soldiers.
        Small pockets of Germans fought on until July 1, but with the liberation of Cherbourg, the Battle for Normandy could be continued without fear of a rear counter-attack.  The capture of the port also allowed the Allies, by the end of July, to use it for landing supplies and reinforcements, contributing to the final defeat of the German Army in France.

Written and Posted by William A Moore

Friday, 6 June 2014

Recollections of War: 6 June 1944 - An Overview of Overlord: Special Post!

This post is dedicated to those who did not return from the D-Day attack.

        Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944, was a remarkable achievement. It provided the springboard from which forces from Britain, the United States, and Canada, as well as men from other countries under Nazi domination could liberate Europe from the hand of the Third Reich. After an assessment of the options, among which included the narrow, yet heavily defended Pas de Calais, it was decided that an initial assault force of 150,000 men would land on the beaches of Normandy, in northern France.  Here the English Channel was wider than at the Pas de Calais, but Normandy was chosen because its beaches were close to English ports, were within range of Allied aircraft stationed in England, and had the French port of Cherbourg a few miles away.
        The final plan demanded that three airborne divisions be delivered to Normandy, to protect the flanks of the main invasion force of five divisions assaulting the beaches.  The details of this plan were worked on during the winter of 1943, and on 1 April 1944 heavy bombers began to soften up the German defences all along the Channel coast.

        Meanwhile, the British 6th Airborne Division was preparing for two major airborne assaults.  Seven bridges on the east plank of the landing beaches had to be captured: five had to be blown up, and two held until reinforcements could arrive.  This would prevent the German Army Group 'B' from counterattacking the Allied landings.  Two German Panzer units did attack the Allies landing on Juno and Sword Beaches, but were beaten off successfully.  The British 6th Airborne, totaling around 12,000 men, traveled in C-47 Dakota airplanes, like the one pictured below, or Horsa gliders.  (To learn more about the Horsa gliders and their role in the invasion, see my film, Operation Deadstick.)
An RAF Dakota, which dropped paratroopers on D-Day
        In the early hours of 6 June 1944, two American and one British airborne division began landing in Normandy.  The 13,000 strong American Airborne force landed on the west side of the Allied landings, south of the Cherbourg peninsula.  It encountered some problems, including thick cloud and heavy German anti-aircraft fire, but in spite of many casualties, the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions captured their objectives by the end of D-Day.
        As the American 82nd and 101st were traveling towards their objectives, the British 6th Airborne Division was minutes away from battle.  The first gliders, with Major John Howard's Company of the Oxforshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, landed near the Caen Canal at 00:16hrs (sixteen minutes past midnight) and the rest quickly followed.  After a short but fierce fire-fight the bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River were captured, and a few minutes later the signal was received that the other five bridges over the river Dives were blown up.  Then the rest of the 6th Airborne gathered themselves together and prepared to defend the captured territory.

        In the mean time, the beach assault troops, packed into their landing craft and supported by a huge number and variety of naval vessels and aircraft, approached the Normandy coast.  After a ferocious bombardment by many warships of the beach defences, known as Hitler's Atlantic Wall, the signal was received to move in.  The beaches were attacked at different times due to the tide, beginning at 04.55 hours with an assault in the American sector at what had been code-named 'Utah' beach.  Unfortunately some of their 'swimming tanks', which were Sherman tanks fitted with heavy canvas inflatable skirts so they could float and propellers for propulsion, sank due to their being launched too far from the shore and being swamped by the waves.
American Troops Landing on Utah Beach
The second landing took place on the American 'Omaha' beach, which had the most dead and injured of the day at around 3000 men.  Then came the Anglo-Canadian assaults on 'Gold' and then 'Juno' beaches, before the British hit 'Sword' beach at 07.25 hours.  A gallant attack by the 3rd Canadian Division on Juno Beach resulted in a firm foothold in Normandy, but with a cost of 946 casualties.

        The men who were to reinforce the airborne troops at Pegasus Bridge were men of Lord Lovat's Brigade who landed early on D-Day on Sword Beach.  Within twenty-four hours of the invasion, they had teamed up with Major Howard's forces at Pegasus Bridge.  Forty-eight hours later, the main bulk of the assault forces had firmly established a foothold on Fortress Europe, and the beginning of the end of WWII had come.

        The landings were a great success, although there were heavy casualties on Omaha Beach and the British failed to take Caen as planned. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, 150,000 men had managed to get ashore and a firm foothold had been established for the cost of 2,500 dead.
Canadian Forces Landing on Juno Beach
        The cost in life would have been far higher if it had not been for the determined attack and defense by the British 6th Airborne Forces on the bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River, which prevented what might have been a successful German counterattack.  I believe it is one of the most heroic and marvelous events in World War II history, and it gives great honour to the history of the British Armed Forces.

        When I was over in Europe last summer, I had the great pleasure of being able to go to Juno Beach, and actually walked along the same stretch as is shown in the picture just above.  It was a great reminder of the sacrifice, heroism, and honour that is being commemorated this 70th Anniversary of D-Day.

Written and Posted by William A Moore

        Don't forget to watch the film, Operation Deadstick, at this link: Operation Deadstick: The Movie.

        Most of the information for this short history of D-Day was taken from the books: Dawn of D-Day, by David Howarth; The Normandy Landings, by Derek Blizard; and from the BBC History website.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

"Operation Deadstick: The Airborne Attack on Pegasus Bridge" is Released

Friends and Readers of this blog:
       I am pleased to announce that my film, Operation Deadstick, has been released to the public, and can be watched below!  To find out more about the history of D-Day and Operation Deadstick see the last post on this blog.  I hope you enjoy this film, and the history it recounts!

Directed and Produced by William A Moore

Monday, 2 June 2014

Recollections of War: Operation Deadstick: The Story

        As many of my readers will no doubt know, this year, 2014, is the 70th Anniversary of the greatest battle fought during World War Two: the Invasion of Europe through Normandy, widely known as D-Day.
        I have a great interest in this history, and especially in one particular action fought on D-Day that proved to be, in the words of Air-Vice Marshal Leigh-Mallory:  "[O]ne of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war."  That "flying achievement" was the British 6th Airborne's attack on Pegasus Bridge.  This is the story.

Operation Deadstick: Pegasus Bridge – D–Day, June 6, 1944

            In the dark cloudy sky above the lush pastureland of Normandy, at fifteen minutes past midnight on June 6, 1944, the first of the glider pilots cast off from their tugs, and drifted down in silence towards their objectives.  Before dawn the British 6th Airborne Division had to win and hold at all costs an area of twenty-five square miles until reinforcements could arrive.  This task called for speed and good timing, and for new and daring techniques.  The 6th Airborne was to seize seven bridges: five over the River Dives and two over the Caen Canal and River Orne respectively.  This is the story of the airborne assault on Pegasus Bridge – the bridge over the Caen Canal. 
            The name of the operation was Deadstick; the objective: a lift bridge over the Caen Canal; the men: three platoons or 160 men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and their leader, Major John Howard; the result: Operation Deadstick completely successful.
            On the evening of June 5th, Howard and his men ate their last meal, for a while, in the mess of their quarters at their airbase in England.  Everyone then finished their personal duties and checked their kit one last time – in less than five hours they would hopefully be in possession of the canal bridge.  At 22:30hrs Howard ordered his men to their gliders, following himself.  Within 20 minutes they were airborne, the three large Horsa gliders being towed by three Halifax bombers. 
            On the way over to Normandy the men had plenty of time to think.  Howard thought about his family – he had a pretty wife named Joy, and two children all of whom were, at that moment, unaware of what he was doing.  At the controls of the glider was Howard’s friend, Staff Sergeant Wallwork of the Glider Pilot Regiment.  The glider pilots were trained to fight as well as fly, and when they landed the gliders would form up into their own platoon and fight along with the regular troops.  During the last few weeks before the operation, Wallwork had done the most to allay any reservations Howard had about the operation.  For example, on one of the latest reconnaissance photos strange dots had appeared on the landing zones which Howard had been told were for anti-glider posts to impede glider landings.  “That’s just what we needed,” Wallwork had said. “We’ll land between the posts.  The posts will break the wings off and slow us down, and we shan’t hit the bridge so hard.”  It was impossible not to trust a pilot who could say that.
            Yet Howard felt he may have asked for the impossible from his experienced pilots.  He had told them he wanted the first glider, which he was in, to stop with its nose breaching the wire defences, and the others to halt five yards to the right and ten yards behind.  He had no idea how that could be achieved, but Wallwork made light of the request and the troops had caught the mood of confidence. 
            All these thoughts raced through Howard’s mind, and similar ones probably did the same in those traveling in the glider with him.  But the one thought that stayed uppermost was this: did the Germans know that they were coming, and would they make it through their jobs in one piece?
            At 12:16, in the wee hours of the morning of June 6, 1944, Wallwork turned halfway ‘round in his seat, and, yelling above the roar of wind, shouted, “Casting off!”  Howard called for silence; the glider checked its speed, the sound of the wind died to a whining hiss; and each man ran over what he was to do when they landed.  Howard and his second in command, Lt. Brotheridge opened the forward door, and peering out, Howard could see the gleaming stripe of the Caen Canal slowly wending its way across the countryside.  “Hold tight,” Wallwork shouted.
            The men in the glider lifted up their feet and locked arms with each other.  Then it came.  At ninety miles an hour the glider tore into the earth and careened across the tiny field with a noise like thunder as timber cracked and split and smashed itself to pieces.  The stunning noises and shocks went on for a count of seconds – and then suddenly for a split second everything was perfectly silent and still.  The time was 12:21.  Even in the stunned silence the men’s training came into action.  Howard was out the broken wreck of a door, shaking himself for broken bones before he knew what he was doing.  He looked up.  There, standing out against the night sky, right where it should be was the bridge. 
            As Howard and his men ran for the bridge, he heard a crash behind him, and then another.  It was the two other gliders coming in.  Soon, above the noise of battle, he heard his other two platoons running up.  The action had already begun around the bridge – which they had rehearsed numerous times on bridges all over England.  A smoke-bomb was thrown at the pillbox by the bridge.  A machine gun opened fire, but one man ran forward and dropped a grenade through the gun port, and the platoon scrambled across the wire which the glider had demolished, up an embankment and onto the road.  They ran across the bridge, firing their weapons from the hip, overcoming the pillbox on the other side, and neutralizing all opposition.
            Within ten minutes it was all over.  The garrison of Germans came out from their barracks and surrendered; the engineers searched for and disconnected the demolition wiring, while the rest of the men systematically cleared the houses on both sides of the bridge.  It was the first British landing, and victory, on D-Day.

            That is the story of Operation Deadstick, the story of Major John Howard and his company of ‘Ox and Bucks’ – the story of one of the greatest airborne landings and victories in all of British history.

Written and Posted by William A Moore