The Beginning of the End

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you now.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower

Nothing felt real until the ramps first dropped. All of the training exercises and months of preparation we had done led up to that one moment. Only this time it was real. There were real people shooting back, with real guns, real bullets and real consequences. This was a day filled with blood, tears, fear and hate. Our mission was to liberate the beaches. But none of us aboard the landing crafts knew exactly what to expect. We had no idea at the time, but we were all apart of something so much bigger. This was it. This was the beginning of the end. This was D-Day.[1]

As we clutched our waterproofed Lee Enfield Mark 1 bolt action rifles we each jumped into the frigid waters one by one.[2]My adrenaline was pumping so hard, that I did not even take note of the temperature at first. The forty pounds of my equipment had immediately began to tug me farther down, and I struggled to resurface. I remember thinking to myself that I was going to drown before I even had a chance to get shot. We were supposed to take over the beach quickly, and being the first soldiers to hit it, we carried more supplies. We each had our ordinary equipment, each a shovel or pick, ammo, grenades, rations, first aid, rain coats, gas mask.[3] But now none of these seemed important to have. The lifesaving tools I needed quickly became the means of my demise.

British soldiers exiting the landing crafts, invading the beaches.
British soldiers exiting landing craft

We were all equipped to last three days each unassisted[4]. But what would I need three days for if I could not survive the first. I threw off my pack and surfaced to see what I can imagine hell to be. Wet, cold, and sandy. As we rode across the English Channel just as the sun began to break the darkness of the morning, we could not have imagined the darkness we would soon come face to face with.[5] Our vision coming into the coast of what we named Sword beach was obstructed with the mist from the dull morning.[6]  Only now I could see the land for the first time. I could now make out the one hundred foot tall gunnery towers. I could see the thousands of hedgehogs, three daunting steel crossed steel beams all five foot tall, we would soon attempt to navigate. I saw the hundreds of mines that were planted, exploding and blowing my brothers into pieces.[7] The tach-a-tach-a-tach of enemy machine guns cutting down soldiers like a blade through butter. And I saw the beach. The miles of exposed sand we would be running acrossed, trying to dodge and duck our way to safety. But we pushed forward.

We quickly lost many good men. As one man fell, another replaced him in the ranks. How I made it to the beach in one piece, I am not sure. I just remember running. For a few brief minutes it took, it felt like an eternity. Once we finally reached the beach, we all dispersed and began to lay low. As if by instinct, we all began to dig. Trying to create as much cover as we could with our picks and shovels. A mortar landed twenty feet from my position. I was knocked on my ass, and there I laid face down in the sand. The black Palm Olive cream we had used to blacken our faces now ran down my face.[8]  All mixed along with the salt water and sand that had already began to burn my eyes, now intensified.

For the next few moments, I laid still. Nothing happened except the music of the guns and the whizz of occasional bullets overhead, with the all too familiar explosions of mortar bombs mixed with the background noise of our own heavy gun fire. I heard “heavy opposition, pushing on” and “heavy casualties, pushing on” repeated over the radio. But the most painful sounds of all way the shrieks and cries for “help.” The muffled, gurgle, helpless screams still haunt me in my sleep.

AMERICAN SOLDIER

Only now did I look behind me. As I began to recognize the faces that floated bloodied in the waters, I considered myself very fortunate. I thought briefly of towing a body out of the waters. And as I thought, I truly wanted to do it. With every ounce in my soul I wanted to pull the body out of the waters. But he looked to be dead. In actuality, I simply had no time. Under our orders, we could not help them.[9] It was our job to push on, so we did.

As I staggered further in land I came across a dilapidated tank and hid behind it for shelter. There I saw many men lay still behind it as well. I hollered at them in hopes to get a crew together to push forward. Soon I realized many of them were either dead or wounded. In that moment I couldn’t help but wonder why everyone turns yellow when they get hit. Most of these men were hurt beyond repair. Many would die in that very location, covered in mud, blood and sand. I saw my friend Dicky. He was shot through the shoulder, about five yards away, and I crawled over to him. We were all scared. If anyone says anything different they were either a very good liar or they weren’t actually there.

I thought back to just the day before, when we were anchored off the coast of England, and how everything seemed so much safer when we were surrounded by the great ships and watercrafts in our fleet. How we felt unafraid, nearly invincible. How  earlier that afternoon, we piled into buses to be taken to the harbor. How cheerful we all were, making jokes and cheering at every girl we may pass on the streets. Just one day prior, anyone who saw us might have thought we were headed to the pub, had it not been for our guns and uniforms. Oh, how confident and optimistic we were. Some men were looking forward to this operation. I myself was curious just how different reality would be from our work done in practice drills.

I am thankful the weather was too poor yesterday. The storm that had come had delayed our mission twenty four hours.[10] Now, seeing my friends lay dead in the sand, I am thankful only one day prior, we shared a laugh. The terrified and bloodied faces that looked back at me were not the people I remembered. These were near strangers. I tried my best to sort out the dead, wounded, and wounded but capable. Once I had enough able bodied men, we began to devise a plan to make it farther inland.

overlord

Things were a lot better now that we had received more reinforcements. After a while, we had enough men that we outnumbered the Jerry’s.[11] We had finally defeated the gun towers than had done so much damage to not only the bodies, but our minds as well. With the extra men, we began to make swift work of the remaining beach. After this, having completed our final objectives. Only then we finally began to collect ourselves. We accounted for all the Jerry prisoners we had captured. Many surrendering with their hands up while we approached their positions.

Once we had a strong command of the beach, we moved on. Deeper in land. Now we faced enemies laced within a woods on the other side of a main road. This was a dangerous maneuver. Mortar strikes were constant, and the Jerrys were locked into our position. We began to lose many men quickly. Attempting to navigate through the thick woods was terrifying. I soon was trapped. Shots ringing, cutting down the brush. With all the mangled roots and trees, we could not dig into the hard ground. I cannot tell you how many were wounded and killed there. Bombs were bursting non stop. We had no choice but to retreat.

Earlier in the day, the British Royal Air Force had sent in multiple gliders behind enemy lines.[12] These soldiers went in and destroyed main service roads, so once we came in from the sea the Jerry’s had nowhere to run. These old boys were much more successful taking them out from behind. Even still, we lost many good men.

We did a head count and the casualties were great. Many men went unaccounted for. Men were lost around the beach, we searched for survivors, but few were to come by. Many of us had been separated from one another in the battle. In these moments, searching for my friends, I began to pray they were lost on the beach, searching for us as hard we were looking for them. Many of my friends died on that beach. I was lucky.

d-day-invasion-omaha-buildup

Finally, with the beach secure, and all the Germans either killed or captured, we were able to pull back. Now, we all attempted to settle in for the night. Apart from a bar of chocolate and half the remaining contents of my whisky flask I had no time to eat nor drink much of anything for a very uncomfortably long while. While we laid through the night, not one of us got much of any sleep. Nerves were high and after all we had seen, how could we sleep?

We laid there for hours, never unsure of whether or not we were being watched. W then began to talk. We began to feel human. If only for a brief amount of time. We talked about why we were here, reassuring one another every act we had committed today was justified. How what we needed to do was in no comparison to what had already been done by the Nazi swine. We all went around, introducing ourselves to the ones we had not yet met. Funny to think that there were strangers still among us, even though everything we had been through had brought us all so close. And so when it was my turn to speak, I told my story.

I spoke of how I lived a simple English life prior to the war. I told of how I was a carpenter just like my father before me. I explained my dreams, and my aspirations to own my own business, separate from the families. But after France fell and we evacuated Dunkirk in May 1940, it seemed as though the world may end.[13] This was around the time that I decided I needed to do my part to try and help to save it. What I did not mention was how my mother cried when I joined. How she begged my not to go. How my older brother had been killed in the war just two short years ago. How although proud, I could see the pain in my father’s eyes as I walked out the door for what could be the last time.

The things I saw that day changed my life. We went the next day and the day after that, digging in, and going farther and farther in land. Finally after five grueling days we had completed the mission, and all five beaches were liberate of German forces. I am proud that I had played my part in the operation.

locals
Men look over fallen soldiers on the beaches

Liberating the fortified French beaches was never going to be an easy task. But before June 6th 1944, so much had been put in place to ensure Operation Overlord would be a success.[14] Once the Americans joined the fight of the free world, we began to see more much needed resources available. That was a huge lift in spirits. But the fact remained, Hitler’s Atlantic wall was still in place and it was a daunting and treacherous death trap.[15] We brought in more men, more vehicles and more supplies. And so little by little we continued marching across France. Killing or capturing every last Jerry in our way. Finally by August, Paris was officially liberated. They said the actioned we did had turned tide in the war. But even after Normandy the war was far from over.

In the end, we were participants in the largest amphibious invasion ever. Until that day, an invading army had not crossed the english channel since 1688. But we did it. What we accomplished saved countless lives. May 8th of 1945 marked the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, and marked the ending of the second great war. Although the war was never truly over. The things we did and saw still stay with me.. War is just that. War. Fighting so intense we achieved our day five goal on the fortieth day. For it still lives on in each and every one of us. Not a day goes by that I do not think of that day. The things the things I saw, what I had to do, and brothers that died beside me. But I am lucky, for I very well could be one of them. Only now, I live to tell our story, to ensure we shall not be forgotten. That D-Day will never be forgotten.

[1] D-Day refers to Operation Overlord, an Allied offensive in World War II, in which US, British, and Canadian forces stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. (History.com Staff. “D-Day.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.)

[2] These are the objects described within letters from soldiers fought in D-Day. (“Letters from D-day.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2004. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.)

[3] This is a list of some of the equipment issued to soldiers who fought in D-Day. (“Letters from D-day.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2004. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.) (“D-Day Battle Gear.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.)

[4] The mission was expected to be met with light opposition, so each soldier was given three days rations. (History.com Staff. “D-Day.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.)

[5] The fleet sailed from England throughout the night and arrived at dawn on June 6th 1944. (History.com Staff. “D-Day.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.)

[6] Each of the five beaches of Northern France were given a nickname and assigned to either the British, US, Canadian troops. Sword beach was the main beach the British attacked. )History.com Staff. “D-Day.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.)

[7] The beaches were heavily fortified to prevent an allied attack (History.com Staff. “D-Day.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.)

[8] Spoilers covered their faces in face paint for intimidation and camouflage. (“Letters from D-day.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2004. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.)

[9] Soldiers were told not to help one another, and strictly keep moving forward. (“Letters from D-day.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2004. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.)

[10] The invasion of Northern France was first scheduled for June 5th, 1944; although it was delayed one day due to weather concerns and visibility. (History.com Staff. “D-Day.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.)

[11] British Allied soldiers would often refer to German Nazi’s as Jerrys (“Letters from D-day.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2004. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.)

[12] As part of the invasion plan, Paratroopers and gliders were sent at dawn to destroy any means of escape inland. This included service roads, main roads and bridges. (“D-Day Deception.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2017. )

[13] France was overtaken by the Germans on the 25th of June 1940. The German forces took over the entire country in 46 days, resulting in the French surrender. (History.com Staff. “D-Day.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 01 Mar. 2017)

[14] This was the codename given to the invasion of Northern France, and the liberation of the beaches.(“D-Day Deception.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.)

[15] The Atlantic wall was what Nazi Germany had called their fortification of the beaches of North West France. Hitler assigned German Commander Rommel to finish the 2,400 mile longfort fed border, filled with bunkers, mines and traps. (History.com Staff. “D-Day.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.)

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