Portsmouth, England 1944
FIRST ENGLISHWOMAN: All was quiet. The ships were gone. The planes were gone. The roads were empty, the tanks were gone. And all these hundreds of Americans and that that had been milling 'round our city were gone. And then this silence and the waiting.
NARRATOR: On the evening of June 6, 1944, over five thousand ships carrying 150,000 soldiers, the greatest armada ever assembled, left southern England for the invasion of Normandy.
In the morning, across the English Channel, a great battle would begin for the liberation of Europe.
England, the spring of 1943. The American ships began to arrive in great numbers. Some had seen combat in North Africa and Sicily, but most were untested, fresh from the training camps of North America. They were here to join an Allied army to become part of the largest invasion force in history. Seeing them, the British were encouraged by their numbers. The island had been at war for four long years and now the Americans had arrived.
FIRST ENGLISHMAN: The war had been going since '39.
FIRST AMERICAN: They were tired. Their soldiers had been fighting a very long and difficult war.
NARRATOR: It did not take long for a visiting American to become aware of the nearness of war.
SECOND ENGLISHMAN: The most devastating effect was probably on the services who were away, came on leave and no house, no wife, no children, and they hadn't been told.
NARRATOR: On January 16, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived in England to assume supreme command of the Allied expeditionary forces. He had not led troops to combat, but he possessed an extraordinary talent for planning and military diplomacy.
THIRD ENGLISHMAN: He's really chairman of this great Allied committee, marvelous at that.
NARRATOR: His initial move was to appoint his deputies, all British, but he was careful to keep by his side his most trusted field commander, the American General Omar M. Bradley, a solid, able, self-effacing soldier.
THIRD ENGLISHMAN: If you look at the team of extrovert prima donnas he was trying to run, the way he kept them all together was quite an astonishing thing to-- I mean, you couldn't have a more prima donna-ish man than Field Marshal Montgomery -- a bloody good soldier, but he was a very difficult man.
NARRATOR: Eisenhower faced a task of magnitude and hazard never previously attempted. Weapon for weapon, tank for tank, save transport and artillery, the Germans outclassed his army, an army he would have to move up to 100 miles across the English Channel and storm a heavily fortified coastline. Added to this, he would have to endure a difficult British commander and keep a balanced mind toward his real adversary.
The man the Allied forces would have to face on the beaches of Normandy was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, one of the most brilliant generals of the war. In December of 1943, he was appointed by Hitler to command German army units in northern France, to hurl back the Allies if they landed there. Inspecting the huge fortifications at Calais less than 30 miles across the English Channel from Britain, he found the defenses formidable. The beaches of Normandy, however, were a different matter. The high tides and treacherous cliffs were to his advantage, but the guns and fortifications at Normandy were too few and far between. Still, Normandy was 70 miles from Britain, and moving an army that distance over difficult seas implied great risks.
GERMAN: The only hope that Rommel had -- and he knew it -- was to have a force ready to move immediately towards the spot where anybody landed. He knew that.
NARRATOR: [voice-over] He immediately ordered the emplacement of tens of thousands of underwater obstacles, and though he intended to inflict heavy casualties on the landing craft, he was convinced success lay in attacking the enemy with armor on the beaches.
Beaches in England, Scotland and Wales similar to those in Normandy were found for training. Eisenhower and Bradley chose the 29th, 4th and 1st Infantry Divisions to make the initial assault.
SECOND AMERICAN: There were three divisions that would wage the fight for the first thousand yards.
NARRATOR: Only one, the 1st Division, had ever been in combat. In other parts of Britain, Ranger units trained to destroy coastal gun positions.
THIRD AMERICAN: We climbed all the cliffs of southeast and southwest England.
FOURTH AMERICAN: We climbed a lot of cliffs.
THIRD AMERICAN: We lost some good men.
NARRATOR: The untried American 101st and the veteran 82nd Airborne were chosen, with the English 6th Airborne, to be the first troops to land in the invasion.
THIRD ENGLISHMAN: They were first-class, those 82nd Airborne. They were spot on.
NARRATOR: Much of the success of the first day would depend on the skill and bravery of small groups of men able to take things into their own hands, but there was no mistaking where the advantage of the Allies lay.
FOURTH AMERICAN: We just had equipment running out of our ears. Some of it wasn't as good as the German, but, boy, we had plenty of it. Half of England was under tarps. We like to sank that island. We had more Americans there than they had British, and they were everywhere.
FIFTH AMERICAN: And we liked each other and really cared about each other. It's a wonderful counterforce to the terror of being alone in battle.
NARRATOR: The man alone in Britain in the spring of 1944 was General George S. Patton. He had been assigned to lead an army that did not exist.
SIXTH AMERICAN: And Patton was furious. Patton was just livid.
NARRATOR: Patton was in command of a fictitious army intended to deceive the Germans into believing it was going to invade France at Calais, the shortest distance from Britain, less than 30 miles across the channel from Dover.
SEVENTH AMERICAN: They actually moved units of a phantom army all 'round England without moving anything.
FOURTH ENGLISHMAN: We'd recorded the sound of tanks moving along, the squeaking noises. Our tanks were absolutely marvelous. They were splendid. Of course, hundreds of lives were depending on this.
NARRATOR: The Patton deception worked in great part because of what the British had accomplished earlier in the war. Behind Blechley House, a Victorian mansion north of London, stood Hut 6. Here a team of British and American cryptographers deciphered coded messages -- codes the Germans believed unbreakable.
FIFTH ENGLISHMAN: They never suspected it. We were doing an enormous amount of eavesdropping. We could quite often deliver a signal to Eisenhower, Bradley or whoever within two and a half hours of the time the Germans had sent it up.
SIXTH ENGLISHMAN: We had indications where the enemy was, what he was doing, the reaction of Hitler to various things and the arguments going on. We knew almost exactly what they were doing.
NARRATOR: But the Germans were doing things on the Norman beaches the Allies knew little about, and Allied commandos, some of them foreign nationals, were put ashore at night to find out.
SEVENTH ENGLISHMAN: We did the one reconnaissance on the English beach and then we did this on Omaha Beach, getting a closer view of what the defenses are looking like. The crucial thing was to check this beach's bearing capacity.
NARRATOR: They took infrared pictures while avoiding German patrols.
HUNGARIAN: If one was captured and they discover that you're Hungarian, they hang you on the spot, so that's why I always pretended to be a Welshman.
SEVENTH ENGLISHMAN: We then had to ease our way out, looking as much like seals as possible.
NARRATOR: Equally important was the information radioed to Britain at personal risk by the Maquis, the free French who were being supplied by the Allies at night.
EIGHTH ENGLISHMAN: The Maquis would put three lights out and they would stand at the downwind end, usually, and they'd flash the letter of the day, and if they flashed the correct letter, you would drop.
NARRATOR: In the early spring of 1944, orders went out to the Allied airfields to target the French railroads and transportation system, to cut off the Germans at the French beaches from supplies and reinforcements. For 18 months, Allied bombers had concentrated on destroying German industry, often suffering heavy losses. Now the heavy bombers joined the mediums in missions against specific targets in France in direct support of the coming invasion.
EIGHTH AMERICAN: They were the horses, we were the hounds.
NINTH ENGLISHMAN: To see them in massive formations was quite staggering. It required a degree of flying skill that we never really collected.
NINTH AMERICAN: It was so comforting when you come up over the coast and all of a sudden you look out and you see a couple of fighter planes on either side of you. I used to love them. A hundred Messerschmidts attacked Spitfires, the Spitfires would meet them head on. Same thing with P-52's, sometimes P-47's. They never ran.
NARRATOR: Before the Allied landing in France, the German air force had to be destroyed. In the spring of 1944 over Germany, the Allied pilots shot down 1,300 fighters. Now the bombers could concentrate on the river bridges and rail yards in an attempt to keep the Germans from moving supplies from Calais to Normandy and from Paris to the sea. The attack fighters were out to destroy anything that moved.
TENTH ENGLISHMAN: All over the place, [unintelligible] to Calais, Cape Gris-Nez, all over the place. They didn't want to identify where the landings were going to take place. We had timetables of trains, which we got from the Resistance. You get the hell shot out of you, 50 percent or more.
ELEVENTH ENGLISHMAN: We got on very well with the Americans, I will say that.
TWELFTH ENGLISHMAN: You know the saying about American soldiers in England -- overpaid, oversexed, over here.
SECOND ENGLISHWOMAN: They always had a smile on. They were always cheerful and always uplifting -- and saucy.
THIRD ENGLISHWOMAN: I can't remember kissing him, but it was an understood thing that at the end of the war we would be married. There were so many people that met, laughed and parted.
THIRD AMERICAN: He said when we go in on this invasion, it's going to be the greatest show on earth. He just laid it on the line and told us what to expect. And he said, ''Now, however, just remember that,'' he said, ''some of us is going in there and maybe don't come back. You know when you go to war, somebody don't come back.''
NARRATOR: In the last week in May, thousands of American and English troops and vehicles moved to the channel ports.
FIRST ENGLISHWOMAN: It was quite obvious to everyone that something very serious was afoot, 'cause we became saturated with men.
TENTH AMERICAN: Just waited, sweated it out.
NARRATOR: They were confined and under tight security. A staggering weight of secret orders was unsealed.
ELEVENTH AMERICAN: They knew at the briefing that this was the invasion.
THIRTEENTH ENGLISHMAN: Every bomb crater was shown, every ditch, every stile, every fence.
TWELFTH AMERICAN: There was a scale model of the beach built to exact proportions, so we all studied it to the point where we knew exactly every house, every defile, every-- everything. We knew where we were going.
NARRATOR: They now learned they would not be going across the 30 miles of the channel at Calais. The British 50th and the 3rd Infantry and the Canadian 3rd would land opposite the French cities of Bayeux and Caen. The American 4th would go in at the beach code-named Utah, while the American 29th and 1st Infantry would take Omaha. The 2nd and 5th Rangers would be given the task of silencing the guns on top of the cliffs at Pointe du Hac, flanking Omaha.
It was no secret to the Germans that an invasion was imminent, but there were storms over the channel and air reconnaissance had picked up no evidence of Allied activity.
On June 4th, Rommel arrived home to celebrate his wife's birthday. He had brought her a pair of shoes from Paris. On June 8th he planned to see Hitler at Obersalzburg and to persuade Hitler to give him command of all armored divisions in Normandy.
Hitler was not anxious to see Rommel. He did not trust him, he had told others, and was more determined than ever to keep control over Rommel's armored divisions himself.
In England, the loading of the ships that would carry the vast army across the sea to Normandy continued -- enough armament to support the 25,000 men who would make the initial assault and the 125,000 who would soon follow.
THIRTEENTH AMERICAN: And everybody sang, ''God bless, Yank. Give 'em hell.''
NARRATOR: They were loaded on ships in the same order they would storm the Normandy coast. Less than 15 percent of the men coming aboard had ever seen combat.
FOURTEENTH AMERICAN: He says, ''You're going to see a show. You're lucky to be in an invasion like this, but it's going to be-- and it's going to be more ships participate in this than anyplace that's ever been in the world. We're going in to win. There's no coming back.'' Then he left the ship.
FIFTEENTH AMERICAN: It didn't make no difference if you was Jewish, Italian, Irish, whatever you were. It didn't make no difference. They all wanted to hear the word. It was a way of saying, ''Okay, get right with your Maker, regardless who you believe in. Make yourself right with Him.''
FOURTEENTH ENGLISHMAN: Look up at the church and the school. Look at the fields. Take it all in. You'll never see it again.
NARRATOR: The invasion was to go on June 5th, but a storm forced postponement. At Suffolk House near Portsmouth, Eisenhower had to decide.
FIFTEENTH ENGLISHMAN: There must have been about, oh, I don't know, 15 of us there. Our two great men were there, Monty and Eisenhower. The poor weatherman had to talk first. Eisenhower asked Monty what he felt. ''Sure, I'll do whatever you say, you know. We're ready.'' Then Eisenhower very calmly said, ''We'll go.''
NARRATOR: On the evening of June 5th, the largest naval armada in history sailed for Normandy.
SIXTEENTH AMERICAN: The minesweepers was first. They went in there first. And one of our submarines went in there and laid a line for us, little green lights.
SEVENTEENTH AMERICAN: The battleships Nevada, Texas, and Arkansas went in there and there was three British battleships went in.
SIXTEENTH ENGLISHMAN: All the channels were joined up together in one huge sort of motorway.
SEVENTEENTH ENGLISHMAN: 'Cause it really was rough. Oh God, it really was rough.
EIGHTEENTH AMERICAN: They were throwing up their guts.
NINETEENTH AMERICAN: My whole battalion came from Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska. They hadn't done much sea travel.
EIGHTEENTH ENGLISHMAN: But I was sick the whole way across, hoping and praying that the boat would sink.
TWENTIETH AMERICAN: Get us off these ships. I don't care what's waiting for us.
TWENTY-FIRST AMERICAN: [Unintelligible] said, ''Oh, I know I'm not coming back.'' I said, ''I'm not going to entertain such a thought. I know I'm going back.'' I sat down and wrote two letters, one to my grandmother, one to my fiancee: ''Look, if you don't hear from me in the next six weeks or so, don't think nothing of it because I'll be busy.''
NARRATOR: At 10:30 P.M., with the invasion armada enroute to Normandy, the supreme commander visited the 101st Airborne.
TWENTY-SECOND AMERICAN: He didn't tell us where we were going, that he had a lot to thank us for and would have much more to thank us for after this.
NARRATOR: The 101st and 82nd were to drop behind enemy lines and secure the road exits leading off Utah Beach, destroy and hold the bridges over the Doubs and the Murdure [sp?] Rivers, and capture the crossroad town of Sainte Mere-Eglise.
TWENTY-THIRD AMERICAN: I lined up all the pilots. I says, ''I don't give a damn what you do, but for one thing. If you're going to drop us on a hill or if you're going to drop us on our zone, drop us all in one place.''
NARRATOR: It was 11:15 P.M. They were now part of the largest skytrain ever assembled -- 822 C-47's carrying 13,000 paratroopers.
TWENTY-FOURTH AMERICAN: A trail of C-47's as far as you could see behind you and look up ahead and see C-47's as far as you could see ahead of you.
NARRATOR: Crossing the coast, they could see six British Horsa [sp?] gliders. Towed by C-47's, they carried 180 British assault troops. Their task was to capture the Caen canal and Orne River bridges and preserve a link between the British airborne troops and those advancing from the beach.
TWENTY-THIRD AMERICAN: In the moon, I could see just hulks down there. We flew right over the invasion fleet.
TWENTY-FIFTH AMERICAN: When we crossed the coastline, I started pointing down and yelling at the men, you know, that we were crossing.
TWENTY-SIXTH AMERICAN: We could see the white of the beaches below us.
TWENTY-SEVENTH AMERICAN: They went into this cloud cover or fogbank, and some went above it. Others went down below it.
TWENTY-SIXTH AMERICAN: The pilots gunned it.
TWENTY-EIGHTH AMERICAN: I sensed that there was something wrong.
TWENTY-NINTH AMERICAN: And it just tore the equipment right off of you.
THIRTIETH AMERICAN: Nowhere near where we were supposed to be.
NARRATOR: Troopers were scattered everywhere.
TWENTY-THIRD AMERICAN: ''Dick, is that you?'' He says. ''Yes, sir,'' I says, ''Holy smoke.'' He says, ''Sir?'' I says, ''How close I came to shooting you.''
THIRTY-FIRST AMERICAN: A lot of them went right down through the marshes and [were] never found.
THIRTY-SECOND AMERICAN: That's where they drowned.
THIRTY-THIRD AMERICAN: They was dead paratroopers everywhere.
TWENTY-THIRD AMERICAN: And they were just shot by the Germans, hanging there.
NARRATOR: They could see the gliders that had come in during the night.
THIRTY-FOURTH AMERICAN: I saw a two-star general lying there just as dead as you could be. I know their survival rate couldn't have been 25 percent.
THIRTY-FIFTH AMERICAN: The Germans were everywhere.
THIRTY-SIXTH AMERICAN: We were outnumbered.
NARRATOR: Communications to Cherbourg had been cut. Some rail and road bridges remained in enemy hands. Other objectives were difficult to hold.
THIRTY-SEVENTH AMERICAN: We had made up our minds that no one was coming through that roadblock.
NARRATOR: But the Utah Beach exits and the bridgehead over the Doube had been secured, and the first French town of the war had been liberated.
THIRTY-EIGHTH AMERICAN: It was a terrible day for paratroopers, but they did terrible fighting in there and they really made their presence known.
THIRTY-NINTH AMERICAN: The bombardment of the beachhead started, and it sounded like rolling thunder, and you could even feel the ground shaking from it even though we were five miles inland. My God, those kids are going to be hitting that beach.
FORTIETH AMERICAN: The old battleships just tremble, they shake. Concussion's what gets you. We pumped 99 projectors [?] in there, 99. They knew we was there.
FORTY-FIRST AMERICAN: I looked down in the hold, you know, and I swear to God you never saw such a mess, just vomit all over.
FORTY-SECOND AMERICAN: You were just like man going to a [unintelligible] [?]. There was no turning back.
FORTY-THIRD AMERICAN: They throwed everything they had at us.
NARRATOR: The landing craft had been launched into high seas 11 miles from shore.
FORTY-THIRD AMERICAN: No coxswain, none of them knew where they were heading. You know, after being tossed around, they headed for a piece of land.
FORTY-FOURTH AMERICAN: The Germans could see us out to sea, but we couldn't see the shore.
TWENTIETH ENGLISHMAN: The heavy shells coming over our heads made a terrifying sound.
FORTY-FIFTH AMERICAN: The machine gun boats was hit in the front of it, 'cause when you docked that ramp, the machine guns was right into it.
FORTY-SIXTH AMERICAN: I was the first one, the first one across.
FORTY-FIFTH AMERICAN: It was just a matter of survival. It was just the idea of get behind something, get off of that beach.
FORTY-SEVENTH AMERICAN: They just saw him get almost cut in half.
FORTY-EIGHTH AMERICAN: Confusion, total confusion. We were just being slaughtered.
NARRATOR: The British were experiencing terrible enfilading fire and heavy losses of tanks and landing craft on the obstacles, but it was on Omaha Beach where the carnage was taking place. The swimming tanks were sinking and none of the heavy armor was getting ashore.
FORTY-NINTH AMERICAN: Them poor guys, they died like sardines in a can, they did. They never had a chance.
FIFTIETH AMERICAN: There were bodies floating around, no end of them.
FIFTY-FIRST AMERICAN: You couldn't lay your hand down without you didn't touch a body. You had to weave your way over top of the corpses.
FIFTY-SECOND AMERICAN: Rank had nothing to do with anything on that beach. You were just clinging, not by unit, not by row. Everybody individually almost did what they had to do.
FIFTY-THIRD AMERICAN: ''Would it help to go in closer?'' And I said, ''Sure would.'' What I was looking for was smoke, flashes, anything.
TWENTY-FIRST ENGLISHMAN: I wasn't around, but I damn nearly was.
FIFTY-FOURTH AMERICAN: ''Holcomb, they're going to kill us all.'' I said, ''We're too close to this beach.'' ''Think positive, man.''
FIFTY-FIFTH AMERICAN: He started yelling, ''God damn it, get up. Move in. You're going to die, anyway. Move in and die.''
NARRATOR: With no more orders than to move forward and stay alive, mixed units and individuals one by one took things into their own hands. By noon, the German first line of defense had been breached.
FIFTY-SIXTH AMERICAN: We were recreating from this mass of twisted bodies a fighting unit again, and it was done by soldiers not by the officers.
NARRATOR: Troops were inland -- not far, but inland.
FIFTY-SEVENTH AMERICAN: And they was just mortars and rifles.
NARRATOR: The 1st and 29th Divisions had fought yard by yard to get a mile and a half off the beaches. The 4th Division from Utah was in four miles and with the help of tanks had made contact with the airborne troops of the 101st. The British and Canadians had advanced six miles and could see the gliders that had landed less than 50 yards from the Caen canal bridge.
It was time to add up the cost. Over 9,000 had been killed or wounded that day.
FIFTY-EIGHTH AMERICAN: This is what dying is like. It's a feeling that, you know, the rest of my life is like a free bonus.
FIFTY-NINTH AMERICAN: When I was relieved and I walked by, oh God, the guys that died that day -- all those beautiful, wonderful friends of mine, the day before, the night before, kidding and joking.
SIXTIETH AMERICAN: The exits were all in -- were all secure by noon.
SIXTY-FIRST AMERICAN: The whole God damned place was alive with stuff coming ashore. It was just backing up. It was all over the place.
SIXTY-SECOND AMERICAN: Never stopped. It was unbelievable.
SIXTY-THIRD AMERICAN: But it was a scene of un-- as if the hand of God had just strewn all the debris in the world over it -- oh, God, you know, rubble and bodies and trucks moving, roads being built. All of that was happening.
SIXTY-FOURTH AMERICAN: They were bringing the wounded down from the base of the hill, the first crew of wounded being taken back to the mother ships.
SIXTY-FIFTH AMERICAN: The biggest job was bringing the bodies that kept washing ashore.
SIXTY-SIXTH AMERICAN: There was a lot of them. There was a lot of them.
NARRATOR: Unlike the morning, the sea was welcoming, as if it were paying its respects to the men who had fallen, who, out of a nation of millions, had been selected for reasons only known to fate to represent us on the beach that day. If one cared to listen, the sound of gunfire could be heard, but to those who were leaving and those who remained and had witnessed the day, it was time to remember in silence.
SIXTY-SEVENTH AMERICAN: It was over. I mean, it — it was quiet, as if nothing had happened. We-- the beach was not any general's business. They had no say, none whatsoever. It would have made no difference who commanded us in those first hours, none, but there was something about it — the essential feeling of being there on that beach. None of us shall ever forget it.