D-Day, by the men who really fought them on the beaches

It was the largest invasion at sea in the history of warfare – a battle on such an epic scale that thousands of books, television series and Hollywood films have emerged.

Although millions of words were written about the events that occurred on D-Day on June 6, 1944, almost all of them came from the officer's class perspective – down from Winston Churchill – and an army of military historians. But what about the men at the front who have brought themselves to a standstill and have driven the Germans off the blood-soaked beaches? Her raw, unvarnished stories paint a very different picture than what her superiors told. These stories of silent heroism, which were never intended to be published, can be found in private diaries and letters to relatives and long-neglected interviews, as well as in the exceptional sound archive of the Imperial War Museum. They show that D-Day was less a strategic planning masterpiece than a chaotic day of courage and terror.

Troops of the British 3rd Infantry help the wounded ashore on Sword Beach. Pioneers are in the foreground, and Lord Lovat's 1st Special Service Brigade disembarks in the background

Now, 75 years later, these soldiers are jumping from the pages of a dramatic new book, D-Day: The Soldiers & # 39; Story.

Here the author Giles Milton reveals some of his most remarkable stories.


"Come out and fight, you angular head b *******! "

The gliders plunged steeply through the night air, shuddering and groaning as they headed for Normandy. In each, 30 men prayed that they would survive the landing and the subsequent attack.

Destroyed Horsa gliders next to Pegasus Bridge, scene of Wally Parr's heroic attack

Destroyed Horsa gliders next to Pegasus Bridge, scene of Wally Parr's heroic attack

The Bénouville Bridge - soon to be renamed Pegasus - was now in Allied hands. But their problems were far from over

The Bénouville Bridge – soon to be renamed Pegasus – was now in Allied hands. But their problems were far from over

Your task that night was to conquer the bridge in the village of Bénouville, a small but important crossing of the Caen Canal. This daring D-Day mission had been entrusted to Wally Parr and 181 of his light infantry from Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Six hours before the attack on the Normandy coast at sea, they led a dangerous surprise attack. If successful, their action would block any German counterattack against the Allied attack. If they failed, German armored divisions could sweep the Caen Canal and drive the Allies back into the sea.

Conquering the bridge was a dangerous task, but it was only the first part of your mission. They then had to hold it there for 12 hours until the commands that were supposed to land on nearby Sword Beach relieved them.

In a rare interview recorded by a sound archivist at the Imperial War Museum in 1990, Wally Parr recalled the night's most dramatic events. When the lead glider came ashore, it staggered forward and filled the darkness with a spark. Parr was stabbed forward when it stopped.

Wally Parr

Wally Parr

"Charlie, get out!" Parr recalled when he yelled at his buddy Charles Gardner. He and Gardner were suddenly pumped with adrenaline. They jumped out of the glider and ran towards the steel girder bridge. "Charge!" Yelled their leader John Howard. Parr and Gardner were on the bridge first. "Come out and fight, you square fool," Parr didn't shout at anyone. When he threw explosives into a German shelter, Gardner was done with his Bren weapon. "I opened the door, pulled the pen, threw it in, closed the door, and waited," said Parr. There was a booming explosion under her feet. Then Parr kicked the door open again and sprayed the dugout with his machine gun.

The soldiers worked with clinical efficiency and were aware that it was killing or killing. As Parr ran across the bridge, he saw a body on the ground. The uniform gave him a jerk: it was his comrade Den & # 39; Danny & # 39; Brotheridge. Parr knelt and raised his head. Brotheridge tried to speak, but then "he just closed his eyes and sighed deeply and lay back". He was mortally wounded with a bullet through the neck. "It's Danny," Parr said to his comrade Jack Bailey. "He did it." "Christ Almighty," said Bailey. He knew that Brotheridge's wife Margaret was about to give birth to their first child.

As more British troops ran across the bridge, the German defenders jumped up and ran for their lives. It was the end of the battle: the Bénouville Bridge – soon to be renamed Pegasus – was now in Allied hands. But their problems were far from over because they were deep in the enemy territory. It was still night when the Germans launched their first counterattack. The growling of tanks could be heard at the western end of the bridge. Howard's boys only had one weapon that could stop these vehicles – an anti-tank mortar. This was placed in the hands of a young comrade capable of Parr's, Charles "Wagger" Thornton, who fired from a distance of 30 meters. He scored a direct hit and the mortar exploded with incredible force, burning the crew trapped inside. The other tanks hastily retreated. For the next ten hours, Howard's men were constantly fighting German counter-attacks from the country and the canal.

The greatest danger came from German snipers who fired on them from hidden positions in fields and trees. They were deadly accurate and started picking up men one by one. Wally Parr found a solution. He'd been through a German gun pit when he found the latest anti-tank gun model, both powerful and deadly. The retort from the first shot threw him back and staggered. But when he figured out how to aim it, he started taking out individual snipers. Once he discovered Germans hiding on the roof of a nearby water tower: they used his elevated position as an observation post for snipers on the ground. Parr aimed at her and fired his gun. When he looked up, he saw the huge tower burst into an elevated waterfall as its grenade struck the center. The water sprayed far and wide and the German snipers had to give up their position. He later said: "It was my greatest personal pleasure to sit behind a captured German weapon and shoot German ammunition at German holes."


"Bullets rang and knocked off me like rain"

In the meantime, an equally extraordinary operation took place in the cool waters off the Gold Beach coast, one of the two Normandy beaches chosen for the British landings. Here Wally Blanchard undertook an extremely dangerous mission. As a 19-year-old frog man, Blanchard's job was to locate all the underwater mines that the Germans had laid in the shallows of the coast. He then had to detonate them in a series of controlled explosions. If this weren't completed before dawn, hundreds of landing craft could be blown apart.

Thanks to the bravery of Walter Blanchard and his comrades, Gold Beach is safe for the USS LST-21 to unload British Army tanks

Thanks to the bravery of Walter Blanchard and his comrades, Gold Beach is safe for the USS LST-21 to unload British Army tanks

In an interview for the Imperial War Museum, Blanchard described his task that day. “A diver with scuba gear worked under me and I had snorkeling gear. Our first priority was to disable any mines or explosives we could get our hands on so that you could use more landing craft. “Blanchard had to schedule the explosions to coincide with the marine bombardment before dawn. It was hoped that in the general confusion the Germans would not notice that Allied frogmen defused a passage through the submerged minefield. He and his comrades slipped into the cold water at around 3 a.m. on June 6: it was lonely work and physically demanding. Blanchard spent more than an hour marking a passage to the shore with white tape on marker buoys and stepping on water. This passage marked the mine-free area through which the Allied landing craft could reach the shore without the risk of being blown sky-high. His comrade Peter Jones remembered sea obstacles made of welded metal bars and large blocks of concrete covered with mines, and some of them even had grenades pointing towards the sea, so a barge would hit it when it hit it be & # 39 ;. They had to identify these mines and grenades in the near darkness and then attach the loads to everyone.

Walter Blanchard

Walter Blanchard

Their work went according to plan: the mines were detonated at exactly the same time that sea bombardment began.

Around 7 a.m., Blanchard looked back at the mighty Allied Armada, which was anchored off the coast. Hundreds of landing craft could be seen on the way to the beach. Most of them made it through the cleared minefield, but one vehicle hit a mine that Blanchard and his team had missed. When it broke into a fireball, it rose in a fountain of blood and water.

It was a terrible sight, according to Jones. "At the top of this fountain, the body and body parts spread out like drops of water." Despite this tragedy, Blanchard and his team knew that their work had saved hundreds of men from a similar fate.

When he swam back to the fleet anchored off the coast, Blanchard was looking forward to a cup of hot tea. But it shouldn't be: he was told that the Americans were being massacred on neighboring Omaha Beach, and was instructed to go there and provide support.

Blanchard vividly remembered the hell of Omaha. “The noise, the confusion, the stench were overwhelming. You heard the screams and screams – a lot of men, bodies you poke into the water. “Blanchard started detonating mines just like he did on Gold Beach to clear safe passages for the American landing craft. But the situation was so desperate that he fought alongside American troops and tried to get ashore. Equipped with a Remington carabiner, he helped them take out German machine gun nests from the shallow tides. "I just thank my lucky stars that I knew how and when to use weapons." Blanchard was still in great danger. "I was cut by bullets and ammunition more than once. It pinged and rattled like rain from you. “He eventually fought ashore alongside the American elite rangers. At some point during the fight for the beach, he faced a frightened German conscript. "My Remington carbine was on the nose right away, but he was just trying to surrender." He was wounded and exhausted, and seemed grateful to be captured by Blanchard, who took him to a Red Cross landing craft that was now it was built to the beach. When Blanchard turned to fight, the German gave him a valuable medal from his tunic pocket – a long-standing police medal in the form of an iron cross. Blanchard would keep fighting most of the morning at Omaha Beach and support the Americans.

It would be many hours before he got this cup.

The Lord and His Faithful Pillar

"Piper, would you mind giving us a tune?"

Sword Beach had been selected as the landing zone for the elite commandos, led by one of the most extravagant characters who took part in D-Day. Simon Fraser was better known as the 15th Lord Lovat, a colorful highland chief. At just 33, he was the commander of the 1st Special Service Brigade. Only Lovat would have the chutzpah to wear a monogrammed shirt under his battle dress. And only he would have the drive to go into battle with a Highland Piper at his side. It was 8:40 am when the commandos reached Sword Beach. Lovat's bagpiper, Bill Millin, jumped off the ramp just behind his lordship and landed in the waist-deep water. The command in front of him was hit in the face by grenade fragments.

Simon Fraser was better known as the 15th Lord Lovat, a colorful highland chief

Simon Fraser was better known as the 15th Lord Lovat, a colorful highland chief

Lovats bagpiper Bill Millin. When they reached Sword Beach, Lovat turned to Millin and asked him to play Road To The Isles on his bagpipes

Lovats bagpiper Bill Millin. When they reached Sword Beach, Lovat turned to Millin and asked him to play Road To The Isles on his bagpipes

Bill Millin gets out. He would later learn from captured Germans that they did not shoot him because they thought he was crazy

Bill Millin gets out. He would later learn from captured Germans that they did not shoot him because they thought he was crazy

Lovat seemed immune to the danger, turned to Millin and asked him to play Road To The Isles on his bagpipes. The conversation was so bizarre and unexpected that Millin later remembered the exact words in interviews. "Would you mind giving us a tune?" Asked Lovat. "You must be kidding for sure?" Millin said. "What was that?" Lovat asked. "Well, what tune would you have in mind, sir?" "How about Road To The Isles?" "Now you want me to go up and down, sir?" That would be nice. Yes, go up and down. "

When grenades detonated and mortars pounded into the dunes, Millin strolled up and down the beach and blasted his pipes. He would later learn from captured Germans that they did not shoot him because they thought he was crazy.

Lovat was in his element and giggled wildly as his men crushed the German defenders. As soon as the beach was secured, the commands had another task: to relieve John Howard's men, who were still fighting against the Germans at the Pegasus Bridge five miles away.

It was an extremely dangerous advance, as Cliff Morris and his squad should find out. "Suddenly we got into trouble," he wrote in his diary. "Heavy machine gun fire from the forest sprayed around us, let us down, and pushed us to the ground." One of his boys, known as Young Adams, stuck his head over the ditch. "He got a bullet through his neck and was badly wounded." He was bleeding profusely and had to be abandoned after the German position was eliminated. "Not a nice feeling," Morris wrote, "but orders had to be followed."

As Sword's command advanced, British troops on Gold Beach, ten miles west, were in trouble. They were attacked by hundreds of German defenders who were hidden in bunkers and machine gun nests.

But help was on hand. When the exposed infantry fought on land, an army of mechanized vehicles also fought: amphibious Shermans, crocodile tanks (equipped with flamethrowers) and armored bulldozers. Among the men who drove these extraordinary vehicles was Robert Palmer, the 28-year-old commander of a self-propelled Sexton weapon – a vehicle that looked like a tank without a turret.

When he left the beach, a volley of enemy mortars hit the five tanks in front of him and turned them into fireballs. In an interview conducted by one of the Imperial War Museum's sound archivists in 2000 when Palmer was in his eighties, he recalled what happened next. "Sergeant!" Called one of his men, who had discovered a hidden German bunker. & # 39; Quick! You have the best weapon nearby! Turn it off! "

Palmer knew his vehicle would be hit next. He had no choice but to try to destroy the bunker. Its sexton was a lazy animal that weighed 35 tons, but when driven hard it could travel at over 30 miles an hour. Now he gave his men a daring plan. "When I say" go ", go. Let your foot down. “His idea was to go to the bunker at top speed before he stopped the Sexton. The weapon should be swiveled to 45 degrees and fired. If you have the right angle, you can simply stick a grenade through the weapon slot. Palmer turned the engine before loading forward. When he approached the bunker, he hit the brakes and ordered to shoot. The first grenade smashed against the edge of the opening. "A fraction up," Palmer shouted. "A fraction to the left." The second shot was a porthole that went right in the bunker and exploded with devastating consequences. "If we had been practicing it all morning, we couldn't have been better," said Palmer. "It was wonderful."

Stan Scott

Stan Scott


Among those advancing inland was a group of commandos led by a London-based Bruiser named Stan Scotty Scott. He later recorded an interview with the National Army Museum, in which he outlined the crucial role of his men. Equipped with collapsible bicycles, he gathered a group of his toughest and stormed to the Pegasus Bridge in a fire – and set up their own version of the Tour de France. "There were five of us," he said, "like yellow jerseys first." Other commands ran towards the bridge, too, but Scott and his boys were in front, cycling through the village of Le Port – still full of German snipers – before they continued push to the bridge.

Soon after, the majority of the commandos, led by Lovat, arrived. It was a moment that 19-year-old Denis Edwards remembered in his diary. "It's you! It's the commands!" Edwards shouted. He and his comrades cheered. "Screaming and cheering, we all expressed our joy together," Edwards wrote, "and shouted things like," Now you have Jerry, you have a real fight in your hands. "’

Wally Parr came out of his gun pit just in time to see Lovat's distinctive figure. "He was wearing a white or cream turtleneck, a green beret and a pack on his back."

Parr stepped onto the street and uttered a greeting. "Well done, well done," said Lovat before asking about John Howard. Howard appeared seconds later and reached out to speak to Lovat with obvious relief. "We are very happy to see you, old boy," he said.

"Yes," replied Lovat. "We are glad to see you." Then he looked at the clock. "Sorry, we're two and a half minutes late."

"About the damn time!" Said Howard with a grin. Despite all the odds, he had held this strategically important bridge for over 12 hours.

He and his heroic group of men had made an important contribution to the success of D-Day. The liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe had begun at the end of that day.

Giles Milton's "D-Day: The Soldiers & # 39; Story" is now available in paperback (John Murray £ 8.99)

Mirrorpix's D-Day: Before And After is being released by The History Press for £ 12.99.

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