• D-Day, 80 Years On: An Oral History of the Allies’ Bold Attack

    Garrett M. Graff on the First Hours of the Invasion That Spearheaded the Liberation of Europe

    Over the course of June 5, many residents of the Normandy region began to suspect something serious was unfolding, and as the first fragmentary reports of Allied movements began to trickle into occupying German defenders, commanders tried to make sense of what was happening, and where. Notably, though, and unexpectedly, Rommel himself was absent from Normandy that day—he had headed back to Berlin for a quick trip to see his wife and, he hoped, to meet with Adolf Hitler. His absence, paired with the complicated command structure of the German forces, left defenders flat-footed at the moment it mattered most. Within a few hours of the first scattered paratrooper reports, everyone across Normandy, citizen or soldier, could hear the unmistakable sounds that the invasion was under way.

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    Vice Adm. Friedrich Ruge, naval adviser to Erwin Rommel, Army Group B: Nothing indicated on the morning of June 5, 1944, that on the other side of the Channel the decision for the attack had been made, and that a giant armada was on its way to storm Fortress Europe. At the headquarters of Army Group B everybody did his work as on other quiet days.

    Maj. Hans von Luck, commander, Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 125, 21 Panzer-Division: The general weather conditions, worked out every day by naval meteorologists and passed on to us by division, gave the “all clear” for 5 and 6 June. So we did not anticipate any landings, for heavy seas, storms, and low lying clouds would make large-scale operations at sea and in the air impossible for our opponents.

    Rommel’s absence, paired with the complicated command structure of the German forces, left defenders flat-footed at the moment it mattered most.

    Lt. Gen. Hans Speidel, Chief of Staff to Erwin Rommel: Again and again Hitler postponed his declared intention of visiting the Western Front. Rommel wanted to inform him without fail before the invasion of the military and political situation and demand certain political concessions. So he consulted Marshal von Rundstedt, telephoned to Hitler’s senior adjutant, Lt. General [Rudolf ] Schmundt, and arranged for a personal interview with Hitler, leaving for the Obersalzberg by car on the morning of 5th June. It was forbidden for senior officers to use aircraft for travel, as it was impossible to protect them against the Allied air forces.

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    Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, diary, June 3, 1944: Planning a trip to Germany. 5th–8th June 1944. Fears of an invasion during this period were rendered all the less by the fact that tides were very unfavourable for the days following, and the fact that no amount of air reconnaissance had given the slightest indication that a landing was imminent. The most urgent need was to speak personally to the Fuehrer on the Obersalzberg, convey to him the extent of the man-power and material inferiority we would suffer in the event of a landing, and request the dispatch of two further panzer divisions, an A.A. corps and a Nebelwerfer [artillery] brigade to Normandy.

    Vice Adm. Friedrich Ruge: Early, at 0600, Rommel left for Germany.

    Oberstleutnant Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte, commander, 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment: Although the authorities were frequently at odds in their estimates as to where and how the Allied invasion would take place, it was nevertheless apparent that since the middle of May commanders as well as troops were agreed in assuming that an invasion was to be expected during the first ten days of June. Consequently, the lower headquarters were astonished when all division commanders and one regimental commander from each division, the corps artillery commanders, and the commanders of corps headquarters reserves were ordered to report to Rennes on 6 June 1944 at 0830 in order to spend the entire day in an army group map exercise.

    Lt. Gen. Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben, commander, 709th Infantry Division: The division commanders on the Cotentin peninsula and the commander of the Channel Islands division received an order to participate in a wargame, which was to take place at Rennes, together with two subordinate commanders. I, like other division commanders, left for Rennes late in the afternoon of 5 June together with the commander of the 739th Grenadier Regiment and the commander of the Seventh Army assault battalion.

    Oberstleutnant Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte: Consequently, about 50 percent of the division commanders and possibly 25 percent of the regimental commanders were not with their troops during the night of 5 June 1944.

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    The first sign of the invasion was the arrival of the British, Canadian, and American paratroopers in the air overhead—but their confusingly widely scattered drop and the widespread small pockets of fighting left German officials paralyzed to respond. Some units had even been engaged that very day in exercises intended to repel an invasion force and, now, in the twilight of a June Normandy night, they found the real thing arriving.

    Lt. Gen. Josef Reichert, commander, 711 Infanterie-Division: We were still in the Casino [Officers’ Mess] of the divisional staff until about 0030 hours on 6 June, and were just about ready to retire, when an exceedingly loud noise of motors of single planes, flying apparently very low over our quarters at tremendous speed, attracted our attention. The fact of the air activity as such, at that time, was not surprising, because our own and the enemy’s busy air routes of incoming and outgoing planes lay directly over us, which were used nearly every night. It struck us as strange, however, that the planes were flying so low; we had the feeling that they might almost touch the roof.

    Obergefreiter Rudolf Theil, 6th Fallschirmjäger-Regiment: [I] saw all kinds of red flares and glaring white light signals. That could only mean one thing to any experienced soldier: “The enemy is attacking.” I reported to Major von der Heydte, who replied, “Sound the alarm!” We took our positions and waited for the unknown monster: Invasion. It was 0011 hours, German time.

    Maj. Hans von Luck: About midnight, I heard the growing roar of aircraft, which passed over us. I wondered whether the attack was destined once again for traffic routes inland or for Germany herself. The machines appeared to be flying very low—because of the weather? I looked out the window and was wide awake; flares were hanging in the sky. At the same moment, my adjutant was on the telephone, “Major, paratroops are dropping. Gliders are landing in our section. I’m trying to make contact with No. II Battalion. I’ll come along to you at once.”

    Gren. Josef Horn, signaler, 191st Artillerie-Regiment, 91st Luftlande Division: Shortly after midnight I heard the sound of low-flying airplanes and saw parachutes coming down. Some were white, others appeared blue, many were camouflaged. Knowing the lie of the land, I was able to evade the Americans, but once in a while I could hear a clicking sound, but I didn’t know until much later what it was.

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    Lt. Gen. Hans Speidel: The Chief of Staff of Army Group B received reports in the first hours of the morning of 6th June that enemy parachute troops had been dropped in the vicinity of Caen and the south eastern area of the Cotentin peninsula. It was not at all clear at first whether these were airborne landings in strength or just groups of parachutists dropped to support the French forces of resistance. Between the Seine and Orne, the parachutes were widely strewn.

    Capt. Ernst During, commander, heavy machine gun company, Grenadier-Regiment 914, 352 Infanterie-Division: When I got to my command post I telephoned battalion headquarters, two miles to the rear, and said, “Paratroops have landed here.” The answer came back, “Here, too,” then the line went dead.

    Lt. Gen. Josef Reichert: The first prisoners—two parachutists who had landed in the strongpoint itself—were taken, who, however, could not give exact details as to the purpose of the undertaking, and probably did not want to. I realized that it was a sure sign of the beginning of the invasion.

    Lt. Col. Hubert Meyer, senior general staff officer, 12 SS Panzer-Division Hitler-Jugend: On the night of June 5th my wife was staying with me, on a visit. It was totally illegal, but I hadn’t had any leave for ages.

    Irmgard Meyer, wife of Lt. Col. Hubert Meyer: My husband had a house in a place called Tillières, a pretty house with a garden. It was a beautiful spring, warm, and I can still remember the scent of the jasmine when I arrived.

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    Lt. Col. Hubert Meyer: That night the brigade leader, Major General Witt, came upstairs and knocked on my door and said, “On your feet, Meyer, the invasion has begun!” I got up, dressed quickly, and went downstairs and telephoned division headquarters. They said, “No, it’s not the invasion. They aren’t paratroops, they’re just straw dummies.” So I thought, well, I’ll go back to bed.

    Irmgard Meyer: Then, later in the night we were waked up by a knock on the door and a voice saying, “Wake up, the invasion’s started.”

    Lt. Col. Hubert Meyer: We immediately put the division on standby. But no orders came through. No alert, nothing.

    Lt. Gen. Hans Speidel: The Army Group ordered all units to battle stations. The reports of parachute landings became more numerous between 3 and 4 a.m. Then there was bombing of coastal defences and strong Allied air forces were detected approaching. The Panzer divisions in reserve were ordered to be ready to move.

    Irmgard Meyer: At 5:00 A.M., my husband came and told me, “They have landed. You have got to get out of here as quickly as possible. Get up immediately and pack. You are going in a car with two other women, Frau Wuensche and Frau Witt.” Another young woman whose husband was an SS lieutenant was crying, crying bitterly, since she, too, was saying goodbye to her husband. But I will never forget how bitterly this young woman wept. Ten days later, her husband was dead. She must somehow have sensed it.

    Maj. Hans von Luck: The hours passed. We had set up a defensive front where we had been condemned to inactivity. The rest of the division, with the panzer regiment and Panzer Grenadier Regiment 192, was equally immobilized, though in the highest state of alert. My adjutant telephoned once more to division. Major Forster came to the phone. He too was unable to alter the established orders. Hitler, who used to work far into the night, was still asleep that early morning. At the command post, I paced up and down and clenched my fists at the indecision of the Supreme Command in the face of the obvious facts. If Rommel had been with us instead of in Germany, he would have disregarded all orders and taken action—of that we were convinced.

    As dawn arrived, civilians and personnel along the coast finally saw for themselves what had been planned for months: a looming invasion armada, an unambiguous sign that the long-awaited landing was under way. Then the naval bombardment removed any remaining doubts. Today, the shells said, would be different. Within moments, German soldiers and military leaders were awakened with the news.

    Some units had even been engaged that very day in exercises intended to repel an invasion force and, now, in the twilight of a June Normandy night, they found the real thing arriving.

    Gren. Franz Gockel, 3 Kompanie, Grenadier-Regiment 726, 716 Infanterie-Division, Wehrmacht, posted to Widerstandsnest 62 at Colleville-sur-Mer (Omaha Beach): Out of a deep sleep we were ripped by the call of “Alarm!” A Kamerad stood in the bunker entrance and roared out “Highest Alarm Status and you’d better damn hurry!” The man was still in the entrance when our Unteroffizier yelled from behind him “Boys, it’s for real!” In a short time we had our rifles and the MG [machine gun] crews were in place, all the tiredness had gone away. The cook came and gave us hot red wine, the “spirit of life.”

    Obergrenadier Karl Wegner, 3 Kompanie, Grenadier Regiment 914, 352 Infanterie-Division: Violently my arm was shaken by Willi. I sat straight up and looked at him, his face was pale. I asked him what was wrong. He just pointed towards the sea. I looked out and saw ships as far as one could see. I’m not ashamed to say that I was never so scared in my life. But the sight was so impressive that no one could help but just stare in amazement. Just then Obergefreiter Lang burst into the bunker. The look on his face was serious, no more games. This was real, some of us will not be here when the sun sets today.

    Pvt. Franz Rachmann, 352 Infanterie-Division: My sergeant came running and said, “There are a thousand different ships coming in the English Channel.”

    Obergrenadier Karl Wegner: That’s when we heard the planes again.

    Gren. Franz Gockel: The bombers were suddenly over us and it was too late to spring into the prepared dugout for cover. I dove under the gun as bombs screamed and hissed into the sand and earth. Two heavy bombs fell on our position, and we held our breath as more explosions fell into the hinterland. Debris and clouds of smoke enveloped us; the earth shook; eyes and nose were filled with dirt, and sand ground between teeth.

    Gefreiter Obergrenadier Peter Simeth, Grenadier Regiment 916, 352 Infanterie-Division: We crawled from our tents and saw the fire show. Bombs of all types were hitting the ground. All sorts of bombers filled the sky; a couple were on fire. We got dressed and fumbled with getting our gear on. The Feldwebel yelled for us to dig one-man holes for cover as fast as we could.

    Gren. Franz Gockel: But that [the air bombardment] was not enough.

    Lt. Gen. Hans Speidel: At 5.30 a.m. hundreds of ships’ guns at sea roared out at once as the naval bombardment of the Calvados coast began.

    Pierre Pipre, proprietor of Hotel Casino in Vierville-sur-Mer (near Omaha Beach): Hell broke loose. There was not a single glass left on the windows in Vierville, and suddenly we could believe that we were in the middle of night, due to the smoke of explosions and the artificial fog through which we could see red flashes, which were probably shells. Everybody was scared and the inhabitants on their thresholds were discussing what to do: Stay home or go away—but to where?

    Irène Othon-Meillat, resident, Dozulé, east of Caen: It was hell, a veritable deluge of fire. We all took refuge under a table at the farm. We pressed against one another and prayed. We were convinced that we were going to die.

    Major Werner Pluskat, Artillerie-Regiment 352, 352 Infanterie-Division: One of the first shells hit the base of our bunker and literally shook it. I was thrown to the ground and my binoculars were smashed.

    Fernand Broekx, resident, Colleville-sur-Mer (directly south of Omaha Beach): I had the feeling that the house was going to collapse on us. The walls were damaged and the floor-boards lifting up. You could hear the tiles falling, one after the other, as well as the crash of breaking glass. The volleys of naval cannon and the bombs released by planes made a deafening racket. The coast was nothing more than a gush of flames. A strong odor of powder caught at our throats. Soon afterward, an exploding bomb broke the kitchen window and struck the wall at an angle. My wife was hit by a small fragment.

    Obergrenadier Karl Wegner: We saw the landing craft, it seemed like hundreds of them. They rocked back and forth in the wake of the larger ships. Suddenly they all turned and began to come straight in towards the beach. My stomach was in knots.

    Private Werner Beibst, infantry, 15th Army: The sight of the ships was almost inconceivable, they just covered the water.

    Gren. Franz Gockel: The sea had come alive.


    Excerpted from When the Sea Came Alive: An Oral History of D-Day by Garrett M. Graff. Copyright © 2024. Available from Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.

    Garrett M. Graff
    Garrett M. Graff
    Garrett M. Graff has spent nearly two decades covering politics, technology, and national security. The former editor of Politico and contributor to Wired and CNN, he’s written for publications from Esquire to Rolling Stone to The New York Times, and today serves as the director of the cyber initiative at the Aspen Institute. Graff is the author of multiple books, including the FBI history The Threat Matrix, Raven Rock (about the government’s Cold War Doomsday plans), When the Sea Came Alive (an oral history of D-Day), and the New York Times bestsellers The Only Plane in the Sky and Watergate, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History.

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