The Fight on the Beaches: The Time for Planning and Preparation Had Passed. Dwight Eisenhower Had Little Left to Do but Chain-Smoke and Gulp Coffee-And Watch to See Whether His Men Could Drive the Germans from the Normandy Shores and Begin the End of the War

By Murphy, Brian John | America in WWII, June 2014 | Go to article overview

The Fight on the Beaches: The Time for Planning and Preparation Had Passed. Dwight Eisenhower Had Little Left to Do but Chain-Smoke and Gulp Coffee-And Watch to See Whether His Men Could Drive the Germans from the Normandy Shores and Begin the End of the War


Murphy, Brian John, America in WWII


A Douglas C-47 Skytrain lifted off a runway near Portsmouth, England, the last of hundreds, each carrying a 15- to 20-man "stick" of paratroopers toward France's Normandy shore. Watching the plane disappear into the dark sky, General Dwight D. Eisenhower called it a night. It was midnight, and June 6, 1944--D-Day--had begun. The Allied invasion fleet, carrying troops and tanks to five Normandy landing beaches, was already halfway across the English Channel. Eisenhower went to a little trailer on the grounds of Southwick House and tried to relax with cowboy novels and the last of his usual four packs a day of Camels and 12 to 15 cups of coffee.

There were no more orders to give, no more men to assemble, and no more supplies to stockpile. There was no more negotiating, pleading, charming, and politicking to get a hundred and one governmental and military bodies to pull together. Now the Liberation of Europe was up to the fighting men.

The First Men In

Across the channel, the long train of C-47s circled Normandy's Cotentin Peninsula to approach the jump zones and glider landing zones from the west. They were delivering the first of more than 20,000 parachute and glider infantrymen of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, tasked with a twofold mission: cut off reinforcements and supplies to the Germans defending what would soon be the westernmost American landing beach, codenamed Utah, and help landing troops get off the beaches.

As soon as the air fleet neared the peninsula's western shore, a cloud bank obscured the stars. The Skytrains were on their own, each pilot navigating by the seat of his pants. Some too hastily lit the green light that signaled paratroopers to jump. Whole sticks of men jumped into the dark and drowned in the sea.

Moderate to heavy ground fire met the planes. Private Leonard Griffing, a 101st i Airborne paratrooper in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, remembered.

When I got into the doorway, I looked out into what looked like a solid wall of tracer bullets. I said to myself, "Len, you're in as much trouble now as you're ever going to be in. If you get out of this, nobody can ever do anything to you that you ever have to worry about!"

Some troopers, watching bullets and flak rising toward their planes, sat on their helmets. Some pilots flew too fast, trying to evade anti-aircraft fire. When their men jumped, equipment, leg bags, and helmets were torn away in the slipstream.

Paratroopers floated down to earth, blind in the black night. Some got hung up in trees, many around the target village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The Germans shot these helpless men. At dawn, their buddies would find them dangling lifeless. Other paratroopers landed amid German units and were killed or captured.

German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, charged with repelling the Allied invasion, had ordered many low fields flooded as obstacles to gliders and death traps for parachutists. The tactic worked: many paratroopers touched down in the flooded fields, struggled with their equipment, sank, and drowned.

Incredibly, many paratroopers landed safely, near men from their own or other American outfits. Sergeant David Rogers of the 101st Airborne recalled.

I drifted to the edge of [a] village and landed with my parachute caught in a small tree in a fence row. I got out of my parachute and was looking around the area when I saw a shadowy figure about 150 feet [away] along the fence row moving toward me. I clicked my cricket [a small, metal signaling clicker] and received two clicks in return.... I met ... Sergeant Isaac Cole. We were extremely happy to see each other.... Gunfire sounds were coming from every direction. It wasn't long before Sergeant Cole and myself had gathered together 6 or 7 other paratroopers, none of whom I knew. We didn't bother to ask their names or what unit they belonged to. We were just glad to have this small group together in one piece. …

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