This week marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy. This amphibious Allied effort comprised a joint effort between British, Canadian, and American troops. Operation Overlord was massive in scope, and required effectively launching 12,000 planes and 7,000 vessels, landing 24,000 paratroopers into enemy territory, and transporting 160,000 troops across the English Channel and onto and over 50 miles of beaches.
To commemorate this epic operation, I talk to historian Alex Kershaw about his latest book, The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II. We begin our conversation with the context of the invasion and how the plans for it began years before 1944. Alex then walks us through the pre-dawn missions that paved the way for the larger invasion in the morning and how perilously close these first missions came to failing. Along the way he tells the stories of individual men who took part in this sweeping operation, including Frank Lillyman, the first paratrooper to land in Normandy; Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., a 56-year-old general and son of President Theodore Roosevelt; and Lord Lovat, a Scottish commando who brought along his personal bagpiper to pipe the British commandos ashore on D-Day. Alex and I discuss why only four Medals of Honor and one Victoria Cross were awarded on D-Day, despite the high number of heroic acts performed that day by ordinary men placed in an extraordinary circumstances. We end our conversation discussing the legacy of D-Day three-fourths of a century later.
- What was the state of the war in early 1944?
- The primary architects of the invasion
- How much did the Nazis know about the invasion?
- Eisenhower’s mindset on June 5th (the day before the operation)
- The first Americans to see combat on D-Day
- Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.’s D-Day experience
- What was the sea/ground invasion really like?
- The true story of the bagpiper of D-Day
- The Germans’ initial response of the invasion
- At what point were the Allied forces confident of victory?
- Why so few Medals of Honor have been given
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Our first interview with Alex about the 45th infantry
- Saving Private Ryan
- Allied invasion of Sicily
- AoM series on Eisenhower
- AoM series on Churchill
- Major John Howard
- Theodore Roosevelt, Jr
- Lord Lovat
- Remembrances From the Men Who Were There
- Ronald Reagan’s speech on D-Day’s 40th anniversary
- Battle of the Bulge
- Leadership Lessons from Major Dick Winters
Connect With Alex
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. This week marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy. This amphibious Allied effort comprised a joint effort between British, Canadian, and American troops. Operation Overlord was massive in scope and required effectively launching 12,000 planes and 7,000 vessels, landing 24,000 paratroopers into enemy territory, and transporting 160,000 troops across the English Channel, bound to over 50 miles of beaches.
To commemorate this epic operation, I talked to historian Alex Kershaw about his latest book, The First Wave: D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II. We begin our conversation with the context of the invasion and how the plans for it began years before 1944. Alex then walks us through the predawn missions that paved the way for the larger invasion in the morning and how perilously close the first missions came to failing. Along the way, he tells the stories of individual men who took part in the sweeping operation, including Frank Lillyman, the first paratrooper to land in Normandy, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., a 56-year-old general and son of President Theodore Roosevelt, and Lord Lovat, a Scottish commando who brought along his personal bagpiper to pipe the British commandos ashore on D-Day.
Alex and I discuss why only four Medals of Honor and one Victoria Cross were awarded on D-Day, despite the high number of heroic acts performed that day by ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances. We end our conversation discussing the legacy of D-Day three-fourths of a century later. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/d-day. Alex joins me now via clearcast.io.
All right. Alex Kershaw, welcome back to the show.
Alex Kershaw: Great to be with you.
Brett McKay: We had you on last time to talk about your book The Liberator: The 45th Infantry Division in World War II, particularly Felix Sparks. You’ve got a new book out, The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II. You’ve written lots of books about World War II. Why do you think now was the time to write a book about one of the most famous invasions, battles of that war now?
Alex Kershaw: Well, the 75th anniversary of D-Day is coming up next week on the 6th of June, and there are so few guys left alive who landed that day in the greatest invasion in modern history. I wanted to celebrate them while there’s some alive, and I also wanted to write a book that reminds people of the enormous heroism and importance of that day.
Brett McKay: How many are still alive, veterans of that invasion?
Alex Kershaw: Well, we know that there’s less than 5% of the World War II generation alive today, so put it this way. For the 70th anniversary of D-Day there were more than 300 American veterans went back to Normandy, and I’ve been told that this year on June the 6th there’ll be maybe 30. So just in the last five years we have 10% of the number that were there five years ago. We’re really looking at a very fast decline of that entire generation. There are very few guys left alive today that saw any action on D-Day.
Brett McKay: D-Day, we know that battle well, because it’s so ingrained in the popular culture here in America, thanks to movies like Saving Private Ryan, where Spielberg made this very visceral reenactment of World War II. But I know as I was reading this book, I learned things about D-Day that I had no clue about. Before we get into the details of D-Day, can you give folks some background so we can understand the context of the importance of this invasion? What was the state of the war in early 1944?
Alex Kershaw: Sure. Early 1944, actually people have to remember that D-Day, June the 6th, 1944, was not the first major invasion that Americans had been involved in in the European theater. So I can answer your question by giving you a few other dates. November 1942 was the first time Americans saw combat. They invaded North Africa. Then July 1943, Americans were involved in the invasion of Sicily. Actually, that was a larger invasion than D-Day, in terms of number of men, over 200,000 Allied troops in Sicily in July 1943. September 1943, we nearly come very, very close to disaster at Salerno, mainland Italy. And then January 1944, we invade the Italian mainland at Anzio and also get our noses very bloodied by the Germans.
So there had actually been four amphibious invasions in Europe before D-Day, June the 6th, 1944. Europe was Nazi-occupied, so France, most of Italy, the Netherlands, Western Europe was under the Nazi jackboot. Over 10 million Western Europeans had either been killed or were in concentration camps. Europe had suffered for, in some cases, over four years from Nazi oppression. So the D-Day invasion was something that the Americans had wanted to launch since 1942. And finally in June of 1944 we invaded Northwestern Europe, and the significance of that invasion of D-Day, June the 6th, was that we began to liberate Northwestern Europe.
And it marked the beginning, the successful completion of the Battle of Normandy in June and July of 1944, marked the beginning of the end of Nazi rule over Western Europe. It was the liberation of Western Europe. It was the beginning of the restoration of peace and democracy and human rights and civilization to a place that had been in immense darkness for several years.
Brett McKay: So they’d been planning something like this for two years? I mean, at this point in the war, the Allies, did they feel like they were winning, that they were making progress? Or that this is the thing they had to win if they were going to win the war?
Alex Kershaw: This was the major job. This was what the Americans had been pressing for from 1942 onwards. They had two wars to win, remember, the Americans, in the Pacific and in Europe. And it had been agreed that they would finish off the Nazi regime, or try to finish off the Nazi regime, before they would deal with the fascist militarist government of Imperial Japan. There was a lot of anxiety and a lot of pressure in Washington, placed on Eisenhower and others, to get the job done in Europe so that the Americans could turn to the Pacific. And that’s why the Americans were impatient for this invasion. They wanted it to actually occur in 1943, but we wouldn’t have been well enough prepared, and that would have inevitably led to disaster.
So yes, the June 1944 invasion was really about finishing the job, but there was no real confidence, 100% confidence, that the D-Day invasion of June the 6th would absolutely work. Far from it. Most senior planners and generals were very anxious indeed.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about some of the senior planners and generals, the architects behind that. You mentioned Eisenhower. He was one. Who else was involved in planning D-Day?
Alex Kershaw: Mostly Montgomery. In fact, the Overlord plan was not Montgomery’s original idea, but Montgomery was in charge of it and adapted the Overlord plan. He added the beach which we now know as Utah. There were two American beaches on D-Day, Omaha and Utah. Montgomery added that beach. He widened the front. He increased the forces substantially, made key adjustments to the plan. But I should say that Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery was actually fairly confident, but not 100% confident that the plan would work. But from the politicians right down to many generals, there was a lot of nervousness, a lot of uncertainty about whether this huge invasion would actually pay off.
Brett McKay: For those who aren’t familiar, Montgomery was the British senior officer during World War II.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, he was overall commander of Allied forces on the ground on D-Day, so he was numero uno in terms of commanding the battle on D-Day. Eisenhower was Allied Supreme Commander. As soon as he gave the decision to go on the 5th of June 1944, it was Montgomery who had overall control of the Allied forces.
Brett McKay: How did these guys keep such a large invasion secret from the Nazis? Or did the Nazis know that something was coming eventually, they just didn’t know where or something?
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, you’re exactly right. They knew that we were going to invade. They didn’t know where or when exactly. Rommel, who was in charge of the German forces in Normandy, Erwin Rommel, the great German general, he knew that it would be maybe the spring or the summer. He wasn’t sure whether it would be Normandy or the Pas de Calais, which is closest to England. So we had a very effective deception campaign, and the aim of that campaign was basically to keep the Germans guessing. As long as they divided their forces, as long as they weren’t sure exactly where we were coming, and as long as they didn’t know when, we would enjoy the element of surprise. And we did.
Brett McKay: We typically commemorate the invasion of Normandy on June 6th, but as you said earlier, the story of Normandy begins even earlier than that. I mean, you could say it begins 1942. But you start your book June 5th, with Eisenhower pacing his office, chain smoking like he typically did throughout the war, trying to figure out if he was going to do this thing or not. How close was Eisenhower to calling the whole thing off?
Alex Kershaw: He wouldn’t have called the whole thing off. What he would have done was to delay the invasion yet again, because what had happened was the invasion was supposed to go ahead on the 5th of June, but on the 4th of June, because of the terrible weather conditions, he had delayed it 24 hours to the 6th of June. He’d been told by his chief meteorologist that there was an 18-hour window beginning on the 5th of June and going into the afternoon of the 6th of June, when the conditions in the English Channel would be still rough, but they wouldn’t be disastrous.
And so the big decision he had was whether he was going to believe that weather forecast and whether he was going to actually launch the invasion on the 6th or wait another couple of weeks for the next possible window of opportunity. About 4:30 in the morning on the 5th of June, he paced back and forth in Southwick House near Portsmouth, in front of his Overlord commanders. And he finally decided that yes, he would pull the trigger and he would take advantage and he would believe the meteorological report. Even though conditions would be rough, the invasion stood a fairly good chance of a success.
Brett McKay: But even then, as you said earlier, Eisenhower and other generals and leaders weren’t 100% sure it was going to be a success. There were some experts who estimated that the casualties of Operation Overlord could reach as high as 70%. Eisenhower even wrote a letter that was to be released if the operation failed, in which he took full responsibility for the failure.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, no one was 100% confident. This is a very, very difficult … this has never been attempted before on this scale. There were, for example, over 700,000 items used during the invasion. The scale of it was mind-boggling. Eisenhower himself said that he was almost more afraid of the scale of the operation and managing it and orchestrating it than he was actually of the reality of carrying it out. Bradley, the American general who would be very much involved in terms of the invasion of Omaha Beach and later on in Normandy, he said that the D-Day invasion was Hitler’s great opportunity and also a great risk to him. He said that Nazism might yet prevail and that if the invasion failed, then the Allies probably would never have gone again. They would have taken an awful long time, if ever, to marshal such a force again. And Nazi Europe may have remained Nazi Europe. We may not have liberated that part of Western Europe.
Brett McKay: Wow. Let’s talk about some of the first people to land in France when the invasion began. You follow this one group of Americans who were American paratroopers who … it was like 12:00 in the morning on June 6th. They were paratrooping in. There was a guy in there, Frank Lillyman was one of the men. He was the first paratrooper to land in France. What was those early groups’ role in the invasion?
Alex Kershaw: Frank Lillyman was in command of the American Pathfinder unit that jumped into Normandy at 12:15 a.m. They were the very first 18 guys. He was their leader, and they were the very first guys to see combat, very first American, I should say, to see combat on D-Day. Their job was to set up radars and very bright lights to guide in the main sky train of Screaming Eagles. So six and a half thousand guys in the 101st Airborne Division, the planes carrying them needed to be guided and directed to the drop zones in Normandy. And Frank Lillyman and his team of Pathfinders arrived first to set up those guiding lights and radars.
The main body of 101st Airborne troops arrived around 12:50 a.m. Lillyman had about half an hour with his men to set up the lights and the beacons, and the main force of six and a half thousand troops from the 101st Airborne came in around 40 minutes later.
Brett McKay: There was very little margin for error.
Alex Kershaw: Very little. No, exactly. Had Lillyman not set up those lights in Drop Zone A, then the first C-47s, the first Dakotas flying all the way across the English Channel wouldn’t have known where to drop their men. As it turned out, the airborne operation on D-Day was very highly disorganized. There was a lot of chaos. It succeeded, but there was an awful lot of chaos. Some guys were dropped 30 miles away from where they were supposed to land. In fact, Lillyman was dropped about a mile away from where he was supposed to be dropped.
It’s very difficult to drop some thousands of troops in darkness under heavy enemy fire and land them in exactly the right place. It was always going to be somewhat disorganized. There were very high risks involved. But thank goodness, the Allied airborne operation worked, although it was very, very chaotic, and a lot of guys lost their lives.
Brett McKay: Well, I mean, you see a lot of improvisation going on. Lillyman dropped, he’s far away, and he’s had to look around and say, “Where can I put this thing?” He had to decide on the fly, “Well, I could put it in this.” I guess it was a church tower he ended up putting it in.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah. What’s interesting about Lillyman was that that was his first day of combat, and that most of the guys in the 101st Airborne had never seen combat before. The 82nd Airborne was a veteran unit. It had been tested already, but the vast majority of Americans and, in fact, Canadians, all of the Canadians, had never seen combat before. Two out of three Americans on D-Day had never had a gun fired at them in anger. So they really were being tested in the most extreme circumstances for the very first time.
Brett McKay: Another individual you followed in this very early part of the invasion was Major John Howard. He was a British Army officer. Tell us about his role in the invasion.
Alex Kershaw: John Howard was the commander of the Ox and Bucks. They were an elite unit, and they were tasked with seizing two critical bridges that had to be held in case the Germans counterattacked. One was called Pegasus Bridge, across the Caen Canal, and there was another bridge nearby across the Orne River. They landed in three Horsa gliders made from wood and canvas, crash landed at 90 miles per hour. Amazingly, the lead pilot, a guy called Jim Wallwork in Howard’s glider, managed to put the nose down of that glider, crash landing at 90 miles per hour, only about 30, 40 yards from Pegasus Bridge. They landed at 12:15 a.m., and they had taken Pegasus Bridge by 12:25, in just 10 minutes.
And then they sent out the first success signal of D-Day, which was a series of code words, “ham and jam”. Ham for one bridge, jam for the other bridge. That signal was sent out at 12:25 a.m. and was the first successful operation completed on D-Day. The first Allied soldier, we believe, to be killed on D-Day was a guy called Lieutenant Dan Brotheridge, who was a very close friend of Major John Howard. Again, all of these guys were seeing combat for the first time.
Brett McKay: You had this initial paratrooper invasion part of the attack, but you also had the invasion coming from the sea. You begin that part of the story with the US Army 8th Infantry Regiment, I believe. One of the division’s acting commanders was Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Tell us about, this is Teddy Roosevelt’s son.
Alex Kershaw: Yeah. You’ve got the most rugged, butch, macho president in US history, and his son is on a landing craft. He begs to go in with the first wave, and actually landed with the first wave, with the 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division at Utah. He’s 56 years old, so he was the oldest general officer on D-Day. He had a bad heart, arthritis, and huffed and puffed his way across Utah Beach using a walking stick. He was so well-connected, given his name and his heritage, that basically the US Army agreed when he begged them to go in with his men in the first wave. But it was extraordinary. I mean, to have that guy who was so old and so senior risk his life in the first wave was amazing.
Brett McKay: Was he a career military officer?
Alex Kershaw: Yes, he was, yeah. He’d fought all the way through World War II. He actually had seen action first of all with the Big Red One, the 1st Division. He’d been in North Africa and then had fought in the Sicilian campaign with the Big Red One. That was the 1st Division. His son actually on D-Day, on June the 6th, 1944, you have Roosevelt at 56 years old, he’s got a son who’s also involved in the landings. His son was with the Big Red One on Omaha Beach. So father and son both seeing action, but on separate beaches on D-Day.
Brett McKay: You have this early morning part of the invasion. It happened right around 12:00, 1:00 in the morning. Then you had another wave of American paratroopers jump out. Who were the men that you follow from this group that jumped out later on in the morning? In the early morning, I’m talking like 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.
Alex Kershaw: Well, I mention several characters within the airborne operation, both American and British. We had the 101st Airborne and the 82nd Airborne on the far western flank of the 50-mile front, and then the 6th Airborne were on the far eastern flank. I take characters from all of the Allied nations. But one guy in particular I really admired was General Jim Gavin, and he was the assistant division commander for the 82nd Airborne. He said that when he jumped, when he landed early in the morning on June the 6th, 1944, there were hardly any men that he could find to put together into a combat unit.
And in fact, he spent the first couple of hours on the ground in Normandy watching a couple of his men fish out equipment from a flooded field, because a lot of fields where the airborne landed had been flooded by the Germans. Tragically, some guys landed with very heavy packs in just three or four foot of water and drowned, because that’s all it would take. There was an enormous amount of chaos, and Gavin said that it took at least a couple of hours before they even had any equipment to fight with.
Maxwell Taylor, the division commander for the 101st Airborne, he said that never had so many been commanded by so few. He had a single private. This is a division commander, had a single private under his command for the first 45 minutes of D-Day. So that just goes to show you how badly dispersed and how chaotic the initial operations were for the airborne divisions.
Brett McKay: How did they keep it together despite all that on-the-ground confusion?
Alex Kershaw: Well, you know, they had the special clickers, the click-clack of these special metal snappers they had. Those are the famous scenes from The Longest Day, when it’s click click, and then you’re supposed to answer with a click click. And it was a lot of chaos and confusion over fear, but you’ve got over 12,000 Americans been dropped into one area of Normandy, and sooner or later they found each other and formed small groups. And then those small groups became bigger groups. But it was 48 hours, it was literally two days, before the 101st Airborne and the 82nd Airborne had real organization and structure and where there was clear command throughout both divisions.
Brett McKay: All right. Also, the dawn part of the day. That’s when the amphibious assault begins. Can you describe what that was like?
Alex Kershaw: Well, it depended where you were. If you were on Utah with Roosevelt and the 4th Division, it was a very successful operation. Out of almost 30,000 Americans landed on Utah Beach, less than 200 were casualties. The largest number of guys killed on Utah were killed by mines on the beach and the dunes just inland. Omaha, it was a very, very different story indeed. Over 900 Americans killed, over 2,500 American casualties, carnage and confusion and chaos and slaughter. If you look at the first 20 minutes of the film Saving Private Ryan, that recreates what it was like in a couple of sectors on that beach early on on D-Day.
Those landing in the first wave in the deadliest sector of Omaha Beach, which is shown in Saving Private Ryan, that was Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division, and out of one National Guard unit of 180 guys landing in the first wave, we believe that 102 were killed and many more were wounded. So it was a slaughterhouse in certain sectors of Omaha Beach. It was very, very bloody indeed. And in fact, we didn’t take control of that entire five and a half miles, six miles of beach until around midday, even though we landed at 6:32 a.m. in the morning. It was a very, very fierce combat. It was very touch and go.
Midday on June the 6th, 1944, Omar Bradley out at sea is looking at Omaha Beach and receiving terrible reports of men being butchered like hogs, that was one report, and was seriously considering withdrawing troops off Omaha Beach, because it was such a disaster. We really, really, really were in serious trouble there in the early hours of D-Day.
Brett McKay: And were they expecting that, or were they expecting this to be like a cakewalk?
Alex Kershaw: A lot of guys had been told that the beach would have been very heavily bombed. There’d be craters to seek shelter in. And that the German defenses would have been destroyed, and that the main thing they should worry about is when they got inland, the Germans would counterattack. So you have to imagine being in the first wave. One guy I follow is a guy called John Spalding, who’s a platoon commander with the Big Red One. He landed at Easy Red sector at around 6:32 a.m. on June the 6th, 1944. You have to imagine what it was like for him when he dared glance over the side of that landing craft coming in in very rough seas, and he sees that everything that he’s been told would happen hasn’t happened.
The beach defenses haven’t been destroyed, the German machine gun emplacements and strong points haven’t been touched, and he knew 300 or 400 yards from Omaha Beach coming in in the first wave that he was basically approaching a death trap. And that’s exactly what it turned out to be. His unit, E Company of the 16th Infantry Regiment, suffered over 50% casualties on D-Day. That’s more than half of the guys with him were killed or wounded.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about the British part of the Allied invasion. One character that stood out to me was Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat. Tell us about this guy, because he led this group, but he also had a pipeman just follow him around everywhere.
Alex Kershaw: Well, I love Lord Lovat. He was 34 years old. He had two and a half thousand British commandos under his control. 177 of those guys were actually Frenchmen, the Kieffer Commando. But he’d only been in combat two days previously during the entire war, but those two days had seen really spectacularly successful commando raids, so by the time he landed on June the 6th, 1944 at Sword Beach with the first wave of commandos, he was a legend among his troops. He was an Oxford graduate, an aesthete, very ruthless Scottish Highland chief.
He had the only guy among the Allied forces, the over 150,000 guys coming from the sea, the only guy who wore a kilt and played the pipes. It was a guy called Bill Millin, a fellow Scotsman, and incredibly, when they landed Lovat went first and Millin was a few yards behind him. Millin was playing the pipes, and Lovat kept saying to Millin, “Keep playing the pipes.” And he played the pipes all that day. I found a really amazing oral history with Bill Millin, who survived the war. Lovat was very badly wounded about a week later.
Millin survived the war, and he said that when he came in on D-Day, Lovat told him to play the pipes, and he was wearing his kilt, and he watched Lovat go first, because he wanted Lovat to test the water to see whether it was going to be up his neck or up to his waist. Lo and behold, it was only up to Lovat’s waist. Millin wasn’t wearing anything underneath his kilt, like a true Scotsman. You’re not supposed to wear underwear if you’re a true Scot, under your kilt. He said that the water was extremely cold indeed, and his private parts were very small indeed after he’d been in the water for a while. But then incredibly, he waded ashore, and he walked up and down this beach under very intense fire three times, playing the pipes under Lovat’s orders. So extraordinary courage, extraordinary kind of eccentric British attitude towards combat.
Brett McKay: Yeah, was that just like a romantic thing?
Alex Kershaw: Yeah, you couldn’t make it up, really. It was really swashbuckling arrogant British style in combat.
Brett McKay: And how did that group of British soldiers do at Sword? How did they fare?
Alex Kershaw: Well, the commandos came in just after a British unit called the East Yorks, and the East Yorks were very, very much chewed up. They suffered a lot of casualties. But the commandos got across the beach pretty quickly and then pushed inland. Some units from the commandos took the town of Ouistreham. But Lovat’s job was to get ashore and then link up with John Howard and the Ox and Bucks at Pegasus Bridge and reinforce those glider troops that had come in at 12:15 a.m.
In fact, that linkup occurred around midday on June the 6th, and it’s a very famous scene, where John Howard is waiting very impatiently, very anxiously for the commandos to turn up and reinforce him, because he’s under a great strain. And then suddenly one of his men hears this very weird sound. He can’t believe his ears, and he says to a friend of his, a mate of his, “Are those bagpipes? Is that the sound of a bagpipe?” And then sure enough, coming down the road, marching in towards Pegasus Bridge comes Bill Millin, and Lord Lovat just ahead of him, and the British commandos who made that very successful and crucial linkup between the Ox and Bucks and the glider forces and the airborne forces and the seaborne forces.
When those linkups occurred for the British on the eastern flank and then for the Americans, linking up with the 4th Division and the 101st Airborne, they occurred around the same time, late morning of June the 6th. That was a very important moment during the invasion, because what you had is the guys dropped in from the air were now united and working beside the guys that came in from the sea. That was a very important moment, because it meant that we were united on the ground. Airborne forces and seaborne forces could fight together.
Brett McKay: What was the initial German response to the invasion?
Alex Kershaw: They were very shocked. I mean, there’s some famous scenes in books and movies where the Germans shelled, and then they wake up literally and they look out of their pillboxes and they see this invasion armada of the size that occurred on D-Day. So they were stunned. Imagine being a German yokel. You’re in the best place you could possibly be as a German during World War II. It wasn’t Stalingrad, it wasn’t at Anzio. You were having a very nice time indeed in a rural bliss in Normandy. You knew something might happen one day, but then on June the 6th, you wake up and you see this enormous armada and then you see this landing craft coming towards you. So they were shocked. A lot of them were stunned.
Not many of them were crack troops. The heart really wasn’t in it for a lot of them. Some of them were Polish and Russian conscripts. The vast majority were not prepared to fight to the very last breath, so they were shocked. If you go further up the command chain, Erwin Rommel, who was the commander of German forces in Normandy, he wasn’t actually in Normandy that day. He was back in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday. So he heard about the invasion when he was several hundred miles away.
Hitler himself was woken late that morning. He had a habit of going to bed very late and was woken. He didn’t believe that this was the main invasion. He thought it was a diversionary operation, and he thought that the main invasion would still come across the Pas de Calais. That’s the shortest part of the English Channel between England and France, near Calais, 200 or 300 miles from where we actually landed on D-Day. So Hitler actually thought that this was just a diversionary tactic, and he was happy. He said, “Well, you know, we can’t kill the enemy while they’re in England. Now that they’ve arrived in France, we can start to destroy them.” He was a complete crazy madman. Always was, but by that stage of the war was really insane. He was happy. He was seen smiling, because he’d been waiting for this invasion, and finally it had begun.
But even a couple of weeks after D-Day, even late June of 1944, Hitler still wasn’t convinced that all of these guys that we landed in Normandy, that they were the main invasion force. He thought that that would come later, that we still hadn’t thrown everything we had across the English Channel at the Pas de Calais.
Brett McKay: Were the Germans able to regroup at all after the invasion?
Alex Kershaw: Absolutely, yes. They didn’t have enough Panzer divisions, tank divisions close to the Norman invasion beaches to really do a lot of damage on D-Day itself. The 21st Panzer Division did inflict some serious casualties on the British and the Canadians, but within three or four days every Panzer division that they could find in France was rolling its way towards Normandy. And in fact, the Battle of Normandy lasts 77 days, and by late June, early July of 1944, it was a very, very bloody affair indeed.
Now, I have to stress this, that the Allies enjoyed complete air supremacy, so any German vehicle that moved in July of 1944 in Normandy was going to get hit sooner or later by a P-47 Mustang or a Mosquito or an Allied fighter plane. We really could destroy almost everything that moved on the ground, and we could do that on D-Day itself. So you have a German Army that has no air support, absolutely no air support, and yet they fought us to a standstill in Normandy in July of 1944. Over a million Allied soldiers, up against around the same number of Germans in Normandy, and we were going absolutely nowhere. That just goes to show how superb the German forces were, how hard they fought, how great their tactics were, and how tough it was for us. We had the great advantage, and yet we still couldn’t move anywhere.
Brett McKay: At what point did the Allies realize the invasion would be a success?
Alex Kershaw: Well, we knew at the end of D-Day, of course, at June the 6th, that we successfully landed over 150,000 guys from the sea, and I think 23,000 guys from the air. But we were not sure how long we were going to stay. I mean, no one knew what the German reaction would be exactly and how many forces they would throw at us, and whether we could push further inland. The furthest penetration on D-Day inland was by the Canadians. It was around eight miles. If you looked at Omaha Beach, we only went less than two miles inland. We were really, really under a lot of pressure by the end of D-Day there. It had been a very, very difficult fight indeed. So we had landed men, but the big fight was coming.
We knew that if we could get ashore on D-Day, the big, big challenge would be to push further inland and take key objectives. We had limited success on D-Day. Two cities in particular, Caens and the town of Bayeux, we were supposed to seize those on D-Day. Caens in particular was a crucial objective. It was a main road junction. We had to take it to be able to press out of Normandy and reach Paris, and it took us another seven weeks. We were supposed to take it on June the 6th, and it took us another seven weeks to take that city. And yet we were in the outskirts of that city on the evening of D-Day. So that just goes to show you the extent of the German counterattacks and how tough the fighting was after D-Day.
Brett McKay: And D-Day just set up larger battles. I mean, the Battle of the Bulge happened, I guess that happened in the winter of that year?
Alex Kershaw: Yes, definitely. The Battle of Normandy, we broke out of Normandy in early August of 1944, more than seven weeks after D-Day. So we broke out during Operation Cobra. And then the 77th day Battle of Normandy, in which 20,000 Americans were killed, over 100,000 Allied casualties, that ended on the 25th of August, 1944, with the liberation of Paris. That’s the sort of formal historically accepted end of the Battle of Normandy.
But then we had to do a very difficult job, which was to then defeat Nazi Germany in Germany, and that began in September of 1944 with American forces nearing Aachen, and then December 1944 there was the Battle of the Bulge, the greatest battle ever fought by the US Army, over 800,000 Americans involved. And then it was a bitter long slog right through to victory in Europe on the 7th of May, 1945. And it got more and more difficult in terms of combat the longer that war lasted. Just one example. I’m sorry, almost 20,000 Americans killed in Europe alone in January of 1945, which is the highest number of American fatalities in World War II in Europe, higher even than June and July of 1944 during the Battle of Normandy.
Brett McKay: One thing I didn’t know about D-Day that you highlight in this book is that only three American soldiers who took part in the invasion earned the Medal of Honor. But you describe all these super heroic actions that so many soldiers took. Why were so few Medal of Honors given out?
Alex Kershaw: Well, there were four American Medal of Honor recipients on D-Day. One was actually Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the general we talked about earlier on. He received the Medal of Honor. Actually died tragically of heart attack on the 12th of July. He’s buried beside his brother in the Colleville-sur-Mer graveyard today. And then there were three other Americans who received the highest award for valor. They all belonged to the Big Red One, the 1st Division, which landed on Omaha beach. And of those three guys, only one guy came home.
Now, there were 153 Distinguished Service Crosses awarded to Americans for actions on the Omaha Beach. There probably should have been more. Certainly, there were several cases of guys who should have received the Medal of Honor for their valor on Omaha Beach whose medal recommendations were downgraded. One of the guys that did actually receive the medal, one of the three guys that received the medal from the Big Red One for actions on Omaha, was a guy called Jimmie Monteith, and he was fatally wounded on Omaha. Incredibly, Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower intervened and placed a note in the recommendation file saying that Monteith should receive the Medal of Honor, and it shouldn’t be downgraded to a DSC.
There were several cases where guys had Medal of Honors downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross, and this was done by three-man committees far, far away from the front line. They were basically bureaucrats, downgrading Medal of Honor recommendations. I think the fear was that there would have been too many guys receiving the Medal of Honor, and that somehow that might have diluted its importance. But if you look at it and you really understand what happened on Omaha Beach, there should have been dozens of guys received the Medal of Honor, because the actions they performed were absolutely what the Medal of Honor requires. They had to show intrepidity, great courage, and they had to lead others and save other guys’ lives, and that’s what exactly they did. There were dozens and dozens of guys who died doing that, and I believe that it would be a good thing if in the next few years we actually took those cases of guys that had their awards downgraded and did them some justice.
Brett McKay: Is there a movement afoot to do that?
Alex Kershaw: I don’t know whether it’s widespread. I certainly know that there are several cases of guys who received a DSC. For example, Dick Winters with E Company of the 101st Airborne, the famous commander of Easy Company of Band of Brothers fame, he received the DSC, and a lot of people think that he should have received the Medal of Honor. There was a movement at one point to have him have his DSC upgraded to a Medal of Honor. I think, you know, it’s astonishing when you think that out of all those guys on D-Day, out of more than 50,000 American troops on D-Day, only four guys received the highest award for valor.
Well, put it this way. The British have even more to complain about, because we only had one guy, one single British guy, receive our highest award for valor, which was the Victoria Cross. And that seems to me to be astonishing, that we only had one out of so many tens of thousands of Brits who was given the highest award.
Brett McKay: Was the same thing happening in Britain as was happening in America? Bureaucrats were just deciding?
Alex Kershaw: I don’t know. It’s a very good question. One of the problems with receiving the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honor is that you have to have eyewitnesses, and you had to have really sort of firm, documented statements from people that saw you carry out the action. The problem on Omaha, in particular, was that so many officers were killed, so that even though they’d seen extraordinary acts of valor, there was no one around afterward to bear witness to it. Many veterans have told me over the years that there were so many cases of guys that should have received the Medal of Honor, but no one was alive to record their actions, and that the officers that were alive at the time were killed later. There was so much confusion and carnage that many, many, many acts of extreme valor went unnoticed and unreported.
Brett McKay: Alex, what do you want people to be left feeling and thinking after they finish your book?
Alex Kershaw: I want people to realize that it was a very tough job indeed, that there was no assurance of success on D-Day, and that it really came down to individuals in the end. It came down to key combat leaders, young combat leaders, many of them untested, who carried the day. We really did reach certain key critical moments on D-Day, where if it had not been for certain individuals, that invasion would have failed, and world history would have been different.
So a massive operation, huge, hard to get your head around. But when it came down to it, it really, really depended for its success on certain individuals. And I think when the mission is right, when the stakes are very, very high, when civilization is on the line, ordinary people can perform miracles. And that really is the takeaway from my book, that these extraordinary acts of heroism were performed by ordinary individuals who’d never been in combat before.
Brett McKay: Well, Alex, where can people go to learn more about the book?
Alex Kershaw: You can to go amazon.com or my website, alexkershaw.com, and Barnes & Noble. Any good bookstore is going to have the book. The books are there right now.
Brett McKay: Well Alex Kershaw, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Alex Kershaw: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today is Alex Kershaw. He is the author of the book The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You’ll also find out more information about his work at his website, alexkershaw.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/d-day, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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