D-Day 70th anniversary: Battle came at a cost on historic day

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It is considered the greatest military invasion of all time, but the normandy landings came at a bloody cost. Molly Lynch reports.

THE EYES of the world will be fixed on the beaches of Normandy today for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Heads will be bowed in moments of contemplation and silent tears will be shed as wreaths are laid – all of which paint a stark contrast to the harrowing events which unfolded on the very same land on June 6, 1944.

The military invasion which marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War began just after midnight.

Meticulous planning had gone in to the offensive against the Nazis. Timing was everything. It had originally been scheduled to take place on May 1 that year, but was delayed to allow for the right conditions.

German coastal batteries between Le Havre and Cherbourg were bombed by the Allies, followed by British airborne troops beginning 
their attack on Pegasus Bridge and others along the River Orne.

Over the next five hours the combined bombardment and assault fleets anchored, while allied warships began bombarding the Normandy coastline.

By the early hours of the morning, more than 5,300 tonnes of bombs had been dropped on the German shore defences.

As dawn broke, Wave upon wave of serried ships edged closer to the shores.

Spread across a 50-mile stretch of shore, the five beaches were known by special codenames.

The Americans began landing on Utah beach, while the British swarmed Gold and Sword beaches, Canadian troops descended on Juno beach soon after.

Back on home soil, the Yorkshire Evening Post hit the stands with a reassuring message to its readers from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, ‘Invasion of Northern France goes according to plan,’ declared the day’s headline.

When troops first began to land, only 14 of the 58 German divisions in France were there to face them.

A correspondent for the Combined British Press reported a ‘lack of appearance in strength’ of the Luftwaffe and ‘few losses’.

And naval commander Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, 
said the landings had taken the Germans completely by surprise.

He added: “There was a slight loss in ships but so slight that it did not affect putting armies ashore.

“We have got all the first wave of men through the defended beach zone and set for the land battle.”

But the enemy proved resistant. As the first infantrymen set foot on the beaches, large-scale bloodshed began.

One Yorkshire veteran has since recalled his comrades ‘dropping like flies’ as they ran across the sands attempting to dodge bullets and treading on mines.

Over the Channel the PM addressed the House of Commons on the operation.

The landing of airborne troops was ‘on a scale far larger than anything there has been so far in the world’, he told MPs.

By the afternoon, however, counter attacks led to more casualties. What are now revered as glorious acts of heroism came at a grave cost.

And things didn’t all go to plan. During the landing at Omaha, difficulties in navigation caused the majority of landing craft to miss their targets throughout the day. Defences were unexpectedly strong, and inflicted heavy casualties on landing US troops.

On the whole, however, the vast majority of objectives had been achieved by sunset.

In the 24-hour period which became known as D-Day, a total of 75,215 British and Canadian troops and 57,500 US troops had landed by sea, with a further 23,400 arriving by air.

Within the next 10 days, half a million men had landed in Normandy. The German 7th and 15th Army were being pushed back.

France was being liberated from occupation at long last.

The significance of the military success is one which is forever etched in the history books, but it is the sacrifice made by the 10,000 men who were killed, horribly injured or went missing that day which will be at the forefront of commemorative events today.

Regional branches of the Normandy Veterans Association, including Yorkshire contingents, are expected to disband within the year due to dwindling numbers.

Calling upon the nation to remember those lost their lives in the landings, Prime Minister David Cameron today said it ‘there has never been a more important time’ to reflect on their sacrifice.

He said: “Just as British and French soldiers fought for victory against a common enemy on the beaches of Normandy, today France and the UK stand shoulder to shoulder against the threats of the modern world.”

Throughout the decades which followed the D-Day landings the Yorkshire Evening Post has paid tribute to those who lost their lives, and the brave men lucky enough to have survived.

The ‘immeasurable’ debt of honour owed to both the 
men and women involved in the long battle is one which readers have frequently been reminded of on the pages of this newspaper.

Back in 1994, the Yorkshire Evening Post marked the 50-year anniversary of the landings with the stories of men involved in the invasion.

Soldier-poet Jack Hodgson penned a poignant reminder of the Longest Day in verse.

“The fighting was ferocious, many men were killed,” he wrote.

Leeds resident Eric Coleman, who served on anti-submarine minesweeper HMS Steepholm, said: “When we arrived off the French coast in the early hours we moved out behind them and formed a semi-circle with all their big guns pointing towards the shore.

“At a given signal they opened fire in a deafening crescendo, then the sky filled like swarms of flies with hundreds of aircraft flying over the coastline and dropping bombs. It was absolutely ear-shattering.”

Mr Coleman embodies the essence of stoicism of the men who took part in the Normandy landings.

“I still feel proud I was part of this momentous occasion and it is something I will never forget.”

And neither will we, Eric.

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