The liberation of Europe begins with Normandy beach landings

Last Sunday, June 6, marked the 77th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the Normandy coast of northern France.

Sunday, 13th June 2021, 4:10 pm
US troops in an LCVP landing craft approaching Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Picture: Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the US National Archives
US troops in an LCVP landing craft approaching Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Picture: Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the US National Archives

The invasion of Europe which began in the early morning of that June day in 1944 freed the continent of the horrors of Nazi Germany, still holds epic historic proportions for many right down to today.

Personally, I remember, when I was in my mid teens, my parents taking my sisters and I to visit the Normandy beaches. I was struck then by the enormity of what had occurred on those beaches, especially when we walked around the huge British and American cemeteries, to visit the decaying Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches- les-Bains (I still have the keyring memento that I bought along with waffles and cream that day) and Juno beach at Courseuilles-sur-Mer.

That was still the case, when I returned to the Normandy beaches in my mid 30s, when I got a chance to explore the towns Second World War archives at Caen and visit historic Bayeux which were mentioned in the despatches from the war in 1944. And reading through the News Letters from the time for this feature, it has put it my mind of the need to return to Normandy for a third time – when the battle with the Covid-19 pandemic has been won.

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Royal Marine Commandos moving off the Normandy Beaches during the advance inland from “Sword” beach. Picture: PA Wire

Reading through the News Letters from the time for this feature, it has put it my mind of the need to return to Normandy for a third time – when the battle with the pandemic has been won.

On Wednesday, June 7, 1994, an editorial published by the News Letter declared: “An Allied invasion of Western Europe has begun - and begun well - with landing in France That there will be other assaults elsewhere goes almost without saying (“the first of a series,” Mr Churchill calls it), but this operation on the coast of Normandy, which started early yesterday morning, seems to have been conceived on the grand scale, and its initial success is more than encouraging.”

‘FINAL CHAPTER IN THIS WAR OF LIBERATION’

When the Northern Ireland House of Commons met on the day of the invasion Sir Basil Brooke, the prime minister, made a statement on the invasion, and asked Ulster people to support the Allied Armies by “redoubling efforts to supply all the munitions and equipment that will be needed until the day of triumph dawns”.

A radar room aboard the Fighter Direction Ships that helped control sea and air traffic during the D-Day landings in June 1944. Picture: PA Photo

Sir Basil said: “On a day so momentous as this, when the forces of the Allied Nations have launched a new attack against the enemy in Western Europe and opened what we all hope will the final chapter in this war of liberation, I am sure that every member of this House will deem it fitting that some reference should be made here and now to the events that fill our thoughts.

“I believe that I truly interpret the feelings of the House when I ask you, Sir, to convey to General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, expression of our confidence in his leadership and in the fighting qualities of all under his command, together with our hope and prayer that at no distant date the enterprise in which the United Nations are engaged will issue in overwhelming victory.

“Behind the Allied Armies are the people on the Home Front, all of them eager to support the fighting men with all the energy and all the moral and spiritual resources they possess. At this moment American, Canadian, and British Forces are making a supreme effort for victory. The very least we at home can do is to support them to the utmost by redoubling our efforts to supply them with all the munitions and equipment which they will need until the day of triumph dawns.

“I, therefore, call on managements and workers alike in factories turning out supplies of all kinds not to lose one minute in getting down to their jobs and sticking to them until complete and final victory has been won.”

A undated picture of the D-Day landing in Normandy, France, in June 1944. Picture: PA Photo

Mr Nixon (Independent, Woodvale), Mr Beattie (Labour, Pottinger), Mr Andrews (Unionist. Mid-Down), Mr Elliott (Unionist, South Tyrone), Mr Minford (Unionist, Antrim), Mr Johnston (Unionist, North Armagh), and Mr Agnew (Labour, South Armagh) also spoke in support.

EX-NEWS LETTER REPORTER WITNESSES LANDINGS

Graphic details of the Normandy invasion arrived with the News Letter in Belfast from a name well known in the local press. Ernest E Sandford, a Portrush man, had been a member of staff with the News Letter and who in June 1944 was the Press Association’s war correspondent with the US Army Air Force.

Sandford wrote: “Tonight my portable typewriter will have a red bomb painted on it and the words ‘D Day’ underneath, because it flew this morning in a Liberator, one of the second wave of heavy bombers to launch the daylight air assault on the right wing of the invaded coast of France.”

Allied forces begining the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, in June 1944. Picture: PA Photo/ Imperial War Museum

He continued: “Sitting on the typewriter and looking down through the waist-gunner’s windows I saw the invasion fleets cross the Channel and disappear below the clouds that all morning overhung the coast of France. The battles for the beaches were not visible from our squadron of 12 Liberators of the US Eigth Air Force as we flew inland towards our target, a rain and road bottle-neck behind the German’s coast defences.”

Sandford flew on a Liberator that had been called ‘Desperate Desmond” by its crew. He reported what the crew had experienced as the flew into war. He wrote: “As the crews of the Liberators gathered in the briefing room three other squadrons were taking off to strike the first day air blow in the invasion. Colonel Jacob J Brogger had the distinction of flying the first bomber over the Continent on Invasion Day.

“At 6.20am a green light signalled ‘Desperate Desmond’ to take off. There followed more than an hour of circling, climbing and assembling, during which the waist-gunner lay down and slept, and others talked over the ‘intercom.

“At 15,000 feet the squadron crossed the Channel coast. All eyes were strained to catch the first sight of the invasion ships. The right waist-gunner clutched my shoulder and pointed down, grinning excitedly behind his mask.

“Almost directly below were ships towing barges filled with troops. Each ship looked like a toy on a green card table.

“The men in the air felt a tugging bond holding them top the seaborne troops, and every face in the bomber was grim as the barges were left behind.

“The pilot announced on the ‘intercom’ that the bombing run would shortly begin. Testing of guns and equipment went on. Suddenly the gunners waved their hands. Darting round the squadron above it and below it, were V-shaped groups of Mustang fighters of the 9th Air Force.

“A mile to right a burst of ‘flak’ spurted up through the clouds and hung in black puffs. It was the only opposition the Germans put up to the squadron in the whole flight. Not a German fighter was seen.”

Sandford’s report concluded: “On the way back a great convoy of several hundred ships was sighted off the English coast. A double line of a powered invasion barges was heading out to sea at the same point.”

HOW INVASION NEWS RECEIVED AROUND THE WORLD

Invasion day was the biggest news day the world has seen since the war began, reported the News Letter in it’s edition on Wednesday, June 4, 1944.

Though the Allied and neutral countries heard of the invasion first from German sources, the Germans themselves learned that the dreaded moment had arrived only after the landings had been under way for half day.

“They were given the news grimly, and told that the hour was one of ‘stark gravity’,” reported the News Letter.

Here is how the news was received throughout the world: United States - “From coast to coast the Americans followed the example of their President and offered prayers for the men of all the United Nations who are engaged in the final, mighty blow for freedom. In New York brokers bowed their heads in prayer in the Stock Exchange. One of Fifth Avenue’s biggest stores closed for the day and freed its employees to visit the churches whose doors were kept open all day.

“There were no noisy demonstrations, no horn blowing or showers of ticker tape from sky-scraper windows.

“From Maine to California, from Wisconsin to Texas the prevailing mood was one of solemnity.”

Russia - “The invasion was welcomed with heart-warming response.

“In Moscow, when the radio programme was interrupted for the broadcast of General Eisenhower’s first communique, hundreds rushed into the streets to hear it from the public loudspeakers.

“Red Army men and civilians, their faces wreathed in broad smiles, clapped their hands and greeted Americans and Britons with hearty handshakes.

China - “The Chinese are enthusiastic and optimistic. It is generally predicted that the war in Europe will be over this year, and that an early offensive against Japan can now be expected.”

Italy - “In Rome, still dizzy from the previous day’s scenes of elation, new cheering crowds gathered in the historic Piazza Venezia and there were more hugs and kisses for the Allied soldiers.

“In neutral capitals excited crowds bought up special editions of newspapers and word passed from mouth to mouth, ‘Now Hitler is done for’.”