Muir Adair’s story – Chapter 4: D-Day

Chapter Four: D-Day (by Flight Sergeant Muir Adair)

I have been asked on several occasions what the “D” stands for in D-Day and am reminded that it has been called Deliverance Day, Demarcation Day, Decision Day and one wit even said it stands for Doomsday.  In actual fact, it stands for nothing at all.  The exact day and timing for a military operation is seldom known during the early planning stages and therefore “D” stands for nothing other than the “day” on which the plan will be put into effect and “H” stands for the hour at which it will commence.  A plan might say “on ‘D’ day and at ‘H’ hour an attack will commence from the right flank”, the exact day and time being inserted at a later date.  The phrase is usually used in combination with numbers.  “D plus 2” is the second day after the attack and “H minus 5” would be five hours before the attack.  The terminology has been used since the First World War.

Millions of words have been written about June 6th, 1944.  Hundreds of books have been published and thousands of critiques made on the subject.  It was, after all, the largest amphibious attack operation ever undertaken.  The Allies landed about 160,000 troops in Normandy that day.  Allied aircraft flew a total of 15,000 sorties.  Nine hundred gliders and 6,000 vessels were involved.  Of the latter, 1,200 were combat ships and 4,000 were landing ships of all kinds.  Thousands of merchant vessels provided stand-by.  Total allied casualties were estimated to be 10,000, of which 2,500 were killed and the rest either missing or wounded.  German casualties are unknown but are estimated to be as high as 9,000.

In 1944, the Americans had neither the technical equipment nor the trained personnel to maintain and operate the sophisticated radar for control of the skies and it was therefore decided that the Royal Air force Ground Control Interception units would accompany invasion troops during the initial landings in France.  The gods decreed that G15082, with me as Chiefy, would be attached to the first American assault troops on what historians would later identify as “Bloody Omaha”.

During final briefing in Portland we were advised that our LCT would lead the other four onto the beach at 0900 hours on D-Day, June 6th.  Right on schedule, a navy patrol craft, tossing about in the rough sea, came alongside, asked for our identification code number, and shouted “In you go then”.  As we got closer it was evident that the beach was in shambles.  No control had been established, cleared areas had not been identified and exit routes were not marked.  We were to learn later that the beachmaster and his troops hadn’t even been landed.  The beach was littered with debris, burned-out vehicles and bodies.  Anyone still alive was attempting to take cover behind or under whatever wreckage existed.  The sky was lit up with shell bursts and the noise was eardrum shattering.  It would have been impossible for us to go operational under such conditions.  We were ordered back to sea to stand by, while naval guns pounded the shore.

Having attempted to land at about 11.00, we then withdrew and by mid-afternoon, not having heard otherwise, and since no other landings had taken place, we concluded that we probably would not be going ashore until the next day.  However, at about 17.00, our coxswain advised that the Senior Royal Air Force Officer – “Officer Commanding Troops” – had ordered us in.  We about-turned and headed for the beach.  It was now low tide and beach obstacles laid by the Germans were fully exposed.

Several weeks earlier, during one of our briefing sessions, I was told that I would be the lead truck off the first LCT and, with this in mind, since my knowledge of trucks was minimal, I had assigned the lead fitter to ride with me.  If anything happened to my truck I wanted someone there who knew a lot more about internal combustion engines than I did.  About two or three days before D-Day, the CO advised me that a Boffin (Scientist) from 60 Group would be riding with me as it had been decreed that a specialist should be with the unit in the event his knowledge was needed.  I was not happy.  Instead of having a knowledgeable mechanic, I was saddled with a “brain” who had no Combined Operation experience, knew nothing about wet landings and probably would have to be babied until I could get rid of him.  My dream of having the Lead Fitter with me in the event of an emergency, evaporated.

I needn’t have worried.  The “Boffin” did more than his share.

On approaching shore, it was apparent that the whole landing area was a disaster, not only the beach itself.  Some vehicles were stranded on sand bars, others simply drowned as they drove off the ramp of the LCT’s.  Those that were landed on sand bars dropped into several feet of water as they moved forward.  Others bogged down closer to the shore and, as the tide rose, were also drowned.  My vehicle hit deep water immediately and likewise drowned.  My passenger “Boffin” volunteered to wade ashore and hopefully get help to drag out a cable from a still operating winch on the beach.  Assuming that I would land without getting too wet, he gave me his camera, an official Leica with which he was supposed to get pictures of anything interesting for 60 Group.  The tide was now coming in fast and within a few minutes, the cab having filled with water, I forced the door open, jumped into the sea and began to swim, still loaded with much of my equipment and the Boffin’s precious camera.  My feet touched bottom about one second before my strength ran out completely.  I have no idea how long I was in the water, nor how far I drifted.  My only concern was to keeping alive and once or twice I wasn’t too sure as to whether that was happening.  Eventually I waded ashore among wrecked trucks, half tracks, bodies and German anti-landing devices.  At the time, I had no idea where I was.

Upon struggling up on the shore, considerably east of our planned and expected landfall, the only member of my crew that I could locate was a young operator, his left arm blown off, lying dead on the beach.  A few days earlier he had told me that he was planning to open a jewelry store when he got back to Civvy Street.  I dodged from one wrecked vehicle to another, working my way off the beach and over loose shingle into the lee of an overlapping earth shelf that provided some cover.  Several American Rangers and a few sailors had taken cover under the same shelf.  I looked back and couldn’t believe that, just a few minutes earlier, I had been in the middle of all that chaos.  There were shattered trucks, debris of all sorts, German tank obstacles and bodies – many bodies.  The whole front was being pounded by .88 guns, heavy artillery and other assorted weaponry.  Considerably farther down the beach to the west, a moving bulldozer appeared to be pushing some wreckage aside in an attempt to create an exit.  The operator took a hit and tumbled off.  Another combat engineer climbed up, moved the bulldozer a few feet and also took a hit.  The bulldozer stopped.  In glancing around at the assorted group of American Rangers and sailors that had hunkered down around me, I noted that there didn’t seem to be any NCOs or officers.  In answer to the obvious question, I was told that rank insignia had been removed on board ship as information had been received that German snipers were picking off anyone who appeared to be in command.  Nobody had told me about this rather disturbing problem and so, with all my stripes and golden crowns shining out for all to see, and whether I liked it or not, I was apparently in charge.  When a bullet bounced off a rock an inch or so from my right elbow, I hurriedly picked up a nearby flight jacket (where had that come from?) and camouflaged myself enough to hopefully confuse enemy snipers.  An 88 burst just behind us, spraying shrapnel in all directions.  I jumped to my feet, grabbed a carbine lying nearby (my Sten gun was lost with the truck), shouted “Let’s get out of here”, scrambled across the loose shingle, over the embankment, across some grass, and tumbled into a trench that ran parallel to the beach, my rag-tag group of lost souls following close behind.

There was considerable machine gun fire in the vicinity but it seemed to be farther to the west and, after a few minutes, having rallied my reluctant army, we climbed out of the trench, and zig-zagged across gently rising terrain into another trench.  It seemed that the Germans had built several connecting trenches between their gun emplacements and other strong points.  As we stumbled into the second trench, firing indiscriminately at anything ahead of us, several German soldiers evacuated the far end, firing shots as they disappeared over the top.  After a few minutes to get our breath, we climbed out of our second trench, zig-zagged a few more yards, attracting some small arms fire for our trouble, and slid into a third one.  To our surprise, there were several American Rangers in this trench and their Lieutenant.  In the course of our scurrying we had lost four members, had mysteriously added a medic from somewhere, and acquired a Navy Petty Officer.  As it was now quite dark and we apparently had no place to go anyhow, the lieutenant suggested that we take a breather and hunker down for the night.

I sent a couple of Rangers to explore our trench and they returned to advise that at the eastern terminus they had found a terrified French mother and her two children cowering in a corner.  I immediately went forward, attempted in my broken French to calm them down, gave them some K Rations to munch on and advised that we would post a soldier to protect them.  I’m not too sure whether they understood me or not but the children stopped whimpering when they found chocolate in the rations.  I detailed one of the sailors, who, as luck would have it, had spent some time in France, to stay with them.

Sometime later we heard American voices nearby and a scout, who had been sent to reconnoiter, returned to advise that farther up the trench to the west, there were several rangers and an American captain.  The captain had received a signal to the effect that consideration was being given to abandoning the beach and suggested that we remain where we were until dawn at which time, together with his men, we would attempt a break-out to either make contact with the British on the eastern flank or with the Americans to the west on Utah Beach.

We hunkered down where we were and, despite still being soaked, I passed out immediately.  Somebody shook my shoulders a moment or two later, said that it was almost daylight, and that the Captain, with his men had arrived.  I struggled awake and gathered our group together.  The Captain, who obviously knew much more than I did about such matters, detailed us into three platoons, one under the command of the lieutenant, one under the Petty Officer and the third, despite my arguments that I would have failed every course in military tactics ever concocted, if indeed I had ever taken any, under me.

D-Day +1 had commenced.

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