It was a daring plan. The spearhead of the D-day landings was to capture two bridges intact.
Who should be in charge of the German forces but Field Marshal Rommel? And he had reinforced German defences all along the Normandy beaches. The single most vulnerable point of the allied invasion lay on its eastern flank. If the Germans could counterattack with tanks, they would pick off the allied forces as they landed, division by division.
Only by holding ‘Pegasus’ bridge over the River Orme, the key crossing point in that region, could the Germans be kept back. The plan was for paratroopers in gliders to land silently during the night, right beside the defended bridges, before the Germans could blow them. The gliders would be coming in at 100 mph, with no guiding lights.
Meanwhile there had been crowded, eve-of-battle religious services on landing craft, ships and airfields. Earlier King George VI had rallied the nation to prayer and armed services chaplains had diligently prayed with and instructed the forces personnel to put their trust in God. Elsewhere there were prayer vigils. General Montgomery had addressed allied troops, saying, ‘Let us pray that the Lord, mighty in battle, will give us victory’.
So what was the outcome? On the eve of the Allied invasion, a gale blew up, becoming steadily worse. This made conditions for landing craft impossible and the invasion was postponed for a day.
But this same weather completely distracted the Germans. As The Times commented (11 September 1944), ‘The German commanders were advised by their meteorological service that there could be no invasion in the period including 6 June because of continuous stormy weather.
‘That is why D-day forces, landing … in the windiest month in Normandy for at least 20 years, found so many German troops without officers, and why enemy coastal units were having exercises at the time of the landings’.
Rommel had concluded it was a good time to travel back to Germany for his wife’s birthday. So, when the landings came, he was 500 miles away. Extraordinarily, on the eve of his previous big battle at El Alamein, he was having hospital treatment in Germany. Prior to this battle too, there had been a National Day of Prayer, with churches full across the nation.
Meanwhile, General Eisenhower, responsible for when the invasion should commence, wrestled with his decision. He commented (TIME magazine, 16 June 1952): ‘If there was nothing else in my life to prove the existence of an almighty God, the events of the next 24 hours did it’.
The next day there was a moderating of the weather, and the invasion went ahead. The Germans remained unsuspecting, and, according to David Gardner, the Daily Telegraph reported that this was the only night their U-boat submarines did not patrol the channel.
As 4000 ships and 11,000 planes — the biggest amphibious invasion in history — advanced across the English Channel, they encountered hardly any hostile forces. At midnight on the eve of D-day, the first glider descended towards Pegasus bridge.
At first the pilot, Jim Wallwork, could not see the bridges, canal or river. He was only flying on stopwatch time to calculate his position. But, at 200ft, the clouds cleared and revealed the river and canal, like strips of silver, at just the right moment.
The bridge loomed and Wallwork released a braking parachute. The glider landed, sparks flying, with the barbed wire ahead rushing towards it. The aim was to crash through enemy barbed wire, right beside the bridge. Maximum surprise had been achieved.
As a diversion, allied bombers had been bombing a cement factory at nearby Caen. The bridge guards assumed a stricken bomber had fallen from the sky, not an unusual occurrence, and continued to patrol the bridge unsuspecting.
The British paratroopers, dazed by the landing, gathered themselves. Major John Howard, in charge of the platoon, commented: ‘When we came to our senses, we realised there was no firing. There was no enemy firing. It all seemed quite unbelievable’.
Minutes later, 22 paratroopers advanced over the bridge at a steady trot towards the guards, who, terrified, dived into the bushes. Within ten minutes, the garrison had been overwhelmed and the bridge taken intact.
But German counter-attacks were alerted. Until allied reinforcements arrived, the British glider paratroopers were on their own. It was not long before two German tanks arrived, with four more on the way. The paratroopers had a single anti-tank gun with a range of just 50 yards.
Thornton, the paratrooper with the gun, had just one chance. But, amazingly, his shell hit the tank right in the middle, setting off its machine gun clips, which in turn set off its grenades and shells. Soon the burning tank became such a spectacular fireworks display that it enabled lost paratroopers to become re-orientated towards them. It also blocked the road leading up to the bridge, thwarting the German advance.
Meanwhile, Colonel von Luck, commander of the panzer tank regiment in the locality, mustered his force to counter-attack. But he was unable to give the order for them to go, for the German armoured divisions remained under the personal command of Hitler, who had to be satisfied that this was the real invasion.
Yet Hitler was sleeping, and no one wanted to wake the Fuhrer. Was this the real invasion? The allies’ deception plan, to fool the Germans into thinking the attack would come near Calais, had succeeded, and the Germans were not persuaded that the invasion was anything but a diversion (which Hitler believed until August).
Although stiff resistance was faced on Omaha Beach, at Utah Beach the American divisions landed at the wrong place, which worked in their favour as the beach was less defended there. Also at Utah, the Germans’ tractor tanks were unable to start and oppose the advancing armada.
Chaplain Burkhalter, on a landing craft at Omaha Beach wrote home: ‘It was a pure miracle we even took that beach at all. Yes, there were a lot of miracles on the beach that day. As we approached the French coast I began praying more earnestly than ever, and our assault craft was miraculously spared.
‘The enemy was well dug in and had set up well prepared positions for machine guns and had well chosen positions for sniping. Everything was to their advantage and to our disadvantage except one thing, the righteous cause for which we are fighting — liberation and freedom’.
As he climbed up the cliffs beyond the beach, he continued: ‘While there I did most of my praying. Shells were falling all around and how I knew that God alone was able to keep them away from us. I shall never forget those moments. I am sure that during that time I was drawn very close to God’.
Bomber pilot Henry Tarkza (US 8th Air Force) wrote: ‘I gazed with awe at the hundreds of ships and boats off Omaha Beach below … it appeared from our altitude that one could almost step from one vessel to another and walk between England and France. We encountered no German aircraft in the target area and enemy gunfire was very light and inaccurate’.
Lt Abe Dolin (navigator, 94th bomb group) added: ‘We saw nothing but [allied] bombers and escorting fighters’. Escorting Spitfire pilot Wing Cr Johnny Johnson said, ‘We never saw a sign of the Luftwaffe!’
As night fell at the end of D-day, 150,000 allied troops were on Normandy soil, rising to 300,000 along with 54,000 vehicles over the following six days. The liberation of Europe from the evils of Nazism had begun.
But what of those who fell and gave their lives for this freedom? Recently, our family walked among the graves at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Bayeux. We were very moved by some of the grave inscriptions.
They read: ‘Worthy for the task before him, he now rests with Christ forever’ (Pte D. F. Williams); ‘I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith’ (L. Cpl. T. H. Jones); ‘The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent one from another’ (L. Cpl. J. French). Their sacrifice resonates to us today and inspires our gratitude.
Today’s accounts of the D-day landings often sanitise out references to God’s deliverance. But, at the time, newspapers eulogised over the miracles of D-day, Dunkirk, El Alamein and the Battle of Britain. The nation on its knees in prayer had seen dramatic deliverances.
Now, with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2 approaching, let us remember that it was God who delivered us from the barbarities of Nazism. As different, and often global, forces of unrighteousness gain momentum within our nation, may the memory of God’s past providences inspire us to trust him for the future.
The author is a research scientist and member of Mottram Evangelical Church
References: Ambrose S., Pegasus Bridge; Simon and Schuster.
Bowman M.W., Remembering D-day — personal histories of everyday heroes; Imperial War Museum/Harper-Collins. Gardner D.E., The trumpet sounds for Britain, Vol. 2. God’s great miracles of deliverance; Christian Foundation Publications. Holt T. and V., Pocket battlefield guide to D-Day Normandy landing beaches; Pen & Sword Books.