Newsletter no. 413
The Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture ('DDH') was given by guest speaker Mr. Eric Colmer and entitled "D Day - I was there." As was the case with last month's newsletter, we'll record what Eric had to say:
"When I was approached to talk tonight about D-Day my mind raced back over the years to what was, possibly the greatest event in military history during my lifetime.
It is, however, a solid fact that shortly after midnight on Tuesday 6th June 1944 British gliders and paratroops landed some 5 miles inland from the Normandy beaches. All this happened almost exactly 66 years ago. I propose to give a few thumbnail sketches of the events I personally experienced on, just before and soon after that momentous day.
For two weeks before invasion in tents in Epping Forest, RAF North Weald, all 6th Airborne in Essex and Suffolk got ready on pm of 4th but the invasion was canceled. Ready again on 5th and took off around11 pm.
Imagine a frightened 20 year old Royal Signals corporal in the doorway of a Douglas DC3 getting ready to jump. On landing my wireless set got mashed, so ending my job as a wireless operator.
Wooden Horsa gliders towed by 4 engined Halifax bombers were released and the bombers then went on to bomb Caen. Gliders of 0 Company Ox & Bucks Regiment landed at 00. 16. Their Commander, Major John Howard became the hero of the day. It is interesting to note that rising actor Captain Richard Todd of the 7th Battalion Parachute Regiment, and I landed between bridges and raced over canal bridge. We used hand grenades to attack an enemy guard house and radio room. For many years afterwards we met and could never agree on who pushed in the door and who through the grenades. He died after an illustrious acting career in Dec. 2009 in his nineties. He took the part of Major John Howard in the American film "The Longest Day. " We held the bridges until the arrival of Lord Lovatt's commandos at noon.
During the early stages we were attacked by tanks from Benouville and Le Port. We only had the weaponry that we carried including two Piat anti tank rifles. We did manage to "Steal" a German half track. Eventually painted out the enemy insignia and replaced with own white stars. Pegasus, as you all know, is the winged horse of the gods, after which the canal bridge was named and created a national monument. It is also the shoulder patch of all British airborne troops. The 6th Airborne mission, like the division itself, was special. Eisenhower and Montgomery counted on General Gale to hold back the Germans on the left, making Gale the man most responsible for preventing the ultimate catastrophe of Panzers reaching the beaches, rolling them up, first Sword, then Juno, then Gold, then on to Omaha. Gale was able to hold off the German armour, thanks in critical part to the possession of Pegasus Bridge.
Allied air harassment and the activities of the French Resistance slowed the movement to the battlefield. The only area available to the Germans to form up for such a blow was the area between the Dives and the Orne. The natural line of attack would then have been over Pegasus Bridge, down to Ouistreham, then straight west along the beaches. But because the 6th Airborne held its bridgehead and controlled Pegasus Bridge, Panzer divisions were forced to go around bombed-out Caen, then enter the battle to the west of the city. As a consequence they went into battle piecemeal against the front, not the flank, of the main British forces. In the seven week long battle that followed, the Germans attacked again and again, using up the best of the bulk of their armoured units in the process. Throughout the campaign 6th Airborne held its position, thereby continuing to force the Germans into costly and ineffectual attacks.
What did it all mean? At a minimum, then, failure at Pegasus Bridge would have made D-Day much more costly to the Allies, and especially to the 6th Airborne Division. At a maximum, failure at Pegasus Bridge might have meant failure for the invasion as a whole. with consequences for world history too staggering to contemplate.
I was, and am, honoured to have played a tiny part in the events of 6th June 1944 and as I approach the end of a long and eventful life, vividly recall the band of brothers with whom I lived and was privileged to serve. They fought like tigers and died like heroes."
The main talk was presented by chairman Bill Brady and entitled "Normandy Then and Now - A Power Point Presentation". D-Day - also known as the 'Longest Day' - or - Operation Overlord was the culmination of over two years of meticulous planning by the Allies. In an operation that involved the formation of the largest invasion fleet in history, the massed Allied armies successfully landed in Normandy to punch a hole in the seemingly impregnable walls of Hitler's 'Fortress Europe.' Supported by paratroops, massive aerial bombing, and off shore naval bombardment, the landing troops secured their alloted beachheads on the first day. This talk shows then and now images of the horrors and destructiveness of war. Man has certainly never devised a more wasteful means of settling his differences than in modern day total warfare.
Rommel was aware of the old adage that he who defends all defends none. Nevertheless he was a military man and at this stage still loyal to Fuhrer and Fatherland. Rommel intended to destroy Allied landing craft with underwater obstacles placed just off shore. Blinded by the greatest deception operation in history, German intelligence was misled into a calamitous misinterpretation of Allied intentions. Rundstedt believed that an actual landing could not be prevented and he planned therefore, to hold in strength only key ports and the most vulnerable sections of the coast. By these tactics he hoped to delay any Allied build up long enough to enable him to launch counter attacks and drive them back into the sea. Rommel disagreed and vehemently argued that Allied air power would disrupt Rundstedt's plan
. D Day, the Allied liberation of Europe came at last. The Allied armies landed in Normandy on June 6 1944. Altogether 156,000 troops stormed the beaches that day. By nightfall the much vaunted Atlantic Wall had been breached on a front of 80 kms. Rommel had failed to smash the invasion on the beaches. The German complete lack of intelligence led them to believe that the main invasion would focus on the Calais region. They considered Normandy to be merely a feint. Fortunately, General Patton's deception army before the invasion had kept German attention focused on the Pas de Calais, and indeed high-quality German forces were kept in this area, away from Normandy, until July. By this time, the Allies had landed over two million men, 500,000 vehicles and three million tons of stores. St Lo and Caen finally fell and the Allies emerged from the hedgerow country. But all of this had come at a tremendous cost. The British, Americans and Canadians had suffered 122 000 casualties since the Normandy landings. But they had inflicted terrible casualties on the Germans, over 115 000 were killed, wounded or missing. The cost of liberation was hideously high for French civilians also. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children found themselves caught between the opposing forces.
The Battle of Normandy that lasted 11 weeks was an overwhelming victory for the allied forces. After the Normandy, break out, despite the bitter fighting that continued, the basic issue was no longer in doubt. The unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany was only a matter of time.
The speaker then speculated on what might have happened if D Day had failed. This is one of the great "what ifs" in history. However, in speculating there has to be a real chance that things could have turned out differently because of forces beyond human control. In this particular case, the weather. Throughout military history the cards fall where the wind blows them. The weather has on many occasions determined the result of battles. For example; The Spanish Armada and both Napoleon's and Hitler's Russian campaigns. But rarely have the whims of weather produced more far-reaching consequences than it did at D Day. At the final weather conference scheduled for 04 00 hrs. on June 4. Group Captain Stagg, whom Eisenhower described as a "dour but canny Scot," made the weather predictions. Stagg had bad news. The weather, that had been calm for the first few days of June suddenly deteriorated. June 5 would be overcast and stormy. Eisenhower decided to postpone the invasion for one day. In the early hours of June 5, Stagg made what may be the most famous weather prediction in military history: He forecast that the storm would ease off later that day, and that by June 6, the weather, although still poor, would be acceptable for landing conditions. The rain that was then pouring down would stop before daybreak. There would be thirty-six hours of more or less clear weather. Eisenhower made his decision and stated "Okay, let's go."
What if the storm had continued into June 6? Eisenhower could have called the invasion back, although not easily. If, on the other hand, he had gone ahead with the invasion and the weather had not cleared on June 6th, the consequences may have proved calamitous. The landing craft would have been tossed about like toy boats in a bathtub. Men trying to go ashore from any craft that made it to land would have been exhausted and incapable of fighting. The German defenders, protected from the elements in their bunkers, would have delivered a deadly fire on the hapless Allied infantry. Eisenhower would have had no choice but to cancel the follow-up landings. He almost certainly would not have been able to withdraw many of the men from the initial landings.
June 6, 1944 was not just a decisive military event but also a political one that determined which ideological path Western Europe would follow in the next half century. Hitler was convinced that if the Allied invasion was defeated, they would not attempt another. The Germans could then possibly fight the Soviets to a stand still. Alternatively, it is also possible that Stalin might have overrun Germany, then France, and the war in Europe would have ended with the Soviets in control of the continent. The Red Army would have been on the English Channel. It is hard to imagine a worse outcome. That is a terrible prospect, but it might have happened if the Germans had thrown the Allies back into the sea on D Day.
Thank goodness that canny but dour Scotsman got his weather forecast right.
Fellow member Ian Sutherland presented a vote of thanks to both speakers for their excellent presentations.
THE SOCIETY'S NEXT MEETING:
Thursday 8 July 2010 - 19h00 for 19h30. Venue: Murray Theatre, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.
The Darrell Hall (DDH) Memorial Lecture will be presented by Charles Whiteing on 'A Bridge Called Pegasus.'
The Main Talk will be presented by Dr Lynn Coggin on "Factors Making Durban Vulnerable to Germany and Japan - 1942."
FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: August : October 2010.
(NB - Please note the changes to the DDH Lectures in August and September. Capt Brian Hoffmann and Ken Gillings have swapped dates).
12th AUGUST 2010: DDH - Capt Brian Hoffmann: 'Allied Operations in Syria, Persia & Iraq, May to Sept 1941'. Main Talk - 'The Raid on the Medway' by Jesse Wesseloo.
9th SEPTEMBER 2010: DDH - 'Lt Col JN Crealock's water-colours - Then and Now' by Ken Gillings. Main Talk - "The Role of Indian Troops during the Anglo-Boer War", by Ganes Pillay.
14th October 2010: DDH - "Lt. Col. Paddy Mayne - An SAS Legend" by Bill Brady. Main Talk: "The U-Boat War in WW2 - sinking statistics" by Steve Watt
Tour of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, 17th to 19th September 2010.
2010 Battlefield Tour: This will take place over the weekend of the 18th /19th September 2010. In response to several requests from our members, this year we will focus on the Central Column's invasion of Zululand in 1879 and cover the Battle of Isandlwana and the Defence of Rorke's Drift. For those who wish to, we'll also follow the Fugitive's Trail from Isandlwana to Fugitives' Drift. NB: This will entail a three hour walk followed by the crossing of the Mzinyathi River and should only be attempted if you are fit.
For those who do not wish to walk the trail, we'll need you to ferry the vehicles from Isandlwana to Fugitives' Drift.
A list will be circulated with effect from the next meeting.
Accommodation has been reserved at the Elandsheim Lutheran Church Retreat at Elandskraal and they will soon require a deposit. Please let Ken Gillings know if you wish to attend the tour by e-mailing him on firstname.lastname@example.org . If you would like to contribute to the lectures on site, please indicate this in your e-mail, giving details about your topic.
NB: MEMBERS ARE REQUESTED TO MAKE THEIR OWN BOOKINGS WITH ELANDSHEIM. THEIR E-MAIL ADDRESS IS email@example.com . PLEASE MARK YOUR RESERVATION FOR THE ATTENTION OF WERNER HARMS. ELANDSHEIM'S TELEPHONE NUMBER IS 034 642 1703.
The following accommodation is available at Elandsheim:
Dinner B&B is R320.00 per person per night.
Self catering: Huts with en suite facilities and Rooms under the oak tree are R220.00 per room per night.
Huts with shared ablution are R180.00 per night.
Camping is R100 per site (max 6 per site). We can offer Breakfast for R40.00pp. If bedding is required, add R40 extra per person.
Ideally, we need to arrive at Elandsheim on the night of Friday 17th September 2010 to enable us to make an early start on Saturday 18th September. The itinerary will be as follows:
SATURDAY 18TH SEPTEMBER 2010: 07h30 departure from Elandsheim. Briefing on the background to the Anglo-Zulu War on the bank of the Mzinyathi River at Rorke's Drift. Continue past Masodjeni to the area of Chief Sihayo's homestead, 'kwaSogekle' ('the rooster's comb') before continuing to the Nyoni Ridge for the next stage of the briefing. We'll then proceed to Mangeni for stage 4, then to the Mabaso for a discussion regarding the discovery of the main Zulu army, ending at Isandlwana for the details of the battle. We need to commence walking the Fugitives' Trail by 14h00, so the abovementioned arrangements may be curtailed or amended to ensure that this takes place. ETA Elandsheim 18h00. Lunch to be arranged by members.
SUNDAY 19TH SEPTEMBER 2010: 09h00 departure from Elandsheim, proceeding directly to Rorke's Drift for a detailed description of the famous Defence. It is anticipated that the tour will end by midday, enabling members to return home by 17h00. Lunches to be arranged by members, but light meals are available at Rorke's Drift.
NB: MEMBERS WILL HAVE THE OPTION TO CATER FOR THEMSELVES OR ORDER MEALS FROM ELANDSHEIM. PLEASE NOTE THAT YOU WILL ALSO BE REQUIRED TO PAY R20 EACH TO ENTER ISANDLWANA, FUGITIVES' DRIFT AND RORKE'S DRIFT (R60 PER PERSON).
The cost of the tour will be R30 per member and R50 per visitor.
Damage to the Hollander Corps Memorial at Elandslaagte. This Memorial has been badly damaged by an individual or individuals who were apparently looking for buried treasure. During a recent visit to the Battlefield, fellow member Ken Gillings came across the damage, which had apparently just occurred. Photographs were taken, a home-made mallet removed and the incident was reported to the SAPS at Elandslaagte. Two police officers then accompanied Ken to the site and they also took photographs. The Provincial Heritage Authority, Amafa aKwaZulu-Natali / Heritage KwaZulu-Natal were informed and the photographs e-mailed to them at their HQ in Ulundi. Once again, the Society has been pro-active in reporting such incidents of vandalism and the matter is being monitored by the SA Military History Society at both Provincial and National level.
KwaZulu-Natal Branch Tour of the Po Valley and the Somme, July 2011. The Central Committee of the SAMHS has approved the organising of a follow-up of the highly successful and historical tour to the Battlefields of the Western Desert in Egypt and Libya in May 2009. In conjunction with the Royal British Legion's Poppy Travel, we are putting together a tour to follow the Springbok Soldier through Italy, then to the Somme when the tour will coincide with the official South African Government commemoration of the Battle of Delville Wood on the 17th July 2011. The provisional dates will be from the 9th to the 20th July 2011 and the sites that are likely to be included are Cassino, Castiglione, Monte Stanco / Monte Sole, Po Valley, Adige Valley, Arras, Thiepval Memorial, Delville Wood, Butte de Warlencourt and possibly Pèronne. As was the case with the Egyptian / Libyan tour, we will be accompanied by a Royal British Legion specialist Battlefield Guide.
Please make a note of this unforgettable experience and let Ken Gillings know if you are interested in accompanying the KZN Branch on the tour. Tel 031 702 4828 / 083 654 5880 or preferably by e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org
South African Military History Society / email@example.com