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D-Day

Two reports from London on a historic day in world history.

People in the City of London rush to buy the first newspapers giving news of the Allied D-Day landings in Normandy. (Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

I. In the Channel

Britain’s reaction to the invasion has been one of elation mixed with anxiety. Britain has been in the war and subject to war nerves two years longer than the United States. She is taking the new crisis philosophically. Hope is the dominant emotion, though the leaders warn—and the facts are too evident to deny—that the outcome is still touch and go, with the whole vast issue wavering in the balance. Now it’s a race as to supplies between Montgomery and Rommel, with certain advantages to each. Rommel has interior lines of communication, flat terrain for his automotive equipment, good roads. The grove-dotted landscape makes superb camouflage for transport, whose value only a military man understands. Also, Rommel has troops and fortifications which were already there on D-Day.

The Allies have mastery of the air, and the new technique of pinpoint shelling by naval guns as long as the battle remans near the coast. I was on one of these ships, the cruiser Quincy, during the assault, and I can testify to the superb accuracy of the fire. The Allies have the advantage of the American genius for organization. They have the world’s best equipment—if they can get it ashore. Finally, and always subject to weather conditions, the Allies have greater over-all mobility than Rommel in control of the sea lanes. This may be the decisive factor if the umbrella of Allied planes is able to break up Rommel’s supply lines.

The real test will come in the great counter-attack which is undoubtedly preparing and will decide the length of the war. Rommel had apparently reinforced the Germans on the Cherbourg peninsula some time before our thrust was made. We knew of this, however, and made allowances for it in the final timetable of the campaign. The general picture at the end of the first week was therefore one of restrained optimism. The war is not close enough to its end so that the New York stock market should go into a peace-panic nosedive. On the other hand, Portugal’s willingness to stop future wolfram shipments to Germany indicates a canny neutral’s view of the situation. The British are undoubtedly right when they say the question is no longer who will win the war but how long it will last.

I missed the scenes in London because I was off the Norman coast on shipboard, where dawn found us on Hitler’s doorstep like a milk bottle. Our task force took up the methodical off-shore bombardment as soon as it was light. The navy fights a gentleman’s war of long-distance killing. We relaxed, save when the shore batteries got too close, and luckily for us the Germans were apparently so jolted by previous aerial bombardment that their aim seemed to suffer. In any case, we outranged them.

My own eye-witness account was written under far more comfortable circumstances than, for example, Kenneth Crawford’s story in Newsweek of landing in the first wave, and others like it. I was on the upper bridge of a great new battle cruiser where the chief discomfort was the jolting from our own eight-inch guns. I had a panoramic view of thirty miles of the beachhead, where I could see the orderly, methodical landing, handicapped by the stiff breeze which capsized some small boats and inconvenienced all of them.

It would be hard to exaggerate the effectiveness of the support by the capital ships. Radio spotters constantly reported on the targets and gave us the ranges. I listened to the drama of this in the fire-control room. Over the radio came the code identification of the spotter. Then he would ask for shells to be laid down in such and such a place, as casually as somebody buying cigarettes. The men on the cruiser would fire, and would O.K. the request, simultaneously, telling the unseen spotter miles distant that the shells were .on the way. Forty or fifty seconds later we would radio the message, “Flash!” which meant the shells were timed to hit then. A second or two later the spotter would tell us, “Up 100,” or “Down 100,” for the next shot. This went on until the target was demolished.

In another part of the ship our radio picked up walkie-talkie reports of fighting at shorter range. I heard one commander demand to know peremptorily why the walkie-talkie was not answering him louder and clearer. We heard the meek answer, just audible through the static, that the speaker was pinned down in the crossfire between a pillbox and machine guns.

The greatest thrill was the arrival of a vast sweep of glider-borne troops towed by transport planes, in the late afternoon and evening of the first day of the assault. It was a wholly unexpected and soul-stirring sight, and I cannot tell you what a tremendous impression it made. Even hard-boiled veterans on deck could hardly speak, as the great roaring wave went over. It was so long from end to end that the first transports were returning without gliders on one side of the ship. While on the other the gliders were still going by. It was a scene out of the future and certainly the greatest sight of my whole life. First there was a distant mutter which rose quickly to thunder. Then they were above us in perfect formation, the twinkling spiderweb filament visibly connecting transport with glider. I could not see them land and don’t know what were the casualties among them on the fields where they heroically crash-dived. But there is no question that this is one of the great developments of the war.

My chief impression was the crowded condition of the English Channel as we returned to Britain on Wednesday evening. It was absolutely choked with traffic of every kind, including craft big and little, new or old. Suddenly I realized what it meant. This was Dunkirk in reverse. Now we were going back.

—Richard Lee Strout


II. In London

Early on the morning of D-Day, millions of Lon- don’s citizens lay in their beds listening to the mighty drone of planes heading over the city toward France. Many of them wondered whether the pilots of the Fortresses and Lancasters were finally bound for the invasion beaches. The war workers got up wearily as usual, dressed and waited on the corner for the early bus, with the question still unanswered. The later-rising office workers switched on the radio for the 8 o’clock news and heard the announcer report naval engagements in the Channel. They sat before their radios as long as they could, with mounting excitement. Finally came Eisenhower’s short and shattering communique.

This was it. Since Dunkirk, since the Germans went into Russia, since Toheran, since the fall of Rome, the people of London had been awaiting this moment, Some of them had succeeded in making the delay in the second front a political issue; they had attended demonstrations in Trafalgar Square at which it was charged that we were sabotaging our gallant ally, Russia. Mothers and wives of servicemen, of course, had dreaded the hour. Once before, when the Commandos went ashore at Dieppe, the country had thrilled with the news of the second front, only to be shocked by the high losses incurred.

Now the country and every man and woman in it were irrevocably committed to the decisive campaign of the war. The news spread like wildfire. Passengers on suburban trains passed the word to one another. Factory managers, in excited voices, told their employees about it over the shop public-address system. Government officials, with startled faces, told their typists that “this is it.” School teachers spread the word in their classrooms and the children, in true British fashion, rose and Cheered. At midday, crowds thronging the streets in the central part of London waited in long lines to buy extras. Everyone had the same thought: the comradeship of the blitz had been revived. Everyone had a friend or relative immediately involved. People from the occupied countries^ with perhaps even more at stake, complained of the phlegmatic British for their stolid demeanor,.

Nobody wanted to talk of anything else, yet nobody had anything to say. There was enough news to scotch the rumors, but not enough to satisfy the omnivorous appetite. Even the amateur strategists were nearly silenced by the vastness of the operation, although some explained to all hearers that the landings at the “louth of the Seine were only a flanking operation and that Denmark would be the scene of the real landing. No one was interested in such speculations.

In the House of Commons Mr. Churchill’s appearance was greeted with cheers. William Gallacher, the sole Communist in Parliament, followed Mr. Churchill with two sentences of his own: “I would like to express my own feelings and what I am sure are the feelings of every member of this House. Our hearts and thoughts are with those lads and with their mothers at home.”

There were 800 volunteers for blood donations at a single London factory. In another, the women workers offered to go from their day’s work to serve as nurses’ helpers in the hospitals. Production spurted in all war plants; everybody wanted to do more. In the evening the Home Guards who were on duty cleaned their Bren guns and wondered whether the Nazis would answer the invasion by dropping paratroops on England.

In the city, only a few minutes by air from the actual front lines, the people listened to the planes overhead) waited and worked. They realized the Nazis would soon counter-attack in Normandy, if they hadn’t already begun to do so. The Americans, the Russians and the French seemed more than ever brothers in a common enterprise. When one remembers Dunkirk—and millions of Englishmen did remember it on D-Day—the military recovery of this country seems a miracle. The people who worked that miracle are now determined both to win this war and not to lose the peace.

Michael Young