‘Normandy Veterans - 70 Years On’ is an oral history project, recording the stories of veterans of the D-Day landings and the subsequent Normandy Campaign. A video archive featuring interviews with over 150 Normandy veterans can be found at: www.legasee.org.uk/operation-overlord/
We have created five resources for Key Stage 4 pupils. They can be used for individual study or class discussion and are designed to give students an understanding of the Normandy Campaign through the personal recollections of D-Day veterans.
Lesson Plan 1
This resource focuses on the lead up to D-Day.
Lesson Plan 3
This resource focuses on the landings on the five Normandy beaches.
Lesson Plan 5
This resource focuses on how oral history can be used in the study of veteran’s memories.
Lesson Plan 2
This resource focuses on the launch of Operation Neptune.
Lesson Plan 4
This resource focuses on the period following D-Day and the subsequent Normandy Campaign.
A time line
Look at the timeline document up until 5th June 1944 . Many steps led to the decision to launch an invasion of Western Europe. The date and location of the invasion had to be kept strictly secret, the majority of troops may have known an invasion was imminent but would have had no idea when and where it would be. This lesson plan will look at the experiences of three veterans in the build up to D-Day.
One of the difficulties in oral history stories is that at the time of the event the veteran would have little or no idea about what was happening. When they recall their stories after the event, their reminiscences and memory can be tempered by hindsight. However many veterans understand this as you can see below and can recall the secrecy and remember their feelings of this at the time.
“after training at Aldershot for the Catering Corp, they said we got more urgent personnel wanted in Scotland, …it was Loch Ryan just outside of Stranraer and we built the sections called the pier heads, and Portsmouth and Southampton built other section called wells… we had to build them within ten
months... I went across before the Mulberry Harbour got there. When it was taken and assembled we knew what all these concrete things were down there because as they towed them across to the beaches they just flooded the concrete sections to sink onto the seabed and that’s what we knew”
“The fifteen trips we did were, nearly all were in daylight and they were bombing before D-Day. We had to bomb all the way up behind the coast from the Bay of Biscay right on through to the North of Holland. So the enemy didn’t realise where we were going in…. Well it was a fantastic sight you know in fact that night of course we
were told to go back of course get some rest and fly again that night and we were bombing a marshalling yard just behind the sea front and I think it was, it must have been an ammunition train blew up just as we were approaching the target… you can see the sound wave actually it was an enormous explosion.”
“One of the things that we did see was an odd looking ship that was going through more or less every day, it seemed to be going through for weeks. I did make enquiries, I was curious to find out what the ship was doing; we found out afterwards that it was called Pluto which meant ‘Pipeline Under The Ocean’, referring to all the pipes being laid leading to France; enabling
them to get all the fuel they needed whilst over there…all day the ships were going out; and it was our local padres that went out with the ships; it was sad in one way because nobody knew how it would end, and every ship that went out we were able to send messages, we were sending them messages such as goodbye and good luck.”
Look at the time line for the 5-6 June 1944 . Operation Neptune refers to the sea crossing from England to France and the initial landings. Operation Neptune was the biggest seaborne invasion in history.
On 1 June Eisenhower’s chief meteorologist informed him that the hot weather was about to end. Weather reports were so bad that the invasion, intended for 5 June was postponed. New forecasts indicated there may a lull in the bad weather on the night of 5 June. Postponement would have meant delaying the invasion until the next high tide, two weeks later, destroying morale and losing the element of surprise. Each of the armed forces had their role to play in the invasion.
From the end of May, troops had been in sealed camps in the south of England. Several days prior to the invasion, troops and equipment began to be loaded into the landing craft. The delay meant that they spent many hours holed up in a small, confined space.
The Navies of Great Britain and the United States began to move into position to begin bombarding the French Coast and the German defences in advance of the invasion.
The Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force would provide aerial support to the invasion. They were also involved in the glider operations and deploying troops and decoys.
Veteran’s memories provide a valuable insight into how individuals felt about events of historic significance. While written history often focusses on the events themselves and the main players, oral history can provide detail to historic events. However individual memory is not infallible and oral history should be used as one source rather than the sole source in understanding history.
Over 150,000 men landed on a Normandy beach on 6 June 1944. However this was an individual as well as a collective experience. The vast majority crossed the Channel in a landing craft, each of them had their own thoughts and fears and the following extracts illustrate three of these individual experiences;
“Down in the belly of the LCT we were just given allocated spaces on the floor, …we were literally lying like sardines and I thought at the time don’t like this if we ever got hit we’d never get out of this... I remember one guy in particular who was about three bodies from me kept pulling his wallet out going through his photographs … I’ve always been a people watcher. I’ve always
been like that and remember sliding over to him and talking to him you know and you could see he was really physically upset … he’d be an old guy he’d be about thirty you know, an old man as far as I was concerned and I always remember talking to him and him showing his family photos... I think it did him a bit of good.”
“At Southampton, we weren’t there very long before we knew what we were going to do. We were in docks there with several other craft. And then the next day, it was just loaded with craft, and tanks, …. a major surveyor, two corporals and a Sergeant Major. …(they) had worked their way up through North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and then taken part in D-Day. I’ve often wondered
what happened to those men because one of them, he came into the mess deck, and I looked at him and said, “You’ve got two odd boots on!” And he says, “Yeah, I know.” One was brown and one was black. He said, “That’s my lucky boots. They brought me across the desert safe, and they’ll do the same here, I hope.”
“It was the first time I’d been out of England. I’d not seen the sea, but I saw it then,... I thought, looking out of the little port hole in the glider, “I could have walked across there.” Then we got to the coast of France, then you know something was happening. It wasn’t a fairytale. There was the smoke going about. You could generally see a few flashes down
below. … I can remember clearing some house, a row of houses which were all flames, and the sound of ammunition going off… when we got there the Germans had gone, then we went through Pegasus Bridge then, and the lads was dug in there one of them looked up and he said, “Where have you been?”
Look at the time line for the 6 June 1944 . The landings were the culmination of a long period of planning. Surprise was an important element of the campaign and Gliders were used to fly in troops and equipment. This was followed by a naval and aerial bombardment of the coastline. The first United States assault troops landed on Utah and Omaha beaches, followed by the Canadians on Juno beach and the British on Sword and Gold beaches. The liberation of Europe had begun. Operation Neptune refers to the landing phase of the invasion, Operation Overlord refers to the Battle of Normandy. This took place from 6 June 1944 to 25 August 1944, with the liberation of Paris.
The study of military history weighs up the balance between success and failure. Veteran’s stories can inform historians about individual experiences, but it is the little moments of a soldier or sailor or airman’s experience which can tip the bigger picture into one of success or failure. For example Fred Millward’s story of troops intended to engage the Merville Battery landing in the wrong place could have tipped that engagement very easily and shows the fine line between success and failure. Below are three stories that give a valuable insight into the events of D-Day but which may not make the history books.
“Then when the machine guns and bombs and shells began to fall on the beach, I was brought down to reality, that well, you’re not going to get off easy like that. The first thing that really brought me down to reality was there was a solder lying face down on the sand.
I don’t know whether he was dead or wounded or whatever, but a tank, one of our tanks came off and rolled right over him. I said to myself, “God, if that poor man, if he wasn’t dead, he’s certainly dead now.” That was a real shock to me to see that.”
“The easiest way to travel was to sit on the floor and rest your parachute on the seat and then you can lever your leg up and kit bag in front of you. Anyway the chap who was number two to me lived in the next village here and we were it was alright going across… then, the AK AKs started coming up and things started rocking about a bit and we got the order stand up, hook up which we did and the red light came on… and suddenly
there was a bang and a thump outside the old aircraft reared up and I was out. I had a hell of a crack on the back of my head which took me helmet off the rope, the release went on the kit bag that went sailing down, the rope broke because I lost that and all I finished up on the ground was with a Sten gun, a few magazines and grenades and a fighting knife and that was it…”
“It was my first experience with Germans, real Germans cause don’t forget we were in England all the time and anyway I got a dozen and there were eleven of them who all said they were Polish... I said “you get to work”, he said “cigarette”, I said “no, you didn’t say please”… I said “you’re too young you can’t have one anyway”, with that he spat at me so I hit him on the
toe with my rifle butt so he had a sore toe and I had to wipe the spit … off of me. I said “don’t you do that, once more” I said “I’ll put a bullet in you”, but I didn’t. I wouldn’t of done that, not to a prisoner anyway. Anyway this sergeant saw me, he saw me hit the bloke on the toe with my rifle butt and he said “I’m putting you on a charge for that”, I said “put me on what you like”.
Following the launch of Operation Overlord on 6 June 1944 the five beaches continued to be used for landing troops. These subsequent days are often referred to as D-Day Plus One, D-Day Plus Two etc. Following the successful landings the troops had to fight their way through the Normandy countryside, this is known as the Battle of Normandy and was the scene of fierce fighting between the Allied and Axis forces. The Battle of Normandy ended with the liberation of Paris on 25 June 1944 and the German retreat across the Seine on 30 August.
Operation Neptune and Overlord marked the beginning of a long battle to liberate Europe.
For many of the veterans D-Day was their first experience of battle. Thinking retrospectively, many veterans are aware of how the months of combat have had an effect on their thoughts and opinions. The three veterans below talk about their experiences in the immediate aftermath of D-Day.
“When you’re on guard duty out there, you know the slightest noise, and there were a lot of cows and horses got shot with that. Because you challenged, no reply so you shot and the next thing you’d shot a cow. At the time it sounds laughable but at the time it wasn’t half frightening because you’re straining your ears all the time to see if there;s any noise, you’re hoping there won’t be but you’re expecting there will be and you don’t wanna miss it. Because let’s face it, if you do, you’ll be dead. And you know for the first 5, 6
weeks there was a hell of a lot German snipers and they would good shots, that’s why they were snipers. Anybody who says they weren’t nervous or apprehensive on a guard duty out there, they’re liars. It was a horrible feeling and I suppose created a lot of the possible break downs because, especially those poor bloody infantry blokes, coz they had it bad, Thank god I was in the RE’s Royal Engineers]. But yes, I’ll never forget guard duty. I don’t like it in this country, let alone out there.”.
“The idea was to advance …take the hill and hold it until the rest of the army could get up…(we) weren’t used to the Bocage,… there’s only roads and there’s a 4-foot ditch beside you. Once you were on that road, you couldn’t get off of it. …I was hiding in the ditch with one or two others and fortunately, the French underground, the Maquis were in the field over the road and I heard one of them say, in
the best English he could, “When I say run. Run.” ...We ran across the road and he had a boy with him who could speak a little bit of English. …yhey knew if they got caught, they would have been shot. They put three of us into a chicken run. Now, the Germans wouldn’t breakdown the door or anything. They just used to take the eggs, so we were safe.”
“Caen was supposed to be taken first day, it didn’t it was about four five weeks later. Before that fell, two hundred and fifty Lancaster’s came over and dropped a load on Caen. Why I knew this I was on guard and I was away from the rest of the tanks at the guard post... and then by that time my guard duty was over and I was coming back to where we was... all our tanks in the orchard then suddenly a German plane dropped some … anti-personnel bombs and I was just sort of making my way back
to the tank commander, I saw all this smoke and I thought its gas I thought they dropped gas and I just dived under the first tank I could find looking for a gas mask. I hadn’t got my own with me and I saw a gas mask … I’m going to get it and so I got it and put it on and it nearly killed me. …I couldn’t breathe at all, in the panic I’d forgotten to take the dust cover off so every time I breathed it went over my face like that I thought that’s what you get for stealing someone else’s … ”
On the Legasee website you will find over 100 individual stories from veterans of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. Each of the veterans has an individual story to tell and their own reason for telling it after 70 years. As they grow older, veterans often feel that it is important to pass their story onto future generations and ensure that their memories are not forgotten.
You’ll see from the stories below that the long term affects of war are very different for different individuals.
Operation Neptune and Overlord marked the beginning of a long battle to liberate Europe.
One of the biggest benefits of oral history, the story of the individual experience is also one of its biggest stumbling blocks. In telling a story 70 years on, the story can be influenced by the events of those intervening years, by books, films, conversations or simple misinterpretation. However those intervening years can also enable the veteran to filter and examine their experiences through the passage of time.
Collective memory is the memory of an historic event that is shared by society. The collective memory of the Second World War in the United Kingdom would be different to that of the United States, Germany or France for example. This collective memory shapes how each country remembers its past wars.
“I know the friends that I had, when I discussed it with them well after the war. I used to say, “Well I didn’t think I was going to survive. I was pretty sure. The statistics told us you were going to be killed.” Some of them dealt with it in a different way. Some of them had the attitude they said, “Well the Germans are never going to get me. I’m going to survive this war.”
...The feeling was so horrible when you knew you were going to go into the attack. The feeling was just so dreadful that I can’t even describe it to myself. Some people were sick just physically sick before they went into the attack. Once I got into the attack, I was fine. It was waiting for it. The waiting for it was absolutely misery. Once we got moving, it wasn’t so bad”.
“Even walking in the house, it was enclosed. That was the one thing I noticed coming into a house. With living in a barrack room and being out in the open all the time, but to me the thing that most changed me really was when we came back and got demobbed, you go in a building at one side, and you’re a soldier. You come out the other side and you’re nobody. You’re a civilian with no work, no means
of support. They gave me a Post Office, with £90 in for 6 years. It’s not a lot, is it? Yeah, that was mind-blowing, in a way, because you’ve lost all, your mates; you’re on your own. I had to find a job, seem to live … My youth had gone. I was 24. Went out 18, came back 24 years of age. Yeah, was it worth it? I think so, suppose. But very lucky.”
“And this one farm house we just couldn’t get to from the road with a gun so the officer said spray it with a belt of Browning machine gun… we went on and we got to a point where we couldn’t go any further so thinking about where we could we go and brew up, we thought about the farm house. We went
back there, and this is the hard part coming up, there was a girl, a young mother, she had a toddler in her arms and she was running out the farm house to her slit trench and she was… the baby was ok but, she was dead and the reason she was dead, she’d got Browning bullets in her neck…”
This timeline outline the lead up and planning for the Allied landings in Normandy and the ensuing Battle of Normandy.
Operation Neptune and Overlord marked the beginning of a long battle to liberate Europe.
The Canadian assault on Dieppe ends in disaster;
Casablanca Conference - Allies decide to concentrate for the moment on the invasion of Sicily. However an Anglo American staff is formed to begin planning an invasion of France. Lieutenant General Morgan appointed Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC);
Quebec Conference - COSSAC outline plan for invasion of France approved;
Tehran Conference - First meeting of US President Franklin D Roosevelt, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. Stalin demands to know when a second front will open. He is told it is planned for May 1944.
Number of troops involved in the landings increased requiring extra naval and air support. D-Day is put back from 1 May to 31 May; First amphibious test at Slapton Sands in Devon;
Operation Dragoon, invasion of southern France, due to happen simultaneously with the Normandy invasion is delayed;
Transportation Plan begins with a raid on French railways. The Plan is to keep German reinforcements out of the combat zone. To preserve the secrecy of the invasion site, the Plan involves bombing targets all along the Atlantic coast from France to Norway.
The invasion is delayed until 5 June;
Exercise Fabius, amphibious assault training begins, the US at Slapton Sands, the British at Hayling Island & Littlehampton, the Canadians at Bracklesham Bay;
Final briefing for Allied senior officers at St Pauls School London
All invasion troops are in camps along the south coast of England. They are unable to leave or communicate with the outside world;
Troops begin to load onto ships, the size of the invasion means this will take five days
BBC broadcast a poem by Paul Verlaine “Les sandlots lourds/ des violins de l’automne” (the heavy sobs of autumn’s violins). This is a coded warning to French Resistance regarding railway sabotage and that the invasion will take place within the month;
The warships which will take part in the bombardment of the French coast leave their ports at Scapa Flow, Belfast and the Clyde;
Bayeux taken by British 50th Division; Once the beachhead at Omaha had been secured the American 1st Infantry push south to meet up with the British at Port-en-Bessin;
Following fierce fighting, the invasion areas around Omaha and Utah beaches join up;
Beginning of Operation Epsom (also known as First Battle of the Odon), British forces under the command of General Montgomery attempt, unsuccessfully, to capture Caen;
Cherbourg is taken by the US army;
After heavy aerial bombardment of Caen, British and Canadian forces regroup;
Allied forces stopped outside Caen due to German defence;
Americans take St-Lô securing the Contentin Peninsula;
Launch of Operation Goodwood, troops under General Montgomery attempt to take Caen, Bourguébus Ridge and the area between Bretteville-sur-Laize and Vimont. British and Canadian forces then begin the advance to Falaise in the face of fierce German resistance;
An attempt is made on Hitler’s life by a group of army conspirators led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Rommel is implicated;
Launch of Operation Cobra by the US General Bradley which aims to break out of the Contentin Peninsula in the direction of Avranches;
US Army reach Avranches and take control of the region;
US General Patton’s Third Army is ordered to advance and seize ports on the Brittany coast;
General Montgomery orders Allied armies to encircle the German army in the Falaise-Chambois area;
115,000 Allied troops land on the Cote d’Azur in Operation Dragoon;
Canadian army take Falaise;
The Falaise gap is closed, Normandy is in Allied hands;
Paris is liberated.