The Invasion of Normandy: Prologue

On 1 June 1944, the BBC broadcast the first lines from Paul Verlaine’s 1866 poem “Chanson d’automne” (“Autumn Song”)

“Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l’automne” (“Long sobs of autumn violins”).

The lines were a message to the French Resistance that the Allied invasion of France would begin in less than two weeks.

Two days later on 3 June, in the pouring rain, 150,000 men of the six assault divisions, the US 1st, 4th and 29th, the British 3rd and 50th, and the Canadian 3rd, and three airborne divisions, the US 82nd and 101st, and the British 6th finished moving into their staging areas all along the southern coast of England. The next day, they would load the LSTs and troop transports, and in the case of the airborne divisions, wait in huts on airfields next to the gliders and planes that would take them across the channel to Normandy. 800,000 more soldiers would take their place and wait their turn to cross in the coming days. On the afternoon of the 4th, Gen Eisenhower postponed the invasion at least one day due to weather. Many of the soldiers would not disembark and had to stay on their ships in the choppy seas and six foot swells.

That night, in the poor weather, the first Allied troops to invade Normandy parachuted in. Three teams from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and three teams from the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) landed in order to mark the drop zones for the pathfinders and airborne forces that were scheduled to arrive the next night.

100 miles and world away in Normandy, the German commanders took a look at the poor weather and the low tide, and were convinced that the Allies would not invade. And if they did, it would be farther up the coast at Pas De Calais. Rommel, the Army Group commander on the Atlantic Wall, departed on a drive back to Germany to spend some leave with his wife for her birthday on June 5th. His corps and division commanders prepared to depart for a map exercise at the chateau at Rouen, and they planned to be away from their HQs for the next few days.

In the early morning of 5 June, 1944, Gen Eisenhower met with his 14 most senior staff members and commanders to make the final decision whether or not to go ahead with the invasion of France in June. Group Captain James Stagg, the senior meteorologist on the staff, briefed that 6 June’s weather would briefly clear but the conditions would be still be well below what was thought to be the minimum necessary for safe and successful operations. Eisenhower looked around the room and asked for everyone’s opinion. It was most definitely not a vote. Seven wanted to go, and seven wanted to postpone until later in the month when the moon and tides were synced again.

After a long moment (Everyone in the room would describe it later as the longest moment of their lives), Eisenhower simply said, “Ok, let’s do it”, and stood up and walked out of the room. One of his last official acts was authorizing the 6 June 1944 Order of the Day for release. Known today as the “Great Crusade” speech, one copy was issued to over 175,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the assault force that night.

Within 20 minutes of “Ok, let’s do it”, 5000 ships, 12,000 aircraft, and 200,000 men began their journey across the English Channel. The ships first rendezvoused at “Area Z”, known colloquially as “Piccadilly Circus”, before heading south to Normandy. Operation Neptune, the invasion of Normandy, and a component part of Operation Overlord the invasion of France, was the largest amphibious invasion of Europe since the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 B.C.

Eisenhower went on to say that the next 24 hours were the most difficult of his life because now that decision was made he could no longer affect anything, and could do nothing except wait. To pass the time for those 24 hour he received reports, drank coffee, smoked five packs of cigarettes, played draughts with his aide, briefed reporters (!) on the next day’s events so they could start their stories, and wrote a short speech accepting responsibility if the invasion failed. That evening, he met with member of the 101st Airborne at their staging areas. A few chatted with Eisenhower, the far bigger crowd was around Kate Sommersby, Eisenhower’s driver and former model.

At 7:30 pm, the BBC broadcast the next lines to Verlaine’s poem:

“Blessent mon coeur / d’une langueur / monotone” (“wound my heart with a monotonous languor”). They were a code to the French Resistance that the invasion would begin in 48 hours, and that that they should begin sabotage operations, particularly the rail network.

At 8:30 pm, Churchill sent a coded telegram to Stalin simply stating, “Tonight, we go”.

About an hour later he wished his wife a good night, who told him not to worry. He shot back, “Do you know that when you wake up tomorrow morning, 20,000 men may be dead?”

At exactly 11:00 pm, Eisenhower, with his aide, and driver, watched the first C-47 transports carrying the 101st take to the sky.

“Well, it’s on. Nothing can stop it now.”

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