Out in the Atlantic, weighty slate grey clouds banished the onset of dawn fighting for dominance over the impending sunrise. The ships of the Western Naval Task Force led by Rear Admiral A G Kirk and carrying the American infantry, rounded Lands End forging towards the Isle of Wight and `Piccadilly Circus` – the code-named assembly area. The Eastern Task Force led by Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, carried troops covering the British sector, would arrive in the assembly area later that morning. The rest of the flotilla carrying the second wave of the invasion, were sitting just off the south coast aboard their ships and landing crafts. The task force would rendezvous and then wait – for General Eisenhower`s final decision to go.
“Gentlemen the fears my colleagues and I had yesterday have been confirmed.” John Stagg delivered his bleak statement with a soft scottish accent that hinted at sentiment.
The SHAEF Commanders were again gathered in the library of Southwick House – the clock reading 4.14 am on the morning of the 4th June – almost twenty-four hours before the planned date of the invasion.
General Eisenhower, grim faced and weary from lack of sleep asked John, “And the forecast for the next few days?”
John`s answer was given with a slightly risen pitch of hope. “There is a benign high detected between the low pressure areas forming over Iceland.” But then the hope was dashed. “But I am disturbed by the longer forecast of high winds and low disability. However, at this stage, I cannot differentiate one day from another during the invasion period.”
“And the sea condition?” Admiral Ramsey asked.
“The sea condition will be slightly better than at first anticipated, but according to the Dunstable forecast, there is still low cloud forecast with a 1000 foot ceiling and level 4 to 5 force winds.”
“You were optimistic yesterday John.” General Eisenhower reminded him. “Is there just a chance that you might be a bit more optimistic about the forecast for tomorrow?”
John Stagg gave a slight shake of his head and dropped his gaze. “The balance has gone too far to the other side for it to swingback overnight tonight.” His negativity cast the hearts of all seated in the library – to their boots.
For days – weeks, General Eisenhower had deliberated and agonized over the weather forecast – each forecast over the last few days worse than the other – no respite. With the amphibious landings due to take place between 0600 hours and 0800 hours on the 5th – tomorrow – the final decision to attack had to be made at least twenty-four hours prior to this. He needed to act decisively.
The room fell silent. Not a man in the room would have swapped places with the General. General Eisenhower`s burden was heavy. Millions of lives rested upon his decision. Operation Overlord was already going in with a very slim margin of ground superiority. If he postponed until the 19th June – the next date of correct moon and tide conditions – he would have to call the whole fleet back. which would seriously increase a major security leak – never mind the whole nightmare of unloading troops and equipment. General Eisenhower pulled himself straight. He had no choice. “To cover a last minute possible improvement,” he informed all round the table, ” the remaining assault forces in port will embark and we will convene again here at 4.15 am tomorrow.” His next statement was the one that had haunted him for weeks, one that he hoped with all his heart he would be able to retract in twenty-four hours time – or the whole operation, planned meticulously for the past two years would be doomed to failure. The invasion is hereby postponed – for twenty-four hours.”
Most of the convoy of ships, landing crafts and battleships were already positioned at Area Z codenamed `Piccadilly Circus` the rendezvous point just off the Isle of Wight. The rest were on their way or still in the ports waiting to sail. The incessant drizzle had turned to heavy rain. Waves were beginning to roll, shunting, tossing men who, had the stomach to fight, but not the stomach to thwart the sea. Most of the day’s rations had already ended up in sick bags, which didn `t take long to fill. Then it was helmets, fire buckets, the deck or anything else that could act as a receptacle for vomit. Cramped, wet, tired and feeling very ill, they waited.
The fleet received a signal. But it was not the anticipate signal, the one that would signal to the fleet to sail for Normandy.
It was another pre-arranged signal – the signal to postpone – for twenty-four hours.
On the Normandy coast, except for the prevailing winds – all was quiet. Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel had driven to Paris to buy a birthday present for his wife’s 50th birthday. The forty-mile journey between Paris and the great rivers estuary – had proven an arduous one; attacks by allied bombers on the small island that linked the Seine to Paris had destroyed most of the bridges and many of the towns. Whilst in Paris, Erwin decided to meet with Feldmarschall Karl Rudolf Gerd Von Rundstedt at his headquarters at St-Germain-en Laye.
“The allies will need at least four consecutive days of good weather to be able to mount the invasion, “Feldmarschall Von Rundstedt declared to Erwin, his statement delivered with a certain measure of decorum that masked some distaste for the man before him. Although both Commanders had firm beliefs and strategies, Von Rundstedt secretly harboured resentment for the younger Feldmarschall Rommel who Hitler had chosen to mastermind the Atlantic Wall. Nevertheless, Erwin did not buckle under Von Rundstedt`s obvious antagonism and continued to follow his own instincts and experience. “I agree of course. I have checked the weather reports,” Erwin informed Von Rundstedt. “Over the next few days, the reports indicate increasing cloud, high winds and rain. The tides in the strait of Dover will not be suitable for an invasion until mid June.”
Jack retched yet again, this time he filled his helmet and then with deep gasps, he sucked in fresh air, tipped his helmet and emptied it of vomit over the side of the ship. Sinking onto the deck, he sort refuge from the raging storm under a section of tarpaulin that covered a line of wagons. He ran a hand over his face, saliva filling his mouth indicating another bout of nausea. The Empire Battleaxe lilted and dove as the twenty-foot waves tossed her. She rode the waves as she would a rollercoaster, although there were no shouts of glee, just the sound of retching from sodden troops. Soldiers on the rain – lashed decks glumly lined the rails of the ship trying to gain a foothold on the surface that would not yield to them. After the news of the postponement, the fleet had turned back from their rendezvous point and were sitting just off of Portsmouth Harbour. Those ships and landing crafts that had not already sailed before the postponement was announced, were still sitting in the harbour, the troops stuck on the boats not allowed to leave the vessels. Some one hundred and seventy five thousand men were waiting to cross the channel and the twenty-four hour `reprieve` allowed demons within their minds to cause havoc upon already doubtful territory. Demons that taunted death – fear. Demons that undermined positivity and strength of mind. Holed up for thirty-six hours, they waited in anticipation of some glimmer of hope. The weather had deteriorated rapidly and many soldiers were plagued with sea-sickness. With open decks and hardly any shelter men on board landing crafts were wet, cold, sick and miserable. There was no respite either for men packed together below the deck of the Empire Battleaxe. For many, the contents of the meal issued to them earlier by the navy crew had made an unwelcome entry back into confinement of the rest areas. Everywhere stank of vomit. Those who were not vomiting with sea-sickness, vomited because of the stench of someone who had. Rain lashed, gales blew and the ship danced to the tune. Feeling so ill, no-one cared anymore why they were there. No-one cared about the invasion – the Germans – or about being killed.
“I hope the Germans put a bullet straight through my head,” moaned Mike as he slid down next to Jack. “Shit – I feel bad.”
Jack tried to manage a smile, but it would not develop, he didn’t try to force one either in case any involuntary slight movement, facial or bodily, would set off his tumultuous stomach. He hadn`t been sick for a full five minutes – and that was a miracle. What would be more a miracle – is that there might be anything left in his stomach to recycle.
“Our Father who art in heaven – Hallowed be thy name…”
Gary stood with his comrades, head bowed as the chaplain took the service. Keeping his head down, he flicked his eyes upwards scanning the hundreds of soldiers who had gathered in the mess room. Tables were pushed back against the wall out of bounds because of the continuous rolling of the craft. Some men were muttering their own prayers holding rosaries. Others had their eyes tightly closed and others stared blankly in front of them, lost in their own thoughts. For Gary, his thoughts were of his family, his ma, his dad and his baby brother Jack who would be, in just a few hours time, experiencing his first combat duty. Gary hoped Jack would not be too scared. He was a good lad, a good brother and a good son. A better son, he knew, than he had been.
The chaplain, clutching his service bible, his army chaplains stole draped around his shoulders, made a sign of the cross and all said, “Amen,” in unison. The group began to disband, some however stayed with the chaplain, probably never having been to church in their lives, now wanting to be blessed, wanting to take God on their shoulders to the battlefield. Gary had seen it before when he had landed in Sicily and Italy; everyone had wanted God on their shoulder. Gary did not stay but made his way back up to the deck of the Arquebus despite the storm. They had only just set sail so were one of the lucky ships who had not been kept at sea since June 3rd, as had many. So seasickness for them had not, as of yet, become a problem. Gary had chosen to stay with his Bren Carrier to try to catch some sleep. Although the deck was packed with men, they were not so entombed as the men below deck who would sleep on bunks solidly packed along the walls of the ship.
Lieutenant Gislason was briefing men of the 29th Division aboard LCI – L- 94. “Make sure you study the location of the pill boxes,” he warned indicating to the huge map behind him. “The beach will be littered with mines and booby-trap entanglements.” They had been aboard nearly seventy-two hours having set sail on June 3rd, their route from Falmouth where they had embarked being some eighty miles from their landing beach – Omaha.
“I`ve heard that the beach is defended by 2nd rate Germans.” A young GI told Captain John Hamilton as the men dispersed. “Old men and those who are battle – weary from the east.”
John smiled at the young lad who looked as though he should still be in high school. He had huge brown eyes and as John set his gaze on him, he could see that his eyes oozed with tears. “I`m sure you`re right son,” John placated.
“You`re a doctor then?” The lad asked indicating to the obvious, John`s Red Cross Brassard quite ominous on the left sleeve of his battle dress.
“Yes.” John smiled.
“I bet you`ll see some sights then.” His tears were now threatening to fall. The poor boy was ringing his hands and chewing hard on gum. “Maybe things won’t be too bad,” John tried to reassure. ”
“Well, people are bound to get killed – wounded.” Now a tear did escape, one which the GI swiftly swept away with his index finger.
“Maybe. But as you said, the beach is defended by old men so perhaps we wont have such a bad time of it.” John doubted very much if this were true, but thought better of voicing this opinion, not wanting to spoof the young guy anymore than he already was.
“Are you scared?” The GI asked.
“Course I am.” John answered gently and honestly. “We’re all scared.” .
“I don’t want to let the guys down,” the GI quivered. “But I don`t know if I will be able to do it – kill people.” His bottom lip trembled and he desperately flung his hand across his face in an attempt to hold his composure, his eyes darting around not wanting to be seen crying by his comrades.
John didn’t quite know what to say, this sort of thing better dealt with by the Padre. But the young guy had confided in him, John being a complete stranger, maybe that it`s why he could. “I’m sure you’ll be fine son.” John placed a hand on his shoulder. “Try not to think about it too much.”
The boy held his head down, tears now running abated down his cheeks. “Will you … if I get wounded … will you look after me?”
“Course I will.” A sob almost escaped from John. In an attempt to check himself he repeated, “You’ll be fine son.”
The young guy placed his hand on top of John`s that still rested on his shoulder. His huge pleading brown eyes cut into John`s heart. Managing a stifled smile, the GI then went on his way.
“Son,” John called after him. “What`s your name?”
“Abe,” he told him. “Abe Dlan from Boston.”
John smiled and nodded. Abe gave a half-hearted wave, nodded and was on his way again, pushing through the bodies of uniforms until he merged and disappeared amongst them.
John sighed heavily and steadied himself, his arm outstretched holding onto the ironwork of a bunk. Head deep into his chest he muttered, “This damn war – this bloody damn war.”
By eleven pm on the 4th June, all of the fleet had now received an order to sail and once again the fleet made its way to the rendevous point of `Piccadilly Circus` just off the Isle of Wight where it would convene and then sail for Normandy. It would then wait. Sitting just off the coast – for the final order to go.
The storm had not abated.