D-Day: The Unheard Tapes (2024) s01e02 Episode Script

Episode 2

This programme contains scenes
which some viewers may find upsetting
and some strong language.
The tide was coming in.
The bullets were hitting the water
andhitting men.
I went down the ramp.
And I went under.
Completely under?
Completely under.
Reel One.
Can you tell me about D-Day itself?
What had they told you
beforehand to expect?
Expect hell.
They didn't lie to us about that.
It was sheer nerves,
but exhilarating nerves,
if you know what I mean?
Your task will not be an easy one.
Your enemy is well trained,
well equipped and battle hardened.
He will fight savagely.
I tried to get up,
but I couldn't get up.
I know there's no help coming.
I, er, said goodbye
to my mother, my wife.
As I struggled,
somebody pulled me out.
After months, years, really,
of planning,
the Allies finally launched
their surprise attack
on the German forces guarding the
Normandy coast of occupied France.
The stakes for those troops on that
morning were incredibly high.
And in many respects, it was
very much a now-or-never moment.
The Allies identified
five beach landing areas.
Those codenamed Utah and Omaha
were the American beaches.
And it was always known
that it was necessary to take Omaha
because it sat between
the other beaches.
For soldiers like Harry,
arriving on the beaches
in these landing craft,
it's the reality of war
very much in their faces, really,
for the first time that they've
encountered something like this.
There'd have been a sense of shock.
What they were faced with
was far greater
than they had been prepared for.
At the shoreline there was
a lot of wounded, dead floating.
Had to crawl in.
I was exhausted, crawling over them,
I didn't know who was wounded,
who was dead.
I could hear the bullets
going into the sand.
Made a little sucking sound -
tsst, tsst, tsst!
Tsst, tsst, tsst!
It appeared that the beach
was sucking something up.
Now I'm up there, half-drowned,
full of water, with 80lbs
of shit on my back.
And I'm alone.
The landings were planned
to be based on waves of troops
hitting the beaches.
The first wave understood that they
would take the highest casualties.
But they hadn't expected the volume
of fire that they were experiencing,
with full force of the German
fire power raining down on them.
Omaha, from the perspective
of the Allied invaders,
was the most formidable beach.
Because it was surrounded
by gun positions on high ground.
The Americans
were incredibly vulnerable.
The Germans could just pick off
these Americans
stepping off the boats,
almost at will.
I got up to the first
layer of shingles, of shale, rock,
and laid there
trying to get my wind,
under fire, there was mortars
hitting along the shore.
You could see the sand
going straight up.
Machinegun fire and artillery
shells were hitting us.
I lay on my side
and I open my fly and urinate.
I guess I was being neat.
Anyhow, I was soaking wet anyway,
it didn't matter.
Under fire, it was
sort of crazy, I guess.
Eventually I climbed up
to the next layer of shale
and there was a bunch of GIs there
getting hit and wounded.
We came under an intense fire
and they covered the beach
with automatic weapons fire.
It seemed like an inferno.
Did you expect that?
No, we didn't.
We didn't expect it.
This was our first taste of combat.
Must have been a bit like hell?
Well, I've never been there
But if it's like that,
I certainly don't want to go there.
And it's worse, I'm certain.
You could see your friends,
people you'd served with for years,
floating face down or face up.
A lot of them wounded, drowned.
I think I was in shock at the time.
At times I was frightened.
There wasn't much to think about
actually, except the
..soldier, the German soldier,
on the machinegun.
At Omaha, the earlier Allied naval
bombardment was quite ineffective
so the German resistance nests
were still intact.
Franz Gockel, his mission
was to sit in his bunker
and kill as many Allied soldiers
as possible.
As Franz Gockel looked down
on to the beach, he'd have seen
these heavily laden soldiers,
sometimes drenched from having
just got out of the water
so they're not moving
particularly fast.
There was basically
no natural cover at all.
There was nothing between them
and these guns.
Almost nothing to stop the bullets.
At the time, our objective
was to get to the cliff
across the beach,
then proceed from there.
I was wounded
just as I came off the boat,
and I crossed the beach
on my stomach. I crawled.
It seemed like an eternity, almost.
Omaha was unusual because
there was a huge expanse of sand
to cover in order to get
to the cliffs, or bluffs.
But there's five gaps,
natural gaps
in that elevated ground.
The Americans' key objective
is to secure these natural exits
and overpower
the German strong points.
This was all supposed to happen
within a couple of hours.
We were supposed to land on the
beach where the bluffs separated.
We came in approximately
500 to 1,000 yards east
of where we were supposed to.
We didn't know what to do.
What was ahead of us was the bluffs.
The bluffs ranged anywhere
from two to three storeys in height,
quite steep.
You thought everything was lost
because there were tanks coming off
and trucks coming off
far out in the water and sinking,
and were being hit now.
And then you just turned away,
you couldn't look.
One guy next to me
got a slug through his helmet,
missed his head
cos he had socks in his helmet.
Another guy had part of his buttocks
blown open.
We put sulfa powder on it,
he was numb from shock,
he was laughing.
Couldn't feel it, I guess.
The Germans were pinning down
the Americans to the sea line.
Which from their perspective
is what they were trying to do
to ensure that these men couldn't
even get as far as the cliffs.
Casualty rates were incredibly high,
and the Americans, they were
starting to get really bogged down.
In some cases,
all of the men stepping off
their boats were killed.
There was a very real prospect that
they might actually lose the beach.
How many did you lose, do you know?
There were 17 on my boat
to start with,
and only five of us came off alive.
It did horrify me to lose these men
that we'd trained with,
some of them I'd grown up with
from childhood.
I witnessed so many of our people
getting killed.
I mean this
this is kind of difficult.
I just want to know what you saw.
I don't know
whether I can do this or not.
Cut it off. Yes. OK, cut.
Pockets of men
advance across the beach
and make it
to the base of the bluffs
where there are German defences,
mines and obstacles.
The bluffs would be
the toughest nut to crack.
Some were trying to dig in
with their bare hands.
There were mortar and artillery
shells landing all over the place.
So, by 8:00 you're just there?
Just there, trying to stay alive.
While soldiers like Harry were
trapped at the base of the bluffs,
pinned down and unable
to move forward,
another wave of British
were about to land
on the Eastern boundary
of the D-Day beaches,
known as Sword Beach.
When we got there
it was just, er, a shambles.
I was one of the first
three men out.
And you had to crouch
on the deck then.
When I saw a thing
going on on the beach,
how the hell are we
going to get through that?
Unknown to James,
the first wave at Sword Beach
had already suffered
terrible casualties,
and this is what would have
confronted him
as he approached the beach.
when the Commandos came on behind
them, some of them describe it
as being like "a sea of khaki"
that was laid out in front of them
due to the sheer number
of casualties lying in the sand.
Our job was to, "Get off the beach
as fast as you can."
That were the instructions
that we're given.
So the initial mission for some
of those invading on Sword Beach
was to make their way directly
to Benouville Bridge -
later known as Pegasus Bridge -
in order to relieve
John Howard and his men,
who'd of course seized control
of that bridge at the very, very
start of the operation on D-Day.
This bridge
was a really important means
of either Germany moving troops
towards the D-Day beaches,
or the Allies moving troops
off the beaches and onwards to gain
a foothold in Northern France.
Had they told you help
would be coming up from the beach
in the form of the Commandos? Yes.
We must expect
a counterattack any time.
And it was vital
that the crossing places be held.
It was rather frightening to realise
exactly what was happening
and keeping our fingers crossed for
those poor buggers coming in by sea.
The German fortifications
at Sword Beach were quite strong.
You had minefields,
you had heavy weapons.
You had concealed machinegun
positions in the houses.
So the British Forces, they had to
overcome a lot of challenges
to break through the Atlantic Wall.
As far as we were concerned, to us
young lads it was an adventure.
This was it, you know.
There was another chap,
a fella named Charlie Hall, who, er,
came with me. I was a Bren gunner
and Charlie was my number two.
Charlie Hall.
They liked you to have your mates.
Because two of you would work
much better, you know.
You'd fight better.
You know, we had the company
and the friendship
of another person with you.
When we hit the beach
there was only one thing in my mind,
it was to get up.
Captain Powell was in charge.
He was leading, followed by me,
followed by Charlie Hall.
All I remember
is a blinding flash and
..my friend, Charlie Hall,
was down on the deck.
And he was bleeding.
The blood was pumping
out of his neck,
and right out of his Combined Ops
badge that was on his shoulder.
And the blood was pouring out, it
was pumping out, out of both places.
And I'd only just knelt down and it
was only a matter of saying to him,
"Come on, Charlie, come on."
And this voice said, "Get going!
You're not supposed to stop!
"Get going!" So I went.
Get up! Get up! Come on, move!
I just left.
For those men landing at Sword,
the first challenge
is to get off the beach itself.
Young men like James and Warwick,
they were totally vulnerable.
Behind them is the English Channel
so they can't go backwards.
The only way to survive here
is to do what must have seemed to be
the most counter-intuitive thing,
which is to run towards the fire
coming from the gun positions
above the beach.
I had two young Marines
as a signal unit.
We got ashore. One lad got killed,
incidentally. Erm
We got on the beach,
which was covered inbodies,
tanks and smoke.
Once we got into the smoke,
the whole thing seemed so unreal.
I got my, erm, camera
and, uh, I started taking pictures
of the troops coming ashore.
And we started coming across bodies,
British bodies,
and I remember the first one I saw
was an infantryman
and what fascinated me was
he had no head.
He was just lying there with no
head, there was no sign of his head.
Get up there!
What happened next?
We grouped for about ten minutes
on the beach,
until the beachmaster came along.
The most calm man
I've ever met in my life.
Came along swinging a cane.
You! Over here!
And he was just standing there
"Over here. Keep over there."
Like a traffic copper.
Over here!
How long he lasted, I don't know.
I didn't stop.
People are falling
and being killed and wounded
and this guy's walking through it.
And we were off the beach.
I suddenly spotted
two very tiny infantrymen
marching along a very tall
German soldier,
who was absolutely terrified.
He had a bandage round his face.
And these two rather cheerful
Cockneys on either side of him.
I said, "Just a minute."
And they posed as though they might
be posing in Piccadilly Circus
for their picture
with this German in between them.
And, erm, took the classic picture.
Which we'd always been told to
look out for, captured prisoners -
very good for the morale
and all the rest of it.
You were saying there were
lots of dead British soldiers
lying around? There's lots
of dead bodies lying in the, uh,
little sand hills
just below the promenade.
Did you not think that these
were worth filming?
No. They would not use
pictures of dead bodies.
Use pictures of dead Germans.
But not pictures of dead British.
The objective of Royal Marine
Commandos such as James Kelly
was to attack and take
the village of Lion-Sur-Mer.
One of the interesting things
about D-Day
was, I guess, the disorientation
for the troops.
They're coming off these
packed beaches
and finding themselves
in the countryside,
trying to get their bearings.
And, perhaps more importantly,
to find their rendezvous points
with the rest of their troops.
I'd got off and I found the road.
And the curious thing about that,
was, er,
you could have stood around and,
er, you know, had a conversation
without any danger,
on the corner, by the church,
and, er, it's like Sunday afternoon.
Nothing Nothing happening.
And, er, there's fellas getting,
you know, murdered, er, like,
a couple of hundred yards
further back down on the beach.
The invading British
go from fighting on a beach
to fighting in an urban environment,
in a street fight.
At any point there could be
hidden German forces
training their guns upon them.
They don't know where the threat is,
so it's a completely different
The success of the landings
was still in the balance.
For people on the shores,
there's a sentiment of disbelief.
Families peering out of widows
wondering what is happening.
They see these shadows coming up
and on to the shores.
And here you start to realise,
"This is actually it."
The sense of disbelief
was transforming
into a growing fear
that maybe they were going to die
if they were in that line of fire.
For Jacqueline and family,
D-Day was like being in a trance.
People would have been
so excited, thrilled,
that this could actually be
the moment where we see
the beginning of the end
of the Nazi grip on Europe.
But it's also a day where no-one
knows what's going to happen next,
and you're seeing dead bodies
all around you.
As the morning progresses, things
weren't going anywhere near as well
on Omaha as they were
on the other beaches.
Progress was really slow.
As the tide moved in,
the amount of ground that was
available for the troops there
was diminishing and diminishing
and diminishing.
And that represented a huge threat.
Four hours after they landed,
the battle was still raging.
Omaha Beach
was still in German hands.
Some of the resistance nests had
already been taken by the Americans,
but largely, the Germans
still held their positions.
Originally, all resistance nests
had enough ammunition
to fight a prolonged fight
for about 48 hours.
There was wounded and dead
and chopped-up guys.
Nobody could move.
They were terrorised.
We didn't know where we were.
We had no officers.
My captain was killed on the beach.
Given the chaos at Omaha, much
came down to individual initiative
and courage of soldiers
like Chuck and Harry.
The Germans had placed wire
entanglements, mines, tank traps,
and, of course, these had to be
knocked out with demolition teams.
About 9:00, 10:00,
word was passed back
they were going to blow the wire.
There was about four or five guys
going up the bluff ahead of me.
What's remarkable about Omaha Beach
is that despite the fact that many
of these specialist teams
were disrupted or dead,
that soldiers like Chuck
managed to assemble demolitions,
Bangalore torpedoes,
to blow up wire entanglements.
We got Bangalore torpedoes.
That's, er, long tubes of TNT,
screwed together,
and we put that under the wire.
Finally blew the wire.
It just collapsed.
We started one at a time
in between machinegun fire,
jumping over the wire.
I ran for it, tripped, fell in it,
but crawled through all right.
And I could hear the explosion
of the Bangalore torpedo. Yeah.
I crawled part of the way,
then I found other wounded
and all that shit.
Where they had blown the?
Yeah, yeah. And another guy,
I'll never forget it,
both legs were gone,
and they had torniquets
around his legs.
And, uhI had to keep going.
After we got to the top of the hill,
I looked down on the beach
and it was a real mess.
There we were up there,
maybe 30 guys in our area,
and we could have been
swept off there with brooms
if the Germans knew
there were so few of us.
We just about get up the hill when
they started screaming back from me,
back down at the beach -
"Come on down!
"We're going to shell the hill."
So I just came down.
Say the bluff was like, er,
let's assume the bluff was
two and a half storeys high,
I came down to about
one storey off sea level.
That was a stupid thing to do.
And the USS Arkansas opened fire.
By late morning, the situation
at Omaha seemed quite desperate.
At one point the Allied commanders
thought they would have to pull out
and end the attempt
to take Omaha Beach.
The Allies brought up naval gunfire
to try and knock out
the German defences,
to pave the way for the American
infantry to get off the beach.
I could see that these giant shells
were blowing the hill apart.
They were coming over my head.
You ever sit in the front row of a
movie, looking up at the screen?
That's the way it looked.
The number of German soldiers
deployed at Omaha Beach
in these resistance nests
was astonishingly low.
So we're only talking about
several hundred soldiers.
Even though they killed
hundreds of enemy soldiers,
it was still no end to it
because the Americans
and the British
were pumping men and material
into the beachheads,
and the German soldiers didn't get
the expected reinforcements.
So whilst at first
it might have felt like
they had this huge advantage,
by sheer weight of numbers
and effort and tenacity,
the Americans start to turn
the tide of battle in their favour.
One by one,
they overran resistance nests
and the German soldiers
above Omaha were either killed,
captured or, like Franz Gockel,
they retreated.
The Allies had succeeded
in securing the other four beaches.
For the infantry, having advanced,
what they might have thought was the
worst experience was behind them,
but the real battles
and the real slugging matches
were about to begin.
The Germans were mobilising
thousands of troops
from across occupied France.
But the full force
of the German Tank Divisions
hadn't yet been unleashed.
The Panzer Lehr Division
is a German elite division.
So it is one of the big
trump cards in the German defence.
But for a young soldier like
Herbert Meier, the problem is
many of the tanks
can only be activated
on Hitler's personal order.
And as he is not convinced
that this is the big landing,
they are released only in the
afternoon of the 6th of June.
So, crucial hours
are lost for the Germans.
Nazi propaganda
had told these young men,
"Your task is to throw
the Allies back into the sea
"and then we have
still a chance to win the war."
So now for the Americans
and for the Germans
there are only two options -
kill or be killed.
By early afternoon,
Commando troops had got past
the Germans on Sword Beach,
and James Kelly and his unit were
on the outskirts of Lion-sur-Mer.
So they were just there,
this pocket of men
not knowing where the enemy was.
And, of course,
that renders you very vulnerable
because it means that the threat
can come from any direction.
And what happened? Can you take me
through a step-by-step?
We were running,
and I didn't think the Germans
were really shooting at us.
Until I turned round
and I found myself by myself.
Um, you know, panic crept in.
I couldn't see Captain Powell.
And then I spotted him
but he was lying on the ground,
er, groaning, you know. So I said,
"Come on, let's get out of here!"
He had multiple wounds on him.
I was just trying to help him.
I was sort of, er, giggling
and laughing and crying,
likelike a I don't know,
like a frightened child, I suppose.
They're the things
that amazed me, you know, about war,
you know, they can be so dramatic
and tense,
and then you can have these very,
very strange things happening in it.
Within seconds -
where it came from, I don't know -
they had jeeps which were converted
into a sort of very fragile
type of ambulance,
and that was the last I saw
of Captain Powell.
When that jeep drove away,
er, the loneliness that I felt
..standing there by myself, bereft.
And I realised just how
how immature that I must be,
you know, young, green, whatever,
call it what you like.
I just cried my eyes out.
Oh Yeah.
Yeah, I just stood there
and cried, I did.
British Commandos like James
were tasked with the objective
of advancing and taking and seizing
German strategic positions.
And one key objective
for some of them
was to get to Benouville Bridge
where Major John Howard
and his glider troops
had landed the night before.
From 12:00 onwards
we'd been expecting to see
and hear the Commandos.
It went on veryvery, very
wearing. Very wearing indeed.
And all the time you can
You can feel movement out there
and closer contact coming.
We were to blow a bugle call
once we saw them
coming down from the beaches.
We heard a bugle playing.
We heard this bugle.
It was, "Quiet, listen."
And everybody cheered.
That's what we was waiting for.
It was the Commandos,
complete with what we really
needed - a squadron of tanks.
I'll never forget the sight.
Of course we went potty, didn't we?
Er, a lot of joking went on
between our troops and theirs,
asking where the bloody hell
they'd been, you know,
and all that sort of business.
We opened up the Cafe Gondree
alongside the bridge.
The patron was George Gondree.
And the first thing
George Gondree did, bless him,
went down into his garden and dug up
nearly 100 bottles of champagne
that he'd buried away in the garden,
away from the Germans.
And all of a sudden
Monsieur Gondree
came out with a bottle of champagne
and a couple of glasses.
I looked at Gondree, I said,
"Yes, Oui, oui, oui!" Oh, dear!
Oh, was that good! I don't know
Well, it was champagne,
I know it was champagne.
It could have been cider,
it could have been anything,
but, oh, boy, did it go down well!
It really went down well.
And of course, that's what
you want to do in battle, is to,
to give vent to your feelings
that were pent up,
you're subjected
to all this pressure,
and to have a good shout,
releases it all.
For John Howard
and the whole of D Company
it was a moment of really kind of
qualified happiness.
Because they knew that this was
really just the beginning.
There was so much more to do.
And the scale of the task
that was ahead of them
and they must have known
that not all of them
would live to see
the end of all the days ahead.
Getting across the beaches
and taking the costal towns
was just the beginning
of the invasion.
The key objective for the British
commanders on D-Day
was to take Caen.
The idea had been that the troops
would get across the beaches
and get inland and take the city.
But trying to get eight miles
to Caen on the first day is
Is hugely ambitious.
Taking Caen was crucial
because, of course,
they understand that they are in
a race with the Germans.
Caen is a hub of communications,
of roads, rail, canals.
And it's how you access
the rest of France beyond.
So they are going to pound Caen
in order to disrupt
and destroy the German defenders.
The city became engulfed in flames.
Nobody would have anticipated
that they would have caused
so much death,
dust, flames and terror.
French civilians hadn't had time
to evacuate.
And all of a sudden
they were trapped.
The bombing of Caen
was one of those moments
where warfare came to the city,
it came to the people.
There's hundreds
of civilian casualties
and they destroy
some of the targets,
but the Allies
still have a huge way to go.
We didn't know where we were.
We had no ordnances.
We were hungry and tired and
And scared.
I worked my way to go inland
..to a house, bombed-out house,
just the walls were up.
There I located
some of my buddies from my company.
A lot of them didn't even have
rifles, they were
just walking around in a daze.
The Sergeant from my company
ran up the path,
yelling down
that it was full of mines.
My best buddy from Chicago,
named David
..put on his glasses and said,
"Now I can see them."
Ten minutes later he was killed.
I felt sick about it.
Once the Allies get further inland,
they are dragged into street
fighting in some of the villages.
And the Germans in this
part of Normandy have got also
some fortified positions inland.
The German soldiers had been told
again and again,
"This is a battle we have to win.
This is a battle we WILL win."
The rest of the day was spent
like a bunch of guerrilla fighters.
Just a jumble of
Of fright and running
and firing and, er
..disappearing and hiding and,
er, panic, and coolness.
And guys were so trigger happy
that if we were suspicious
of a farmhouse or something,
we threw the hand grenade.
I think we killed
..French farmers.
They were Resistance people,
or innocent people,
or they worked for the Germans,
but we had no time.
By early evening on D-Day
they had taken the five beaches.
The front line has moved
to a few miles inland.
Not particularly far at this stage.
And the Germans respond.
They're in no doubt now that this
is the big Allied invasion
and they've got to pull out
all the stops.
Herbert Meier's unit
didn't get on their way
until early evening from their base
100 miles south of the coast.
When they are ordered to march
through the Normandy front,
they want to be as quickly
as possible on the beaches.
So they planned to travel
through the night.
You need to bear in mind,
from the Germans' perspective,
everything is on the line
as well for them.
There was this sense that
it should still have been possible
to drive the Allies back,
back into the water.
The Allies had got this foothold,
but the battle for Normandy
has barely begun.
The Allies didn't waste any time
bringing in more ships
with supplies for their troops.
Without enough food, ammunition
and replacements of weapons
and equipment,
they would be vulnerable
to German counterattacks.
On the evening of D-Day,
the troops are exhausted.
I mean physically, they had
not slept, they have not eaten,
they have not had anything to drink.
They are, I think, mentally
and physically at the end.
I got in a ditch near a road,
it was getting dark.
I had my apple that was left over
from breakfast.
Tried to get some sleep,
though it was in a ditch.
That night a few German planes
come over and started bombing us,
so we didn't get
a heck of a lot of sleep.
Now lay ahead the long,
hard slog to liberate France.
And maybe you wouldn't survive
the next few days, let alone weeks.
From then on things,
got significantly harder,
because it stopped
being about speed of attack
based on surprise.
Both sides, from this point onwards,
would become locked in this brutal
battle of wills and barbarity.
We decided to get into the middle
of this field
so we could see that someone
was creeping up on us.
And we decided to dig a foxhole.
We were exhausted, dead tired and
blank of thoughts.
We tried to dig and the sergeant
said to me after a while,
"Ah, fuck it, Parley,
let's just sit down here,
"and if they come for us
we take as many as we can."
And that's the way I spent
the night. We sat back-to-back
..waiting for someone
to come and get us.
With all this uncertainty of not
knowing where we were going,
fear began to grip us.
I was scared as hell.
I couldn't imagine
what was going on ahead.
I was witness to a number of
what I would call
instances of butchery, where we did
capture a German or two.
We were well below strength.
It were a very dangerous situation.
And we had a few fellas killed.
Every time somebody go up a hill,
somebody's not coming back.
And you just hope that you make it.
The Open University
has produced a free booklet
highlighting key moments of D-Day.
To order your free copy, marking
the 80th anniversary, call
Or go to
..and follow the links
to the Open University.
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