The carnage after D-Day: Last week Britain celebrated the epic heroism. But few remember the blood-soaked battles that came next - brought to life in a gripping book by one of our greatest historians

By Antony Beevor

Enemy artillery shells were crashing above the heads of Lieutenant Alastair Bannerman and his men of the Royal  Warwickshire Regiment as they sped in a troop carrier through the Normandy countryside.

It was June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day, and they had fought their way inland from the beachhead eight miles away to the village of Lebisey, on the outskirts of the strategically vital city of Caen.

They drove almost blind along a typical Normandy sunken road with high banks and hedges before emerging suddenly into the sunlight and the middle of a formation of enemy tanks.

Turning into a wheat field, they deployed their anti-tank guns, the men swearing volubly as they fired. But then a shell knocked out the carrier, and as the survivors tried to slip back to their own lines, they were captured.

Slow progress: Allied troops in the fight for Caen fire on the dogged German soldiers holding the town

Slow progress: Allied troops in the fight for Caen fire on the dogged German soldiers holding the town

The Germans were friendly enough, offering their prisoners wine even as shells came whistling over from the armada of Allied ships out in the Channel. ‘I think we’d better dig a hole, don’t you?’ a German soldier suggested to Bannerman, and the two of them began scraping furiously.

Sitting side by side in the trench they’d made, showing each other photographs of their wives in between cowering from the bombardment, the German insisted: ‘You British will be back in the sea in a few days.’

‘No, I’m sorry,’ Bannerman replied just as forcefully. ‘We will be in Paris in a week.’

Both were spectacularly wrong in their predictions. The Allies would cling on to their foothold in France; in that sense, the invasion was a success. But equally, any hopes of a swift advance and a German rout were dashed. In the three months ahead, a desperate war would be fought in Normandy, with close to half a million casualties on all sides.

In last weekend’s 70th anniversary D-Day celebrations, there was understandably a focus on the beaches and what it must have been like for Allied soldiers coming ashore in their landing craft under heavy fire, sick with fear and thrown around by  the waves.

But the truth often overlooked is that casualties on D-Day were far fewer than expected. The real carnage came later, and further inland, during the battle for Normandy.


The German threat to throw what one general contemptuously described as ‘the little fishes’ back into the Channel was a ridiculous boast that was soon overtaken by events. But Paris would remain out of reach of the Allies until the end of August. In between, all hell broke out.

The problem for the Allies was that, though they established a firm beachhead on D-Day, they failed in their further objective. The plan for General Bernard Montgomery’s Second Army was to take Caen by midnight on June 6, leaving the door wide open into the country beyond.

But, as Lt Bannerman was discovering in the makeshift shelter he shared with his German captor, Caen was heavily defended and out of reach, for now at least.

The German commanders, Rundstedt and Rommel, had second-guessed Montgomery. They did not have the men or tanks for a full-on counter-attack, but realised that if Caen fell, so might the town of Falaise 30 miles further on, and then there would be the real possibility not only of an Allied dash for Paris but that all German forces in Normandy and Brittany would be cut off.

So they positioned a panzer division on the high ground in front of Caen, from which it inflicted heavy losses on advancing forces. The pattern for the Normandy battle was set in which slow and painful Allied attacks were met by German forces rushing like a fire brigade to plug the gaps.

In these circumstances, the Germans could never hope to win a major victory. But they retained an extraordinary ability to thwart their opponents and inflict heavy casualties. British commanders soon began to fear they might even run out of manpower if they could not find a way to break out of this battle of attrition.

It didn’t help that the failure to expand the beachhead as planned was leaving far too little room to bring in urgently needed reinforcements and supplies. Almost every orchard and field in the rear area was crammed with fuel depots, supply dumps, repair workshops, base camps, field hospitals and vehicle parks.

Easier than had been expected: After the initial landings on Sword Beach, round the port of Ouistreham, British troops prepare to move off the beach and push inland towards Caen - but then they ran into trouble

Easier than had been expected: After the initial landings on Sword Beach, round the port of Ouistreham, British troops prepare to move off the beach and push inland towards Caen - but then they ran into trouble

Meanwhile, the RAF was furious that its operations harassing the enemy were being hampered because there were no forward airfields for Spitfires and Typhoons that were not within the range of German artillery.

As the bloody stalemate in front of Caen became clear, Montgomery, his master plan scuppered, spread out a map on the bonnet of his Humber staff car and devised a new one — a pincer movement to encircle the city.

He decided to send his two ‘best batsmen’ into play on June 11. On the left flank he placed the 51st Highland Division and on the right the 7th Armoured Division, the famed Desert Rats. Both had distinguished themselves under his command in North Africa — but they were to receive a rude shock in Normandy.

Going into battle, the 51st could not make headway and were completely disorientated by the small, sharp actions of the Germans as they blocked the way with sudden deadly mortar ‘stonks’ and artillery barrages.

‘The fury of artillery is a cold, mechanical fury,’ wrote a Highlander, ‘but its intent is personal. When  you are under its fire you are the sole  target. All of that shrieking, whining venom is directed at you and at  no one else.

‘You hunch in your hole in the ground, reduce yourself into as small a thing as you can become, and you harden your muscles in a pitiful attempt at defying the jagged, burning teeth of the shrapnel. Involuntarily you curl up into the foetal position, except that your hands go down to protect your genitalia.’

The same soldier graphically described the psychological collapse of the most warlike member of his company under this barrage. In the cellar of a farmhouse, he curled up on the floor, howling and sobbing, ‘his face smeared with tears and snot as he bleated for his mother in a shameless surrender’.

He was far from alone. A battalion commander of the Black Watch broke down and had to be relieved of his command after losing 200 men in a single attack.

Meanwhile, the Desert Rats were  faring no better as they advanced through bocage country along sunken lanes and high hedges between the woods and fields. Despite all the months of training for the invasion, the Allies were totally unprepared for this beautiful but claustrophobic terrain. Hedgerows were at least three times the height of English ones,  heavily banked and far too dense for even a tank to smash through.

Attacking through the leafy green tunnels ‘gives you the bloody creeps’, said one trooper. ‘In the desert, we could see them, and they could see us. Here they can see us, but I’ll be buggered if we can see them.’

The Desert Rats’ immediate goal was the town of Villers-Bocage, which they entered in their Cromwell tanks on the morning of June 13 to an ecstatic reception. Gendarmes in their best uniforms held back the crowds, who threw flowers on to the tanks and offered presents of cider and butter. The only enemy presence was a German eight-wheeled armoured car which was sighted but quickly disappeared. So the triumphant Desert Rats rolled on somewhat nonchalantly towards their next objective, without bothering to send scouts up ahead.

In a small wood close to the road up which they were advancing, five German Tiger tanks lay hidden. They had just reached the front after a long haul from north of Paris. Their commander was a panzer ace credited with 137 tank ‘kills’ on the Russian front.

He watched as the first squadron of British tanks halted as the crews got out to stretch their legs. They were behaving, one of his gunners thought, as if they had won the war. Suddenly the panzer commander, Michael Wittman, swung out of the wood, took aim and fired at the Cromwells, destroying each one in turn.

The British tanks did not stand a chance. Badly designed, under-armoured and under-gunned, they even found it hard to back out of danger, since their reverse speed was little more than 2mph.

Hard fought: A wounded eighteen-year-old German sniper taken prisoner in the Caen-Tilly sector.

Hard fought: A wounded eighteen-year-old German sniper taken prisoner in the Caen-Tilly sector.

The German Tigers then lumbered into the main street of the town, where more British tanks were lined up with many of their crews dismounted. Once more Wittman took aim. Even those Cromwells that were manned and capable of replying had little effect. Some managed to score direct hits  on the Tiger but their low-velocity 75mm guns made no impression.

With Villers-Bocage lost so soon after being won, the advance came to a halt. British forces withdrew into defensive positions as their attempt to break the deadlock in Normandy failed humiliatingly. It was a devastating blow to morale.

But the most unsettling aspect of the lost battle was the inability of the Cromwell to knock out a Tiger tank, even at point-blank range. The British tank was fast going forwards and had a low profile, but its flat front left it vulnerable and it had an ineffective gun. The 88mm gun on the German Tigers could pick off Allied tanks before they were able to get within range.

British generals were well aware of its ‘design fault’, though Montgomery tried to stamp out any idea of tank inferiority for fear of his men developing ‘a Tiger complex’.

Yet he himself had criticised the Cromwell the previous August, when he complained: ‘We are outshot by the German tanks.’ To try to suppress the problem nearly a year later was flying in the face of reality.

The diary of a British officer found in a shot-up Cromwell posed the pertinent question. Its penultimate entry on June 11 read: ‘After four years of preparation for the invasion, why are our machines inferior?’

On June 12, Churchill boarded a destroyer at Portsmouth to pay a prime-ministerial visit to Normandy. He came ashore in an amphibious craft, right up onto the beach, and was then driven to Army headquarters in the Chateau de Creully.

His trip took him through countryside which had escaped destruction. ‘We are surrounded by fat cattle lying in luscious pastures with their paws crossed,’ he purred. His companion, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke,  noted, however, that ‘the French population did not seem in any way pleased to see us.’

Which was hardly surprising, given the terrible destruction being meted out to large swathes of Normandy. Caen continued to suffer abominably from bombs and shelling. Rats grew fat on the corpses buried underground and stray dogs searched for an arm or leg sticking out of the rubble.

‘I simply cannot look at any more blood,’ a surgeon in the hospital was heard to say, so weary he had no idea what day it was.

Even for those French now behind Allied lines, life was hard. The invading soldiers had distributed chocolate, sweets and cigarettes, but there was no electricity or water, except from wells. For food, most survived off their market gardens.

Often the sweets and cigarettes were not given but bartered for milk, eggs and meat from fallen livestock. This trading extended to other commodities with astonishing rapidity. Allied military police raided a brothel set up on a beach in a wrecked landing craft by three ladies on the evening of  D-Day and confiscated the army-issue chocolate, sweets and cigarettes they had amassed in ‘currency’.

Meanwhile, the very worst was happening for the Allies in terms of getting the job done. Everywhere, instead of pushing forward, the front line was coagulating as troops who should have been aggressively on the move dug in. ‘Musical chairs with gunfire and slit trenches’ was how one lieutenant described his life at this point.

Trench warfare and the quite arbitrary chance of death which went with it led to numerous superstitions. Few dared fate by saying that they would do this or that ‘when I get home’.

A medal was all very well, but they preferred somebody else to play the role of hero, ‘winning the war single-handed’. Most just wanted to return home alive.

Here was a telling point. It was primarily a conscript army that was thrown into the battle for Normandy, against a German military that was far more professional, mainly as a result of their training system, their experience on the Russian front and their doctrine of Auftragstaktik. This was a commander’s obligation to achieve an objective on his own initiative rather than stick blindly to orders, and it gave them a much greater flexibility.

The Germans were also deeply influenced by the idea promoted through propaganda that they were fighting to defend their country from annihilation, while the Americans and British just wanted to get the war over with and go home.

‘The Germans are staying in there just by the guts of their soldiers,’ an American general observed. ‘We outnumber them ten to 1 in infantry, 50  to 1 in artillery and an infinite number in the air.’

He wanted his officers to convince their men ‘that we have got to fight for our country just as hard as the Germans are fighting for theirs’. But he was fighting an uphill battle.

American troops injured while storming Omaha Beach: American and Canadian observers were amazed by the British expectation of regular tea and smoke breaks - even just after reaching the beaches on D-Day

American troops injured while storming Omaha Beach: American and Canadian observers were amazed by the British expectation of regular tea and smoke breaks - even just after reaching the beaches on D-Day

In conscript armies such as the British and American, it was not possible to exert the same sort of pitiless discipline to overcome fear as the Nazi regime used. The average citizen from a western democracy could not be expected to fight in the same way as a member of the Wehrmacht or the Red Army, let alone an SS officer or a member of the Hitler Youth.

But the difference this made was crucial. Americans, Britons and Canadians did not regard it as shameful to give up after a certain level of suffering or hopelessness was reached. Phrases like ‘Fight to the last man!’ were seen as rhetorical, not literal.

And we should be thankful that was the case. We would be most uneasy today if they had fought in Normandy in the same way as the brutal and feared Waffen-SS.

But there were also systemic flaws in the British Army that affected how it performed in that immediate post- D-Day period. Many private soldiers and NCOs had been marked by social and political tensions of the inter-war years and become far more politicised than their fathers, the generation that fought World War I.

Sometimes a trade-union mentality influenced attitudes of what could be expected of them. American and Canadian observers were amazed by the British soldier’s expectation of regular tea and smoke breaks.

Sometimes a trade-union mentality influenced attitudes of what could be expected of them. American and Canadian observers were amazed by the British soldier’s expectation of regular tea and smoke breaks.

On D-Day itself, an astonishing number felt tired after wading ashore and believed there was time for a cigarette and even a brew up instead of getting on with the task of  knocking out the enemy defences and pushing inland.

Another British failing came from a demarcation mentality, of not doing anything that was not strictly your job. A Canadian observed that  sappers did not believe it was their task to fire at the enemy when not engaged on an engineering task, and infantry refused to help fill a crater or get a vehicle out of difficulties. There was little of that attitude in either the German or the American army.

The Germans also believed that the British were very brave in defence, but often over-cautious in attack. One reason may be that British military myths always focused on heroic defence — at Corunna, Waterloo, Lucknow and Rorke’s Drift. Glorification of attack was much rarer.

Then again, it must also be remembered that in 1944 Britain had been at war for nearly five years, so there was considerable war-weariness. And, as the end came in sight, men wanted to survive. They became reluctant to take risks, especially those who had fought in North Africa and Italy.

All this contributed to the situation the Allied armies found themselves in after fighting their way ashore in Normandy 70 years ago and facing an enemy dug in and determined to try to stop them in their tracks.

Now, with two weeks gone since the first landings and progress flagging, even the weather — that had relented like a godsend to make D-Day possible — turned against Allies. On June 19, the most violent storm for 40 years blew up in the Channel.

Gale force winds along the coast were, in the Norman saying, enough ‘to take the horns off a cow’, while temperatures felt like a cold November. Locals had never seen anything like it. Landing craft were hurled by the waves high on to the beaches, smashing against each other. One Mulberry artificial port was destroyed beyond repair.

When the storm subsided on June  22, the destruction on the beaches defied belief. More ships and material had been lost than during the invasion itself. It badly affected reinforcements and supplies. Many Allied divisions ready to cross to France were delayed by a week, as were shipments of artillery ammunition.

It also forced the cancellation of Allied air operations, which allowed the Germans to accelerate their own reinforcement of the Normandy front.

Yet those involved in the planning of D-Day could not help remembering with grateful relief the decision to go ahead on June 6. If the invasion had been postponed for two weeks, as had been a possibility at the time, the fleet would have sailed into one of the worst storms in Channel history.

Fortune had been on the Allies’ side then — and it was about to be again when, from a distance, Hitler decided he knew better than his generals how to eject the Allies from Normandy.

█ Adapted from D-Day: The Battle For Normandy by Antony Beevor, published by Penguin at £8.99. © 2014 Antony Beevor. To buy it for £8.49 (inc p&p), call 0844 472 4157. Antony will be giving a D-Day lecture at the Chalke Valley History Festival on Thursday, June 26, at 8.45pm. Tickets cost £14 and can be bought online by visiting or by calling the ticket hotline on 01722 781133.

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