The D-Day Battlefields
SWORD was the easternmost of the five Normandy landing beaches. This sector was allocated to units of the British 3rd Division under the command of Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, with both French and British commando formations attached.
SWORD occupied an 8 km (5 mile) stretch of the coastline running from Lion-sur-Mer on the west to the city of Ouistreham, at the mouth of the Orne River, on the east.
The Germans had protected the area with thousands of beach obstacles, emplacements in the sand dunes, plus many of the seaside villas beyond had been fortified. There were also antitank ditches and minefields as well as huge concrete barriers blocking the main streets.
A few miles inland, 88-mm guns had been sited to provide support to the front-line machine gun and mortar positions. The main concern for the attackers, however, were the guns of the Merville Battery, which the British Paras under Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway had been tasked with neutralising before first light, and the more formidable 155mms at Le Havre, located some 32 km (20 miles) to the east. Warships would engage the latter battery with their heavy guns.
The specialist armour, developed by Major General Percy Hobart, proved invaluable during the assault on SWORD Beach with DD tanks, Crab mine-clearers and Churchill AVREs all playing their part in the battle to overcome the enemy defences. The rare examples of a Sherman swimming tank and Sherman flail shown above are on display at the Tank Museum, Bovington, in Dorest. I have a separate page devoted to Hobart`s Funnies on this website: Click here to view.
This panoramic view shows SWORD Beach at Hermanville-sur-Mer, looking west.
Above: Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade approach Queen Red beach, SWORD area, around 08:40 hours, 6 June 1944. Sherman DD tanks of 13th/18th Royal Hussars and the specialised armour of 79th Armoured Division can be seen through the murk crowding together on the beach ahead. The famous image on the right is a still from a British documentary film made of the Landings.
The Royal, Merchant and Allied Navies Memorial at Hermanville-sur-Mer pays tribute to those seamen who took part in Operation Overlord. The inscription, also shown in French, reads ` We Remember with Pride and Gratitude the Men of the Royal and Merchant Allied Navies who fought and Died Here at Normandy 1944`.
The granite memorial is surmounted by a Celtic cross bearing a gold anchor and chain. It was unveiled on 6 June 2001 by Captain John Gower DSC RN Retd, who commanded HMS Swift (G46) (left) of the 23rd Destroyer Flotilla which bombarded the coast prior to the first wave landing here on 6 June. She provided further gunfire support as required throughout the day.
The warship also rescued survivors from Norwegian Navy destroyer HMNoS Svenner which was sunk by a torpedoes from a German fast-attack boat off SWORD Beach.
Swift then deployed in the Eastern Task Force area to prevent further attacks by enemy surface craft, or submarines, and stood by to engage land targets. She remained on Station off the Normandy coast until sailing to Portsmouth for replenishment towards the end of the month. However, soon after returning to the SWORD sector, Swift detonated a mine and sank after breaking in two with the loss of 53 crew.
Because of the variation in tide times along the D-Day Beaches, the troops assaulting SWORD would land 1 hour after the Americans further west and a full 90 minutes after first light. Shortly before dawn, Allied aircraft laid smoke to screen the eastern Task Force from the heavy guns at Le Havre, however, this combined with the already low visibility due to overcast skies, helped four German E-Boats, including the one which sunk HMNoS Svenner, to get within range of the invasion fleet. The fast-attack craft launched a number of torpedoes some of which narrowly missed the battleships HMS Warspite (03) and HMS Ramillies (07) before making a hasty retreat. This turned out to be the only attack attempted by the German Navy against the Landings on 6 June.
Warspite, the sixth warship of the Royal Navy to carry the name, was laid down on 21 October 1912 at Devonport Royal Dockyard and launched on 26 November 1913. Her 30-year career covered both World Wars and took her across the Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Pacific Oceans. She participated in the Battle of Jutland during the First World War as part of the Grand Fleet.
During the Second World War, she was involved in several major engagements, including battles in the North Sea and Mediterranean, earning her the most battle honours ever awarded to an individual ship in the Royal Navy. For this and other reasons Warspite gained the nickname the `Grand Old Lady`. She is pictured above on 7 June 1944 off SWORD Beach bombarding gun positions in the Caen area.
Above Right: This superb steel sculpture of HMS Ramillies by Tom McEndrick took the artist three years to complete and now takes pride of place atop the Beardmore Memorial in Clydebank. The Revenge-class battle-ship, was built by William Beardmore & Co at their Dalmuir yard and not only was she one of the most famous warships to be built on Clydeside, but she also saw action in both World Wars. On D-Day, 6 June 1944, Ramillies used her guns to great effect, knocking-out the Berneville coastal-defence battery before Allied troops went ashore on SWORD Beach. In the days that followed the initial landings she continued to provide fire-support by engaging targets far inland. She went on to fire more than a thousand 15-inch (381mm) shells during the Normandy Campaign.
Above left: This is the view from LCT 610 during the initial assault on Queen Red beach. The landing craft was carrying Sherman tanks of 13th/18th Royal Hussars.
Although hard to make out in this small photo, which was taken about 08:00 hrs on June 6th, another LCT makes its final run-in for the beach with Strongpoint `Cod`, a heavily fortified villa, lying directly ahead through the haze. The billowing smoke and flame beyond are coming from a burning flail tank of 'A' Squadron, 22nd Dragoons.
Right: Another famous film still of the commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade about to disembark from an LCI on Queen Red beach, on 6th June 1944.
Above: SWORD Beach from Hermanville looking east. The sea wall protecting the west side of the harbour at Ouistreham is just visible in the far distance. The following photos, taken on D-Day, show Churchill AVREs of 79th Assault Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, and other vehicles on Queen Red beach. Medics are attending to wounded personnel using a tank as cover and an M10 Wolverine 3-inch self-propelled gun from 20th Anti-Tank Regiment can be seen in the background, below right.
Ouistreham was a major objective on D-Day and there are a number memorials in the town although due to time constraints I had to leave proper exploration for another day. The 1st Special Service Brigade of the 3rd Division, was tasked with clearing the town and linking up with the British Airborne forces at Pegasus Bridge over the Orne River.
The Brigadier Commander was Lord Lovat, DSO, MC, with the Brigade comprised of No.3, No.4, No.6 Commando, No.45 Royal Marines Commando, and No.1 and No.8 French Troops of No.10 Inter-Allied Commando under Captain Philippe Kieffer.
Above: This iconic image shows Lord Lovat (in the water, to the right of his men) landing on Queen Red beach, SWORD area, about 08:40 hours. Sherman DD tanks of 13th/18th Royal Hussars and other vehicles can be seen on the beach. Lovat's piper, Bill Millin, about to disembark, almost fills the foreground. Note the size of his bulging Bergen rucksack.
In the archives held by the Pegasus Memorial, Millin recalled that as soon as he jumped into the water from the landing craft, his kilt floated to the surface and the shock of the freezing cold water immediately cured his seasickness. He was so relieved to make dry land after suffering in the stormy conditions all night, he struck up the Pipes and paddled through the surf playing `Hieland Laddie`. Lord Lovat turned round and gave a sly smile. Despite the general chaos, the dead and wounded, large explosions accompanied by small arms fire, smoke and the crump of mortars, when he`d finished, Lovat asked for another tune. Incredulous, Millin asked Lovat "Well, what tune would you like, Sir?" Lovat: "How about The Road to the Isles?" Millin: "Now, would you want me to walk up and down, Sir?" Lovat: "Yes. That would be nice. Yes, walk up and down."
The Piper did as asked and paced back and forth along a short stretch of beach blasting out Lovat`s `request.` Nearby, soldiers who were digging-in stopped what they were doing and waved their arms, cheering. However, others weren`t quite as supportive. One came along and called Millin "The mad bastard" as he passed. Obviously some soldiers, rather than being inspired by the sound of the pipes, saw Millin and anyone else near him as a prime target for the German artillery or machine-gun fire.
The plaster model of Bill Millin shown above is on display within the Memorial Pegasus Museum along with the commando`s set of bagpipes he played on D-Day. Like the full-size bronze statue of Millin at Colleville-Montgomery, the plaster figure was created by French sculptor Gaetan Ader. The memorial to Millin was unveiled in June 2013 on the seafront where he and his unit came ashore.
Commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade assemble on Queen Red beach, SWORD area early on 6 June prior to the move inland. One of Hobart`s `Funnies`, a Churchill AVRE, equipped with a small box girder bridge, can be seen in the background in the shot below left. An M10 `Wolverine` 3-inch self-propelled gun of 20th Anti-Tank Regiment is pictured below near the same spot.
No.41 Royal Marine Commando landed at Lion-sur-Mer, having crossed the turbulent waters of the Channel in LCI(S) (Landing Craft Infantry Small) and it wasn`t until the men were well on their way that they learned of their exact destination. They landed slightly off target about 08:40 hrs and were immediately met by concentrated shell and mortar fire. Lieutenant-Colonel T.M. Gray, CO of the unit, split his force in two, one section to assist in clearing the town and the other to head eastward to make contact with the South Lancashire Regiment.
Three tanks brought up in support were quickly knocked-out. Naval gunfire failed to dislodge Lion-sur-Mer`s defenders and towards evening, as the Allied troops assembled to launch a coordinated attack, three German Heinkels carried out a raid, dropping bombs on, amongst others, the temporary Headquarters, killing the Forward Observation Officer (FOB) while wounding the CO and 11 members of his staff. The attack, by the 5th Lancashires with the Royal Ulster Rifles and No.41 Commando in support was a success and that evening some men of the latter outfit set off to join up with No.46 Commando at nearby Luc-sur-Mer.
The memorial to No.41 Royal Marine Commando at Lion-sur-Mer takes the form of a huge symbolic silver sundial. The adjacent Roll of Honour lists the 30 men of 41 RM Commando who lost their lives while liberating the town on 6/7 June 1944.
The Churchill AVRE alongside was offered by General Sir Ian Harris who commanded 2nd Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles.
A horizontal stone tablet bears a quotation, made by President Roosevelt on 6 January 1941 during the State of the Union Address, outlining the four essential freedoms; Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. Roosevelt delivered his speech 11 months before the surprise Japanese attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbour and `The Freedoms` became the staple of America's war aims, and were at the core of all attempts to rally public support.
Above: Men of the East Yorks Regiment come ashore on Queen Red sector, SWORD Beach, on D-Day. Below: Wounded receive attention beside a Churchill AVRE tank and, after the fighting has moved on, troops inspect a knocked-out German pill-box, the front of which is riddled with shell holes.
Above right: A screen of 6-pdr anti-tank guns in position by the side of the Rue de la Croix Rose in Hermanville-sur-Mer, 6 June 1944. The Route de Caen can be seen going off to the right. The shot below shows troops of 3rd Division in La Brèche d’Hermanville on D-Day. The men on the right are from 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles from 9th Brigade.
The British Centaur Tank was mainly used for training but a later version, the Centaur Mark IV, was equipped with a 95mm howitzer, and saw action with the Royal Marines Armoured Support Group during the D-Day landings. The first Centaurs were produced in June 1942, however, by this time they were already outclassed by Germany`s main battle tanks therefore the Centaurs` role was changed to infantry support. Some Centaur tanks, like the one seen here, had the degrees of a compass painted around their turrets in large white characters. The 360° marker was at the rear and the 180° marker that indicated South, was at the front. These were added to help the Centaur crews lay down covering fire while still on landing craft during the run in to the beach. The Royal Marine spotter would call out the degree and distance to the target and the tank gunner would fire blind over the front of the landing craft ramp.
Now, there are only four Centaur tanks in existence, two of which are in Normandy. This Centaur IV `Seawolf, which used to be an armoured dozer, is at Hermanville-sur-Mer and there`s another Mk.IV at the Pegasus Memorial. The Tank Museum, Dorset, has a Centaur Mark IV dozer conversion and another Centaur is held by the Greek Army Armoured Training Center, Avlona, near Athens. A number of others have been discovered at the bottom of the River Solent near the Isle of Wight by Maritime archaeologists. They were being carried on a landing craft en route to Normandy when the vessel capsized.
The larger houses along the beach road were among the first to be targeted by the Allied guns.
Although there are many more houses along the waterfront on this stretch of beach compared with 1944, many of the original buildings, badly damaged during the fighting, were repaired and surprisingly a few still stand. It can be hard identifying them, however, as many of the new villas were built in a similar style.
Above: Sherman DD tanks of 'B' Squadron, 13th/18th Royal Hussars support infantry of the 2nd East Yorkshires and commandos of No.4 Commando, 1st Special Service Brigade, as they advance into Ouistreham along the Route de Lion on 6 June 1944. Captain Kieffer’s men, assisted by a British Centaur tank, took the town including its Casino, which the Germans had heavily fortified, in a scene superbly recreated and shot (albeit at Port-en-Bessin) from an aerial perspective in the film ‘The Longest Day’.
This is a memorial to Kieffer’s Commandos and to the memory of ten of his men who lost their lives here. A nearby house contains the No.4 Commando Museum dedicated to the 177 Free French Commandos who stepped ashore onto SWORD Beach with Kieffer at dawn on 6 June 1944 at Colleville-sur-Mer, now Colleville-Montgomery.
This round pillbox, seen here in wartime, has since been incorporated into the French Commando Memorial. The town`s famous casino had actually been reduced but a network of defences surrounded the site. Enemy troops covering this sector on D-Day belonged to the 716th Infantry Regiment which had replaced the 321st Infantry Division. In overall command was General Richter whose Divisional Headquarters were at Caen on a site now occupied by the Caen Memorial.
At the time of the invasion, Ouistreham was occupied by German and Austrian soldiers, plus an Ost battalion containing survivors from the Eastern Front, some of whom were Mongolians and Ukrainians. Further inland, the 21st Panzer Division and the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) were in reserve.
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The Frenchmen, like their British counterparts, had undergone many months of intense training much of which was spent at Achnacarry Castle in the Scottish Highlands, close to where the Commando Monument now stands. The training facility was established at Achnacarry because of its remote location and the ruggedness and challenging nature of the surrounding terrain. The castle and estate was the ancestral home of Lord Lovat who led the British Commandos on D-Day. The inscription on the memorial reads `In Memory of the Officers and Men of the Commandos who Died in the Second World War 1939-1945. This Country Was Their Training Ground.` `United We Conquer`.
French Commandos on parade at Achnacarry House in Scotland, to mark Bastille Day, 17 July 1943. They are being inspected by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Vaughan, Commandant Commando Depot, who is also seen taking the salute, with the Free French flag flying from Achnacarry House in the background. The training depot`s Pipe Band led the march past. No doubt some of these men were involved in action on their home soil on D-Day less than one year later.
Philippe Kieffer MBE MC (24 October 1899 – 20 November 1962).
Above: The Philippe Kieffer Memorial and adjacent panel listing the names of the ten french Commandos who died here. Kieffer, who had been wounded on D-Day, was evacuated on 9 June but rejoined his men on July 13, 1944. By the time the Battle of Normandy drew to a close, 17 French Commandos had died and out of the 177 men of the battalion who landed on June 6th, only 24 ended the campaign without having been wounded.
The famous wartime photo on the left above shows Lord Lovat at Newhaven after returning from the ill-fated Dieppe Raid (Operation Jubilee) of August 1942. He was appointed commanding officer of No.4 Commando, leading them in a successful attack on a battery of six 150 mm guns outside the city that guarded the beach. For his actions Lovat was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Although most of the commandos returned to Britain unscathed, the venture was a disastrous failure with over 4,000 Allied casualties sustained, most of whom were Canadian. The problems encountered by tanks trying to get off the beaches at Dieppe inspired General Sir Percy Hobart to develop his range of `Funnies` which were to prove their value on D-Day and beyond.
The French destroyer La Combattante had assisted in the bombardment of Ouistreham in support of the French Commando detachment. Other French warships involved in Operation Neptune, the naval component of Overlord, included the frigates Aventure, La Découverte, Escarmouche and Surprise which had been assigned convoy protection, while corvettes Aconit, Renoncule, Moselys, and Estienne d`Orves were on anti-submarine duty. Other, older French vessels including the battleship Courbet, were used to form the breakwaters for the Mulberry harbours.
Above: Commandos of No.4 Commando, 1st Special Service Brigade, use an improvised stretcher to bring one of their casualties back as they advance into Ouistreham on D-Day. Following the link-up, Lovat and the British Airborne would then be responsible for protecting the left flank of the Allied Bridgehead.
Local residents greet the Allied troops and check that they are really here to stay. Meanwhile long lines of enemy prisoners, most of whom are glad to have survived the initial onslaught, roll in. Many others, even some of the non-German nationals in the Ost battalions, fought tenaciously and with great skill, refusing to give up ground.
Above left: Troops dig in on SWORD Beach, early evening on D-Day. On the right: A disabled Sherman Crab flail tank (turret number '94') of 22nd Dragoons, 79th Armoured Division, lies abandoned on Queen White beach, 7 June 1944. Pictured below are shots of Forward Observers inland from SWORD. The telegraphist inside the FOB unit (Forward Observation Bombardment) armoured lorry is protected from snipers by a colleague with a Bren Gun whilst he sends ranges to target through to warships waiting offshore.
A land-line would often be run from the lorry for a mile or so towards the front-line from where the observers would provide up to date targeting information on enemy troop movements or defences required for the big guns.
The other shot above shows a Sexton self-propelled howitzer which normally operated well back from the front, also bombarding targets given by Forward Observers. Right: A British armoured unit near Hermanville calls a halt and beds down for the night.
Below: When I passed, the French Commando Museum and the nearby Atlantic Wall Bunker Museum at Ouistreham were both closed as it was too early in the morning. During WW2, the 52ft high concrete tower which houses the latter museum was the headquarters of the German gun batteries covering the entrance of the River Orne and Caen canal.
I had hoped to climb to the top as it reportedly offers an unrivalled view of SWORD Beach and the town but it wasn`t open so I had to settle for a few shots of the external exhibits through the fence.
The rooms on the tower’s six floors have been recreated to show how they would have looked at the time of the invasion and there are numerous documents and unpublished photographs relating to the German occupation here.
French Commandos attempted to seize the tower during their initial assault on D-Day but they were repulsed by machine-gun fire and grenades dropped from the upper levels.
The decision was taken to bypass the obstacle and it wasn’t until 9 June that the tower was finally put out of action after engineers placed charges and blew the doors open. The garrison of two officers and fifty men then surrendered leaving Ouistreham completely in Allied hands. More information can be found on the museum’s website: www.museedugrandbunker.com.