“This Long Thin Line of Personal Anguish”

LIGHT rain fell in Portsmouth on Wednesday morning, June 7, as Eisenhower strode through a stone sally port to the dockyard below Broad Street. In the anchorage across from King’s Stairs, where over the centuries many an English sea dog had sortied to battle, the fast minelayer H.M.S. Apollo awaited him, steam up in her triple stacks and a red pennant with four white stars already hoisted. No sooner had he boarded, at eight A.M., than the crew weighed anchor. The supreme commander knew little more about D-Day than did Corporal Preston in his tank, and he was keen to see for himself what D+1 would bring to the Norman coast.

Swinging east of the Isle of Wight, Apollo skipped across the Channel in three hours. The ship passed convoys returning, and convoys going out, and an alarming number of barges, boats, and landing craft, either foundering or abandoned, going nowhere. “A scene of great confusion met the eye,” Admiral Ramsay, who accompanied Eisenhower, told his diary. “An anxious situation.”

Mines continued to bedevil the roadstead. The lethal field on Cardonnet Bank claimed the sweeper U.S.S. Tide at midmorning, tossing her five feet into the air, killing the captain, and sending the vessel to the bottom in pieces. Not far away, the transport U.S.S.Susan B. Anthony had just arrived on station with 2,300 troops when a blast detonated beneath the number 4 hold. “The ship lifted and hogged, and then settled and sagged,” a passenger reported. Troops were ordered to the port rails to counterballast an eight-degree starboard list, but nothing could check a snarling fire and ten feet of water in the engine room. By nine A.M., seas washed the main deck as rescue ships played hoses on the flames and took frightened men off the prow. An hour later, Susan B.’s skipper plunged into the water and swam from his dying ship. At 10:10 A.M., she “put her nose in the air and slipped backward calmly,” wrote A. J. Liebling, “like a lady lowering herself into an armchair. In twenty minutes she was gone.” Remarkably, all aboard were saved.

Dreadnoughts barked and bellowed, gray smoke rings drifting from their gun muzzles. Shortly before noon, Apollo pulled abreast of the Augusta off Omaha Beach as Eisenhower stood at the rail watching a Higgins boat wallow through the chop to a ladder lowered down the minelayer’s hull. Omar Bradley, nose still bandaged, climbed to the deck and extended his hand, only to find the supreme commander in a red fury at the meager reporting from the beachhead. “Why in the devil didn’t you let us know what was going on?” he snapped. “Nothing came through until late afternoon—not a damned word. I didn’t know what had happened to you.” Bradley sputtered in protest—“We radioed you every scrap of information we had”—then followed Eisenhower to Ramsay’s flag cabin, seething at the rebuke. Only later did he learn that his hourly dispatches had piled up in Montgomery’s radio room, where overwhelmed code clerks had fallen twelve hours behind in deciphering messages.

Swallowing his anger, Bradley tried to make amends by telling Eisenhower in detail what he knew. OVERLORD was “firmly rooted in France”—he had waded onto Dark Red earlier this morning to see for himself, even riding up the escarpment on a truck’s running board. Fire on the beaches had dwindled. Captured enemy prisoners, particularly Poles and Russians, were helping to build their own cages. More than one-third of all shore obstacles would be cleared by low tide this evening, and nearly all would be gone in another day. Reinforcements continued to arrive: with the help of smoke screens and electronic jamming, nine troop transports sailing from the Thames late Tuesday were the first large Allied ships through the Straits of Dover in four years. A map found on a captured German artillery observer pinpointed not only enemy gun batteries near the invasion beaches but also every battalion, regimental, and division command post, all of which were now being pummeled by Allied fighter-bombers, naval guns, and artillery.

Yet First Army still had not reached most of its D-Day objectives. Only a quarter of the planned supplies and barely half of the fourteen thousand vehicles waiting offshore had been unloaded. V Corps’s narrow purchase beyond Omaha expanded by the hour, but the 29th Division remained well short of the Aure River, six miles inland, which Bradley had hoped to reach on Tuesday. The 1st Division had not gotten much farther. On Pointe du Hoc, fewer than one hundred Rangers still fought in a perimeter hardly two hundred yards from the cliff’s edge; only destroyer fire and Ranger pluck had kept the enemy at bay.

Beyond Utah Beach, confusion remained the order of the day. The 101st Airborne was churning south toward the Douve River and the vital crossroads town of Carentan. After going missing for twenty-four hours, the 82nd Airborne early on Wednesday morning sent an officer pumped full of Benzedrine to make contact with 4th Division commanders pushing inland; light tanks and tank destroyers had then been dispatched to stiffen the paratroopers. General Roosevelt subsequently rolled into the apple orchard that served as the 82nd’s command post, helmet pushed back and waving his cane from Rough Rider “as if the bullet that could kill him had not been made,” one witness reported. “Fellows,” Roosevelt bellowed, “where’s the picnic?”

The 82nd now occupied a triangular swatch of the Cotentin Peninsula, each embattled leg roughly six miles long. Two battalions held Ste.-Mère-Église, fighting off piecemeal German counterattacks from north and south, but several thousand other paratroopers remained badly scattered, and no real bridgehead existed west of the Merderet River. General Collins, the VII Corps commander, had gone ashore in the morning to take charge of a beachhead seven miles deep. A ten-mile gap remained between his VII Corps and the V Corps troops at Omaha; another gap of five miles also persisted between American and British forces. Closing those seams before Rommel could rip through them would be paramount in the coming days.

Eisenhower said little in response to Bradley’s report, apparently lost in thought as he studied a map. “Bradley came over & discussed situation & did nothing to relieve my anxiety,” Ramsay noted in his diary. “Bridgehead still very shallow. No guns to speak of ashore.” After a flurry of salutes on deck, Bradley scrambled down the sea ladder and puttered back to Augusta, smoldering over what he deemed “a pointless interruption and annoyance.”

Skies faired in the afternoon and Apollo steamed to the east for a distant look at the British beaches—but not distant enough. A lurch, and Eisenhower and others were flung to the deck; the vessel had struck a sandbar. “With the mast swaying violently, the entire ship jerking, grinding, and even bouncing … we eventually swung off the bar and floated free,” wrote Harry Butcher. But the damage was done, the propellers and drive shafts bent badly enough to put the minelayer into dry dock for four months. Ramsay, who had first gone to sea in 1898 at the age of fifteen and was said to exude “an aura of vinegar,” was mortified at this display of Royal Navy seamanship, although Eisenhower took responsibility for urging haste over caution. Apollo limped across the bay at six knots until a British destroyer picked up the supreme commander and whisked him back to Portsmouth.

“We’ve started,” he scribbled in a quick, fretful note to Mamie. “Only time will tell how great our success will be.”

*   *   *

Even war could not dim the radiance of a June morning in Normandy. Two battalions from the British 50th Division pushed into Bayeux on Wednesday, led by French boys cadging cigarettes. White blossoms rioted in the orchards and geraniums spilled from window boxes. Roses climbed fence posts beneath painted wall advertisements for “Dubo … Dubonn … Dubonnet.” Unmilked cows lowed in their stalls. Peasants in blue smocks and wooden clogs welcomed the Tommies, some with fascist salutes. Wine carts rolled down the Rue St. Jean, where shops offered goods long unseen in London: porcelain and plastic tableware, new furniture, forty thousand Camembert cheeses. (The priceless Bayeux tapestry, an embroidered eleventh-century record of that earlier invasion across the English Channel, had long been removed for safekeeping near Le Mans.) The last German in this town of seven thousand was said to have killed himself, and a widow living nearby recorded in her diary how others had fled through the rapeseed fields “without overcoats, without underwear, without razors.”

Sherman tanks still wearing amphibious skirts clanked into town—“huge, dusty, belted with gigantic floats,” a witness reported. Crews dismounted to brew the thick tea known as “gunfire.” A civil affairs detachment arrived to impose a curfew and arrest collaborators. “At first sight,” an exasperated officer lamented, “impossible to differentiate between pro-Nazis, Vichy, and patriot Frenchmen.” Another report acknowledged, “Looting by troops pretty general.” Journalists set up a press camp in the Lion d’Or, a ramshackle hotel with colored canvas awnings. The Lion served stewed lamb, gritty brown bread, and, Alan Moorehead reported, “a dry Sauterne, fifteen shillings a bottle.… The woman who ran the brothel above the hotel brought her girls down to eat.” Thirty-six thousand French communes remained to be liberated, and few would enjoy as benign an emancipation as lovely Bayeux.

Devastation was but a mortar round away, of course. After seeing nearby villas and farmhouses reduced to “only shells with their insides blown out,” Moorehead wrote, “one had the impression that the battle had been going on a long time, for weeks, even for months.” Closer to Caen the gunplay was unremitting. A British major in the 50th Division recorded his daily prayer for June 7: “Oh, God, please stop the shells. If you stop them, I’ll be good for always.” A soldier cowering under German machine-gun fire complained, “What I can never understand is how those fuckers never run out of fucking ammunition.” When artillery rounds began to fall, he added, “You curl up into the fetal position except that your hands go down to protect your genitalia. This instinct to defend the place of generation against the forces of annihilation [is] universal.” For good measure he added: “Montgomery doesn’t protect his privates, but by Christ, I protect mine.” In Périers-sur-le-Dan, between Sword Beach and Caen, a French woman wrote, “Overhead the hisses and whines make you bend even lower.… Where is safety? Probably nowhere, or in the imponderables that save you.”

Twenty-five miles to the west, the self-described “Unhappy Warrior” from Indiana also pondered the imponderables. Ernie Pyle had come ashore on Omaha early Wednesday, as Bradley’s aide wrote, “looking helpless and insignificant … shading his emotions as he always does.” For several hours he combed the high-water line, compiling an inventory:

Socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles, hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out—one of the security precautions enforced before the boys embarked. Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families staring up at you from the sand. Here are pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers, and bloody, abandoned shoes.… I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier’s name in it, and put it in my jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don’t know why.

Pistol belts, canvas water buckets, stationery on which love letters would never be written, oranges, a tennis racket still clamped in its press with “not a string broken”—all formed what Pyle called “this long thin line of personal anguish.” He returned to LST-353for the night and more nightmares, looking “very tired and very sad,” an officer noted. To another reporter, Pyle confessed, “I become less used to it as the years go by.”

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