Unlike the other countries that are part of the Liberation Route Europe, the United Kingdom was never occupied, but as one of the major Allied forces and the closest one to the European mainland, it is an important part of the trail of remembrance today.
By 1943, the British had reasons to be optimistic. In October 1942 they had achieved their first land victory over the Germans at the Second Battle of El Alamein, when the Eighth Army forced German Field Marshal Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps out of Egypt.
The victory at El Alamein was followed by the first joint Anglo-American campaign, Operation Torch: a large-scale attack on French Morocco and Algeria. Torch provided invaluable experience in how to organize a large amphibious landing and highlighted some of the problems involved when national armies fought together, such as failures of cooperation and the tendency for top generals to compete with each other. Despite some serious setbacks, the North Africa campaign ended in Allied victory, with the last Axis troops finally surrendering on 13 May 1943. All of this formed a prelude to the UK’s role in the Liberation of Europe.
Though agreement had been reached at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 and at the Washington (Trident) Conference the following May, the British were still nervous about invading German-occupied France, preferring an Italian campaign to follow the action in Sicily. Nevertheless, a team led by Lieutenant General Morgan was already drawing up plans for the French invasion. Presented in July 1943, they identified three Normandy beaches as the best landing sites, rather than Pas-de-Calais (opposite Dover), which would have seemed more obvious. Wherever they chose to land in France, Allied troops would have the challenging task of breaching the massive German coastal defences, known as the Atlantic Wall, which stretched all the way from Norway to Spain.
At the Tehran Conference in December 1943 – the first meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – the Soviet leader agreed to an eastern offensive to coincide with the promised Anglo-American western offensive in order to stretch the German resources to the limit. Shortly afterwards, General Eisenhower was appointed Commander of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). Setting up his headquarters in London, Eisenhower selected a team of mostly British senior officers to help him refine General Morgan’s original plan: Air Chief Marshal Tedder became his deputy; General Montgomery was to command the invading land forces; Admiral Ramsay the naval forces; and Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory the air force. Among the changes to the plan were increasing the invasion area to five beaches between Cherbourg and Caen, and changing the date from 1 May to early June to allow more landing craft to be assembled and more time for Allied bombers to destroy German supply links – roads and railways – in northern France.
Planning discussions for the invasion (codenamed Operation Overlord) and the amphibious landings (Operation Neptune) were rarely straightforward, and there were major disagreements. Eisenhower threatened to resign unless given full control of all three armed forces, something that RAF Bomber Command, supported by Churchill, tried to resist. Since June 1943 British and American planes had been subjecting German industrial sites and cities to round-the-clock heavy bombing, a strategy that the head of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, and his US counterpart General Carl Spaatz, believed would ultimately win the war. When Eisenhower, Montgomery and Tedder requested the bombing of French transport systems to prevent rapid deployment of German reinforcements (the Transportation Plan), Harris, Spaatz and Churchill argued against it. In the end, Eisenhower won out and the pre-invasion bombing took place. Although the raids proved effective, they caused substantial civilian casualties.
American troops had been coming to Britain since 1942, and in the run-up to D-Day numbered around 1.5 million. This huge input of US manpower was essential for the success of Overlord; ongoing campaigns in Italy and the Far East meant the British were running low on troops. All soldiers had to be extremely fit – an infantryman might need to carry as much as half his weight in equipment – and they were subjected to a punishing training regime.
In the months before D-Day, several rehearsal exercises for the amphibious landings were organized. Slapton Sands in South Devon was used for the larger of these because of its resemblance to the Normandy beaches. On 28 April, one such exercise, codenamed Tiger, ended in disaster when eight LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) filled with troops heading inland were attacked by nine German E-boats (Motor Torpedo boats) with the loss of around 750 US servicemen. The tragedy, which was hushed up for security reasons, did not prevent the even larger Exercise Fabius taking place one week later at several beaches along the south coast, including Slapton Sands. This was a dress rehearsal for Operation Neptune, which ran a whole week and involved 25,000 troops.
Transporting over 130,000 troops and their equipment – including heavy tanks – across the English Channel, then providing them with sufficient supplies to maintain their effectiveness, was always going to be an enormous challenge. It was a task that many of the best military and scientific brains had been working on for years. Nearly seven thousand ships would be involved, with landing ships and landing craft making up over half of them. Landing craft varied in size according to function – from the enormous LSTs to the smaller British LCAs (Landing Craft, Assault) and the American LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel). The latter two were mostly made from steel-armoured wood with a shallow enough draft to enable them to land 36 troops in a few feet of water. The advantage of the LCVP – which Eisenhower credited with playing a major role in the success of Operation Overlord – was that it could carry vehicles.
The capture of a French or Belgian port was seen as crucial but unlikely to happen quickly, so British engineers came up with the radical idea of building components for harbours, towing them across to France and assembling them there. This would enable the speedy unloading of vital supplies. Codenamed Operation Mulberry, the harbours were created using floating outer breakwaters (bombardons) and static breakwaters made up of blockships (scuttled ships) held in place by a row of airtight concrete breakwaters (Phoenix caissons) which could be sunk and refloated. Within each harbour, piers were built to transport supplies to the shore. Two were constructed, Mulberry “A” to serve Omaha Beach; Mulberry “B” for Gold Beach.
An equally extraordinary engineering project was the construction of oil pipelines under the English Channel that would supply the fuel needed by the Allied armies in France when they moved inland. Because tankers on their own were vulnerable – to bad weather as well as attack – Operation PLUTO (Pipelines Under the Ocean) was developed. The pipes were laid on the Channel floor by unreeling them from a giant drum called a Conundrum, which functioned like a cotton bobbin and was towed by a tug. These were fed by a network of pipelines from all over England culminating in two coastal locations: Shanklin in the Isle of Wight, from where it was pumped along the seabed to Port-en-Bessin, and Dungeness in Kent and then over to Ambleteuse near Boulogne. The operation was shrouded in complete secrecy, with pumping stations disguised as ordinary buildings to reduce the threat of enemy attack.
The Germans were expecting an attack to occur in northern France sooner or later, but it was vitally important to keep them guessing as to the exact time and place. To create as much confusion as possible, the Allies devised elaborate schemes of misinformation. Operation Fortitude South invented an entirely fictitious 1st US Army Group (FUSAG), supposedly stationed in Kent and Essex, to suggest that the invasion would occur at Pas-de-Calais. Inflatable tanks made of rubber, fake landing craft and other military paraphernalia were manufactured at Shepperton studios, and the whole charade was “commanded” by US General George Patton – a soldier so renowned that the Germans were unlikely to think him wasted on a ploy.
To reinforce the illusion, a network of fictitious agents, believed by the Germans to be working for them – but who had in fact been invented by double-agents including Juan Pujol – was supplying German intelligence with convincing information about FUSAG. At the same time, the RAF was dropping more bombs and sending more reconnaissance flights over Pas-de-Calais than over Normandy. The combined effect, so the Allies hoped, was that the Germans would think that the Normandy landings were a prelude to the main invasion rather than the real thing.
One substantial Allied advantage was the fact that Ultra, the code-breaking project based at Bletchley Park, could decrypt the intercepted communications of the Axis powers and provide vital intelligence about the build-up of German troops and their defences in Normandy. The French Resistance was also active in the run-up to D-Day, supplying information and carrying out acts of sabotage against crucial infrastructure.
On 15 May 1944, the final Overlord briefing was held at St Paul’s School in London, General Montgomery’s headquarters. Eisenhower and all the Allied commanders attended, along with King George VI and Churchill. Montgomery gave the main briefing, exuding quiet confidence and expressing the belief that Caen would be captured within 24 hours. All the big decisions about Overlord had now been made, apart from D-Day (the precise date of the invasion) and H-Hour (the precise hour).
As June arrived, Eisenhower moved his Advance Headquarters to Southwick House near Portsmouth, a major naval centre and key embarkation point. He still had plenty of problems to contend with, not least the 69-year-old Churchill’s insistence that he be allowed to accompany the invasion – it took the King to persuade him otherwise. A bigger problem was the weather. The ideal situation for a mass landing was a low tide, a clear sky, little wind and a calm sea. The invasion date had been set for 5 June, but as the day approached senior meteorological officer James Stagg predicted a storm for that day. Eisenhower postponed, the storm duly arrived, but then new weather reports suggested a temporary lull and the invasion was back on track. On 6 June 1944 the vast Allied armada – the largest amphibious expedition in history – set out.
The only British citizens to experience occupation were the residents of the Channel Islands, a self-governing Crown dependency 32km west of Normandy. By the time the islands were demilitarized in June 1940 (after the Fall of France), around 25,000 inhabitants had already been evacuated. Most of the remaining 65,000 lived on the two largest islands, Jersey and Guernsey. A Luftwaffe raid at the end of June killed 44 and wounded 70, but once the Nazis realized the islands were undefended, invasion went ahead without further casualties.
The German administration worked in tandem with the existing civil authorities, who were forced to adopt and enforce any new Nazi laws, such as the confiscation of radios in 1942. Law-abiding residents were treated fairly respectfully, but the idea that this was a benign occupation (as some accounts have suggested) is misleading. Any resistance met with severe punishment; over one thousand islanders were imprisoned, two hundred of whom were deported to camps or prisons in Europe.
Although most Jews had left, the thirty or so that remained were subject to punitive laws, passed with little or no fuss from the authorities. Jews had to register themselves, wear the yellow star and relinquish their businesses. Jews were also deported to the Channel Islands, to work as slave labour, along with forced labour from across Europe. Much of the work took place on the isle of Alderney, which had been transformed into four camps, two of which were concentration camps run with excessive brutality by the SS. Work was mostly on fortifying the islands as part of the Atlantic Wall (see p.115) and many defensive structures are still visible. It is estimated that around one thousand people died on Alderney.
Bypassed by Operation Overlord in 1944, liberation finally occurred on 9 May 1945 when HMS Bulldog arrived at St Peter Port, Guernsey and the Germans surrendered. Many islanders were on the verge of starvation as a result of the Allied blockade. As with all occupied countries, questions over the extent to which people collaborated remain to this day.
Top image: The beach at Dungeness © Rick Deacon/iStock