Part One: Pre-Normandy – The War, Invasion Planning and Preparation

By June of 1944, the war in Europe had been raging for almost five years. German forces had occupied much of mainland Europe, North Africa and were preparing to invade Russia. Prior to the United State’s entrance to the war, Great Britain was the only country to rebuff the Germans, mainly due to the location and nature of the British Isles. In December of 1941, Japanese forces successfully attacked US military sites in the Pacific basin, bringing the US to a state of war with Japan, and soon, Germany. Despite Japan’s aggression, the United States made the defeat of Germany a priority, as the German military was deemed as more of a threat to US interests.[1]

Right after the attack, the US and British governments began to work collectively on a plan to defeat Germany. By June 1942, the United States proposed a plan to invade France via the English Channel and begin fighting on the mainland, before the year was out, with the aim to reach Germany by the following year. The British were in favor of this plan, taking to heart memories of World War I, where months of trench warfare proved to be devastating. Across the war zone, the Russians were pushing for an attack on the western front of the war, to relieve pressure off of their own country, as the German military was firmly entrenched in the western sections of Russia. However, American and British military officials would postpone their invasion plans in favor of an attack on North Africa.[2]

In November of 1942, allied forces attacked Morocco and Algeria, catching the occupying Vichi-French forces by surprise. In response, the Germans moved quickly down and occupied French Tunisia, beginning several months of desert warfare before the allied forces were able to surround and capture the remaining German forces in May 1943. The US actions in Northern Africa would become a proving ground for a number of units on the ground – some of the units associated with Norwich alumni, such as the Second Armored Division and the 39th Infantry had fought in Africa, before being moved to England in preparation for the coming invasion. [3]

During this time, Norwich University remained in session until an early commencement in March of 1943, when almost all of the 500 Norwich Cadets departed for military service. Following the exodus of students, the Army Air Corps moved in and used the school as a pre-flight training facility for future pilots and bombers. The Junior Cadet Corps was also set up during this time, which would use an accelerated learning program for pre-high school graduates with the aim to prepare them for military service. The program was discontinued in 1946 after much criticism.[4] The school would resume traditional services after the war ended in 1945.[5]

Following victory in Africa, the allies moved onwards towards Italy, taking Sicily in August of 1943. However, political troubles and a renewed German defense would prevent allies from taking Rome until June 1944. The allies split their attention between Italy and preparations for the upcoming invasion of France. American and British bombers flew over Axis territory from early 1943 onwards, working to disrupt as much of the German infrastructure as possible. Allied forces took heavy losses and were unable to disrupt the Germans as much as had been hoped. They were, however, able to gain air supremacy, and were thus able to focus on the Normandy region.[6]

In the early months of 1944, planning for the cross-channel invasion was well underway, having been started in March of 1943. However, it became clear that any invasion in 1943 would be unreasonable and the invasion was planned for 1944.[7] Numerous units were relocated to England, where they received months of training and preparation for the impending assault. In the months leading up to the invasion, millions of soldiers, as well as their supplies, arrived in England. Field units, such as the Second Armored division, found the move to England to be very favorable. They were set up in proper barracks with beds. Unfortunately, the wet environment led to many soldiers getting ill with respiratory infections. It was also during this time that they were issued new equipment for their training and preparations for the invasion.[8] General I.D. White, NU ’22, recalled that the sheer number of soldiers in the area made field training problematic:

We had rather limited maneuver facilities in England. There was a range, Imber Range, where we could fire very limited ranges with our tank weapons and artillery, as there were few places that were not under cultivation. There was very little room even for tank driving courses in the Salisbury Plain area, really. There were so many units there, US and British units that they were just overcrowded with what room there was.[9]

During this time, in the months leading up to the invasion, the operation was meticulously planned out, under the watch of General Dwight Eisenhower. The overall plan was split the invasion into three parts. The first was the invasion itself, and the immediate establishment of a foothold. The second was a buildup of allied forces and a breakout into the Brittany-Normandy region. Once those two objectives were completed, the allies would push the German forces back on a large scale.[10]

In addition to training, the men in the units were preparing mentally for what they were likely to accomplish. While they did not know specific details about the invasion, such as the timing or exact location; they did know that they were to invade the continent, and in all likelihood, it would be a very costly endeavor. Col. Harry Flint, NU ‘10, commanding officer of the 39th Infantry division, was preparing his men for such an assault as early as April 1944:

Let’s face a few facts flatly. We know that soon the greatest and most powerful force of all history will make an invasion of the west coast of Europe. We know that we will be a part of that first force which lands. We know that the whole operation has been carefully planned…. We know there will be casualties – that can’t be helped. It is certain that if each one will play his part and not fail a comrade then our casualties will be the smaller. [11]

In addition to preparation and planning, the American soldiers were tightly clustered together in the southern regions of England. A number of men would take their leaves and travel to London or any number of the larger English cities and would report back to the Norwich University Record. Norwich alumni often sought each other out or found each other during this time of preparation. The institutional bonds these men formed brought them together, far from home, facing one of the most terrifying things that they would most likely come against. Captain Arthur Harrington, NU ’40, recalled meeting Col. Homer Riggs, NU ’26, in England prior to the invasion, and because of their shared Norwich background, they became friends, with Riggs constantly pushing Harrington for recognition. Others would share similar stories, often meeting in London, or other cities, while on leave.

Training for the invasion covered many aspects of what was expected once the Germans were engaged in Normandy. While it was assumed that a number of units would be ready for action based on their training, British and American planners devised tactics tailored for an England to France invasion. Training centers were established, and units visited to brush up on tactics. Four Norwich alumni, Lieutenant George Briggs, NU ‘32, and Jim Ballard, NU ’39, would have gone through training at the Assault Training Center during their assignment with the 116th Infantry for a refresher course, while Lieutenant Thomas Fulham, NU ‘47, and Lieutenant Robert Harrington, NU ’47 would have also participated with the 4th Infantry Division. Other units would have skipped the training, having already participated in battles against German or Italian forces.[12] Other units were also working to fix problems or concerns that were noted during previous engagements. Members of the 2nd Armored Division, represented by Captain James Burt, NU ‘39, Captain Sten Bergstedt, NU ’32, and Captain Gordon Fuller, NU ’38, would have also received new trainings and briefings in the technical aspects of water landings, mines and other possible hazards.[13] Bergstedt would have also received a very different method of training – in order to better practice field movement, the members of the 66th Regiment chased rabbits (which were found to mimic all the movements of tanks) while training in England.[14]

During the months leading up to the invasion, starting in December of 1943, the Ninth Air Force was brought to England and strengthened. By the time that the invasion was underway, the group had flown over thirty thousand missions against German targets, mainly against flying bomb installations deemed a threat to London and the massing of American soldiers being brought to the country for the upcoming invasion.[15] Captain Jim McCarthy, NU ’40, Lieutenant Sherman Crocker, NU ‘44, Sergeant William Crawthrorne, NU ’47, and Lieutenant David Stewart, NU ’47, were part of the 9th Air Force in fighter squadrons, and would most likely have flown on these missions, in support of the heavy bombers that were also part of the unit. Lieutenant Edwyn Florcyk, NU ’44, was assigned to the 8th Air Force, which had been linked to the 9th for the missions over Europe during this time. In addition, Sergeant Mitchell Esoian, NU ‘49, Sergeant George Edwin Guidi, NU ’49, and Sergeant Robert Wheeler, NU ’49, were members of the 8th Air Force and Sergeant Edward T. Yeller, NU ‘49, was part of the 9th Air Force, and it is probably that they would have also been involved in the bombings prior to the invasion as well. However, the German V-Bomb attac ks were not deemed as much of a threat, and once this was established, the primary target for the Ninth Air Force became the German Air Force; once that was largely eliminated, destruction of the French rail system, with concentrated bombing in routes leading to the Normandy area, to cripple the German’s ability to re-supply and regroup during the invasion. Along with the Eighth Air Force, targets also included industrial sites to slow Germany’s military efforts further.[16] These bombings were carried out into the weeks leading up to D-Day.

In May, the invasion was set for June 5th. Soldiers were moved towards the southern end of England, where the major ports were located, and where final training and preparation for the invasion was made. Units were moved towards the embarkation areas roughly in the order in which they would be landing. An excerpt from Command Combat B, of the Second Armored Division, under the command of General Edward Brooks (’16), details the unit’s movements just prior to the invasion:

1-6 June

Units of Command Combat “B” on alert, prepared for movement to marshalling area for overseas embarkation. Co. “B” 17th Engrs Bn moved to Marshalling Area

7-11 June

On 7 June HQ CC “B” and some units began movement from Tidworth barracks, England, to marshalling area.[17]

The final weeks leading up to the invasion seem to have offered insufficient training for the assault troops. Two exercises were conducted, Tiger and Fabius, to prepare the soldiers for the landings. The American soldiers spent the rest of the month waiting for orders. These would come in the last week of May. Most of the Norwich alumni involved with the landings would have been briefed during this time on the details of the invasion. Then Colonel I.D. White, NU ’22, had been briefed earlier, given his relatively high rank. To gain access to the briefing, he was required to have a security card. While he was entering the briefing, General Bradley appeared, but did not have his card. The guard at the door would not allow him access, so White vouched for him, and they were both given access to the briefing.[18]

The invasion’s final date had been set for June 5th. However, the English Channel was covered in low clouds and high winds, which would hamper the bombardment of the coast by ships and planes. Forecasters believed that the weather would improve the following day, enough to allow for better bombing and landing conditions. However, should the 6th not work, the invasion would have to wait another two weeks for the same lighting and tidal conditions. The two-week wait would also mean that the airborne forces would have to operate without moonlight.[19]

Colonel Harry Flint, NU ’10, and his soldiers from the 39th Infantry, received their orders on May 27th, and on June 3rd, the unit was driven twenty miles to their marshalling area, where they would soon board their ships on the 6th of June.[20]

Other soldiers, such as Major Bill McNamara, NU ’36, Lt. Colonel Carroll Stowell, NU ‘40 and Lieutenant Thurber Raymond, NU ’41, of the 1st Infantry Division, Major Jim Ballard, NU ’39, and Lieutenant George Briggs, NU ‘32 of the 29th Infantry, Lieutenant Eugenio Bonafin, NU ’43, of the 87th Chemical Mortar battalion, and Lieutenant Lawrence Elman, NU ’42, and possibly Lieutenant Fredrick Meinken, NU '47, of the 4th Calvary boarded their ships earlier, and on the evening of June 5th, they made their final preparations to land on the beaches of Normandy. Private Richard Austin, NU‘44, of the 101st Airborne, would have made his final preparations throughout the rest of the afternoon and before midnight on the 5th, would have been flying over the channel towards Normandy, France.

[1] Tindall, George, America: A Narrative History, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York1204-1205

[2] Tindall, 1205-1206

[3] Houston, Donald. Hell on Wheels: The 2nd Armored Division. Presidio Press, San Rafael, California 186

[4] Guinn, Robert. The History Of Norwich University, Volume 4. Norwich University, Northfield, Vermont. 115-116

[5] Ibid, 116

[6] Tindall, 1212

[7] Harrison, Gordon. The European Theater of Operations: Cross Channel Attack. Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington D.C., 49

[8] Stodter, Col. Charles. Project 78-D, Isaac D. White, Retired. 210-211

[9] Ibid, 215

[10] Houston, 197

[11] Anderson, Robert. The Colorful Story of Colonel Harry A. 'Paddy' Flint. Heritage Books, Westminster, Maryland, 114

[12] Harrison, 162-164

[13] Houston, 191

[14] Ibid

[15] Houston, 214-215

[16] Houston, 224

[17] Lt. Col Briard Johnson Papers, Box 1, Operations Repots, 1942 – 1945, Archives and Special Collections, Kreitzberg Library, Norwich University, Northfield, Vermont.

[18] Stodter, 222

[19] Harrison, 272-273

[20] Anderson, 119