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On the 80th anniversary of D-Day, Giles Milton tells the moving tale of individual soldiers – and the piper – who landed on the beaches

Blog | By Giles Milton | May 28, 2024

Commandos on a landing craft approach Sword Beach, 6th June 1944

Dawn was breaking in the English Channel when a young infantryman named Lionel Roebuck struggled onto the deck of his landing craft. It was Tuesday 6th June 1944, and he and his comrades had been pitched and tossed through the waves for the past 12 hours.

Roebuck had been feeling queasy ever since gorging his ration of army chocolate. Now, as he caught the smell of powdered eggs being cooked in the ship’s galley, he was violently seasick. In common with his comrades, he was wondering how on earth he was going to fight his way onto the Normandy beaches in such a nauseous state.

June 6th marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the greatest seaborne invasion in the history of warfare. The Allied assault on Nazi-occupied Europe involved 7,000 ships and landing craft, 11,000 planes and 15,000 airborne troops. There were also 156,000 troops due to storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day itself, with 2.5 million soldiers, sailors and airmen awaiting the call to action in bases across the British Isles.

The stories of the officers in charge of D-Day have often been told, but the voices of the young lads who stormed the beaches are much less well-known. Many of those in the front line of battle were gunned down within seconds of landing. Many more have been airbrushed from history.

But some of those who landed in the first wave survived to tell the tale, recording their experiences in unpublished diaries and letters. These reveal the full horror of their sufferings as they sought to liberate occupied France.

Among the young men due to land that morning was that seasick young soldier, Lionel Roebuck. He was leading the assault on Sword Beach, one of the five Normandy beaches chosen for the Allied landings: Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Juno.

Lord Lovat (centre) and piper, Bill Millin (rt foreground), Sword Beach, on D-Day

Sword had been assigned to British forces. It was essential for them to knock out the German coastal defences and capture the beach. Once this was done, they were to march inland to support the airborne forces dropped into Normandy during the night.

But the beach landing was far from easy. The heavy seas were proving a particular challenge for the amphibious tanks that were meant to ‘swim’ ashore – unnoticed by the Germans – and provide vital support for the infantry.

They were equipped with a special flotation system, but it was not designed for such choppy water.

Corporal John Barnes was terrified as he coaxed his tank off the landing craft and into the sea. ‘You’re seeing explosions; there’s smokescreens being put up,’ he later recalled. He kept repeating the same six words – ‘I must get to the beach’ – aware that if the tank’s engine was swamped by seawater, they would sink like a stone.

The ride to the shore was even worse for Ronald Mole and his crew. Mole’s co-driver stuck his head above the turret to get a view of the coastline, only to receive a bullet between the eyes.

‘He sagged and his knees hit me in the kidneys,’ recalled Mole, ‘and when I turned I could just see blood running. It wasn’t splashing, just a gentle run and there it was on the bottom of the tank, just coagulating in a small pool and getting thicker and thicker.’

Private Roebuck’s landing craft was still some distance from the shore, but bullets were already zipping through the air. ‘The noise was terrific with all the explosions and shells landing in the sea around us. They hit the sea and there was a mushroom of water and you could hear splinters of shells splattering against the side of the boat.’

One shell exploded on the metal ramp of an assault craft carrying a young marine named Harry Wicks. Red-hot shrapnel was flung across the open deck.

‘Old Joe Wright, the stoker, he had his arm almost severed. Lofty Crawford had a piece in the stomach. I got a piece in the arm, the back and the leg.’

In another landing craft, Tommy Treacher found himself knee-deep in blood. ‘Blood everywhere. Thick blood. And when the navy blokes was going to push the ramps down, another shell hit us and it killed all four. They were decapitated. As I was going to get off the boat, I spoke to one of my friends and I said, “How are you, Jasper?”

‘And he says,“How am I? How am I? I reckon I’ve broken both my legs.”’

Roebuck felt his assault craft shudder to a halt as it wedged into the sandy foreshore. Roebuck ran up the beach under a hail of fire before finding a shelter of sorts behind a burned-out tank. When he looked around, he saw carnage.

‘Wrecked boats – sometimes side-on, sometimes upside down. Bodies floating face down in the sea. Men halfway up the beach who were in really peculiar positions, legs all over the place, really grotesque positions. And there were shells landing all around in the sea and on the beach.’

Roebuck had been one of the first men to land on Sword Beach. An hour or so later, Lord Lovat’s commandos stormed the beach. These troops were highly trained and motivated, having spent months preparing for the landings.

Among them was Cliff Morris, who wrote a vivid diary of his experiences of coming ashore on D-Day. ‘Bodies lay sprawled all over the beach. Some with legs, arms and heads missing, the blood clotting in the sand. The moans and screams of those in agony blended with the shrieks of bullets and whining of shells.’

Morris realised that the first wave to land that morning – which included Roebuck’s East Yorkshire Regiment – had been decimated. Roebuck

himself was incredibly fortunate to have survived.

The commandos’ leader, Lord Lovat, led his men up Sword Beach in a hail of fire. They stormed the German strongholds, forcing Hitler’s defenders onto the defensive.

There was to be an incongruous sight on the beach that morning – one later immortalised in the Hollywood film The Longest Day. Lovat had brought with him his personal bagpiper, Bill Millin, and he now ordered him to march up and down the beach playing music. Bill Millin did just that, earning himself a new nickname: the ‘mad bastard’.

The commandos fought heroically that morning. By 9.30am, most German guns had been silenced and seven of the eight beach exits cleared. Now, the commandos had to fight their way inland.

A similar story unfolded on each of the five beaches. The men in the first wave were mercilessly gunned down, leaving those in the second and third waves to knock out the German defences.

Some beaches proved relatively easy to capture: the Americans landing on Utah Beach suffered just 197 casualties. But on Omaha Beach, a staggering 2,400 men were gunned down in the early stages of the landing – a scene immortalised in the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan.

British commandos, 1st Special Service Brigade, land on Sword Beach, D-Day

Looking back after 80 years, one might be tempted to conclude victory was inevitable on D-Day. After all, the soldiers were supported by formidable firepower, from both the sea and the air. But it did not seem like that to the young men storming the beaches. They faced absolute terror that morning, and it is testament to their courage that by the end of the day all five beaches were in Allied hands.

Despite victory on D-Day itself, the battle to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe had only just begun. There were to be another 335 days of intense fighting before Germany’s unconditional surrender on 7th May 1945.

D-Day had made victory possible – at a cost of 4,414 Allied lives.

Giles Milton’s book D-Day: The Soldiers’ Story (John Murray) is out now