D-Day revisited

''People of Western Europe: A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. . . . The hour of your liberation is approaching.''

Making the electrifying announcement from London was the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The date was June 6, 1944.

Some 156,000 US, British, and Canadian troops had sprung from the sea and air onto the coast and fields of Normandy in Operation Overlord, punching a gaping hole in Hitler's ''Fortress Europe,'' and bringing hope to millions in lands suffering the barbarities of Nazi occupation.

Now, with the 40th anniversary of D-Day fast approaching thousands of those who stormed the perilous beaches or who swooped to earth by parachute or glider in the greatest amphibious and airborne operation in history are preparing to return to the scene of their epic deeds.

Normandy, in short, is about to re-invaded.

No one is exactly sure how many veterans will descend on the region to take part in the scores of ceremonies, but Normandy is bracing itself to receive 100, 000 visitors this year.

By one estimate 30,000 of those will be equal numbers of US, British, and Canadian veterans returning, often with wives and family members, in scores of tour groups and aboard hundreds of coaches.

It will be a nostalgic trip for all and one not without reflective, emotional moments for many.

Two of those making the pilgrimage to Normandy are John Downing of Daytona Beach, Fla., and Clayton Booth of Wareham, Mass., veterans, respectively, of the 1st Infantry Division (''The Big Red One'') and the 29th Infantry Division (''The Blue and Gray Division'').

Both landed on tenaciously defended Omaha Beach where the 1st Division and a regiment of the 29th suffered 3,000 casualties. When First Lieutenant Downing's landing craft lowered its ramp, 20 men were hit. Some fell into the sea and drowned. Says Clayton Booth: ''Anyone who says they weren't scared, wasn't there.''

Most D-Day veterans are now in their mid- to late-60s, retired, and reasonably well off. Clearly thousands of them have resolved to make this 40th anniversary an event to remember.

While the people of Normandy welcome old soldiers from such units as Britain's Royal Warwickshire Regiment; Canada's Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry Highlanders; and the US 82nd Airborne Division's 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, French President Francois Mitterrand will be receiving a host of foreign dignitaries.

Scheduled to attend D-Day ceremonies in June are President and Mrs. Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau , King Olav V of Norway, and Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip who will sail to Normandy in the royal yacht Brittania.

Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands and King Baudouin of the Belgians may also take part in the observances and celebrations along the invasion coast.

Not surprisingly Normandy hotels are booked solid with veterans for the month of June. But many families have offered to put up individual veterans who have been unable to find hotel accommodation.

June's D-Day ceremonies, both public and private, will take place on many of the beaches, landing, and drop zones where the mighty Allied army poured into France, as well as in the cemeteries that became the final resting place for so many of the gallant liberating troops.

The assault on Normandy began shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944.

* The British 6th Airborne Division staged glider landings and parachute drops on the eastern flank of the invasion beachhead, seizing bridges over the River Orne and the swing bridge over the Caen canal.

As the 6th Airborne landed, the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions leaped from their aircraft over the southeast corner of the Cotentin Peninsula to perform a similar function on the western flank.

But the pilots of the transports, disoriented by cloud and haze and unnerved by antiaircraft fire, scattered the men disastrously. The landings of the 101 st's gliders were no more successful.

Despite these setbacks, however, many paratroopers regrouped to inflict considerable confusion and havoc on German forces in the region. The 82nd took Sainte-Mere-L'Eglise and held it in the face of fierce counterattacks and the 101st prevented German reinforcements from penetrating the region.

Then, at 6:30 a.m., the 4th Infantry Division stormed ashore on Utah Beach just south of La Madeleine on the eastern base of the Cotentin Peninsula and quickly struck inland.

At the same time the 1st Infantry Division and a regiment of the 29th Infantry Division assaulted Omaha Beach between Vierville-sur-Mer and Colleveille-sur-Mer. For hours the outcome hung in the balance. Only the extraordinary fortitude of the attacking troops and a daring naval bombardment delivered at close range staved off catastrophe.

Bravery of a similar order was displayed by the 225 men of the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions when, undaunted by gunfire and grenades, they scaled the 100 -foot cliff at Pointe du Hoc three miles west of Omaha Beach to knock out a battery of six 155mm guns. Though they found the guns had been removed, they later discovered them 1,200 yards away in an apple orchard and blew up their breeches.

Landings on the other beaches proceeded well. The British 50th Division came ashore on Gold Beach between Arromanches and La Riviere at 7:25 a.m. just as the British 3rd Division landed on Sword Beach between Lion-sur-Mer and Ouistreham-Riva-Bella. To the delight of the residents of the latter resort, a Free French commando battalion - part of the No. 4 Commando - led by Marine Capt. Philippe Kieffer aided in its liberation.

Ten minutes later the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division scrambled ashore on Juno Beach which lay between Gold and Sword, quickly overrunning the coastal strip from Gray-sur-Mer to Langrune.

In 1943 Winston Churchill had expressed the hope that France would be liberated ''before the fall of autumn leaves.'' But the liberation had not come and the Germans scattered green paper leaves in French streets bearing the mocking inscription: ''I have fallen, Oh Churchill! Where are your soldiers?''

They were here now and in just over 11 months the Third Reich would cease to exist.

The heroism of the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions will be remembered on the morning of June 5 when a plaque commemorating the unit is unveiled at the Pointe du Hoc. Afterwards a team of climbers from the 10th Special Forces - the Green Berets - will display their skills on the cliff face.

Early that afternoon there will be a ceremony in the British cemetery at Ranvillenear Pegasus Bridge, and at 4 p.m. 150 men of the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C. will drift to earth outside Sainte-Mere-l'Eglise in an exhibition parachute drop.

The following day, June 6, sees President Mitterrand and his distinguished guests at the Colleville-Saint-Laurent American cemetery above Omaha Beach where 9,386 US servicemen lie buried under marble crosses. The 4 p.m. ceremony is open to the public.

An hour and a half later the assembled monarchs and heads of state will attend the dedication of a US memorial on Utah Beach. In the evening there will be a ceremony honoring the British 3rd Division at Hermanville. Tourists planning to visit the Normandy beaches and environs in early June to savor the assorted ceremonies and celebrations might do well to think again. The region's narrow country roads - no more extensive now than they were in 1944 - are likely to be snarled with traffic and the events besieged by crowds. No one is saying how the extensive security operation to protect French officials and visiting dignitaries will affect access to the area or movement within it, but it is not likely to make for the sort of totally unhampered sightseeing most visitors expect.

Incorrigible D-Day buffs might want to sortie from Paris on one- and two-day trips to the beaches (see box) during the first two weeks of June but, all in all, the going would be a lot easier later in the year.

For instance, visiting Normandy's many D-Day museums is likely to be a lot pleasanter when the crowds have thinned. Predictably there are many to see: from the Airborne Troops Museum at Sainte-Mere-L'Eglise in the west to No. 4 Commando Museum at Ouistreham-Riva-Bella in the east.

Additional D-Day memorabilia is displayed in the Arromanches Museum (which contains a model of the prefabricated Mulberry Harbor erected off the town soon after D-Day), in the Utah Beach Museum at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, in the Museum of the Battle of Normandy at Bayeux, and in the Pegasus Bridge Airborne Museum at Benouville. Other D-Day museums can be found at Cherbourg, Aigle, and Merville.

For some returning veterans the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings will be a time to chew over the tactics employed by General Eisenhower and his commanders on June 6, 1944. Some will, no doubt, debate whether Lt. Gen. Omar Bardley, who commanded the US assault forces on D-Day, could have taken Omaha Beach with far fewer casualties had he accepted a range of specialized tanks offered him by the British.

Nicknamed ''The Funnies,'' these included the ''Crab,'' a Sherman tank whose whirling chain flails could beat pathways through minefields; A Churchill tank equipped with a 290mm mortar to pulverize blockhouses; the ''Crocodile,'' a Churchill tank fitted with a flame thrower.

General Eisenhower requested a brigade's worth of the latter tanks but left the choice of other specialized armored vehicles to General Bradley. At least one military historian has suggested that the 1st Army commander regarded them as unproven. Whether he did or not, General Bradley requested no more.

The Omaha landings were ill-starred from the outset.

Launched some two-and-a-half miles off the beach, 31 of the 64 swimming tanks foundered in heavy seas as did most of the DUKWs (amphibious trucks) carrying the 105mm artillery pieces.

Ernest Hemingway who was aboard a landing craft heading for Omaha Beach that morning watched as ''solid green sheets of water . . . fell on the helmeted heads of the troops packed shoulder to shoulder in the stiff, awkward, uncomfortable, lonely companionship of men going to a battle.''

The GIs who reminded him of ''pikemen of the Middle Ages'' were soon ''wax-gray with seasickness.'' They were also wet, cold, and apprehensive.

They landed to what historian Samuel Eliot Morison has described as ''the best imitation of hell'': beach obstacles and minefields and a torrent of fire from artillery, mortars, machine-guns, and rifles. Within 10 minutes of floundering ashore some 96 percent of the 197 men in Company A of the 116th Regiment had been killed or wounded.

As Hemingway studied the shoreline, tanks ''crouched like big yellow toads'' burst into flames after being hit. Morison thought the Omaha defenses infinitely tougher than those the Japanese devised to defend Tarawa and Iwo Jima.

''Six hours after the landings we held only ten yards of beach,'' observed General Bradley in his 1983 autobiography, ''A General's Life.''

The attacking GIs soon discovered they were not merely facing the 716th Infantry Division, a static unit of low morale, but elements of the 352nd Infantry Division, a crack, mobile formation that had been battle-hardened on the Eastern front.

Staff Sergeant Clayton Booth of the 29th Division landed on Omaha in the evening. ''We didn't realize how easily we could have been pushed back into the ocean,'' he says in a telephone conversation from his Cape Cod home. ''You couldn't see the big picture. In fact we didn't realize how bad it had been until it was all over.'' His most vivid memories of June 6, 1944 are the concern he had over not being able to swim and ''the way that the fellas stuck together that day.'' His most terrifying moment came later - when a cow stuck its head over a hedge. ''That was one of the worst scares I ever got,'' he chuckles.

Eventually the dogged courage of the troops coupled with a relentless naval bombardment from a dozen destroyers that approached as close to the beach as they could turned the tide on Omaha. But it took 1,000 dead and 2,000 wounded to take it.

General Eisenhower later attributed the light casualities sustained on the British and Canadian beaches to tactical surprise and ''the success of the novel mechanical contrivances which were employed.''

In his recent biography General Bradley claimed that he had rejected ''The Funnies'' because, being largely British Churchill tanks, their acceptance would have necessitated the retraining of drivers and maintenance men, besides the creation of a separate spare parts supply chain.

The general returned many times to Omaha Beach to honor ''the valiant men'' who died there. ''Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero.''

The celebrations and ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of D-Day are by no means confined to France. Many events are scheduled to take place in southern England from where the massive invasion armada set out.

For instance, on the afternoon of June 2 there will be a memorial ceremony at Slapton Sands on the coast of south Devon. It was in the waters off this steeply-sloping beach that some 700 GIs lost their lives during a practice invasion assault in April 1944 when German E-boats, in a sneak cross-Channel attack, sank two tank landing ships.

Attending the ceremony will be the US 6th Fleet band and a navy marching contingent and color guard. A US navy ship will take up station offshore and aircraft of the 3rd US Air Force will fly by.

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother will be in Portsmouth on June 3 to attend a memorial service in the city's cathedral and open a new D-Day museum adjoining Southsea Castle. There will be a parade through the city on June 6 to commemorate the landings.

Some returning veterans might want to pay a visit to Southwick House, the exquisite Regency mansion just north of Portsmouth Harbor that served as General Eisenhower's quarters and command center for the invasion. Part of HMS Dryad, the Royal Navy's navigation school, the house is not open to the public but appointments can be made to see its wartime operations room (write: HMS Dryad, Southwick, Fareham, Hamphsire, England or call Cosham 370991.)

At nearby Southampton, which saw the departure of 1,066 ships of all sorts on June 5, 1944, numerous D-Day celebrations are planned. Singer Vera Lynn, ''The Forces's Sweetheart,'' who bewitched wartime Britain with such songs as ''We'll Meet Again,'' will star in a gala commemoration evening at the Gaumont Theater in the city on June 2 and Herb Miller and his orchestra will be on hand at several venues there in June and July to play the swing hits his brother Glenn made famous.

Quite simply, waves of nostalgia will be drenching both sides of the English Channel in June.

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