'Den-D': The Czech role in the Allied invasion of Normandy


Czechoslovak participation in the first weeks of "Operation Overlord"—the invasion of Normandy that began on June 6, 1944—was almost exclusively limited to the air, as soldiers from occupied Czechoslovakia's 1st Armoured Brigade only deployed to France weeks after the Allied landing. But hundreds more Czech fighting men took part in the D-Day landings doing battle under the flags of other Allied nations.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, photo: U.S. National Archives
"Soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you..."

June 5th, 1944. Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepares the order for D-Day, the start of "Operation Overlord"—the codename for the invasion of Normandy.

"Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely".

It was to be the greatest combined land, sea, and air operations in military history.

D-Day landing, photo: U.S. National Archives
[British radio announcer] "Communiqué No. 1. Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies began this morning on the northern coast of France".

Within hours, planes began taking off from airfields in Southern England and from the decks of Allied warships steaming across the English Channel towards Nazi-occupied France. Some 15 minutes after midnight on the 6th of June, 1944, the first of 23,000 U.S., British and Canadian paratroopers and glider troops plunged into the darkness over Normandy.

"The Longest Day" was underway.

[Canadian radio reporter]: "At last it started: The enormous bombing and shelling of the coast defences. We came in from the sea that morning with a terrific volume of firepower. The hundreds of aircraft were dropping thousands of tons of bombs. The cruisers and destroyers were going close in to pound the shore batteries and casemates. And in a few moments we could hardly see the beaches for smoke".

Beaches of Normandy, photo: U.S. National Archives
[American radio reporter] "Our air support has been fine. And the loudspeakers call out almost constantly, 'Spitfires to the port, or Mustangs overhead, or B-17s on the starboard side".

In all, three million men, 13,000 aircraft, 1,200 warships, 2,700 merchant ships, and 2,500 landing craft took part in the Allied invasion of Normandy.

At daybreak, the main bombardment ended.

[Canadian radio reporter] "And then, at last, H-Hour. And at H-Hour there was a sudden and almost frightening silence. The fire programme ceased. It was the moment for the assault troops to go ashore".

Some 150,000 armed men from the United States, Britain and Canada, supported by tens of thousands of Polish, French, Czechoslovak and other Allied troops, stormed ashore at five landing sites on the French beaches, code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah, and Omaha.

Ladislav Jindra left occupied Czechoslovakia for America in 1938. After the United States entered the war, he joined the U.S. Army's 29th Infantry Division, which trained for the D-Day assault at Slapton Sands, in England. There, Jindra learned how to capture a beach and advance from crater to crater. Landing at Omaha, his division suffered heavy casualties.

"The Germans shot at us, there were mines, artillery and heavy mounted machine guns. The guy next to you would be running and then in an instant be killed or wounded. There was thick smoke everywhere. D-Day... was something that no one can really describe".

D-Day landing, photo: U.S. National Archives
[British reporter] "Just in the hedges around me I can see many taking shelter behind the banks while this terrific barrage goes on around us... The shells are whistling all around us—just listen to them!"

Also among the tens of thousands of Czechoslovaks who served in the 1st armoured Brigade, or under a foreign flag, was Oto Horovic, who joined a British unit after several harrowing years on the run.

"I fled in 1940 because I wanted to fight for our country. I crossed into Hungary, made my way to Yugoslavia, and from there on to Italy. I was captured and imprisoned in a concentration camp in Italy for three years, then escaped. I went to Sicily and from there to Algeria and finally to England. In 1944, I fought in Normandy and at Dunkerque. That's all".

[Canadian radio reporter] "It was British and American firepower, and above all, the heroism of the assault troops that scaled the walls. And as for the shore batteries, they must have been put out of action by the bombers... "

[American radio announcer] "All day, Allied heavy bombers have been operating in support of the ground troops. The action so far seems to have been almost too easy. But the reputation of the German armies is still considerable, and there is no disposition to discount their power to hit back".

The three independent Czechoslovak fighter squadrons — the 310th, 312th and 313th —operating Spitfires and under British command, flew numerous sorties on D-Day. Otto Smik, a Slovak ace with the 310th, shot down his lucky 13th plane above Normandy, while the 311th, a bomber squadron, patrolled the English Channel.

"Bernard Peters, flight sergeant, 311th squadron. I was in the air on D-Day, flying in a Liberator near Brest, looking out for subs — submarines".

On D-Day, the 311th was patrolling the skies in B-24 Liberators, looking for the Kreigsmarine, the Nazi submarine fleet, in an operation codenamed "Cork".

"It's hard to say now what you felt. Fear? Excitement? You just don't think about it. You just take it as it comes".

They sank one sub and effectively sealed off the Western part of the English Channel.

 Karel Kuttelwascher, photo: www.math.fce.vutbr.cz
"As well as those four Czechoslovak squadrons there were quite a lot of Czechs and Slovaks who served in other British squadrons", says Roger Darlington, who wrote a biography of the Czech ace Karel Kuttelwascher, his late father-in-law. He notes that the Czechoslovak fighter Wing provided crucial cover in direct support of the British Second Army's landings on and around the beaches of Normandy. "Most of the action was on D-Day was on the beaches, but of course they needed air cover and a great many units — including Czechoslovak pilots — provided that cover. And, in fact, fairly rapidly the Allies did assume mastery of the air, which enabled the soldiers to penetrate into France and get the invasion underway".

Altogether, over 2,000 Czechoslovak airmen served in the RAF, the British Royal Air Force. Of the 482 Czechoslovak airmen killed in battle, the 311th bomber squadron suffered the greatest number of casualties - 273. Unable to sustain further losses, the British had reassigned the squadron to Coastal Command.

"My name is Warlich, Charles Warlich. I was with the 311th squadron, Coastal Command".

"Na Mnozstvi Nehledte" was their motto—"Disregard their numbers"—and Czech airmen of the 311th told Radio Prague last year, ahead of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, that they simply didn't think about how the odds were stacked against them.

D-Day landing
"On D-Day... I don't think there was nervousness, I think it was more an elated feeling that something was happening, finally. And I think we took it all in stride, let's put it that way. We took it all in stride".

Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France, achieved its objective: to open a crucial second front to engage the Nazis on continental Europe. Despite the success of the Normandy invasion, it would take almost a full year to bring the German war machine to its knees.

[Gen. Eisenhower] "People of Western Europe. A landing was made this morning on the coast of France, by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. This landing is part of a concerted United Nations' plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with our great Russian allies. I have this message for all of you: Although the initial assault may not have been made in your own country, the hour of liberation is approaching".