The Longest Day - A look back at the heroic Czech contribution to the D-Day landings

D-Day landing, photo: U.S. National Archives

Czechoslovak participation in the first weeks of "Operation Overlord"— the invasion of Normandy — was almost exclusively limited to the air, as soldiers from occupied Czechoslovakia's 1st Armoured Brigade did not deploy to France until several weeks after the Allied landing's first wave. But hundreds more Czech fighting men took part in the D-Day landings doing battle under the flags of other Allied nations. Brian Kenety reports.

D-Day landing,  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, to start the invasion of Normandy in what was to be the greatest combined land, sea, and air operation in military history.

"You will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely."

General Dwight D. Eisenhower,  photo: U.S. National Archives
The Allies had assembled a fearsome force for the Normandy invasion, code name: "Operation Overlord". Three million men, 13,000 aircraft, 1,200 warships, 2,700 merchant ships, and 2,500 landing craft took part in the attack.

The invasion took some two years to plan. Yet its success depended on total surprise — fooling Hitler's generals into believing the massive attack would come elsewhere.

The weather was also a crucial factor. D-Day had already been postponed by 24 hours due to thunderstorms. To allow for an amphibious landing on such a massive scale a full moon was required, both for light and for the spring tide. But the storm clouds wouldn't disappear. Time was running out to deliver a decisive blow to the Nazi war machine and General Eisenhower decided Operation Overlord couldn't wait until the next full moon.

D-Day landing,  photo: U.S. National Archives
4:15 on the morning of the 5th of June. "Good weather for 24 to 36 hours" read the message from the British and Eisenhower gave the order: "O.K., we'll go."

Within hours, planes began taking off from airfields in Southern England and from the decks of Allied warships steaming across the English Channel toward Nazi-occupied France.

Some 15 minutes after midnight on the 6th of June 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.

Just before dawn, Allied aircraft and ships began to bomb the French coast along the Baie de la Seine to soften the formidable enemy defences and fighter planes took to the skies to take on the German air force, the Luftwaffe.

Beaches of Normandy,  photo: U.S. National Archives
A Czech captain by the name of F. O. Miksche serving in England with the Fighting French Forces came very close to predicting key aspects of the Normandy airborne plan in his book, "Paratroops". He had accurately identified much of the drop zone area in a theoretical airborne assault into Normandy and amphibious landings, near Utah Beach for the sea-borne assault.

This book was a concern for Allied commanders, who knew that the Germans undoubtedly had read it as well. But the diversionary attacks — false reports of a landing by the fictional "First U.S. Army Group" under the command of General George S. Patton — went as planned. The U.S. Fourth Army Group, also a decoy, was aimed at invading Norway.

Hitler had been duped, convinced the "real" attack was coming the following day, east of the River Seine.

Czechoslovak participation in the first weeks of Operation Overlord was almost exclusively limited to the air, as soldiers from the occupied country's 1st Armoured Brigade did not deploy to Normandy until several weeks after the Allied landing. That brigade would see its heaviest fighting months later in Dunkirk. But hundreds more Czech fighting men took part in the D-Day landings doing battle under the flags of other Allied nations.

RAF pilots
"At last it started: The enormous bombing and shelling of the coastal 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."

"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."

At daybreak, the main bombardment ended. 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, Omaha, and Utah.

"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 Normandy."

"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."

"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... and by the commandos and paratroops."

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.

Meanwhile, under "Operation Cork", the Czechoslovak bomber squadron, the 311th, patrolled the skies in B-24 Liberators, looking for the Kreigsmarine, the Nazi submarine fleet. They sank one and effectively sealed off the Western part of the English Channel.

Karel Kuttelwascher,  photo:
The Czechoslovak fighter Wing provided crucial cover in direct support of the British Second Army's landings on and around the beaches of Normandy. And hundreds of Czechs and Slovaks also served in integrated British forces, explains Roger Darlington, who wrote a biography of the Czech fighter pilot ace Karel Kuttelwascher, Mr. Darlington's late father-in-law.

"The Czechoslovak airmen who fled France in 1940 were sufficient in number to make up, over a period of months, three fighter squadrons and one bomber squadron. As well as those four Czechoslovak squadrons there were quite a lot of Czechs and Slovaks who served in other British squadrons."

"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, some 2,000 Czechoslovak airmen served in the RAF, the British Royal Air Force. Of the 482 Czechoslovak airmen killed in battle, the 3llth bomber squadron suffered the greatest number of casualties — 273.

"Na Mnozstvi Nehledte" was their motto — "Disregard their numbers" — and Czech airmen who survived their tours of duty with 60 years ago told Radio Prague they just didn't think about how the odds were stacked against them.

"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. It's hard to say now what you felt: Fear, excitement? I don't know. You just don't think of it, you know. You just take it as it comes."

"My name is Marlich, Charles Marlich. I was with the 311th, Coastal Command. And on D-Day... I don't think there was nervousness, I think it was more an elated feeling that something was happening, finally. We took it all in stride, let's put it that way. We took it all in stride."

"Pilots who were in 311th squadron now, there are living, actually all together three people. Two in Prague: Colonel Uruba and Krouba. A v Londyne, jsem to ja [and in London, me]."

Retired Major-General Frantisek Pospichal, age 93, there with the last word.

And that brings us to the end of our special report on the 60th anniversary of D-Day. I'm Brian Kenety. In tribute to the fighting spirit of the Czechoslovak airmen, we leave you now with a vintage recording of "U Skoda Lasky" — "Roll out the Barrel"— by none other than the 312th Czechoslovak fighter squadron band.