From WARD SMITH, BBC
"News of the World" Special War Correspondent with the
American Forces, who flew into Northern France with
the first wave of Paratroops
This is the story of the first phase of the invasion as I saw it from the air in the early hours of D-Day. At 1:40 a.m. we were over Carentan, in the Cherbourg Peninsula, in an American Ninth Troop-Carrier Command "lead ship" - some 20 paratroops, the flying crew, and myself.
A moment later the plane was empty. The paratroops were making one of the initial descents of the Second Front and the enemy from the ground was firing the first shots of this most momentous of all campaigns.
All around the plane, rocketing less than 100 feet from the ground, a Brock's benefit of flak rainbowed us for something like eight minutes on end by my watch, though I could have sworn it was at least half an hour.
It was dusk as our air fleet, advance guard of the invasion, left an airport in England - left twinkling lights for dark hazards.
So closely had the secret of D-Day been preserved that not all the flying crews themselves knew the signal had been given till they took off. The paratroops had been in barbed-wire enclosures for some days. No one had any chance to talk.
The previous day I had flown into London and back on urgent business. Immediately on my return I was summoned to a squadron headquarters to sleep.
But they didn't show me my room. Instead they lead me right out to the airfield, to the first of a line of waiting planes. "This is It!" they remarked. It had come at last - just like that....
In Another World
As I climbed aboard, paratroops, steel-helmeted, black-faced, festooned from head to foot, were in their planes in the bucket-seats lining each side of the fuselage.
The co-pilot, Major Cannon, was reading a historic message from General Eisenhower. It spoke of the "Great Crusade," and ended: "Let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God on this noble undertaking."
As the door slanged to on us, sitting there in the dusk, we realized that we had suddenly passed from one world to another. Perhaps that was partly the effect of the all-red lights on the plane. They made our faces look slightly blue. They turned white the red tips of our cigarettes. I think that perhaps all of us had rather a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach.
But that didn't last long. Somehow we seemed to leave it behind on the ground.
Almost before we realized it we were off. Here and there lights, friendly lights, winked at us. Other planes, their red and green wing lights twinkling cheerfully, fell into close formation behind to left and right.
As everyone adjusted parachute harness, flak suits, and Mae Wests, our mood brightened to a spate of banter.
"Say," someone sang out suddenly, "what's the date? I'll feel kinda dumb down there if some guy asks me and I get it wrong."
We laughed uproariously at things like that - the littlest things, the silliest things. We exchanged cigarettes and we talked on - but somehow never about things that mattered.
The Doctor Jumped
Among the paratroops were a doctor and two medical orderlies. They were going to drop with the rest to set up first-aid posts wherever opportunity offered. There was a chaplain, too. They all wrote their names and addresses and some messages in my notebook.
Down below a beacon flashed out a code letter. We made a sharp turn over to the coast. Then our roof lights, our wing lights, and the lights of all the fleet behind abruptly flicked out. We were heading out to sea.
We fell silent, just sat and watched the darkened ghosts sailing along behind us in the twilight.
I noticed a red sign on the jump door, just one word: "Think."
I tried to remember what the jump master had told me: "If you have to bale out, don't forget to pull this tag to strip off the flak suit"; "when you jump remember to count to two before you pull the rip cord"; "if you hit the sea you MUST unbuckle this 'chute clip here before you pull the tassel to inflate the Mae West, or it'll choke you."
While I was reflecting that I was certain to forget something, shore lights flashed in the distance. We could just make out land on the horizon under a glimmer of moon.
The coast of France....
This was it - the Great Adventure everyone had lived for and worked for so long and so hard. I hated to see it; and yet it thrilled me. Hitler's Europe.
Those lights went out. A flare went up. Had they seen us? Had they heard us? The moon silvered the fleet behind.
"A pity someone said we were going in here," one of the paratroopers remarked suddenly. We knew what he meant.
He was talking of that extraordinary report that reached America some hours before that the Allies were already landing in France. Well, as it turned out, it was right. We WERE going into Northern France. Up here, now that lives were at stake, someone's idiocy didn't seem amusing.
We took a sharp turn towards the land. And here I must pay tribute to the planning. So cunning was our routing, so many our twists and turns, that at no time till we reached our objective could the enemy have gained an inkling as to just were we were bound.
The land slid by, silent and grey. And still nothing happened. Some of the paratroopers chorused "Put that pistol down, Momma," and "For Me and My Girl."
So Young, So Bad...
Someone called out: "Ten minutes to go." The paratroop battalion commander talked quietly to his men. A final briefing.
I shall never forge the scene up there in those last fateful minutes, those long lines of motionless, grim-faced young men burdened like pack-horses so that they could hardly stand unaided. Just waiting....
So young they looked, on the edge of the unknown. And somehow, so sad. Most sat with eyes closed as the seconds ticked by. They seemed to be asleep, but I could see lips moving wordlessly. I wasn't consciously thinking of anything in particular, but suddenly I found the phrase "Thy rod and Thy staff" moving through my mind again and again. Just that and no more. It was all very odd.
Then things began to happen. Below we saw fires on all sides. Our bombers had done their work well.
Corpl. Jack Harrison of Phoenix, Arizona, leaned over and thrust a packet of cigarettes in my hand. "You might need them on the way back," he said.
I said, "What about you?" He just shrugged. Then he lined up with the others.
The jump door opened, letting in a dull red glare form the fires below. The time had come. We were over the drop zone.
Silently They Went
I wish I could play up that moment, but there was nothing to indicate that this was the supreme climax. Just a whistling that lasted for a few seconds - and those men, so young, so brave, had gone to their destiny.
I'd expected them to whoop battle-cries, to raise the roof in that last fateful moment. But not one of them did. They just stepped silently out into the red night, leaving behind only the echo of the songs they had been singing.
Then we got it. The flak and tracer came up, from all sides. Through the still-open door in the side of the plane I could see it forming a blazing arch over us - an arch that lasted for minutes on end, so close it seemed that we could not escape.
It felt very lonely up there then in that empty C 47. I think I sat on the floor. About the only thing I can be sure of is that I was bathed in perspiration.
I knew we were a sitting pigeon. We didn't have a gun or any armour-plate. Our only safeguard was our racing engines and the cool-headedness and skill of the pilot, Colonel Krebs, as he twisted and dived.
I thought their fighters would be after us. But, fortunately, not a single one showed up from start to finish.
Well, we came back. Three of Colonel Krebs' fleet didn't. "We had luck," said the colonel as we streaked for home.
Standing behind him inn the cockpit, you could see fleets of planes passing in each direction, guided by beacons on the water in a perfectly organized system of traffic control. The sea seemed full of ships. Soon the first seaborne forces would be going in....
We came back. Our paratroopers hadn't - yet. At the moment, they're too busy to tell their story.
Just in case Corpl. Harrison happens to read this, I'd like him to know that I'm keeping his cigarettes for him. Perhaps he might like a smoke on the way home. But if he can spare them I'd like to keep them always.
Back at the base, as we ate, two young officers walked in to breakfast and flipped over the morning papers. "So the Allies have taken Rome," they remarked. "Well, it shouldn't be long now before the invasion starts."
They didn't know, yet....