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An excerpt from Rick Atkinson's "The Guns at Last Night"

Heavy chains rattled through hawse pipes across the bay, followed by splash after mighty splash as anchors slapped the sea and sank from sight.
The Guns at Last Light cover hi res
The Guns at Last Light cover hi res

Heavy chains rattled through hawse pipes across the bay, followed by splash after mighty splash as anchors slapped the sea and sank from sight. An anguished voice cried from a darkened deck, “For Chrissake, why in the hell don’t we send the Krauts a telegram and let them know we’re here?” Another voice called out: “Anchor holding, sir, in seventeen fathoms.”

Aboard Princess Astrid, six miles from Sword Beach, a loudspeaker summons—“Troops to parade, troops to parade”—brought assault platoons to the mess deck. On ships eleven miles off Omaha, GIs in the 116th Infantry pushed single file through double blackout curtains to climb to the weather decks. Landing craft, described as “oversized metal shoeboxes,” swung from davits, waiting to be loaded with soldiers; others would be lowered empty, smacking against the steel hulls, to be boarded by GIs creeping down the cargo nets that sailors now spread over the sides. A Coast Guard lieutenant on Bayfield watched troops “adjusting their packs, fitting bayonets to their rifles and puffing on cigarettes as if that would be their last. There was complete silence.” Scribbling in his diary he added, “One has the feeling of approaching a great abyss.”

Nautical twilight arrived in Normandy on June 6 at 5:16 a.m., when the ascending sun was twelve degrees below the eastern horizon. For the next forty-two minutes, until sunrise at 5:58, the dawning day revealed what enemy radar had not. To a German soldier near Vierville, the fleet materialized “like a gigantic town” afloat, while a French boy peering from his window in Grandcamp saw “more ships than sea.”

Minesweepers nosed close to shore, clearing bombardment lanes for 140 warships preparing to drench the coast with gunfire. Blinkered messages from sweeps just two miles off the British beaches reported no hint of enemy stirrings, and Omaha too appeared placid. But at 5:30 a.m., on the approaches to Utah, black splashes abruptly leaped mast-high fore and aft of the cruisers H.M.S. Black Prince and U.S.S. Quincy, followed by the distant bark of shore guns. Two destroyers also took fire three miles from the shingle, and a minesweeper fled seaward, chased by large shells thrown from St.-Vaast. At 5:36 a.m., after allowing Mustang and Spitfire spotter planes time to pinpoint German muzzle flashes, Admiral Deyo ordered, “Commence counterbattery bombardment.”

Soon enough eight hundred naval guns thundered along a fifty-mile firing line. Sailors packed cotton in their ears; concussion ghosts rippled their dungarees. “The air vibrated,” wrote the reporter Don Whitehead. Ammunition cars sped upward from magazines with an ascending hum, followed by the heavy thump of shells dropped into loading trays before being rammed into the breech. Turrets slewed landward with theatrical menace. Two sharp buzzes signaled Stand by, then a single buzz for Fire! “Clouds of yellow cordite smoke billowed up,” wrote A. J. Liebling as he watched the battleship Arkansas from LCI-88. “There was something leonine in their tint as well as in the roar that followed.” The 12- and 14-inch shells from the murderous queens Arkansas and Texas sounded “like railway trains thrown skyward,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, watching through Zeiss binoculars as a war correspondent aboard H.M.S. Empire Anvil. Paint peeled from Nevada’s scorched gun barrels, baring blue steel, and sailors swept cork shell casings and the burned silk from powder bags into the sea. David K. E. Bruce, an Office of Strategic Services operative who would later serve as U.S. ambassador in three European capitals, wrote in his diary aboard U.S.S. Tuscaloosa:

There is cannonading on all sides as well as from the shore. . . . The air is acrid with powder, and a fine spray of disintegrated wadding comes down on us like lava ash. . . . The deck trembles under our feet, and the joints of the ship seem to creak and stretch. . . . Repeated concussions have driven the screws out of their sockets [and] shattered light bulbs.

German shells soared over the bay in crimson parabolas. “The arc at its zenith looks as if it would end up on the Quincy,” wrote an officer eyeing an approaching round. “I am wrong, happily wrong.” Ships zigged, zagged, and zigged some more, their battle ensigns snapping and their wakes boiling white. Seasoned tars could gauge the size of an enemy shell from the height of the splash, including the 210mm ship-killers thrown from the three-gun battery at St.-Marcouf. “It is a terrible and monstrous thing to have to fire on our homeland,” an admiral on the French cruiser Montcalm advised his crew, “but I want you to do it this day.” A French woman ashore wrote in her diary, “It is raining iron. The windows are exploding, the floor is shaking, we are choking in the smell of gunpowder.” She piled her children and mattresses onto a horse cart and fled inland.

Copyright © 2013 by Rick Atkinson