Initial foes: the weather and the wait D-DAY MINUS 2.... D-DAY: PRELUDE TO TRIUMPH

June 04, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

The first thing that happened to the tens of thousands of Allied troops headed for Normandy half a century ago was that they didn't go.

The soldiers, crammed into steel-hulled invasion craft of all sizes, set off from the coast of England on June 4. The first waves of American, British and Canadian troops were supposed to cross the English Channel under darkness and hit the Normandy beaches at low tide early June 5.

But even before many vessels got out of sight of land, the notoriously fickle Channel weather turned vile, forcing the largest naval armada ever assembled back to port.

More than a year in the planning, D-Day had been postponed.

To make matters worse, the last meal many of the men had eaten before they boarded the ships was a recipe for seasickness.

"We drew British rations -- mainly mutton and pork, and it was very greasy," remembers John "Sam" Allsup, at the time a 22-year-old rifle platoon lieutenant with the 29th Division's Baltimore-based 175th Infantry.

"The guys were sick, and there was [a mess] on the deck down below," he says. "Some of the guys were so sick they couldn't get out of their hammocks."

On the shoulders of this sickly force hung the salvation of Europe.

Sgt. Edward Ringgold Elburn, an Eastern Shore native and a medic with the 29th's 115th Infantry, was on troop ship No. 553 as it pitched and rolled in the churning Channel waters waters off Plymouth, England, while the Allied commanders reconsidered the weather from their headquarters in the sleepy environs outside Portsmouth.

By the time the real "go" order came the next day, Sergeant Elburn and 200 other men had been aboard the landing barge a full day -- waiting.

Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's invasion-eve message was lofty: "The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you."

Sergeant Elburn had more mundane matters on his mind. He swallowed his seasickness pills and climbed onto his bunk, praying he would not have to use the bag he held to his chest.

"It was quiet," remembers Mr. Elburn, who is 76 and lives in Queen Anne's County.

"You just laid there with your own thoughts. You thought about your family at home, and you didn't want to get sick because you figured if you got onto that beach not sick, you had a better chance of making it."

How to make it was what the drill instructors had pushed in every way for the last year as they pushed the 29ers through grueling exercises on the British moors and beaches, trying to prepare them for survival on the Normandy beaches, over the cliffs manned by German gunners, and in the farm fields and hedgerows beyond.

The 29th, the mobilized Blue and Gray Division of National Guardsmen from Maryland and Virginia, had been tapped for a landing at one of the five designated beaches along the bowl-shaped Normandy coast between Cherbourg and Le Havre.

Overlord revealed

A few days before the invasion, Lieutenant Allsup joined other officers inside a tent where they were shown a detailed sand model of the Normandy coast. American troops would hit the westernmost beach while the British and Canadians would come ashore on the eastern end.

Somewhere between the two cusps, the combined forces of the 29th and the U.S. 1st Division would land on a 5-mile stretch of sand and smooth rocks.

For the first time, top-secret code names for the invasion and the landing sites were disclosed to the troops.

"They said they called it Omaha Beach and the whole operation was called Overlord," says Mr. Allsup. "We said 'What the hell does that mean?' We didn't know much at all."

Invasion details had been wrapped in extraordinary secrecy, restricted until the last minute to the top echelon of Allied military planners and their staffs. The insiders were called the "Bigots," a code name for the hierarchy of American and British officers and a few Canadian and French commanders.

A week before the scheduled D-Day, activity within the Bigots' secret offices around London rose to a fever pitch, remembers Mabel Carney Stover, then a 26-year-old U.S. Women's Army Corps sergeant assigned as a secretary to the Allied Expeditionary Air Force headquarters.

"Security got very tight," says Mrs. Stover, who lives in Ruidoso, N.M., with her husband but spends the spring and summer at her daughter's home in Howard County. "People had grim looks on their faces. Everybody was talking in whispers, and there wasn't any visible joy on their faces. We knew thousands would die on that first day."

'You'll get killed'

Sergeant Carney was particularly worried about her boss, Col. Ralph "Baz" Bagby.

Colonel Bagby's office was working with British officers on plans for the combined American and British paratrooper and glider assault behind enemy lines.

The aerial portion of Operation Overlord was considered so risky that some British commanders recommended scrapping it.

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