The nation was at a standstill at 9:19pm on June 6, 1944, waiting to hear directly from the front line of the D-Day Landings, the launch of Operation Overlord designed to kickstart the liberation of Europe by Britain and her allies.
Several dozen journalists from the BBC and hundreds more from around the world were, unarmed, embedded in military units and stood alongside the soldiers who fought their enemy on the beaches.
These broadcasters bravely faced an unknown fate to make sure the Homefront knew what their loved ones were facing with nightly firsthand accounts but who were they and what were they confronted with daily?
Prepare For Take-Off
Shortly after midnight on June 6, 1943, aircraft started to take off from an airfield in Southern England, headed for France. There to report on what he saw was BBC Correspondent and later presenter of current affairs programme Panorama, Richard Dimbleby. The journalist was the father of four children, two of which became journalists themselves - David, best known for presenting the BBC's Question Time and Jonathan, best known for presenting ITV's Sunday morning political programme, ‘Jonathan Dimbleby’.
Speaking on the BBC on the evening of D-Day, Richard Dimbleby told of seeing around 20 aircraft taking off at the precise time the "plan which they had been working and sweating and slaving at for months” determined.
The tone of what he says is one of admiration for the men, aircraft and the majestic sight of seeing them all head into the night sky. One plane holds a BBC colleague planning to parachute with the troops upon reaching France. His closing thought is rousing and optimistic, saying:
“Aboard them are some of the toughest and finest and bravest men that we have in Britain and they go out today to face their greatest trial.”
Former newspaper reporter and BBC war correspondent, Robert Barr followed General Dwight Eisenhower from D-Day until the end of WW2. Below he speaks of US paratroopers boarding a Douglas C-47, saying:
“Their faces were darkened with cocoa; sheathed knives were strapped to their ankles; tommy guns strapped to their waists; bandoliers and hand grenades, coils of rope, pick handles, spades, rubber dinghies hung around them and a few personal oddments, like the lad who was taking a newspaper to read on the plane.”
Barr said that there was an air of confidence from the troops, as though they had boarded the C-47 and adjusted their kit before it took off many times before. They had repeated the process “20, 30, 40 times some of them, but it had never been quite like this before”. This was, in fact, everyone’s first combat jump.
A sobering thought for civilians on the Homefront to hear from their radio.
The Story Of The Landing
After the 9 o’clock news and now infamous King’s speech in which His Majesty rallied the nation and reminded the people that we were fighting the good fight against evil, those left at home stayed anxiously gathered round their radio to hear announcer John Snagge solemnly introduce BBC war correspondent Howard Marshall who, only minutes earlier, had just stepped off a landing craft.
He had spent the day alongside the soldiers on the Normandy beaches, making notes so that he might be able to relay what happened back to the loved ones of the soldiers who had come face to face with the enemy.
Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy, combined naval, air and land assets to assault Nazi-occupied Europe and involved 156,000 British, American and Canadian forces landing on five beaches in Normandy in France.
With great care and consideration, Marshall described in great, captivating detail what the troops had encountered on that first brutal encounter with the enemy. He said:
“I've just come back from the beaches and as I've been in the sea twice, I'm sitting in my soaked through clothes with no notes at all, all my notes are at the bottom of the sea.”
The day had started just after dawn so, in the dim morning light and while in a landing craft in rough seas, Marshall could see troops opening fire on the beach and explosions. He said:
“First of all, the cruiser started with a rather loudly bang and soon the air grew heavy with the smell of cordite and loud with the sound of explosions and looking along the beach, we could see the explosions of artillery creating a great cloud and fog of smoke.”
Marshall reported that, with the reassuring sound of planes overhead to give the troops as much cover as possible, he could see explosions in the water – a fate that would soon happen to the landing craft he was traveling in. The Germans had placed “formidable prongs, many of them tipped with mines” in the water, designed to sink anything that encountered one. He said:
“And suddenly, as we tried to get between two of these tripod defence systems of the Germans, our craft swung and we touched a mine, there was a very loud explosion, a shudder and … water began pouring in.”
As Marshall speaks, he describes a hellish scene that civilians would not be capable of imagining if it were not for his accurate and clear reporting.
The Hollywood blockbusters we see today, depicting intense, loud and bloody battles, did not exist then. There was no frame of reference for people to connect to in their mind.
Without journalists like Marshall reporting live from the frontline, the Homefront would never have been able to imagine the horrors their loved ones were facing.
Hope In The Face Of Adversity
However, the journalists also wanted to convey a sense of hope and were censored by the Ministry Of Defence who wanted to make sure that while the press could report on the war, national security would not be put at risk.
Reports containing important information like the exact location of troops or weather reports – two crucial elements that aided the success of the Normandy Landings - would not be published.
Newspaper articles would be submitted to the Ministry Of Information and if they were approved for publishing, would be sent back to the newspaper with changes marked in blue pencil and an official stamp.
Therefore, while Marshall spoke plainly of what he had seen on the first day of the Normandy Landings, he omitted the more precise details of locations etc and left the listeners with some hope, saying:
“... our main enemy was the weather and that we were beating the weather and we had our troops and our tanks ashore and that the Germans weren’t really putting up a great deal of resistance.
“After spending some time on the beach talking to troops, finding them in tremendous fettle very very delighted at having this crack at the Germans.”
Martha Gellhorn: The Maverick Journalist
Another war correspondent who risked it all to report back from the frontline of Operation Overlord was author Martha Gellhorn.
The American journalist is considered to be one of the greatest correspondents of the 20th century and an inspiration to many who seek to report the truth as accurately as possible.
She covered, among several others, the Spanish Civil War, the Vietnam War, the Arab-Israel conflicts and the US invasion of Panama in 1989 at the age of 80. She only stopped due to her increasingly failing eyesight.
Her estranged husband, the American novelist and journalist Ernest Hemingway, had been chosen by American magazine Collier’s to report from the Normandy beaches, even though Gellhorn was the journalist who wrote for the publication.
Determined not to let that get in her way, Gellhorn stowed away on a hospital ship on June 5 and disguised herself as a stretcher-bearer, making her the only woman to witness the D-Day Landings in person.
She witnessed great swathes of casualties coming back from battle.
The Perfect Circle Of Hell
Decades after standing on the beach for the D-Day landings, journalist John Pilger spoke to Gellhorn in 1983, on Channel 4's 'The Outsiders'. He asked her about many things, including her time covering the Spanish Civil War and then asked her to describe what she saw as she arrived at Dachau concentration camp on the day it was liberated by US troops in April 1945. Gellhorn succinctly described it as “the perfect circle of hell” and elaborated on the horrors she witnessed that day.
“There was a train on a siding, it was a death train.
“The SS had left, so they hadn’t emptied it so Germans with handkerchiefs over their face ... were opening the doors of it and digging out the bodies of the people who died in this train.”
From seeing dead bodies pushed off death trains and skeletal men and women who were barely alive dressed in striped clothing to burning bodies with fat dripping off them and hysterical women who “screamed like “mad women” - Gellhorn witnessed the atrocities that had taken place in Nazi-run concentration camps around Europe leaving her in a state of shock. She said:
“And then I got out of Dachau in a state bordering uncontrolled hysteria and went and sat in a field waiting to be removed with American prisoners of war.”
Gustav The Pigeon: The Original Tweeter?
Nearly three months after the D-Day Landings, a pigeon called Gustav received a PDSA Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross for:
“… delivering the first message from the Normandy Beaches from a ship off the beach-head while serving with the RAF on 6 June 1944.”
Thousands of pigeons were used during the First and Second World Wars to bring back vital news on how UK troops were progressing. Gustav is one of 32 pigeons to receive a Dickin Medal for bravery.
The invasion fleet was under radio silence to avoid enemy detection which led to the release of Gustav who flew 150 miles in a swift five hours and 16 minutes across the Channel to RAF Thorney Island near Chichester, West Sussex.
How Did Pigeons Get Messages Back?
Notes of crucial military importance would be written on small pieces of paper and attached to the legs of 'war pigeons’, or carrier pigeons, well known for their homing ability, speed and altitude.
When they landed at their locations, wires in the coop would sound a bell or buzzer and a soldier of the Signal Corps would know a message had arrived.
He would remove the message from the canister and send it to its destination by telegraph, field phone or personal messenger.
Enemy soldiers often tried to shoot pigeons, knowing that the birds were carrying messages.
During the Second World War, nearly 250,000 birds were used by the British Army, Royal Air Force and the Civil Defence Services.