Calderdale, Halifax

D-Day, What did it mean for Halifax?

Thank you to the Halifax Military History Society for providing this overview of what D-Day meant to the folks of Halifax experiencing their 5th year of The World War 2.

80 years ago Britain was in the fifth year of world war.  Halifax men, brothers, sons, husbands and fathers had been conscripted into the Army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and possibly as “Bevin Boys” to work in the coal mines.  By 1944, all men aged between 18 & 51 were liable to be called up as were women aged from 20 to 30.

Europe and Asia had been tense for years because of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich in Germany, the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China, the Italian attack on Ethiopia, the German annexation of Austria, and the imprisonment of thousands of Jews in concentration camps. After Germany’s occupation of areas of Czechoslovakia not previously agreed to in the 1938 “Peace in Our Time” Munich Pact and its invasion of Poland; on 3 September 1939, Britain & France had declared War on Germany.

The war had not gone well.  Poland had been defeated in 1939 with Russian forces attacking from the East in addition to the German Army’s advance from the West.  The Battle of the Atlantic had started with unrestricted U-Boat warfare sinking ships bringing vital supplies.  And Stalin’s Soviet Union had also invaded Finland.

In 1940, German armies had conquered all before them, occupying Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland.  The British Expeditionary Force had  been evacuated from Dunkirk. Italy had invaded Greece and then declared war on Britain and France.  Germany & Russia had divided Romania, and Stalin had installed communists in the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.  In November, Hungary signed the Tripartite Pact joining Germany, Italy and the Empire of Japan as  the fourth Axis power.

Britain was now standing alone except for the support of the British Empire, especially Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India.  The RAF had won the Battle of Britain, preventing the Luftwaffe gaining air supremacy which was an absolute necessity for any German invasion of England.  However, Italian forces from their North Africa colony of Libya were now threatening Egypt.

On the Home Front, the bombing of British cities had started in earnest after the Battle of Britain with the Port of London being a significant target.  Halifax surrounded by hills was a difficult and smaller target than   the major ports and cities.  Other locations however were not spared.  For example, on the night of 8/9 April 1941 Coventry was subject to a large air raid when 230 bombers attacked the city, dropping 315 tons of high explosive and 25,000 incendiaries. In this and another raid two nights later on 10/11 April some 451 people were killed and over 700 seriously injured.

The war at sea was still difficult with the U-Boats reeking havoc with merchant shipping.  The largest ship in the Royal Navy H.M.S. Hood was sunk in the North Atlantic in May 1941.  Of her crew of 1418 men, only 3 survived.  Her adversary the Bismarck was sent to the bottom of the sea a few days later.  Out of a crew of over 2,200 men, only 114 German sailors survived.

The fighting in North Africa was inconclusive.  British forces were diverted to Greece and Crete in a vain attempt to prevent the Germans successfully occupying yet another European country.

However, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was broken on June 22 when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia.  By the beginning of December, the German army was within 15 miles of Moscow.

On Sunday December 7 1941 “a day that will live in infamy” Japan made surprise attacks on the US Fleet moored at their Pearl Harbour base in Hawaii and on US Army bases in the Philippines.  Japan formally declared War on the United States and the British Empire.  In support of their Axis partner, Germany and Italy also declared War on the United States.

After more than two full years of war, the fact that Britain was now no longer alone cannot have been much consolation for Halifax residents trying to celebrate Christmas in 1941.

The 1942 New Year brought no good news whatsoever.  Japanese forces were sweeping all before them.  American and Filipino forces at Bataan had been forced to surrender and undertake a Death March.  The British colony of Hong Kong had been captured.  French Indo-China was under the control of the German installed Vichy French Government and therefore co-operating with Japan.  The Kingdom of Siam had no choice but to accept the overlordship of the Japanese Emperor.  British Malaya had been conquered along with Singapore, Borneo, and Sumatra.  Burma was being invaded with the gateway to India under threat. 

Japan’s ambitions stretched much further with the American Pacific island bases of Midway and Guam in their sights, as well as Papua-New Guinea and Australia within reach.  Japan’s Navy appeared to be supreme with the US battleships destroyed and the British warships, H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse sunk by over-whelming Japanese air power.

However, in June the result of the Battle of Midway seriously dented that supremacy.  Fought entirely in the air, four Japanese fleet carriers were sunk as well as the heavy cruiser Mikuma.  The carriers had all been part of the six carrier group which had attacked Pearl Harbour just six months before.  The Americans lost the carrier Yorktown and one destroyer.  Later in the year, the Guadalcanal Campaign began to show that the Japanese were over-extended and could not match the growing build-up of American forces.

The German Army was similarly in trouble.  The intended swift defeat of the Soviet Union had not happened with preparations for the Russian winter, and the logistical problems of maintaining well-supplied forces hardly considered.  The Battle of Stalingrad began on July 17 1942 and ended with the surrender of Field Marshal Paulus and the German Sixth Army on February 2 1943.  Casualties on both sides were huge, exceeding a million Germans and a similar perhaps larger number of Russians.

In North Africa, the German and Italian forces under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel “The Desert Fox” were defeated at the second Battle of El Alamein in November.  Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of the Vichy French territories of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria followed. 

After enduring a siege from June 1940 to November 1942, the British forces on the Mediterranean George Cross island of Malta turned to the offensive and in 164 days sank 230 Axis ships.  By May 1943, all Axis forces in North Africa had surrendered.

Although in four days in March 1943 U-boats sank 27 merchant vessels, the Battle of the Atlantic was ending.  Bletchley codebreakers and long-range aircraft inflicted a serious toll on the U-boats with, from May to August, 120 U-boats being sunk.

In July, the Allied invasion of Sicily began and, within six weeks, the Axis forces had been defeated and preparations could be made for a landing in Italy.  Benito Mussolini was toppled from power and the new Italian Government signed an armistice with the Allies on September 8.  The German reaction was to transfer significant forces from Russia and the Balkans into North and Central Italy, acknowledging that a state of war now existed with Italy.

The need to liberate the nations of Western Europe beginning with an invasion of France was now feasible.  The decision to undertake cross-channel landings in 1944 was taken in Washington in May 1943. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed commander of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, and General Bernard Montgomery was named commander of the 21st Army Group, which comprised all the land forces involved in the operation. The coast of Normandy in North-Western France was chosen as the site of the landings, with the Americans assigned to land at sectors codenamed Utah and Omaha, the British at Sword and Gold, and the Canadians at Juno.

To meet the conditions expected on the Normandy beachhead, special technology was developed, including two artificial ports called Mulberry harbours and an array of specialised tanks nicknamed Hobart’s Funnies. In the months leading up to the landings, a substantial military deception  was undertaken using electronic and visual misinformation to mislead the Germans as to the date and location of the main Allied landings.  Hitler placed Field Marshal Rommel in charge of developing fortifications all along Germany’s proclaimed Atlantic Wall in anticipation of the invasion.

Eisenhower had tentatively selected 5 June as the date for the assault; however, on 4 June, conditions were clearly unsuitable for a landing, as high winds and heavy seas made it impossible to launch landing craft, and low clouds would prevent aircraft from finding their targets.

By the evening of 4 June,  the Allied meteorological team, headed by Group Captain James Stagg of the R.A.F., predicted that the weather would improve sufficiently so that the invasion could go ahead on 6 June.

The operation was thus launched 80 years ago on D-Day 6 June 1944.  A 1,200-plane airborne assault preceded a seaborne landing involving more than 5,000 vessels. Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on 6 June, and more than two million Allied troops were in France by the end of August.

Any reader who has any queries, personnel recollections, items of interest, etc. may contact the Halifax Military History Society – halifaxmilitaryhistory@yahoo.com or The Second World War Experience Centre at Otley whose website is  https://war-experience.org/

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