On 6 June 1944, over 156,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. ‘D-Day’ was the culmination of years of planning, opening a second front against Nazi Germany and ultimately paving the way for the liberation of Europe.
Films such as Saving Private Ryan portray the bloodshed and destruction American forces faced at Omaha Beach, but that only tells part of the story of D-Day. Over 60,000 British soldiers landed on D-Day on two beaches, codenamed Gold and Sword, and every regiment, every battalion, every soldier had their story to tell.
These stories may not be the subject of Hollywood blockbusters, but one regiment in particular, the Green Howards, can claim a special place in D-Day’s history. Landing on Gold Beach, their 6th and 7th battalions advanced the furthest inland of any British or American forces, and their 6th battalion can lay claim to the only Victoria Cross awarded on D-Day, Britain’s highest award for military gallantry.
This is the story of their D-Day.
Who were the Green Howards?
Founded in 1688, the Green Howards – officially the Green Howards (Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment) – had a long and illustrious military history. Its battle honours include the Wars of Spanish and Austrian Succession, the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, the Boer War, and the two World Wars.
The Green Howards were involved in numerous World War Two campaigns. They fought in France in 1940. They fought across North Africa, including at El Alamein, a key turning point of the war. They also took part in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, whilst their 2nd battalion fought in Burma.
By 1944, the Green Howards were battle-hardened, knew their enemy and were ready to play their part in liberating France.
Preparing for D-Day
The stakes were enormously high for D-Day. Detailed aerial reconnaissance meant Allied planners had a good understanding of German defenses in the area. The regiment spent months training for the invasion, practicing amphibious landings. They did not know when they would be called upon, or where in France they would be going.
The famed General Bernard Montgomery, ‘Monty’ to his troops, personally selected the 50th Infantry Division – which included the 6th and 7th battalions of the Green Howards – to lead the assault on Gold. Montgomery wanted battle-hardened men who he could rely on to secure a quick victory; the Green Howards fitted the bill.
However, fighting across North Africa and Sicily had depleted their ranks. For many new recruits, men like 18-year-old Ken Cooke, this was to be their first experience of combat.
The return to France
The Green Howards’ objective on D-Day was to push inland from Gold Beach, securing land from Bayeux in the west to St Leger in the East, a key communication and transport route linking to Caen. To do so meant advancing several miles inland through villages, exposed farmland, and dense ‘bocage’ (woodland). This terrain was unlike anything faced in North Africa or Italy.
The German defenses overlooking Gold were not as strong as in other parts of the ‘Atlantic Wall’, but they had hurriedly constructed more coastal batteries – Widerstandsnests – in preparation for an Allied invasion, including Widerstandsnest 35A, overlooking the Green Howards’ section of Gold Beach. The Green Howards also had to deal with a range of other defensive obstacles: the beach was defended by machine gun pillboxes, whilst the land behind was marshy and heavily mined.
Crucially, there were only two tracks up to Ver-sur-Mer, their first objective, which sat on a hill overlooking the beach. These tracks had to be taken. Clearly, the landings would not be an easy task.
As dawn broke on 6 June, the sea was rough, and men suffered acutely from seasickness in their landing craft. Their journey onto the beach was wrought with danger. An Allied naval bombardment aiming to destroy the German coastal defenses had not been entirely effective, and the Green Howards lost a number of landing craft either to sea mines or artillery fire. Others were accidentally dropped off into deep water and drowned under the weight of their kit.
For those who did make it ashore, their first task was getting off the beach. Were it not for the brave actions of men like Captain Frederick Honeyman, who in the face of stiff opposition led a charge over the sea wall, or Major Ronald Lofthouse, who with his men secured the route off the beach, British forces at Gold Beach would have suffered many more casualties.
Getting off the beaches was just the start. It cannot be understated just how impressive their advance was that day: by night-time they had progressed around 7 miles inland, the furthest of any British or American units. They fought through narrow French streets, in the knowledge that snipers or German reinforcements could be around any corner.
They pushed through their objectives – settlements such as Crepon (where they faced heavy resistance), Villers-le-Sec, Creully and Coulombs – and neutralised enemy battery positions, making it safer for later waves of troops to land on the beaches. Though not achieving their final objective of securing all the way from Bayeux to St Leger, the Green Howards did come incredibly close. In doing so, they lost 180 men.
One extraordinary man, and one extraordinary regiment
The Green Howards can boast the only Victoria Cross awarded for actions on D-Day. Its recipient, Company Sergeant-Major Stan Hollis, demonstrated his bravery and initiative on numerous occasions throughout the day.
Firstly, he took a machine-gun pillbox single-handedly, killing several Germans and taking others prisoner. This pillbox had been mistakenly bypassed by other advancing troops; were it not for Hollis’ actions, the machine gun could have seriously hindered the British advance.
Later, in Crepon and under heavy fire, he rescued two of his men who had been left behind following an attack on a German field gun. In doing so, Hollis – to quote his VC commendation – “displayed the utmost gallantry… It was largely through his heroism and resource that the Company’s objectives were gained and the casualties were not heavier”.
Today, the Green Howards are commemorated with a war memorial in Crepon. The pensive soldier, holding his helmet and gun, sits above a stone plinth bearing the inscription “Remember the 6th June 1944”. Behind him are inscribed the names of those Green Howards who died liberating Normandy.