What Happened on the Eve of D-Day?

On June 5, 1944, the night of what was supposed to be D-Day, the five massive fleets heading for the French coast suddenly stopped and turned around—but why? 

Giles Milton
7-minute read
Episode #77

Who was Howard Vander Beek? And what happened to him on the night before D-Day? Well, it turns out that his quick thinking saved the lives of no fewer than 21,000 men.

Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. Today we're talking about a young American captain who was destined to play a vital role in the beach landings on June 6, 1944.

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D-Day was the biggest seaborne invasion in the history of warfare: five massive fleets, one for each of the five invasion beaches: Force U for Utah Beach, Force O for Omaha, Force J for Juno, Force G for Gold, and Force S for Sword.

Each of these armadas had to be led by someone capable. It was a unique responsibility; one mistake and the entire fleet could be led into one of the many minefields that had been laid all along the French coast.

At the front of Force U—destined for Utah Beach—was Howard Vander Beek, a strong- jawed, white-toothed 27-year-old from Oskaloosa, Iowa.

His wave of blond hair and sharply knotted tie lent an Ivy League preppiness to his nautical dress—at least it did when he was on dry land. But he had now been at sea for many hours and his hair was sluiced with salt and his necktie sodden and listing.

One mistake and the entire fleet could be led into one of the many minefields that had been laid all along the French coast.

His job was to sail in the vanguard of Force U, a fleet that consisted of 865 vessels that included battleships, destroyers, and frigates. They had sailed from their anchorages spread throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland—at Belfast, Plymouth, Torbay, Weymouth, and Dartmouth—and then grouped together in the English Channel.

Vander Beek’s responsibility was onerous for someone so young, yet his position at the vanguard of this armada was just one of his duties.

Once the fleet had arrived at its anchorage off Utah Beach, he had to guide the hundreds of little landing crafts to the shore, leading them to the exact spot where the men would begin their invasion. One slip, one mistake, and disaster could ensue—for if the men were landed at the wrong place, the long months of training would all have been in vain.

Such an important mission required a special ship and Vander Beek’s craft, LCC 60, was exactly that. She was a control vessel powered by two 255 horsepower engines that enabled her to cruise at fourteen knots. Just 56 feet long and little wider than a London bus, her below-decks space was crammed with weaponry and nautical equipment.

The role entrusted to Vander Beek and his men was so important that it had been kept under wraps. This secrecy had engendered a close camaraderie among the crew. "Solid kinship" was how Vander Beek saw it. He and his men shared opinions in the same way they shared their food.

And now, as the Channel gale flung "raw salt spray" into their eyes, they were all sharing the same thought: that this was the worst possible night for launching the largest seaborne invasion in history.

The weather was not the only reason for their anxiety. Something unsettling had happened a week earlier, something so alarming that it was still preying on their minds. It had taken place one evening when they tuned into Axis Sally, an American broadcaster producing propaganda for the Nazis.

Axis Sally was popular with the crew, even though a traitor to her country, because she played the latest American hits. But on this particular evening the music was to strike a discordant note. She had just played "As Time Goes By" when, to Vander Beek’s astonishment, she addressed him and his men directly.

"Tonight I want to talk seriously with Sims [Gauthier] and Howard [Vander Beek] and their crew over in Plymouth."

The men could scarcely believe their ears. "You are sitting there thinking that you will soon be in on an invasion of this mighty continent," she said. "Your stupid leaders are making plans to force you to sacrifice your lives to do it. This is a huge fortress, and if you come near it, all of you will die violent deaths." She suggested it would be better for them to go back to their loved ones in the United States "while you still can."

Axis Sally’s comments left the men with a deep sense of disquiet. Not only did she know their names, but she also knew all about their secret vessel. She described the boat, outlined its function, and even discussed the men’s recent activities, down to "the scraping and painting the crewmen had done that very Saturday afternoon." They listened "in frozen silence," mystified as to how she could know such things.


About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.