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

They got their answer soon afterwards. Two of the crew recalled chatting to "a friendly old British couple" while they had been scraping down the hull. The couple had heaped praise on the Americans and then asked a number of detailed questions. Seduced by the couple’s smiles, the men had been happy to provide answers.

It was clear that Axis Sally could only have received her information from this seemingly benign pair of pensioners. Vander Beek realized that they had been "able to garner all they wanted to know about us in order to transmit it by wireless for Sally’s use that evening. Well trained and cleverly disguised, they had been Nazi spies." He never discovered whether or not the authorities arrested the couple. Even if they had, the damage had been done. The element of surprise, so crucial to the invasion, seemed to have been lost.

Howard Vander Beek’s Force U had been the first of the five fleets to set sail from England, for the simple reason that Utah Beach was significantly further than the other beaches. D-Day had originally been scheduled for 5th June, which meant that they had set sail on the night of the 3rd.

It was most definitely not the weather to launch the greatest invasion in history.

But there was a problem, as Howard Vander Beek knew all too well. The weather in the English Channel was terrible. The wind was blowing a gale and the sea was, as Vander Beek put it, "abusively choppy." It was most definitely not the weather to launch the greatest invasion in history.

He was not alone in thinking that the invasion was doomed to fail in such weather. Following closely behind his control craft was USS Corry, a big-gunned destroyer with a top speed of almost 40 knots.

She formed part of the mighty armada, Force U, that was heading for Utah Beach.

USS Corry was well equipped to deal with anything that the German shore batteries might hurl at her. Yet an atmosphere of collective doubt had pervaded the vessel ever since she left harbour.

The storm in the channel only added to their woes. Gone was the laughter and devil-may-care attitude of the previous days. Gone were the jokes and the sense of unreality felt by many who took part in D-Day. To those on board USS Corry, it felt as if there were a dark spell hanging over the ship.

When the vessel’s radio operator, Bennie Glisson, had descended into the mess hall for his dinner that evening, he found it "as silent as a tomb."

He turned to his shipmates and attempted to lighten the atmosphere. "You guys act like you’re eating your last meal." No one laughed, nor even looked up, so he ate his turkey dinner in silence. The usual banter had been replaced by an all-pervading gloom that was "comparative to a funeral crossing."

The loss of morale had taken hold on the previous evening, when the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander George Hoffman, gathered the crew on deck for a pre-sailing pep talk. Instead of lifting their spirits with a rousing call to arms, he warned them of the terrible dangers that lay ahead and concluded by saying that each and every one of them was "expendable." 

It was an unfortunate choice of vocabulary. One of Benny Glisson’s fellow radio operators, Lloyd "Red" Brantley, felt the optimism vanish in a flash. "People were kind of in shock."  

Despite the gloom, USS Corry ploughed on through the night—one of the 865 ships of Force U. It was stifling down in the bowels of the ship and the only noise was the throaty hum of the engines. There had been radio silence for hours, as all the ships were maintaining a blackout.

But shortly before dawn, "all of a sudden," three digits flashed over the system. Lloyd Brantley, the radio operator, looked at his code sheet and blinked in astonishment. "Oh my God!"...


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.