In Denial: the trial of David Irving v Penguin and Deborah Lipstadt

Remains of the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematorium in November 2008 (Photo: Derek Barry)

The coward only threatens when he feels secure” – Goethe

I recently caught up with an excellent 2016 film Denial. It tells the story of the 2000 court case Hitler apologist and Holocaust denier David Irving brought against Jewish Amerian historian Deborah Lipstadt and her book publisher Penguin for defamation. Scenes from the movie were filmed in Auschwitz in winter and it brought back strong memories of my own cold visit there in late 2008.

Irving lost the case for reasons I’ll get to but there’s a scene near the end where Lipstadt (played with passion by Rachel Weisz) gives a press conference which is even more appropriate in today’s world of rampant conspiracy theories. “Freedom of speech means you can say what you want. What you can’t do is lie and expect not to held accountable for it,” Lipstadt said. “Not all opinions are equal and some things happen just like we say they do. Slavery happened, the Black Death happened, the Earth is round, the icecaps are melting, Elvis is not alive.”

When populist leaders like Donald Trump freely dispense with facts (the fake news he is so fond of is usually something he says or tweets), it means all these incontrovertible “things that happened” are under fire. We are only waiting for some claim that Elvis has re-entered the building.

The Holocaust too is something that today’s Anti-Semites (also retweeted by Trump) still claim did not happen. The difference is the Irving case left a written testimony to history. Though Justice Charles Gray in his judgment said proof of the Holocaust was a task for historians not judges, the case remains some of the strongest written testimony that can be flung at any denialist.

In the 1990s British author David Irving (a spellbinding performance by Timothy Spall) was chief among denialists. Irving claimed to be a genuine historian and there is much original research in his early works from documents not previously visited by historians, such as the Himmler papers in Washington and the Goebbels diaries in Moscow. He assiduously tracked down people such as Hitler’s adjutants or their widows to gain first or second-hand testimony of Hitler’s regime.

There is clearly a strong interest in German texts but the problem was the conclusions he drew. While Irving claimed to be a Hitler historian not a Holocaust historian he painted Hitler as a Jewish sympathiser and in later works broadly dismissed the Holocaust as untrue.

Deborah Lipstadt is a Holocaust historian concerned at the way denial of the Shoah was spreading. Her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory took broad aim at Holocaust deniers in general and Irving in particular. There were barbed references to Irving’s work which she said “misstate, misquote, falsify statistics and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources.”

She attacked several passages in Irving’s Hitler’s War (1991 – Second Edition) and noted than in 1989 the British parliament denounced him as a “Nazi propagandist and long time Hitler apologist”. Lipstadt said Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil revived Irving’s reputation in 1992 hiring him to translate the Goebbels diaries, discovered in a Russian archive. Neil later denounced Irving’s view as “reprehensible” but defended engaging him as a “transcribing technician”. Peter Pulzer, a professor of politics at Oxford and an expert on the Third Reich argued that when you hired someone to edit a set of documents others had not seen, “you took on the whole man”. Lipstadt concluded the paper displayed no journalist ethics in the interest of a journalistic scoop and threw away its task as a gatekeeper of the truth.

If these words were scathing of the Sunday Times they were extremely defamatory to Irving. But rather than take the case in Lipstadt’s native US where he would have had to prove defamatory intent, he went forum shopping and took the case to the London High Court. Under English law defamatory words are presumed to be untrue. The defendants needed to prove the substantial truth of the defamatory imputations, the so-called “sting” of the charges.

Irving conducted his own defence while Lipstadt had Diana-divorce solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott in the movie) and McLibel barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). The defence decided not to call Lipstadt to give evidence nor any survivors from Holocaust. The intent was to starve Irving of the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and put all the focus on his work.

They relied instead on five expert witnesses whose evidence ran into thousands of pages. They were Richard Evans, Cambridge Professor of Modern History who spoke about Irving’s historiography, his exculpation of Hitler and his denial of the Holocaust, Professor Robert Jan van Pelt, an authority on Auschwitz, Christopher Browning, a Tacoma Washington Professor of History who gave evidence about the implementation of the Final Solution, Peter Longerich of the University of London who gave evidence of Hitler’s role in Jewish persecution and Hajo Funke, Berlin Professor of Political Science who spoke of Irving’s association with German neo-Nazi groups.

The film concentrated on Evans and Van Pelt. Van Pelt showed the defence team around Auschwitz, the remains of Crematorium II and the delousing chambers. While the Germans dynamited the crematorium before the Russians captured Auschwitz in January 1945, its general layout was known from the drawings of Jewish inmate David Olere in the final days.

In the delousing chambers, where new arrivals were sprayed with Zyklon B to prevent typhus, they discussed the Leuchter Report. In 1988 German holocaust denier Ernst Zundel paid American Ernest Leuchter (a penitentiaries consultant who gave advice about execution procedures including execution by gas) to smuggle back to the US pieces of brick from the crematoria and gas chambers without permission. Leuchter’s investigation claimed there was not enough cyanide in the delousing walls to kill people. Irving’s second edition of Hitler’s War in 1991 relied heavily on this information and he even wrote the forward to Leuchter’s pseudo-scientific report. Van Pelt argued that was because they were only trying to kill lice in the delousing chambers not people, and there was 20 times that amount of cyanide used in the gas chambers.

Another key point was chimneys in morgue 1 of crematorium 2, which Van Pelt said was the most lethal place in Auschwitz with 500,000 deaths. Irving argued the remains of the roof of that morgue show no sign of the chimneys which, according to the defendants’ case penetrated through the roof to enable Zyklon-B pellets to be tipped into the morgue below.

Irving said that if anyone detected holes in the roof, he would abandon his libel action. He argued the Defendants’ entire case on Krema 2, “the untruth that it was used as a factory of death, with SS guards tipping canisters of cyanide-soaked pellets into the building through those four (non-existent) holes- had caved in, as surely as has that roof”. Or as he put it in his media-friendly soundbite “no holes, no holocaust“. However his theory was easily demolished by engineering analysis, computer analysis of images, and aerial photo analysis which clearly showed the holes in the roof.

There was also the evidence of Sonderkommando Henry Tauber to the Polish Central Commission in 1946. Tauber gave a detailed account of the operation describing dragging gassed corpses from the gas chamber and loading them five at a time onto trucks which ran on rails to the furnaces to be off-loaded. He described the three two-muffle furnaces and said each muffle would take five corpses. The incineration took up to one and a half hours with thin people burning slower than fat people. Van Pelt said Tauber’s testimony was corroborated by the German blueprints of the buildings. Tauber estimated the number of people gassed during his time at Auschwitz (February 1943 to October 1944) was two million people and he extrapolated the total number gassed there at four million.

Evans’ key evidence was over a written phrase “Keine liquidierung”. In late 1941 76,000 Jews still lived in Berlin. Their final removal eastward began after the invasion of the Soviet Union which was accompanied by the mass murder of Soviet Jews by Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi killing squads. On November 30, 1941 head of the SS Heinrich Himmler rang Einsatzgruppen boss Reinhard Heydrich with instructions. The relevant part of Himmler’s note of that conversation reads: “Judentransport aus Berlin. Keine liquidierung”. It translates as “Jew-transport from Berlin. No liquidation. ” Irving put huge weight on this instruction despite the fact a trainload of Jews who arrived in Riga that day were immediately massacred.

Irving said it proved Hitler was protective towards the Jews. He suggested Hitler had rapped Himmler’s knuckles prior to the Heydrich call for wanting to get rid of the Jews in the General Government. He also suggested “Keine liquidierung” had a wider significance than just one trainload of Jews from Berlin. However Evans told the court there was no evidence that Himmler spoke to Hitler that morning. Evans also forced Irving to admit “Judentransporte” in Himmler’s spidery handwriting was not plural and his inference it meant multiple transports was a “silly misreading”. Irving’s book had also omitted “aus Berlin” to bolster the misleading impression the instruction related to Jews from everywhere.

After eight weeks of trial Justice Gray concluded the falsification of the historical record was deliberate and Irving was motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence. “The Defendants have proved the substantial truth of the imputations, most of which relate to Irving’s conduct as an historian,” Gray said. Proved substantially true were “the charges that Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence, he had portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally towards responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.” The defence of justification had succeeded, Gray concluded.

A pilgrimage to Auschwitz

It felt entirely appropriate getting to Auschwitz by train. My slow rattler was taking two hours to get me just 65km from Krakow to the town of Oswiecim. The cold snowy November weather added to the terrible sense of identification I was channelling as the train ploughed through the whitened fields. But it was superficial identification. For one, I had a view – something denied the hundreds of thousands who made the fateful journey in the war years – secondly I was here voluntarily, and thirdly I had a return ticket; again mostly denied those doomed to take this journey in the 1940s.

It seemed shocking such a place could lie in the shadow of beautiful and graceful Krakow. The former capital of Poland remained the centre of the country’s scientific, artistic and cultural life in the middle of the last century. The city also had a flourishing Jewish population. Yet as the capital of the so-called “general government” during the Nazi occupation (with governor-general Hans Frank setting up his headquarters in the city’s imposing Wawel Castle), it made sense for the area to be the centre of Hitler’s plans for a Final Solution to the “Jewish problem”.

The unassuming nearby town of Oswiecim was perhaps an appropriately grisly choice to house a German death camp. Prior to the war, it had a thriving Jewish population of its own – they even formed the majority of the town. They were largely Yiddish speaking who called the town by its German name Auschwitz. The outskirts of the town also held an old Polish brick barracks taken by the Nazis during the invasion in 1939. Initially the Germans were just looking for a place to store political prisoners and about 700 Polish intellectuals and resistance movement members were interned there in June 1940.

But gradually the scope of Auschwitz increased. There were a small number of Jews in the initial shipment, but it didn’t take long for their numbers to increase. Then came other undesirables and enemies of the Reich – the Communists, the disabled, the homosexuals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the “gypsies”. This word gypsy (Zigeuner in German, identified by the letter “Z”) was a pejorative word for a people that in central Europe were known as Sinti and in South East Europe known as Roma. Possibly half a million Sinti and Roma perished in the death camps. The Sinti and Roma exhibition in Auschwitz I is one of the harrowing highlights of the visit.

Above the entrance to the camp is the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”. In 1872 the German novelist Lorenz Diefenbach used the phrase (roughly translated as “work liberates”) as the title of a novel and it was successfully adopted by the 1920s Weimar government to promote their public works program. The Nazis continued to use the phrase in their propaganda program. The commander of Dachau ordered it put on the entrance gate to his concentration camp and it was repeated at Sachsenhausen, Terezin, and most notably, at Auschwitz. Here prisoners walked under the gate, accompanied by the strains of a Jewish orchestra.

But not many Jews had this experience. Auschwitz I was too small to cope with the growing number of prisoners. The Wannsee Conference had authorised the Final Solution and Germany needed a bigger and more efficient camp to process the vast numbers involved. In 1941, they built Auschwitz II in the woods three kilometres away in a place the Poles called Brzezinka and the Germans translated as Birkenau. This was a vast emporium of death. No orchestras here, nor any pretence of “Arbeit Macht Frei”. A tower overlooked the main gate and the railway tracks led straight to the gas ovens at the far end of the camp.

Auschwitz II was a massive operation and the largest of all the Nazi death camps. Most of the killing, torture, and medical experiments took place here. Cattle cars unloaded their cargo and those lucky enough to be selected not to die immediately were sent to one of the camps to work as slave labourers. They merely had their fate postponed to overwork, hunger, sickness and a slow lingering death. The vast majority were sent straight to the gas chambers. Four crematoria fuelled by the hydrogen cyanide insecticide known as Zyklon (Cyclone) B efficiently murdered 20,000 people each day. Evidence of the vast numbers involved is retained in the museum. Behind one glass exhibit are a vast collection of 20,000 pairs of shoes, yet this barely represents one day of gassing. There are also masses of suitcases, spectacles, human hair and other poignant reminders of the daily lives of the millions who died here.

By January 1945, the Red Army were closing in on the camp. Himmler ordered the camp to be destroyed and sent 60,000 survivors on a mid-Winter death march back to the Reich. Only 20,000 survived. Another 7500 too weak to march were left behind at Auschwitz and liberated by the Russians. At least 1.5 million died (other estimates are as high as 5 million) in the camps themselves, the vast majority at Auschwitz II.

(Originally published at the old Woolly Days site in 2008)

The word “Auschwitz” continues to be synonymous with the Shoah as a whole. It remains newsworthy on an almost daily basis. This week for instance, The Scotsman told the story of how educational trips to Auschwitz were saved despite government cutbacks. Meanwhile Germany is pursuing the arrest of Holocaust denier Gerald Frederick Tobin who argued the Auschwitz death camp was too small for the mass murder of Jews to have been carried out there. The Isthmus of Madison, Wisconsin reviewed Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” about the 8-year-old son of a German officer appointed the commandant of the camp, while the LA Times reported the death of 80 year old art dealer Jan Krugier who survived the camp and the subsequent death march.

I spent several absorbing hours of tramping around these sacred grounds then silently took the train back to Krakow thinking about the frailty of human reason.

Why black lives matter in Australia

Like many sympathetic to First Nations rights in Australia, I had doubts about the timing of the Black Lives Matters rally on Saturday. With Australia so far successfully keeping the COVID-19 pandemic at bay, now was the last time we really wanted to encourage large scale gatherings. We wait with nervous interest how the figures look across Australia (and indeed the world) in a couple of weeks time.

Nevertheless I cannot be too critical of those that did march across the land as their cause was a just one. The common criticism of “Black Lives Matters” that all lives matter is a facile one, as protesters understand that. However they also understand as a general rule, that up to now, black lives have not mattered as much as other lives.

It is blatantly apparent in America which gave root to the movement in a land that has never properly dealt with the consequences of 250 years of African slavery, and whose descendants mostly remain on or near the bottom rung of American society. It is also blatantly apparent in Australia where again 250 years of history is spent forgetting how this land changed hands and where First Nations people also are mostly voiceless and at the bottom of our society, by almost any measure you care to choose.

Hence the timing of Saturday’s march was so important. It was an opportunity created in America to shine a major light on Australian problems. These problems are structural and therefore difficult to acknowledge. The response of the federal government’s and The Sunday Mail’s front page preferred to attack the marchers as somehow causing offence to those who have had to cap the numbers at funerals during the pandemic. As fault finding goes, it was a stretch. Even if partially true it was a false comparison as the protests had nothing do to with private funerals, and it served only to stoke outrage among those not involved and focuses the conversation on their anger while ignoring the substance of the issues of those protesting.

It was ever thus when it comes to those pursuing rights of black people in Australia. Their causes and their rights always taken second stage to the needs and rights of the white settler majority who usurped them in their own land. When a black woman, Tarneen Onus-Williams stood up in a 2018 January 26 Invasion Day rally in Melbourne and said “Fuck Australia, I hope it burns to the ground”, the focus of the backlash was on her and her words, not on why she felt the need to so strongly condemn the nation. As Onus-Williams later explained, “I am sick of our people getting locked up and dying in custody, of our young people suiciding.”

These are the issues the commentators ignore as they condemn “Australia haters” and these issues again were at the fore in Saturday’s March. On the same day as the march, an Aboriginal man collapsed and died in custody in Western Australia, adding to the 434 that have died in custody since the 1991 Deaths in Custody report. Indigenous Australians are significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system, often for minor offenses like unpaid fines. Indigenous people comprise less than 3% of the national population but almost 30% of Australian inmates, four times higher than the proportion of African-Americans jailed in the US.

The current system is not working and has never worked for Indigenous people. Yet government after government persist in the same policy in the hope the situation somehow improves but instead heaping failure upon failure in ways deeply damaging to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is, as writer Sarah Addison says in her important book Why White Australia Can’t Solve Black Problems, a “colonial fantasy”.

This fantasy insists that any violence done to First Nations was done in an unfortunate but inevitable chapter of a long-ago history. It ignores the truth across the land that settler people came here to take the land for themselves by whatever means they could. The central premise was to eliminate and replace Indigenous societies and only the inconvenient survival of First Nations people has frustrated the completion of the colonial project.

Despite landmark occasions such as the 1967 Referendum, the 1993 Mabo decision, 2000 Bridge Walk and 2008 Stolen Generations apology, things are getting worse, not better. Each of these expressions of hope were trounced by the underlying need to complete colonialism, You only have to look at the destruction of the Juukan Gorge cave, a 46,000 year old traditional site blasted by Rio Tinto in May to expand an iron ore mine, to see how that manifests itself in the 21st century.

Recent history is littered with shameful deaths. On Australia day 2008, in WA Ngaanyatjarra elder, Mr Ward was left to cook to death when he was thrown in a prison van for four hours where temperatures reached 56 degrees. Indigenous woman Ms Dhu was subjected to “unprofessional and inhumane” treatment by Western Australian police “well below the standards that should ordinarily be expected” before her death in custody in 2014. In 2017, Aboriginal woman Tanya Day died when she sustained a head injury in a police cell, after police detained her for public drunkenness. In 2019 a police officer was charged with murder in relation to the shooting of a 19-year-old indigenous man in Yuendumu, Northern Territory. In September, police shot dead a 29-year-old indigenous woman in Geraldton, Western Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders issued the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” in May 2017, but their recommendations to establish a First Nations voice in the constitution and a truth and justice commission have not been implemented. First Nations nations people wanted more jurisdiction over their own affairs but instead Indigenous policy has gone in the opposite direction, exerting ever more heavy-handed controls over people and communities despite all evidence that it is failing miserably.

Even the recent response to the COVID-19 pandemic showed how rusted on the problem was. During his speech on March 31 announcing lockdowns, Prime Minister Scott Morrison described who was most vulnerable. “People aged 70 and over should stay at home and self-isolate for their own protection to the maximum extent practicable,” he said. “These arrangements should also apply to those with chronic illness over 60 and Indigenous persons over the age of 50.” He was right but there was no discussion, then or since, as to why it was acceptable that Indigenous people died 20 years younger than the rest of us.

And now that places like Queensland are coming out of restrictions, they remain in place for Indigenous communities. While again this is done for health reasons, it full of glaring anomalies. Last week I spoke to a furious Doomadgee Gangalidda elder Barry Walden. The designated biosecurity areas were declared by the federal government under the Biosecurity Act 2015 and Walden and his people cannot move freely in and out of his community while many white workers deemed essential can and do come and go. Walden says this defeats the purpose of the lockdown as these outsiders could potentially spread the virus in the community, making it seem just like a racist application of law and harking back to colonial era laws which restricted the movement of Aboriginal people. “This is a fine opportunity for governments to do whatever they please on Aboriginal lands,” Walden told me. “They are locking us up like dogs.”

So what then if people feel the need to march because Black Lives Matter. Who are we to tell them we can’t? We’ve been telling them what to do since 1788 and it’s not working. Let’s try something else. A proper response to the Uluru Statement would be a good place to start.

Remembering D-Day

American troops land on Omaha Beach on D-Day.

These days when people think of D-Day, chances are they are thinking of first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Those scenes are on Dog Green Sector Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the landing areas and the film does not spare the viewer from the terrible bloodshed of the day. I saw the movie at the cinema when it came out and was physically exhausted by the end of that sequence. It likely happened the way Spielberg showed but in reality it was just a small snapshot of an enormous undertaking – one tiny section of one beach in the largest military invasion in history.

The liberation of western Europe from the Nazis was the Allied goal ever since the Dunkirk evacuation of May 1940. By 1942 the tide was turning after Allied victories at Stalingrad and El Alamein and the American entry to the war. The little remembered Canadian-led 1942 Dieppe Raid was disastrous but its lessons (and those of the Sicily and Italy landings in 1943) were absorbed. With the Russians winning in the east but pushing for a second front, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force was finally ready to strike in 1944.

The Germans knew the invasion was coming but the Allies kept them guessing whether it would land at the Cotentin Peninsula, the Pas de Calais or Normandy beaches. Cotentin had the strategic port of Cherbourg but its geographical shape meant any invading force could be hemmed in. Pas de Calais was most obvious choice as the shortest Channel crossing and the closest route to Berlin. Even after the Germans heard what was happening they still thought it was a diversion to a Calais landing.

But SHAEF had plumped for the 50km stretch of Normandy’s wide open beaches. Now 7000 vessels carried 350,000 soldiers and sailors in the long haul across the channel. Some 850,000 German soldiers of the 15th Army led by Erwin Rommel lay in wait behind the formidable Atlantic Wall. But Rommel himself was missing. The weather was so atrocious around D-Day he assumed the Allies would not attempt a landing and rushed off to Germany for his wife’s birthday.

Operation Overlord indeed depended on good weather and it was awful in the days leading up with heavy rain and gale force winds. But meteorological officers convinced Eisenhower there was a window of opportunity when an eastward front across the Atlantic would bring clear skies and calm seas on Tuesday, June 6, 1944. The day was lucky as it needed to be a full moon and a high tide to land. The plan called for the invasion of five beaches 50km along the Normandy coastline from east to west Sword (British), Juno (Canadian), Gold (British), Omaha (US) and Utah (US). Airborne forces would capture key bridges and knock out others with the help of the Resistance. The ambitious plan was to capture Caen and Bayeux by mid-afternoon of D-Day and cut off Cherbourg.

The airborne invasion began first. In the middle of Monday night gliders landed thousands of soldiers scattered across the Normandy landscape. A key objective was the capture of Sainte-Mere-Eglise a tiny market town 8km from Utah on the main road that linked Cherbourg with Paris. Buildings burning in town illuminated the sky allowing defenders to easily pick off the invaders as they descended. But the Germans panicked at the number of landings and withdrew, allowing Lt. Colonel Edward Krause’s 505th Parachute Infanty Regiment take Sainte-Mere-Eglise at 5am, the first French settlement to be liberated on D-Day. They had to hold it till the sea invaders joined them later in the day.

Battalion commander Benjamin Vandervoort (played by John Wayne in the other famous D-Day movie The Longest Day) broke his ankle in a crash landing and commandeer an army cart to secure the northern approaches to Saint-Mere-Eglise. British paratroopers concentrated on Merville Battery, situated close to Sword Beach which they captured easily though it was not as formidable as they feared. News of the airborne assault reached Nazi Supreme High Command in Bavaria at 4am with a request to release two reserve SS Panzer Divisions, which only the sleeping Hitler could grant. Officers refused to wake the heavily sedated Fuhrer.

Coded messages on the BBC alerted the Resistance to the invasion. German code breakers worked it out too, but again Berlin had difficulty accepting it was really on. The sea landing was planned for 5am following an aerial bombardment. Heavily populated areas inland were not considered in this plan and 3000 civilians died in next 48 hours. When bombs were not hitting homes, they went off harmlessly in cliff-top pastureland to avoid hitting shorebound infantry sparing the defensive wall.

The exact landing time differed from beach to beach depending on the time of high tide. At 6.30am soldiers landed at Utah Beach and ran 360m past minefields up the sand to reach the sea walls while supporting amphibious tanks were stuck in heavy swells. Led by Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, the highest ranking officer in the first wave and son of president Theodore, the men were landed a mile away from their intended targets due to rough sea conditions. With their training targets out of reach, they improvised and attacked what they found.

It was worse at nearby Omaha Beach which faced the stiffest resistance. The A Company was known as the “suicide wave” as the first scheduled to land though its carefree teenagers all expected to survive. Their jokes and banter ended abruptly as they prepared to leave landing crafts and noticed the bombardment from the ships had overshot their targets (it also left no bomb craters on the beach to hide in). Their mood was not helped by tanks crafts supposed to have landed ahead of them stuck in the water.

They disembarked in good order with no gunfire but as soon as they hit the exposed beach, Germans opened murderous fire. They fired in short bursts aiming 15-20 cms above the ground. “It was so easy to kill, it took so little energy,” one German defender said. With its leaders dead, A Company ceased to assault and the remaining rabble became a rescue party bent on survival. When the second wave arrived, they were shot down as soon as the landing ramp opened. Fountains of sand were kicked up by explosions. There were “men with guts hanging out of their wounds and body parts lying along our path”, one said. Though most were killed, a handful reached the sea wall and they had to scale the bluffs and attack the strongholds.

Between Omaha and Utah beaches lay the forbidding cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. On top lay six 155mm cannons that could lob shells 25,000 metres and hit both beaches. The US Army Ranger Assault Group had to knock it out. The Germans fortified the land side believing the 30m vertical cliffs made it impregnable from the sea. Lt Col James Rudder believed it could be done using grapnels, ropes and ladders. He brought a bunch of misfits (prototype of another war film The Dirty Dozen) with him who trained at the Needles cliffs on the Isle of Wight under live fire.

Their task was made harder when their crafts could not land on the shingle beaches ruling out their 25m extending ladder. One of Rudder’s men swung on a smaller ladder, shooting with his machine gun before swaying back to land. They climbed up the cliffs using ropes and steel grapnels fired into the cliffs from rocket guns while the Germans above cut the ropes. They fought firefights at the top only to find the gun placements empty. They eventually found them hidden nearby and destroyed them with grenades.

Gold Beach offered its own problems. It was 15km long but its western end had crumbling cliffs unsuitable for tanks and jeeps while jutting offshore reefs were a hazard. Rommel fortified the only landing spot between Le Hamel and La Riviere with machine gun nests, bunkers and underground mines. It was the treacherous job of frogmen, ferried to the beach at 4am, to disarm the mines before soldiers arrived. They strapped explosive charges to each mine allowing the aerial bombardment to create a safe passage ashore.

The Canadians landed at nearby Juno Beach amid a screeching gale and freezing spray. The inhabitants of nearby Bernieres were about to be plunged into war, with most ignoring the BBC directive to move away from the coast. When the first tank commander arrived in town he approached a local with gun in hand, asking him was he German. “No, I’m not Boche, but you’re speaking French,” the man said. “Oui, we are French Canadians,” the commander replied, offering chocolates and cigarettes.

The incongruities continued on Sword Beach where Brigadier Simon Christopher Joseph Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, known by his men as “the mad bastard”, insisted his piper Bill Millin play a tune (Road to the Isles) as they landed amid shellfire and mortar explosions. When Millin continued playing on the beach, his sergeant reproached him. “What are you fucking playing at, you’re attracting all the German attention.” Millin learned later from two captured Germans they didn’t shoot him because they couldn’t believe their eyes what this dummkopf was doing. Lovat pushed on under heavy fire to link up with a beleaguered force at Benouville (Pegasus) and Ranville Bridges.

Watching the carnage from the bridge of USS Augusta was General Omar Bradley. Omaha was the biggest concern with hundreds of landing crafts stuck at sea because the beach was so full of junk. He considered abandoning the beach but instead made the inspired move of sending brigadier general Norman Cota and colonel Charles Canham to save the landing. They arrived on Omaha in the same landing craft narrowly avoiding death when a mine they hit failed to detonate.

What happened next was the start of Saving Private Ryan. Canham charged up the beach shouting at officers to get out of the pillboxes they were taking cover in and Cota joined him at the sea wall. The Germans were targetting the wall with mortars. Cota supervised the firing of a tubed Bangalore torpedo to blast a gap and he was the first man through alive under a cloud of smoke. Texas Rangers blew more gaps in the barbed wire and began advancing to the bluffs. Canham was wounded but established a command post at the foot of the bluff. The Rangers scrambled up the bluffs taking out machine guns and hidden bunkers. Cota and Canham broke the stalemate and accepted the first German surrenders. They also brought a dozen radio operators who contacted the USS Harding offshore to send accurate fire to the church steeple in Vierville to take out dangerous snipers.

Lovat’s men also dodged snipers as they closed in on Benouville Bridge defended by John Howard’s paratroopers. Howard’s exhausted troops lost communication and had no idea how Sword was going 8km away. The Germans ideally wanted to recapture the bridge but blowing it up would stymie the Allied advance too. They brought up a gunboat which Howard destroyed with morters. Then a lone low flying Dornier aeroplane bombed it, but the bomb hit the superstructure, bounced off a metal girder and splashed harmlessly into the canal. German snipers closed in but were no match for one of Howard’s men with an anti-tank gun.

Five commandos were first to arrive from Sword on bicycles, dodging the snipers. But their low-key arrival was outdone by the showy Lovat a few minutes later. Again he had Millin pipe them (playing Blue Bonnets over the Border) through mortar fire and flaming houses. When Lovat met Howard he looked at his watch and said “sorry, we are two and a half minutes late”. “About bloody time,” Howard replied with a grin.

Omaha was well behind schedule although soldiers were moving inland on the other four beaches. American paratroopers around Utah were rebuffing German counter-attacks including a surprise attack on Neuville-au-Plain near Saint-Mere-Eglise to stop the western landing zone. At 1.30pm 56 Allied Liberator bombers targetted Caen’s roads and railways with 156 tonnes of explosives. That morning the Allies dropped leaflets exhorting people to leave their homes but few took the warning seriously. Most of its 60,000 citizens were trapped in the bombardment. In 20 minutes the town was destroyed and many civilians were dead. It was another 33 days before the city was liberated.

By mid afternoon Lovat linked up with Howard, the Juno Canadians had taken Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer and the British at Gold were tackling Le Hamel. Utah Beach suffered only 200 deaths – a fraction of the 749 that accidentally died in the live ammunition rehearsal in Exercise Tiger in Devon. The race was on to retain Sainte-Mere-Eglise which they and the Germans knew was a vital transport link. The paratroopers were greatly outnumbered but Vandervoort’s men grimly defended the northern road as a German battalion arrived. Forces from Utah were stuck in battle at Neuville. The Germans taunted the paratroopers as they retreated to the centre of town, but the Americans had done their job and held on with the support of tanks from the beach.

Battlefield doctor Treadwell Ireland arrived on Omaha on the same boat as Ernest Hemingway. Ireland noted Hemingway was the only one in a trench coat and the only one with binoculars, “which everyone else has got rid of so German snipers wouldn’t think you were important”. Surgery was impossible while the soldiers were pinned on the beach but they eventually set up a makeshift infirmary at a bunker with only morphine, plasma, dressings and penicillin to deal with obscene injuries. A lone Messerschmidt dropped a bomb at the entrance knocking Ireland off his feet but in a ward overflowing with casualties carried down from the cliffs covered in wounds and summer flies, he had no time to consider his own misfortune. “The pillbox became the focal point of all the suffering on the invasion beach,” he said.

Up above, Cota’s men captured Vierville but as they approached the coastal road they ran into the trouble that plagued the Allies for weeks to come. Normandy’s bocage terrain with a landscape of submerged lanes and tangled hedgerows were ideal for holes the Germans dug for machine gun nests and fighting positions. When Cota came forward smoking a cigar to find out why the hold-up, he hissed at his men, “there aren’t any snipers here” only for a shot to barely miss his head. “Well, maybe there are!” he said. They dug in for the evening creating the outermost frontier of Omaha beachhead on D-Day.

Meanwhile, two portable Mulberry Harbours were being towed in sections across the Channel. These were needed to land the one million troops waiting to get to France as well as massive amounts of supplies, weapons and tanks. The first was to land at Omaha, the second at Arromanches west of Gold. But Arromanches had to be captured first. The town along with Bayeux and the road to Caen was one of three main targets for soldiers from Gold.

The German strategy was for the 20th Panzer Division exploit the weak link of an 6km gap between Sword and Juno. Colonel Hermann von Oppoln-Bronikowski knew speed was critcal and was frustrated by the delay in orders from Supreme Command. When orders did come through, they were conflicting. He was initially directed towards Benouville Bridge only to be countermanded and ordered north to wedge Sword and Juno. He attacked via Caen which he noted was a “complete shambles”. They crossed the river Orne between bomb attacks. They were headed to the high ground at Periers but the Staffordshire Yeomanry lay in wait. British anti-tank fire soon found its mark and Oppoln-Bronikowski knew he was outnumbered and outgunned and the attack ground to a halt. Germany’s last hope of pushing the invasion back into the sea ended.

As twilight descended on D-Day the inimitable Lovat was handed the task of taking the hilly ground beyond the Orne to cordon the left flank of the beachhead and prevent a German advance west during the night. They were helped by a second wave of airborne paratroopers, 250 gliders carrying 2000 men plus a vast quantity of ammunition, mortars, jeeps and armoured cars. One of the biggest carried 17,500 pounds of petrol for the tanks. Deathly tired invaders cheered at the sight before snatching some desperate sleep.

Erwin Rommel immediately rushed back to Normandy on hearing of the invasion. Contemplating the end he cursed the slowness of the orders of the Panzer division and lack of Luftwaffe support. Others remembered his words of a few months earlier. “If we don’t throw them back in the sea within the first 24 hours we are lost. When this happens, the day will be the longest day and perhaps the final day.”

At the end of D-Day, the Allies had not achieved their larger objectives – only Gold and Juno had linked up and Bayeux and Caen remained in German hands – but the 11,000 invaders who were killed that day (8200 in the American sector alone) did not die in vain. The beachhead was small but allowed the influx of huge quantities of men and machines in the coming days. In three weeks there were 850,000 Allied troops in France. They were needed. It took 11 weeks to take Normandy in ferocious fighting. Paris was liberated on August 25 and it took six more months to cross the Rhein. In all it took 335 days for the war to end after D-Day. But Rommel, then a long dead suicide for his supposed role in the Hitler assassination plot, was proved right. It was not the final day, but the longest day made all the difference.