In the dawn hours off Normandy beaches in northern France 75 years ago, the greatest armada in human history was gathered. There were some 6000 ships, large and small, a few commanded by Australian sailors.
Among them was Lieutenant Commander George Dixon, in charge of a Royal Navy tank landing ship, who may have had cause to think back to his first arrival at a hostile shore.
That was April 25 1915, when as a 15-year-old Anzac, he dashed ashore on Gallipoli.
Dickson survived D-Day.
Sub-Lieutenant Richard Pirrie of Melbourne didn’t. He commanded a landing craft in the extremely dangerous task of sailing close in to direct naval gunfire at shore defences. He died when his vessel was blown up by a German shell.
Before leaving Australia, he played three games with Hawthorn Football Club. June 6 1944 was his 24th birthday.
Then there was Tasmanian Lieutenant Kenneth Hudspeth, who commanded midget submarine X-20 which, along with X-23, surfaced off the invasion beaches to serve as a beacon for approaching landing craft.
Hudspeth had been there before. In January he delivered commandos who crept ashore to assess beach suitability for armoured vehicles.
For those two missions, plus an earlier mission attacking German warships in Norwegian fjords, Hudspeth was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and two bars. That means he was awarded the DSC, second only to the Victoria Cross, three times.
D-Day was the largest amphibious operation in human history, involving more than 300,000 sailors and soldiers from 14 nations, landing on five beaches on France’s craggy Normandy coast.
Just under a year later, the war in Europe was over as allied forces from the west and Soviet forces from the east overwhelmed Nazi Germany.
D-Day was more than three years in the planning.
With most of its forces fighting Japan in the Pacific, Australia was a relatively minor contributor to D-Day when compared with the big players, the US, Britain and Canada.
Australian War Memorial senior historian Dr Lachlan Grant said some 3300 Australians took part, the majority, around 2500 pilots and aircrew.
No Australian army units participated; they were all in the Pacific. But some 13 Australians were attached to British army units to take the lessons home for future Australian amphibious operations in the Pacific.
From the outbreak of war, young Australians had volunteered to fly and fight against Germany, with many training in Canada then posting to flying units in Britain.
Through the war, Australians in Europe served in more than 200 RAF squadrons, as well as in 10 nominally Australian squadrons.
On D-Day, Australians flew in fighters conducting ground attack missions and in bombers attacking German defences. Australians also flew in transport aircraft dropping British paratroopers and towing gliders full of air landing troops.
Of the 13 Australians killed on D-Day, 11 were aircrew.
“We know casualties were really high for the Australians throughout the campaign. June 1944 was the worst month for casualties for the RAAF for the whole of the war. July 1944 was one of the highest,” Dr Grant said.
Despite some optimistic predictions, German forces fought back vigorously and the campaign begun on D-Day didn’t end until August.
At that time, more than 10,000 Australian aircrew were in Britain’s RAF reserve pool and as the campaign proceeded, more were assigned to operational squadrons.
Throughout the Normandy campaign, the air war was waged relentlessly.
Those flying Spitfires and Typhoons participated in highly effective but perilous ground attack missions, conducted at low level and in daylight. Bombers attacked strongly defended German positions.
On June 7, RAAF Flight Sergeant Stanley Black bailed out of a RAF Lancaster bomber, shot down near the French city of Caen.
He linked up with paratroopers of the US 82nd Airborne Division in the town of Graignes, fighting alongside them against an attack by a German SS division. Black’s fate isn’t clear – he may have died in the fighting or in the aftermath when German troops murdered 17 wounded soldiers and 44 French civilians.
The D-Day campaign was overwhelmingly fought by men on both sides but there were some women. One was Australian Olive Sherrington, one of the first allied women into France when she drove a truck off a landing craft soon after D-Day.
At the outbreak of war, she had enlisted as a driver in the British Mechanised Transport Corps, serving with an ambulance unit in the 1940 Battle of France.
She’s regarded as one of the last British women out of France following the fall of Dunkirk, and was cited for her bravery and fortitude in evacuating 13 British wounded.
Major D-Day commemorations will be conducted in Europe. Australia’s participation will be remembered with an exhibition at the Australian War Memorial.
As well, Australians killed in the Normandy Campaign will be remembered in the Memorial’s Last Post Ceremony, conducted every afternoon to recount the life, service and death of an individual serviceman or woman.
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