Small Wars Journal

Good Vibrations

Sun, 06/03/2018 - 11:59am

Good Vibrations

Keith Nightingale


D-Day Map by Emerson Kent

The Normandy invasion is usually depicted with great crashes, bangs and volcanic energy combined with broad scenes of masses of material and manpower.  But we should remember and reflect that the invasion began with subtle sounds and vibrations and brought the message of liberation to Europe on cat’s paws growing to crescendo.  We remember and depict the crescendos but forget the subtlety of sounds that brought it all together.

It began on the late evening of the 4th of June in several of the western ports of the UK.  These held the derelict hulks designated to be the breakwaters for the Mulberry harbors at Omaha and Sword Beaches.  They were pulled by ex-commercial tugs manned almost exclusively by civilians as were the wooden minesweepers-more than 250-exceeding today’s total surface combatants of the US Navy.  As the slowest of all vessels, these had to precede the vast armada restlessly waiting in more than 150 ports of England. It was a quiet throbbing vibration of engines lost in the Force 3 and Force 4 winds and waves of the moment.  But it was the first and the baseline for the rest.


Mulberry Harbor by SkyView D- Day Mulberry Harbour Aerial Photo-Northern France

By the morning of the 5th, many of the slower transports, attack transports, larger landing craft and rhino ferries began their slog to sea.  They had just returned to ports on the initial postponement and in less than 24 hours returned to their original routing.  Steam turbines, diesel engines and a vast array-more than 4,000 ships and craft-now began to inch out of the many coastal ports filled to capacity into the penetrating wind.  They covered the design gamut from huge square concrete caissons for Mulberry to the sleekest of capitol ships. Their vibrations, now so collectively blown across the ports, were not lost on the population.  These small sounds, by their diversity and number, signaled something special was occurring.  The seaside village populations, essentially sequestered by law for the pre-invasion period, still enjoyed their access to some pubs and shops as a continuance to their restricted daily routine. Within the buildings, the occupants felt more than heard the motions, stopped their drinking and conversations and looked out the windows.  Despite the spitting rain and driving winds, they collectively understood what those vibrations and dull sounds meant.  Many went home and with their families, lined the streets and the quays and waved a forced cheery goodbye to the last loading soldiers.

Somewhat later, the larger surface combatants and fast destroyers and escorts began to add to the atmospheric acoustics.  Huge chains rattled through their lockers and anchors clanged against steel hulls. They slowly turned into the Channel and began their choreographed and tightly disciplined movements toward the distant French shore-still indiscernible in the daylight.  These sounds were generally lost on the civil population as most of the ships were stationed beyond seawalls in the several major naval roadsteads in the south of England.  But, they added depth and strength to the growing steel stream as British Double Daylight Savings Time light dwindled with the mist and spume.


The 14″ Guns of USS Nevada in Action at Normandy by Padre Steve Website

In those instances where a capital ship visibly departed a fixed position in port, the observers understood this as a significant moment in their history.  The large guns, the fast ships and the preceding soldier-laden cargos meant that the greatly anticipated event was underway.  People thought more than spoke and knew this was an important moment in their lives as it was for those at sea.

In all, more than 150 ports felt the subtle noises and vibrations as their departing guests churned in concert to obscure but crucial points more than a hundred miles away.  Collectively, the throbbing vibrations of more than 4,000 vessels began to merge and roll across the water as the host coalesced into minutely detailed and efficient streams led by slow and crucial minesweepers and their mostly civilian crews.   The ancient ancestral sea-going skills of the English and Scot population were leading the way as much as did Drake and Nelson before.

A bit later, on the land, beginning around 2100, in the still light-brightened green of a June English evening, the vibrations began again.  These were of a different timbre.  From more than a hundred airfields scattered throughout the southern and eastern portions of England, aircraft coughed, sputtered and began to come to life. 

The 40 airfields supporting the Airborne assault awakened in clouds of blue exhaust.  C47’s, Lancaster, Stirling and Blenheim bombers, loaded with their human cargos began to wind their way along taxiways.  Stretched behind many were tow ropes attached to hundreds of gliders-Hamilcars, Wacos and Horsa’s, equally loaded to capacity with people and things.  On several hundred other ancillary airfields, the support structure also came to life.  Fighters, bombers, spotter aircraft and ground support aircraft churned to life in clouds of blue smoke and self-generated fuel-laden density heat currents and moved to the edge of runways.  Slowly, but with increasing frequency, all these engines churned the air, bit for lift and waned into the ebbing light.  Together, more than 4,000 aircraft filled the air-all pointing east and south toward France.


Pre-Invasion Aerial Bombing by Yank Magazine 1944

Now the vibrations of this armada could first be sensed, then felt, and then seen.  The sky was thick with columns of moving aluminum and wood-once fully formed; the column was more than 50 miles wide and 100 miles deep.  For those in the aircraft looking out, it was impossible to see an unobstructed sky.  The mass became an overwhelming noise for those below on the land.  Windows rattled and shook.  Tiles slipped off of ancient buildings.  People stopped, looked up and realized the moment.  Many went straight to churches.  Others gathered their children on the stoops and gardens and just silently watched the aerial armada pass from vision into their personal history.


D-Day Invasion Fleet by Wednesday Night-Website

Below, in the thousands of ships coalescing in this moment, the vibrations and movements from every direction began to have a telling effect.  On the all-important, LST’s (Landing Ship, Tank) with their flat bottoms, the people within suffered with each yaw and pitch in the rough channel water.  Many soldiers were assigned deck space only and endured both the cutting rain and wind and the occasional breaking wave in addition to violent seasickness.  Some hoped for reaching the land.  Others knew better.  Each wave and its continuous accompaniments hit the large flat sides and shook these ships and soldiers to their core as they slipped and shifted toward the distant coast as rocks skipping on water. 

On the stern of virtually all the transports, there arose a barrage balloon dangling long steel cables intended to ensnare low flying German fighters.  These were manned and secured by five man all Black crews who upon initial anchorage, would be part of the first 10 waves ashore.  The anchor cables hummed and shivered in the wind and set a low but discernible tune for their owners who so recently had enjoyed the warmth of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama.  Strangers to this environment, they covered themselves in ponchos and sat huddled on the steel stern deck trying to protect themselves against the constantly chilling blowing spume and spitting rain.

A number of these crucial vessels had been commissioned less than thirty days ago on the banks of the Ohio River.  Now crewed by teenagers and commanded by twenty-somethings-the residue of hastily finished Naval schools, these ships were at the apogee of their purpose.  If they survived or if they sank, they will have served their purpose for this moment and been cheap at the price.

On the smaller craft, the minesweepers and DE’s (Destroyer Escorts), the passage point for the waves was less than the length of the keel.  As the propellers suddenly found only air where water had been, their shafts dramatically increased RPM, slamming against the protective steel shaft cover rending the ship with constant banging and shuddering bulkheads and frames.  The process was reversed when the props suddenly hit water, sending the shaft again against the cover as the blades ate into the sea repeating the endless crossing process. 

Below decks, the soldiers quietly endured what they could not control.  The constant thumping and vibration of their ship went through their bodies continuously.  Their stomachs rebelled and the decks were covered in vomit as waves washed it through the flooded scuppers.  The heat, humidity and collective smells could not be dissipated as the rough seas forced the crew to seal the ventilators.   For many, these vibrations and impacts felt far worse than anything they could envision that might occur on dry land.  But they didn’t really know.

By now, more than 5,000 ships and craft of all classes added their subtle individual sounds to the growing host.  Under the sea, this collective energy had a coincidental effect.  Well after the invasion, the French noticed that fishing in the Channel was less productive but that they enjoyed a banner year for oysters and mussels.  The vibrations had an effect not anticipated.


D-Day Air Assault by D-Day Gallagher Website

Above this winding metal river, rode the airborne assault force-more than 850 aircraft for each of three divisions-two American and one British.  Virtually all flew with open doors.  This had several effects.  The open door allowed the rushing air to fill the interior with alerting consciousness.  The act of lighting a cigarette took some effort.  The skin of the aircraft assumed a hum and transmitted the harmonic vibrations to the aluminum benches on which the grossly overladen soldiers sat.  Outside, but within view of most of the passengers, was a never to be forgotten visceral scene which would be recounted in great detail for the rest of their lives.   

Below were the small white trails of the thousands of ships wending their way east.  The last light shafted off the barrage balloons and just added to the impression of the mass below.  Horizontally, the paratroopers could see nothing but sister aircraft.  The aircraft were virtually wing to wing. Close enough to discern the faces of their friends.   Darting above and below and catching the glimmering light were the hundreds of fighter escorts.  Together, these sights and sounds coalesced to give each member of the initial airborne assault force a huge feeling of confidence and inner strength.  Each participant had trained and worked for months within a microcosm.  For the first time, everyone could see the immensity of the whole-above, below and alongside.  It was unstoppable.   A feeling of great confidence surged within each spectator from the commanding generals to the junior teenaged soldier.

At about the same time the airborne assault initiated, the seaborne forces began arriving at their designated initial assault positions.  For more than 150 linear miles, thousands of ships found their spot in the intermittently dark and moonlit night.  The minesweepers closed to within four miles of the shore, did a 180 degree turn and vanished in the dark toward their home ports and welcoming pubs.  The remainder echeloned in proximity to the Normandy coast by their assigned tasks.  The largest bombardment ships were ten to twelve miles offshore.  Then came the assault forces and closest in, the smaller patrol craft and the more than 100 destroyers and escorts-the nearest to the still unseen and unfelt enemy.  Interspersed, were the command ships, staffed by the leaders responsible for the events of the coming dawn.  Each awaited their moment of duty as prescribed by the plan titled Neptune.  This was an apt name for the force about to erupt from the sea. 

The vibrations and sounds for each ship and craft were relatively uniform but with the intensity and tone dictated by size.  The huge anchor links of the battleships rattled through the guides sending continuous shivers throughout the hull to the simple tension of a steel cable singing out the mud anchor on the very light assault craft.  The passengers and crews felt the engines slowly cease, the anchor chains grow silent and only the lapping of the waves and wind interrupting the night.  Across the length of the Norman coast, the thousands of sources of previous noises dissipated and a quiet settled, broken only by the whistling wind and internal noises of on board preparation for this moment.

For the airborne soldiers, the noises and vibrations grew with fearsome intensity as they crossed the coast of France.  Antiaircraft units below began to awake and fire. Clouds impeded the vision within tight formations and pilots fought to control their aircraft, maintain formation and avoid the flack.  Aircraft RPM’s were increased to maximum throttle.  Planes dipped, slid and skidded to avoid collisions and ground fire.  Within the aircraft, the skins of the fuselage began to strain and shake in response to pilot actions.  The collective noise blotted out most senses. German fire resounded clearly to the soldiers inside over the din of everything else, like gravel on a tin roof.  Sudden explosions exposed moonlight through the skin and outside the door, flames, flares and burning aircraft could be clearly discerned.  Noise, flames and visual clues over rode the lesser senses.  It was about 0115 on 6 June.

Through shouts and signals, the troopers gained a footing, felt and held the anchor lines and staggered toward the door.  The closing snap of the static line snap hook could be both felt and heard.  Quickly on exit into the maelstrom, the last feelings were of a rush of air, a sudden body shock, loss of senses and then a silence of descent.  The war had begun. 

In the momentarily quiet sea, beginning about 0300, orders were issued to lower the assault craft and assemble the initial waves for debarkation.  Cables and ropes slid through pulleys and momentarily shook ship sides as the small boats bounced their way along the sides and finally settled into the bucking sea below.  Most were Higgins Boats, designed and primarily built in New Orleans.  Unarmored except for the British version, they were made mostly of plywood and had about two feet of freeboard in a calm sea.  This was not a calm sea.


The D-Day Landing by The National WW II Museum

Joining them were several dozen Rhino ferries-essentially large rafts with outboard motors.  Laden with wheeled and tracked vehicles, they bucked and buckled their shelterless crews, ploughing through the deep waves as they joined the assembling forces.  Largest of the initial assault craft were the LCT’s carrying the experimental duplex drive swimmer tanks.  The tank engines sprang to life with clouds of blue exhaust sending individual shivers throughout the craft.  Just behind them were the largest assault ships, the Landing Ship, Infantry (LSI’s).  Their forces huddled on the deck and hoped for warmth within the mass much like penguins in a storm.

From Sword Beach in the South to Utah in the East, by 0430, more than 140,000 men were afloat and moving toward the Norman beaches.  The Bay of Biscay quietly resonated and shook with the collective energy of this force.  From the initial engine starts in single ports of England and the isolated whining motors from inland grass strips, the largest single purpose force ever assembled had come together in the quiet of this June night and began to exercise its purpose.  It began with the smallest of sounds, much not initially discernible and grew to an overwhelming focused chorus. 

These vibrations from many purposed sources coalesced in a small part of our planet and grew to the point where they became noise.  The noise we see depicted today in all replications of that event.  But it began with small but growing vibrations-perhaps the manifestation of Eisenhower’s comment that there is no force to equal the fury of an aroused Democracy.  These were vibrations of energy we will never hear or feel again.   Immersed in today’s issues and emotions, we may forget what he wrote to his brother as a Colonel-yet to conceive of his future role as the Allied master of his point for all his command- "It is a grievous error to forget for one second the might and power of this great republic." On 6 June 1944 this was demonstrated and the world was forever changed.

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.