The Invasion Starts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Journalist George Hicks was aboard the USS Ancon in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. The Ancon was the flagship for the invasion of the section of Normandy, France, known as Omaha Beach. It was the beginning of D-Day, when combined Allied troops launched an amphibious invasion of German-held France. This recording was made at midnight and just after. The landings would begin at dawn. At one point in the recording, a German plane seemed to come upon the convoy unexpectedly, followed by several others that attacked Allied ships. One of these was shot down. It was not clear to the men aboard the Ancon how many German defenders were headed their way, and the danger, anxiety, and excitement of those predawn hours are captured in his recording. Hicks was not alone in his access to the events of D-Day. Americans depended on their radios to bring them news of the war, and journalists had become a de facto part of the armed forces. Some 558 journalists, photographers, and their staff were granted access to the D-Day landing, but Hicks's report—which reached American listeners just before midnight on June 6 and concluded on June 7—stands out in its first-person reporting of one of the pivotal moments in American and world history.

Summary Overview

Journalist George Hicks was aboard the USS Ancon in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. The Ancon was the flagship for the invasion of the section of Normandy, France, known as Omaha Beach. It was the beginning of D-Day, when combined Allied troops launched an amphibious invasion of German-held France. This recording was made at midnight and just after. The landings would begin at dawn. At one point in the recording, a German plane seemed to come upon the convoy unexpectedly, followed by several others that attacked Allied ships. One of these was shot down. It was not clear to the men aboard the Ancon how many German defenders were headed their way, and the danger, anxiety, and excitement of those predawn hours are captured in his recording. Hicks was not alone in his access to the events of D-Day. Americans depended on their radios to bring them news of the war, and journalists had become a de facto part of the armed forces. Some 558 journalists, photographers, and their staff were granted access to the D-Day landing, but Hicks's report—which reached American listeners just before midnight on June 6 and concluded on June 7—stands out in its first-person reporting of one of the pivotal moments in American and world history.

Defining Moment

Germany invaded France in May 1940, and Paris fell on June 14. The United States entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and soon began making plans to open up a second front in Europe in order to take the pressure off Russia, which the Germans had invaded in June 1941. Allied invasions across the English Channel were planned and then postponed in 1942 and 1943, with the United States eager to engage in Europe, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in England warning that if an invasion were to go wrong, it would seriously weaken the ability of the Allies to prevent an invasion of Great Britain, whose defenses were already stretched thin.

In January 1944, the most ambitious plan considered thus far was proposed. An amphibious, early-morning assault would be launched along a heavily fortified fifty-mile stretch of coastline. The attack would be covered by naval and aerial bombardment, and paratroopers would land behind enemy lines to cut communications. General Dwight D. Eisenhower would lead this large-scale multinational invasion of the coast of Normandy, code-named Operation Overlord. In preparation for the invasion, elaborate deceptions were staged to throw German intelligence off the mark. Troops were moved around to give the impression that Norway or Denmark might be the target. Journalists were shipped up to Scotland en masse, then returned. Tanks and equipment made of canvas and wood were set up to look like battle-ready invasion units. The Allies leaked information that the target of the invasion would be Calais, the closest point to England on the French coast.

Operation Overlord was scheduled for June 5, 1944, but bad weather and rough seas delayed it by a day. On June 5, over five thousand ships, including the USS Ancon, left England and set out across the channel, covered by eleven thousand aircraft. The deception worked in the early morning hours: despite sporadic fighting, Germany was not fully aware of an attack until after 2 a.m., and the scale of the invasion was only clear at dawn when the horizon was obscured by thousands of ships. Between 3:00 and 5:00 a.m., bombing and bombardment began along the coastline, some targeted to the landing sites, others to keep the Germans guessing at the location of the assault. At 6:30 a.m., troops began landing on the beaches of Normandy.

The United States was responsible for two assault points, code-named Utah and Omaha. The USS Ancon, with George Hicks on board, was the command ship for Omaha, a stretch of beach between the town of Port-en-Bessin and the Vire River. Twelve German fortifications directed fire onto the beach. From the beginning, the attack on Omaha went wrong. Fog had obscured the beach, and the aerial assault had been overcautious in their bombardment, worried that they would hit Allied troops. The German defenses were thus virtually untouched. The transport vehicles had also been pushed east by strong tides, and so troops landed far from their objectives. Over 34,000 troops landed at Omaha Beach, under constant fire. Recent studies have established the casualty count at Omaha as 3,686, far higher than the number reported after the invasion. By the end of the day on June 6, US troops had established a beachhead despite the opposition, and less than a week later, over 326,000 Allied troops had landed along the beaches of Normandy.

Author Biography

George Hicks was born in 1905 in Tacoma, Washington. He began his radio career when he landed a job as an assistant to sports broadcaster Graham McNamee in 1928. Hicks spent ten years at NBC, reporting “light” feature stories. He covered the first undersea broadcast from a submarine, and interviewed early radio pioneers. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into the war, Hicks led a broadcast for the Blue Network, an offshoot of NBC, which featured stories of men at war. In March 1943, the Blue Network opened up a London office, which Hicks headed, and he reported from the front lines in Italy and Corsica. He is best known for his report from the USS Ancon at the start of the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. He died March 17, 1965, in Queens, New York.

Historical Document

We have yet to see a German plane over the amphibious convoy which doesn't necessarily mean that we shan't see them before the attack is over. Our air support has been fine… and the loudspeakers call… almost constantly Spitfires on the port are overhead, our B-17's passing on the starboard side. As far as I know, no report has come in of attack by Nazi sea craft on to the convoys. Now it's almost blacked out and you see the ships lying in all directions just like black shadows on the water… some signaling out to sea, sheltered on the inside from the German's eyes… signaling with red lights blinking code.… There are 4 fires on the shore, looking like pin points winking, suppressed by smoke. Our planes are going overhead—roar of low airplane motor.

The baby was plenty low. We just made the statement that no German planes have been seen.… This was the first one seen so far. It came very low, just cleared our stack and as he passed he let go a stream of tracers that did no harm and just as that happened there was a burst of fire on the coast just off 5 miles. German planes have been in the sky now. The darkness is on us and the tracers have been flying up. They seem to have been withdrawn for the moment, but the plane that just had come over our ship was the first Nazi we've seen so far. He took a pass at us and nothing in particular happened—screeching siren.

Our own ship is just sounding the warning whistles and now flak is coming up in the sky with streamers from the warships behind us. The sparks just seem to float up in the sky and we're too far away to hear their explosions. Heavy firing now, just behind us and anti-aircraft bursts in the sky and bombs bursting on the shore and along in the convoy of the German planes that are beginning their first attack on the night of June 6. Now the darkness has come on us. These planes you hear overhead now are the motors of the Nazis coming and going in the cloudy sky. The reverberation of bombs, every once in a while you see a burst of fire of a bigger caliber on the warships—deep boom—flying up. That was a bomb hit. Another one! The tracer lines keep arching up into the darkness. Very heavy fire now at the stern. More ships in that area. Fire bursts and the flak— loud crash of ack-ack—and streamers going out in a diagonal slant… right over our head… right over our head from a ship… —continuing ack-ack which slowly dies down—right over our head and we can't see the plane-nothing but the flak bursts as they ack-ack in the dark sky. Here come the planes. More anti-aircraft fire. Inward toward the shore—and the Germans must be attacking low with their planes off our stern because the stream of fire, the tracer is almost parallel with the water. Our tracer lines are coming up almost all around us off the stem and off the side toward the French coast. Flares are coming down now. You can hear the machine gunning. The whole sea side is covered with tracer fire, going up meeting the bombs, machine gunning, the planes come over closer…low thick smoke, firing down low towards the French coast a couple of miles. I don't know whether it's on the coast or whether the ship's on fire. Here's heavy ackack now—very loud noise of firing; muffled shouts of crew. Well, that's the first time we've shot our guns.… Still coming down—drone of a plane. Burst right over our heads… the way of the outboard side. Flares are going up in almost every direction as we pick up the German bomber overhead.… Heavy fire from a naval warship as well as 20 millimeter and 40 millimeter tracers were the sounds you just heard… and perhaps the burst or two of the bombs.… Quiet for a moment now. There is nothing but black cloud tufts from the explosions in the sky and the distant… —roar of plane motor. They're working toward our aft again. Down there near some of the British convoys.

You'll excuse me, I'll just take a deep breath for a moment and stop speaking.

Now the air attack seems to have died down except for the British convoy off a couple of miles beyond us and for that one fire burning near the shore, the French shore, which is beginning to die down somewhat.

Can't report that there were any hits because there seem to have been none on any of the ships around us at all. I see nothing in the night, no fires, or anything of that kind—loud firing of guns. Here we go again! Another plane has come over—roar of plane motors. Right over our port side. It's right over our bow now… before they burst. Tracers still going up and now the plane is probably gone beyond. It looks like we're going to have a night tonight. Here we go boys. Another one coming over. The cruiser right alongside of us is pouring up. Streams of tracer, hot fire coming out of all the small ships and the barge as well. Something burning is falling down through the sky and circling down. It may be a hit plane—machine guns fire for many seconds. Here we go. They got one—they got one—for a moment Hicks turned away from microphone to speak to a gunnery officer. Voice of some of crew.—We got it. (Loud cheers by crew.)

Hicks: They got one.

(Crew voice)—We got that one with the gun right here.

Hicks: That big one?

Voice: Yeah.

Hicks: Great block and fire… came down and is now just off our port side in the sea, an oozing mass of smoke and flame.

Crew Voices: We got one—you said it! We made it look like polka dots.

Hicks: We've had a few minutes pause. The lights of that burning Nazi plane are just twinkling now in the sea and going out. When the tracer starts up again, and there's warning of another plane coming in. It's now 10 past 12 and the German air attack seems to have died out.

To recapitulate, the first plane that was over that we described at the beginning of the broadcast was a low-flying German, probably JU-88 that was leading the flight and came on the convoy, in surprise we believe, because he drew up and only fired as he passed by and perhaps he was as surprise as we were to see each other, and there seems to be no damage to the amphibious force that we can discover. One bomb fell astern of this warship, 150 yards away. A string of rockets were fired at a cruiser beside us on the port side. No damage was done and gun number 42 at our port just beside the microphone shot down a plane that fell into the sea off to the port side.

It was Ensign William Shriner of Houston, Texas, who's the gunnery control officer and Seaman Thomas Squirer of Baltimore, Md., handled the direction finder. It was the first kill for this gun. The boys were all pretty excited about it. It's a twin-barrelled 40 millimeter anti-aircraft piece. They are already thinking now of painting a big star on their turret. They'll be at that the first thing tomorrow morning when it's daylight.

Meantime now, the French coast has quieted down. There seems to be no more shelling into it and all around it is darkness and no light or no firing. Now it's 10 past 12, the beginning of June 7, 1944.

This is George Hicks speaking.

Glossary

flak: antiaircraft fire, especially as experienced by the crews of combat airplanes at which the fire is directed

Spitfires: a British fighter plane with a single in-line engine used by the R.A.F. (Royal Air Force) throughout WWII

tracers: ammunition containing a chemical substance that causes a projectile to trail smoke or fire so as to make its path visible and indicate a target to other firers, especially at night; also called tracer ammunition

Document Analysis

George Hicks gives a breathless, minute-by-minute report of the early morning hours preceding the attack on Omaha Beach. His report begins with a description of what he can see: he is aboard a ship in a convoy, with British and American airplanes covering their progress. It is pitch dark, though he can see some fires along the coast. The scene is eerie—the ships are blacked out, and are just shadowy figures in the water. The tension in the scene Hicks describes is palpable, and in the broadcast of the report, the background sounds are riveting. Just after Hicks states that he has not seen any German planes, the roar of aircraft engines is heard on the tape, and Hicks realizes that a German had just flown low over them—the first “Nazi we've seen so far.”

As the German aerial attack intensifies and the ships in the convoy fire back, Hicks describes the scene vividly, from the sound of the different kinds of guns to the way that the darkness takes over as soon as firing pauses. German planes seem suddenly to be everywhere, flying so low that the tracer bullets seem to be parallel to the shore, and the “whole sea side is covered with tracer fire.” The “low, thick smoke” from artillery is everywhere, so planes are heard, but not seen, adding to the tension for the men on the ship. The description of the smoke and the darkness evokes the reaction of other senses as well: the acrid smell of smoke, the salty spray of the sea, and the cacophony of noises of guns and planes and shouting. Hicks records the first shot from the USS Ancon, and the shouts of the men as they manned their guns, and describes how difficult it was to tell in the smoke, bombs, and bullets when something had actually been hit, and whether it was a friend or foe. The situation is so overwhelming that Hicks cannot breathe: “You'll excuse me, I'll just take a deep breath for a moment and stop speaking.”

Just as the air assault seemed to be dying down, Hicks records another German plane just overhead, and the scramble to shoot it down. He then records the conversations by the men on board when they succeed, and Hicks even names the two men who made the “first kill” with the ship's gun. The German plane falls into the sea, “an oozing mass of smoke and flame.” The wreckage “twinkled” as it goes under—another series of evocative descriptions. Before signing off, Hicks gives some additional information about the planes he had seen, and the guns on board the USS Ancon.

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this report is the atmosphere and tension that surrounded the landings at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The report was made in the middle of the night, when a huge flotilla of ships and troops were making their way to the French coast, and many of the men in the convoy must have wondered if they would survive the next day. Hicks himself was under fire on the USS Ancon, and the fear and excitement shared by him and his shipmates is audible and vividly described. There were nearly six hundred journalists and photographers granted passes to be present at D-Day, and it is a well-documented event—a turning point in American and world history. Hicks's report brought the invasion down to the level of the individual person, and illuminated a time that was fraught with fear and excitement, before anyone knew how the invasion would turn out. His description of the darkness, the fear as German planes whizzed by overhead, and the jubilation when one was shot down, remains one of the most compelling reports from June 6, 1944.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon, 1995. Print.
  • Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Little, 2012. Print.
  • “Covering D-Day: An Allied Journalist's Perspective.” British Heritage. British Heritage, 12 June 2006. Web. 30 Dec. 2014.
  • Marshall, S. L. A. “First Wave at Omaha Beach.” Atlantic. Atlantic Monthly Group, 1 Nov. 1960. Web. 30 Dec. 2014.
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