As the anniversary of D-Day is commemorated Lawrence Watt looks at the New Zealanders who played their part.
Seventy-five years ago, about 173,000 soldiers were storming up the D-Day beaches in Normandy, France. It was the largest invasion in history and the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Third Reich. The landings of mainly American, British, French and Canadian troops began on June 6, 1944.
But it is not well known that more than 10,000 Kiwis were serving in the air and at sea and many were directly involved with British Forces on D-Day. Several had vital roles.
Denis Glover, a sailor with the British Navy was a brilliant writer, teacher and publisher. He also boxed and sailed. He is probably best known for his echoic poetry, like his famous The Magpies poem.
Although married, or perhaps partly to escape married life, Glover joined the Royal Navy in 1941. On D-Day he was a lieutenant in charge of a landing craft, where he had to drive repeatedly to the shore, hoping to avoid machine gun and artillery fire. Glover was lucky, also surviving four convoys - frequently attacked by German submarines - to Russia. For the D-Day action he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross.
Glover returned to his wife Mary after the war, they separated later. Glover's heavy drinking affected his relationships and his work. He wrote brilliant poetry, and was a great raconteur, but was fired from two publishing jobs. He died in his 60s, after falling down some stairs while moving house.
New Zealand had four squadrons of fighter-bomber aircraft at D-Day, says the Oxford companion to NZ Military History. Kiwis also served in heavy bombers, used to bomb gun emplacements. Other Kiwis served with other squadrons, and many undoubtedly had a role in D-Day. These included pilots of DC3 transport aircraft and glider pilots, a near-suicidal job, carrying paratroopers.
Spitfire fighter pilot Johnny Houlton, leader of 485 (NZ) squadron, is credited with shooting down the first German aircraft of the battle, near Omaha Beach.
This was despite having a few too many drinks the night before, he later confessed. Perhaps it had helped that he peed on his plane's tail wheel for good luck, just before taking off.
Later in the battle, Houlton shot down two German Messerschmitt fighter planes. Soon after some airfields had been cleared, Houlton's 485 squadron was moved to France. When researching the TV series New Zealand at War in 1995, Houlton told me he was distressed to receive an order to attack German ambulances, which Intelligence had said were ferrying Nazi troops. The pilots did not like it, but began shooting at a group of German ambulances they had been told about. Sure enough, once they began shooting at the first ambulance, Houton saw armed German soldiers leaping out of them. The squadron continued their attack, everyone relieved the intelligence was correct.
Houlton's D-Day Spitfire has been preserved. In the mid 1990s, he returned to the UK to take part in commemorations, and took a ride in the plane - converted to a two-seater.
"I thought it would be turned into pots and pans," he joked.
Houlton said he hated war - but that had his life be re-run, he would have done exactly the same thing, signed up and fought the Nazis. Houlton was a part-time poet and video of him reading one of his pieces can be found on YouTube. Houlton became a civilian pilot after the war. He died in his late 70s.
Group Captain Desmond Scott commanded a Kiwi squadron (486) of rocket-firing Hawker Typhoons, a powerful and dangerous single-engine fighter-bomber. On the TV series New Zealand at War, Scott recalled the dangerous D-Day job of "winkling out (German) radar stations" on the French coast, which were bristling with anti-aircraft guns.
The Typhoon was dangerous to pilots in its early days, its faults included an engine which sometimes seized up and a tailplane that fell off, but the bugs had been ironed out by D-Day.
Scott wrote a best-selling book, called Typhoon Pilot, describing his exploits blowing up trains, attacking flak ships and tanks.
A bout of typhoid changed Arthur Coningham's life during World War I. The former Canterbury mounted rifleman was so sick, he was shipped home. After recovering, he became pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. He made a career in the RAF and by D-Day he was the key airman, in charge of the 2nd Tactical Air force, which provided close air support to the troops on the ground. He had been knighted by then, for brilliant tactics while running a similar air force at El Alamein. And like at El Alamein, the Allies dominated the skies on D-Day.
While the people on the ground fought and died, a squabble broke out between the bosses. Air cover was vital, but Coningham was insistent the Air Force - not the Army - should be in charge of air support. Some soldiers strongly disagreed, and like many others Coningham fell out with the touchy English Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery.
Monty complained, "Coningham is violently anti-Army and despised by all soldiers; my Army commanders mistrust him and never want to see him."
Following this spat, General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allies overall military boss in Europe, took Coningham's side, dissolving the unnecessary layer of command above him. Coningham stayed in the RAF until well after the war.
After surviving the wars, Coningham died prematurely. A civilian plane he was travelling in crashed in the Bermuda triangle, without trace.
Cloud cover made it difficult for allied pilots like Houlton to spot targets during the landings. Houlton later said there were never fewer than 1000 Allied planes over the skies during the operation. This was part of Coningham's doctrine.
It was only after a British cruiser Captain steamed near the shore to fire directly at the concrete gun emplacements, that American soldiers, marooned on Omaha Beach, managed to storm the pillboxes. The heavy bombing had not worked.
The D-Day landings were undertaken in a brief window of just-OK weather, when the moon was full and the tide was low. The invasion had to proceed in moonlight, so people could see obstacles like the traps on the beaches. The British Navy's forecasting was at odds with the American forecasting. The attack was delayed by just 24 hours, after the storm had mostly passed. The forecasts staved off any damage from a storm.
A key member of the small British Naval weather team was Aucklander George Lawrence Hogben, a mathematician and Rhodes Scholar. Hogben's studies were cut short when he joined the British Navy in England. Something he had learned at Auckland Grammar or university, was a combination of mathematics and personal courage.
The meteorologist later said: "It took courage for us to say 'No' on June 5; and it took courage to forecast 'Yes' for June 6. I was scared – I think we all were afraid of getting it wrong ... We knew we were making history."
Previously as a radar man on a warship, Hogben's work was vital in the sinking the huge German battleship the Bismarck - by supplying the right co-ordinates to the bombers. He worked as a meteorologist and scientist after the war, and lived into his late 90s.
Had the invasion proceeded on the planned bad-weather day, it might have failed - or it might have to be delayed considerably. The team's weather forecast was the most important in history.
The weather - and the excellent forecasting - had helped. German forecasters had also got the weather wrong, Field Marshall Rommel, the German commander, had returned home for his wife's birthday.
Two NZ ships, the Monowai and Aorangi, took their place in the D-Day armada. The Monowai worked as a troopship. Aorangi was a depot ship for the dozens of tugs that towed the artificial Mulberry harbours across the Channel, and it later helped to get casualties back to England.
There was a cost. A few days after the landings, 10 young New Zealanders were killed when their destroyer, HMS Isis, was sunk by a mine while on an anti-submarine patrol off Normandy.
James Hargest, a former New Zealand member of Parliament, was another casualty. Hargest, was official New Zealand observer, with the 50th English Division. He survived the D-Day landings but was wounded in June and killed by a shell in August. Hargest's luck would run out, he had recently escaped as a prisoner-of-war by tunnelling out of a prison. Taken prisoner in the Middle East, Hargest had not placed sufficient cover behind his headquarters, and had been captured by Germans in tanks. Arguably, Hargest's career as a fighting officer had already been over.
Had the D-Day landings not been successful, the course of the war would have been delayed. New Zealand forces had just pulled out of Monte Cassino, but would later pursue the Germans up through Italy to Trieste.
Had the Normandy landings failed, then the war would have lasted longer, with greater emphasis on the Italian and Balkan front. Germany would have had more troops free to fight Russia. The Allies might have been tempted to use nuclear weapons, a programme they had begun, after Albert Einstein told President Franklin Roosevelt that the Nazis were designing an atomic bomb.