New Zealand Embassy Paris, France

New Zealand and WWII: D-Day landings

New Zealand and D-Day, the liberation of France 

In the early hours 6 June 1944, nearly 160,000 Allied soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy to commence the liberation of France. Overhead, tens of thousands of airmen patrolled, defended and attacked. Almost 196,000 Allied sailors with over 5000 ships supported the attack.   The Normandy beaches were divided into five: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.

Fortune favoured the bold.  Inclement weather coupled with a brilliant electronic deception plan convinced the defenders that the principal attack would take place in the Pas de Calais. By the time the facts were realised it was too late and the main elements of the force was ashore along an 80 kilometre stretch of the Normandy coast. Days, weeks and months of hard fighting followed. It is estimated that at least 60,000 French civilians, all innocent local inhabitants, were killed in the opening phases.

Supreme Commander of the Allied force was General Dwight D Eisenhower, US Army, while in overall command of ground forces was General Bernard Montgomery, who led allied forces to victory in North Africa in command of the 8th Army.

Little known today is that the overall Allied D-Day air campaign was directed by a New Zealander. Wellington-educated Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham was appointed with joint United States and British support to command the 2nd Allied Tactical Air Force. 

Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham (left) with General Bernard Montgomery.  They served together in North Africa and again in northern Europe and the liberation of France. Coningham lost his life in an airliner crash on 30 January 1948.

This followed his brilliant record in North Africa where, leading the Desert Air Force, he devised and perfected close air support for the army which won him the admiration of the supreme British commander General Montgomery.

He was a First World War veteran and landed with the original New Zealand Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.  Later, he transferred to the British Royal Flying Corps, learned to fly and became a fighter “ace”.   Post war he remained in the Royal Air Force.

Allied commanders divided the landings into two phases, an airborne assault by 24,000 British, Canadian and US airborne forces in the early morning hours followed by the landings of infantry and armoured divisions on the Normandy beaches from around 8.30 am, Paris time. At the time, most New Zealand forces – the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force – was fighting alongside the British and United States armies in Italy. So the main contribution from New Zealand came with aircrew serving in the Royal Air Force. They were scattered through Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands while many served with seven RAF Squadrons which had distinctive New Zealand identities.   It has been estimated that nearly 3900 New Zealanders were on active service by early 1944. They flew fighters, bombers, towed gliders, dropped paratroops, searched for submarines and attacked surface shipping. Several hundred also served in the Royal Navy. The Royal New Zealand Navy was formed only in 1941 and its vessels served largely in the Pacific.  New Zealanders commanded destroyers, landing craft that actually took troops ashore on the morning of 6 June and flew in action with the Fleet Air Arm. Others served in submarines.

A prominent New Zealand army officer Brigadier James was killed just off the Normandy Beaches on 12 August 1944. Hargest served in both world wars.  Between the wars he became a Member of the New Zealand Parliament, the House of Representatives. First and Second World Wars. He was a farmer and volunteered for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force following the outbreak of the First World War. Commissioned as an officer, he served at Gallipoli in 1915 and was seriously wounded. Following his recovery from his wounds, he returned to active duty on the Western Front in France. He commanded an infantry battalion during the late stages of the war and received several awards for his leadership. At the Second World War, Hargest attempted to join the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. His application was initially declined for health reasons, but after intervention by Peter Fraser, the acting Prime Minister of New Zealand, he was accepted and appointed commander of the 5th Infantry Brigade. He led his brigade during the Battle of Greece and Crete. He received a bar to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) that he had been awarded in the previous war. The fighting now shifting to North Africa, Hargest led his brigade during Operation Crusader in November 1941 but was captured by German forces. Held in a prisoner of war camp in Italy, he eventually escaped and was able to make his return to England in late 1943. He earned a second bar to his DSO for his efforts. He served as an observer with the British 50th Division for the landings at Normandy and was killed by artillery just over a month after D-Day. Some of the hardest fighting took place on the beaches where young naval officers drove the landing craft ashore to unload the troops. 

One New Zealander, Lieutenant Commander Denis James Matthew Glover won a Distinguished Service Cross for bravery under fire while in command of a Royal Navy landing craft. He had previously won distinction serving in the Arctic Convoys that supplied the Soviet Union.  Post war, he resumed writing and publishing, becoming prominent in literary affairs.

Flying Officer E H Hitchcock is one of the few New Zealanders known to have actually landed on D-Day, at Omaha Beach.  An engineer, he was serving on detachment to the RAF as a specialist radar officer.

A New Zealand pilot claimed the first Allied air victory on the afternoon of 6 June. Serving in 485 (New Zealand) Squadron, RAF, Flying Officer J A (“Johnnie”) John Arthur Houlton was airborne in his Spitfire over the beachhead on his third patrol of the day. In his 1985 biography Spitfire Strikes, he recalled leading Blue Section during the third patrol of the day. South of Omaha Beach, below a shallow, broken layer of cumulus, when glimpsed a Ju88 bomber above cloud, diving away fast to the south. 

He adjusted the gyro sight on to the target at 500 yards with a deflection angle of 45 degrees, positioned the aiming dot on the right-hand engine of the enemy aircraft, and fired a three-second burst. The engine disintegrated, fire broke out, two crew members baled out and the aircraft dived steeply to crash on a roadway, blowing apart on impact. Supreme Headquarters nominated the Ju88 as the first enemy aircraft to be shot down since the invasion began, putting 485 (NZ) Spitfire Squadron at the top of the scoreboard for D-Day.

A Spitfire Mk IX of 485 (NZ) Squadron just before the D-Day landings

Houlton joined the RNZAF in June 1941. By May 1942 he was in action with 485 (NZ) Squadron.  He later flew over the hazardous Malta convoy runs before returning to the United Kingdom.   Later on D-Day, he shared another Junkers with the rest of his section. This success continued in further beach patrols on 8th and 12th, when he shot down aircraft each day. On the 29th he damaged a further one - his last success of the year.

Amazingly, his aircraft on that day survives and after careful restoration, is a popular performer at air shows and memorial flypasts in the United Kingdom and is now a two-seater.   It is painted in the colours in which it flew over the Normandy beaches and carries his individual identity marking “V” which he selected as his wife was named Victoria, or Vicky. Johnnie was the proud passenger when it flew over the beaches on the 50th anniversary of the landings in 1994. 

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