“It’s the Invasion!….Ten Thousand Ships Headed Right at Me!”

the Germans on D-Day
D-DAY – ALLIED FORCES DURING THE INVASION OF NORMANDY 6 JUNE 1944 (A 23844) Landing ships and other invasion craft seen from HMS BEAGLE, 6 June 1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205155881

“Which way are the ships headed?” 

 “Right for me!”

Major Werner Pluskat, First German to Sight Allied Invasion Fleet, informs his higher echelon headquarters of the German 352nd Infantry Division.

At dawn on 6 June 1944, from this German bunker on a rise above Omaha Beach, Major Werner Pluskat was the first German officer to see the Allied invasion fleet which he described as headed  “straight at me.”  During the Normandy invasion, he served as the commander of the artillery battalion of the German 352nd Infantry Division, a scratch division built around a handful of surviving veterans from the 321 Infantry Division which had been torn to shreds during the Battle of Kursk in July and August of 1943 and the subsequent Soviet offensives.  *


German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day, based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.

(Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

“The Longest Day,” an account of D-Day written by American journalist and narrative historian Cornelius Ryan, Pluskat told him the following in a personal interview.

Dawn of 6 June 1944


From his bunker overlooking Omaha Beach, Major Pluskat rang through to the headquarters of the 352nd Infantry Division to which his artillery battalion was assigned:

“It’s the invasion! There must be ten thousand ships out here!”

Division HQ: “Which way are the ships headed?”

Pluskat: “Right for me!”

Division to Pluskat several minutes later: “What’s the situation?”

“We’re being shelled!”

“Exact location of shelling?”

“For God’s sake, they’re falling all over. What do you want me to do? Go out and measure the holes with a ruler?”

 Pluskat obviously survived the war, surrendering to the Allies on 23 April 1945.

Hans Christian Blech in The Longest Day

German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day.

In this movie still from 20th Century Fox, Major Pluskat is talking to his division command after intense shelling. Most German bunkers were well constructed and survived Allied naval gunfire. 

D-DAY – ALLIED FORCES DURING THE INVASION OF NORMANDY 6 JUNE 1944 (A 23934) The Normandy coast around Bernieres-sur-Mer, Juno assault area, with smoke rising from burning buildings during the Allied naval bombardment which preceded the landings, 6 June 1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205155953


Unfortunately, the naval guns of the era had a relatively flat trajectory. While battleships could, and did, hit German units 30 miles inland, targets as close as Pluskat’s bunker were harder to destroy because naval guns could not generate plunging fire like an army howitzer. So complete was Allied control of the sea, that many battleships assigned to the bombardment force were able to anchor in a long row in the English channel.

On Omaha, for instance, where very few tanks made it ashore, smaller ships such as destroyers and destroyer escorts closed the beach and directly engaged the German artillery firing from bunkers. There were occasions when the Germans were firing over the heads of the GIs on the beach at Allied destroyers who were firing back.

Naval captains took their ships in as close as they could, scraping bottom occasionally. But the invasion had to succeed. There wasn’t a “Plan B.”


Like most accounts of historical events, there is controversy over Pluskat’s whereabouts at dawn on 6 June.  Speculation on a number of World War Two discussion boards suggests Pluskat wasn’t at his post at dawn on 6 June and fabricated his entire story which became part of the historical record and has been repeated a thousand times in various books until taken for truth.

Yet Pluskat did command the artillery battalion of the 352nd German Infantry Division. This division was dug in behind Pluskat’s artillery. The task of 352nd was to defend the stretch of beach known as “Omaha” to the Allies.

And Pluskat’s command bunker was on the heights above Omaha and remains there to this day as shown in the first photo of this post. His battalion did not retreat until they had fired all of their ammunition. So we know that he basics are true.

In an article about D-Day  in the German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, on 3 June 1964, their reporter writes:

“Major Werner Pluskat, commander of four coastal batteries the 352nd Division in the landing section “Omaha” was one of the first who saw the Armada. From his forward command post, he peered through the telescope, when morning dawned and the mist of the night lifted above the sea: The horizon was dotted with ships – ten thousand estimated the Major. The inferno broke out.”


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR: OPERATION OVERLORD (THE NORMANDY LANDINGS), JUNE 1944 (A 23977) HMS RODNEY bombarding gun positions in the Caen area as seen from the cruiser HMS FROBISHER. In support of the Normandy landings British Naval guns have been constantly bombarding enemy positions, often many miles inland. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205187109


Cornelius Ryan, who wrote the book, The Longest Day, was a well-known journalist of the era and a careful researcher. Born in Ireland (he became an American citizen in 1957) he worked as a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph of London.

Incredibly, he flew 14 bombing missions over Germany as part of his work as a journalist although not required to do so. He also witnessed the D-Day landings as a journalist. It would have been difficult to fool him.

Since Ryan interviewed so many participants in the battle, Allied and German, I find it hard to believe that Pluskat made up the story about himself he told Ryan. Further Pluskat only died in 2002 at age 90 so other German veterans of D-Day from the 352nd Infantry Division had decades to accuse Pluskat of lying. To my knowledge, such accusations were never made.

Ryan’s book is a well-written narrative history of the D-Day. It contains a number of small inaccuracies. However, these are mainly due to his lack of access to records about D-Day which were still classified at the time he wrote the book in 1957 and 1958. But his interview with Pluskat is accurate.

“The Longest Day” was published in 1959.


Sadly, Cornelius Ryan died tragically early in his life at age 54 in 1974 of prostate cancer.

*a fascinating “look behind enemy lines” can be found in the correctly translate reported written for the Allies after the battle by one of the captured regimental commanders of the 352nd German Infantry Division. Historian Stewart Bryant tracked down the original document in German written by the officer. About twenty years ago, historians discovered that hundreds of these documents had been incorrectly translated.

Bryant has translated this German report into English himself and has added valuable commentary and explanations.

You can read his excellent work here:


the Normandy invasion “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life…”

“… the German Army was the outstanding fighting force of the Second World War and … could be defeated by Allied soldiers only under the most overwhelmingly favorable conditions.”

Sir Max Hastings writing in his book Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy.


US-Soldaten helfen am 06. Juni 1944 am Strandabschnitt Utah Beach nahe Cherbourg in der Normandie einigen Kameraden an Land, deren Landungsboot bei der Invasion gesunken war und die sich mit einem Rettungsboot in Sicherheit bringen konnten. Am 06. Juni 2004 jaehrt sich die Landung der Alliierten Invasionstruppen am D-Day zu einer der entscheidenden Schlachten des 2. Weltkriegs zum 60. Mal. Foto: Weintraub/US-Army/ddp *** Local Caption ***

Members of an American landing party assist troops whose landing craft was sunk by enemy fire off Omaha beach, near Colleville sur Mer, on June 6, 1944. (Photo courtesy of US National Archives)

Like any institution, an army is a reflection of the society which produces it. In Germany, the infantry had always been the dominant arm of the fighting forces. The German Army in World War Two was deeply influenced by the culture and traditions of the Prussian Army. The unitary state of Germany was established under the leadership of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1871 after the Prussians defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71.

The Kingdom of Prussia comprised over 60% of the new German state or empire and the King of Prussia became German Emperor or Kaiser which translates as “Caesar.” Even after leading the Germans to victory, Prussia still did not have the political strength to abolish the other kingdoms which only came into the Empire because they were acknowledged as separate entities within the empire.

Thus, from its creation in 1871 to its collapse in 1918, the German Empire contained within it four kingdoms: Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria and Württemberg. Each had a king and an army and in certain areas their own laws. Confusing? Yes, it was.


Map of the German Empire showing the many bits and pieces which maintained a certain distinctive place and the four kingdoms which remained completely separate.


In Prussia, the army, which was mainly composed of infantry, was the core institution of the Kingdom. In the 1700s it was often said that Prussia was simply an army which controlled a kingdom rather than the other way around.
The best and the brightest went into the infantry and infantry service was seen as a duty to the state. In Prussia, the army was known as “the school of the nation.”

To be an infantry officer in Prussia, and later Imperial Germany, and later in Nazi Germany, was to hold a position of great prestige. And the Prussian (later German) Army always had a much smaller ratio of officers to men than other armies – less than 3% in 1939 compared to more than 8% in the US Army. In the US in World War Two, the smartest men were creamed off for the artillery, air force, staff, and planning leaving the infantry with what was left. The US Army gave an exam to each recruit equivalent to an IQ test and the lowest scoring men were sent to the infantry.

Die Alliierten bringen am 06. Juni 1944 an dem Brueckenkopf am Strandabschnitt Omaha-Beach an der Kueste der Normandie frische Truppen und Nachschub an Land. Am 06. Juni 2004 jaehrt sich die Landung der Alliierten Invasionstruppen am D-Day zu einer der entscheidenden Schlachten des 2. Weltkriegs zum 60. Mal. Foto: US-Army/ddp

D-Day, the invasion of France, June 6, 1944. American craft of all styles at Omaha Beach, Normandy, during the first stages of the Allied invasion. Click to fade to a view of Omaha Beach on May 7, 2014, near Colleville sur Mer, France. (Photo courtesy of US National Archives)

When the American infantry met the German infantry, we were putting the least skilled and least intelligent of our men against their most skilled and most intelligent men. The results can been seen in the campaign for Western Europe. Time and again major Allied attacks were stopped by a handful of decimated German divisions.



A crashed U.S. fighter plane on the waterfront some time after Canadian forces came ashore on a Juno Beach D-Day landing zone in Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, France, in June 1944

Of the ground forces available to American commanders, the US Field Artillery was by far and away the most outstanding arm of of the US Army ground forces. Approximately 2% of artillerymen were killed in action. For American infantry, it was far, far higher. Most infantry units routinely lost half or almost all of their front line or “bayonet strength” every few weeks during heavy fighting. Young infantry officers who had never been in combat rarely survived more than a few weeks.

Because the KIA rate in the Field Artillery was so low, and because these men had scored higher on the aptitude and intelligence tests given by the army, they were put through rigorous technical training to master the complexities of their weaponry. So they knew what they were doing, became highly experienced, and most important, fought together in their same units for most of the war. There is an inestimable value of having experienced troops who have fought together for a long time in your army. It is worth noting that in World War Two, over 50% of men killed in action were killed by artillery and we had more artillery than anyone on the Western front.

In an emergency, perhaps a front line unit in danger of being overrun, an American Army corps, which consisted of three divisions, could immediately muster as many as 400 barrels of artillery, bring them all under one command and fire a “serenade.” This meant that each battery of artillery, no matter where they were, fired in the their own “time on target” so that all 400 artillery shells would arrive at the same place at the same time. You can imagine the effect this had.

p000873 (1)

US Army Field Artillery firing in support of ground troops, France 1944.

Unfortunately, the US Army in World War Two treated its infantry worse than any other arm of the service. Men lived on canned food for weeks. In the winter of 44/45, most front-line US infantry did not have winter boots while all the rear services had them. I could go on and on but to read about the suffering the US Infantry in WW II went through just because no one would pay attention is sickening.


“the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life…” said the Duke of Wellington after his great victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.