India's Normandy connection

Presently Americans are learning the art of War from Indians. Apart from many joint naval exercises in recent times, in Garo Hills, Indian Jungle warfare expert soldiers concluded giving training to their American counterparts and exchanged "views" on the issue. But it is not a new process. Americans and British have learned the art of warfare from Indians before.

In famed Normandy invasion in June 1944, world's biggest amphibious operation, western military was perforce to use age old Indian innovation, writes Sabyasachi Mallick.

On 6th June, 69 years ago, 'Youth of Free World' landed in Normandy, France to end Hitler's tyrannical rule. Though Indians were neither free then, nor any regular Indian Division was pressed into action in Normandy except some captured soldiers from Africa, still India had a prominent place to claim in world's biggest amphibious landing operation. To understand how it became possible, we need to have a close look at 'Operation Overlord'.

Operation Overlord was code name for Battle of Normandy that commenced on 6 June 1944, which is commonly known as D-Day. Hundreds of bestselling books were written and hit films like 'The Longest Day, 'Saving Private Ryan' were produced basing events on D-Day.

In November 1943, the then Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt met together in Teheran, Iran and it was agreed there that Allies would mount Operation Overlord from British Isles in the spring of 1944 in response to longstanding Soviet demand of opening a second front so that Soviets might be spared of the horror of facing German military might alone.

Before the main attack on D-Day, U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the British 6th Airborne Division were landed behind the German costal fortifications. 2395 planes and 867 gliders transported 18, 000 British, American, Canadian and Free French airborne troops to France at midnight ahead of the main army. Though German anti aircraft firing was intense and confusion prevailed over wrong landing of 82nd, their objective of capturing enemy strong points in rear areas to minimize resistance to forthcoming main landing were fulfilled, thanks to the use of 'Bangalore Torpedoes', gift of India, at places.

The Bangalore torpedo was first devised by Captain McClintock of the British Indian Army unit the Madras Sappers and Miners at Bangalore, India, in 1907. Taking the cue from the 'natives', who from distance busted obstacles strapping explosive bowls on top of a bamboo poles, Captain McClintock invented the torpedo as a means of exploding booby traps and barricades from a protected position away. In design, it was simplicity itself but in effectiveness it has no equal. For this, they are still being used, in Afghanistan and other recent theaters of war. The torpedo constitutes of a number of 5 ft long threaded pipes, one of which contained explosive charge. The pipes would be screwed together using connecting sleeves to make a single long pipe of the required length. It could then be pushed forward and detonated, to clear a wide hole through barbed wire without any injury or harm to the men handling the torpedoes.

Famed German General Marshal Rommel had prepared a bloody welcome for allied invasion army. Beaches were mined, stakes were planted below water and strange looking obstacles like jagged triangles of steel were laid. Behind this, Rommel's troops waited surrounded by extra thick layers of barbed wire fencing. And it is precisely here where Bangalore torpedoes were needed.

Overlooking Sword Beach, where the British main armies were to land on D-Day, stood massive Merville Gun Battery of Germans. It could mow down the incoming troops. So the British 9th Parachute Battalion, part of the 6th Airborne Division, was given the objective of destroying the battery. However, when the battalion arrived over Normandy, due to Rommel's anti-paratroop measures, instead of over 600 men, only 150 with no heavy weapons or equipment could be assembled.

Regardless, they pressed home their attack. They possessed only small arms and few Bangalore Torpedoes, which they placed over the 15ft wide barbed wire fencing encompassing the gun battery area. Then, 'with a blinding roar the Bangalore torpedoes blasted great gaps in the wire...yelling and firing paratroopers plunged into smoke of explosions through the gap pf wire...running round the sides of the earth banked concrete fortifications emptying their sten guns and tossing grenades into apertures.' Within fifteen minutes the battle was over.

Similar successful penetration stories with torpedoes could be heard from American landing sectors too. Sergeant Thedore Aufort recalling D-Day wrote - four rolls of barbed wire laid over Easy Red Section of Omaha Beach (codenames for American landing area). Someone yelled for Bangalore Torpedoes and we started handing them, lying on our backs, shoveling them down, putting them together - males at one end, females at the other. Then someone yelled 'fire' and they blew the wire. Everyone rushed through the gap.

In three years from Normandy landings, India became free. But well before that, it helped a multitude of nations - France, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Holland - break free from oppressive, tyrannical rule of Hitler through its glorious contribution to military history - Bangalore torpedoes. This is definitely by any standards, no small achievement.

Image caption: Taxis to Hell - and Back - Into the Jaws of Death is a historic photograph taken on June 6, 1944, by Robert F. Sargent, a chief photographer's mate in the United States Coast Guard. It depicts U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division soldiers disembarking from a LCVP(Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase at Omaha Beach during the Normandy Landings in World War II.

--IBNS (Posted on 18-06-2013)

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