June 5, 2019

1944. Bill Downs' First Broadcast From Normandy After D-Day

The Heroes of Normandy

Bill Downs in Normandy

The text featured here is Bill Downs' script for his live broadcast to the United States from Normandy on June 14, 1944.

Edward R. Murrow was set to broadcast from London on D-Day, and he sent several of his reporters to the front. Charles Collingwood and Larry LeSueur landed at Utah Beach, while Bill Downs accompanied the British 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division at Gold Beach. Richard C. Hottelet made the first eyewitness broadcast of the invasion as he flew over Utah Beach in a bomber just minutes before H-Hour.

It was not until June 14 that Bill Downs was finally able to broadcast from Normandy, but even then there were difficulties. It was the first live broadcast from Normandy after D-Day.

According to Broadcasting magazine, 1944, Volume 26, p. 16:
To Bill Downs, CBS correspondent, went the distinction of making the first broadcast from "somewhere in Normandie" to be heard instantaneously in the United States. In his broadcasts, which was pooled to all networks, 6:30:30 to 6:35:50 p. m., EWT, June 14, Downs said that a 30-minute jeep would take him to where Allied troops were fighting, but that military security would not permit a more definite statement of his location. The broadcast was made via Army Signal Corps facilities, with again no more exact description permitted for the same reason.

Reception of this initial France-to-America broadcast was described as "spotty," but Downs' second broadcast some six and a half hours later [1 a.m. EWT June 15] came through with considerable improved reception. This and subsequent broadcasts were pooled for all networks, indicating that Downs was the only correspondent in the vicinity of the transmitter, as pooling has been generally discontinued wherever each network has a chance to get material from its own man.
Downs was not aware that he had made the first live broadcast until after the fact, and later attributed it to luck. John MacVane of NBC, who landed at Omaha Beach, nearly had that distinction. According to Ed Bliss in Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism, p. 158:
The next day [MacVane] hunted for a mobile transmitter. Ultimately he found one—four had been destroyed—and got into London with a perfect signal. He felt he had the scoop of the war, but "a bunch of bureaucratic desk officers" said the frequency was wrong. Besides, no correspondent was supposed to come up from the beachhead that soon! Two days later, MacVane broke his ankle and got shipped back to England. The result was that the first invasion broadcast heard in America from Normandy was done by Bill Downs. MacVane heard the broadcast in London. He was, in his phrase, "not happy."
The text below is from Downs' typewritten script and notes. The actual broadcast, featured above, omits some parts of the script.
Bill Downs

June 14, 1944

I'm speaking to you from a tent somewhere in Normandy, that bit of a truly free France liberated eight days ago by the invasion of British, Canadian, and American troops. It is 6:30 AM over here––the ninth day of the invasion is only a few hours old.

I could take you right now in a thirty-minute jeep ride to where the Allied troops are fighting. You can get to some part of the front in thirty minutes no matter where you happen to be.

So much has happened in the past eight days that they seem like eight months to every one of us over here. Americans have died, and British and Canadians have died––and a great number of Germans have died. But the Allied forces have achieved what Hitler's henchmen said was impossible. We are in Europe to stay––and you have only to look at the face of an American doughboy, or in the eyes of a man from Calgary or from London, to know that we are not going to stop until we have completed the job.

All this comes under the category of making history.

The news from the front this morning is good––as a matter of fact we have had no bad news to report since the Allied forces crossed the beaches.

On the American sector's front, the troops continue to widen the bulge threatening the entire peninsula of Cherbourg. The British-Canadian sector likewise is slowly expanding. There are hold-ups at a village here or there which the Germans have strongly fortified. There has not been much forward movement around the city of Caen on the left flank of the beachhead.

But you might compare this bit of liberated France to a giant muscle which daily is becoming stronger as the sinews of war pour into it. As more tanks and guns and men pour in, the muscle expands.

Thus far the Germans have been unable to do much about it. However, last night and today, there are signs that the Nazi high command has finally been able to get some fresh troops into the line. The fact that it took a week for his first reinforcements to arrive speaks for itself as to the effectiveness of the Allied night and day bombing over the past months.

But as the Germans reinforce––and as we reinforce––there can be little doubt that a big battle is developing. In this sense, the Battle of France is a race between the supply systems of the opposing armies. The force that gains the superiority first will strike. You'll be interested to know that our supply position is all right.

I have heard so many stories of gallantry and pure guts since I have been here that it is difficult for me to begin. Heroes are not uncommon on this beachhead. I was lucky in my own personal invasion of France. I came in on a comparatively quiet sector.

As General Montgomery has announced, the battle for the beaches has been won. Sometime when we are not so busy, history will record the battle of the Commandos who landed behind the German defenses and disrupted the Nazis as they were firing at each other. Or of the Canadians who walked point blank into the German shore fire to silence the batteries.

And the most glorious single action of the whole invasion was performed by the American assault force. They clung to their position literally by their fingernails. They fought as no Americans have ever fought before. They were outnumbered, out-gunned with odds twenty to one against them.

They took their position coming through a wall of shrapnel and mortar fire and machine gun bullets that was terrifying. The casualties were high, higher than on any other salient.

The fighting men over here feel very strongly about that beachhead. I stood on the beach a day after the battle. There were American boys lying neatly covered under brown army blankets awaiting burial. I was talking to a young sergeant, from Michigan, I believe. He had been through the toughest of the fighting. He said with great bitterness: "You know," he said, "We used to have a great respect for the German as a soldier and possibly a sportsman. But on that beach while we were lying there waiting for a lull in the barrage, we saw medical corpsmen trying to help the wounded. They had their red cross arm bands high on their arms. There could be no mistaking them. But when they tried to help the boys, they were shot."

This sergeant spit on the ground and walked away. He turned and said over his shoulder: "We're going to fix them for that."

The men on this beachhead make me awfully proud that I am an American.

But the fighting is now many miles from the beaches. Here's what your men are doing tonight. The patrols will be out. A half-dozen men sneaking into enemy country looking for his strong points––taking a prisoner here or there––getting themselves fired at to locate a machine gun nest––scouting a Tiger tank or a Panther tank and marking it on a map. Sometimes two enemy patrols meet and there is a "little war," as we call them. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting with bayonet and knife.

Or if you're not on patrol tonight, you've cleaned your rifle and laid it nearby. Your slit trench is right at the edge of your blankets so that you only have to roll into it in case of shellfire or mortar fire. If you have a tank or a truck, you sleep under it––usually you don't have time to put up your pup tent, and any kind of roof seems good.

There is no definite front line in this Battle of France. I found that out the other day when I made a trip to within a mile and a half of the town of Tilly, directly south of Bayeux. The countryside is very close, with high, thick hedges along the roads. Patches of wood-land dot the countryside. The wheat and oats and rye are high, about ready for a good harvest. It is sort of a concentrated Iowa.

It is perfect country for snipers. We were driving down one road when we came to a clear patch. We heard the crack of a Spandau machine gun––and before we realized what it was, there was another burst of fire. The dust alongside our jeep spurted as if it had come alive. A sniper had taken a crack at us. Luckily his aim was bad. We got out of there in a hurry.

Further down the road, we came upon some very fresh Germans. They were lying in the road, killed only a few hours before. But we saw tank tracks and decided to follow up. Then we came to a group of Tommies crouching behind a group of farm buildings next to an orchard. We joined them and discovered to our surprise that they were men of the Reconnaissance Corps. They were looking for a German tank infiltration...needless to say, we were not. It was no place to be armed only with a pencil.

About that time, some German eighty-eights started shelling around the orchard. They drove us to the ground. During a lull, we turned our jeep around and headed for safety. You want a tank to ride that far forward.

When the votes of thanks are passed around after this war, the Allied air forces are going to get more than their share. Since this invasion began, I have seen exactly six Nazi fighters over the bridgehead. German bombers dare only appear at night, and they are not striking in any large force. You never look up at the sky any longer to see what's coming your way. You always know it's American, or British or Allied. The sky over our heads is Allied, just as sure as is the ground under our feet.

Not only have the Allied air forces kept the enemy grounded, they have also bombed and strafed military targets directly in line of our advances. It was dive-bombing Thunderbolts that helped save the position on the American beachhead. Rocket-carrying British planes are as good as artillery in attacking a German strong point. You hear nothing but praise for the air forces.

Naval bombardment, too, has played a big part in the success of the invasion. Point-blank fire from American and British destroyers knocked out pillboxes––heavy fire from fifteen and sixteen inch guns of the cruisers and battleships fly far inland to German occupied villages and heights. The burst of the sixteen inch shell is a terrifying thing––the Nazis know it.

And full credit must be given to the men on the merchant ships and part-time sailors who transported us over here. They have undergone bombing and strafing, collision and confusion among thousands of boats––but the supplies hit the beaches. Without them, we might as well go home.

But we are not going home until a lot of us see the ruins of Berlin. The men fighting on this beachhead are keeping something in trust––keeping this trust for the men whose bodies they walked on the beaches; they are keeping this trust for the honor of you people back home; and they are keeping it for the people of this section of liberated Normandy who showered them with flowers when they arrived.

This trust is victory and freedom from all things Nazi. It is pretty well summed up in the national motto of the French––Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood.

This is Bill Downs in Normandy returning you now to America.