By Ernie Pyle

SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE—One of the most vital responsibilities during these opening weeks of our war in the continent of Europe has been the protection of our unloading beaches and ports, for over and through them must pass without interruption and in great masses our buildup of men and material in sufficient masses to roll the Germans clear back out of France.

Nothing must be allowed to interfere with that unloading. Everything we can lay our hands on is thrown into the guarding of those beaches and ports. Allied ground troops police them from the land side, and our two navies protect them from sneak attack by sea.

Our great air supremacy makes daytime air assaults rare and costly. It is only at night that the Germans have a chance. They do keep pecking away at us with night bombers, but their man success in this so far has been in keeping us awake and making us dig our foxholes deeper.

The job of protecting the beaches at night has been given over to the anti-aircraft artillery, or ack ack. I read recently that we have here on the beachhead the greatest concentration of anti-aircraft guns ever assembled in an equivalent space.

normandy beachhead omaha beach

Overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy.

Kept Awake Nights

After three solid weeks of being kept awake all night long by the guns and having to snatch your sleep in odd moments during the daytime, that is not hard to believe. Here on the beachhead, falling flak becomes a real menace, one of the few times I’ve known that to happen in this war.

Every night for weeks, pieces of exploded shells have come whizzing to earth within 50 yards of my tent. Once an unexploded ack ack shell buried itself about half a stone’s throw away.

A good portion of our army on the beachhead now sleeps all night in foxholes, and some of the troops have swung to the Anzio-beachhead custom of building dugouts in order to be safe from falling flak.

For a long time I have intended doing a series about anti-aircraft gunners. I’m glad I never got around to it before, for here on the Normandy beachhead our ack ack seems to have reached its peak.

Our ack ack is commanded by a general officer, which indicates how important it is. His hundreds of gun batteries even intercept planes before they near the beaches. Gun positions are plotted on a big wall map in his command tent, just as battle lines are plotted by infantry units.

A daily score is kept of the planes shot down, those confirmed and probables. Just as an example of the effectiveness of our ack ack, one four-gun battery alone shot down 15 planes in the first two weeks.

Up to the time this is written, the Germans don’t seem to have made up their minds exactly what they are trying to do in the air. They wander around all night long, usually in singles, but sometimes in numbers, but they don’t do a great deal of bombing. Most of them turn away at the first near burst from one of our 90mm. guns.

Can’t Believe It

Our ack ack men say they think the German pilots are yellow, but having seen the quality of German fighting for nearly two years now that is hard for me to believe.

Often they will drop flares that will light up the whole beach area, and then fail to follow through and bomb by the light of their flares.

The ack ack men say that not more than two out of ten planes that approach the beachhead ever make their bomb runs over our shipping. You are liable to get a bomb anywhere along the coastal area, for many of the Germans apparently just salvo their bombs and hightail it home.

It is indeed a spectacle to watch the anti-aircraft fire when the Germans actually get over the beach area. All the machine-guns on the ships lying off the beaches cut loose with their red tracer bullets and those on shore do, too. Their bullets arch in all directions and fuse into a sky-filling pattern.

Lines of tracers bend and wave, and seem like streams of red water from hoses. The whole thing becomes a gigantic animated fountain of red in the black sky, and above all this are the split-second golden flashes of big-gun shells as they explode high up toward the stars.

The noise is terrific. Your tent walls puff from the concussion of guns and bombs, and the earth trembles and shakes as you’re sleeping in a foxhole. Little clouds of dirt come rolling down upon you when the planes are really close and the guns are pounding out a mania of sound.

You put on your steel helmet in bed, and sometimes you drop off to sleep with it on, and wake up with it on in the morning and feel very foolish.

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Brave Men

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