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The odds of surviving until Christmas seem slimmer and slimmer. That November 1943, half way up a mountain near Mignano, in central Italy, with Corporal Audie Murphy and newly promoted Colonel Ware positioned just half a mile away, Britt’s forward positions come under savage attack. Britt knows that as the advanced unit in the 3rd Division’s defense of the mountain, he has to hold off the Germans as long as possible – so that his division comrades, including Murphy and Ware, have a fighting chance.
The Germans are hell bent on wiping out the American positions. It’s the fiercest, most unrelenting combat so far and before long Murphy and others are seeking refuge in a cave, pounded by accurate artillery fire. Something snaps inside Britt. The situation demands bold action, superb leadership. Once again, Britt wages a one-man war, determined to save his regiment from defeat. A private sees a bloodied Britt run out of ammunition for his carbine and then grab the M-1 of a severely wounded man so he can keep firing.

“At first it didn’t sink through my thick skull that the Germans were using our men as a shield,” Britt will recall. “Their trap might have worked, but one German eight-ball-there’s one in every Army-cut loose with his machine pistol and started screaming, ‘Surrender, surrender.’ I yelled to the prisoners to take off and then started firing myself. Most of the prisoners got away, but we couldn’t move. Behind us was an open field, which meant it would have been suicide to withdraw, and ahead of us were Germans. God knows how many. They seemed to be everywhere.”

According to one account: “He [Britt] fired about 75 rounds from his carbine, changing clips five times before running out of ammunition…he ran from side to side of our machine gun, firing at every sound and sight of the Germans; layer I saw Lt. Britt, slightly bleeding from his face, having run out of carbine ammo, grab the M1 rifle of a badly wounded man lying near me and continue to fire with it. He also grabbed some hand grenades and went ahead of our position, looking for Germans. A few minutes later, I saw him throwing grenades, disregarding machine-pistol bursts hitting all around him. I marveled he wasn’t hit. Concussion grenades were bursting all around him.”

A sergeant notices that Britt’s “canteen [is] pierced with bullet holes and his shirt covered with water; his field glasses case, too…pierced with bullet holes.” In all, Britt throws 32 grenades at the onrushing enemy and – using a rifle, a carbine and a heavy machine gun – stops the Germans in their tracks. He’s wounded but continues to kill enemy soldiers until they begin to fall back. The Fifteenth Infantry have narrowly avoided a humiliating rout. It is the kind of performance that will soon make Britt the first American soldier in WWII – and indeed in any single war – to win every award for bravery, a quite astonishing achievement.

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By Alex Kershaw

Too few men received the highest award for valor on D Day. Is it time to correct this 75-year-old injustice?  

        On 6 June 1944, some 73,000 Americans landed in Normandy. More than two thousand made the ultimate sacrifice with by far the highest losses suffered on Omaha Beach with over nine hundred killed. There were untold acts of great boldness and audacity – frontal assaults into the cross-hairs of pre-sited machine-guns depend for their success above all on courage and aggression. And yet for their actions on D Day only four Americans received the highest award for valor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Were too few recognized from so very many brave men?

        One of the four recipients was Theodore Roosevelt Jr., acting deputy commander of the 4Th Division, the oldest man at age 56 to land in the first wave. He led very ably on 6 June and beyond. Stepping out of a landing craft at around 6.30 am on Utah Beach was in itself medal-worthy. Yet his status as the son of America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, also explains  why he and no other man from 23,500 who crossed Utah, or indeed any paratrooper from more than 13,000 who dropped inland of the beach, received the highest award for valor. Patronage and politics played a part, however courageous Roosevelt undoubtedly was. 

       Other than Roosevelt, who died of heart failure on 12 July 1944, the other recipients of the medal all came ashore on Omaha. From the 35,000 men landed that day on the most fatal of the five landing beaches, some 4,700 men become casualties – missing, wounded, or killed – around thirteen percent of the total force launched early that morning from the sea. More than 900 men died there. No other one-day battle in the fight to liberate Europe was as costly for Americans as that to take Bloody Omaha. No other stretch of sands in Europe, it might be argued, witnessed so much death as well as courage in WWII. 

     All three of the men who received the MOH on Omaha belonged to the storied Big Red One, the only US infantry division from three on D Day that had previously experienced combat. Technician 5th Grade John Pinder from Pennsylvania had, like many of his comrades, seen action in Sicily with the 16th Infantry. He knew what an MG-42 machine gun sounded like – how it could fire up to 1500 rounds per minute, three times faster than any American automatic weapon. He knew the shrapnel caused by an 88mm artillery piece could turn men to hamburger. On Omaha, there was hardly anywhere out of range of both weapons.

      Pinder actually landed on his 32nd birthday, probably in the Easy Red sector, one of eight assigned landing zones, and the second most lethal after Dog Green where most of the  first wave were killed or wounded in just a few minutes. Carrying a heavy radio on his back, he was a natural target for snipers enjoying open season – defenders who knew that taking out radiomen was as impactful as picking off officers whose job it was to lead young, terrified Americans into the line of fire.

      As Pinder stepped off his landing craft, he came under intense machine gunfire which ripped through men nearby. He’d waded just a few yards when he too was hit. Although badly wounded, he managed to make it to the beach with his radio. Losing blood rapidly, Pinder refused to be treated by a medic and was seen trying to pull another radio and other equipment from the bullet-whipped shallows. The third time he returned to the waterline he was shot in the legs. While setting up radio communication – which would have helped save lives – he was hit yet again, this time fatally. 

         24-year-old Private Carlton Barrett, just 5ft 4 inches tall, tipping the scales at 125 pounds, was probably the smallest man in the 1st Division’s 18th Infantry Regiment. He also waded ashore under heavy fire. He too was seen returning several times to the water, in his case to save wounded men form drowning. Even as mortar shells exploded and bullets slashed all around, according to his MOH citation, he “calmed the shocked; he arose as a leader in the stress of the occasion.” He survived Omaha and the war. Forever haunted by the carnage he had witnessed, he died aged 66 in California.

            26-year-old, Virginia-born Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith, also with the Big Red One, also arrived when Bloody Omaha was deadliest and managed to organize his unit and get it to relative safety below some cliffs. He then led two tanks through a minefield and directed their fire at enemy strongpoints which were soon destroyed. After moving off Fox Red sector, furthest east on Omaha, he and his men seized a critical strongpoint, WN61, but were then surrounded. Attempting to break out, Monteith was killed.

        For their heroism on Omaha Beach, 153 men would receive the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second highest award for bravery. Some of these DSC awards for extraordinary courage on Omaha should, without doubt, have actually been Medals of Honor. But officials were apparently concerned that too many men would get the highest award and its significance might somehow be diminished. So in several cases the MOH was downgraded to a DSC by an evaluation board. Had it not been for a personal note from General Eisenhower himself, Jimmie Monteith would in fact have received the DSC rather than the MOH.

       Not one man from the other infantry division to land on Omaha, the 29th, received the MOH yet so many, namely Assistant Division Commander Norman Cota, were certainly deserving of it, more than showing sufficient “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty”. Unlike the Big Red One, the 29th Division was new to combat and most of National Guard unit’s officers had never made medal recommendations for a bronze star, let alone the highest award with its stringent conditions.

        As the 75th anniversary of D Day approaches it might be appropriate to convene a new evaluation board and look again at the cases of those whose bravery was not sufficiently recognized on D Day, starting with those who fought on Omaha Beach. Upgrading several DSC awards would be a fitting act of commemoration. It would make the families of these forgotten inordinately proud quite apart from correcting an injustice. But what of the recipients, long gone? Might they shrug and smile ruefully from their graves? Might they simply say, as so many living MOH recipients do: Thanks, but I was just doing my job. I was doing what any other good soldier would do.

        What do medals mean anyway? Many decorated veterans from WWII have prized above all the combat infantry badge, not an award for valor as such, but a signifier that they were in fact there, deep in the horror and maw, unlike the men on evaluation boards. They did their part. The recognition of that was more than enough. Take the case of Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier from WWII. He didn’t rack up 33 awards so he could bask in glory. He wanted to get the war over as fast as he could and the best way to shorten it, in his mind, was to attack and kill the enemy. Medals meant so little to him that he considered giving all of his away when he returned home, covered in ribbons, brutalized and forever broken. “War is a nasty business,” he told one reporter, “to be avoided if possible, and to be gotten over with as soon as possible. It’s not the sort of job that deserves medals.”

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“Meet the assaulters: Pathfinders plunging from the black, coxswains plowing the whitecaps, bareknuckle Rangers scaling sheer rock. Will they secure the landing zone? Wrest the beachhead? Or will that last bridge blow up in their faces? Even if we know how D-Day ends, The First Wave grips with all the power of a first read. Fast-paced and up-close, this is history’s greatest story reinvigorated as only Alex Kershaw can.”—Adam Makos, New York Times bestselling author of A Higher Call

Montgomery decorates Sgt Streczyk of the 16th Regimental Combat Team with a British Military Medal

“The First Wave is Alex Kershaw’s stirring tribute to the warriors who successfully carried out the largest and most difficult military operations in history 75 years ago. One of the US First Infantry Division NCO’s who survived that desperate day in Normandy later said, ‘You can’t buy valor and you can’t pull heroes off an assembly line.’ Kershaw’s superb account of D-Day and beyond is the story of their amazing courage under fire and how men ranging from a lord of the realm to the humble son of a president answered the call and began the liberation of occupied Europe from Nazi tyranny.”—Carlo D’Este, author of Decision in Normandy and Patton: A Genius for War

“Master storyteller Alex Kershaw brings the key Allied players of D-Day to life once more. He vividly portrays their exploits—Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, French Commandos at Ouistreham, American paratroopers on the Cotentin, and assault troops who hit the Normandy beaches. These pages ooze with the unforgettable human drama of history’s most consequential invasion. Read them and you might even feel as though you were there.”—John C. McManus, author of The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day—The Big Red One at Omaha Beach

“Alex Kershaw brilliantly brings a new perspective to one of the seminal events of WWII. The First Wave is an awe-inspiring and important book that portrays the blood on the risers, from Captain Frank Lillyman’s airborne pathfinders to Lieutenant George Kerchner’s Rangers and their remarkable assault on the cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc. The sights, sounds, and fury of D-Day are vividly captured in Kershaw’s virtuoso narrative.”—Patrick K. O’Donnell, author of The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Who Brought Him Home


“A masterful retelling of the most dramatic day of World War II—the Allied landings on the beaches of France. In Alex Kershaw’s expert hands, readers will feel the sting of the cold surf, smell the acrid cordite that hung in the air, and duck the zing of machine gun bullets whizzing overhead. The First Wave is an absolute triumph.”—James M. Scott, Pulitzer Prize Finalist and national bestselling author of Target Tokyo and Rampage

1946 photo of Pegasus Bridge with, from left, Georges Gondree the Proprietor of Cafe Gondree – now the Pegasus Bridge Cafe, Major John Howard DSO and Capt. David Wood.

B4K8NE WW2 casualties from the initial assault on D Day are helped ashore on Sword Beach The 1st Battalion South Lancashire Regiment together with elements of the Middlesex Regiment make their way up the beach from their landing crafts 1944

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ADN-ZB/Archiv, II.Weltkrieg 1939-45
Die Ardennenoffensive der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht beginnt am 16. Dezember 1944 gegen die alliierten Truppen in Westeuropa. Nach anf‰nglichen Erfolgen m¸ssen sich die deutschen Truppen bis Ende Januar 1945 auf ihre Ausgangsstellungen zur¸ckziehen.
Eine Kolonne gefangengenommener amerikanischer Soldaten.

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PLEASE VISIT WWW.ALEXKERSHAW.COM for more information on tours of Europe.

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The National WWII Museum embarks on a unique seven-day, six-night tour of France, visiting sites from Alex Kershaw’s New York Times bestsellers—Avenue of Spies and The Bedford Boys—with the author himself serving as featured historian. Guests get an up-close view of the beaches of Normandy, while hearing stories of sacrifice about the “Bedford Boys” who came ashore with Company A, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division during the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Tour members also roam the breathtaking streets of Paris with Kershaw, who provides depth and context to the espionage that occurred there more than 70 years ago. Avenue Foch, one of the most upscale and exclusive streets in Paris, was home to Avenue of Spies protagonist Dr. Sumner Jackson and his family. Their address at Number 11 was both a meeting place for the French Resistance and a drop site for crucial information. High-ranking Nazis took up residence nearby putting the Jacksons in constant danger. Kershaw’s stories will bring to life the Jackson family’s courage at a time when “Never had so many psychopaths and sadists been based on one street in Paris.”

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THE THUNDERBIRDS’ MARCH TOWARD the Third Reich resumed the next morning shortly after dawn. They pushed farther inland, past seemingly endless vineyards where fat grapes ripened. Despite four years of conflict, the pastel-shaded houses and lovingly tended orchards and gardens gave the impression of a prosperous region little affected by world war. As they moved north, men started to practice their high school French.

“Avay voo des oeffs?”

“Voolay voo cooshay aveck moi?”

“Avay voo champagne?”

“A la Victoir!”

“And damn toot sweet!”

Villages and towns fell in quick succession as the Thunderbirds conducted their own Provençal blitzkrieg through Salernes along the D561 to Varages, north to Pertuis, and on to Apt below the Grand Luberon Mountains. It was a dreamlike rush through bleached fields dotted with neat bundles of drying lavender, its scent strong in the hot mistral winds, and along dusty roads shaded by plane trees. Photographs taken during the giddy advance showed Thunderbirds ducking their heads into yellow-stoned fountains, surrounded by excited French boys in shorts and sandals. In some villages, partisans greeted them, feverishly smoking sour Turkish tobacco cigarettes, their pomaded hair glinting in the sun, as vengeful crowds gathered to slap and kick black-eyed collaborators and watch the Germans’ French mistresses have their heads shaved.

Unlike in Italy, there were no shoeless children begging at the mess tents at chow time. No more widows clad in black scavenging in the dirt with bony hands for cigarette and cigar butts. Local partisans provided key intelligence about the Germans and their movements, and often eagerly joined forces with the Thunderbirds as they advanced, flushing enemy snipers like sangliers— wild boars— from cedar forests and gorges of the Luberon Mountains. Some would stay with the regiment until the end of the war.

One day, as he charged deeper into France, Sparks apparently learned from scouts that a key bridge was undefended and decided to check it out. As he approached the bridge, he began to feel distinctly uneasy. It was far too quiet for his liking. Nevertheless, he continued down a hill toward the bridge in his jeep. A dozen Germans suddenly appeared. Sparks put his hands in the air to surrender. A German walked over to the jeep. Then a fist flew. Sparks’s driver is said to have knocked the German to the ground and gunned the engine. Before the startled Germans could react, he and Sparks had raced around a corner and disappeared from view.

Sparks joked that he now must hold the record for the shortest time spent as a prisoner in World War II. But the near escape left him determined to be better armed in the future in case he had to blast his way out of trouble. What he really wanted was a shotgun, like the one he’d used to hunt with back in the Arizona. It wasn’t long before his men had found an old French farmer, paid him for his buckshot-loaded scattergun, and handed it to a delighted Sparks.

Sparks kept his Colt .45 in a hip holster and carried the shotgun up front in his jeep. In one village, he found a craftsman who replaced the pistol’s standard grips with transparent plastic taken from a downed American bomber’s windshield. Sparks set a photograph of his son, Kirk, and wife, Mary, under one grip and a favorite pinup under the other. From now on, beauty would be his lucky charm.



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