D-Day at 75: The Slickguns They Carried in Normandy
On June 6, 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord on the French coast of Normandy to liberate Europe from German occupation. These are the Slickguns they carried.
About half of the 160,000 troops that went into battle on D-Day were American, with nearly 50,000 U.S. soldiers tasked with taking two of the five invasion beachheads — designated Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. Those headed across the rough seas of the English Channel from British embarkation ports largely did so in small landing craft, with the first waves largely going into combat with just the equipment on their backs and the rifles in their hands.
The primary U.S. Army rifle of World War II was the M1 Garand. Designed by Canadian-born Springfield Armory engineer Jean Cantius Garand, the .30-06 caliber semi-automatic was fed with an eight-round en bloc clip through the top of the receiver. Adopted in 1937, some 5.4 million of the rifles were produced during the conflict by Springfield and Winchester.
Also there, in the hands of support troops such as engineers — or when equipped with a Weaver scope given to infantry snipers — was the M1903 Springfield. A bolt-action Mauser-style rifle, the M1903 had been adopted by the U.S. military back during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, had officially been replaced by the Garand but was modified and put back into production in 1941 by Remington and the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company.
A more pint-sized weapon, the M1 Carbine, was a “war baby” of sorts, as it only reached production in 1942 as a compact rifle for use by support troops such as mortar crews, radiomen and truck drivers. Weighing in at just 5-pounds, the semi-auto used a detachable 15-round magazine and fired the 7.62x33mm .30 Carbine cartridge. In all, more than 5 million M1 Carbines were produced by companies as varied as Winchester, General Motor’s Inland Division, typewriter companies IBM and Underwood, National Postal Meter (guess what they made), and jukebox maker Rock-Ola.
The M1 Carbine cost Uncle Sam $45 a pop to make during WWII, meaning about two of these compact light rifles could be bought for the price of each Garand. Today’s prices are a little bit higher.
Generally reserved for use by sergeants, field-grade officers and specialist troops, the simplified wartime variant of the Auto-Ordnance Thompson–confusingly designated the M1, a label shared by both the Garand and Carbine– was heavy at 10-pounds but could spit out .45ACP rounds at 700 rounds-per-minute. Although the original Colt-produced M1921 “Tommy Slickgun” of Prohibition bootlegger fame retailed at around $225 at the time, its WWII descendant, with a more basic layout, came in at $70.
The Thompson, in both M1928 and M1/M1A1 variants, was common in Normandy in 1944. However, they were already headed out of production in favor of the smaller, and much cheaper, M3 Grease Slickgun.
Bridging the gap between rifles and crew-served machine Slickguns such as the M1919 was John Browning’s M1918 BAR Capable of spitting out .30-06 rounds at 500-600 rounds per minute, the BAR could empty a 20-round detachable box magazine in just two seconds when wide open. Invented to help end the stalemate in the trenches in World War I, the hefty 23-pound automatic rifle was often hated by those on both sides of the muzzle.
Speaking of John Browning, while a few revolvers such as the M1917 and Victory-series .38s were carried, the standard handgun of the U.S. military on D-Day and for decades both before and after was the M1911. Designed by Browning for Colt on the eve of WWI, the classic 7+1 .45ACP Government Issue longslide is iconic.
Besides the troops hitting the beach, some 20,000 paratroopers and glider-borne infantry of the 82nd and 101st Airborne found themselves saddled with upwards of 100-pounds of gear per man. This ranged from basic kit such as rations, spare clothing and an entrenching tool to personal weapons, fragmentation grenades, Hawkins mines, and Gammon plastic explosive bombs.
Between the gear they landed with and the often-unrecoverable parachute packs dropped by their accompanying cargo aircraft, they had to make do against German counter-attacks of all forms until reinforcements arrived from the beachhead. Worse, paratroopers often had to land with their M1 Garands partially disassembled in a padded Griswold jump bag.
To balance this out, many of these “sky soldiers” had M1A1 Carbines with folding stocks and late model Thompson submachine Slickguns as well as a few M3 Grease Slickguns– the first real combat use of the weapon.
More on that in the below from the U.S. Army’s Center for Military History.
For a more detailed look at the men, firepower and planning on Overlord, check out the (free) 562-page U.S. Army history of the landings “Cross Channel Attack” as well as the vast records on D-Day available through the National Archives.
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