D-Day, the beginning of the Allied invasion of France
, took place on June 6th, 1944
. It was originally planned for June 5th
, as this was the day when the tide
s would be in the Allies' favour and a full moon
would cast its light down upon the Allies at night. However, the worst weather
for a great many years forced Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower
to make the most difficult decision of his military career
and postpone the invasion for 24 hours
. It was the right decision to make as the beach landings would have been a disaster and it would have been dangerous for the paratroops
to drop behind the beaches.
But such a mass of men and equipment that had been gathered in the south of England couldn't stay there for long, and everyone knew it. They would have to go on the 6th regardless of weather. Luckily, fortune smiled on the Allies and there was a miraculous improvement in the weather conditions for the 6th June. The invasion was a success and began the defeat of the Nazi forces in Europe.
The invasion was overwhelming. Around 150,000 men landed on June 6th, followed by more troops in the following days. 1,500 tanks were brought across the English Channel. There was some 5,000 boats involved. The Allies also brought 11,000 aircraft to bear against the Luftwaffe's measly 183 fighter planes in Normandy.
The U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions drop into France around the base of the Cherbourg peninsula, behind Utah beach. They are scattered, but successful. The British 6th Airborne is dropped to the east of Caen, behind Sword beach.
The American assault fleet of the Western Task Force arrives off Omaha and Utah beaches and anchor. They begin the naval bombardment of the beach defences.
The British and Canadian assault fleet of the Eastern Task Force arrives off Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches and anchor. They commence the naval bombardment of their beach defences.
The massive Allied naval bombardment ceases in readiness for the landing troops to make their way up the beaches.
H-Hour on Utah beach. The troops meet only light resistance.
H-Hour on Omaha beach. The troops here face heavy opposition due to failed air bombing. The Americans are pinned down on the beach by German resistance until 11:00, much later than was planned.
H-Hour on Gold beach. All main objectives are accomplished by the British troops by 11:19. There is strong German opposition in Le Hamel, which is finally quelled at 16:30.
H-Hour on Sword beach. The landings here go pretty smoothly, all going roughly according to plan.
H-Hour on Juno beach. The landings here are 20 minutes late, but all the Canadians' objectives are met by 10:00.
D-Day, or Operation Overlord as it was known, was the largest combined air, sea, and land operation ever. As such, it received an unprecedented level of meticulous planning over the course of two years. Every last detail and eventuality had to be planned for in the finest detail. Each man had to know his mission.
The first major question that had to be addressed was where the invasion should take place. The Allies had already began an invasion of Italy and were pushing the Axis forces further and further back through Italy (Rome was liberated on 4th June). It was not practical to have this as the only front Germany had to fight on. France could not easily be liberated via Italy. It was also not enough to let the Soviet forces free Europe on their own from the east. Although the Eastern Front was a major and costly distraction for Germany, the opening of an additional Western Front might just catastrophically divide Germany's forces and compound their defeat.
The most logical place for an invasion of France from England was in the area of Calais, since this was the closest point to the English coast. Of course, the German command saw this too and consequently the Calais area was made the strongest part of the "Atlantic Wall" defending the French coast. An invasion here would be difficult and costly in terms of men and equipment, but Calais' proximity to England would serve to make the tremendous logistical problem of transporting tens of thousands of men and tons and tons of equipment much easier.
Another, often forgotten, possibility was an invasion via Norway. Such an invasion may have been more effective than it initially sounds. Although Norway could be a fairly inhospitable place, the Allies, Britain in particular, had had success in staging raids there (such as the British-backed raid of a group of Norwegians to destroy the main German heavy water plant, severely damaging Germany's efforts to construct a nuclear bomb). Norway could have been a good staging post to mount an assault directly on Germany itself.
However, Norway was not favoured by Allied command. France was where they wanted to go so that they could drive the German forces out of France and the Netherlands, and move into the Rhineland to Germany, and onto Berlin. Calais was decided against in the end - it was heavily defended and too obvious. The chosen site for invasion was Normandy.
Normandy had some nice sloping beaches where troops and vehicles could land effectively. Although it did form part of Field Marshall Karl Gerd von Rundstedt's Atlantic Wall, it was not as heavily defended as Calais. Normandy, though further away than the Pas-de-Calais, was still close enough to transport the invasion force across the English Channel, and was still within the range of Allied air forces. Normandy also had the port of Cherbourg, which, once captured, could be used to bring in men, vehicles, equipment, and supplies more easily. Normandy was also thought to have fairly easy ground to move across. As it turned out, this was not to be the case due to the massive hedgerows that criss-crossed the countryside. But still, Normandy was to be the location of the invasion of Europe.
A major part of the Allies' strategy was to confuse the German commanders over the details of the invasion. The invasion itself was no secret, the only big secrets were the time and place. The Allies could keep the Germans guessing about the exact date of the invasion by simply keeping it a closely guarded secret. They were successful in this. Although by 1944, the German command knew that invasion was soon, they could never be sure when. In fact, the chosen date of invasion could not have been better planned. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, commanding Army Group B in Normandy, happened to choose that particular time to take some time off to visit his wife at home for her birthday.
As for the location, the Allies devised clever strategies to misdirect the German's attention. The first was through the use of double agents. The British had men feeding the German command misinformation about the invasion, all the while the Germans were under the impression they was working for them (many were captured German spies in Britain). The Germans were so pleased with some of this intelligence work that one man was awarded the Iron Cross just prior to being awarded an MBE by Britain in 1944 for his actual work! These agents guided the German command's attention to a Calais invasion, and also maintained that there would be a secondary invasion from Scotland via Norway. This strategy worked brilliantly. Even when the invasion in Normandy was fully underway, the German command still believed that this was just a faint, and the real force would be coming into the Calais area soon. As a consequence, forces that might have succeeded in pushing the Allies forces back into the Channel were held back until it was too late. Also, even after the invasion the double agent still maintained that there was going to be a front opened in Norway, thus causing the German command to keep even more forces held back well out of the way in Norway for most of the rest of the war. This whole operation was a real intelligence tour-de-force on the part of the British.
Another ingenious British ploy was to construct hundreds of inflatable, wooden, and other false tanks and amass them in fake staging grounds. This had the effect of making the Allied forces look larger than they were, and also in placing false staging grounds in places near to where an invasion of Calais would probably be launched, it further misdirected the German deployment of forces. Further misdirection was conducted through massive bombing raids on sections of the Atlantic Wall in places other than Normandy.
There was misdirection even on the invasion day itself. The invasion was to be preceded by mass drops of paratroops behind the Normandy beachhead. While the real paratroops were being dropped into Normandy, there were thousands of dummy troopers being dropped into other parts of coastal France. These straw-filled mannequins also ingeniously contained firecrackers which would go off upon landing, thus creating "gunfire" to confuse the enemy further.
Objectives for D-Day:
The main objective of D-Day was to establish beachheads at each of the five beaches, and then link them together to form one long unified beachhead. This was not achieved on D-Day, but enough of a foothold was obtained to establish the Allies in France. The only two beachheads to link together on D-Day were Gold and Juno beaches. A main concern for the Allies was to take the key town of Caen, inland from the British and Canadian beaches. However, German resistance was tough and the town did not fall into Allied hands for six weeks.
Procedure and method of invasion:
Now that the location of the invasion was decided, Allied command now needed to plan what they were actually going to do. First, they needed to decide the exact location of landing. There were to be five landing beaches, codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Before troops would land on the beaches, airborne troops were to drop behind the beaches to help secure the beachhead.
21st Army Group
General Bernard L. Montgomery
U.S First Army British Second Army
Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley Lieutenant General Miles C. Dempsey
| | | |
VIII Corps V Corps XXX Corps I Corps
Major General Major General Lieutenant General Lieutenant General
J. Lawton Collins Leonard T. Gerow Gerard Bucknall John T. Crocker
| | | | | | | | | |
| | | | | | | | | |
UTAH OMAHA GOLD JUNO SWORD
U.S. U.S. British Canadian British
\ du Hoc /
\ | /
U.S. 82nd British 6th
Airborne U.S. 101st Pegasus Bridge * Airborne
Division Airborne Division
The defences needed to be softened up by bombing raids. There was a massive air campaign to attain air superiority over the Luftwaffe in northern France. Air and naval superiority had to be obtained so that the landing of troops could actually be accomplished. The landing beaches would need to be bombed just before the troops landed so to destroy beach obstacles and mines. Before the invasion (June 4th), midget submarines were sent to the beaches to mark them out for the approaching troops. Once this was accomplished, the invasion fleet could move towards their beaches. Warships bombarded the French coast and minesweepers cleared paths for the landing craft.
The first troops to go into France would be the several thousand American and British airborne troops. In the west, the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were to land behind, and help secure, the Utah beachhead and protect the left flank of the invasion. Their key objectives were to secure the five main causeways leading from Utah beach to allow troops and vehicles to move inland, to take out German gun batteries covering the beaches, to take and hold strategic towns and villages, such as Sainte-Mère-Église, Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, and Vierville, to destroy some German garrisons, and to draw Germans forces from the beaches onto the causeways inland. The airborne operations were crucial to the success of the invasion and nearly failed due to their pilots failing to drop the paratroops in the correct dropzones. Fortunately, the paratrooper was a highly competent and motivated soldier and, although their missions were not a total success, they were successful enough to fulfil their intended role. To the east, behind Sword beach, the British 6th Airborne Division (the famed "Red Devils") had similar objectives and had to secure several important bridges.
Several hours after the airborne landings, troops landed on the beaches. The first men to go in were engineers who were tasked with destroying beach obstacles, clearing mines, and making pathways for the tanks to come ashore. They were followed by the first waves of troops who were landed in Higgins Boats. With the troops were to come a series of tanks. These tanks were known as "DD Tanks" and were amphibious, designed to swim onto the beach with the aid of fold-away canvas "hulls". Unfortunately, these tanks were an abject failure, especially on Omaha beach, as the seas were too choppy and the canvas hulls flooded, sinking the tanks. The absence of tank support was one of the major problems on Omaha beach.
However, there were tanks that made it, primarily on the British beaches. These tanks were of great use due to some unique and ingenious additions to them. These so-called "funnies" had useful gadgets to aid them in landing. Some had large chain flails which would rotate, lashing at the sandy ground, to destroy mines, clearing a safe path for troops. Other "funnies" would carry a large roll of portable roadway which they would unroll ahead of them, thus creating makeshift road for other vehicles to use to make their way up the beach quickly and easily.
Other ingenious devises used by the Allies were the two manmade harbours called "mulberries" which were floated over to Normandy. These massive concrete constructions were used to serve the Allies' harbour needs until Cherbourg could be captured.
But aside from the incoming troops, the French Resistance contributed to the success of D-Day by sabotaging German communication lines, destroying railroads, and ambushing supply convoys.
The major advantage the German forces had in repelling an Allied invasion was their "Atlantic Wall". This was a massive 1,300 mile stretch of coastline that was defended by thousands of bunkers, fortified gun emplacements, millions of mines, and various beach obstacles designed to halt tanks. The Germans had 500,000 men to defend it, but most were not particularly good troops. In the Normady sector, there were only 70,000 troops, compared to the Allies' 150,000.
Hitler had placed Gerd von Rundstedt in charge of "Fortress Europe", but Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, in command of Army Group B, was sent by Hitler to bolster defences. The Germans had a considerable Army in Normandy, including several Panzer divisions.
However, the Germans suffered from the command problems that had become to characterise their flagging war campaign. Firstly, there was conflict between Rommel and von Rundstedt over how to use the Panzer divisions in the area. Rommel believed (correctly) that the Atlantic Wall defences would be breached by the invading Allied forces and the Panzer divisions would be best placed in a position to respond immediately to the location of invasion so that the Allies could be attacked while still on the beaches. This was in direct contrast to von Rundstedt's view that the Panzer divisions would be best held in reserve until it could be decided how best to direct them in a decisive counter-attack.
But the most significant problem with the German command was its reliance on Hitler personally to endorse decisions made. Rommel was delayed enough already due to his unfortunately timed absence from France, but the delay in ordering his Panzer divisions to counter-attack was further compounded by having to get Hitler's personal approval of the order. This might not have been such a problem, except for the fact that the Führer was asleep and no-one would wake him.
The troops, although plentiful, were inadequate to the job of defending the Atlantic Wall. About 50% of the soldiers in the Ost Battalions were Russian or Polish conscripts, captured from the Eastern Front. As such, they were hardly motivated to defend the Third Reich that had captured and mistreated them, and ravaged their homeland. These troops surrendered easily. There was some resistance, most ferocious on Omaha beach where the troops were in fact well-trained and from the German 352nd Division.
The leftmost beachhead of the Normandy invasion was supported by the American airborne divisions. This beach was important due to its proximity (60km) to the critical port of Cherbourg. There was not particularly heavy resistance, and was entirely manageable by the American VIII Corps. There was only one strongpoint, known as "W5". This was surrendered when the only effective gun - an 88mm gun - was rendered unoperational by shrapnel damage. The biggest problem with this beach was not in its defensive forces, but in the terrain beyond the beach to the north that had been flooded, hindering progress towards Cherbourg.
The troops had a little luck in this landing. The boat guiding the landing craft to the landing location hit a mine and was totally destroyed. The landing craft had to make the rest of the journey alone, and in doing so drifted off course, landing further east than intended. At the planned location of landing the beach defences were better than at the actual landing location, and many lives were spared.
This beach was crucial as it linked the British and American sectors. It also was the link between the Contentin peninsula and the plain leading up to the key town of Caen. Omaha was also the most heavily defended beach, and was difficult in terms of it being fairly restricted. Its terrain was not just unique in its restricted nature, but, unlike the other Normandy beaches, it was curved and had a series of bluffs and cliffs that were highly defensible. Pillboxes were ideally positioned in the concealed draws so that they had a field of fire over the entire beach, yet were protected from naval bombardment. These pillboxes had to be taken by direct infantry assault through the narrow pathways between the bluffs and cliffs. Since this beach was clearly going to be the toughest, the veteran 1st U.S. Division was designated to be among those landing to provide some experienced guidance if things got too tough. However, the men at Omaha, and most of the men landing on the D-Day beaches generally, were very green and had never experienced combat before. The thinking behind this move from the Allied Command was that veteran soldiers are cautious soldiers, and would hesitate to take the risks required to take the beach.
There was a major intelligence failure on the part of the Allies. They believed the very effective German 352nd Division, which had served in Russia, was some 20 miles inland around St. Lo and Caumont. In fact, this division was directly behind the beach and were able to inflict serious damage on the invading troops. There were also 20 37mm and 88mm guns, although some had been damaged in air raids.
The U.S. V Corps were tasked with pushing inland to St. Lo, the site of a major crossroads, and Caumont with the intention of cutting off German communications.
Omaha beach was the most bloody and costly of all the invasion beaches. Around a third of the first wave of men were killed in the brutal fire they faced.
Objectives for this beachhead were to link up with the U.S. beachhead to the west, and the Canadian beachhead to the east. Its main objective however was to capture Arromanches which was needed to become the site of a Mulberry manmade harbour. It was also required to punch through the German lines and take Bayeux.
Despite initial fierce German opposition, the British, and also some Free French, troops overcame the Russians and Poles of the Ost Battalion and the poor units of the 716th Infantry Division. With the aid of the "funnies" of the 79th Armoured Division, the British found great success on this beach and were able to accomplish all their objectives with fairly light casualties.
This was the beach assigned to the 3rd Canadian Division. The Canadians were more concerned than the British and Americans due to fresh and painful memories of the 2nd Canadian Division's decimation in the raid on Dieppe on 19th August, 1942. Still, the Canadians almost managed to reach their objective of taking the airfield at Carpiquet (west of Caen). There was initially heavy opposition at Courselles-sur-Mer from the 440th Ost Battalion and some elements of the 716th Infantry Division, also behind Gold beach. The Canadians had only light casualties and made the deepest penetration of all Allies forces on D-Day, all despite some opposition late in the day from some parts of the 2lst Panzer and l2th SS Panzer Divisions. These forces were, however, deployed too far inland to seriously damage the Canadian landings.
The objectives for the British at this beachhead were to push inland to Caen and link with the 6th Airborne Division east of the Orne and Caen canals. The 1st Commando Brigade under Lord Lovat's command, were to meet with Major John Howard's Ox & Bucks Light Infantry who had glidered in during the night to capture Pegasus Bridge. The main objective was to liberate Caen, but this was too ambitious for the limited means of D-Day, particularly with strong resistance from the 2lst Panzer and later the 12th SS Panzer Divisions. The British didn't manage to even reach Caen on D-Day, and it was six weeks before the town fell into Allied hands. There was also some opposition from the much over-stretched 716th Infantry Division (also present and Gold and Juno beaches).
At about 00:16 on the night of June 5th/6th, a glider carrying Major John Howard, commanding the Ox and Bucks (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire) Light Infantry, of the British 6th Airborne Division, landed close to Pegasus Bridge, a key bridge west of Sword beach that was crucial to the Allied movement inland. Howard's first platoon landed, followed by the second and third platoons and 00:17and 00:18. All three gliders landed within yards of the bridge, an excellent display of piloting in the night conditions. These men were the first Allied troops in France on D-Day. Their operation to capture the bridge intact would need to rely on speed.
The lightly defended bridge was captured by 00:21 and the 100 Ox & Bucks men then had to defend and hold the bridge until reinforced and relieved by 1 Commando Brigade landing on Sword beach later that day.
Had the bridge not been captured, the whole eastern flank of the Allied landings could have been in jeopardy.
Pointe du Hoc:
The Pointe du Hoc was a cliff outcrop which lay between Utah and Omaha beaches. On this clifftop were six 155mm German guns, which were ideally positioned to lay down terrible fire on both beaches, and out to sea, with their 25km range. Allied command considered this to be the most dangerous threat to the invasion, and as such an operation was planned to destroy the guns. Bombing raids had not managed to be effective, so it fell to the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion to do the job.
The Rangers had to approach the cliff in their boats, fire up rope ladders, and somehow scale the 30m sheer vertical to overhanging cliffs, all under German fire. As the Rangers were climbing the cliffs, the Germans were throwing down grenades. Through determination, the Rangers made it up the cliffs and took the gun position. However, they found that the reconnaissance photographs showing the guns in position in their dugouts, where in fact telegraph poles placed as decoys.
However, disaster was fortunately avoided when a patrol led by the sergeant of D Company ran into the guns in a position a kilometre inland. They had been moved to a more secluded and protected position. The sergeant could see that all the Germans were at a briefing a few hundred yards away, leaving the guns unguarded. So, with his comrade standing guard, the sergeant sneaked up to the guns and placed thermite grenades in the breech blocks, thus melting the mechanism together to render all the guns useless. This action saved countless lives on the American beaches, and possibly saved the whole invasion from failure.
The rewards, and the costs:
D-Day was a huge success. Initial setbacks were overcome quickly. The cost in life was much lower than Allied Commanders had predicted. Churchill had predicted mass casualties, but this was only really the case on Omaha beach. Many men, particularly the Airborne troops, had been told that they could expect 50% casualties. However, of the 150,000 Allied troops in France on D-Day, there was "only" 10,000 casualties. That is, of course, a very high number, but it was far better than estimates. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, was not entirely confident that the invasion would succeed. He had in fact penned a speech placing full responsibility for the invasion's failure on himself, and him alone. Eisenhower never had to make the speech.
It must be remembered that only 11 months after D-Day, the German Army surrendered. No force has ever managed to successfully defend three fronts. The German Army after D-Day was fighting in the west, in the east, and in the south in Italy. They had no chance really.
But it must also be remembered that this came at a terrible cost in blood. Paratroops were shot or had their throat cut while dangling from buildings and trees in their parachutes. Many more were drowned in the flooded fields behind Utah beach. One company landing on Omaha saw 96% of its men die in the first 15 minutes of landing. Omaha beach was sheer Hell on Earth. Men disembarking landing craft were often just sitting ducks for the German machineguns, and they could go nowhere except charge into the hail of flying bullets. Here, of the first 32 Sherman tanks that were to help capture the beach, 27 were lost to the bottom of the sea en route to the beach. Many of the crews drowned.
But this was a cost that had to be paid. The tyranny of Nazi Germany had to be stopped, and stopped it was. If soldiers didn't believe in their cause on D-Day, they did as they moved through Europe and saw the horror of its oppressed peoples, and Nazi Germany's sickening "crowning achievement" of the concentration camps. The price paid by the soldiers on D-Day, and thereafter, seemed a whole lot more reasonable within this light.
D-Day, and Operation Overlord as a whole, was an absolute success. All objectives were eventually accomplished, and Europe was liberated.
Stephen E. Ambrose, "D-Day"
David Kenyon Webster, "Parachute Infantry: An American Paratooper's Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich"
TIME, May 31st 2004
Accumulated titbits from the History Channel!