History

D-Day 1944

After almost 3 1/2 years of occupation by the Nazis the Allied forces planned to storm Hitler's Festung Europa ( Fortress Europa ). They chose to come ashore in Normandy France on the 6th of June 1944 in an operation that was code named 'Overlord'.

The Plan

Invaders


The beach landings were to be made by two Allied armies, the U.S. First Army on the left ( composed of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, U.S. 1st Division and the U.S. 29th Division ) and the British Second Army on the right ( composed of the British 50th Infantry Division, British 3rd Infantry Division and the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division ).


German fortifications at Normandy today

58,000 men from the U.S. First Army under General Omar Bradley would attack on the western sector, at two locations code named Omaha and Utah. To the east, a force of 75,000 men, mostly from Lieutenant General Sir Miles Demsey's British Second Army but also including a Canadian Division with and assortment of French, Polish and Dutch troop would invade three adjoining beaches code names Gold, Juno and Sword.


Over 16,000 paratroopers from the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would be dropped in first to guard the western flank from attack and 8,000 men from the British 6th Airborne Division would be dropped to protect the eastern flank.


Remains of Mulberry Harbour on Arromanches beach

The Dieppe raid had made it clear that no major port could be captured quickly or intact. Thus, before the major port of Cherbourg could be cleared of mines and repaired, Overlord forces would have to be supplied over open beaches. This dilemma was solved with the production of two pre fabricated harbours known as Mulberry A and Mulberry B which would be towed across the channel and set in position off the Normandy coast.


On the cliffs of Pointe-de-Hoc

The Deception

Great pains were taken to persuade the enemy that the blow was to fall in the Pas de Calais. This was done by simulating concentrations of troops in Kent and Sussex, assembling dummy fleets in south eastern ports, staging landing exercises on nearby beaches.


On the cliffs of Point-de-Hoc

Defenders

Under the Command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Germans had 500,000 men spread from Holland to Brittany unsure of exactly where an invasion was going to take place. At this point in the War the bulk of seasoned troops where committed on the Russian Front and the defending 7th Army was an untested force that had been filled out with conscripts and other recruits unsuitable for the Eastern Front. Of these troops about 70,000 where stationed neared the beaches planned for the invasion. Air support was poor due to the failing strength of the Luftwaffe after years of air wars. What fighter strength remained was being recalled to German to defend the Reich.


Omaha Beach

In reserve the Germans has three crack panzer divisions but they remained under the direct control of Hitler thus preventing Rommel on depending on their support.

The Invasion

On the 17th of May Eisenhower selected Monday the 5th of June as the tentative D-Day. The final decision to commence would depend on the weather. Unfortunately, gales and high seas lashed the fog bound Normandy beaches on Sunday the 4th of June 1944 and invasion was postponed.


Cratering caused by bombardment of German positions

At 4am the following day, after being promised a short period of good weather, Eisenhower announced "OK, we'll go".

At 0020 the first Allied troops reached French soil. The British 6th Airborne Division landed by glider near Bénouville to seize the bridges over the Canal de Caen and the River Orne.

While the British 6th Airborne Division was securing the eastern flank the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions had landed in the south east near Ste Mère Eglise and Vierville to carry out the same task in the west.

With the Airborne landings in progress, over 1,100 British and Canadian bombers attacked coastal batteries between Le Havre and Cherbourg. At daybreak thirty minutes before the first waves hit the beaches, a massive naval and air bombardment was delivered against coastal defences in the area.


Remnants of German positions at Normandy

At 0630 Force U, comprising the US 4th Infantry Division of the 7th Corps of the US 1st Army spearheaded by the 8th Regiment Combat Team, made a swift and painless landing near the village of La Madeleine, on Utah Beach.


Memorial at Omaha Beach, Normandy

Force O, landing between Vierville and Colleville on Omaha beach, was not to breach the Atlantic Wall easily. There were no dry landings for these men, weakened by sea sickness they disembarked awkwardly to be racked by machine gun and mortar fire from the Germans on the shore. Three hours later the shore was littered with burning vehicles, shattered craft, dead and exhausted men. For some time the positions on Omaha hung in the balance. The commander, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley failed to utilise most of the special armour developed for the invasion and as a consequence Omaha beach became a bloodbath where Americans suffered 1,000 dead and 2,000 wounded. Only a combination of sustained and accurate naval bombardment and dogged assaults broke the crust of the defences and prevented a local disaster from becoming a major crisis.


Hills over looking Omaha Beach, Normandy

Pointe-du-Hoc



Memorial

A unit of 225 Rangers under Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder was dispatched to Pointe du Hoc, a 100 foot high promontory four miles west of Omaha and ten miles east of Utah beaches. Their mission was to destroy six heavily defended German 155mm guns that had command of both beaches. To reach the top of the cliffs the Ranger had to fire rocket propelled grappling hooks and withstand German machine fire, grenades and boulders. By the time Rudder's men had seized the cliff top only 90 of 225 could fight. The German guns they had fought so hard to capture were found hidden in an orchard a mile away, apparently relocated there as a result of earlier aerial raids.

The Result


American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer, where 9,386 are buried

'Apart from the factor of tactical surprise, the comparatively light casualties which we sustained on all beaches, except Omaha, were in large measure due to the success of the novel mechanical contrivances which we employed and to the staggering moral and material effect of the mass armour landed in the leading waves of the assault', the Supreme Commander stated in his report.


Omaha Beach

By nightfall on the 6th of June 1944, 156,000 Allied troops had landed on Normandy. The vaunted Atlantic Wall had been breached on a front of thirty miles between the Vire and the Orne. American losses reported for the day were 1,465 killed, 3,184 wounded, 1,928 missing. The British, who never announced their losses were estimated to have suffered 2,500 to 3,000 casualties. Canadian casualties came to 946. Total casualties about 10,000. Estimates of German casualties were 4,000 to 9,000.


Pathway along coast in American Cemetery, Omaha Beach

The U.S. 4th Division had seized Utah beach with relatively little opposition and joined forces with paratroopers who had been dropped near Ste.-Mère-Eglise. The British and Canadians had overwhelmed their three beaches and advanced three miles inland towards the city of Caen.


Remains of Mulberry Harbour off Arromanches beach

If there were mistakes and failures by the Allies they were nothing compared to the Germans. The commander of the anti-invasion forces, Rommel, spent the day speeding back through the country side after visiting his wife in Germany. The Luftwaffe had withdrawn all its planes from the Normandy area but most critical was the fact that the armoured units that should have been thrown into the defence of the beaches was unable to be deployed without direct orders from Hitler, whose aides refused to wake him before 9.30am.


Remains of a German gun emplacement

Even after hearing news of the Normandy landings, Hitler still believed that the action was merely a feint for a real attach on Calais. It was not until ten hours after the landings did the 21st Panzer Division go into action.

With no reserves behind the thin beach defences and no heavy artillery to challenge the naval bombardment, Rommel had failed to smash the invasion on the beaches. By the 9th of June, despite an attack by XXI Panzer Division, the Allied bridgeheads had been safely consolidated.


Inside an old German Bunker

References

Books

The Longest Day - Cornelius Ryan



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