D-Day, 1944



It was the first stage in the liberation of western Europe and a major step towards the defeat of Nazi Germany.


Operation Overlord

Overview

“Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies on the northern coast of France.” – First Overlord communiqué, 6 June 1944.

On 6 June 1944 – D-Day – Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. This successful action signalled the beginning of the end of the Second World War: it was the first stage in the liberation of western Europe and a major step towards the defeat of Nazi Germany. The campaign was code-named Operation Overlord.

Before Overlord

Operation Overlord was a complex operation involving the land, sea and air forces of the USA, Britain, Canada and other allies. It required extensive planning and preparation, a process dogged by political and strategic arguments. Stalin, whose forces were engaging the Germans in the east, pressured the Allies to open a second front in Europe without such detailed preparation, and the Americans and British also had disagreements.

Planning was affected by a lack of forces and equipment, notably landing craft, and by the need to divert resources to campaigns elsewhere, especially in the Mediterranean. During 1943, however, the Allies achieved a much more favourable strategic position in Europe. The German U-boats in the Atlantic were defeated and the Allied armies in the Mediterranean achieved increasing success, as did Soviet forces on the Eastern Front.

Planning the Invasion

In 1943 a new planning staff was assembled under the Chief of Staff Supreme Allied Command (COSSAC) under Eisenhower. This was absorbed early in the following year by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). All the forces assigned directly to the invasion were controlled by SHAEF.

Thorough preparations began during 1943. A new planning staff was assembled, and General Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of the operation.

Normandy was chosen for the landings because it was in range of fighter aircraft based in England and had open beaches that were not as well defended as those of the Pas de Calais. It also had a fairly large port (Cherbourg), and was opposite the main ports of southern England.

In the last few months before D-Day, the Allied air forces wrecked the railways and bridges of northern France and achieved the necessary weakening of German air force strength. Other preparations included the manufacture of equipment including transport ships, landing craft, amphibious tanks and artificial harbours.

Intelligence, Deception, and German Preparations

The Allies enforced tight security to prevent the Germans learning the details of the invasion. The skilful use of intelligence and deception was also a key factor in the operation. An elaborate plan was implemented in order to convince the Germans that the invasion would be in the Pas de Calais. It worked: the Germans, faced with the need to defend coastlines stretching from Norway to south-west France, paid most attention to the Pas de Calais.

The role of intelligence: The ‘Ultra’ intelligence source was one of the most valuable Allied assets for much of the war. They regularly read the Germans’ secret communications by breaking their Enigma cipher, thus revealing a great deal of information about their forces. This report is part of a series seen by the Prime Minister.

The Germans generally assumed that the Pas de Calais was the likeliest place for the invasion. The Allied deception plan was also intended to give the impression that diversionary attacks would be made in Normandy and southern Norway before the main attack on the Pas de Calais. It was implemented by creating imaginary army units and using various decoys, such as aircraft, tanks and landing craft. False information about the invasion was also passed to the Germans by the double agent known as ‘Garbo’. These measures were very successful and discouraged the Germans from reinforcing their troops in Normandy even after D-Day. This document contains notes and photographs of dummy aircraft, one of which is shown here.

The Allied deception plan

The German coastal defences in northern France were part of the so-called ‘Atlantic Wall’. This included minefields, beach obstacles and heavy guns, with infantry divisions covering them. Behind the coast were the German Army’s mobile reserves, which comprised the best available troops and equipment, and these forces posed the greatest threat to the Allies. At sea and in the air, the Germans were much weaker. This document is from a survey of the effects of bombing on the coastal defences and shows a German gun emplacement.

German preparations

Crossing the Channel

Although D-Day was planned for 4/5 June 1944, bad weather caused a final delay of 24 hours. On 5 June, some 7,000 ships and other craft carrying assault troops left the invasion ports to arrive off the Normandy coast early next morning. Their target was the Bay of the Seine, from Cherbourg in the west to Le Havre in the east.

Route of the invasion force: There were separate forces for each of the landing beaches. They were allocated the initial letters of the five beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Area Z was the assembly point for the bulk of the forces, and the Spout was a group of channels swept clear of mines.

The naval force crossed the Channel largely undetected and relatively unscathed. German radar was put out of action by Allied bombing, jamming and decoys. Allied minesweepers cleared safe channels through the German minefields, and little opposition was met from the German naval forces (which were much weaker than those of the Allies).

The log of HMS Belfast: HMS Belfast was one of the bombarding ships on D-Day. This extract from the ship’s log covers the action from 4 to 9.30 am. HMS Scylla was a Royal Navy destroyer; flack or flak is the German term for anti-aircraft fire.

In the meantime, Allied airborne troops had taken off from England and were the first to land in France, hours before dawn. The Americans landed inland from Utah beach to help secure the Cotentin Peninsula, while the British arrived east of them, at the mouths of the Caen Canal and the River Orne. Dummy parachutists were also dropped to confuse the Germans.

Landing craft stuck on an obstacle: This photograph was taken near Bernières sur Mer, on Juno beach, where the Canadians landed. It shows a LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel) holed by a German beach obstacle or ‘hedgehog’ and is one of a set of photographs taken mostly on the beaches just after the landings. Large numbers of landing craft were essential to the success of Overlord both during and after the assault. Shortages of these craft had caused planning difficulties well into 1944.

As the naval force approached the beaches, the coastal defences were bombarded by Allied ships and aircraft. This was important for the success of the landing, although not all the German guns were knocked out. Some landing craft were lost – either swamped by the waves or hit by German fire – and others stuck on beach obstacles (welded girders planted in the sand to impede progress).

On the Beaches and Landing Grounds

Beach Heads Secured

On all five beaches the Allies broke through the defences by the afternoon, but not without a fight. The Americans landing on Omaha beach came closest to failure, and the foothold gained there was much smaller than planned. Nor did the British and Canadians (fighting under British command, because Canada was a British dominion) gain all the ground they had expected by midnight.

After the initial assault, more soldiers, equipment and supplies were unloaded. By the end of the day a huge number of troops – some 156,000 men – had landed.

The Canadians on Juno Beach

Juno beach: The 3rd Canadian Division was assigned to Juno beach. The defences included minefields, barbed wire, concrete weapon positions and fortified houses, manned by the German 716th Division.

Landing on the rising tide, 3rd Canadian Division was delayed slightly and landed among, rather than in front of, the beach obstacles. The assault troops faced stiff resistance from undamaged German strong-points, some of which held out for several hours.

War diary of 8th Canadian Brigade: Most army units were required to keep a war diary as a record of their activities. Operational orders, intelligence reports and other material were also inserted. This is an extract from the war diary for 6 June 1944 of the 8th Canadian Brigade. This was one of three brigades in the 3rd Canadian Division, and landed on Nan sector of Juno beach. (Each of the assault beaches was divided into sectors – Love, Mike, Nan, etc. – and sub-sectors – green, red or white.)

On Juno beach, as elsewhere, there were delays in opening beach exits to allow troops to move inland, and congestion built up as more men, vehicles and equipment were landed. The important objectives were to occupy the Caen-Bayeux road and make contact with the British troops on the adjacent Gold and Sword beaches, but by midnight only the link-up with Gold beach had been achieved.

Air Operations

Air support for Juno beach: This is an extract from the operations record book of 439 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force, which supported 3rd Canadian Division on Juno beach. Each air squadron kept an operations record book with details of its operations, including names of aircrew and type of aircraft used. Typhoon aircraft were normally used as fighter-bombers and posed a great threat to German vehicles moving by day.

Such was the overwhelming strength of Allied air power that little was seen of the German air force during D-Day. Throughout Overlord, Allied planes played a vital role in attacking German troops and restricting their movement.

Caring for the Wounded

Casualty records: This is an extract from the war diary of 14th Canadian Field Ambulance (servicing the 3rd Canadian Division) which landed on D-Day and moved into Pierrepont on 7 June. The diary records the number of casualties admitted or cleared each day (186 on 9 June, the largest daily total that month). Two other Canadian Field Ambulance units, 22nd and 23rd, also took part in the D-Day landings.

In the invasion force as a whole, around 7,000 men were killed on 6 June. The troops landed on that day included field ambulance units. Until hospitals could be set up in Normandy, landing craft were used to evacuate casualties to Britain. There were conscientious objectors among the medical personnel of the British 6th Airborne Division.

German Reactions to D-Day

Interrogation of German soldiers: This is an extract from a report on opposition encountered by the Allies on the British and Canadian beaches. The report itself includes a detailed account of the assault on the Nan White sector of Juno beach (Bernières sur Mer) and several interrogation reports of German soldiers.

The Germans were taken by surprise on D-Day. Because of the bad weather they did not expect the invasion on 6th June, and reacted slowly even when the attack started. The defence of the beaches attacked by the British and Canadians was in the hands of 716th Division, which was suited only for static defence and contained a large number of non-German men. Only one notable counter-attack was made that day, and this prevented the British from reaching Caen.

The Battle for Normandy, June-August, 1944

Having gained a foothold in Normandy, the Allies set about joining up and expanding their separate beach heads. They also had to open a port (Cherbourg) for reinforcements and supplies. Artificial harbours were used until normal ports could be opened.

British Mulberry harbour at Arromanches: Each assault beach had an artificial breakwater known as a ‘Gooseberry’ and two of these were extended into a full harbour with piers, called a ‘Mulberry’. They were made of sunken blockships and prefabricated sections that were built in Britain and moved across the Channel. A storm that began on 19 June caused extensive damage to some of the harbours and delayed the arrival of reinforcements and supplies.

Both sides faced difficulties after the landings. The Germans hoped to contain the Allied beach head with infantry forces, while saving their mobile reserves for a major counter-attack. The numerous hedgerows, sunken lanes and small villages of the Normandy countryside offered them good cover and restricted Allied mobility.

Report on the French Resistance: Apart from the sabotage of railways and telegraph lines, the French resistance (FFI or French Forces of the Interior) also attempted to ambush German troops moving to Normandy after D-Day. This sometimes provoked savage reprisals against French civilians: a massacre at Oradour sur Glane was carried out by troops from the 2nd SS Panzer Division soon after the incidents mentioned in the document shown here. This extract from a report by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) is part of a series of documents (HS 7) held at The National Archives containing SOE reports on underground activity in France.

Because they still feared another Allied landing in the Pas de Calais, however, the Germans held some troops back and reinforcements were slow to arrive. The movement of German forces was also slowed by bomb damage to railways and bridges, by the constant menace of air attack and by the activities of the French resistance. In addition, Hitler’s insistence on holding ground meant high mortality among German troops.

Breakthrough

The Allied conduct of the battle developed in two ways. The British and Canadians engaged the German mobile reserves in a series of attritional battles around Caen, while the Americans, facing less resistance, were able to gain more ground to the west. Although Montgomery (commander of the Allied land forces) faced some criticism because progress seemed slow, in the end his strategy of wearing down the German forces and keeping them off balance paid off.

The Allied breakthrough: This map shows the position of Allied and German forces around Caen prior to the Allied breakthrough. Believing that the Allied advance would be made from Caen through Falaise, the Germans moved three Panzer Divisions into the area on 24 July, thereby weakening their positions elsewhere along the front. An attack by the 2nd Canadian Corps on 25 July along the Falaise road kept the main German armoured strength away from the American breakout in the west that same day. Canadian casualties numbered some 1,500.

The long-awaited, decisive breakthrough came during late July and early August. Another British attack pinned down the German mobile forces south of Caen, while the Americans broke through against depleted opposition. Forced to commit their reserves against the British, the Germans were too weak to oppose the American breakthrough after 25 July. As the Americans poured out into the open countryside, a counter-attack ordered by Hitler failed and by mid-August the Germans were facing encirclement. They retreated in chaos and the Allies had taken Paris by 25 August.


Originally published by The UK National Archives under Crown Copyright Open Government Licensing.

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