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