World War II: D-Day - The Invasion of Normandy

Reaching The Shore
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Conflict & Date

The Invasion of Normandy began on June 6, 1944, during World War II (1939-1945).

Commanders

Allies

Germany

A Second Front

In 1942, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt issued a statement that the western allies would work as quickly as possible to open a second front to relieve pressure on the Soviets.

Though united in this goal, issues soon arose with the British who favored a thrust north from the Mediterranean, through Italy and into southern Germany. This approach was advocated by Churchill who also saw a line of advance from the south as placing British and American troops in a position to limit the territory occupied by the Soviets. Against this strategy, the Americans advocated a cross-Channel assault which would move through Western Europe along the shortest route to Germany. As American strength grew, they made it clear that this was the only approach they would support.

Codenamed Operation Overlord, planning for the invasion began in 1943 and potential dates were discussed by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Tehran Conference. In November of that year, planning passed to General Dwight D. Eisenhower who was promoted to Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) and given command of all Allied forces in Europe.

Moving forward, Eisenhower adopted a plan begun by the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC), Lieutenant General Frederick E. Morgan, and Major General Ray Barker. The COSSAC plan called for landings by three divisions and two airborne brigades in Normandy. This area was chosen by COSSAC due to its proximity to England, which facilitated air support and transport, as well as its favorable geography.

The Allied Plan

Adopting the COSSAC plan, Eisenhower appointed General Sir Bernard Montgomery to command the invasion's ground forces. Expanding the COSSAC plan, Montgomery called for landing five divisions, preceded by three airborne divisions. These changes were approved and planning and training moved forward. In the final plan, the American 4th Infantry Division, led by Major General Raymond O. Barton, was to land at Utah Beach in the west, while the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed to the east on Omaha Beach. These divisions were commanded by Major General Clarence R. Huebner and Major General Charles Hunter Gerhardt. The two American beaches were separated by a headland known as Pointe du Hoc. Topped by German guns, capture of this position was tasked to Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder's 2nd Ranger Battalion.

Separate and to the east of Omaha were Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches which were assigned to the British 50th (Major General Douglas A. Graham), Canadian 3rd (Major General Rod Keller), and British 3rd Infantry Divisions (Major General Thomas G. Rennie) respectively. These units were supported by armored formations as well as commandos. Inland, the British 6th Airborne Division (Major General Richard N.

Gale) was to drop to the east of the landing beaches to secure the flank and destroy several bridges to prevent the Germans from bringing up reinforcements. The US 82nd (Major General Matthew B. Ridgway) and 101st Airborne Divisions (Major General Maxwell D. Taylor) were to drop to the west with the goal of opening routes from the beaches and destroying artillery that could fire on the landings (Map).

The Atlantic Wall

Confronting the Allies was the Atlantic Wall which consisted of a series of heavy fortifications. In late 1943, the German commander in France, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, was reinforced and given noted commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. After touring the defenses, Rommel found them wanting and ordered that they be greatly expanded. Having assessed the situation, the Germans believed that the invasion would come at the Pas de Calais, the closest point between Britain and France.

This belief was encouraged by an elaborate Allied deception scheme, Operation Fortitude, which suggested that Calais was the target.

Split into two major phases, Fortitude utilized a mix of double agents, fake radio traffic, and the creation of fictitious units to mislead the Germans.  The largest fake formation created was the First US Army Group under the leadership of Lieutenant General George S. Patton.  Ostensibly based in southeastern England opposite Calais, the ruse was supported by the construction of dummy buildings, equipment, and landing craft near likely embarkation points. These efforts proved successful and German intelligence remained convinced that the main invasion would come at Calais even after landings commenced in Normandy. 

Moving Forward

As the Allies required a full moon and a spring tide, possible dates for the invasion were limited. Eisenhower first planned to move forward on June 5, but was forced to delay due to poor weather and high seas. Faced with the possibility of recalling the invasion force to port, he received a favorable weather report for June 6 from Group Captain James M. Stagg. After some debate, orders were issued to launch the invasion on June 6. Due to the poor conditions, the Germans believed that no invasion would occur in early June. As a result, Rommel returned to Germany to attend a birthday party for his wife and many officers left their units to attend war games at Rennes.

The Night of Nights

Departing from airbases around southern Britain, the Allied airborne forces began arriving over Normandy. Landing, the British 6th Airborne successfully secured the Orne River crossings and accomplished it objectives including capturing the large artillery battery complex at Merville. The 13,000 men of the US 82nd and 101st Airbornes were less fortunate as their drops were scattered which dispersed units and placed many far from their targets. This was caused by thick clouds over the drop zones which led to only 20% being marked correctly by pathfinders and enemy fire.

Operating in small groups, the paratroopers were able to achieve many of their objectives as the divisions pulled themselves back together. Though this dispersal weakened their effectiveness, it caused great confusion among the German defenders.

The Longest Day

The assault on the beaches began shortly after midnight with Allied bombers pounding German positions across Normandy. This was followed by a heavy naval bombardment. In the early morning hours, waves of troops began hitting the beaches. To the east, the British and Canadians came ashore on Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches. After overcoming initial resistance, they were able to move inland, though only the Canadians were able to reach their D-Day objectives. Though Montgomery had ambitiously hoped to take the city of Caen on D-Day, it would not fall to British forces for several weeks.

On the American beaches to the west, the situation was very different. At Omaha Beach, US troops quickly became pinned down by heavy fire from the veteran German 352nd Infantry Division as the pre-invasion bombing had fallen inland and failed to destroy the German fortifications. Initial efforts by the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were unable penetrate the German defenses and troops became trapped on the beach. After suffering 2,400 casualties, the most of any beach on D-Day, small groups of US soldiers were able to break through the defenses opening the way for successive waves.

To the west, the 2nd Ranger Battalion succeeded in scaling and capturing Pointe du Hoc but took significant losses due to German counterattacks. On Utah Beach, US troops suffered only 197 casualties, the lightest of any beach, when they were accidentally landed in the wrong spot due to strong currents.  Though out of position, the first senior officer ashore, Brigadier Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., stated that they would "start the war from right here" and directed subsequent landings to occur at the new location. Quickly moving inland, they linked up with elements of the 101st Airborne and began moving towards their objectives.

Aftermath

By nightfall on June 6, Allied forces had established themselves in Normandy though their position remained precarious. Casualties on D-Day numbered around 10,400 while the Germans incurred approximately 4,000-9,000. Over the next several days, Allied troops continued to press inland, while the Germans moved to contain the beachhead. These efforts were frustrated by Berlin's reluctance to release reserve panzer divisions in France for fear that Allies would still attack at Pas de Calais.

Continuing on, Allied forces pressed north to take the port of Cherbourg and south towards the city of Caen. As American troops fought their way north, they were hampered by the bocage (hedgerows) that crisscrossed the landscape. Ideal for defensive warfare, the bocage greatly slowed the American advance. Around Caen, British forces were engaged in a battle of attrition with the Germans. The situation did not change radically until the US First Army broke through the German lines at St. Lo on July 25 as part of Operation Cobra.

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