World War II Europe: The Western Front

The Allies Return to France

D-Day
A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach (Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France) on the morning of June 6, 1944. American soldiers encountered the newly formed German 352nd Division when landing. During the initial landing two-thirds of Company E became casualties. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed in France opening the Western Front of World War II in Europe. Coming ashore in Normandy, Allied forces broke out of their beachhead and swept across France. In a final gamble, Hitler ordered a massive winter offensive which resulted in the Battle of the Bulge. After stopping the German assault, Allied forces fought their way into Germany and, in conjunction with the Soviets, compelled the Nazis to surrender, ending World War II in Europe.

The 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, disagreements soon arose with the British, who favored a thrust north from the Mediterranean, through Italy and into southern Germany. This, they felt, would provide an easier path and would have the benefit of creating a barrier against Soviet influence in the postwar world. Against this, 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 plan they would support. Despite this, operations did commence in Sicily and Italy; however, the Mediterranean was understood to be a secondary theater of the war.

Planning Operation Overlord

Codenamed Operation Overlord, planning for the invasion began in 1943, under the direction of British Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick E.

Morgan and the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC). The COSSAC plan called for landings by three divisions and two airborne brigades in Normandy. This region was chosen by COSSAC due to its proximity to England, which facilitated air support and transport, as well as its favorable geography.

In November 1943, ​General Dwight D. Eisenhower was promoted to Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) and given command of all Allied forces in Europe. 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.

The Atlantic Wall

Confronting the Allies was Hitler's Atlantic Wall. Stretching from Norway in the north to Spain in the south, the Atlantic Wall was a vast array of heavy coastal fortifications designed to repel any invasion. In late 1943, in anticipation of an Allied assault, the German commander in the West, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, was reinforced and given Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, of Africa fame, as his primary field commander. After touring the fortifications, Rommel found them wanting and ordered that they be expanded both along the coast and inland. In addition, he was given command of Army Group B in Northern France, which was tasked with defending the beaches. Having assessed the situation, the Germans believed that the Allied invasion would come at the Pas de Calais, the closest point between Britain and France.

This belief was encouraged and reinforced by an elaborate Allied deception scheme (Operation Fortitude) which used dummy armies, radio chatter, and double agents to suggest that Calais was the target.

D-Day: The Allies Come Ashore

Though originally scheduled for June 5, the landings in Normandy were postponed one day due to foul weather. On the night of June 5/6, the British 6th Airborne Division was dropped 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 and 101st Airborne Divisions were dropped to the west with the goal of capturing inland towns, opening routes from the beaches, and destroying artillery that could fire on the landings. Flying in from the west, the American airborne's drop went badly, with many of the units scattered and far from their intended drop zones.

Rallying, many units were able to achieve their objectives as the divisions pulled themselves back together.

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. On the American beaches to the west, the situation was very different. At Omaha Beach, US troops quickly became pinned down by heavy fire as the pre-invasion bombing had fallen inland and failed to destroy the German fortifications. 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. On Utah Beach, US troops suffered only 197 casualties, the lightest of any beach, when they were accidentally landed in the wrong spot. Quickly moving inland, they linked up with elements of the 101st Airborne and began moving towards their objectives.

Breaking Out of the Beaches

After consolidating the beachheads, 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. This type of grinding battle played into Montgomery's hands as he wished the Germans to commit the bulk of their forces and reserves to Caen, which would allow the Americans to break through lighter resistance to the west.

Beginning on July 25, elements of the US First Army broke through the German lines near St. Lo as part of Operation Cobra.

By the 27th, US mechanized units were advancing at will against light resistance. The breakthrough was exploited by Lt. General George S. Patton's newly activated Third Army. Sensing that a German collapse was imminent, Montgomery ordered US forces to turn east as British forces pressed south and east, attempting to encircle the Germans. On August 21, the trap closed capturing 50,000 Germans near Falaise.

Racing Across France

Following the Allied breakout, the German front in Normandy collapsed, with troops retreating east. Attempts to form a line at the Seine were thwarted by the rapid advances of Patton's Third Army. Moving at breakneck speed, often against little or no resistance, Allied forces raced across France, liberating Paris on August 25, 1944. The speed of the Allied advance soon began to place significant strains on their increasingly long supply lines. To combat this issue, the "Red Ball Express" was formed to rush supplies to the front. Using nearly 6,000 trucks, the Red Ball Express operated until the opening of the port of Antwerp in November 1944.

Next Steps

Forced by the supply situation to slow the general advance and focus on a more narrow front, Eisenhower began to contemplate the Allies' next move. General Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group in the Allied center, advocated in favor of a drive into the Saar to pierce the German Westwall (Siegfried Line) defenses and open Germany to invasion. This was countered by Montgomery, commanding the 21st Army Group in the north, who wished to attack over the Lower Rhine into the industrial Ruhr Valley. As the German's were using bases in Belgium and Holland to launch V-1 buzz bombs and V-2 rockets at Britain, Eisenhower sided with Montgomery. If successful, Montgomery would also be in a position to clear the Scheldt islands which would open the port of Antwerp to Allied vessels.

Operation Market-Garden

Montgomery's plan for advancing over the Lower Rhine called for airborne divisions to drop into Holland to secure bridges over a series of rivers. Codenamed Operation Market-Garden, the 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne were assigned the bridges at Eindhoven and Nijmegen, while the British 1st Airborne was tasked with taking the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. The plan called for the airborne to hold the bridges while British troops advanced north to relieve them. If the plan succeeded, there was a chance the war could be ended by Christmas.

Dropping on September 17, 1944, American airborne divisions met with success, though the advance of the British armor was slower than expected. At Arnhem, the 1st Airborne lost most of its heavy equipment in glider crashes and encountered much heavier resistance than expected. Fighting their way into the town, they succeeded in capturing the bridge but were unable to hold it against increasingly heavy opposition. Having captured a copy of the Allied battle plan, the Germans were able to crush the 1st Airborne, inflicting 77% casualties. The survivors retreated south and linked up with their American compatriots.

Grinding the Germans Down

As Market-Garden commenced, fighting continued on 12th Army Group's front to the south. The First Army became engaged in heavy fighting at Aachen and to the south in the Huertgen Forest. As Aachen was the first German city to be threatened by the Allies, Hitler ordered that it be held at all costs. The result was weeks of brutal urban warfare as elements of the Ninth Army slowly drove the Germans out. By October 22, the city had been secured. Fighting in the Huertgen Forest continued through the fall as US troops fought to capture a succession of fortified villages, suffering 33,000 casualties in the process.

Farther south, Patton's Third Army was slowed as its supplies dwindled and it met increased resistance around Metz. The city finally fell on November 23, and Patton pressed east towards the Saar. As Market-Garden and 12th Army Group's operations were commencing in September, they were reinforced by the arrival the 6th Army Group, which had landed in southern France on August 15. Led by Lt. General Jacob L. Devers, the 6th Army Group met Bradley's men near Dijon in mid-September and assumed a position at the southern end of the line.

Battle of the Bulge Begins

As the situation in the west worsened, Hitler began planning a major counteroffensive designed to recapture Antwerp and split the Allies' forces. Hitler hoped that such a victory would prove demoralizing for the Allies and would force their leaders to accept a negotiated peace. Gathering Germany's best remaining forces in the west, the plan called for a strike through the Ardennes (as in 1940), led by a spearhead of armored formations. To achieve the surprise required for success, the operation was planned in complete radio silence and benefited from heavy cloud cover which kept Allied air forces grounded.

Commencing on December 16, 1944, the German offensive struck a weak point in the Allied lines near the junction of the 21st and 12th Army Groups. Overrunning several divisions that were either raw or refitting, the Germans swiftly advanced towards the Meuse River. American forces fought a valiant rearguard action at St. Vith and the 101st Airborne and Combat Command B (10th Armored Division) were surrounded in the town of Bastogne. When the Germans demanded their surrender, the 101st's commander, General Anthony McAuliffe, famously replied "Nuts!"

Allied Counterattack

To combat the German thrust, Eisenhower called a meeting of his senior commanders at Verdun on December 19. During the meeting, Eisenhower asked Patton how long it would take to turn Third Army north towards the Germans. Patton's stunning reply was 48 hours. Anticipating Eisenhower's request, Patton had begun the movement prior to the meeting and, in an unprecedented feat of arms, began attacking north with lightning speed. On December 23, the weather began to clear and Allied air power began to hammer the Germans, whose offensive stalled the next day near Dinant. The day after Christmas, Patton's forces broke through and relieved the defenders of Bastogne. In the first week of January, Eisenhower ordered Montgomery to attack south and Patton to attack north with the goal of trapping the Germans in the salient caused by their offensive. Fighting in bitter cold, the Germans were able to successfully withdraw but were forced to abandon much of their equipment.

To the Rhine

US forces closed the "bulge" on January 15, 1945, when they linked up near Houffalize, and by early February, the lines had returned to their pre-December 16 position. Pressing forward on all fronts, Eisenhower's forces met with success as the Germans had exhausted their reserves during the Battle of the Bulge. Entering Germany, the final barrier to the Allied advance was the Rhine River. To enhance this natural defensive line, the Germans promptly began destroying the bridges spanning the river. The Allies scored a major victory on March 7/8 when elements of the 9th Armored Division were able to capture intact the bridge at Remagen. The Rhine was crossed elsewhere on March 24, when the British 6th Airborne and the US 17th Airborne were dropped in as part of Operation Varsity.

The Final Push

With the Rhine breached in multiple places, German resistance began to crumble. 12th Army Group swiftly encircled the remnants of Army Group B in the Ruhr Pocket capturing 300,000 German soldiers. Pressing east, they advanced to the Elbe River where they linked up with Soviet troops in mid-April. To the south US forces pushed into Bavaria. On April 30, with the end in sight, Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. Seven days later, the German government formally surrendered, ending World War II in Europe.