The Normandy Invasion

Few battles of World War II are as enduring in the American public consciousness as the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, an event known to most people as D-Day. This assault — the largest amphibious landing in military history — was of paramount importance to the Allies.

If successful, it would mean the liberation of France, which had been held under Germany's iron fist for four years, and the Allies' best chance to push Hitler's weakened army all the way back to Berlin.

If it failed, it would give Germany at least one more year to bolster its flagging military force, drive off the Soviet offensive on the eastern front, and perfect a number of secret weapons, including V1 and V2 rockets, more powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles, and transcontinental aircraft.

Figure 4-4 U.S. Marines on Peleliu Island, September 14, 1944.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (127-N-97628)

When and where to invade German-occupied France was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Indeed, plans for the invasion had been discussed by the Americans and the British since early 1942, but strategic weaknesses and military infighting forced several postponements in favor of a Mediterranean strategy.

At the Quebec Conference in August 1943, the British agreed to name an American as the commander of the D-Day invasion, and in December, Eisenhower was named Supreme Allied Commander. His first move was to direct British General Bernard Montgomery to prepare detailed invasion plans and act as commander of the invasion ground forces.

When the Normandy invasion was being planned, military leaders wanted to train the men using live ammunition. Finding enough space to do this in England proved difficult. The problem was solved with the acquisition of 25 square miles in south Devon, in a coastal area known as Slapton Sands. All 3,000 residents of the area were evacuated.

Time, Place Chosen

In March 1943, the Allies had decided to invade in Normandy. The region was right because it was within fighter cover of British airfields and, perhaps more important, was considered a less likely site than Calais. It was important that the Germans remain confused about the actual invasion site, so elaborate plans were enacted to make them think Calais was the true target, including the creation of the fictional First U.S. Army Group and the placement of a fleet of unseaworthy landing craft in British ports across from Calais.

Adding credence to the hoax was the appointment of General George Patton, one of the most successful and recognizable leaders of the war, as commander of the First U.S. Army Group. The ruse worked: Germany, certain that the high-profile Patton would be in charge of the invasion, kept its Fifteenth Army in the Calais area in the belief that it was to be the real invasion site.

The assembled invasion force consisted of more than 1.5 million troops: 620,500 men of the ground forces in 21 divisions plus support troops. The invasion fleet had more than 4,400 ships and landing craft to carry 154,000 troops (50,000 of them were the assault forces who would first storm the beaches) and 1,500 tanks. Accompanying the fleet were 11,000 fighters, bombers, transport planes, and gliders. On the other side were an estimated 60 German divisions. It was a formidable defense, and many in the German High Command thought it was invincible.

The date of the Normandy invasion was based on a number of factors, including the tides (which would have to be low when the invasion force struck), the weather (minimal winds to reduce choppy seas), and the light (moonlight was important on the eve of the invasion, and enough early morning sunlight was needed at the moment the assault was to begin).

Based on these and other factors, the best time to invade was determined to be from early May to early June. June 5 was the set date, but bad weather forced Eisenhower to postpone the event 24 hours. It was a crucial decision: If the Germans were to discover at the last minute what was happening, the additional day would give them time to bolster coastal defenses at the invasion point. The weather report for June 6 wasn't perfect, but Eisenhower was set against postponing the invasion again.

Air Preparations

The assault troops leading the invasion — Operation Overlord — were scheduled to land at 6:30 A.M. on June 6. A few hours after midnight, one British and two American pathfinder airborne divisions were dropped by transport aircraft into the French countryside behind German lines. On landing, the men were to mark out drop zones for paratrooper battalions that were to secure the flanks of the Allied amphibious lodgment area and hold the bridges, railroad lines, roads, and airfields needed for the Allies' planned inland advance.

Only one American soldier was executed for desertion during World War II, a private named Eddie Slovik, who was assigned to G Company, 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division. He was tried and convicted of desertion on November 11, 1944, and later executed by firing squad on January 31, 1945.

An hour later, soldiers of the American 101st Airborne Division and 82nd Airborne Division jumped out over the Cotentin Peninsula to secure the exits from the westernmost American beach. As the same time, paratroopers of the British 6th Airborne Division dropped on the eastern flank to capture the crossings over the River Orne and the Canal de Caen. The extremely valuable “Pegasus Bridge” over the canal and the Orne had previously been captured by a special force from the 6th Airborne Division, which had come in with the pathfinders via glider.

It was feared that the airborne divisions would experience heavy casualties as they landed behind enemy lines. But the drop went remarkably well, though some of the American parachute battalions became disoriented dropping at night over unfamiliar territory and ended up widely scattered. As a result, all future Allied airborne operations were conducted during the day.

A little under two hours after the paratroopers hit their targets, nearly 2,000 Allied heavy and medium bombers began preliminary bombing of the German defenses along the invasion area. Fifteen minutes before the landing craft carrying troops reached the beaches, there was a second attack by 1,000 American heavy bombers on the German main line of resistance. At 6:30, supported by one last attack by rocket-firing assault craft, the first American troops began to land.

The Amphibious Assault

American forces landed on two western beaches code-named Utah and Omaha. British and Canadian troops landed farther east on beaches nicknamed Gold, Juno, and Sword. General Montgomery was overall commander of the ground forces, with Lieutenant General Omar Bradley commanding the American First Army during the landing and General Miles Dempsey leading the British Second Army.

Despite the heavy bombardment from air and sea, the Germans remained well entrenched in many areas and fired on the Allied invaders the moment they hit the beach. Germans at Omaha Beach were relatively unscathed by the Allied shelling, and American casualties there were especially high — nearly 2,000 compared with only 210 on Utah Beach.

The landing at Omaha got off to a poor start when two amphibious landing craft sank after striking mines. The bad weather resulted in higher tides, and submerged obstacles were more of a threat than had been anticipated. Many of the landing craft were swamped by high waves as they approached the shore or were lost to obstacles or enemy fire. The soldiers, some of them ill from the pitching of the tiny amphibious landing craft, were easy targets as they exited the craft, many of them shot dead before they were out of the water. German machine guns mowed down the wet soldiers by the dozens. Enemy fire kept the landing forces pinned down on Omaha Beach until finally giving ground in the early afternoon.

The bombing had accomplished its job better a little more to the east, where British and Canadian troops met far less resistance and suffered far fewer casualties. The British Third Division defeated a counterattack by a Panzer tank battalion northwest of Caen.

The German Defense

The Germans' initial reaction to the Allied landing was one of confusion and poor coordination, primarily the result of their top-heavy command system. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, overall commander of German troops in the area, wasn't even at the scene when the invasion started; he had returned home to Germany for his wife's birthday party, leaving his chief of staff to oversee Army Group B. General Friedrich Dollman, commander of the Seventh Army, was also away from headquarters, attending a practice war game in Rennes, while Obergruppenführer “Sepp” Dietrich, commander of the I SS Panzer Corps, was in Brussels.

All the commanders rushed back immediately after being notified of the invasion. During the early hours of D-Day, before the first Allied ground troops had reached the shore, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt responded to reports of the invasion by ordering both of Dietrich's divisions to move toward the Normandy beaches, then sought confirmation for the order from the High Command.

It took Hitler several hours to respond, though the delay probably had little effect on the course of the battle because any movement at all resulted in sizable losses by Allied air attacks. One Panzer division lost five tanks, 84 armored vehicles, and 130 other vehicles during the 90-mile trek from Lisieux to Caen.

The Germans put up as strong a defense as they could under the circumstances. Rommel continued his strategy of holding the Allies to their initial landing area by a static defense that yielded as little ground as possible. Such a defense helped reduce the effect of Allied air power and left open the possibility of an armored counterattack onto the beaches. However, Rommel's choices became limited after a June 11 directive from Hitler forbidding any withdrawal.

How many people died in Normandy?

Approximately 15,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded during the first day. German losses were approximately the same. According to a report by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, an instrumental part of the German defense command, his casualties for that month were 28 generals, 354 commanders, and approximately 250,000 men.

Indeed, Hitler became his commanders' worst enemy by wresting control from them and attempting to direct the German defense from his command post at Rastenburg some 600 miles away. On June 16, he issued a directive adding an additional Panzer division to the two already being sent to reinforce the Normandy defense and begin a counteroffensive, and ordered all troops to hold their present positions. Rommel and Rundstedt, however, knew from the previous week and a half that any divisions sent to Normandy would arrive late and with insufficient supplies and that they would likely be eliminated by Allied firepower.

Allied Forces Gain Control

Allied forces were hampered by the nature of the land in Normandy, an area covered with farmland and high hedgerows that looked like a checkerboard from the air. This greatly restricted visibility. In addition, coordination of firepower was made difficult by the fact that forward observers often had little idea where they were. In fact, one Royal Artillery observer solved the problem by calling in a strike on what he believed to be his own position, then noting where the shells actually fell.

By dusk on June 7, the Allied forces had become well entrenched, and the chances of a German counteroffensive strong enough to push them back to the water were reduced to almost zero. The Allied forces had linked up to create a formidable front, and the push through France was set to begin very shortly.

Map 4-4 The Normandy coast two weeks after D-Day. The horizontal stripes indicate the areas liberated by the Allies.

Map courtesy of the National Archives (RG 160, Vol. 3, No. 10F)

By the end of the first day of the invasion, nearly 150,000 Allied troops, vehicles, and support equipment had been unloaded on the beaches of Normandy. Within a week, the invasion force would number nearly 500,000, and by late July, the number would skyrocket to nearly 2 million troops and a quarter of a million vehicles. The Allies had succeeded in capturing the French coast and were poised to liberate the country and push on toward Berlin.

After Normandy

Plenty of obstacles remained in the path of the advancing Allied armies, however. In a series of offensives aimed at crossing the Rhine River and entering into the German command center, the Allies conducted risky maneuvers and determined advances, with sometimes mixed results. British general Montgomery was instrumental in launching Operation Market Garden, a daring series of airborne and land-based operations designed to secure strategic locations along the Rhine, including a handful of important bridges. The eight-day offensive achieved some temporary gains, but resulted in the destruction of the British First Airborne.

Meanwhile, Allied soldiers were advancing along Germany's stolid Siegfried line, probing for weaknesses and overall pressing their advantage. The Belgian port of Antwerp was liberated on September 4. The German city of Aachen, a tremendously important city to Hitler because of its connections to Charlemagne and the First Reich, was taken after a furious battle that claimed more than 10,000 lives in total.

Allied forces eventually overwhelmed many positions along the Rhine River, further encircling German forces. Some of the heaviest fighting took place in the Ardennes Forest, site of one of the war's fiercest counterattacks.

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