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Operation Overlord, 6 June 1944
Operation Overlord, the massive assault launched upon the Normandy, France beaches on 6 June 1944, was the largest focused military operation of all time. Developments such as nuclear weapons and missiles make it unlikely that such a concentration of ships and assault troops will ever be assembled again. Although meticulously planned and bravely executed, Operation Overlord nearly failed due to weather, operational errors, and stiff resistance by well prepared German forces. In the end, Overlord succeeded, the Allies surged into France, and the fate of Hitler's Third Reich was sealed.
Background to D-Day, the 1944 Invasion of France
The German Blitzkrieg had forced the British to withdraw from France in 1940 at Dunkirk. Almost from that moment, British planners plotted a return to the Continent to confront German power on the ground, liberate northwestern Europe, and put an end to the Nazi regime. Following the December 1941 Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the German and Italian declarations of war against the United States, the invasion became a British-U.S. collaboration.
A series of invasion plans were developed and discarded. British and American planners had different ideas, but finally the concept of a massive attack on Nazi-held France across the English Channel took shape. While England and the U.S. made plans, the Soviet Union suffered millions of casualties on the Eastern Front creating pressure to avoid a Soviet collapse and satisfy Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's demand for a second front in the west against the Germans.
Allied conferences in May and June of 1943 set the date of the invasion for 1 May 1944. Thereafter, the flow of men and supplies to the Mediterranean theater were diverted to the immense buildup for the cross-Channel attack.
Selection of Eisenhower as Commander
By 1943 American resources became predominant in the war and the selection of an American commander seemed appropriate. The Allies agreed on General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a well-experienced officer and the commander of Allied forces in North Africa and the Mediterranean. In the end, Eisenhower would serve as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and as commanding general of all U.S. forces in the European Theater of Operations. General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, who had led the Eighth Army in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, was commander of the 21st Army Group and commander of Allied ground forces coming ashore in France.
Under Montgomery, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley headed the American force, the First U.S. Army. General Sir Miles Dempsey led the Second British Army, composed of British, Canadian, and a handful of French troops. The Third U.S. Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., was held in reserve to be employed after the Allies were securely on the Continent, joining the First U.S. Army, under Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges, to form the 12th Army Group under Bradley. Lt. Gen. Henry D. G. Crerar's First Canadian Army would join Dempsey under Montgomery.
Massive Buildup for D-Day in England
Thirty nine divisions were slated to participate in Operation OVERLORD, the invasion: 20 American, 14 British, 3 Canadian, 1 French, and 1 Polish, along with hundreds of thousands of service troops. The number of U.S. fighting men based in Great Britain rose from 774,000 at the beginning of 1944 to 1,537,000 in the week preceding the D-Day assault. Included in the logistical maze were more than 16 million tons to feed and supply those men, 137,000 jeeps, trucks, and half-tracks, 4,217 tanks and tracked vehicles, 3,500 artillery pieces, 12,000 aircraft, and huge quantities of everything else needed to sustain the armies.
Facilities to house the force sprang up across the English countryside in the weeks preceding the invasion. In Somerset and Cornwall, farms became armories for vast stores of bombs and artillery shells. Britain's harbors were jammed with ships laden with supplies. An immense force of fighting ships, troop transports, and cargo vessels were prepared to participate in the invasion. Landing craft, however, remained in short supply forcing a one month delay in the D-Day timetable, from May to June 1944.
Preparing the Way for the Normandy Invasion
Over Germany, between January and June 1944, Allied fighters campaigned against German warplanes and their pilots. As a result, by June 1944, the Allies had complete air supremacy and the Luftwaffe had been driven from the skies.
On the ground, members of the French resistance cut railroad tracks, sabotaged locomotives, and targeted supply trains. Allied aircraft bombed roads, bridges, and rail junctions to prevent the Germans from moving reinforcements toward the invasion beaches. By June, all rail routes across the Seine River north of Paris were closed and the transportation system in France was at the point of collapse.
To deceive the enemy's intelligence agencies, Allied attacks were conducted along the entire length of the Channel coast, orchestrated to confuse the intended site of the landings. During the weeks preceding the invasion, Allied airmen dropped more bombs on the Pas de Calais than anywhere else in France, diverting German attention away from Normandy. A fictional army under Patton was created by message traffic designed to convince the Germans of preparations for Pas de Calais landings. This effort was effective. German officers continued to think the landings would be at Pas de Calais long after the actual attack had begun, keeping vital reserves out of the fight at Normandy.
D-Day, 6 June 1944
Heavy winds, swells at sea, and cloud cover compelled Eisenhower to postpone D-Day from 5 to 6 June. Conditions remained poor, but when weathermen predicted clearing on the 6th, Eisenhower reluctantly gave the command. The invasion was on.
The foul weather further confused the Germans who didn't believe it possible to cross the channel in such weather. At the time of the attack, many commanders of the German 7th Army were in Brittany to participate in a training exercise. Rommel, the commander, was in Germany celebrating his wife's birthday.
Airborne units led the invasion. Shortly after midnight, the British 6th Airborne Division and the U.S. 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions dropped behind the beaches to secure road junctions and beach exits.
Before dawn, bombers began to strike up and down the coast, the beginning of intense support of the invasion that would total over 14,000 sorties that day. Gliders with more airborne troops arrived. All aircraft had been painted with special "invasion stripes" to aid identification of friendly planes in the crush of air traffic.
At first light on 6 June 1944, a massive invasion armada stood off the Normandy coast. Nine battleships, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers, and 71 large landing craft of various descriptions were joined by troop transports, mine sweepers, and merchantmen. The total was nearly 5,000 ships of every type, the largest fleet ever assembled. At 0530, the entire horizon off Normandy between Caen and Vierville-sur-Mer was filled with ships. The naval bombardment began at 0550, detonating large German mine fields and destroying many blockhouses and artillery positions. The Allied bombardment ended precisely on schedule. The German defenders awaited the landing craft.
Assaulting the Beaches of France
The D-Day landings took place on five beach zones, two American and three British-Canadian. The landing craft ran late, giving the Germans a brief respite after the bombardment and before the troops came ashore.
On GOLD, the British 50th Division encountered intense German fire at first but rapidly worked its way forward and moved off the beach.
On JUNO, the 3d Canadian Division also experienced early difficulties but by the end of the day had reached the Caen-Bayeux highway, inland from the landing zone.
Confusion reigned on SWORD, where delivery schedules slipped and succeeding waves of landing craft piled a jumble of men and vehicles at the water's edge. Even so, the troops on SWORD were off the beach within an hour of landing and by dark had joined up with the forces of the British 6th Airborne Division.
The forces that arrived on UTAH performed ably. Elements of the 4th and 24th Cavalry Squadrons (132 men) of the 4th Cavalry Group landed on the St. Marcouf Islands flanking the beach at 0430, two hours in advance of the main attack. Directed to clear enemy mine fields, control points, and observation posts, they found the islands heavily mined but otherwise unoccupied.
The American VII Corps began to debark on UTAH at 0630. During the main attack, German artillery managed to sink the U.S. destroyer Corry; swift currents carried the landing craft of the 4th Division well to the south of their target onto a portion of the beach that was only lightly defended; and thirty-two amphibious tanks assigned to land in the first wave of the attack were delayed by the loss of a control vessel that struck a mine.
Those setbacks notwithstanding, the assaulting troops quickly took the upper hand. Within three hours the enemy force defending the beach had surrendered and Allied troops and supplies were moving inland. In all, some 23,000 men came ashore at UTAH, at a cost for the day of 197 casualties among the ground forces.
Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow's V Corps on OMAHA came up against the worst conditions encountered on D-Day. High seas swamped many landing craft; survivors reached land seasick and exhausted, often without their weapons. Strong winds and adverse currents caused many landing craft to arrive far from their designated targets. A thick tangle of German-engineered obstructions blocked the beach while four miles of parallel cliffs, up to 150 feet high, allowed German fortifications to dominate the landing zones.
As the day wore on, German mortar and artillery batteries, unaffected by Allied fire, poured destruction upon the attackers while the invading force struggled to get a footing. Wreckage accumulated at the tide line as timetables slipped and landing craft became hopelessly entangled in the barbed wire and projecting beams of uncleared beach obstructions. Survivors huddled behind sand dunes and a small seawall that ran along the base of the beach. Many soldiers were killed outright, and some, wounded and unable to move, drowned as the tide moved in.
But gradually American units on OMAHA rallied and took advantage of every small opportunity to press ahead. Using smoke for cover, they gained ground. A few tanks got ashore to provide fire support. Rangers scaled 100-foot high Pointe du Hoc and cleared it of its German defenders. Able non-coms and officers pulled together remnants of scattered and decimated units to get them off the beach. The Navy deployed destroyers to the shore, risking grounding and enemy fire to blast the cliffs with their guns. Landing craft continued to arrive at the beach, bringing fresh troops, heavy weapons, radios, and ammunition.
The Germans defenders stopped the early troops at OMAHA beach, but the relentless invasion began to overwhelm them. Their fixed positions lacked flexibility and their numbers were insufficient to hold against the steadily growing American forces. The GIs gained ground by inches but kept it once they had it, moving up breaks in the cliffs, and destroying the German positions on top. From there they moved inland. By nightfall on 6 June, 34,000 men were ashore on OMAHA. The beach itself was a cauldron of destruction and fires from burning vehicles and supplies, but almost all of the inland coastal villages were in Allied hands.
Aftermath of the D-Day Landings
At the end of the day on 6 June 1944, the Allies had prevailed on all the Normandy beaches. British and Canadian forces established themselves well ashore, although they failed to seize Caen because the Germans pulled together a defense of the city, including their only available armored division. The Americans were still vulnerable to enemy artillery within range of supply dumps and unloading points along the invasion beaches. Yet more than 100,000 men had come ashore on the five beachheads, the first of millions who would follow.
German reinforcements were prevented from reaching the area in strength, and within days Allied troops besieged Cherbourg and slowly expanded southward through the entangling Norman hedgerows. St. Lo was reached by 18 July, well behind schedule. On 25 July Operation COBRA used massed bombers from England against German positions and armored infantry finally broke the German defensive line. Pouring through the gap, American troops advanced forty miles within a week. U.S., Canadian, British, and Polish troops encircled the Germans in a giant pocket around Falaise where Allied fighter-bombers and artillery destroyed twenty German divisions. The Second Front was well under way.
See also the linked page for a description of the M4 Sherman Duplex Drive (DD) tanks employed on D-Day for the assault from the sea.
Find additional photos and hi-res versions of the D-Day invasion of France at the Olive-Drab Military Mashup:
Recommended Books about D-Day, Operation Overlord, the Invasion of the Normandy Coast of France
For a comprehensive understanding of the events of D-Day, 6 June 1944, there is nothing better than the film version of The Longest Day .
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