The Battle of Normandy in 1944, codenamed Operation Overlord, was the invasion of Nazi occupied Western Europe by the western allies. With almost three million troops crossing the English Channel from England to Normandy in France, it still ranks as the world’s largest seaborne invasion.
The operation began with overnight paratrooper landings and a massive early-morning amphibious assault. It continued over some two months with a land campaign to establish, expand, and eventually break out of the Normandy bridgehead with both the surrender of the garrison of Paris and the fall of the Chambois pocket. It remains one of the best-known battles of World War II, and in common parlance the expression D-Day is now invariably understood to refer to the D-Day (starting date) of this battle — June 6, 1944.
Since the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), the soviets had fought Germany alone on the European mainland. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill committed the USA and UK to opening up a “second front” in Europe to ease the desperate soviet situation, initially in 1942, and again in spring 1943.
Rather than repeat the head-on frontal assults of World War I, the British initially favored attacking the peripheries of Europe, but were pursuaded by the US to pursue a direct frontal attack across the English Channel. Two preliminary proposals were drawn up; Operation Sledgehammer for an invasion in 1942, and Operation Roundup for a larger attack in 1943, which was adopted and became Operation Overlord, although it was delayed until 1944.
The process of planning was started in earnest in January of 1943 by the staff of SHAEF.
Choice of landing site
The operating radius of the Spitfire had limited the choices of landing site. Geography had reduced the choices further to two – the Pas de Calais, and the Normandy coast. While the Pas de Calais offered the best beaches and easy access to Germany, it was (for that reason) likely to be the expected site, and the best defended. Consequently the Normandy coast was chosen. As a result of the 1942 Canadian raid on Dieppe, it was also decided not to try to capture a port by direct assault from the sea in the initial landings.
Strength of the attack
It was not until December 1943 that General Eisenhower was named as Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force, effectively giving him overall charge of the Allied forces in Europe. In January 1944 General Montgomery was named as operational commander for the invasion ground forces.
At that stage the plan required sealanding by three divisions, with two brigades landed by air. Montgomery quickly increased the scale of the initial attack to five divisions by sea and three by air. In total, 47 divisions would be committed; 21 American, the other 26 a mixture of British, Commonwealth and free European troops.
More than 6000 vessels would be involved in the invasion under the command of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, including 4000 landing craft and 130 warships for bombardment. 12,000 aircraft under Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory were to support the landings, including 1000 transports to fly in the parachute troops. 5000 tons of bombs would be dropped against the German defences.
The objectives for the first 40 days were to:
a) create a beachhead that would include the villages of Caen and Cherbourg (for it’s deep water port);
b) break out from the beachhead to liberate Brittany and it’s Atlantic ports, and to advance to a line roughly 125 miles to the south east of Paris from Le Havre through Le Mans to Tours.
The three month objective was to control a zone bounded by the rivers Loire in the south and Seine in the north east.
In order to persuade the Germans that the invasion would really be coming to the Pas de Calais, the Allies prepared a massive deception plan, called Operation Fortitude. An entirely fictitious First US Army Group was created, with fake buildings and equipment and sending false radio messages. General Patton was even mentioned as the unit’s commander. The Germans were eager to find the real landing location for themselves, and had an extensive network of agents operating throughout Southern England. Unfortunately for them, every single one had been ‘turned’ by the Allies, and was dutifully sending back messages confirming the Pas de Calais as the likely attack point. To keep the pretence running for as long as possible, the decption was continued into the battle, with air attacks on radar and other installations in the area.
Some of the more unusual preparations by the Allies included armoured vehicles specially adapted for the assault. Developed under the leadership of Major General Percy Hobart these vehicles included ‘swimming’ Duplex Drive Sherman tanks, mine clearing tanks (the Sherman Crab, a normal Sherman tank with a flail sticking out on the front that destroyed all mines without damage to the tank), bridge laying tanks and road laying tanks. The plan also called for the construction of two artificial Mulberry Harbours.
In November 1943, when Hitler decided that the threat of invasion in France could no longer be ignored, Erwin Rommel was appointed Inspector of Coastal Defences, and later commander of Army Group B, the ground forces charged with the defense of Northern France. Rommel was of the firm belief that the only way to defeat an invasion was to counterattack the beaches as early as possible with armour, and wanted at least some armour placed close enough to the beaches to deliver an immediate counterattack. However his commander disagreed, and in resolving the dispute Hitler split the six available Panzer divisions in Northern France, allocated three directly to Rommel. The remaining three were placed a good distance back from the beaches, and could not be released without the direct approval of Hitler’s operations staff. The air defences of the North French coast comprised just 169 fighter aircraft.
The order of battle was approximately as follows, East to West:
- British 6th Airborne Division and 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, airlanded by parachute and glider East of the River Orne to protect the left flank.
- 1 Special Service Brigade comprising No. 3, No. 4, No. 6 and No. 45(RM) Commandos landed at Ouistreham in Queen Red sector (left most). No. 4 Commando were augmented by 1 Troop and 8 Troop (both French) of No.10 (Inter Allied) Commando.
- British 3rd Infantr
y Division and the 27th Armoured Brigade on Sword Beach, from Ouistreham to Lion.
- No. 41(RM) Commando (part of 4 Special Service Brigade together with Nos. 46(RM), 47(RM) and 48(RM) Commandos), landed on the far right of Sword Beach.
Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, 2nd Armoured Brigade and No.48 (RM) Commando on Juno Beach, from St Aubin to La Riviere.
- No. 46(RM) Commando at Juno to scale the cliffs on the left side of the River Orne estuary and destroy a battery. (Battery fire proved negligible so No. 46 were kept off-shore as a floating reserve and landed D+1).
- British 50th Division and 8th Armoured Brigade on Gold Beach, from La Riviere to Arromanches.
- No. 47(RM) Commando on the West flank of Gold beach.
- US V Corps (US 1st Infantry Division and US 29th Infantry Division) on Omaha Beach, from St. Hondrine to Vierville sur Mer.
- US 2nd Ranger Batallion at Pointe du Hoc.
- US VII Corps (US 4th Infantry Division plus others) on Utah Beach, around Pouppevile and La Madeleine.
- US 101st Airborne Division by parachute around Vierville.
- US 82nd Airborne Division by parachute around Sainte-MÃ¨re-Ã‰glise, protecting the right flank.
- Activities by the French resistance forces, the Maquis, helped disrupt Axis lines of communications.
The foreshore area had been extensively fortified by the Germans as part of their Atlantic Wall defences, causing the landings to be timed for low tide. It was guarded by 4 divisions, of which only one (352) was of high quality. Many others included Germans who (usually for medical reasons) were not considered suitable for active duty on the Eastern Front, and other nationalities (mainly Russians) who had agreed to fight for the Germans rather than endure a prisoner of war camp. The 21st Panzer division guarded Caen, and the 12th SS Panzer division was stationed to the south-east. Its soldiers had all been recruited directly from the Hitler Youth movement at the age of sixteen in 1943, and it was to acquire a reputation for ferocity in the coming battle. Some of the area behind Utah beach had been flooded by the Germans as a precaution against parachute assault.
Prior to the battle, the Allies had carefully mapped and tested the landing area, paying particular attention to weather conditions in the English Channel. A full moon was required both for light and for the spring tide. D-Day for the operation was originally set for June 5, 1944, but bad weather forced a postponement. The weather on June 6 was still marginal, but General Eisenhower chose not to wait for the next full moon. This decision helped catch the German forces off-guard, as they did not expect an attack in such conditions – so much so that on June 4 Rommel returned to Germany for his wife’s 50th birthday.
The British 6th Airborne Division were the first troops to go into action, at ten minutes past midnight. Their objectives were Pegasus Bridge and others on the rivers at the East flank of the landing area, and also a gun battery at Merville (see Operation Tonga). The guns were destroyed, and the bridges were captured and held until the Commandos relieved them late on the 6th June.
No.4 Commando went ashore led by the French Troops as agreed amongst themselves. The Troops had separate targets in Ouistreham, the French a blockhouse and the Casino and the British two batteries which overlooked the beach. The blockhouse proved too strong for the Commando’s PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti Tank) guns but the Casino was taken with the aid of a Centaur tank. The British Commandos achieved both battery objectives only to find the gun mounts empty and the guns removed. Leaving the mopping-up procedure to the infantry, the Commandos withdrew from Ouistreham to join the other members of 1 SS Brigade (Nos.3, 6 and 45), in moving inland to join-up with the 6th Airborne.
On Sword beach the British got ashore with light casualties. However they failed to make the progress expected after that, and had advanced about five miles by the end of the day. In particular Caen, a major objective, was still in German hands by the end of D-Day.
The Canadians, on Juno beach, suffered heavy casualties in the initial landings, the highest on any of the beaches after Omaha. Despite this, many forces were able to get off the beaches quickly, and begin advancing south. One Canadian Brigade has the distinction of being the only Allied unit to meet its June 6th objectives.
At Gold the casualties were also quite heavy, partly because the swimming Sherman tanks were delayed, and the Germans had strongly fortified a village on the beach. However the 50th division overcame its difficulties and advanced almost to the outskirts of Bayeux by the end of the day. None got closer to their planned objectives.
No.47(RM) Commando were the last British Commandos to land and came ashore on Gold east of Le Hamel. Their task was to proceed inland then turn right (west) and make a ten mile march through enemy territory to attack the coastal harbour of Port en Bessin from the rear. This small port on the British extreme right, was well sheltered in the chalk cliffs. The special significance of this little port is that it was to be the point at which the Allies undersea fuel pipe PLUTO, (Pipe Line Under The Ocean), was to come ashore.
On Omaha beach the US 1st Infantry were undergoing the worst ordeals of the landings. Their swimming Sherman tanks had been mostly lost before reaching shore. Their opposition, the 352nd Division, were some of the best trained on the beaches, and occupied positions on steep cliffs overlooking the beach. The official record stated that “Within 10 minutes of the ramps being lowered, [the leading] company had become inert, leaderless and almost incapable of action. Every officer and sergeant had been killed or wounded…It had become a struggle for survival and rescue”. The division lost over 4000 casualties. Despite this the survivors regrouped and pressed inland.
The massive concrete clifftop gun emplacement at Pointe du Hoc was the target of the US 2nd Ranger battalion. Their task was to scale the 100 metre cliffs under enemy fire with ropes and ladders, and then attack and destroy the guns, which were thought to command the Omaha and Utah landing areas. The emplacement was successfully reached, and the guns which had been moved out (probably during the preceding bombardment) were found and destroyed. The casualty rate for the landing troops was nearly fifty percent.
By contrast, casualties on Utah beach were 197 out of around 23,000 landed, the lightest of any beach. They too pressed inland and succeeded in linking up with parts of the airlanded divisions.
Vierville & Sainte-MÃ¨re-Ã‰glise
The 82nd and 101st Airborne had been less lucky. Partly due to inexperienced piloting and partly due to the difficulty of the terrain they had landed badly scattered. Some fell in the sea or deliberately flooded areas. After 24 hours only 3000 of the 101st had rallied. Many continued to roam and fight behind enemy lines for days. The 82nd occupied the town of Sainte-MÃ¨re-Ã‰glise for a time in the early morning of June 6th, giving it the claim to be the first town liberated in the invasion.
Once the beachhead was established, two artificial Mulberry Harbours were towed across the English Channel in segments. One was constructed at Arromanches, the other at Omaha Beach. The Omaha harbour wa
s destroyed in severe storms around D+10. Around 9,000 tons of materiel was landed daily at the Arromanches harbour until the end of August, by which time the ports of Antwerp and Cherbourg had been secured by the Allies, and had begun to return to service.
The German defenders positioned on the beaches put up relatively light resistance, being ill-trained and short on transport and equipment, and having been subject to a week of intense bombardment. The exception was the 352nd Infantry division, which defended Omaha beach, and the tenacity of their defence was responsible for the high casualty rate there. The German commanders took several hours to be sure that the reports they were receiving indicated a landing in force, rather than a series of raids. Their communication difficulties were made worse by the absence of several key commanders. The scattering of the American parachutists also added to the confusion, as reports were coming in of Allied troops all over northern Normandy.
Despite this the 21st Panzer division mounted a concerted counter attack, between Sword and Juno beaches, and nearly succeeded in reaching the sea. Stiff resistance by anti-tank gunners, and fear lest they be cut off caused them to withdraw before the end of 6th June. According to some reports the sighting of a wave of airlanded troops flying over them was instrumental in the decision to retreat.
After the Landings
The Allied invasion plans had called for the capture of Caen and Bayeux on the first day, with all the beaches linked except Utah, and a front line six to ten miles from the beaches. In practice none of these had been achieved. However overall the casualites had not been as heavy as some had feared (around 10,000 compared to the 20,000 feared by Churchill), and the bridgeheads had withstood the expected counterattacks.
Priorities in the days following the landing for the Allies were: to link the bridgeheads; to take Caen; and to capture the port of Cherbourg to provide a secure supply line.
The German 12th SS (Hitler Youth) Panzer division assaulted the Canadians on the 7th and 8th June, and inflicted heavy losses, but were unable to break through. Meanwhile the beaches were being linked – Sword on 7th June, Omaha on 10th, Utah by 13th. The Allies were actually reinforcing the front faster than the Germans. Although the Allies had to land everything on the beaches, Allied air superiority and the destruction of the French rail system made every German troop movement slow and dangerous.
Believing Caen to be the ‘crucible’ of the battle, Montgomery made it the target of three separate attacks from 7th June to 1st July, before it was surrounded and bombed on 7th July (Operation Charnwood). Seeking a decisive breakout into the open country that led to Paris, Montgomery then launched a major offensive from the Caen area with all three British armoured divisions, codenamed Operation Goodwood. Initially successful it was eventually stopped by determined and improvised resistance from the 1st and 12th Panzer divisions, supported by German engineers acting as infantry. The British tank casualties were very high; yet the German reserves had been committed to hold the line, and could not now be used to combat any offensive by the Americans.
The country behind Utah and Omaha beaches were characterised by bocage; ancient banks and hedgerows, up to ten feet thick, one to two hundred yards apart, impervious to tanks, gunfire and vision, making ideal defensive positions. The US infantry made slow progress, and suffered heavy casualties as they pressed towards Cherbourg. The elite airborne troops were called on again and again to restart a stalled advance. Hitler expected the Cherbourg garrison to resist to the end, and deny the port to the Allies. However after requesting that a single shot be fired at the gate, the commander of Cherbourg surrendered on 26th June.
- June 5th/6th US 82nd Airborne Division (Operation Detroit) and 101st Airborne Division (Operation Chicago) and British 6th Airborne Division (Operation Tonga) are airlanded.
- June 6th – Seaborne D-Day landings
- June 25th – 29th Operation Epsom, an offensive to the west of Caen, repulsed by the German defenders.
- July 7th – Caen finally captured.
- July 17th – Erwin Rommel severely injured when his car was strafed by an Allied aircraft.
- July 18th – 20th – Operation Goodwood initiated.
- August 3rd – 9th – Operation Totalize, a trap to capture retreating German armour starts.
- August 16th – Operation Dragoon, a joint American/French landing on the French Riviera, begins.
The Normandy landings were long foreshadowed by a considerable amount of political manoeuvring amongst the allies. There was much disagreement about timing, appointments of command, and where exactly the landings were to take place. The opening of a second front had been long postponed (it had been initially mooted in 1942), and had been a particular source of strain between the allies. Stalin had been pressing the Western Allies to launch a ‘second front’ since 1942. Churchill had argued for delay until victory could be assured, preferring to attack Italy and North Africa first.
The appointment of Montgomery was questioned by some Americans, who would have preferred the urbane General Alexander to have commanded the land forces. Montgomery himself had doubts about the appointment of Eisenhower because Eisenhower had very little field experience. (In the event, however, Montgomery and Eisenhower cooperated to excellent effect in Normandy: their well-known disagreements came much later.)
Normandy presented serious logistical problems, not the least of which being that the only viable port in the area, Cherbourg, was heavily defended and many among the higher echelons of command argued that the Pas de Calais would make a more suitable landing area on these grounds alone.
Although ultimately successful, the Normandy landings were extremely costly in terms of men and material. The failure of the 3rd Division to take Caen, an overly ambitious target, on the first day was to have serious repercussions on the conduct of the war for well over a month, seriously delaying any forward progress. The fortuitous capture of Villers-Bocage followed by the failure to reinforce it, and its subsequent recapture by the Germans, was again to hamper any attempt to extend the Caen bridgehead and push on. By D+11, June 17th, the assault had stagnated.
A lot of the problem came down to the nature of the terrain in which much of the post-landing fighting took place, the bocages. These were essentially small fields separated by high earth banks covered in dense shrubbery, which were eminently defensible.
In the end the invasion of Normandy succeeded in its objective by sheer force of numbers. Many more troops and equipment continued to come ashore after D-Day. By the end of July, some 1 million Allied troops, mostly American, British and Canadian, were entrenched in Normandy.
The toehold that the allies established at Normandy was vital for the Western Allies (the British Commonwealth and the US) to bring the war to Germany’s front door. It has been pointed out that Soviets alone had the capacity to crush Germany by this time, and that this battle was unnecessary for the purpose of defeating the German Reich. By the time of D-Day, the Red Army was steadily advancing towards Germa
ny and four fifths of the German forces were in the East. In France, the Allies faced only about 20% of the German army.
Yet given the Soviets’ claim over Eastern Europe, one could ask if the result would have been a complete occupation of Europe by communist forces. American and British presence helped define the extent that communism would spread, and ensure that democracy would be safe in Western Europe. Thus the battle of Normandy needs to be understood both within the context of WWII and in that of the Cold War that would follow.
The visitor to Normandy today will find many reminders of June 6th, 1944. Most noticeable are the beaches, which are still referred to on maps and signposts by their invasion codenames. Then come the vast cemeteries, row on row of identical white crosses and Stars of David, immaculately kept, commemorating the Allied dead. Streets near the beaches are still named after the units that fought there, and occasional markers commemorate notable incidents. At significant points such as Pointe du Hoc and Pegasus Bridge, there are plaques, memorials or small museums. The Mulberry harbour still sits in the sea at Arromanches. In St Mere Eglise a dummy paratrooper hangs from the church spire. On Juno Beach the Canadian government plans to build a massive memorial and information centre, commemorating one of the most significant events in Canadian military history. Nobody in the area is going to forget Operation Overlord for a long time.0