D-Day, 6 June 1944, marked the start of the Allied invasion of Normandy, the long-awaited ‘Second Front’ and the greatest amphibious operation in history. Once ashore, the Allies fought a bitter but victorious campaign to break out of their beachhead and liberate France.
The Allies agreed that the establishment of a second front in north-west Europe was essential to defeat Germany. The Soviets had been calling for a Second Front since the German invasion of their country in 1941. But it was not until the United States entered the war, bringing its huge reserves of manpower and resources, that such an operation became feasible.
Despite considerable Soviet and American pressure for an early invasion, the British succeeded in postponing it from 1943 to 1944. They were mindful of the 1942 Dieppe fiasco, in which an Allied force had suffered disaster when attempting to assault a heavily fortified French port. The British also emphasised that the campaigns in North Africa and Italy were keeping up the pressure on the Germans. By 1944, however, the invasion could proceed - enough troops were available in Britain, more landing craft had been built and the strategic bomber offensive had worn down the German Air Force, rail network and war industry.
The Allies chose Normandy as the location for the landings. The Pas-de-Calais region offered a shorter Channel crossing, but it was heavily fortified as the Germans were expecting an attack there. Although Normandy was further from Britain, it was still within fighter range, had excellent landing beaches and was less heavily defended.
Elaborate deception plans were undertaken to convince the Germans that the main landing would be near Calais. This would reduce the flow of German reinforcements into Normandy. False information was spread by double agents, the Calais area was heavily bombed and a dummy ‘army’ was set up in eastern England opposite Calais.
Thousands of air reconnaissance photographs of the German defences were taken. Special forces teams landed on the coast to gather information. Others worked with the resistance to gather intelligence on German troop dispositions and carry out acts of sabotage against transport and communication networks.
In December 1943 US General Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) was appointed Supreme Allied Commander for the operation, codenamed OVERLORD. British General Bernard Montgomery (1887-1976) was placed in command of the ground forces, consisting of the British Second Army and US First Army, around 160,000 men.
The Germans were commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (1875-1953), the German commander-in-chief in the west, and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (1891-1944). The German Army in the west contained over 50 divisions and included a few elite tank formations, but many of them were below strength. Only seven divisions were actually near the landing areas.
More importantly, Rommel and von Rundstedt disagreed on where the landings would take place and where their armour should be deployed. Rommel believed they should confront the invading force immediately and drive it into the sea. Von Rundstedt, believing it impossible to prevent a landing, felt the armour should be held inland where they could be used to counter-attack in force. Hitler eventually ordered the armoured reserves to be stationed in the middle, far enough inland to be unhelpful to Rommel, but not far enough for von Rundstedt’s plans.
After a forced postponement due to bad weather, D-Day was set for 6 June. A fleet of over 5,000 ships and landing craft crossed the Channel. Heavy bombing together with a massive naval bombardment destroyed many of the German defences. The assault troops landed on five beach areas, codenamed Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah, and Sword.
Allied airborne forces were dropped behind the beaches and on their flanks in order to slow down the Germans’ ability to counter-attack and establish a defensive screen. Key objectives, such as bridges, road crossings and coastal batteries, were seized in order to help the amphibious forces advance inland.
Thanks to their deception plans, the Allies achieved complete surprise. Several beaches, particularly Omaha, witnessed bloody fighting and fierce German counter-attacks, including a determined assault by 21st Panzer Division near Sword. But by the end of the day, over 130,000 troops had landed. The Allies suffered around 10,000 casualties on 6 June, far fewer than originally anticipated.
Once ashore, the Allies enjoyed a number of advantages over the Germans. They had more men, greater resources and had achieved air supremacy. Their deception plans had worked brilliantly, keeping the destination of the landings a secret and then convincing the Germans that a second, larger attack would take place elsewhere. This made them keep much-needed troops in other regions awaiting an invasion that never took place. Neither Rommel, nor von Rundstedt, could move their armoured reserves without Hitler's approval, so the initial German response was slow and poorly co-ordinated.
The British were able to break German coded radio traffic, which gave the Allies valuable information about enemy movements and intentions. They were also aided by the construction of PLUTO (Pipeline Under The Ocean), which delivered fuel to Normandy. Two prefabricated floating harbours, known as Mulberries, allowed the Allies to build up their forces more easily than the Germans, and to supply and replace them more effectively. By the end of 11 June, 325,000 troops, 54,000 vehicles and 104,000 tons of supplies had been landed.
Despite the Allied advantages, the Germans made excellent use of the thick hedgerows of the ‘bocage’ countryside to put up a determined and skilful defence. Yet they were unable to launch a decisive counter-attack and by late June the Allies had established a solid bridgehead. The Germans were being worn down just holding the line. On 26 June the Americans captured the port of Cherbourg.
Moving inland, the Anglo-Canadian advance around Caen made slow progress, but forced the Germans to commit their best troops and most of their tanks to hold them back. Caen, which was almost totally destroyed, was finally captured after fierce fighting in July. This victory allowed the Americans to extend their bridgehead and eventually break out on 31 July around Avranches.
The Germans were now in danger of being enveloped. But, instead of allowing his forces to retreat, Hitler ordered an immediate counter-attack towards Mortain. On 7 August the Germans duly attacked, but with no air cover and limited fuel they had little chance of success. The 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army soon found themselves trapped in a shrinking pocket at Falaise, where they suffered heavy casualties from Allied artillery and air attacks. Although many of their soldiers did manage to escape, the Germans lost 60,000 men killed or captured. Nearly all their guns, tanks and vehicles were abandoned.
German losses in the entire Normandy campaign were around 400,000. The British and Canadians suffered 84,000 casualties and the Americans 125,000. On 25 August 1944 Paris was liberated and, with the Germans in full retreat, the Second British Army and First and Third US Armies now advanced rapidly on a broad front through north-east France and Belgium towards the borders of the Third Reich.
The defeat in Normandy coincided with a devastating Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front. Germany’s strategic situation, fighting a war on two fronts against better-resourced opponents, was now hopeless. Defeat was inevitable.
D-Day and the Battle for Normandy are popularly regarded as the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Nazis. However, Germany's defeat would possibly have occurred without Operation OVERLORD, given the huge losses it sustained on the Eastern Front.
The landings certainly hastened the end of the war in Europe, drawing forces away that might otherwise have slowed the Red Army’s advance to Berlin. OVERLORD also ensured that the Western Allies would be firmly established in Europe at the war’s end, thus providing a counter to Soviet-backed communism at the start of the Cold War.
While the strategic legacy of the campaign is still debated, films, TV shows, computer games and books have strengthened OVERLORD’s position in the public consciousness. Films like Darryl F Zanuck’s ‘The Longest Day’ (1962) and Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998) as well as popular TV series like ‘Band of Brothers’ (2001), ensure it remains one of the best-known campaigns of the war. Every year thousands of tourists visit the sites of the landings and the nearby American and Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries.