Second World War

D-Day

Troops disembarking, 6 June 1944

Background

Allied leaders agreed that establishing a second front in North West Europe, to take the pressure off the Russians on the Eastern Front, was essential to defeat Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

They chose Normandy as the location for the D-Day landings. Although the Calais area offered a much shorter Channel crossing, it was heavily defended. Normandy was further away, but still within fighter aircraft range, had excellent landing beaches and less fortification. 

‘This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be. We're going down there, and we’re throwing everything we have into it, and we're going to make it a success.’
General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, 1944

Propaganda poster advocating a second front, 1944

Deception

The Allies carried out elaborate deception plans to convince the Germans that the main landing would be in 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. 

Aerial reconnaissance photograph of coastal defences, 1944

Planning

Extensive training took place in the UK in the months leading up to D-Day, ranging from divisional exercises to individual training to prepare soldiers for the assault. At the same time, a huge build-up of materiel took place, with the south of England beginning to resemble a huge military camp packed with vehicles, tanks, supplies and soldiers from many nations.

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 French resistance to gather intelligence on German troop dispositions and carry out acts of sabotage against transport and communication networks.

Allied leaders, including Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery, 1944

Allied command

The Supreme Allied Command was established to manage the multi-national force bound for Normandy. US General Dwight Eisenhower was Supreme Commander, and oversaw all air, land and sea units involved.

He was ultimately responsible for planning and supervising the invasion. British General Bernard Montgomery commanded all the land forces taking part, around 160,000 men. 

Airborne troops synchronising their watches before the invasion, 5 June 1944

5 June / 5.00pm

Operation Neptune

An armada of over 5,000 ships carrying troops and supplies departs from ports in southern England.

5 June / 10.00pm

To the air

The first Allied transport planes and gliders carry the airborne invasion force to France.

6 June / Midnight

Green means go

British airborne troops seize Pegasus Bridge, and other key objectives ahead of the amphibious invasion. American paratroopers also take the strategic town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.

6 June / 2.00am

Bombs away

The first Allied bombers and fighters head to France to soften German defences. Throughout the day they attack the beach heads and key towns like Caen.

6 June / 5.23am

Open fire

Naval forces begin to bombard German defences along the Normandy coast

6 June / 6.30am

H-Hour

The American invasion force arrives at their landing zones. An hour later, British and Canadian troops arrive at the other beaches.

British troops landing at Sword Beach, 6 June 1944

Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword

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. Assault troops then landed on five beaches.

Airborne forces were dropped behind the beaches and on their flanks in order to slow down German counter-attacks. Bridges, road crossings and coastal batteries were seized in order to help the amphibious forces advance inland.

To keep the invasion secret the beaches were given codenames. The US Army were the western invasion force, landing on Utah and Omaha beaches. Omaha, was the heaviest defended of all five beaches and the Americans suffered high casualties there during the invasion.

Map of the Normandy landing beaches, France, 1944

Map of the Normandy landing beaches, France, 1944

The eastern invasion force was made up of British troops, landing at Gold and Sword beaches, and the Canadians at Juno. These beaches were closer to Caen. The British met with relatively weak defences and succeeded in meeting up with the paratroopers dropped earlier.

This was not the case for the Canadians at Juno. The heavily fortified defences and rough seas meant that they too suffered many losses. 

The Americans named their invasion beaches after places in the US, while the British chose words from an Army pamphlet.

Most importantly, all of the codenames were chosen for their clarity when communicating by radio.

This watercolour by Fred Darking shows conditions aboard a troop ship en-route to Normandy.

Fred Darking’s self-portrait, May 1944

Sergeant Fred Darking

Fred Darking (1911-99) was from Basford, Nottinghamshire. He worked as a commercial artist before the war.

In 1940 he enlisted and served in the camouflage department of the Royal Engineers. He saw service in North Africa and North West Europe. Although not an official War Artist, he sketched and painted in his spare time.

Fred's art brings to life his journey across the Channel, and provides an important eye-witness view of the Normandy landings. In sketches of his troopship many of the soldiers look ill, perhaps from the stormy weather, or anticipation of the attack. 

The journey over on HMTS Fort Wrigley, June 1944, by Fred Darking

By the end of 6 June more than 160,000 Allied troops and 6,000 vehicles had crossed the Channel.

Impact

The Allies' deception plans had worked brilliantly. The destination of the landings remained a secret and the Germans were convinced that a second, larger attack would take place elsewhere. Much-needed German troops were held back in other regions awaiting an invasion that never took place.

The initial German response was slow and poorly co-ordinated. The generals couldn't move their armoured reserves without Hitler's approval.

The Allies suffered at least 10,000 casualties on 6 June 1944, ten times the number of German losses. Many of the immediate strategic objectives of the landings had not been achieved, including the failure to capture any of the key towns. But D-Day was still a huge success.

Amphibious Sherman tanks moving through Ouistreham, 6 June 1944

Utah

Lost: 200 / Landed: 23,000

Omaha

Lost: 3,000 / Landed: 32,000

Gold

Lost: 450 / Landed: 25,000

Juno

Lost: 1,000 / Landed: 21,000

Sword

Lost: 650 / Landed: 29,000

Explore further

Join the conversation

"First time @NAM_London today. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Thought the presentation & interpretation made the subject accessible..."