The United States joined the war in Europe in 1941, the “Grand Alliance”, as it became known, between the United States of America and the British Commonwealth was often troubled with disagreements over the best war strategy.
Although both powers agreed the Germany was more significant threat than Japan, the Americans and British couldn’t agree on the best plan for defeating the aggressive Reich.
The United States always favored a direct approach to the war. They firmly believed that an invasion of mainland Europe from the English channel, and then advance steadily into central Germany, was the most efficient way to defeat the Axis powers in Europe.
The British, however, had learned from their experiences at Dunkirk and Dieppe and favored several small-scale attacks instead of one major one. In 1942, the Americans agreed not to directly attack mainland Europe, but instead began an invasion of North Africa.
Those landings were quite successful and convinced the Allies that campaigns in the Mediterranean would be successful as well.
In July of 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily and began what would become a long and bitter fight up the Italian peninsula.
In November 1943, the British finally agreed (however reluctant) to launch an attack across the English Channel.
It was code-named Operation: Overlord. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was then the commander of United States forces in Europe, was selected to lead the invasion.
Operation: Overlord called for bombings of German tactical aircraft in France to protect the surface troops.
Throughout the winter and spring months of 1944, the details of Neptune, as the actual surface landing phase of Overlord was named, were settled and fitted into place.
Planners at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force) picked an early June date for D Day, with the landings coming over five beaches code-named, from east to west, Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah.
Two American divisions, the 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Infantry Division (reinforced with the 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division), were to land across Utah and Omaha beaches respectively.
The veteran 82d Airborne Division was teamed with the green 101st to make the night drop on the Cotentin Peninsula behind Utah Beach.
The 3d BritishInfantry Division, landing over Sword Beach, supported by the 6th Airborne Division to be dropped on the east bank of the Orne River, formed the east flank of the assault.
Juno Beach was the D Day objective of the 3d Canadian Infantry Division. The 50th British Infantry Division was due ashore on Gold Beach, just east of Arromanches.
The 3d British and Canadian divisions, with their reinforcements, formed I Corps, while the 50th Division was the spearhead of XXX Corps.
Together, the two corps composed the Second British Army, commanded by Montgomery.
The American assault divisions were the spearheads of two corps, V (lst Division) and VII (4th Division), organized into the First U.S. Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley.
For the initial assault and the period through the breakout, both armies were designated as the 21 Army Group, under Montgomery’s command.
While the final touches were being put on the invasion plan, thousands of Allied infantry men were being trained in proper assault techniques.
They were being trained to be more effective while reducingthe amount of equipment needed.
Tank battalions were assigned to every regiment to provide
Meanwhile, aircraft were to switch targets from Germany, to the French railroads, and finally to the coastal defenses.
Over 5,000 ships of all kinds were to participate in the attack. 702 were actually warships, with six battleships and twenty-two cruisers.
Supreme commander Eisenhower was to give the order of when the actual invasion was to take place.
Overlord planners had chosen June 5, 6, and 7 as the mornings for the landings. Although the weather wasn’t what Eisenhower would have hoped for, he nonetheless chose Monday, June 5 as D-Day.
German forces on the other side of the channel were lulled into a false sense of security by the bad weather.
The minimal sea conditions for an invasion (a sea state lessthan 4, wind speed under 24 knots, a visibility of 6,000 yards) were not met.
By June of 1944, there were fifty-eight German divisions in Western Europe.
Command of these forces was left with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Because of his disastrous experiences in Northern Africa with Allied air superiority, he believed that any allied invasion would have to be defeated within 48 hours.
To fortify the intervals between the already heavily defended ports, he ordered the laying of additional anti-personnel mines in a 100-meter-wide belt.
By mid May, some four to five million had been strewn behind likely landing beaches, and half a million beach and landing-zone obstacles had been placed between tide marks and in open fields behind the coast.
A network of trenches, firing pits, and resistance nests had been dug into the bluffs overlooking the beaches.
They were supported by pillboxes and concrete bunkers covering the principal beach exits.
The valleys of the Orne, Merderet, and Douve rivers, located on the flanks of the prospective Allied lodgment area, had been flooded to impede the mobility of any assaulting forces.
With Rommel’s incessant complaints, the Atlantic Wall had begun to
live up to its name.
Eisenhower was concerned with Air Chief Marshal Leigh Mallory’s pre-D Day estimates that casualties in the American airborne divisions might run as high as 70 percent in the glider units and 50 percent among the paratroopers.
On May 30, Eisenhower agonizingly reappraised the airborne assault plans before deciding against cancellation.
Perhaps the gravity of that decision prompted him to draft a press release taking full responsibility if the invasion failed.
It certainly drew him to the 101st Airborne’s encampment in the evening of 5 June, where he mingled with small groups of paratroopers as they waited to board their transports.
By midnight, the 822 C-47s carrying the assault units of the 82d and 101st Airborne divisions, some 13,000 men, were over the English Channel in clear skies.
An unexpected cloud bank over the Cotentin, combined with heavy AA flak, scattered the tight formations, causing many paratroopers to land far from their designated drop zones.
This caused many paratroopers to land far behind German lines, the D Day casualties came to only 15 percent.
The scattered drop seemed to confuse the Germans, who were unable to mount effective counterattacks against the often vunerable paratroopers.
After some hard fighting in the marshes around Ste.-M re-Eglise, and with support from their glider infantry, the paratroopers were able to disrupt German efforts to reinforce their defenses behind Utah Beach, thereby greatly aiding the 4th Division’s landing.
In contrast, the landing on Omaha Beach began and nearly ended in disaster.
SHAEF miscalculations and errors became apparent early. Intelligence sources, including Ultra, failed to locate the 352d Division dug in behind the beach.
The saturation bombing of the beach defenses by the heavy bombers of the U.S.
Eighth Air Force was ineffective because a late release-ordered by Eisenhower to protect the landing craft-meant that most bombs fell well behind the beach, killing more dairy cows and livestock than Germans.
To cap these miscalculations, the LCVP’s and LCA’s (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel and Landing Craft, Assault) carrying the two assaulting regiments, the 16th and 116th, were launched 10,000 yards offshore, greatly exposing the seasick men to German fire.
Many boats grounded on offshore sandbars, forcing the infantrymen either to wade ashore or to drift in with the advancing tide.
Those ashore took shelter wherever they found some scant protection from the automatic weapons fire coming from the beach.
Although the American landings were crucial and quite dramatic, it must not be forgotten that the first Allied soldiers to land in Normandy were British.
Five gliders of the 6th British Airborne Division’s glider infantry skidded to stops on the approaches to the bridges over the Orne River and the parallel Caen Canal first..
In short order both bridges were in British hands. Those six platoons of the 2d Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and the 249th Field Company, Royal Engineers, along with the sixty pathfinders (paratroopers equipped with beacons to mark the landing zones) who landed at the same time, were the vanguard of the British airborne assault on the eastern end of the lodgment area. Preceded by the most intense naval bombardment of D Day, the landings on Sword were scheduled for an hour after sunrise, so that the incoming tide could cover offshore shoals.
Supported by twenty-one DD tanks and numerous AVRE’s, the 1st Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, quickly defeated the shore defenses and captured Hermanville, a mile inland. To the east, the 2d Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, found the initial going rougher.
It was able to move inland only after the commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade captured German positions in Ouistreham-Riva-Bella.
Their sector of Sword, known as Queen Red, came under heavy artillery fire later in the morning. Only the quick release of the barrage balloons on which the German gunners had been ranging prevented the wholesale destruction of landing craft and vehicles now jamming the beachfront.
By dark, the Canadian forces had pushed to within three miles of Caen, withstood a counterattack from the 12th SS Panzers, and made contact with units of the 50th British Division moving in from Gold Beach.
When D-Day ended, Allied forces had failed to achieve many of the objectives originally planned.
They were supposed to have advanced several miles inland, but were unsuccessful.
But Allied forces were ashore and were in a good position to advance further into Axis lines and into France.
Back to Top For more information about the invasion at Normandy, I suggest you rent and watch “The Longest Day” It’s a black and white movie, but I still think it’s pretty good.
You might also want to check out “Saving Private Ryan” When it first came out, many veterans of the battle found it to be very moving.
Like always, I recommend you check out your local library and look up more information there.