The Battle of Normandy began on 6 June 1944 – D-Day. But the famous events of that day were just part of a weeks-long campaign that not only culminated in the liberation of Paris but also paved the way for the defeat of Nazi Germany. Here are 10 facts about it.
1. By mid-July there were 1 million Allied soldiers in Normandy
The Battle of Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord, began with the landings on D-Day. By the evening of 6 June, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers had arrived in Normandy. By mid-July, this number was in excess of 1 million.
The Allies didn’t expect the Germans to defend Normandy and had assumed they would retreat to a line along the Seine. On the contrary, the Germans dug in around the Allied beachhead, using the bocage terrain (which consists of small hedged fields interspersed with groves of trees) to their advantage.
2. But the British Army was short of men
It was vital for British prestige that it could field an effective fighting force alongside its Allies. But by 1944, although the British Army could boast of a plentiful supply of armour and artillery, the same could not be said for soldiers.
Allied commander Field Marshal Bernard “Monty” Montgomery recognised this shortfall and, in his planning for the Normandy campaign, placed the emphasis on exploiting British firepower and preserving manpower – “metal not flesh” was the order of the day.
Nevertheless, British divisions suffered heavily in Normandy, losing up to three-quarters of their strength.
3. The Allies overcame the bocage with the help of a “rhinoceros”
The Normandy countryside is dominated by hedgerows which were much taller in 1944 than they are today – some were as high as five metres. These hedges served a number of purposes: they marked the boundaries between property and controlled animals and water, while the apple and pear trees entwined within them were harvested to make cider and calvados.
For the Allies in 1944, the hedges created a tactical problem. The Germans had occupied this compartmentalised terrain for four years, and had learned how to use it to their advantage. They were able to locate the best observation points, firing locations and routes for manoeuvre. The Allies, however, were new to the terrain.
To conquer the bocage, the Allies had to get inventive. A tank seeking to merely push its way through a hedge could be undone by inadvertently rolling up and over it and in doing so exposing an attractive underbelly to a German anti-tank weapon.
An inventive American sergeant solved this issue, however, by fitting a pair of metal prongs to the front of a Sherman tank. The prongs enabled the tank to grapple the hedge rather than roll up it. Given enough power, the tank could then push through the hedge and create a gap. The tank was christened the “Sherman Rhinoceros”.
4. It took the British over a month to capture Caen
The liberation of the city of Caen, at the eastern flank of the Allied bridgehead, was originally an objective for British troops on D-Day. But in the end the Allied advance fell short. Field Marshal Montgomery launched a fresh attack on 7 June but met with relentless resistance.
Monty opted to wait for reinforcements before trying an attack again but this only gave the Germans time to reinforce and to push almost all of their armour towards the city.
The Field Marshal favoured enveloping Caen rather than carrying out a frontal assault to preserve manpower. But time and again, the Germans were able to resist and the battle for the city developed into an attritional struggle that cost both sides dearly.
The struggle for Caen ended in mid-July with the launch of Operation Goodwood. The attack, spearheaded by three British armoured divisions, coincided with American preparations for Operation Cobra and ensured that the bulk of German armour remained pinned around Caen.
5. The Germans had better tanks but not enough of them
In 1942, the most famous tank of World War Two made its first appearance in North Africa: the Panzerkampfwagen VI, better known as the “Tiger”. This monster tank, which mounted a formidable 88 millimetre gun, was initially superior to anything the Allies could field. Adolf Hitler was obsessed with it.
In Normandy, the fearful potential of the Tiger was showcased on 13 June at Villers-Bocage when Tiger commander Michael Wittmann was credited with disabling 11 tanks and 13 other armoured vehicles.
By that point, however, the Allies did have a tank that was capable of at least duelling with the Tiger. The Sherman Firefly was a variant of the M4 Sherman and fitted with a 17-pdr anti-tank gun. It was the only Allied tank capable of penetrating the Tiger’s armour at combat range.
In qualitative terms, German tanks still had the edge, but when it came to quantity the Allies far outstripped them. Hitler’s obsession with Tiger and Panther tanks, both complex and labour-intensive builds, meant German armour production lagged far behind the factories of America, which in 1943 churned out more than 21,000 Shermans.
By comparison, fewer than 1,400 Tigers were ever produced and by 1944 Germany lacked the resources to carry out repairs. It might still take up to five Shermans to disable a Tiger or a Panther but the Allies could afford the losses – the Germans could not.
6. A month into the campaign, someone tried to kill Hitler…
On 20 July, German officer Claus von Stauffenberg placed a bomb in a meeting room of Hitler’s eastern headquarters. The resulting explosion left the Nazi leader shaken but alive. In the aftermath, more than 7,000 suspected collaborators were arrested.
At the front, reaction to news of the assassination attempt was mixed. Most soldiers were too preoccupied by the day-to-day stresses of war to take much notice. Among the officers, some were appalled by the news but others, who hoped for a quick end to the war, were disappointed that Hitler had survived.
7. Operation Cobra broke through German defences
The Americans, having secured the Cotentin peninsula, next looked to break through German lines and out of Normandy. With Operation Goodwood around Caen keeping German armour occupied, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley planned to punch a gap in the German lines using a massive aerial bombardment.
On 25 July, 1,500 heavy bombers dropped 4,000 tonnes of bombs, including 1,000 tons of napalm on a section of the German line west of Saint Lo. As many as 1,000 German soldiers were killed in the bombardment, while tanks were overturned and communications destroyed. A five-mile gap opened up through which poured 100,000 soldiers.
8. The Allies used tactical air power to support operations
With the Luftwaffe effectively destroyed by June 1944, the Allies enjoyed air supremacy over France during the Normandy campaign and were thus able to make full use of air power to support operations on the ground.
The principals of tactical air support were established by the British in North Africa. In Normandy, bombers and fighter-bombers were used tactically to damage German defences or to prepare the ground for operations.
Carpet bombing operations by British and US heavy bombers, in which thousands of tonnes of bombs were dropped on a specific sector, had a crushing impact on morale in the German Army. The attacks buried armour and transport and destroyed precious rations.
However, carpet-bombing came with its own problems. The impact on the terrain caused just as many problems for the Allies when they came to pass through it as it did for the Germans. Carpet-bombing could also cause unwanted casualties. During the carpet-bombing operation that preceded Operation Cobra, 100 American soldiers were killed. French civilians also fell prey to Allied bombs.
9. Hitler refused to retreat
By the summer of 1944, Hitler’s grasp of reality had gone from loose to non-existent. His consistent interreference in decisions of military strategy, an area in which he was wholly inept, had disastrous results for the German Army in Normandy.
Convinced that the Allies could be forced back into the English Channel, Hitler refused to allow his divisions in Normandy to carry out a tactical retreat to the river Seine – even when it became apparent to all of his commanders that the Allies could not be defeated. Instead, exhausted units operating well below full strength were thrown into combat to plug gaps in the line.
In early August, he forced Gunther von Kluge, the overall commander of German forces in the West, to launch a counterattack in the American sector around Mortain. Ignoring Von Kluge’s warnings that victory was impossible, Hitler demanded that he commit nearly all German armour in Normandy to the attack.
The counterattack was codenamed Operation Luttich and it ground to a halt after seven days with the Germans having lost the bulk of their armour.
10. 60,000 German soldiers were trapped in the Falaise Pocket
In early August, it became apparent that German Army Group B, having thrust into the Allied lines during Operation Luttich, was vulnerable to envelopment. Monty ordered British and Canadian forces, now pressing on Falaise, to push south-east toward Trun and Chambois in the Dives Valley. The Americans were to head for Argentan. Between them, the Allies would have the Germans trapped.
On 16 August, Hitler finally ordered a withdrawal but it was too late. By then, the only available escape route measured just two miles, between Chambois and Saint Lambert.
During a period of desperate fighting in the ever-narrowing escape route, thousands of German soldiers were able to break free from the pocket. But when Canadian forces joined up with the 1st Polish Armoured Division, who held the vital Hill 262 for two days while cut off from all assistance, the escape route was completely shut.
About 60,000 German soldiers remained inside the pocket, 50,000 of whom were taken prisoner.
With the German defence of Normandy finally broken, the route to Paris lay open for the Allies. Four days later, on 25 August, the French capital was liberated and the Battle of Normandy came to an end.