On 6 June 1944, the Allies launched the greatest amphibious invasion in history. Codenamed “Operation Overlord” but best known today as “D-Day” (the day on which a military operation begins), the operation saw Allied forces landing on the beaches of Normandy in Nazi-occupied France in huge numbers. By the end of the day, the Allies had established a foothold on a 50-mile stretch of the French coastline.
The tactical reasons for D-Day
The D-Day landings marked the start of a long Allied campaign in north-west Europe. By opening a second front, the pressure on the Soviet Union in the east could be relieved, whilst the liberation of France would weaken Germany’s position in western Europe, drain their resources, and allow the Allies to establish their presence to further push back the German Army.
Indeed the very threat of invasion impacted German strategy in a significant way, with divisions transferred from Russia and other theatres to France – already relieving the pressure on the Eastern Front. Hitler expected the invasion force to cross the English channel at its narrowest point, which further spread out German defences.
British commanders were haunted by the losses of World War One, so were initially keen to pursue a Mediterranean strategy first, involving campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, which America agreed to. The failed Dieppe Raid in 1942 also highlighted the need for sufficient resources for any direct assault on Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’, and the importance of gaining air superiority – lessons that were to prove invaluable on D-Day.
The numbers involved
The statistics for the invasion force involved in the operation are staggering. By midnight on 6 June, 132,000 Allied forces had landed in France, while more than 2 million were eventually shipped there in total, comprising a total of 39 divisions.
Over 5,000 vessels took part in the operation, including 139 major warships; 221 smaller combat vessels; more than 1000 minesweepers and auxiliary vessels; 4,000 landing craft; 805 merchant ships; 59 blockships; and 300 miscellaneous small craft.
11,000 aircraft also took part, including fighters, bombers, transports and gliders. The invasion force also had the support of around 350,000 members of the French Resistance, who launched hit-and-run attacks on German targets.
D-Day required an unprecedented cooperation between international armed forces – over 2 million troops from over 12 countries were in Britain in preparation for the invasion. Allied forces consisted primarily of American, British and Canadian soldiers, but also included Australian, Belgian, French, Czech, Dutch, Greek, New Zealand, Norwegian, Rhodesian (present-day Zimbabwe) and Polish naval, air and ground support.
How D-Day unfolded
More than a year in the planning, D-Day was originally scheduled for 5 June but had to be delayed by 24 hours due to poor weather. Despite the Calais area offering a far shorter Channel crossing, Normandy was chosen due to its ideal landing beaches. It was also less fortified than Calais and was still within range for fighter aircraft.
The actual D-Day operation began shortly after midnight on 6 June with an Allied assault by three airborne divisions – the US 82nd and 101st on the right flank of the American forces, and Britain’s 6th Airborne on the left flank of the British – landing behind enemy lines.
German military leaders believed the initial attacks were only a diversionary tactic from an invasion further along the French coast.
Seaborne forces were then put ashore on 5 Normandy beaches. These beaches were codenamed (from east to west) Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah.
American forces were aiming for Utah and Omaha, with the former the target of the US 4th Infantry Division (part of the US VII Corps) and the latter the target of the US 1st Infantry Division (part of the US V Corps).
Gold beach, meanwhile, was the landing site of the British 50th Infantry Division (part of the British XXX Corps), and Sword the landing site of the British 3rd Infantry Division (part of the British I Corps).
The Canadian 3rd Infantry Division (also part of the British I Corps) was tasked with seizing Juno.
Successes and losses
The initial air and seaborne landings had mixed results. On Utah, resistance from the Germans was slight and US troops were off the beach by midday. But on Omaha, the Americans’ lack of specialised armour meant the Germans were able to pin them down on the beach, resulting in a high casualty count.
On Gold and Juno, the specialised armour of the British and Canadian enabled troops to get off their beaches quickly. By the afternoon they were moving inland toward Bayeux and Caen. On Sword, British troops were able to link up with airborne units that had been dropped further inland.
Just under a week later on 11 June, the Allies had fully secured the beaches and over 326,000 soliders, more than 50,000 vehicles and around 100,000 tons of equipment had landed at Normandy, ready for the conflicts that lay ahead on the European mainland.
Operation Overlord, D-Day, was ultimately successful. By late August 1944, all of northern France had been liberated, marking the beginning of the liberation of western Europe from Nazi control.
D-Day also served to convince the German High Command that their total defeat was now inevitable. Losing control of France also denied Germany the ability to further exploit France’s economic resources and manpower, whilst gaining a stronghold on the European mainland enabled America’s rapidly expanding army to be fully deployed, enhancing the Allies strength.
The Allied forces were then able to advance into Germany, where they could join-up with Soviet troops moving in from the east. The Normandy landings and resulting advance into the European mainland had also successfully prevented Hitler from re-directing troops from France to build up the Eastern Front against the advancing Soviet Army.
By Spring 1945, the Allies had defeated the Germans. The Normandy landings on D-Day have been called the beginning of the end of war in Europe, but this came at great human cost: around 10,500 Allied troops are estimated to have been killed, wounded or reported missing.