On 6 June 1944, the Allies launched the greatest amphibious invasion in history. Codenamed “Overlord” but best known today as “D-Day”, 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 the French coastline.
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.
Thousands of 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.
Eleven thousand 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.
How It Unfolded
The D-Day operation began shortly after midnight 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.
Seaborne forces were then put ashore on five 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.
The operation was ultimately successful and marked the beginning of the liberation of western Europe from Nazi control. But it came at great human cost: around 10,500 Allied troops are estimated to have been killed, wounded or reported missing.