In parliament some years before, Prime Minster Winston Churchill boldly proclaimed that “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields, and in the streets”, and on June 6th 1944, this came to fruition. The scenic beaches of Normandy would host the largest seaborne invasion force in the history of mankind.
D-Day was upon us.
In years past listening to news reports of the Dunkirk evacuation, or the thunderous crack of bombs dropping upon your city, one can imagine it would be hard to envisage the day in which British and Allied forces once again set foot in France, taking the fight to the formidable Nazi war machine.
Years of blood, sweat and toil had led to this day however. Campaigns in Northern Africa, the North Atlantic and now Italy had placed Germany on the ropes. Heir Hitler had dug his own grave with his invasion of the east; his focus was placed firmly on the red menace advancing westward, and his back was left wide open for an allied dagger.
Planning for the Normandy invasion began in 1943, and took months of detailed planning and deception, aided by a pinch of good fortune. Planning an operation of such magnitude, and assembling a force consisting of over 150,000 men, 5000+ vessels and over 11,000 aircraft was no easy feat.
Add this to the obstacle of the Atlantic Wall; over 2000 miles of coastal defences, fortifications and minefields, and the operation becomes unfathomably complex. In situations like this, creativity was key, and the Allies played a perfect game.
Designed to fool Hitler, this operation was a ruse like nothing seen before. Allied planners began building dummy armies, equipped with fake tanks, aircraft and barracks.
Divided into two sections – Fortitude North and Fortitude South – Germany would be led to believe that any allied invasion of Europe would come either through Norway, or across the Pas-de-Calais.
In the south of England, the fictitious First US Army Group would transmit decoy radio communications, implying that preparations of an invasion were underway. In addition to this, through using fictitious installations and inflatable military hardware, German intelligence believed the landing force was far larger than first believed.
Regular bombing sorties were carried out by the RAF along the Calais coastline, and perhaps in one of the most interesting deception ploys of the war, double-agents such as Juan Pujol Garcia fed false information to solidify Hitler’s belief that an invasion would be further North, and that the Normandy chatter was the ruse itself.
In practice, this operation was a stunning success. Hitler was utterly convinced that the Allied assault on Europe would begin in all the wrong places. High ranking military commanders – Erwin Rommel in particular – urged Hitler that this may not be the case, and that deception was at work.
In his rage-fuelled hysteria however, and focused firmly on fighting Stalin, this counsel often fell on deaf ears. Hitlers arrogance and refusal to listen to his advisers left him dangerously close to defeat, and so the operation was set, an invasion was imminent.
Plans had initially intended for the invasion to commence on the 5th of June, but poor weather conditions prohibited any movement. As such, General Eisenhower delayed the operation to wait for favourable conditions.
Meteorology techniques in the 1940’s were, as you can imagine, far more primitive than today’s satellite-based observation. Communications from the North Atlantic from naval and air force assets were the primary source of weather prediction. After a favourable forecast had been declared, the go-ahead was given, the invasion commenced.
“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.” (General Dwight D. Eisenhower)
Allied aircraft dropped thousands of pounds worth of metal strips over Calais and the surrounding areas in advance, disrupting German radar communications and sending panic through the ranks of the high command. Dummy paratroopers were also dropped, drawing Wehrmacht units further away from the real landing zones.
Dawn, June 6th. The morning dew still wet on French soil, an eerie silence fills the air; Quite a contrast from the cacophony of the night not long passed. The thud of anti-aircraft fire resonated through the villages and fields of Normandy, sporadic gunfire, confusion and despair.
Dug in deep, they had their orders. The parachute regiments of the Allied assault, the vanguard. Orders were to secure strategic positions, villages, bridges, supply routes. Artillery positions were of paramount importance, as it would be the men on the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Sword, Gold and Juno who would bear the brunt of their onslaught.
Outnumbered, hopelessly outgunned and with sporadic landing zones teaming with Wehrmacht & SS units, the paratroopers fought valiantly to secure a foothold in Northern France, but not without loss. Many were killed or captured, and in one famous incident, Private John Steele had the misfortune of landing on a church steeple in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. For over two hours he dangled, before being captured by German forces; A short – but far from uneventful – foray into France.
While paratroopers jumped from planes and plummeted to earth in gliders, the largest coordinated air and naval operation ever seen at that point was underway. At 3am 1,900 Allied bombers attacked German positions in Normandy. An incomprehensible seven million pounds of bombs were dropped, and a total of 10,521 combat aircraft flew over 15,000 sorties on D-Day, with 113 lost to ground fire or air engagements.
A naval bombardment from seven battleships, 18 cruisers, and 43 destroyers began at 5am, lasting over an hour and half. Again, the numbers are staggering, hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds obliterated German positions, and laid waste to large areas of the Normandy coastline.
At 6:31am, US troops landed on the beaches of Utah and Omaha. Followed closely by British and Canadians on Gold, Sword and Juno.
We have all the seen the cinematic portrayals of this day, truly a hell on earth. The concrete gun emplacements, minefields, perfectly designed kill-zones and the dead and wailing men who fell victim to them.
As allied troops fought tooth and nail to break the lines of German defenders, hundreds were mowed down by the fire from Germany’s famous ‘buzzing’ MG42. A weapon with an incredible rate of fire, murderously effective, and a harrowing example of Germany’s innovative military technology.
Omaha Beach stands as an example of the horrors experienced by thousands that day. The stiffest resistance to the invasion force could be found there. With over 2,000 casualties, the US Army Rangers were made to slog out their victory, but victory was achieved nonetheless.
4,000 men were killed on D-Day, with thousands more missing in action or wounded. The price for victory was high, but a beachhead was being secured, Fortress Europe was ripe for the taking and Hitlers seemingly impenetrable Atlantic Wall had been punctured. By the 11th of June, over 326,000 troops had disembarked upon the shores of Normandy, accompanied by more than 50,000 vehicles.
The goal now was to push outward, secure Normandy’s villages, towns and cities, and ultimately Paris. The fighting would not get easier however, and the defending German forces would not relent. Time had allowed their famed Panzer divisions and the dreaded SS to reorganised and press the Allied forces.
As British and American armoured divisions pressed into Villiers-Bocage, the carnage seen on the Normandy beaches would once again commence. This area was a prime spot for ambush, sabotage and the topography of the land made it near impossible to fight in an organised fashion.
In a continuation of this piece on the 13th, I will explore the Battle of Villers-Bocage. An event in the Allied invasion that is particularly poignant to me, as my great-grandfather died fighting, leaving behind a son that would never know his face.