This time 70 years ago on 6th June 1944, the world held its breath as the largest amphibious military operation even seen was under way. Operation Overlord was the long-awaited Allied invasion of Nazi held Europe that would lead to the liberation of mainland Europe and 70 years of freedom and democracy.
D-Day was never going to be easy. Germany had spent years fortifying defences along the coast from the Spanish border in the south to the top of Norway in the north. The defences were lined with artillery and machine gun nests and most of the beaches were either mined or covered with row after row of barbed wire and anti-ship and anti-tank defences.
At various times the American President thought it was madness, Churchill that it was crazy and better to invade from Portugal and Eisenhower so unconvinced that he had already written a letter explaining its failure.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg Le Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the Air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
If it had failed, the Churchill government would almost certainly have fallen and Europe would remain under Nazi control for at least a decade if not permanently.
Britain, America, Canada and other key allies had spent over a year preparing for the invasion and the whole of southern England had been turned into one giant military camp.
The figures involved with the D-Day invasion were huge. There were just over 50,000 German defenders above the beaches of Normandy. Against them saw 73,000 American, 61,000 British and 21,400 Canadians land on the beaches. In support of them were thousands of aircrews and a huge number of navy personnel including almost 53,000 American sailors and 113,000 men of the Royal Navy.
Despite the apparent Allied numerical dominance, it was not at all a foregone conclusion that D-Day would be successful. The Germans were well dug in and held many feared Panzer Divisions just behind the beaches on the eastern sector.
One of the key elements going for the Allies was that of surprise with Hitler going against his generals advice and believing any invasion would be made in the Calais area, just over 20 miles from England rather than Normandy which is over 5 times further away.
Hitlers belief was partly due to the belief that the Allies would need to capture deep water naval harbours, unaware of the British development of the Mulberry Harbour which was in effect a temporary harbour that could be towed across the English channel and allow the thousands of men and heavy vehicles to come ashore after the initial few hours of fighting had secured the beaches. Additionally the failed Dieppe Raid a few years earlier had convinced Allied Command that the only feasible invasion route was along broad beaches rather than concentrated on built up harbours.
Before the invasion the German air-force, the Luftwaffe had been largely but not entirely eliminated and German coastal radar stations had been destroyed. Much energy was taken into confusing the enemy with an entirely mythical American army which planned to attack Norway and Calais and even after the Normandy landings, Germany still expected a larger invasion in the Calais area which never materialised but which tied up lots of German resources. On the night of the invasion, the fledgling SAS oversaw the dropping of dummy paratroopers to give the impression that an additional airborne landing was under-way and similar decoys were made by the Royal Navy in multiple locations along the French coast. All in all nearly 7,000 navy craft were involved in D-Day and nearly 15,000 sorties by the RAF and USAAF.
Originally D-Day was to take place on 5th June 1944 but bad weather meant it was postponed for 24 hours. The weather was still bad on 6th June with many soldiers falling sea-sick due to the bad weather even before they landed.
Due to the size of the invasion, the beaches were split up into areas of responsibility. To the west were the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and to the east the British attacked Gold and Sword with the Canadians responsible for Juno beach between the two British beaches.
In the early hours of the 6th June American Airborne Rangers were dropped behind the lines in the west whilst Meanwhile in the East the British 6th Airborne Division landed near Benouville Bridge (now renamed Pegasus Bridge) which was vital to stop German tanks from reaching the British beach-heads. After a fierce but brief battle the bridge was secured and the first houses in France were liberated.
At day break the main attack began with the Americans hitting the beach 1 hour before the British attack. The attack on Omaha beach was particularly bloody with 2,400 casualties. Across the 50 mile long beaches, the Allied soldiers launches themselves onto the beach under a hail of heavy gunfire whilst at Gold, Sword and Juno the beaches were in front of fortified towns that had to be cleared in deadly house to house combat.
The Allied landings didn’t reach their objectives but it could have been a lot worse. When the first sightings of an attack came, Hitler was asleep and his temper was so fierce that none of his generals wanted to wake him with the bad news. This vital delay meant that the Nazi panzer units were not ordered to the battle in time, if they had then it is entirely possible that the landings would have been unsuccessful.
Only the beaches at Gold and Juno managed to link up and it would take many days before all 5 beaches were connected. Some of the 1st day objectives actually took over a month to achieve.
By midnight on D-Day there were over 12,000 Allied casualties with 4,414 confirmed dead with 1,000 dead Germans. General Eisenhower made the following radio broadcast:
“People of Western Europe: A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. This landing is part of the concerted United Nations’ plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with our great Russian allies.
I have this message for all of you. Although the initial assault may not have been made in your own country, the hour of your liberation is approaching.
All patriots, men and women, young and old, have a part to play in the achievement of final victory. To members of resistance movements, I say, “Follow the instructions you have received.” To patriots who are not members of organized resistance groups, I say, “Continue your passive resistance, but do not needlessly endanger your lives until I give you the signal to rise and strike the enemy. The day will come when I shall need your united strength.” Until that day, I call on you for the hard task of discipline and restraint.
Citizens of France! I am proud to have again under my command the gallant Forces of France. Fighting beside their Allies, they will play a worthy part in the liberation of their Homeland.
Because the initial landing has been made on the soil of your country, I repeat to you with even greater emphasis my message to the peoples of other occupied countries in Western Europe. Follow the instructions of your leaders. A premature uprising of all Frenchmen may prevent you from being of maximum help to your country in the critical hour. Be patient. Prepare!
As Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, there is imposed on me the duty and responsibility of taking all measures necessary to the prosecution of the war. Prompt and willing obedience to the orders that I shall issue is essential.
Effective civil administration of France must be provided by Frenchmen. All persons must continue in their present duties unless otherwise instructed. Those who have made common cause with the enemy and so betrayed their country will be removed. As France is liberated from her oppressors, you yourselves will choose your representatives, and the government under which you wish to live.
In the course of this campaign for the final defeat of the enemy you may sustain further loss and damage. Tragic though they may be, they are part of the price of victory. I assure you that I shall do all in my power to mitigate your hardships. I know that I can count on your steadfastness now, no less than in the past. The heroic deeds of Frenchmen who have continued the struggle against the Nazis and their Vichy satellites, in France and throughout the French Empire, have been an example and an inspiration to all of us.
This landing is but the opening phase of the campaign in Western Europe. Great battles lie ahead. I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us. Keep your faith staunch – our arms are resolute – together we shall achieve victory.”
For those interested, here is how Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill broke the news to the House of Commons and the people of Britain:
“The House should, I think, take formal cognisance of the liberation of Rome by the Allied Armies under the Command of General Alexander, with General Clark of the United States Service and General Oliver Leese in command of the fifth and Eighth Armies respectively. This is a memorable and glorious event, which rewards the intense fighting of the last five months in Italy. The original landing, made on January 22nd at Anzio, has, in the end, borne good fruit. In the first place, Hitler was induced to send to the south of Rome eight or nine divisions which he may well have need of elsewhere. Secondly, these divisions were repulsed, and their teeth broken, by the successful resistance of the Anzio bridgehead forces in the important battle which took place in the middle of February. The losses on both sides were heavy-the Allies losing about 20,000 men, and the Germans about 25,000 men. Thereafter, the Anzio bridgehead was considered by the enemy to be impregnable.
Meanwhile, the great regrouping of the main Army had to take place before the attacks could be renewed. These attacks were at first unsuccessful, and Cassino still blocked the advance. On May 11th, General Alexander began his present operation, and after unceasing and intense fighting by the whole of the Armies, broke into the enemy’s lines and entered the Liri Valley. It is noteworthy that, counting from right to left, the whole of the Polish, British Empire, French, and United States Forces broke the German lines in front of them by frontal attack. That has an important bearing on other matters, which I shall come to before I sit down.
At what was judged the right moment the bridgehead force, which by this time had reached a total of nearly 150,000 men, fell upon the retiring enemy’s flank and threatened his retreat. The junction of the main Armies with the bridgehead forces drove the enemy off his principal lines of retreat to the North, forcing a great part of his army to retire in considerable disorder with heavy losses, especially in material, through mountainous country. The Allied Forces, with great rapidity, were regrouped, with special emphasis on their left flank, which soon deployed against Rome after cutting the important highway. The American and other Forces of the Fifth Army broke through the enemy’s last line and entered Rome, where the Allied troops have been received with joy by the population. This entry and liberation of Rome mean that we shall have the power to defend it from hostile air attack, and to deliver it from the famine with which it was threatened. However, General Alexander’s prime object has never been the liberation of Rome, great as are the moral, political and psychological advantages of that episode. The Allied Forces, with the Americans in the van, are driving ahead, northwards, in relentless pursuit of the enemy. The destruction of the enemy army has been, throughout, the single aim, and they are now being engaged at the same time along the whole length of the line as they attempt to escape to the North. It is hoped that the 20,000 prisoners already taken will be followed by further captures in future, and that the condition of the enemy’s army, which he has crowded into Southern Italy, will be decisively affected.
It would be futile to attempt to estimate our final gains at the present time. It is our duty, however, to pay the warmest tribute of gratitude and admiration to General Alexander for the skill with which he has handled this Army of so many different States and nations, and for the tenacity and fortitude with which he has sustained the long periods when success was denied. In General Clark the United States Army has found a fighting leader of the highest order, and the qualities of all Allied troops have shone in noble and unjealous rivalry. The great strength of the Air Forces at our disposal, as well as the preponderance in armour, has undoubtedly contributed in a notable and distinctive manner to the successes which have been achieved. We must await further developments in the Italian theatre before it is possible to estimate the magnitude and quality of our gains, great and timely though they certainly are.
I have also to announce to the House that during the night and the early hours of this morning the first of the series of landings in force upon the European Continent has taken place. In this case the liberating assault fell upon the coast of France. An immense armada of upwards of 4,000 ships, together with several thousand smaller craft, crossed the Channel. Massed airborne landings have been successfully effected behind the enemy lines, and landings on the beaches are proceeding at various points at the present time. The fire of the shore batteries has been largely quelled. The obstacles that were constructed in the sea have not proved so difficult as was apprehended. The Anglo-American Allies are sustained by about 11,000 first-line aircraft, which can be drawn upon as may be needed for the purposes of the battle. I cannot, of course, commit myself to any particular details. Reports are coming in rapid succession. So far the Commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan. And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place. It involves tides, wind, waves, visibility, both from the air and the sea standpoint, and the combined employment of land, air and sea forces in the highest degree of intimacy and in contact with conditions which could not and cannot be fully foreseen.
There are already hopes that actual tactical surprise has been attained, and we hope to furnish the enemy with a succession of surprises during the course of the fighting. The battle that has now begun will grow constantly in scale and in intensity for many weeks to come, and I shall not attempt to speculate upon its course. This I may say, however. Complete unity prevails throughout the Allied Armies. There is a brotherhood in arms between us and our friends of the United States. There is complete confidence in the supreme commander, General Eisenhower, and his lieutenants, and also in the commander of the Expeditionary Force, General Montgomery. The ardour and spirit of the troops, as I saw myself, embarking in these last few days was splendid to witness. Nothing that equipment, science or forethought could do has been neglected, and the whole process of opening this great new front will be pursued with the utmost resolution both by the commanders and by the United States and British Governments whom they serve. I have been at the centres where the latest information is received, and I can state to the House that this operation is proceeding in a thoroughly satisfactory manner. Many dangers and difficulties which at this time last night appeared extremely formidable are behind us. The passage of the sea has been made with far less loss than we apprehended. The resistance of the batteries has been greatly weakened by the bombing of the Air Force, and the superior bombardment of our ships quickly reduced their fire to dimensions which did not affect the problem. The landings of the troops on a broad front, both British and American-Allied troops, I will not give lists of all the different nationalities they represent-but the landings along the whole front have been effective, and our troops have penetrated, in some cases, several miles inland. Lodgments exist on a broad front.
The outstanding feature has been the landings of the airborne troops, which were on a scale far larger than anything that has been seen so far in the world. These landings took place with extremely little loss and with great accuracy. Particular anxiety attached to them, because the conditions of light prevailing in the very limited period of the dawn-just before the dawn-the conditions of visibility made all the difference. Indeed, there might have been something happening at the last-minute which would have prevented airborne troops from playing their part. A very great degree of risk had to be taken in respect of the weather.
But General Eisenhower’s courage is equal to all the necessary decisions that have to be taken in these extremely difficult and uncontrollable matters. The airborne troops are well established, and the landings and the follow-ups are all proceeding with much less loss-very much less-than we expected. Fighting is in progress at various points. We captured various bridges which were of importance, and which were not blown up. There is even fighting proceeding in the town of Caen, inland. But all this, although a very valuable first step-a vital and essential first step-gives no indication of what may be the course of the battle in the next days and weeks, because the enemy will now probably endeavour to concentrate on this area, and in that event heavy fighting will soon begin and will continue without end, as we can push troops in and he can bring other troops up. It is, therefore, a most serious time that we enter upon. Thank God, we enter upon it with our great Allies all in good heart and all in good friendship.”