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D-Day: The Great Crusade of World War II


In his Order of the Day for Tuesday, June 6, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower reminded the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, “The eyes of the world are upon you.” On that pivotal day, Operation Overlord was launched; the largest and most thoroughly planned amphibious assault in military history. To “bring about the destruction of the German war machine,” Eisenhower exclaimed, “We will accept nothing less than full victory!” By the end of D-Day, some 154,000 Allied troops, supported by more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft, had landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of France’s Normandy region. Many more difficult fights were still to come, but D-Day was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. As news of the invasion spread, it gave sudden, soaring hope to the oppressed peoples of Europe living under Nazi occupation.

In December 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Western Europe and soon afterwards went to London to establish his headquarters to oversee and direct the invasion of Normandy. To crack the formidable German fortifications in France known as the Atlantic Wall, the Allies assembled nearly two million men, 6,939 vessels, and thousands of aircraft. For the operation to be successful, Allied planners knew that they had to mislead the enemy. In the months and weeks before D-Day, the Allies engaged in a campaign of deception to make the Germans believe that the main invasion target was Pas-de-Calais (the narrowest point between Britain and France) rather than Normandy. They also tried to fool the enemy into believing that Norway and other locations were potential invasion targets. In pursuing this strategy of deception, many different tactics were used, including fake equipment, a phantom army commanded by General George S. Patton and supposedly based in England, across from Pas-de-Calais, double agents, and fraudulent radio transmissions.

An inflatable dummy tank, modeled after the M4 Sherman. Real tanks were replaced by dummy tanks when they were moved from their holding areas. The inflatable decoys made the Germans think the Allies had more tanks than they actually did and helped mask the final preparations for the invasion. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was charged with defending France from invasion. He believed that the key to repelling the invasion was at the beaches. Under this philosophy, Rommel wanted to concentrate forward on the invasion beaches and defeat the Allies as they came ashore. He famously remarked that the first day of the invasion would be “the longest day,” and he believed that if the Allies got firmly ashore, they were there to stay. Rommel’s strategy put him at odds with Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander-in-Chief West, who favored a concentration of defensive forces on the coast, especially because it was unknown which beaches were going to be invaded. Proximity to the beaches was essential for Rommel because he thought it would be impossible to move reserves long distances under Allied air supremacy. Complicating matters further was Adolf Hitler, who insisted on final control over the release of reserves. When the invasion finally came, the differences of opinion in the German command structure would be fatal.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the German anti-invasion forces, inspecting defenses on the Atlantic Wall. “Our only possible chance will be at the beaches,” he declared after taking command of Army Group B in France. (Photo: Imperial War Museum)

General Eisenhower selected June 5, 1944, as the date for the invasion, but bad weather forced the operation to be delayed for 24 hours, meaning that D-Day would be on June 6. The Allies had designated five landing beaches and several drop zones for their paratroops and airborne infantry. So much now rested on the shoulders of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, but perhaps no one faced greater pressure than Dwight Eisenhower. “Ike” is well remembered for his stirring words in his Order of the Day, which inspired the Allies to move forward into the fire, but he also drafted a message assuming responsibility in case the invasion failed. That letter would not be needed, but it gives a sense of the massive undertaking that the Allies were attempting on D-Day.

General Eisenhower with the 101st Airborne on June 5, 1944. “Go get ’em,” Ike is saying. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

By dawn on June 6, thousands of paratroopers and glider troops were already on the ground, operating behind enemy lines to secure bridges and exit roads. At 5:50 A.M., the Allies unleashed a massive naval bombardment against the German beach fortifications and the villages along the Normandy coast. At 6:30 A.M., the main American landings took place on Utah and Omaha beaches, with the British and Canadians arriving on Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches an hour later. The greatest struggle of all on D-Day occurred on Omaha Beach. The fate of the entire invasion hinged on the efforts of the American soldiers who endured unimaginable carnage on Omaha.

U.S.troops moving into Omaha Beach, about midmorning, June 6, 1944. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The 6,000 yards of Omaha Beach along which the Americans landed was a scene of chaos and destruction. At some places, the cliffs and bluffs at Omaha were more than 150 feet above the sea wall and the Germans had built 12 strong points to provide enfilade fire the length of the beach. Naval shelling did not silence the strongly built and well-placed fortifications. American troops also had to deal with murderous obstacles such as anti-personal mines, barbed wire, and huge anti-tank barriers. American soldiers, whose age averaged twenty and a half, had to leap out of their landing craft into a fury of machine-gun and mortar fire while loaded down with 68 pounds of equipment. Many men drowned when they jumped into water that was deeper than expected. Adding to the nightmare was the fact that 27 of the 29 DD “floating” tanks, which were launched 6,000 yards from the Omaha shore sank when the rough waves came over their canvas screens, denying the Americans the necessary firepower to get off the beach early.

Survivors from a destroyed Higgins boat are helped ashore. In his caption to this photo in D-Day: June 6, 1944, The Battle for the Normandy Beaches, Stephen E. Ambrose writes, “This may have been the only battle in history in which the wounded were brought forward, toward the front line, for first aid from the medics.” (Photo: U.S. Army)

The landing craft of Able Company of the 116th Infantry, 29th Division hit Omaha Beach at 6:36 A.M. The official account of what happened to Able Company during the opening minutes on Omaha truly describes the horror that they faced: “Ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man’s head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine gun fire from both ends of the beach . . . The first men out . . . are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning, doomed by the waterlogging of their overloaded packs . . . Already the sea runs red . . . A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upwards, so that their nostrils are out of the water, they creep towards the land at the same rate as the tide. This is how most of the survivors make it . . . Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless.”

American Troops pinned down behind anti-tank obstacles on Omaha Beach. (Photo: Australian War Memorial)

The tide finally turned on Omaha after naval commanders moved their ships close enough to blast away at German pillboxes and strongpoints. The sailors had seen enough of their comrades getting torn apart on Omaha Beach and they acted. It came to a point where nearly every destroyer off of Omaha moved in to assist the men struggling on the beach. It was not until 1:30 P.M., after soldiers had been pinned down for seven hours, that American troops could finally be seen advancing up the heights behind Omaha Beach.

Wounded men from the 1st Division on Omaha Beach. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Around 2,000 Americans were killed on Omaha Beach and by nightfall, a total of 34,000 men had made it ashore. Resistance on the other beaches was much lighter than on Omaha. By the day’s end, the Americans had successfully stormed Omaha and Utah beaches and the British and Canadians had followed suit on Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. In total, there were around 9,000 casualties on D-Day, more than half of whom were killed. The dead comprised 2,500 Americans, 1,641 British, 359 Canadians, 37 Norwegians, 19 Free French, 13 Australians, two New Zealanders, and one Belgian: 4,572 soldiers in total.

Medics attending to wounded soldiers on Utah Beach. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Germans made a determined counterattack to drive the Allies back into the sea, but Allied air power was too strong and they were unsuccessful. Overall, the German reaction on D-Day was hesitant and confused. The Germans were critically under-reinforced at Normandy and the convoluted command structure involving Rommel, von Rundstedt, and Hitler was detrimental during the pivotal hours of the invasion.

A German soldier lies dead outside a machine-gun emplacement that he defended on Utah Beach. (Photo: U.S. National Archives/boston.com)

D-Day was not the end. The fight ahead would still be brutal and difficult, but the Allies had gained a vital foothold in Continental Europe. Before the invasion, General Eisenhower told the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, “The eyes of the world are upon you.” The world was most certainly watching, and to this day, it has never forgotten the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

When a pilot looked down and saw the staggering number of men and supplies coming ashore at the end of the day on Omaha Beach, he thought that Hitler must have been mad to think that he could beat the United States. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sources

A Short History of World War II by James L. Stokesbury.

D-Day: June 6, 1944, the Battle for the Normandy Beaches by Stephen E. Ambrose.

History.com: D-Day.

Imperial War Museum: D-Day’s Parachuting Dummies and Inflatable Tanks.

National Archives: Eisenhower’s Order of the Day.

National Archives: Message Drafted by General Eisenhower in Case the D-Day Invasion Failed and Photographs taken on D-Day.

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War by Andrew Roberts.

U.S. Army: D-Day.

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