BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 09:17 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 10:17 UK

June 6, 1944: UK's last day as a superpower

Normandy landings

The scale of the D-Day landings, 65 years ago this week, will never be repeated. But this last hurrah for British military might also have become the model for armed intervention from Bosnia to Afghanistan, says Peter Caddick-Adams.

Sixty-five years after the event, the 1944 campaign in Normandy remains a battle of awe-inspiring proportions. The simple facts of D-Day itself still conjure visions of wonder in an era used to telephone-number salaries, international travel and lightning-speed communication, and represented an unprecedented feat of military planning.

Two hundred thousand seamen manned 6,939 ships, including 1,213 warships. One astonished German described the off-shore scene as "a city on the water". Putting troops ashore involved 4,126 landing vessels of all types, including 1,073 tank landing craft, as well as 864 merchant ships.

Utah Beach
American troops muster on Utah beach

By the day's end, the Allies had deposited 132,715 troops and 20,000 vehicles directly on to the beaches, with another 23,490 parachutists and glider-borne troops dropped by the allied air forces. The aerial armada supported the landings with 11,590 aircraft, which flew 14,674 sorties.

In the previous nine weeks 197,000 sorties had been flown (at a cost of 1,251 aircraft and 12,000 aircrew) and 195,000 tons of bombs had been dropped on German military and communications targets.

The cover of Time Magazine called the 1994 Normandy celebrations The Last Crusade, implying that in the future no single invasion fleet or military force would be so concentrated - the subsequent invention and deployment of atomic weapons with their awesome destructive capabilities would make such a fleet too vulnerable a target.

It was Britain's last day as a superpower.

No army in the world today could project such force and much of the effort on 6 June 1944 was British - about 60% of the troops landed were UK or Commonwealth (Canadians); the warships were predominantly from the Royal Navy - even the landing craft taking the Americans to Omaha Beach were manned by British seamen - and much of the air power came from the RAF.

The allied co-operation for the campaign was the military forerunner of modern coalition warfare, Nato and the political antecedent of the EU

The senior commanders under Eisenhower (an American) were all British, led by Montgomery. So the clock started ticking as more US troops gradually arrived (and therefore started taking a higher percentage of the casualties) and eventually the Americans had enough men ashore to warrant their own Army Group and their own direct command under Eisenhower.

So, while the Normandy campaign ended with more of an American flavour, it was prefaced by our last hurrah on D-Day itself.

We have never competed with the Americans on anything like equal terms since.

One of the myths of Operation Overlord (the codename for the invasion of France) is it was the biggest seaborne invasion in history. It was not. Nor was it the biggest maritime invasion of World War II. That accolade goes to the 1943 invasion of Sicily - a far greater undertaking than Normandy and one from which many valuable lessons were learned.

Worse than Somme

Ironically, because of the casualties, the Normandy campaign ended up as more attritional than the worst battles of the 1914-18 war, something its commanders - haunted by the shadow of the Somme - desperately tried to avoid.

The scene on Utah beach

The campaign lasted 77 days (as against the 90 days predicted by allied planners), and resulted in the destruction of the German Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army in the Falaise Pocket by 21 August.

Some 209,672 allied soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing, 16,714 allied aircrew lost their lives. German losses were estimated at 250,000.

Additionally, 2,483 Normans connected with the French Resistance were executed before or during the campaign, while as many as 35,000 civilians died (the lowest estimate is 15,000) and 60,000 were wounded in the liberation. This averages out at 6,600 casualties per day for the entire campaign.

This daily average exceeds the Great War daily casualty rates of Verdun 1916 (2,300 per day over 299 days), the Somme 1916 (6,400/day over 142 days) or Passchendaele 1917 (4,600/day over 113 days).

By mid-July 1944, the region was as heavily populated with troops as the Western Front of World War I: there were 2,052,299 allied troops and nearly half-a-million German soldiers in Normandy that summer of 1944.

Rainbow coalition

From a purely European spectacle, it can be argued that the allied co-operation for the campaign was the military forerunner of modern coalition warfare, Nato and the political antecedent of the European Union.

British troops
More than 200,000 casualties

British, Free French, Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourgois, Czechs, Poles, Greek, Danish and Norwegian naval and military forces all took part, or flew overhead with the vast air armada. Many soldiers from the Irish Republic fought with British units, while some anti-Nazi Austrians and German Jews were involved in the allied deception and intelligence war.

You'll find a rainbow of nationalities in Normandy this summer - Swedish and Chinese, Pakistani, Nigerian and Colombian military folk all trek to the region, for the campaign is widely studied today by military leaders from around the world. They walk the terrain looking not at the tactics, but at the example of a multinational military operation, encompassing air, land and sea forces, which ended in victory but saw costly mistakes and unwelcome surprises along the way.

In many ways, the way military business has been done in Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan and on UN peacekeeping missions owes much to the seeds sown on 6 June 1944.

Peter Caddick-Adams is a military historian.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific