Operation Overlord, also known as D-Day, took place on 6 June, 1944. On that day, the Allied invasion fleet landed hundreds of thousands of men into German-occupied France, in the largest sea invasion in human history. At the same time thousands of paratroopers were dropped in to harass supply lines and capture key objectives. It was to be the turning point of the Second World War.
The Allies had been planning Operation Overlord since 1942, when it went by the name of Operation Roundup. But because of the failed campaign in north Africa and the Dieppe raid that same year, it was decided that a full-scale invasion would require more planning if it was to penetrate the Western front, guarded by Hitler's Atlantic wall.
The landings in Africa, Sicily and Italy were part of Britain's 'indirect strategy' to fight the weaker parts of the axis defence.
While Stalin wanted a quick attack from the West to take pressure off the Eastern front, the West continued to aid the Soviet Union by sending convoys to Murmansk and via land, through Iran.
Training for D-Day
On 19 August, 1942, a fleet consisting of 237 ships from the British Navy travelled towards Dieppe across the channel with 5,000 Canadian troops, 1,000 British commandoes and 50 American soldiers. The element of surprise was the basis of the attack, but when the fleet ran into a guarded German cargo convoy, the secrecy part of the mission was ruined.
When the fleet finally arrived at Dieppe, they slowly drove up to the shore, right in front of a fully-armed German artillery-company on full alert.
Two thousand men were captured and 1,600 were killed. The city of Dieppe was rewarded with 10 million francs for not helping the enemy and 28 Churchill-tanks were captured by the axis.
The people who had been planning the attack called it a valuable lesson. They learned the futility in attacking a fortified harbour and used this knowledge in the future invasion of Normandy.
In the weeks before D-Day portions of southern England were turned into vast military camps. The ports were filled with military crafts, battleships and destroyers of all the sorts, the countryside was filled with soldiers, marching up and down the roads, practising landing and shooting. All key personnel, including General Patton, Field-Marshal Montgomery and General Eisenhower, had been transferred from the Italian front months before. The orders from the President of the United States to the commander of Operation Overlord, General Dwight D Eisenhower, were as follows:
Enter the Continent of Europe, and in conjunction with other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.
The sheer numbers were incredible. In England at that time, the forces for Operation Overlord numbered 150,000 men, 1,500 tanks, 5,300 ships and 12,000 airplanes.
Every moment that the Germans were unaware of the true objective of the invasion was a minute less time they had to prepare. So the Allied planners were left with the problem of hiding the largest invading force in history.
In the week preceding the invasion, the allied air forces attacked German radar stations on the coast of France. They were heavily attacked again on the night of the invasion. However a number of stations north of the Seine were left intact and amid heavy radar jamming by a mix of naval vessels and aircraft, they were able to pick up an approaching fleet.
In fact there was no fleet, it was Lancaster bombers of 617 and 218 squadrons. They were flying a racetrack pattern throwing chaff1 out of the bomb bay to simulate an approaching fleet. This was backed up by launches towing radar reflectors and loud speakers to fool any aircraft sent to investigate. The success of this mission was proven when, as dawn broke, they started firing naval guns from shore trying to hit the non-existent fleet.
In the air, again using chaff, a mixture of Lancasters and B-17 Flying Fortresses simulated a heavy bombing raid in the Somme. This drew off German night fighters so that the vulnerable slow-moving transport aircraft could approach without interference.
The first paratroopers to land were in fact rubber dummies. These were landed well away from the designated drop zones. On landing, the dummies would fire off battle simulators to recreate the sounds of battle. Included with the dummies were small teams of SAS with other equipment to simulate the sounds of battle. The purpose of these dummies was two-fold. Upon receiving reports of paratroopers landing, German commanders immediately sent troops to investigate. Once these troops had been despatched, they could not easily be recalled and regiments who were needed for counter-attacks, spent a fruitless day searching for non-existent paratroopers. Secondly, when German commanders had 'captured' a dummy paratrooper, they dismissed reports of the actual paratroops landing as just another trick.
As a result of these deceptions, the first some of the defending German troops knew about the invasion was when they came under fire from the Allied bombardment fleets.
To make sure the Germans did not know were the Allies would come from, a false army group was created at Dover which at first glance appeared to be creating a lot of activity. Radios continually transmitted fake orders and thousands of inflatable tanks went on display in the Kentish countryside. Several vans drove around the south east of England with enough radio equipment on board to mimic the radio traffic of several divisions. This subterfuge was codenamed Operation Fortitude. This scheme certainly did its job well enough, it tied 19 Nazi-divisions to Pas-de-Calais for six weeks after D-Day.
Once the Allies had decided upon Normandy as the attacking point, they then had to overcome the problem of how to get men and equipment onto the beach and then inland. Although the beaches at Normandy were not as heavily defended as those in the Calais region, the defences were still formidable. The beaches were littered with mines and obstacles to impede landing craft. The Germans had also prepared concrete bunkers with interlocking fields of fire from which troops could fire down on allied invaders.
To get ashore, the Allies used a variety of specialised craft. To be able to land troops and equipment directly onto the shore, all the boats were flat bottomed, so they didn't get stuck on the beach.
The Landing Craft Vehicle/Personnel (LCVP) or Higgins boat was a small vessel (36ft long) capable of carrying a platoon of troops or a single truck. Because of its small size, they could be carried on board larger vessels. Several miles from the shore, troops would get onto these boats, which would carry them onto the beach. On D-Day, this meant climbing down the side of a ship on a cargo net and then trying to time a jump onto the boat at the height of the swell. Not an easy process in heavy seas and several men were injured in the attempt. Most of the initial waves of the assault were landed in these small boats.
The Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) were larger boats (200ft) which could carry up to 200 men with a crew of over 20 sailors. They were also equipped with machine guns and cannons to support the infantry. The infantry got off from two small ramps at the front of the boat.
Although these boats were not designed to cross long distances over water, they often did. There were several variations used on D-Day in a number of support roles, by carrying rockets, for example, which were used to bombard the beaches before the troops landed.
The Landing Craft Tank (LCT) was similar to the LCVP in that it had a single ramp at the bow, which could be lowered to enable vehicles to drive straight off onto the beach. It was 120ft long with a crew of 12 and could carry up to nine tanks. Some of the LCTs used for the Normandy landings were modified so that tanks at the front of the vessel could fire their guns over the front of the ramp on the run in.
To minimise the risk to landing craft, the decision was made to land at low tide. Reconnaissance had shown there were few obstacles beyond the low tide, and they would be visible to the approaching landing craft. That left the problem of how to get the troops across - in some cases several hundred metres of beach in the face of fierce German resistance. The obvious answer was tank support for the landing infantry, but one of the bitter lessons from Dieppe was that a large craft capable of landing tanks, provided an attractive target for defending troops and these could not be risked near a well-defended beach.
Major General Percy Hobart (of the 7th Armoured Division) was asked to develop solutions to the problems the Allies were going to face. He came up with a number of different innovative designs, which came to be known as Hobart's funnies.
The most famous of these was the DD (Duplex Drive) tank. It was based on the standard Sherman tank chassis, but in addition to tracks, the tank was also fitted with two propellers. It took 15 minutes to erect a 9ft high canvas screen around the tank, which then enabled it to float. In the water, only the outer screen showed, so it just looked like a small boat. Once the tank was ashore the screen could be lowered in seconds. The tank was only designed for fair weather conditions, with small waves. However, on the day of the invasion the swells were as high as six feet.
Once the troops were ashore, Hobart came up with other designs to help them get across the beach.
These were all based on the Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers). For mine clearance, there was the Crab, which carried a number of chains attached to a rotating axle at the front of the tank powered by a separate engine. The chains would either smash or detonate any mines they passed over.
The Crocodile was modified to carry a flamethrower, which could shoot a jet of flame up to 100 yards. Other variants included a turret fitted with a 290mm mortar, which could fire a bunker-busting shell, the Fascine (basically a large bundle of logs tied together which could be used to fill in ditches) fitted to the front of the turret and finally the bridging tanks.
There were two main variants used on D-Day: the armoured Ramp Carrier, which carried ramps at the front and rear which could be extended to cover a gap up to 50 feet wide, and the Small Box Girder Assault Bridge, which was carried on the nose of the tank and was then lowered to cover gaps up to 30 feet wide. The advantage of the SBG was it could be deployed while the crew remained in the tank so they were not exposed to enemy fire.
In the Sea
Operation Neptune was the code name for the naval plan for transporting the troops to the Normandy beaches. Coincidentally 'Neptune' was also the answer to 15 down in The Daily Telegraph crossword at the time: 'Britannia and he hold the same thing', which together with some of other contemporaneous answers of Utah, Omaha, Overlord and Mulberry, gave MI5 a bit of a scare.
The Navy's responsibility for troops began the moment they stepped on board and ended once they had passed the high water mark of Ordinary Spring Tide. Every movement up to that point fell under the command of Admiral Bertram Ramsey. Surprisingly, one of the problems of Overlord was a shortage of assault shipping.
The original plan called for Operation Anvil (another amphibious landing in the South of France) to take place concurrently with Overlord. This had to be postponed and the shipping diverted to fulfil the requirements for Overlord.
The invasion fleet was divided up into a western task force, under the command of Rear Admiral AG Kirk - who would transport the US forces to Utah and Omaha - and the eastern task force under Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian who was responsible for the British and Canadian force landing at Gold, Juno and Sword. The western task force assembled in various ports of the southern coast of England stretching from Falmouth to Poole, while the eastern task force assembled from Portsmouth up to Newhaven. Surprisingly, ports of the South East of England were not used because they were full of dummy landing craft designed to foil German reconnaissance aircraft.
Each taskforce consisted of three main elements: transport craft, warships and other support vessels. The job of the warships was to bombard the beaches before H-Hour and then switch to counter battery (attempting to destroy the enemy's artillery) and fire support missions (attacking targets identified by troops ashore). The support vessels included minesweepers, command ships and blockade ships, which would be sunk to form the 'Mulberry' harbour.
In January, 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was put in charge of the German coastal defences of the English channel. He decided to make the famous 'Atlantic wall' a real obstacle for the Allies. Rommel was fully aware of the Allies' complete air superiority and he knew that, when the invasion came, the first 24 hours would be crucial. The beaches would be his main defence line, his Hauptkampflinie.
The German propaganda machine had painted an image of an impregnable line of large coastal artillery guns running along the whole coast. People were never informed that the Atlantic wall only had these kinds of emplacements in a few very strategically important harbours and u-boat bases. The rest was just barbed wire and bunker fortifications with several miles running between them.
Rommel's method of defence was to make the whole French coast one big wall of tank and landing craft obstacles, coupled with the already-existing fortresses. Rommel travelled from shore to shore, fortress to fortress, designing new strategies and defences. He came up with the innovative tank obstacles known as 'hedgehogs', which consisted of large steel beams bent into straight angles and welded together, some with mines attached to them. Others were simply tree poles leaning towards the sea with mines. Rommel had wished to have four lines of these obstacles ready so that at least one line was always invisible in the tide, but before D-Day only two lines were complete. His defensive strategy was based upon mines, a lesson he learned in North Africa. He wanted to create a defence behind the beaches as well on the beaches with mines, fortified infantry and buried tanks, backed up by a mobile armoury as well as artillery, and the ability to flood the fields behind the beaches to stop enemy paratroopers. For this task he asked for around 300 million mines. He got 4.1 million in time for D-Day, many of them made by his men.
Rommel had not been given the same freedom he'd enjoyed in North Africa, and the fact that his assignment had not been given either enough men or ammunition didn't exactly help. Despite all this, his men were so impressed by his capability to improvise that they nicknamed him 'the greatest engineer of World War II'.
This was what the Allies would have to face.
The Grand Plan
The aim of D-Day was to establish a base in Normandy, France, by building and holding a beachhead, from were it would be possible to secure other parts of France and, eventually, Germany.
The 101st and 82nd American Airborne Divisions, as well as the British 6th Airborne Division, would land behind enemy lines in an area stretching as far as 80km from the sea, to isolate the German coastal defences and cut off the supply lines by destroying bridges and roads leading to the beaches.
Then two American, two British and one Canadian division were going to land on a 96km coastline between Caen and Cherbourg with Merville on the eastern flank and St-Mere-Eglise to the west. Altogether, 107,000 soldiers would be placed in Normandy during the invasion's first 48 hours.
The coastal line had been divided into five beaches. Omaha was assigned to the 1st and 29th Divisions; Utah beach was assigned 4th Divisions of the American 5th and 7th army corps; Gold and Sword beach were assigned to the British 3rd Division, 50th Infantry Division and 1st army corps; and Juno beach assigned to the Canadian 3rd Division.
After that, the towns behind the established beachhead would be captured by the airborne divisions after being relieved by the 7th army corps in order to maintain a firm grip on the coast.
This was, put simply, the plan.
There were a number of pre-conditions laid down for the invasion. The first was a moonlit night, and the second was a low tide at around dawn on the invasion beaches. There was two periods in June that met these conditions. The 4 - 6 and 16 – 18 June. D-Day was then set for 5 June. The first few days of June were fine but on 4 June the weather began to deteriorate. At 0400 Eisenhower met with Group Captain JM Stagg who was the Chief Meteorologist. Even as ships departed for their rendezvous point, Stagg reported that the next 24 hours would be overcast and stormy, with very low cloud.
At 0600 Eisenhower made the decision to postpone and some ships that had left were hurriedly called back to port. For others, such as troops of the 4th Division, destined for Utah, 4 June was spent sailing round the Isle of Wight in heavy seas. That evening Stagg returned with good news. He predicted a window of 36 hours of clear weather although light cloud would cause problems for air support. Eisenhower then asked his commanders for their opinions. Leigh-Mallory and Tedder were against, Montgomery and Smith were for. The decision lay on Eisenhower's shoulders. At 2145 on 4 June as the rain poured down outside his headquarters he made his decision. D-Day was set for 6 June.
Day of Days
Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the allied expeditionary force!
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, Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, 6 June, 1944.
After have been delayed several times due to heavy weather and the tide, D-Day finally took place on 6 June, 1944. The airborne units took off from airfields across Southern England late on 5 June. The British landing fleet charged the beaches at 07.30, the American landings began an hour earlier.
The British 6th Airborne
The 6th Airborne had been ordered to secure the eastern flank of the British landing areas, the river Orne and the Caen canal. The 6th Airborne would also destroy the German coastal battery at Merville and secure the two bridges at Benouville. One bridge spanned the river Orne and the other the Caen canal. These two bridges were vital to ensure the advance inland.
Division command decided to send in six gliders especially for this mission, three for the river bridge and three for the canal one. Each glider carried 30 men, from 'D' Company, 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghampshire Light Infantry, along with some Royal Engineers of 'B' company and pilots of the Glider Pilots Regiment.
At 00.16 hours, the first men to set foot on in Normandy landed just by the bridge, after a rather bumpy landing, the whole crew got knocked out for a moment. One minute later the second glider landed a few feet from the first and at 00.18 the last glider landed at the canal bridge. The men from the first glider soon re-gained consciousness, exited the Horsa glider and attacked the bridge guarded by almost 50 German soldiers who were taken completely by surprise.
The attack went well, though 16 paratroopers were killed. Among these casualties was Lieutenant Brotheridge who lead the attack across the bridge. He was shot in the neck and was the first allied soldier to be killed on D-Day.
The next landing did not go so smoothly, only 2 gliders landed within 300 and 700 metres and one missed completely. This was not a problem though, since the Germans had abandoned the defence of the bridge.
Never the less, the bridges had to hold until the rest of the 6th Airborne relieved them. The Germans tried to take it back twice, once they used a tank but it was soon disabled by Sgt. Thornton using a PIAT anti-tank gun at close range. The 6th Airborne arrived at 03:00 am to relieve them
In recognition of the 6th Airborne's tremendous victory at the canal bridge, the bridge to this day has the name 'Pegasus bridge' in honour of the Division2.
The Red Devils
The rest of the 6th Airborne were going after the following objectives: five bridges spanning the river Dive were going to be destroyed and the coastal battery at Merville had to be captured and destroyed to prevent it from firing on Sword beach, upon which it had a perfect firing position.
The pathfinders went in first. As the name indicates, they were meant to guide the main landing troops to their proper drop zones. This was very difficult on 6 June due to the heavy weather conditions. The pathfinders were scattered all over the place and, as a result, only half of the 6th Airborne landed on the correct drop zone.
At 00.50, 4225 men were dropped in and the wind carried them far away from their DZs. The 3rd Parachute Brigade landed on two locations, one by the river Dive and one by the Merville battery, which comprised a major gun emplacement of four heavy calibre guns, surrounded by minefields, tank ditches and manned by tough German defence troops. The attack had been planned in detail and even rehearsed at Inkpen in Berkshire, but it didn't go one bit as planned. The troops were scattered all over the place, only 150 men were found and gathered by Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway. So, extremely under-manned, they moved to their objective, 200 metres away. Upon arrival the element of surprise was lost due to a glider passing over moments earlier, but Lieutenant-Colonel Otway charged the battery anyway and 15 minutes later, the emplacement was captured at the loss of 75 men.
The British 6th Airborne succeeded with all three of their D-Day objectives, despite being scattered all over their DZ.
The airborne landings were almost a complete failure for many companies. Their main goal was to take the exits from Utah beach, and secure the bridges over the Vire and the Douve river intact. However, the pathfinders were dropped under heavy AA-fire and the pilots were very disoriented. Only 38 of 120 were dropped on target.
The 502nd parachute infantry landed at 01.30. None of the planes dropped their crew on the correct drop zone near the two northern exits leading from Utah. One of the three battalions landed so far from their DZ that they did not play a part in the fighting on D-Day. Two sticks landed in the town St-Mere-Eglise and were slaughtered by the Germans. After a while, a few men gathered under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Michaelis and secured the two exits from Utah after heavy fire fights.
The 506th parachute Infantry had been ordered to secure the two southern exits leading from Utah, but only nine planes put them down on the correct DZ. They were coming in too low and too fast, many men drowned in the areas flooded by the Germans, others broke their limbs coming down too fast. Major-General Maxwell Taylor managed to find 85 men and because of the importance of their mission, they moved out alone and managed to secure the exit points leading from Utah beach.
The 501st parachute infantry did not do too well either. The drop furthest to the south was accurate enough, but the Germans were ready and when they landed they took heavy casualties. The last of the three battalions landed completely intact and together with what was left from the other two battalions they secured the lock at La Barquette over the River Douve. Throughout the day, gliders started dropping troops over Normandy, but only six out of 52 101st gliders landed out the correct drop zone.
The 82nd Airborne had been ordered to capture the town of St-Mére-Eglise. They would drop to the west of the 101st on each sides of the river Meredet. The 82nd consisted of three regiments, two airborne and one glider regiment. At 01.30 the pathfinders came in, many of them were nowhere near the correct area. Half an hour later the rest of the 82nd landed, but only half of 508th. PIR came up to within two miles of their DZ.
The 507th Parachute Infantry were even worse off. Half of them landed a mile east of their landing zone and drowned in swamps, with their heavy equipment dragging them down without a chance. Some men of the 507th landed up to 25 miles from their DZ.
The 505th landed pretty much on target or within two miles from it. Their CO broke his foot on landing, but he still lead his unit to St-Mére-Eglise, pushed on a cart. Unfortunately, the 3/505th landed inside the town itself and were cut to pieces by the Germans before they even landed. St-Mére-Eglise was captured at 05.00. Throughout the day artillery and anti-tank support was landed in gliders. At the end of D-Day, 4,000 men out of 6,209 were missing. Later on men came in and the final figures ended up being 156 known dead, 347 wounded and 756 missing presumed dead.
The Navy and the Airforce
The first vessels to leave were the midget submarines, which were towed to the French coast and then released. Their job was to provide last minute navigation checkpoints for the approaching landing craft. They were in place on 4 June. When they heard about the postponement, they had to submerge and stay in place for an extra 24 hours.
Next to leave were the minesweepers that had to clear a path through the vast minefields in the English Channel. The first naval casualty was the minesweeper USS Osprey, which sank after hitting a mine. After clearing and marking a path through the Channel, they then moved inshore to clear the approaches to the landing beaches. Behind the minesweepers, came destroyers who were to provide cover for the LCTs carrying the DD tanks following behind. Despite being vulnerable to enemy fire, the LCTs were also low and difficult to handle and so had to be at the vanguard. Behind the LCTs came the bombardment group consisting of six battleships, 20 cruisers and over 60 destroyers. Finally with the bulk of the destroyers came the transport vessels. By the early hours of the morning the fleet was in position and crews settled down for an early breakfast before the call to battle stations.
The troops then started to disembark from the transport ships on the landing craft that would take them onto the beach. The landing craft would then circle offshore waiting for the command to approach the beaches.
The Germans finally detected the fleet on radar around 03.00 and E-boats were sent from Le Havre to investigate.
The British and US air force then added their contribution. Heavy bombers (B-17s, B-25s and Lancasters) attacked the British beaches and Omaha. Unfortunately, due to the bad weather, most of the pilots dropped blind and most of the bombs fell harmlessly inland. They then returned to base to re-arm and return to attack targets further inland. At Utah, the air support consisted of medium bombers (B-26s), which were able to fly at low level under the clouds. As a result the bombing was much more effective and went some way to suppressing the defending German troops.
Juno - the Fight Towards Caen
On Juno beach, the 3rd Canadian Division, consisting of mainly Canadians but also volunteers from Ireland, Scotland, France and Poland, had been given the assignment to secure Vaux, Coucelles sur Mer, Bernieres sur Mer and St Aubin sur Mer, from Juno beach. Along with the Canadian 3rd Division, No 48 Royal Marine Commando, who were going to link up with the No 41 Royal Marine Commando who were coming up from Sword beach.
The winds were so strong, that the landing crafts were driven out of place, and had to gather and reposition before actually heading for the beach.
This caused a delay of ten minutes which meant that the tide would have already come in and drowned the tank obstacles when the fleet arrived. So, with little or no cover the 7th brigade group stormed to the beach. Many men died the moment the landing doors opened, half of the DD-tanks meant to aid them sunk before firing a single shot. The German defences had hardly been compromised at all by the sea and air bombardment.
The battle of Juno beach had begun, and right from the start, it went wrong.
Grab a Bike and Go!
'Grab a bike and go!' These were the words of the leaders in the first landing crafts, as the plan had been to take a bike onto the beach, then take the beach, and then ride the bike to Caen and take it.
Needless to say, when the battle started, the bikes were soon abandoned.
Ten minutes after the first wave, the 8th brigade group landed, but the tanks actually remained on the landing crafts until the vessels were safely on the beach3, this however caused a delay until soldiers could find cover behind them, thereby adding to the catastrophe.
The 8th brigade group charged to the east and hit heavy German resistance with only a few tanks as support.
Just as the soldiers were beginning to believe that the landing had been a failure, the Germans began to pull back and the Canadians pushed forward, with the incoming tide making the beach narrower and narrower.
No 48 Royal Marine Commando landed at St Aubin and fought their way through hard German resistance together with 4th Special Service brigade. The last company to land on Juno beach was the 9th brigade, at 11.40am. By then the beach was captured and the securing of Juno beach enabled the landing of 22,000 men on D-Day, but at the cost of 340 men and 574 wounded.
At 7.25am, the 50th Northumberland Division stormed the area named Gold beach with the objective of taking the beach, then moving to Bayeux and making a rendezvous with the American troops at Omaha. The landing crafts were deployed seven miles off the beach, compared to the American ones that were deployed 12 miles off the beaches, this meant they had a shorter run in.
It was decided that the DD-tanks would go all the way up to shore instead of floating ashore and thus, the men had cover. The defence would be tough, coming from the 716th Static Division and the 352nd Infantry Division, but the successful launch of almost every DD-tank onto the beach in fighting condition helped secure victory.
Company Sergeant-Major Stanley Hollis of the Green Howards was already a seasoned veteran when he landed on Gold Beach. His first action was the single handed capture of a pill box which had been bypassed by the first waves of troops. Later that day he led an assault to destroy German gun positions. For his action he was awarded the Victoria cross. He was the only soldier to earn that medal on D-Day.
Also, the 716th was so far stretched that they could not be very effective on all their defensive locations, plus the troops from 716th/441 east battalion, consisting of old Russian prisoners of war, gave up and fled quite soon.
The first battalion of the 50th Division suffered heavy casualties, among them their CO and the second-in-command, because their Higgins boats grounded earlier than expected and they had to wade ashore.
The second group to storm the beach was the Commandos of the 4th Special Service Brigade. They took extreme casualties and only one of their landing crafts actually managed to reach the beach. But thanks to the DD-tanks, they eventually found cover. Montgomery had made sure that the tank crews were veterans, and therefore assigned the famous Desert Rats to give the main invasion tank support with DD-tanks.
No 47 Royal Marine Commando had the objective to reach Port en Bessin, which was taken on 7 June.
The British met stubborn German resistance, but after heavy naval bombardment, the 716th Static Division finally gave up and fled. The 56th brigade group were one mile short of Bayeux at the end of D-Day.
Sword - The Key to Normandy
At 7.25am, the 3rd Infantry Division, 8th brigade group, stormed the beach and the DD-tanks were successfully launched into the water and, out of the 40 tanks intended to land, 28 made it to the beach.
French troops landed alongside with the British, with the intention of capturing Ouistreham, a strategically important small town to the west of Sword beach. Sword beach was the key to let troops into the heart of Normandy and thereby probably the most important of all the landings.
'Road to the Isles'
Along with the 3rd Infantry Division was the 1st Special Service Brigade, with the mission to join up with the 6th airborne.
In the 1st Special Service Brigade was piper Bill Millin. They hit the beach at 8.40am, after that, Bill Millin could be seen and heard playing 'Road to the Isles' on his bagpipes while marching up and down the beach under machine gun and artillery fire.
The British invasion force soon became a victim of their own success. All the equipment they had landed, in conjunction with the rising tide, the British were being pushed up and up the beach, because they were running out of space.
The German 716th Static Division put up a hard fight against the 3rd Infantry Division, slowing them, but not pushing them back.
The situation however, forced the 3rd Infantry Division to move in without tank support.
On the road to Caen, they ran into the 21st Panzer Division, completely by surprise, because they had expected it far from Caen, further to the west. The attack was stopped thanks to the loss of 16 tanks caused by the 185th Brigade. The British and Canadians didn't bother to check old grounds to be absolutely safe and thereby they were attacked from the rear by the Germans so often that they had to go back to secure old territories and didn't reach Caen in time.
The 3rd Infantry Division soon joined up with the Canadian forces coming off Juno and continued towards Caen. The 21 Panzer Division struck again at 7pm, but was stopped by the Allied anti-tank support before reaching the beach. Altogether they lost 54 tanks that day: half of their group.
The British failed in their objective of capturing Caen on that day, but managed to put ashore 29,000 soldiers and many tanks.
Pointe du Hoc
Located four miles west of Omaha beach was a German battery of six concrete-encased 155mm Howitzers. This position was to be taken out of action in order to stop them from firing on the invasion fleet approaching Omaha and Utah.
Three companies from the famous 2nd Rangers were chosen for this mission, numbering 225 men. They were to land at the same time as the troops at Omaha, climb the 100ft cliff in order to reach the battery, defeat the well-fortified Germans and disable the Howitzers. The 2nd and 5th Rangers landing at Omaha, and Pointe du Hoc would be under the command of Lieutenant Colonel JE Rudder.
The currents near the beach carried 'Rudders men' off their target and delayed them by 40 minutes. Once on the beach, they began climbing the cliffs using sectional ladders and grappling hooks. When they reached the top, they began a fierce fire fight with the Germans, until the position was secure.
To the Rangers' astonishment, there were no cannons and no artillery, just six long telegraph poles sticking out from under the concrete casing. The Second Rangers had lost 45 men taking the position for telegraph poles.
The Rangers then continued to their second objective, taking the roads leading to the beaches. This was made troublesome by German counter-attacks, but the Rangers succeeded until they were relieved on 8 June. By then they had lost 140 men.
Utah beach was by far the most successful landing on D-Day. Altogether 43 soldiers were lost taking the beach. The success of the landing was caused by a twist of fate.
The first wave of landing crafts lost their guide ship to an artillery shell, causing the first wave to land 2km to the south of their heavily defended landing position. In this position, there were no German defences since they had not expected an invasion there because they had flooded the ground behind the beach.
One of first men ashore on Utah beach was Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt. He was also probably the eldest. He was 56, had a bad heart and walked with the aid of a stick, yet still he wanted to lead the men ashore. After being turned down several times, he had finally been granted permission to accompany his men. Shortly after landing, he realised they had landed in the wrong position. In discussion with his senior officers, in response to a question about whether to shift his force along the beach to the correct landing spot Roosevelt replied 'We'll start the war from right here'. For his bravery that day in leading and cajoling his men off the beach, Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour. Sadly he died of a heart attack a few days later.
The DD-tanks were landed very successfully and the special engineers soon cleared the obstacles for more tank support. The rest of the attack waves landed on the same spot as the first. The German defences were soon knocked out and, in the end, the German defence had been reduced to one 88mm cannon, one old French tank tower buried in the sand (which jammed after one shot) and a couple of machine guns in one of the intact bunkers. Needless to say they did not last long. By midday the 4th Infantry Division met up with 101st Airborne, but the rest of the divisions did not manage to reach their D-Day objectives.
Still, 23,000 men were put ashore along with 1,742 tanks and 1,695 tons of supplies.
The Slaughter at Omaha
At 6.25am, the first wave of landing crafts approached the beach. Opposition would be light, the bombers would have destroyed most of the enemy MG42- machine gun-emplacements and destroyed the artillery covering the beach. But the bombers had been given new orders; they were to drop their bombs seconds later to avoid hitting their own invasion force. They did avoid hitting the invasion force, in fact they hit nothing but fields of wheat, several kilometres behind the beach. The sea bombardment failed as well, and the Higgins boats came closer and closer...
The landing doors opened 50 metres offshore and the men from the 1st American Infantry Division stormed out, but were quickly pushed back by heavy machine gun fire. Most of them never reached the beach and the ones who did couldn't make much of it, being hit by both heavy MG42 fire and being hit by artillery not far away. They survived only by hiding behind the tank obstacles also known as 'hedgehogs' covering the whole beach. The DD-tanks sunk like stones, only six made it to the beach, but they were soon knocked out.
Despite all this, many displays of extreme bravery was shown on that beach.
Jimmie Monteith was a 1st Lieutenant. On Omaha beach he led two tanks that were under heavy machine gun and artillery fire through a minefield to safety. He then continued to expose himself to enemy fire by leading his men on an assault, which resulted in the destruction several enemy positions. After repeated counterattacks on his position, he was killed by enemy fire.
John Pinder was a Technician 5th Grade with 1st Infantry. He was hit shortly after leaving his boat. Despite his wounds, he continued onto the beach delivering the radio he was carrying. Refusing medical treatment, he then returned to his boat to pick up more equipment. On his 3rd trip he was hit again, but continued to help establish radio communications on the shore. He was then hit a 3rd time and was killed.
Private Carlton Barrett was one of three soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division to win the Congressional Medal of Honour. On Omaha beach he was responsible for saving the lives of many of his colleagues. In the face of withering enemy fire he repeatedly returned to the water's edge to drag wounded colleagues ashore.
Even though the first soldiers to land were almost all killed or injured, more and more men were being landed, some of their landing crafts were destroyed before coming close to the beach, by artillery and by being ripped up by Rommels sub-water tank death-traps. General Bradley, observing the battle from the USS Augusta, was making preparations to abandon the assault when the two famous battalions known as the 2nd and 5th Rangers, along with the 116th infantry approached the beach. These were the men to change the tide. The Rangers were an elite force that had undergone very intense training, and some of the Rangers had taken part in the landing in North Africa, then as part of another division.
Rangers Lead the Way
Together with men from the 29th Infantry Division covering the western sector and the 16th covering the east of the beach, pockets of men, assisted by the Rangers slowly made their way up the beach. The tanks had now been moving in. But because very few engineer groups managed to do the same, the tanks found but one small stretch of land to use for landing, not enough to take cover from enemy fire even. Halftracks with artillery landed after two attempts, but soon sunk in the heavy sea.
The Rangers and leftovers from the earlier landings had now made it to the embankment, but with no opening. A tank was redirected to make a path. One after one, the gun emplacements were slowly disabled, often by tanks. Both the tanks and the sea bombardment was now redirected to attack the bluff of Les Moulins, later C-company, 1/116th made their way up that bluff supported by the 2nd Rangers, while the 3/116th tried to take the bluff by St Lauren.
By midday, the bluff overlooking the beach was in allied hands. Three thousand men had been killed or maimed. Their D-Day objective had not been reached, but, then again, no one had expected such heavy resistance.
6 June, 1944, saw the greatest invasion in the history of warfare and although very few invasions have had so many things go wrong at once with so much practise, it did give the Allies their desired beachhead in France.
D-Day ensured the allies a foothold in Normandy and a starting point that was supposed to end with the invasion of Germany, but it's a long way between Normandy and Berlin, and the enemy was entrenched and had a lot of training...
Good luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
- General Dwight D Eisenhower, 6 June, 1944, D-Day.