It had been four years since British forces retreated from the beaches of Dunkirk. But by the summer of 1944 they were ready to go back. Not to Dunkirk, but to Normandy. And not alone, but with their American and Canadian allies...
It was going to be, said Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, “… the greatest amphibious operation of all time.” Three days later, on the 6th June 1944, the Allied forces stormed five beaches – codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – on the north coast of France…
Deceptive D-Day Invasion Strategy
The D-Day operation actually began as day turned to night on the 5th, when two RAF bomber squadrons flew over the Straits of Dover and Boulogne. They weren’t, however, dropping bombs and were instead releasing strips of aluminium foil to kid German radar into thinking an invasion fleet was heading for Calais. In a further act of subterfuge, a flotilla of small ships towed radar reflective balloons to give the appearance of large troop transports on German radar. And in a final act of deception, bombers flew over the Cotentin peninsula dropping three-quarter size dummy paratroopers south of where the real drop would be made.
Within a few hours, however, it was time for the real thing. At 1:30am on the 6th June, the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions began their jumps. Because of high winds, the drops were very scattered, which meant that once on the ground, troops were largely disorientated and took some time to fraternise with their peers. John Houston of the 101st recalled what happened next:
“Each man in the division had been issued a little cricket snapper to use in place of a password. One click is the challenge and two clicks the answer. I hear someone moving along the hedgerow and click the cricket. Two clicks come back, and Shedio and Spitz come out of the shadows. We whisper together for a minute. There is no firing nearby, but we don’t want to announce that we are here. Mac hears us and joins the group. We move along in the direction of the flight of our plane, and soon gather fifteen men.”
Thankfully for the Allied forces, the Germans believed the weather was too poor for the operation to begin and were therefore caught largely on the hop. As a result, the US forces were able to secure a number of exits from Utah, thus blocking German reinforcements from moving to the beach. The 82nd, meanwhile, captured the strategically significant Ste Mère-Eglise.
As for the British, their 6th Airborne Division were tasked with landing between the Dives and Orne rivers so as to secure bridges over both and pave the way for British ground troops to land at Sword. Dropped via glider, the men largely landed where intended and were quickly able to secure the bridges, as well as a German coastal battery that threatened the eastern flank of the beach.
Thereafter, in a last act before the nations’ navies launched their assaults, RAF and American bombers attempted to knock out coastal batteries in preparation for the amphibious landings. Sadly, low cloud largely hampered the efforts. It was to prove bad news for the men about to storm the beaches – particularly those at Omaha.
By 2am the navies were sweeping for mines, while large warships, battleships, cruisers and destroyers sailed into the area in readiness for their bombardment of the coastal batteries. At 5:05am the Germans opened fire on a couple of destroyers off Utah. The response was immediate, as the Allied ships set about obliterating the Nazi defences. The Royal Navy’s Frederick Wright wrote in his diary:
“The big battleships have opened up a heavy bombardment – the air is absolutely full of planes. I have just been up on our gun turret – a fine view from there. Our lads are singing ‘You are my sunshine’ – full of good spirits… What a wonderful sight – clear visibility… Still the big battleships are banging away like Hell… All I can hear is Bang! Crash! Bang! Crash! – We are all amazed! Cannot realise the truth – not one German plane to be seen.”
D-Day Landings in Normandy
It was time. Troops began climbing from their transport vessels into the flat-bottomed landing craft that would attempt to deliver them onto the beaches. Patrol boats helped to guide the craft ashore, while other amphibious craft, armed with guns and rockets, supported the effort. Despite landing some 2,000 yards off target, the Americans who landed at Utah met with relatively little resistance and suffered relatively few casualties. Indeed, the beach was secured in very good time, with some soldiers even commented that it was something of an anti-climax. Sadly, the same could not be said for the high-tide landing at Omaha, where the battle-hardened 352nd German Infantry Division was waiting…
With the Germans positioned in numerous strongpoints atop the cliffs that backed the D-Day beach, it was the most heavily fortified of the five landing areas. And it showed. Many of the so-called American swimming tanks failed to make it out of the water to support the troops, while large numbers of the landing crafts were also wrecked or swamped before making it to land. It meant that adequate artillery support for those men who did get out of the water wasn’t available. What’s more, many of the infantry either drowned or found themselves pinned down by the ferocious enemy fire. As Captain Joseph T. Dawson of the US 1st Infantry Division, later commented:
“The beach was a total chaos, with men’s bodies everywhere, with wounded men crying, both in the water and on the shingle. We landed at high tide, when the water was right up to the shoreline, which was marked by a sharp-edged crystal-line sand, like a gravel, but very, very sharp. That was the only defilade which was present on the beach to give any protection from the fire above. That was where all the men who had landed earlier were present, except for a handful who had made their way forward, most of them being killed… The beach sounded like a beehive with the bullets flying around. You could hear them hit and you could hear them pass through the air.”
Indeed, by nightfall the American forces were yet to secure their D-Day beach. And although progress had been made, they were still vulnerable to German counterattacks – something their Rangers would also have to repel for two days in their assault at Pointe du Hoc. Four days later, however, Omaha was secured, thanks in no small part to eight destroyers moving into the area and pulverising the German pillboxes, as well as the continued bravery of the troops who charged headlong into German fire.
A little further east, among dunes and marshes, the British had also begun their assaults on beaches Sword and Gold, while the Canadian’s 3rd Division stormed Juno. Captain Peter Young of the 1st Special Service Brigade remembered arriving at 7:25am – five minutes early – for his assault:
“Ashore is a line of battered houses whose silhouette looks familiar from the photographs. They must surely mark our landing-place. On the beach a few tanks creep about and fire occasional shots at an unseen foe. Ouistreham is not much more than a thousand yards to port now. Somewhere on the front are the guns that are shelling us; the flashes are plainly visible every few seconds. The craft slows down...
“What are you waiting for?”
“There are still five minutes to go before H + 90,” the Captain, a young RNVR [Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve] officer replies.
“I don’t think anyone will mind if we’re five minutes early on D-Day.”
“Then in we go.”
Moving Inland from the D-Day Landing Beaches
On Gold, the men battled their way up the beach and on towards the town of Bayeux which, despite an eight-hour D-Day battle in the village of Le Hamel, they reached within the day. Concurrently, the Canadians had landed at Juno where more ferocious fighting ensued to secure the coastal batteries that hadn’t been subdued by naval bombing. Inaccuracies in landing their tanks and infantry also led to congestion on the beach, but by early afternoon the Canadians were making their way inland towards the airfield at Carpiquet. By dusk they had linked up with the British.
At Sword, meanwhile, the British 3rd Infantry Division also encountered heavy German resistance. As one Private of the East Yorkshire Regiment succinctly put it:
“It was like a bloody skittle alley. The lads were being bowled over right left and centre. I thought to myself, “You’ll be a lucky bugger if you make it up there.” Christ, it were bad.”
Yet by 8:30am the first waves of soldiers were off the beach and making their way towards the objective city of Caen. Despite more stubborn German opposition and delays in support, they arrived at a village four kilometres south of Caen at 4pm. Thirty minutes later the Germans launched their one counterattack of any significance.
The 21st Panzer Division, which had originally been deployed to deal with the British between the Orne and Dives, was ordered to counter the assault at Sword. It was a largely futile effort that was repelled with relative ease. Legendary leader Brigadefuhrer Kurt Meyer of the 12th SS Panzer Division described their greeting:
“A chain of Spitfires attacks the last section of the 15th Company. Missiles and cannon reap a devilish harvest. The section is travelling through a narrow pass; it is impossible to get away.”
The lack of German numbers marked a further success for the Allied forces. The Nazi high command refused to commit further resources into battle, based on the assumption that additional Allied assaults would soon be launched where they had earlier feigned movements of their resources. It meant support to the German defence was not forthcoming and instead sat idle waiting for an ‘attack’ around Calais that was never going to happen.
Nevertheless, one Panzergrenadier battalion did manage to break through the gap between the Brits and the Canadians, only to retreat for fear of an aerial bombardment that would have left it isolated from reinforcements. Of the other attempts at counterattacks, three more Panzer Divisions were ordered to the beachheads. However, this was very much a case of ‘after the horse had bolted’ and was too late to affect the day’s outcome. Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had been broken.
Indeed, throughout the rest of D-Day, troops continued to pour over the Channel. Some met little resistance, while others were forced into bloody combat. At Omaha, in particular, every inch of ground was fiercely fought for. All the while, Allied planes continued to bomb targets throughout Normandy, as their peers inland fraternised at an increasing rate on the ground. There were now 159,000 Allied men on French soil and yet even as night fell, D-Day battles continued. Indeed, by the time Omaha was finally secured on the 10th June, the Allies had lost 2,500 men with another 7,500 injured. In reality, however, these losses were light, with Churchill himself having gloomily predicted 20,000 Allied deaths to secure the beaches on the first day alone. Sadly, it was only the beginning of the campaign to liberate Europe. The next stage was the Battle of Normandy…
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 ‘D-Day to Bastogne’, 1991, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, pp.79-80.
 Diary, 1944, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, pp.93-94.
 Interview with Jon E. Lewis, 1993, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.104.
 ‘Storm from the Sea’, 1974, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.126.
 ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.120.
 ‘Panzermeyer’, 1971, cited in ‘D-Day As They Saw It’, 2004, edited by Jon E. Lewis, p.146.