D‐Day Landing (1944)

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D‐Day Landing (1944). Operation Overlord was the greatest amphibious attack in history. Nearly 175,000 American, Canadian, and British troops landed in Normandy on D‐Day, 6 June 1944, supported by 6,000 aircraft and 6,000 naval vessels ranging in size from battleships to 32‐foot landing craft. The object of the attack was to win a beachhead in France in order to open a second front against Hitler's armies and to use the beachhead as a springboard for the liberation of France and Belgium, and the eventual conquest of Nazi Germany.

Planning began in earnest early in 1943. The critical need for the Allies was to gain surprise, because they would be taking the offensive with nine divisions, none armored, against an enemy with fifty‐five divisions in France, nine of them armored. Gen. Gerd von Rundstedt, commanding the German forces in the west, and Gen. Erwin Rommel, commanding the forces in France, assumed that the Allies would have to gain a major port in the initial assault, so they strengthened the “Atlantic Wall” around the French ports, especially Calais, which was on the direct line London‐Dover‐Calais‐Belgium‐Cologne‐Berlin. The Allied supreme commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, achieved surprise by attacking straight south rather than east, and by going ashore in Normandy, where there were no significant ports. An elaborate and highly successful deception plan (Operation Fortitude) kept the German attention centered on Calais.

D‐Day was set for 5 June, but a storm that day precluded amphibious operations. At the height of the storm, at 0430 on 5 June, Eisenhower's weather expert predicted that it would soon ease off and that conditions would be acceptable. Eisenhower decided to go for it.

The attack consisted of division‐strength assaults on five beaches, two British (code‐named “Gold” and “Sword”), two American (“Omaha” and “Utah”), one Canadian (“Juno”), preceded by a night assault of three airborne divisions to protect the flanks (one British on the left and two American on the right).

The night operation on 5/6 June caused great confusion among both attackers and defenders. The American paratroopers were scattered over the countryside and very few managed to hook up with their units before daylight. But the Germans were confused by reports of paratroopers and gliders landing here, there, everywhere. Meanwhile, small groups of airborne troops destroyed bridges and gun emplacements, and captured crossroads and routes inland from Utah Beach.

At dawn, before the 0630 first‐wave attack, there was a tremendous air and sea bombardment, which was highly effective at all the beaches except Omaha, where most of the shells and bombs landed far inland. At Omaha, the first wave was decimated, the follow‐up waves badly pounded. Those troops still alive huddled against the seawall, pinned down by fierce German fire. They had expected support from amphibious tanks (Shermans supported by rubber skirts and equipped with a propeller), but at Omaha the tanks were launched too far out in too‐rough seas and thirty‐two of thirty‐four sank. At midmorning, Gen. Omar Bradley, commanding the U.S. First Army, contemplated withdrawing from the beach. But thanks to heroic action by individual soldiers, who led the way up the bluff, the crisis was overcome.

By nightfall, the Allies were ashore on a beachhead that stretched fifty‐five miles. The cost was some 4,900 casualties, half of them at Omaha. German losses were not calculated, but they must have been considerably higher. Hitler's Atlantic Wall, built at enormous expense, had not held up the Allied landings for even one day.
[See also France, Liberation of; Normandy, Invasion of.]

Bibliography

Dwight D. Eisenhower , Crusade in Europe, 1948.
Forrest Pogue , The Supreme Command, 1954.
S. L. A. Marshall , Night Drop: The American Airborne Invasion of Normandy, 1962.
S. E. Ambrose , D‐Day: The Climactic Battle of World War II, 1994.
Ronald J. Drez, ed., Voices of D‐Day, 1994.

Stephen E. Ambrose