Normandy, Invasion of

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Normandy, Invasion of (1944).On the morning of 6 June 1944, a radio broadcast announced the start of the invasion of Normandy: “Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.”

But this was not the beginning of the operation. Its roots can be traced back to September 1941, when, after the British evacuation from Dunkirk in northern France, Winston S. Churchill and the British chiefs of staff directed Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten to begin planning for the invasion of Europe. This mission was transferred in March 1943 to British Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan, who was appointed chief of staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (Designate). He assembled a joint British‐American planning staff, which became known as COSSAC.

For another year, COSSAC continued to refine and develop plans for an assault landing in France. While the Pas de Calais appeared to be the logical target—closest to England, its beaches were easily defensible—the Germans had heavily fortified the area, and no large ports were nearby. Normandy had relatively undefended beaches and Cherbourg was an excellent port. Thus the choice was made.

Initially, it was hoped to make the landings in 1942, but over Russian objections the North Africa Campaign was chosen instead. Despite American objections in 1943, a lack of landing craft and the need for troops for the Italian campaign postponed Operation Overlord, the code name for the liberation of northwestern Europe.

The Normandy invasion was a joint enterprise. In December 1943, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was named Supreme Allied Commander. He asked Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery to be the ground force commander during the invasion phase. Sir Bertram Ramsay would be the naval commander; Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder became Eisenhower's deputy and would coordinate the air effort.

Montgomery felt that the projected three‐ to five‐division assault was inadequate for the task and the beaches were too far from Cherbourg (its capture essential to secure a flow of supplies). Eisenhower agreed. However, he lacked landing craft to expand the attack. The landing day was postponed from May to early June, allowing the accumulation of landing craft and aircraft to support an expanded assault and follow‐up forces.

Two field armies would make the assault (see map of the Normandy invasion) Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley's First American Army, consisting of VII Corps and V Corps, on the west and the Second British Army to the east. On the American beaches, the Fourth U.S. Infantry would assault on Utah Beach (V Corps). Behind Utah Beach, the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would land to protect the west flank and secure causeways crossing the flooded area inland from the beach.

Meanwhile, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commanding German Army Group B and responsible for repelling any invasion of northwestern Europe, had been feverishly strengthening the beach defenses. But the Allies' deception plan, Operation Fortitude, which included a phantom army near Dover, commanded by Gen. George S. Patton, complete with false radio messages and inflatable rubber tanks, had convinced Hitler and his General Staff that the Allies would land at the Pas de Calais, the most direct route to Germany. This belief was so strong that when the Normandy landings occurred, they were considered diversionary, and important reinforcements—including Panzer divisions—remained idle in the north until long after the D‐Day landing.

The invasion started shortly after midnight on 6 June 1944, when units of the British Sixth Parachute Division landed and captured two bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal. The other British and American airborne units were not so immediately successful. Low clouds, flak, errors in map reading at night—all conspired to scatter them widely. This led the Germans to believe the airborne attack a diversion, thus hampering their countermeasures. Most of the airborne units' objectives were eventually achieved.

Rommel's superior, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commanding Oberbefehshaber West, and responsible for the defense of Western Europe, at 0400 ordered two Panzer divisions to head for Caen. However, Hitler had kept personal control of the principal western reserve forces, and his permission had to be secured. This delay undoubtedly contributed to the comparatively easy landings on the British beaches.

In the American area, on Utah Beach, the landings went well. The enemy troops manning this portion of the West Wall (or Siegfried Live) surrendered after only three hours and inflicted only 197 casualties among the 23,000 men who came ashore on D‐Day.

On Omaha Beach, a different story unfolded. Preliminary bombardment by heavy bombers was mostly ineffective as low‐lying clouds led them to overshoot the targets for fear of hitting Allied assault troops. Many of the landing craft sank in heavy seas on their ten‐mile run to shore. Only about one‐third of the first landing wave reached the beach and practically none of the amphibious tanks did. Ashore, men huddled behind the sea wall. The situation became so chaotic that at one point General Bradley contemplated withdrawing the troops and diverting succeeding assaults to other beaches. But by nightfall things had greatly improved. Individual acts of heroism, the initiative taken by small units, and the accurate fire and close‐in support of Allied destroyers and other naval vessels suppressed enemy fire, enabling units to scale the cliffs and clear the enemy from the high ground. Thirty‐four thousand troops landed that day, but at a high cost, for over 2,500 became casualties.

In the British sector the landings were successful, but one of the principal objectives, the strongly defended communications hub of Caen, was not captured for another month.

By the end of D‐Day, more than 130,000 men had landed from the air and the sea at the cost of some 9,000 casualties. But the beachhead now had to be expanded to make room for supplies en route, airfields had to be built, the port of Cherbourg had to be captured and rehabilitated, and the lodgment area had to be made secure for the breakout to win northwestern Europe.

The U.S. VII Corps on 8 June attacked toward Cherbourg along the St. Mère Eglise–Montebourg highway, but stout German resistance with strong artillery support slowed their advance. Although the attack to the north continued, the emphasis shifted to the west. The veteran 9th Infantry Division cut the west coastal road by the 18th, and on the 19th, it joined the Corps attack to the north.

The Cherbourg defenses, in a rough semicircle about five miles in radius, were reached by the 4th, 79th, and 9th Infantry Divisions by the evening of 21 June and by the 9th Infantry Division a day later. But it took six more days of hard fighting, assisted by naval bombardment, before organized resistance in the city ceased. By the end of June the area was cleared and the American units were moving south, where VIII Corps had been holding a line across the base of the peninsula.

The Germans had so wrecked Cherbourg Harbor that it would be many months before appreciable tonnage could be landed there. Meanwhile, two artificial harbors (code‐named “mulberries”) and over‐the‐beach landings would have to suffice. On 19 June, a storm hit the coast and wrecked the mulberries: the American one was damaged beyond repair and the British one put out of action for several weeks. Still, over‐the‐beach operations proceeded better than expected, and by the end of June, over 1 million men and supplies to sustain them had been landed.

The successful lodgment in Normandy provided the base for the breakout at St. Lô on 25 July and the rapid clearing of German forces in France and Belgium. Had the invasion of Normandy failed, the defeat of Germany could have been delayed several years. This was a decisive battle in the history of the West.
[See also France, Liberation of; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


E. Bauer , The History of World War II, 1966; repr. 1984.
Charles B. MacDonald , Mighty Endeavor, 1969; rev. ed. 1986.
John Keegan , Six Armies in Normandy, 1982.
Carlo D’Este , Decision in Normandy, 1983.
Max Hastings , Overlord: D‐Day and the Battle for Normandy, 1984.
David D. Chandler and James Lawton Collins, Jr., eds., The D‐Day Encyclopedia, 1994.

James L. Collins, Jr.

Normandy Invasion

views updated May 09 2018


NORMANDY INVASION, Allied landings in France on 6 June 1944 (D Day), the prelude to the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Known as Operation Overlord, the invasion was scheduled for 5 June but was postponed because of stormy weather. It involved 5,000 ships, the largest armada ever assembled. Although more men went ashore on the first day in the earlier Allied invasion of Sicily, it was overall the greatest amphibious operation in history.

Under command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, with General Bernard L. Montgomery as ground commander, approximately 130,000 American, British, and Canadian troops landed on beaches extending from the mouth of the Orne River near Caen to the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, a distance of some fifty-five miles. Another 23,000 landed by parachute and glider. Allied aircraft during the day flew 11,000 sorties. Airborne troops began landing soon after midnight; American seaborne troops at 6:30 a.m.; and, because of local tidal conditions, British and Canadian troops at intervals over the next hour. The Allies chose Normandy because of its relatively short distance from British ports and airfields, the existence of particularly strong German defenses of the Atlantic Wall at the closest point to Britain in the Pas de Calais, and the need for early access to a major port (Cherbourg).

On beaches near Caen christened Gold, Juno, and Sword, one Canadian and two British divisions under the British Second Army made it ashore with relative ease, quickly establishing contact with a British airborne division that had captured bridges over the Orne and knocked out a coastal battery that might have enfiladed (heavily fired upon) the beaches. By nightfall the troops were short of the assigned objectives of Bayeux and Caen but held beachheads from two to four miles deep.

The U.S. First Army under Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley sent the Fourth Infantry Division of the VII Corps ashore farthest west on Utah Beach, north of Carentan, at one of the weakest points of the Atlantic Wall. The 82d and 101st Airborne divisions landing behind the beach helped insure success. Although the air drops were badly scattered and one division landed amid a reserve German division, most essential objectives were in hand by the end of the day.

Under the V Corps, two regiments of the First Infantry Division and one of the Twenty-ninth landed on Omaha Beach, between Bayeux and Carentan. Sharp bluffs, strong defenses, lack of airborne assistance, and the presence of a powerful German division produced near-catastrophic difficulties. Throughout much of the day the fate of this part of the invasion hung in the balance, but inch by inch American troops forced their way inland, so that when night came the beachhead was approximately a mile deep. At a nearby cliff called Pointe du Hoe, the First Ranger Battalion eliminated a German artillery battery.

The invasion sector was defended by the German Seventh Army, a contingent of Army Group B, under overall command of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. Deluded by Allied deception measures, based in large part on intelligence known as ULTRA, obtained as a result of the British having broken the German wireless enciphering code, the Germans believed, even after the landings had begun, that a second and larger invasion would hit the Pas de Calais and for several weeks held strong forces

there that might have been decisive in Normandy. German defense was further deterred by difficulty in shifting reserves, because of preinvasion bombing of French railroads, disruption of traffic by Allied fighter bombers that earlier had driven German planes from the skies, and French partisans. The bad weather of 5 June and continuing heavy seas on 6 June lulled German troops into a false sense of security. Reluctance of staff officers back in Germany to awaken the German dictator, Adolf Hitler, for approval to commit reserves and tanks delayed a major counterattack against the invasion. The only counterattack on the first day, by a panzer division against the British, was defeated by fire from naval guns.

At the end of D Day, only the Canadians on Juno and the British on Gold had linked their beachheads. More than five miles separated the two American beachheads; the Rangers at Pointe du Hoe were isolated and under siege; and the Fourth Division at Utah Beach had yet to contact the American airborne divisions. Nevertheless, reinforcements and supplies were streaming ashore, even at embattled Omaha Beach, and unjustified concern about landings elsewhere continued to hamper German countermeasures. By the end of the first week, all Allied beachheads were linked and sixteen divisions had landed; only thirteen German divisions opposed them. By the end of June a million Allied troops were ashore.

Several innovations aided the invasion and subsequent buildup. Amphibious tanks equipped with canvas skirts that enabled them to float provided some early fire support on the beaches, although many of the customized tanks sank in the stormy seas. Lengths of big rubber hose (called PLUTO, for Pipe Line Under The Ocean) were laid on the floor of the English Channel for transporting fuel. Given the code name Mulberry, two artificial prefabricated harbors were towed into position at Omaha Beach and Arromanches. These consisted of an inner breakwater constructed of hollow concrete caissons six stories high, which were sunk and anchored in position, and a floating pier that rose and fell with the tide while fixed on concrete posts resting on the sea bottom. Old cargo ships sunk offshore formed an outer breakwater. Although a severe storm on 19 June wrecked the American Mulberry, the British port at Arromanches survived. A sophisticated family of landing craft delivered other supplies directly over the beaches.

Allied casualties on D Day were heaviest at Omaha Beach (2,500) and lightest at Utah (200).American airborne divisions incurred 2,499 casualties. Canadian losses were 1,074; British, 3,000. Of a total of more than 9,000 casualties, approximately one-third were killed.


Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day, June 6,1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Harrison, Gordon A. Cross-Channel Attack. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1951.

Keegan, John. Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Ryan, Cornelius. The Longest Day. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Charles B.MacDonald/a. r.

See alsoD Day ; Navy, United States ; World War II, Air War against Germany ; World War II, Navy in .

Normandy Campaign

views updated Jun 11 2018

Normandy Campaign Allied invasion of German-occupied France, launched on June 6, 1944 (D-Day). Commanded by Dwight Eisenhower, the invasion was the largest amphibious operation in history. The successful landings were the start of the final campaign of World War II in w Europe.

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