One of the most important episodes of World War II was the invasion and establishment of Allied forces in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. American, French, Canadian, and British troops joined forces to storm five beaches—Utah, Omaha, Gold, Sword, and Juno—by air, sea, and land. In this guide, we will look at the planning of Operation Overlord and the first day of this crucial battle.
The planners of Operation Overlord (the code name for the invasion of German-occupied Western Europe by the Allies) knew the key to its success was to trick Hitler into believing the invasion would be mounted far from where the landing would actually come. The place they chose for the fictitious invasion was Pas de Calais. It was convincing because the Channel was narrowest at that point, and that area of France offered the most direct route to Germany.
To further confuse the Germans about their intentions, the Allies created a phantom invasion force, the First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), and put General Patton in command. Patton was not too happy about being recalled from Italy to sit around England to give credence to the charade. He was itching to be given command of one of the main invasion forces, but he would have to wait to take charge of the Third Army until the invasion had succeeded. In the meantime, his selection for FUSAG added credibility to the deception, because the Germans were familiar with Patton’s reputation and believed he was likely to play a major role in the invasion. The Allies also strung the Germans along by sending fake messages about FUSAG and mentioning it in genuine communiqués as well.
The attack began with more than 1,000 RAF bombers attacking coastal targets. This attack was followed by 18,000 paratroopers being dropped inland to capture key bridges and roads and cut German communications. The British Sixth Airborne Division suffered few casualties and succeeded in capturing bridges at the Orne River and the Caen Canal.
The Americans had a harder time. Their 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions missed their drop zone and were scattered all over the coast. Many men drowned when they landed in the water. The dispersion of the Americans helped confuse the Germans, but it also meant that troops who survived the jump (and many didn’t) were isolated and easier to kill or capture. But in the end, they played a major role in the securing of Normandy by opening the way inland for the infantry, destroying much of the German artillery aimed at the beaches, and blocking avenues for potential counterattacks. Dying was not a danger for the dummy paratroopers—literally dolls dressed up like soldiers—that were also dropped away from Normandy to deceive the Germans as to the location of the attack.
Minesweepers cleared lanes in the English Channel for the transports. The beaches were 60 to 100 miles away when the armada of nearly 7,000 ships left from ports such as Portsmouth, Southampton, Chichester, and Falmouth. Soon that 100 miles would be covered with 59 convoys that included 4,000 landing craft, 7 battleships, 23 cruisers, and 104 destroyers.
German torpedo boats out of the port at Le Havre were the first to encounter the Allied forces, but they were quickly driven off. Having spotted the invasion fleet, German coastal batteries began firing at the approaching ships. At the same time, Allied warships began bombarding the beaches, destroying bunkers, setting off land mines, and destroying obstacles in the path of the landing parties.
To prepare for the landing of troops, the air force and navy bombarded German positions, and continued their attacks throughout the day. Meanwhile, paratroopers blocked any potential counterattackers and knocked out the artillery batteries that covered the beach.
The first troops hit the beaches about 6:30 a.m., with 23,000 men rushing onto Utah Beach. Almost nothing went according to plan. Few of the landing craft arrived at the time they were supposed to, and none placed their troops at the designated target. The landing craft were buffeted by wind and waves and had to evade a network of thousands of mines, which sank several of the ships that were assigned to guide those that followed.
Most of the German defenders (many of whom were not German, but soldiers forced into the army from occupied countries) either surrendered or withdrew inland. The American forces quickly secured the area and, within a few hours, supplies and additional troops were also coming ashore. Soon the biggest problem for the Americans at Utah was managing the traffic jam of men and materiel.
At six miles, Omaha Beach was the largest landing area and the most vulnerable: 100-foot nearly perpendicular cliffs overlooked the beach. To prepare for a possible attack, the Germans had mined the waters offshore, littered the beach with obstacles, and placed heavy guns on the cliffs overlooking what amounted to a shooting gallery below.
The Allies were confident that the air and naval bombardment would soften up the defense, that the German soldiers would be from a low-quality division, and that the 40,000 troops assigned to take the beach would overwhelm the defenders. Instead, the defensive force the Americans confronted, an elite German infantry division, was far stronger and better trained than expected. Heavy clouds protected the German defenders from Allied bombers, who dropped their payloads in fields beyond the beachfront, and the poor visibility prevented offshore guns from initially offering much support.
With the exception of one unit, the wind and tide caused the landing craft to miss their objectives. Instead of distributing troops across the beach, they landed in bunches that became easier targets for the German gunners. Many soldiers were killed before they could fire a single shot. More than two dozen of the special amphibious Sherman tanks made for the invasion immediately sank upon debarking the transports, taking their crews to the bottom. These were just a fraction of the hundreds of vehicles of all types that never reached the beach or were destroyed soon after they got there. Instead of 2,400 tons of supplies being brought ashore, only 100 tons made it.
The landing stalled and the order was given to cease landing. General Bradley thought the landing had been a disaster and the troops might have to withdraw. All organization fell apart as soldiers, boats, and bodies jammed the single narrow channel engineers were able to clear among the German mines and obstacles. Trapped behind a low shelf halfway across the beach, under withering German fire from above, isolated groups and individuals with no choice but to get off the beach gradually fought their way forward and eventually took key points at each end of the beach. It took several hours, and heavy navy bombardment, to secure the beachhead, as well as a courageous effort by Army Rangers, men of C Company, and the 116th regiment to scale the surrounding cliffs with rope ladders to take out the guns guarding the coast.
The British troops landed at 7:20 on Gold Beach, where their experience was completely different from that of the Americans at Utah and Omaha. Unlike those landed sites, the British had little actual beach to cross. After they surmounted the seawall and an antitank ditch, they were into villages with paved streets. Beyond the villages were mostly large wheat fields. They also faced almost no enemy fire and had an orderly landing that went largely according to plan. A total of 25,000 troops stormed Gold at a cost of 400 casualties. By the end of the day, the British had advanced five miles beyond the coast.
While much of the preinvasion actions designed to knock out German defenses and make the beach landings easier did not go according to plan, the airborne plan to take out the German guns covering Sword Beach did succeed. Not all the guns were taken out, and the invasion force did face formidable mine fields, antitank ditches, and other fortifications, but the paratroops did succeed in significantly degrading the enemy defenses. This allowed 29,000 British soldiers to storm the beach at a cost of 630 casualties. As in the case of the other beaches, the troops overcame the initial defense and then began to move inland, but failed to get as far as the D day planners had hoped.
In the terrifying first hours of the invasion at Normandy, the Allies suffered surprisingly few casualties. On that first day, roughly 175,000 soldiers had come ashore and approximately 2,500 had been killed. The Americans had suffered the fewest casualties (dead or wounded) on Utah Beach, approximately 300, but also the most, 2,400 (out of 40,000 who went ashore), on Omaha. In the first two days, the number of men and vehicles the Allies got across the Channel was well below what was planned; still, Eisenhower was happy the deception had worked, and that the Germans were unable to stop them on the beaches, and the Allied soldiers were thankful that they had survived.
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World War II, Third Edition, by Mitchell G. Bard, Ph.D.