Today June 6, marks the 76th anniversary of D-Day at Normandy. By the early summer of 1944, the U.S. had been embroiled in World War II for over two years. As a country, we had been against entry into the war until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Everything changed on that day, with congress approving a war declaration and F.D.R. declaring war on Japan, shortly after Pearl Harbor. That would lead to Hitler declaring war on the United States. It was truly a World War and the United States was in it.
Prelude to War in Europe
Britain had long wanted the U.S. to join the fight in Europe against the Axis Powers – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Vichy French troops. Until Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt could not be swayed. The U.S. had firmly entrenched itself as committed to be a neutral non-interventionist in Europe. After much prodding from Winston Churchill, Roosevelt signed the Lend Lease Act, in March 1941, which pledged support in the form of war ships and military equipment to the primary European Allies – Britain and Russia. Pearl Harbor would be the impetus which would lead to our joining the fight in the Pacific – with the Battle of the Coral Sea, Battle of Midway and Battle of Guadalcanal in early 1942 and the invasion of Vichy held northwest Africa (Operation Torch) in November 1942. The ultimate goal of Torch was to push west to Tunisia, trapping the Axis troops (German and Italian) on the peninsula at Tunis and forcing the surrender of the Afrika Korps, under the command Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. The Allied forces battling Afrika Korps would come from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Free France.
Roosevelt, all along, believed that the primary objective for the European theater should be Berlin, Germany – the headquarters of the Third Reich. He disagreed with Churchill, and the other leaders of the Allies, in an approach to Europe through Africa and southern France. F.D.R. believed that the quickest path to victory would be a straight line – and the straightest line led through northern France to Berlin. While true, the planning and build up to a cross-channel invasion would take years – years that homeland Britain, and Russia, did not have. Britain was being bombed daily from western Europe and Russia was being pummeled by Germany on the Eastern Front. After much prodding from Churchill, and Stalin, about the merits of striking the “soft underbelly” of the Axis in North Africa and Southern France, Roosevelt agreed to the invasions. This would allow the Allies to divert – or at least occupy – German forces on the two fronts in Europe, while the build up for the cross-channel invasion was completed.
None of the Allied leaders believed that the path to southern Europe, and the “soft underbelly” of the Axis, would take so long and cost so much. Ultimately that path would lead through the major battles of Africa, Sicily, southern Italy and southern France. The cost in blood would be staggering with the Allies suffering over 63,000 killed in action and nearly 340,000 missing or wounded. Battles would be named for locales which most Americans had never heard of: Oran, Kasserine Pass, Tunis, Salerno, Anzio, Monte Cassino, Ley Muy, Saint Tropez, Saint Raphael, Marseille and Toulon. The strategic goal of diverting Axis troops to the southern front was largely unsuccessful. Bombings continued unabated in Britain and Russian forces had their hands full on the Eastern Front. However, the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, southern Italy, Anzio and southern France benefitted the Allies significantly. These invasions all required huge flotillas, airborne infantry units penetrating behind enemy lines and immense beach landings of infantry, engineers and armored forces. Lessons learned during this time would prove essential for military planners preparing for the cross-channel invasion of Europe – code named: Operation Overlord.
Planning for Operation Overlord
Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) was responsible for the planning and execution of Operation Overlord. Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was in overall command with British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery being in command of the overall European Theater. Forces involved would come from: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Czechkosolovakia, Luxembourg, Greece, Netherlands and Norway.
Inevitably, Hitler knew the Allies were planning an invasion from England. But he assumed it would be at Pas de Calais – the closest point of continental Europe across the English Channel – and the launch site for V-1 and V-2 rockets which continued to bombard London. With this in mind, Hitler ordered this region heavily fortified. He was unaware that Allied planners had chosen Normandy because of its geography – there were less rivers and canals in the area so a broad front of Allied soldiers could mass after the landing. Additionally, the proximity of Normandy to the port of Cherbourg, in the American sector, and Brittany, in the English sector, made Normandy more appealing. The Allied Expeditionary Forces would require massive amounts of supplies, armored vehicles, clothing, ammunition and fuel. Opening a broad beachhead at Normandy would satisfy their port requirements – to a degree – once the Americans opened the port at Cherbourg.
The Allied planners agreed that there would be three phases of the cross-channel invasion:
- Allied bombing raids would target rail lines, German manufacturing, fuel supplies and airfields. Codenamed Operation Point Blank, these bombing raids were designed to prevent quick reinforcement of Axis lines from the south and ensure air superiority over Normandy
- Airborne infantry would drop behind Axis lines several hours before the beach landings to tie up some of the German defenses and open up pathways to the interior for infantry landing on the beaches.
- Seaborne landings would begin on June 5 (later postponed to June 6 due to low cloud ceiling preventing airborne transport planes from dropping their sticks accurately) with First Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, landing on the two western beaches (Utah and Omaha) and Second Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, landing at the three eastern beaches (Gold, Juno and Sword). Bradley’s First Army would include the American V Corps and VII Corps. Dempsey’s Second Army would include British I Corps, XXX Corps and the First Canadian Army. Included with the First Canadian would be troops from Poland, Netherlands and Belgium.
The objective for Operation Overlord was for Bradley’s First Army to quickly cut off the Cotentin Peninsula and capture the port of Cherbourg. The U.S. Airborne troops, consisting of the 82nd Airborne Division, commanded by Major General Matthew Ridgeway, and the 101st Airborne Division, commanded by Brigadier General Maxwell Taylor, would be transported on 432 C-47 planes and were tasked with opening the beach causeways and blocking German reinforcements coming from the east towards Carentan. The British airborne force included Major General Richard Nelson Gale’s 6th Airborne Division which would drop near Caen. They were tasked with capturing two bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River, allowing ingress of troops once the Normandy beachhead was established.
D-Day at Normandy
Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower communicated by letter with all Allied forces on the afternoon of June 5:
“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. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
At 22:30 on June 5, the C-47s containing the U.S. Airborne troops began taking off from airfields in Great Britain. These serials would continue departing over the next hour. Entering France from the west, the C-47s decreased their altitude from 1,500 feet to 500 feet. Despite precise planning, the transports quickly scattered due to a solid cloud bank, heavy German anti-aircraft (flak) fire and unmarked/improperly marked drop zones. The two airborne divisions would take the better part of two days to organize.
Preliminary naval bombardment of the Atlantic Wall defenses began at 05:45 and continued until 06:25. Five battleships, 20 cruisers and 65 destroyers would fire tons of heavy naval ordnance with minimal damage being done to the Atlantic Wall defenses.
Overnight, infantry began departing the shores of Great Britain for their voyage across the English Channel. Code named Operation Neptune, the beach landing armada would include nearly 7,000 vessels – 1,213 of which were naval warships, 4,126 landing ships/crafts and nearly 900 merchant ships.
The first troop landings began at 06:30 with the U.S. 4th Infantry Division landing around 1/2 mile south of their planned landing zone. Commanded on D-Day by Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of President Teddy Roosevelt, the 4th Division would meet only minor resistance forming their beachhead. Suffering approximate 200 casualties, by the end of D-Day, they would push four clicks ashore by nightfall. Roosevelt would be the only general officer to land by sea on D-Day and would survive just over one month, dying on July 12 of a heart attack.
With the scattered nature of the U.S. Airborne drops – only 10% of the assault forces would actually land in their assigned drop zones – confusion ruled the early fighting. The 82nd Airborne Division would capture Sainte-Mere Eglise, but its failure to capture the crossing of River Merderet would result in a delay sealing off the Cotentin Peninsula. The 101st Airborne Division, The Screaming Eagles, would capture a crossing of the River Douve, near Caretan, somewhat protecting the southern flank.
Meanwhile, the more heavily defended landing at Omaha Beach was assigned to the U.S. 1st and 29th infantry divisions. Unknowingly, these troops were not facing a single German regiment, but the entire 352nd Nazi German Division. Casualties at Omaha Beach would be greater than all other landing zones combined as they faced concentrated artillery and machine gun fire from heavily fortified pillboxes along the heights overlooking the beach. By 08:30, landings would have to be delayed as beach obstructions were causing havoc along the entry points to the beach. Complicating matters were the scant five exit gullies from the beach – the only way to reach high ground. By noon, infantry, aided by naval gunfire, had started reaching the German defenses – which were beginning to run out of ammunition. The beachhead would remain quite tenuous over the coming days with D-Day objectives pushing out to D+3.
Second Army landings at Gold and Juno would be complicated by high seas and wind. Landings at Sword would be more successful with tanks and infantry clearing a significant beachhead and supporting the delayed landings at Gold and Juno.
Over the coming days, man made harbors would begin to be assembled to allow supply ships, infantry and tanks to continue the buildup at Normandy and supply food, medical supplies, ammunition and much needed fuel. The armada of military vehicles and tanks pushing into Normandy would eclipse 10,000 by D+1.
While the initial objectives of D-Day were only partially met, it would prove a singular success over the intervening years. The beachheads would continue to grow, with each passing day, allowing nearly 1.5 million Allied troops to enter France by July 25th and over 2 million by September 1st. But the cost would be extremely high on both sides. The butcher’s bill on D-Day alone, would climb to over 10,000 Allied troops – with 4,414 killed in action (KIA). Additionally 185 Sherman tanks would be lost, including most of their crews, landing at the beaches. Some of these tanks had been modified to disembark in deep water and push ashore via propellers. This proved folly, as most all of the “amphibious” tanks would never reach shore.
The Nazi German toll on D-Day is unknown, but estimated to be between 4,000 and 10,000. Many of these would be captured and sent to prisoner of war camps in the United Kingdom and the United States. Given the defenses along the Atlantic Wall, the lower casualties of Axis troops was expected.
The United States paid the highest price on D-Day. All told, recently updated casualty figures, from the US National D-Day Memorial Foundation, have confirmed 6,603 total U.S. casualties, with 1,914 KIA. The stiff resistance at Omaha Beach is where the majority of these casualties occurred.
The Grey Beard Biker’s respect for all veterans, current members of our armed forces and especially those airborne troops, infantry troops, army air force troops and sailors who took part on D-Day knows no bounds. While the veterans of WW II are called the Greatest Generation, Grey Beard views all who have signed their contract with the U.S. armed forces, in blood, to be greater than great. God Bless the United States, her allies and especially our troops in harm’s way!