Military History- The Battle of Normandy
The storm ravaged the land and caused tempestuous swells on the sea. As the thick, dark clouds dumped inches of rain, American and British leaders had no choice but to delay the scheduled invasion at least a day. The date was June 4, 1944. The next day was intended to be D-Day, the date that would begin one of the largest invasions in history. Since the invasion was to be amphibian – with the troops traveling first by water and then continuing on land – the fleet could not sail, not yet. The forecast looked promising for June 6, 1944, so the generals put everyone on notice for a 24-hour delay. The battle, the campaign that the allies had planned for years was about to begin.
Even before the Americans were drawn into World War II, the British had begun devising plans for an amphibious assault of northern France across the English Channel. However, the British had sufferedcatastrophic losses at Dunkirk and Dieppe, so that by the time the Americans were included in the planning of the invasion, code named OVERLORD, the British favored a bit of a different strategy. They wished to fight a peripheral war, to nibble at the edges of the German empire to weaken it before attempting such an invasion. The Americans didn’t want to waste resources on these actions, but favored a bold, decisive strike that would more quickly lead to victory.
While the Americans at first hoped for a cross-Channel invasion in 1942, it soon became obvious that the machinery of war in the U.S. was not yet built up enough for such an undertaking. Thus, while the Americans transformed the country into a war supply machine, the Allied forces followed the British-preferred strategy almost by default. As the Allies gained control of North Africa and Italy, the leaders were still planning for the big offensive into France.
The Soviet Union was clamoring for action on the western front, as the largest and fiercest part of the German army was dedicated to fighting in the east. At last all parties agreed on a date in the spring of 1944. Preparations accelerated during the final months leading up to the attack. Men poured into England training for the beach attack. Ships of every kind were required: troop transports, supply vessels, and destroyers. Armament, artillery, tanks, jeeps, and every other type of equipment were procured in numbers never before seen.
The most obvious place to attack France was at Pas de Calais, which was directly across from Dover, England, and represented the shortest point from Britain to German-held France. However, the Germans could read maps as well, and had seen Calais’s danger. Fortifications in that region were heavy, causing Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of the invasion force, and his generals to look to the west, to Normandy. Its beaches were far less fortified and held two major ports, vital for supplies after the invasion. The land immediately to the rear of the beaches was relatively flat, perfect for landing areas for aircraft and offensive movements in general, and had a well-developed road system leading into the heart of France.
Thus the beach attack developed. The area of attack was divided into five different areas: the British were to take GOLD Beach and SWORD Beach, the Canadians were assigned JUNO, and the Americans attacked UTAH and OMAHA. However, a fictitious army was also made to appear as if it was gathering in Dover. This combined with airplane bombing runs over Calais made the Germans believe that was the intended attack point. German generals thus kept vital resources near Calais while Normandy was more lightly fortified.
As night fell on June 5th, the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, as well a British division, began the operation. They were dropped behind enemy lines overnight and were to secure the roads the Allied forces were to take once the beaches were secure. Despite thousands of troops being dropped off-target, they were able to capture key areas in preparation for the main attack. Before that attack could begin, bombers started an intense strike all along the five beaches at dawn. Still the Germans thought this a diversion from the real attack at Calais and that no one could attack anyway because of the storm.
When the sun rose on June 6, 1944, and the smoke from the bombs began to clear, the German soldiers on the Normandy beaches glimpsed an awe-inspiring sight. The English Channel was filled as far as they could see with all manner of ships. This was the largest armada ever collected in history; thousands of ships and troop carriers were bearing down. Almost three million men were ready to fight their way ashore.
Even though the Germans were caught somewhat by surprise, they still fought fiercely. While some beaches fell fairly quickly, others were not taken for hours, resulting in thousands of dead and wounded. The beaches were lined with obstructions and mines that made landing and maneuvering difficult. Finally the sheer numbers for the Allies overwhelmed the beaches, and by nightfall most of the area was in Allied hands. Over 9,000 men had given their lives to see that it happened.
D-Day was just the first step, albeit a vital one, in the plans for the Battle of Normandy. The Allies wanted to secure the land up to the Seine River, to insure a firm hold in France with plenty of area for troops, planes, and ports. However, the Germans had no intention of retreating to a better strategic position. Hitler had ordered them not to give up an inch unfought.
Thus the British fought for the city of Caen. The Americans inched along, fighting the Germans who were using the French landscape to their advantage. The roads had ditches alongside with tall hedgerows which made perfect cover to fight behind. These hedgerows were several feet high and thick, and were something the Allies had not prepared for. It took some time for the infantry and tanks to figure out the best way to work together to overcome this obstacle. Fortunately, because the Germans were devoting so many resources to try and keep Caen out of British hands, they could not reinforce those fighting the Americans.
It took six weeks, but the Allies finally achieved all their goals. Though the casualties weren’t as heavy as first expected, they were still steep, over 200,000 Allied casualties alone. However, they had captured a large section of northern France from which they would be able to supply their forces for the rest of the war. They had a western front which demanded Hitler divide his attention from the Soviet Union. The German generals had known that if the Allies won such a foothold, it was only a matter of time before Germany was defeated.
Speculation about what the term D-Day means has been around since the war. In reality, it was just the code the army used to designate when an operation would begin. In hindsight, it could be called “D for Decisive” because that is what the Battle of Normandy was, the beginning of the end. For the next year, though the fighting was fierce, the Germans were on the defensive. It also meant that when Germany fell, Europe was not overrun by Soviet soldiers, which could have lead to an even larger Communist bloc. The Battle of Normandy was the key turning point in World War II and perhaps Twentieth Century history.
To learn more about D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, click on any of the following links.
- Army Account of Battle of Normandy – This is a more detailed account of the entire battle, from conception to aftermath, on the U.S. Army’s history website.
- An Overview of the Battle of Normandy – For those who want a more concise overview, this is a shorter account than the army link.
- German Propaganda – After the Allies landed in Normandy, the Germans tried using propaganda leaflets to sway Allied soldiers. This site has pictures of the actual leaflets.
- The Navy on D-Day – While D-Day is thought of as an army invasion, the navy had a large and vital part in the victory. This official navy page recounts the battle from that perspective with original photographs.
- British on D-Day – The British Imperial War Museum recounts the battle from the British point of view.
- D-Day Photographs – This is a collection of photographs from the battle and afterwards taken by American troops in one engineer combat battalion.
- A Sailor in Patton’s Army – An account of a sailor who took part in the D-Day invasion, the website tells the story of a sailor who was then assigned to Patton’s Third Army.
- Mapping History – A map is sometimes necessary to get a better idea of the story of a battle. This simple map from the University of Oregon shows the five beaches and which army was assigned to each.
- Smithsonian Pictures – The Smithsonian has published some if its D-Day photographs on its website.
- Logistics of Battle – Not only was the Battle of Normandy a huge mission from a military standpoint, but it was also a gigantic, complicated logistical operational as well. The Army Logistics University describes the monumental job the logistics commanders had during the battle.
- D-Day – A collection of pictures, news articles, posters, Eisenhower’s speech, and information about the battle can be found on the army’s official D-Day website.
- The Effects of D-Day – This article explains the effects D-Day had on the troops and the war, highlighted with original photographs.
- The Real Meaning of D-Day – D-Day has significance far beyond its role in one battle. Professor Tierney discusses the role of D-Day in history.
- The Utah Beach Memorial – Located just a mile and a half from Marie-du-Mont, France, this memorial commemorates those who fought and died on D-Day.
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Edited by: Mary Davis