Gerald Prenderghast describes the prelude to Operation Overlord, the day that heralded the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation.
After the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, Stalin began pressing the Western Allies to begin the re-invasion of Europe and thus relieve the tremendous pressure on Soviet forces, then retreating towards Stalingrad. During May 1942, this arrangement was ratified, Roosevelt agreeing that a so-called second front would be created in western Europe during 1942. Churchill foresaw the disastrous possibilities inherent in too premature an attempt at invasion and persuaded the US President to postpone the European operation in favour of more realistic objectives in the Mediterranean. By September 1943, English and American troops were in Italy, the Wehrmacht was being driven west after losing the Battle for Stalingrad and Roosevelt and Churchill felt able to reassure Stalin that Fortress Europe would be invaded sometime in May 1944.
The Allied landings planned for the Normandy coast during the summer of 1944, designated Operation Neptune but more popularly known as D-Day, constituted the largest seaborne invasion in history, as well as being the prelude to Operation Overlord, the battle for Normandy. Four landing sites were considered for Neptune: Brittany, the Cotentin Peninsula, Calais and Normandy, although only the Normandy beaches seemed to offer the strategic advantages necessary for success. Calais, being closest to Britain, was the obvious choice and so had been heavily fortified by the Germans, while Brittany and Cotentin were both peninsulas, whose poor access could fatally delay any Allied advance. An advance from Normandy on a broad front would be both difficult to contain and also allow attacks to be made on Cherbourg and the Brittany ports, thus alleviating Allied supply problems. More importantly, such a landing site would allow a swift deployment towards Paris and from there, Germany.
Allied preparation and distraction
Initial preparations for Neptune began in June 1943, when RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force began Operation Pointblank, an air offensive designed to destroy German aircraft production, fuel supplies and airfields in order to ensure, amongst other objectives, air superiority over the invasion beaches.
Planning for the landings also began during this period and relied heavily upon experience gained during Operation Jubilee, the disastrous Dieppe raid of August 1942, and the subsequent invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy. In particular, Dieppe had shown the necessity for specialised armour to deal with beach defences, which led directly to development of the modified tanks known as Hobart’s Funnies. Named after Major General Sir Percy (Hobo) Hobart, Commander of the 79th Armoured Division which operated most of these vehicles, the Funnies included:
- The AVRE (Assault or Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers). This vehicle carried demolition equipment and a Petard mortar to destroy roadblocks and bunkers and was crewed by Royal Engineers with a Royal Armoured Corps driver.
- The Crocodile: A Churchill tank with a flamethrower replacing its hull machine gun.
- The Crab: An M4 Sherman equipped with a mine flail, consisting of a rotating cylinder fitted with weighted chains, which exploded mines in front of the tank.
In addition to vehicles designed to deal with beach defences, Hobart and his team also developed a reliable amphibious tank based upon the M4 Sherman and designated the DD (Duplex Drive) Tank, because the engine drove both the tracks and a rear-mounted propeller.
Along with these specialised vehicles and equipment, the Allies also planned a series of operations designed to obscure the real site of the landings. Termed collectively Operation Bodyguard, they had three main objectives:
- To make the Normandy landings appear to be a diversion, with Calais the main invasion site.
- To mask the actual date and time of D-Day.
- To keep reinforcements away from Normandy after the landings.
A number of schemes were devised to meet these requirements, specifically:
Fortitude: Intended to convince the Germans that the landings sites were Norway and Calais. It employed two non-existent armies equipped with inflatable tanks, combined with leaked information referring to fictional operations and deployments. It was divided into Fortitude North, based upon a Fourth Army in Edinburgh intended to attack Norway, and Fortitude South, which threatened Calais with the 1st US Army group led by Lieutenant-General George Patton. Rommel seems to have accepted the story and his respect for Patton led him to fortify the Calais area heavily and largely discount Normandy.
Zeppelin: Similar to Fortitude, but threatening landings in Crete and Romania.
Graffham: An operation supporting Fortitude North but relying on political manipulation, including meetings between Swedish and Allied officials and the purchase of Norwegian securities, intended to show that the Allies were building political ties with Sweden.
Royal Flush: Similar to Graffham, but aimed at Spain, Turkey and Sweden.
Ironside: A fake landing, with Bordeaux as the intended invasion site.
Copperhead: An imaginative plan to say the least, based upon the similarity in appearance between Montgomery and the actor, M.E. Clifton-James, who was sent on a tour of Egypt to convince the Germans that the invasion was to be made via Southern France. Testimony taken after the war indicates that the plan did not fool the German General Staff.
Double agents were also used to supply false information to the Wehrmacht and, in addition to these long-term plans, several operations were carried out prior to the landings, including:
Titanic: Begun just after midnight on 6 June, this operation involved the dropping of dummy parachutists and SAS personnel in areas removed from the invasion beaches to convince the Germans to move their forces away from the real landing sites. The operation was largely successful, causing German infantry reserve units to be moved from the vicinity of Omaha, Gold and the drop zones of 101st Airborne.
Glimmer and Taxable: Also begun in the early hours of D-Day, both operations involved the dropping of chaff or foil strips from Lancaster bombers, which were co-ordinated with a group of small harbour craft operating radar reflection balloons and transmitting the pattern of radio traffic expected from a large fleet. Weather conditions proved unfavourable and both operations met with limited success.
Big Drum: Similar to Taxable and Glimmer but without aircraft involvement and even less successful.
German preparations: The Atlantic Wall
In response to his almost morbid fear of invasion, in 1942 Hitler ordered the construction of immense fortifications along the Atlantic coast from Spain to Norway. Originally designed with 15,000 emplacements housing 300,000 troops, shortages of materials and manpower ensured that the line was never finished and in 1944, Erwin Rommel was given the job of organising those existing fortifications to counter the expected invasion. Although convinced that the invasion site would be Calais, he accepted the Normandy coast as another possibility and made arrangements accordingly. Concrete gun emplacements were built at strategic points along the coast and wooden stakes, metal tripods, mines and large anti-tank obstacles were placed on the beaches to delay the approach of landing craft and impede the movement of tanks. Away from the beaches, Rommel ordered the placement of barbed wire, booby-traps and the removal of all ground cover, while he also arranged for poles fitted with explosives to be installed in areas which might serve as landing grounds for gliders.
In addition to these static defences, Rommel requested that all mobile tank reserves be stationed as close to the coast as possible, considering that the best chance of stopping the invasion was on the beaches, before the Allied position could be consolidated. Unfortunately, von Rundstedt, Geyr and the other commanders disagreed, insisting that the Panzers be concentrated in a central position and deployed only when the main Allied beachhead had been identified, despite Rommel’s insistence that without air cover, large-scale movement of tanks would be dangerous and difficult. Hitler finally produced a useless compromise, giving Rommel three tank divisions, leaving three under Geyr and four as a reserve, to be used only with his personal authorisation.
Initially, plans for Neptune gave 1 May 1944 as D-Day and recommended the participation of only three amphibious divisions, with two left in reserve. However, after the appointment of Eisenhower as commander of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force), with Montgomery in charge of all land forces, the two men demanded an increase to five divisions, with an additional three airborne divisions dropped behind the beaches, in order to allow operations on a wider front and facilitate the capture of Cherbourg. Unfortunately, this meant extra landing craft, which delayed the start, and 5 June 1944 was finally agreed as the invasion date.
The object of the landings was not strategically very complicated. US troops landing at Utah and Omaha beaches were intended to capture Carentan and St Lô, before cutting off the Cotentin Peninsula and capturing Cherbourg, allowing the early use of its port facilities. British and Canadian forces would protect the American left flank, while establishing control in the area around Caen and acting as a pivot for the American pincer movement. Landing before the amphibious operations, airborne troops would secure the Orne river bridges, the bridge at Caen and the causeways behind Utah, allowing the conventional forces to move from their landing sites, in order to establish a defensive line between Avranches and Falaise by the beginning of July, reaching the Seine by early September. To achieve these objectives, the Allies landed approximately 156,000 men in France during the first day, while being opposed by just over 50,000 German troops and 170 coastal guns.
Although originally intended for 5 June, weather conditions on that day made the cross-Channel trip impossible for the troop ships and planning constraints meant that if the invasion did not go ahead the following day, the next opportunity was not until 18-20 June and without the benefit of a full moon. After consultation with his meteorological team, Eisenhower launched Neptune on 6 June 1944.
Attacks by RAF, USAF and Canadian bombers began just after midnight against targets both on the coast and further inland, while at the same time Allied minesweepers cleared passages through the minefields for ships of the naval forces and invasion fleet.
Naval support consisted of two separate groups: The Western Naval Task force of three battleships, eight cruisers, 28 destroyers and a single monitor, commanded by Admiral Alan Kirk USN and supporting forces on Omaha and Utah.
The Eastern Naval Task Force, of two battleships, twelve cruisers, 37 destroyers and a monitor, commanded by Admiral Sir Philip Vian RN, supporting Gold, Juno and Sword.
A general naval bombardment of the areas behind the beaches began at 5.45am, switching to pre-arranged targets as soon as it was light at 5.50am.
Beginning soon after midnight, airborne operations were intended principally to disrupt the Wehrmacht’s ability to counter-attack by securing and holding key objectives such as bridges and road crossings, whilst also protecting them for use by the landing forces moving off the beaches. Despite considerable dispersion of their forces, British and US paratroopers managed to secure all their D-Day objectives, although several US operations were not concluded until D-Day+3.
Sword: This was the most easterly landing site and was the responsibility of the British 3rd Division and an array of divisional troops, including units of the RA (Royal Artillery), RAC (Royal Armoured Corps), RE (Royal Engineers) and 27th Armoured in DD tanks. After aerial and naval bombardments, the landing began at 7.25am, headed by DD tanks of 13th/18th Hussars and AVREs of the RE. Despite strong resistance, the Funnies had cleared seven of the eight beach exits by 9.30 and the inland advance began, although it failed to link up with Canadian forces on Juno as intended because of a counter-attack by 21st Panzer Division. RAF fighters forced the Panzers to withdraw and the British and Canadians linked up on 7 June and began a movement towards Caen. Allied casualties were estimated at 1,000 killed, wounded or missing.
Juno: Landings on Juno were carried out by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and the British No 48 Royal Marine Commando. Early naval bombardment proved relatively successful and was supported by a variety of landing craft equipped with 4.7 QF and 6-pounder guns. Juno had previously been divided into two sectors, Mike and Nan, and infantry landings began in both sectors between 7.45am and 7.55am. Unfortunately, due to heavy seas, the infantry arrived ahead of their supporting armour and suffered heavy casualties before DD tanks neutralised the gun emplacements in both sectors. With the beach safe, engineers began clearing the beach exits with their AVREs. Even when this was achieved, the intended break-out was impeded, because traffic blocked roads leading away from the beach, although units from Juno had linked up with those from Sword and moved on Caen by 7 June. Allied casualties on Juno were 961 killed, wounded and missing.
Gold beach: Landings on Gold were carried out by the 50th Infantry Division, 8th Armoured and 56th Infantry brigades and No. 47 Commando. Naval bombardment began at 5.30am, followed by the initial landing at 7.25am. High winds made landing difficult and the accompanying DD tanks were released close in-shore or on the beaches, thus ensuring their successful deployment. Perhaps the most significant feature of Gold was the defensive strong-points, which included two massive gun emplacements sited on the beach front, one at Le Hamel, housing a 75mm gun, and the second at Longues-sur-Mer, equipped with four 152mm naval guns. The cruisers Ajax and Argonaut had disabled three of the Longues-sur-Mer guns by 6.20am, although the fourth gun was able to resume firing intermittently in the afternoon until 7pm. Unfortunately, six other emplacements were only slightly damaged, including the Le Hamel site, but these were neutralised by specialised armour later in the day. Passage off the beach was cleared by the Funnies, allowing the infantry to move forward, clearing heavily fortified houses on the foreshore as they went and then moving on targets further inland, capturing Arromanches and making contact with Canadian forces from Juno by the end of the day. Casualties were approximately 1,000 killed, wounded and missing.
Omaha beach: Assaults began here and on Utah at 6.30am, an hour before the British and Canadian landings, and so naval bombardment was less than for the other beaches. Most heavily defended of all the landing sites, Omaha was the responsibility of the US 1st and 29th Infantry divisions. Strong currents made landing difficult and with bombing unsuccessful, many of the beach obstacles were still in place when the troops arrived. Unfortunately, despite the sea conditions, the DD tanks accompanying the forces on Omaha were dropped 5,000m from shore, in contrast to the situation on Gold, and only five tanks of the original 33 reached the beach. Bradley had also declined the offer of other specialised armour and consequently his engineers were fully exposed when they tried to clear the five gulleys constituting the exit from the beach and were subjected to heavy fire from the cliffs above. However, fire from a group of US destroyers and poor ammunition supply to the defenders allowed the Americans to begin moving off Omaha by 12 noon and by nightfall they had established two small isolated positions away from the beach, although events further inland allowed them to expand this front and achieve their original D-Day objectives in the days following the landing. Estimates vary as to US casualties, accepted figures lying somewhere between 2,000-5,000 men killed, wounded and missing.
Utah beach: The landings on Utah were carried out by the US army’s 4th and 90th Infantry divisions and the 4th Cavalry regiment. Elements of the 4th Infantry Division landed first, pushed about 2,000m south of their intended landing point. This proved fortunate since there was only a single strong-point in range and many of the underwater obstacles had been washed away by the strong currents. Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Commander of the 4th and first senior officer ashore, made an instant decision, “We start the war from here,” and ordered everything to be rerouted to the new landing point. Infantry were followed by 28 DD tanks and the engineer units, who cleared mines and other obstructions before blowing gaps in the sea wall, allowing the troops to leave the beach and begin pushing their German opponents back. Utah proved the least difficult of all the landings, with only 197 men killed, wounded or missing, during an operation which put over 21,000 men ashore.
Although the Allies had managed to land and consolidate their positions by the evening of D-Day, none of their major objectives were achieved, the original plans having called for the capture of Carentan, St Lô, Caen, and Bayeux on the first day, with all the beaches (other than Utah) linked with a front line between six and ten miles inland by nightfall. Disorganisation on the beaches and a failure of some of the initial bombardments contributed to this situation but fortunately, indecisiveness and an overly complicated command structure meant that the Germans were unable to take advantage of the Allied shortcomings. However, much of the Allied scheme worked well, in particular; the deception operations, Hobart’s specialised armour and the co-ordinated activities of the French resistance, which isolated the Normandy beaches and ensured that the Germans were incapable of bringing up reinforcements or supplies. It was a successful operation and marked the beginning of the end of Nazi-occupied Europe.
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