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Battle of Normandy

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A Coast Guard-manned LCVP disembarks troops at Omaha Beach
Conflict World War II, Western Front (WWII)>Western Front
Date June 6, 1944 - August 22, 1944
Place Normandy, France
Result Allied victory
Allied Powers Germany
Bernard Montgomery (ground forces), Bertram Ramsay (naval forces) Erwin Rommel
326,000 (by June 11) ?
37,000 dead, 172,000 wounded/missing Approximately 200,000 killed/wounded, 200,000 captured

The Battle of Normandy in 1944, codenamed Operation Overlord, was the invasion of Nazi-occupied Western Europe by the Allies. Sixty years later, the Normandy invasion remains the largest seaborne invasion in history, involving almost three million troops crossing the English Channel from England to Normandy in occupied France.

The Normandy invasion began with overnight paratrooper and glider landings, massive air and naval bombardments, and an early-morning amphibious assault. The battle for Normandy continued over more than two months, with campaigns to establish, expand, and eventually break out of the Allied beachheads. It concluded with the surrender of Paris and the fall of the Chambois pocket.

Normandy is, to this day, one of the best-known battles of World War II. In common language, the expression "D-Day" is still used to refer to the starting date of the invasion, and the opening day of the Battle of Normandy: June 6, 1944.

Table of contents
1 Prelude
2 The landings
3 After the landings
4 Chronology
5 Political considerations
6 Aftermath and strategic appraisal
7 Bibliography
8 Dramatisation
9 External links


Allied preparations

After the
1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), the Soviets had done the bulk of the fighting against Germany on the European mainland. US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had committed the United States and United Kingdom to opening up a "second front" in Europe to ease the desperate Soviet situation, initially in 1942, and again in spring 1943.

Rather than repeat the head-on frontal assaults of World War I, the British, and Churchill in particular, favoured attacking the peripheries of western Europe and allowing the insurgency work of the SOE to come to widespread fruition, while making a main Allied thrust from the Mediterranean to Vienna and into Germany from the south. Such an approach was believed to also offer the advantage of creating a barrier to limit the Soviet advance into Europe. However, the US believed from the onset the optimum approach as the shortest route to Germany emanating from the strongest Allied power base. They were adamant in their view and made it clear it was the only option they would support in the long term. Two preliminary proposals were drawn up: Operation Sledgehammer for an invasion in 1942, and Operation Roundup for a larger attack in 1943, which was adopted and became Operation Overlord, although it was delayed until 1944.

The process of planning was started in earnest in January of 1943 by the staff of SHAEF.

On 28 April 1944, in south Devon, 749 US military staff were killed during a D-Day landing exercise, Exercise Tiger.

[[Image:Eisenhower d-day.jpg|thumbnail|right|250px|Eisenhower, addresses American paratroopers in England before the D-Day offensive.]]

The small operating range of Allied fighters, including the British Spitfire and Hawker Typhoon, from UK airfields greatly limited the choices of landing sites. Geography reduced the choices further to two sites: the Pas de Calais and the Normandy coast. While the Pas de Calais offered the shortest distance from the UK, the best landing beaches and the most direct overland route to Germany, it was for those reasons the expected invasion point, and thus the most heavily fortified and defended. Consequently, the Allies chose Normandy for the invasion.

Largely because of the lessons learned in the disastrous 1942 Canadian raid on Dieppe, the Allies also decided not to directly assault a French seaport in their first landings. Landings in force on a broad front in Normandy would permit simultaneous threats against the port of Cherbourg, coastal ports further west in Brittany, and an overland attack towards Paris and towards the border with Germany. Normandy was a less-defended coast and an unexpected but strategic jumping-off point, with the potential to confuse and scatter the German defending forces.

It was not until December 1943 that General Dwight Eisenhower was named as Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force, effectively giving him overall charge of the Allied forces in Europe. In January 1944, General Bernard Montgomery was named as operational commander for the invasion ground forces.

At that stage the plan required sealanding by three divisions, with two brigades landed by air. Montgomery quickly increased the scale of the initial attack to five divisions by sea and three by air. In total, 47 divisions would be committed to the Battle of Normandy: 26 divisions of British, Canadian, Commonwealth and free European troops, and 21 American divisions.

More than 6000 vessels would be involved in the invasion under the command of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, including 4000 landing craft and 130 warships for bombardment. 12,000 aircraft under Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory were to support the landings, including 1000 transports to fly in the parachute troops. 5000 tons of bombs would be dropped against the German defences.

The objectives for the first 40 days were to:

US Soldiers march through a British coastal town prior to the invasionEnlarge

US Soldiers march through a British coastal town prior to the invasion

The three month objective was to control a zone bound by the rivers Lôire in the south and Seine in the north east.

In order to persuade the Germans that the invasion would really be coming to the Pas de Calais, the Allies prepared a massive deception plan, called Operation Fortitude. An entirely fictitious First US Army Group was created, with fake buildings and equipment, and the sending of false radio messages. General George Patton was even mentioned as the unit's commander. The Germans were eager to find the real landing location for themselves, and had an extensive network of agents operating throughout Southern England. Unfortunately for them, every single one had been "turned" by the Allies, and was dutifully sending back messages confirming the Pas de Calais as the likely attack point. To keep the pretence running for as long as possible, the deception was continued into the battle, with air attacks on radar and other installations in the area.

Another deception, Operation Skye, was mounted from Scotland using radio traffic, designed to convince German traffic analysts that an invasion would be also mounted into Norway, or perhaps Denmark. German troops were retained in Norway against this phantom threat who would otherwise have been moved into France.

Some of the more unusual preparations by the Allies included armoured vehicles specially adapted for the assault. Developed under the leadership of Major-General Percy Hobart, these vehicles included "swimming" Duplex Drive Sherman tanks, mine clearing tanks (the Sherman Crab, a normal Sherman tank with a flail sticking out on the front that destroyed all mines without damage to the tank), bridge laying tanks and road laying tanks.

The plan also called for the construction of two artificial Mulberry Harbours in order to get vital supplies to the invading forces in the first few weeks of the battle in the absence of deep water ports, and Operation PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) a series of submarine pipes that would deliver fuel from Britain to the invading forces.

German preparations

In November 1943, when Hitler decided that the threat of invasion in France could no longer be ignored, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was appointed Inspector of Coastal Defences, and later commander of Army Group B, the ground forces charged with the defense of Northern France. Rommel was of the firm belief that the only way to defeat an invasion was to counterattack the beaches as early as possible with armour, and wanted at least some armour placed close enough to the beaches to deliver an immediate counterattack. But Rommel's authority was rather limited, since he was not the overall commander of German forces in the West; that title was held by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. And Rundstedt—supported by the commander of Panzer Group West, Geyr von Schweppenberg, who was, in turn, supported by Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, the Inspector General of Armoured Troops—favoured concentrating the Panzer divisions farther inland so that the primary enemy line of advance could be determined, and then a counter-attack in force could be launched to blunt it.

The operational debate reflected the differing experiences in the war of the key decision-makers. Rundstedt and Guderian had the bulk of their command experience when the Luftwaffe controlled the skies over the battlefield or, in the vast expanses of the Eastern Front, where neither side was able to claim air superiority over the entire front when these two commanders last had a combat command. On the other hand, Rommel's experiences were vastly different. He had experienced the Allied propensity to use tactical airpower to devastating effect. It's interesting to note that Rundstedt and Guderian never thought about Allied airpower in terms of the Luftwaffe of 1939-1941, when it was at the height of its power. Take the striking strength of the Luftwaffe at this time, multiply it several times and that would give a rough estimation of the ability of the Anglo-American air forces. Rommel understood this, but other senior commanders did not—or they only gave it short shrift.

In resolving the dispute, Hitler split the six available Panzer divisions in Northern France, and allocated three directly to Rommel. The remaining three were placed a good distance back from the beaches, and could not be released without the direct approval of Hitler's operations staff. The air defences of the North French coast comprised just 169 fighter aircraft, since airfields in northern France had been seriously pummelled by incessant Anglo-American air attacks—and the Luftwaffe would only fly two sorties on June 6.

The Allied invasion plan

The order of battle was approximately as follows, East to West:

D-day assault routes into NormandyEnlarge

D-day assault routes into Normandy

Activities by the French resistance forces, the Maquis, helped disrupt Axis lines of communications.

Large landing craft convoy crosses the English Channel on June 6th, 1944Enlarge

Large landing craft convoy crosses the English Channel on June 6th, 1944

The foreshore area had been extensively fortified by the Germans as part of their Atlantic Wall defences, causing the landings to be timed for low tide. It was guarded by 4 divisions, of which only one (352) was of high quality. Many others included Germans who, usually for medical reasons, were not considered suitable for active duty on the Eastern Front, and other nationalities (mainly Russians) who had agreed to fight for the Germans rather than endure a prisoner of war camp. The 21st Panzer division guarded Caen, and the 12th SS Panzer division was stationed to the south-east. Its soldiers had all been recruited directly from the Hitler Youth movement at the age of sixteen in 1943, and it was to acquire a reputation for ferocity in the coming battle. Some of the area behind Utah beach had been flooded by the Germans as a precaution against parachute assault.

Prior to the battle, the Allies had carefully mapped and tested the landing area, paying particular attention to weather conditions in the English Channel. A full moon was required both for light and for the spring tide. D-Day for the operation was originally set for June 5, 1944, but bad weather forced a postponement. The weather on June 6 was still marginal, but General Eisenhower chose not to wait for the next full moon. This decision helped catch the German forces off-guard, as they did not expect an attack in such conditions - so much so that, on June 4, Rommel returned to Germany for his wife's 50th birthday.

The landings

Allied troops under fireEnlarge

Allied troops under fire

Airborne landings

The British 6th Airborne Division were the first troops to go into action, at ten minutes past midnight. Their objectives were Pegasus Bridge and others on the rivers at the East flank of the landing area, and also a gun battery at Merville (see Operation Tonga). The guns, though not destroyed, were successfully prevented from firing on the invasion force as after the initial ground assault, only six battery personnel were left alive or uninjured. The bridges were very quickly captured and held till relieved by the Commandos later that day, June 6.

The 82nd and 101st Airborne had been less lucky. Partly due to inexperienced piloting, and partly due to the difficulty of the terrain, they had landed badly scattered. Some fell in the sea or deliberately flooded areas. After 24 hours only 3000 of the 101st had rallied. Many continued to roam and fight behind enemy lines for days. The 82nd occupied the town of Sainte-Mère-Église for a time in the early morning of June 6, giving it the claim to be the first town liberated in the invasion.

Sword Beach

On Sword Beach, the regular British infantry got ashore with light casualties. However they failed to make the progress expected after that, and had advanced only about five miles by the end of the day. In particular, Caen, a major objective, was still in German hands by the end of D-Day.

1 SS Brigade went ashore in the second wave led by No.4 Commando with the two French Troops first, as agreed amongst themselves. The British and French of No.4 Commando had separate targets in Ouistreham, the French a blockhouse and the Casino, and the British two batteries which overlooked the beach. The blockhouse proved too strong for the Commando's PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti Tank) guns, but the Casino was taken with the aid of a Centaur tank. The British Commandos achieved both battery objectives only to find the gun mounts empty and the guns removed. Leaving the mopping-up procedure to the infantry, the Commandos withdrew from Ouistreham to join the other members of 1 SS Brigade (Nos.3, 6 and 45), in moving inland to join-up with the 6th Airborne.

Juno Beach

The Canadian forces who landed on Juno Beach faced 11 heavy batteries of 155 mm guns and 9 medium batteries of 75 mm guns, as well as machine-gun nests, pillboxes, other concrete fortifications, and a seawall twice the height of the one at Omaha Beach. The first wave suffered 50 per cent casualties, the highest of any of the five D-Day beachheads except Omaha.

Despite the obstacles, within hours the Canadians were off the beach and beginning their advance inland. The 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars) was the only Allied unit to meet its June 6th objectives, when it crossed the Caen-Bayeux highway 15 km inland.

By the end of D-Day, 14,000 Canadians had been successfully landed, and the 3rd Canadian Division had penetrated further into France than any other Allied force, despite having faced such strong resistance at the beachhead. The first counter-attack of D-Day was launched by the 21st Panzer division between Sword and Juno beaches, and the Canadians held against several stiff counter-attacks on June 7 and 8 by the 12th SS (Hitler Youth) Panzer division.

Gold Beach

At Gold Beach, the casualties were also quite heavy, partly because the swimming Sherman tanks were delayed, and the Germans had strongly fortified a village on the beach. However, the 50th division overcame its difficulties and advanced almost to the outskirts of Bayeux by the end of the day. None got closer to their planned objectives.

No.47(RM) Commando were the last British Commandos to land and came ashore on Gold east of Le Hamel. Their task was to proceed inland then turn right (west) and make a ten mile march through enemy territory to attack the coastal harbour of Port en Bessin from the rear. This small port, on the British extreme right, was well sheltered in the chalk cliffs and significant in that it was to be a prime early harbour for supplies to be brought in including fuel by underwater pipe from tankers moored offshore.

Omaha Beach

Troops in an LCVP landing craft approach Omaha beach June 6th, 1944Enlarge

Troops in an LCVP landing craft approach Omaha beach June 6th, 1944

On Omaha beach, the US 1st Infantry underwent the worst ordeals of the landings. Their swimming Sherman tanks had been mostly lost before reaching shore. Their opposition, the 352nd Division, were some of the best trained on the beaches, and occupied positions on the steep cliffs overlooking the beach. The official record stated that "within 10 minutes of the ramps being lowered, [the leading] company had become inert, leaderless and almost incapable of action. Every officer and sergeant had been killed or wounded [...] It had become a struggle for survival and rescue". The division lost over 4000 casualties. Despite this, the survivors regrouped and pressed inland.

The massive concrete clifftop gun emplacement at Pointe du Hoc was the target of the US 2nd Ranger battalion. Their task was to scale the 100 metre cliffs under enemy fire with ropes and ladders, and then attack and destroy the guns, which were thought to command the Omaha and Utah landing areas. The emplacement was successfully reached, and the guns which had been moved out (probably during the preceding bombardment) were found and destroyed. The casualty rate for the landing troops was nearly fifty percent.

Utah Beach

USS <em>Nevada</em>Enlarge

USS Nevada

fires on positions near Utah beach June 6th, 1944]]

By contrast, casualties on Utah Beach were 197 out of around 23,000 landed, the lightest of any beach. They too pressed inland and succeeded in linking up with parts of the airlanded divisions.

After the landings

Once the beachhead was established, two artificial Mulberry Harbours were towed across the English Channel in segments. One was constructed at Arromanches, the other at Omaha Beach. The Omaha harbour was destroyed in severe storms around D+10. Around 9,000 tons of materiel was landed daily at the Arromanches harbour until the end of August, by which time the ports of Antwerp and Cherbourg had been secured by the Allies, and had begun to return to service.

The German defenders positioned on the beaches put up relatively light resistance, being ill-trained and short on transport and equipment, and having been subject to a week of intense bombardment. The exception was the 352nd Infantry division, which defended Omaha beach, and the tenacity of their defence was responsible for the high casualty rate there. The German commanders took several hours to be sure that the reports they were receiving indicated a landing in force, rather than a series of raids. Their communication difficulties were made worse by the absence of several key commanders. The scattering of the American parachutists also added to the confusion, as reports were coming in of Allied troops all over northern Normandy.

Despite this the 21st Panzer division mounted a concerted counter attack, between Sword and Juno beaches, and nearly succeeded in reaching the sea. Stiff resistance by anti-tank gunners, and fear lest they be cut off caused them to withdraw before the end of 6th June. According to some reports the sighting of a wave of airlanded troops flying over them was instrumental in the decision to retreat.

Landing supplies at NormandyEnlarge

Landing supplies at Normandy

The Allied invasion plans had called for the capture of Caen and Bayeux on the first day, with all the beaches linked except Utah, and a front line six to ten miles from the beaches. In practice none of these had been achieved. However overall the casualties had not been as heavy as some had feared (around 10,000, compared to the 20,000 feared by Churchill), and the bridgeheads had withstood the expected counterattacks.

Priorities in the days following the landing for the Allies were: to link the bridgeheads; to take Caen; and to capture the port of Cherbourg to provide a secure supply line.

The German 12th SS (Hitler Youth) Panzer division assaulted the Canadians on June 7 and June 8, and inflicted heavy losses, but were unable to break through. Meanwhile the beaches were being linked - Sword on June 7, Omaha June 10, Utah by June 13. The Allies were actually reinforcing the front faster than the Germans. Although the Allies had to land everything on the beaches, Allied air superiority and the destruction of the French rail system made every German troop movement slow and dangerous.

The country behind Utah and Omaha beaches were characterised by bocáge; ancient banks and hedgerows, up to three metres thick, spread one to two hundred metres apart, and so both being impervious to tanks, gunfire, and vision, and making ideal defensive positions. The US infantry made slow progress, and suffered heavy casualties, as they pressed towards Cherbourg. The elite airborne troops were called on again and again to restart a stalled advance. Hitler expected the Cherbourg garrison to resist to the end, and deny the port to the Allies. However, after requesting that a single shot be fired at the gate, the commander of Cherbourg surrendered on June 26.

Believing Caen to be the "crucible" of the battle, Montgomery made it the target of three separate attacks from June 7 to July 1, before it was surrounded and bombed on July 7 in Operation Charnwood. Seeking a decisive breakout into the open country that led to Paris, between July 18 and July 20 Montgomery launched a major offensive from the Caen area with all three British armoured divisions, codenamed Operation Goodwood. Initially successful, it was eventually stopped by determined and improvised resistance from the 1st and 12th Panzer divisions, supported by German engineers acting as infantry. The British tank casualties were very high; yet the German reserves had been committed to hold the line, and could not now be used to combat the American Operation Cobra, launched on July 24. With the German troops committed to the north, Cobra succeeded, and the advance guard of the US VIII Corps rolled into Coutances at the western end of the Cotentin peninsula, on July 28, penetrating the German line for General George S. Patton's US Third Army to advance through into northwestern France. The bulk of German resistance in the region was finally eliminated on August 21, with the successful closure of the Falaise Gap by Canadian and Polish troops. The liberation of Paris by the French 2nd Armoured Division commenced a few days later.


Political considerations

The Normandy landings were long foreshadowed by a considerable amount of political manoeuvring amongst the Allies. There was much disagreement about timing, appointments of command, and where exactly the landings were to take place. The opening of a second front had been long postponed (it had been initially mooted in 1942), and had been a particular source of strain between the Allies.
Stalin had been pressing the Western Allies to launch a "second front" since 1942, but Churchill had argued for delay until victory could be assured, preferring to attack Italy and North Africa first.

The appointment of Bernard Montgomery was questioned by some Americans, who would have preferred the urbane Harold Alexander to have commanded the land forces. Montgomery himself had doubts about the appointment of Dwight Eisenhower, because Eisenhower had very little field experience. In the event, however, Montgomery and Eisenhower cooperated to excellent effect in Normandy: their well-known disagreements came much later.

Normandy presented serious logistical problems, not the least of which being that the only viable port in the area, Cherbourg, was heavily defended and many among the higher echelons of command argued that the Pas de Calais would make a more suitable landing area on these grounds alone.

Aftermath and strategic appraisal

Although ultimately successful, the Normandy landings were extremely costly in terms of men and material. The failure of the 3rd Division to take Caen, an overly ambitious target, on the first day was to have serious repercussions on the conduct of the war for well over a month, seriously delaying any forward progress. The fortuitous capture of Villers-Bocage followed by the failure to reinforce it, and its subsequent recapture by the Germans, was again to hamper any attempt to extend the Caen bridgehead and push on. By D+11, June 17, the assault had stagnated.

A lot of the problem came down to the nature of the terrain in which much of the post-landing fighting took place, the bocages. These were essentially small fields separated by high earth banks covered in dense shrubbery, which were eminently defensible.

In the end, the invasion of Normandy succeeded in its objective by sheer force of numbers. Many more troops and equipment continued to come ashore after D-Day. By the end of July, some 1 million Allied troops, mostly American, British and Canadian, were entrenched in Normandy.

An American military cemetery in NormandyEnlarge

An American military cemetery in Normandy

The success of the battle opened up the long awaited Western Front. Germany had to divert much-needed manpower and resources from the Russian and Italian fronts to fight on the new battlefields in western Europe.

The toe-hold established at Normandy was vital for the Western Allies (largely the British Commonwealth and the US) to bring the war to the western border of Germany. By this time the Soviet forces had the capacity to crush Germany in Europe on their own, and therefore a western invasion was not strictly required to defeat the German Reich. On D-Day, the Red Army was steadily advancing towards Germany and four-fifths of the German forces were in the East. In France, the Allies faced only about 20% of the German army.

Yet, given the Soviets' later domination of Eastern Europe, if the Normandy invasion had not occurred there might have been a complete occupation of northern and western Europe by communist forces. American and British presence helped define the extent that Communism would spread, and ensure that democracy would be safe in Western Europe. Thus the battle of Normandy needs to be understood both within the strategic context of WWII and the strategy of the Cold War which followed.

The visitor to Normandy today will find many reminders of June 6, 1944. Most noticeable are the beaches, which are still referred to on maps and signposts by their invasion codenames. Then come the vast cemeteries, row upon row of identical white crosses and Stars of David, immaculately kept, commemorating the Allied dead. Streets near the beaches are still named after the units that fought there, and occasional markers commemorate notable incidents. At significant points, such as Pointe du Hoc and Pegasus Bridge, there are plaques, memorials or small museums. The Mulberry harbour still sits in the sea at Arromanches. In Sainte-Mère-Église, a dummy paratrooper hangs from the church spire. On Juno Beach, the Canadian government is building a massive memorial and information centre, commemorating one of the most significant events in Canadian military history. The people of Normandy will continue to remember Operation Overlord long into the future.

Every year on June 6, American cartoonist and World War II veteran Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000) would reserve his Peanuts comic strip to memorialise his comrades who fell at Normandy.



External links