76 years ago, in Northern France, one of the most essential operations of World War II took place. As a part of Operation Overlord, the Normandy landings were code-named Operation Neptune. It was the biggest seaborne invasion in history and the opening stage of the Western Front of the war.
Preparations for D-Day took some time as the Western Allies,especially W. Churchill, knew they had only one chance and that a second attempt wouldn’t happen again anytime soon. They planned every detail as precisely as possible in order to avoid a second Dunkirk.
Noteworthy is Operation Bodyguard which preceded the Normandy landings and had a significant impact on the forthcoming success of D-Day landings. It was a masterpiece of deception that caused chaos in the German HQ, effectively misleading the enemy as to the location of the invasion and delaying any possible German reinforcements to the Normandy landings.
In Italy, US forces captured Rome only two days earlier and were preparing for an advance towards the heavily guarded Gothic Line. In the East, the Soviet Union was planning one of the biggest operations of the Eastern Front, Operation Bagration, which would drive the Germans out of Soviet territory. The third major front was initially planned a month earlier, in early May 1944. Now scheduled on June 5, 1944, Normandy was divided into five sectors, but due to unfavorable weather conditions the invasion was delayed by yet another day.
The tension in the Allied camp could be smelled in the air. After intense bombing of the area days before, the go-ahead for D-Day was finally given for June 6, 1944. On June 6 alone, over 10,000 total tons of bombs were dropped on Normandy.
Over 500 landing crafts, almost 300 escort vessels and 300 minesweepers were in service of 132,000 soldiers set to land on the beaches in several waves. Additionally, over 20,000 paratroopers would land behind the beaches to help secure key bridges and objectives. With over 7,000 vessels in total, it was the largest invasion fleet in history.
The landing zones were divided into 5 beaches. The British contingent were responsible for the Northern most beach designated Sword and the most central beach designated Gold. The Canadians would land at Juno, which lay in between the two British landing zones. The American forces were responsible for the 2 Southernmost beaches designated as Omaha and Utah.
On the first day, Allied and German losses were each estimated above 10,000. However, by the end of the month, almost a million troops had disembarked and Operation Overlord was in full swing.
The responsibility of taking the 8km wide beach closest to the city of Caen was given to British troops with a strength of approximately 29,000 troops supported by 223 tanks. At 07:25 in the morning, the first wave of soldiers came ashore. These troops were further supported by odd-looking “Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers” (AVRE) machines and nicknamed Hobart’s Funnies by troops. These vehicles were variants of other British armor designed specifically to support landing and invasion operations.
The British invasion forces met relatively weak resistance at first. In a bit more than two hours, British engineers had cleared seven of the eight beach exits allowing the inland advance to continue.
The initial shock of the German defenders of the Atlantic Wall soon wore off and their resistance became tougher every minute. The Germans counter attacked with armored units that stalled the British in their advance toward Caen.
By the end of the day, the whole British division was on the ground, but had been stopped 6km short of their main objective. They lost almost 700 men. German losses in manpower are unknown, but 54 out of 98 Panzers were destroyed in the day’s fighting.
Simultaneously at 07:35, the Canadians set off for Juno Beach. In the opening minutes of landings, Canadians and British No. 48 Royal Marine Commando encountered rough resistance from the well-fortified German positions and took heavy casualties. Two battalions of the German 716th Infantry Division were armed with 11 155mm batteries, nine 75mm guns and protected by countless obstacles including hedgehogs, bunkers, barbed wire, and mines.
A force of over 7,700 Germans stood between the Canadians and their objective and even with significant gains made by the Canadians, the German defenders retained 80% of their strength remained after the battle.
Juno was more heavily fortified than any other landing beach. Despite all odds, the Canadians broke German resistance within two hours and secured the beach for incoming reinforcements. At the end of the day, attacking forces on Juno lost 340 KIA, almost 600 wounded and 49 captured out of 21,000 landing troops.
The Canadians were able to move farthest inland of all the invasion units on D-Day. Unfortunately, none of their objectives were accomplished on the 6th of June, nevertheless, Juno is one of the two most strategically successful landings.
The middle beach, Gold, was the target of the British. H-Hour was set at 07:25 and their main objective was to capture Bayeux and secure the road to Caen. High winds and difficult terrain delayed both landings and securing of the beach. The tides appeared earlier than anticipated and many mines were not cleared on time resulting in damage to many DD vehicles after their landing at 08:00. Many others were knocked out directly by enemy fire.
The main objective of Bayeux was captured on the following day. At days end, the British disembarked 25,000 soldiers on Gold losing 1,100. They were also able to bring 2,100 vehicles and over 1,000 tonnes of supplies ashore. German losses are unknown but estimated at 1,000 men.
Omaha was one of two beaches assigned to Americans and became the bloodiest landing zone. Around 05:30, the first LCVP’s were landing ashore loaded with over 3,000 GI’s from the first wave. Their beach was the most heavily defended as most of the German positions had been missed or unaffected by the preceding bombings.
Out of 32 DD Shermans set to land on Omaha, only 4 reached the shore. Wind, high waves, and a fast sea current prevented landing troops from disembarking in their designated areas causing chaos.
Furthermore, the Americans were trapped in a cross-fire from German machine guns, 88mm FlaK guns, and there was low visibility. Consequently, the advance moved slowly with waterlogged equipment covered in sand. The command was even considering to abort Omaha and redirect the remaining forces to Utah, but by some miracle the Americans managed to get to shore and advance.
After 10 hours of intense fighting, “Bloody Omaha” was taken. Out of the 43,000 landing troops, roughly 3,000 were killed, wounded or missing. In comparison, the German 352nd division lost over 1,100 men – about 20% of it’s strength. Only 4% of the 2100 tons of supplies scheduled for Omaha made it ashore.
The Westernmost beach was also an American responsibility. Fortunately here, landing crafts arrived on time, at H-Hour 06:30. 28 DD tanks followed the first waves shortly afterward. In contrast to Omaha, the naval and aerial bombardment of enemy positions was very effective at Utah. At 09:00, US forces moved inland. By noon, all the main strong points of the enemy were disabled.
The 4th Infantry Division also didn’t meet their objectives that day. This was mainly because they landed too far to the south, but they managed to disembark over 21,000 soldiers at a cost of only 197 men.
The next step was to link up with the 101st Airborne that was dropped behind enemy lines before dawn. Airborne troops lost over 2,500 men out of a drop strength of 14,000. At the end of the day’s operations, the Utah landing force had moved 10km inland and the 82nd Airborne had captured the strategically important crossroads at Sainte-Mère-Église.