General Dwight Eisenhower had been made Allied Supreme Commander of the forces planning for D-Day. Allies were lined up and included Great Britain, Canada, the United States, Free France and Poland. Parts of France had already capitulated to the Germans in 1940 and were occupied by the enemy. At least six months of intensive training, assimilation of forces and war materials, planning and top secrecy went into the preparation of this massive invasion of the Normandy Beachhead of France. The English Channel was the division line that had to be crossed from England to the beach on the French coast.
Operation Overlord was the overall name for the offensive attack. Two major phases were planned. The airborne assault was to land 24,000 British, Canadian, American and Free French troops shortly after midnight by parachute. The amphibious divisions were to land 195,700 naval and merchant naval personnel from over 5,000 ships. These soldiers and sailors were to cross the English Channel from the United Kingdom and were assigned specifically to a fifty-mile stretch of Normandy Beach. Due to inclement weather the assault had to be delayed, but still the weather played an important role.
General Eisenhower’s message sent to all the Allied Expeditionary Forces stated: “You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months.” In his pocket was another note to be read if the invasion failed. Fortunately for the allies, that note did not have to be read. June 6, 1944 arrived, and early in the morning airborne troops were the first wave, followed by seaborne troops at 6:30 a. m.
June 4 had been set as the launch day, but weather and tides delayed the operation two days. A full moon was needed for illumination and a spring tide was necessary for landing along Normandy Beach. The Germans thought the weather would prevent any invasion and had let down their guard somewhat, but chief allied meteorologist Captain J. M. Stagg, General Bernard Montgomery and Chief of Staff Walter Bedelle advised General Eisenhower to proceed on June 6. The German army was scattered and was only about 50% strong at the time of the invasion. This did not mean that the enemy was not still formidable; they were. But weather conditions, surprise and strength of the offensive contributed to the victory at Normandy.
The British Second Army with 83,000 troops landed at Sword, Juno and Gold. The US First Army with 73,000 soldiers, including 15,600 paratroopers, landed at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. Omaha Beach was the most strongly fortified of any of those attacked. General Omar Bradley thought of abandoning the attack, but decided to stick with it, reinforce and expand operations, and struggled for survival and rescue.
At Utah Beach, the troop landing was off course and instead of debarking at Tare Green as planned, they went westward to Uncle Red and went ashore at a place they called the Victor sector. Maybe the name was prophetic, for we lost fewer troops at Utah Beach than any of the Normandy offensives. Only 197 Americans lost their lives there. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. said, upon finding they were not at their targeted landing: “We will start the war from right here.” And that they did. They had great success in conquering the Utah Beach section of Normandy.
The story was somewhat sadder for Americans at a place called Pointe du Hoc. German gun placements were atop 100-feet high cliffs there. They had to scale the cliffs in the dark with ropes and ladders at 5:30 in the morning. After two days of hard fighting, 60% of the men who had landed were among the dead.
The fighting from June 6, 1944 through June 30, 1944 required great bravery. In 24 days the allies gained a firm foothold in Normandy. In all the annals of war history, the Normandy Beachhead landing was the largest amphibious and air landing before or since in history.
The casualties were extremely heavy for Americans and Allied troops. Many tourists now visit the beaches of Normandy to view the cemeteries with white crosses marking the graves of those who lost their lives and noted battlefields where thousands fell. Streets in towns are named for battles. A Museum of Peace is located at Coen. And in memory we recall the ultimate price for freedom thousands paid at the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in Operation Overlord.
c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 2, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.