70 years ago on this very day thousands of allied soldiers, airmen and sailors embarked upon the invasion of mainland Europe to free it from Nazi tyranny. For 4 years, France and the rest of Western Europe had been under Nazi control and had seen their lands stripped of their goods and their people taken in slavery as the Nazis took whatever they needed to continue the war against the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
After so many years of war, the Allies and the Soviets knew that an invasion of France was the best and fastest way to end the war with Germany, but to take on the German army on mainland Europe was no easy task. The most difficult task was to establish a strong enough beachhead so that when the troops landed, they would not be thrown back into the sea by a German counter-attack. They also faced the obstacle of landing the troops on the beach itself, ensuring tanks and amphibious vehicles could traverse the terrain on the beaches selected for the invasion. They also needed to find a way so that the forces used for the landing could actually overcome the beach defences and they needed to gather enough supplies to launch the invasion and then keep up the flow of supplies after that. In short, the task was enormous.
In 1943 the Canadians had raided a coastal port town called Dieppe, in France. The Canadians had landed troops and tanks, but the operation had been a total failure. The tanks could not get off the beach due to the nature of the terrain whilst the defences had been far too strong. It gave the allies the valuable lessons that they needed to learn in order to attack a beach and be successful with seaborne troops.
Another aspect of the landings was airborne troops. In Italy the allies had used paratroopers to land behind the enemy lines in order to cause confusion and to seize bridges and other strategic points in order to stop the Germans from fortifying them. Whilst losses had been high, it was deemed a success and was seen as vital for any invasion of France. Another decision was of course where to land? The Germans had heavily fortified the coastal areas of northern and western Europe creating Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’, but the allies needed somewhere that was relatively close to Berlin, to save them slogging their way through France the whole war. To land in Germany or Denmark was ruled out, France was decided upon, but with two possibilities. Calais, the shortest crossing for ships and planes from England to France, or Normandy. As Calais seemed too obvious and was bound to be heavily guarded, Normandy became first choice, although the allies went to great lengths to make the Germans think that Calais was the real target, even creating a fake army with cardboard tanks and putting the famous General Patton in charge to fool the Germans.
Normandy was to be the landing ground and it was decided that American Field Marshall Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who had led the Americans in North Africa, would plan it. Five beaches were decided upon, two would be taken by the Americans, one by the Canadians and the other two by the British. From Left to right (or West to East) they were named Utah (American), Omaha (American), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian) and Sword (British). The British, landing closer to the main German forces in the East, were expected to bare the brunt of the German counter-attack if there was to be one, whilst it was believed that the Americans were given the easier of the beaches. The British General Montgomery who was in command of the land forces, believed the more experienced British troops should face the main German forces in the East facing the strategic Norman city of Caen, whilst the less experienced Americans were given the task of breaking through the weaker German forces in the west.
Everything was set, two American and one British airborne divisions lay ready to launch their attack the night before the main landing, they flew off into the night on June 5th, D-Day -1. Whilst the invasion fleet waited off shore in the horrendous weather of the English channel where sea sickness made most men eager to step foot onto dry land, even if it was to be greeted by bullets.
The airborne troops began to drop in the night, the first troopers hitting the ground being a group of British glider troops who crash landed along side two bridges in order to capture them, one that would come to be named Pegasus Bridge. These Bridges were important because they were the only crossings over a river and a canal to the East of the landing beaches. If the Germans were to counter attack, the route the Panzers would take would be directly over those bridges.
Here the British soldiers sprinted across the bridge attacking the German positions, firing their guns from their hips as they ran. It was here that the first allied soldier of the invasion lost his life, Den Brotheridge who was shot in the neck and fatally wounded, died as comrades took the bridge and completed their mission. Further west, the Americans landed into carnage as their planes, experiencing much heavier flak than first believed, attempted to evade the heavy flak put up by the Germans. The manoeuvres attempted by the allied pilots meant that American paratroopers were being dropped in the wrong places, although this served to help the allies as the German became confused when they began to find soldiers from different units all across the Cotentin Peninsula. Although just like their British counterparts in the East, the Americans captured their objectives and inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, although the paratroopers themselves lost many men in the first few hours of battle, some being shot as they hit the ground, others drowning in fields that had been flooded by the Germans. Many a paratrooper that had gotten tangled in a tree or on a house was bayoneted by German soldiers, but the paratroopers soon found vengeance, eventually earning the nickname ‘Devil’s with baggy trousers’, a reference to the large trousers with huge pockets that the paratroopers wore in order to carry more supplies.
As the sun rose on June 6th 1944, the Germans and other axis troops looked out at sea, and to their horror, saw the vast armada that would be the largest invasion ever in human history. With that came shelling from the allied battleships, smashing to pieces bunkers and gun emplacements. Next came a bombing run from bombers taking off from England, but with the bombers fearing they would hit the troops in the ships, they dropped them too far away from the beaches to cause any damage. Next it was the soldiers turn. The British had engineered swimming tanks so that when the troopers landed on the beaches they would have some cover and fire support. On most beaches this worked very effectively as the tanks took out many of the defences left standing. But at Omaha beach the tanks were sent out far too early and nearly all sunk, leaving the troops alone. When the Americans landed, they were faced with a more or less bare beach for 300 yards (275 metres), after that was a small sand embankment, and then dominating the beaches were huge bluffs with concrete bunkers built into them. As the men poured out of their landing crafts, German fire decimated the ranks of soldiers who had no cover and no option but to continue to run towards the bunkers. The Canadians also faced an incredibly tough time as they advanced, but with outstanding training and determination all allied troopers managed to overcome the Germans on every beach. They next began to move inland to link up with the paratroopers.
Many believe that success on D-Day was a forgone conclusion, but it really wasn’t. Any seaborne landing is a gamble, especially as the forces get bigger and bigger. Considering D-Day involved nearly 130,000 – 150,000 men, the stakes were enormous. The weather played a vital part, if the sea had been too rough then no tanks would have gotten ashore, let alone the troopers as they would have struggled out of their ships almost paralysed from sea sickness. Also planes with the paratroopers would not have been able to take off if cloud covered the drop zones making targeting for the pilots impossible. If the paratroopers had failed in their missions when dropped then the Germans could have strengthened their forces and rushed up their panzers, if they had gotten to the beaches, then the landing force would have been decimated. The fact that it succeeded gives credit to the training that all forces received, the intelligence that was gathered and the ingenuity employed by the Allies to overcome the obstacles of a sea-borne invasion.
Although D-Day was a victory for the Allies, the campaign in Normandy was to be a brutal greeting back into France for the Allies as the Germans fought tenaciously to keep the Allies from breaking out. For nearly two months the Allies fought a horrendous war of attrition against some of the best German units available (The Soviets attempted to claim that they were still fighting the best German units in the East, but this was not true, Hitler firmly believed the war would be decided in the west and had sent the majority of the SS and top panzer divisions to Normandy). But the allies, with the assistance of their power in the air and the quality of the troops and equipment they had, were able to overcome the Germans and drive them out of Western Europe.
Written by Jonny Morris