On This Day

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CPhoM Robert F. Sargent/U.S. Coast Guard/National Archives
American soldiers disembark from a Coast Guard landing craft as they invade Omaha Beach.

On This Day: Allied Forces Invade Normandy on D-Day

June 06, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 6, 1944, American, British and Canadian forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, launching the Allied invasion of Western Europe during World War II.

The Invasion of Normandy

The Allied invasion of Normandy, code-named Operation Neptune, was the first stage of the larger Operation Overlord, intended to liberate Western Europe after nearly four years of German occupation. The start of Operation Neptune, known a D-Day, was made on June 6, 1944.

More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft carried 160,000 Allied troops across the English Channel to a 50-mile stretch of Normandy beaches, code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. The first air attack was launched under a nearly full moon shortly after midnight.

The amphibious invasion began after 5:00 a.m., as Allied soldiers disembarked from the 3,000 landing crafts and waded ashore under heavy German fire. An assault engineer described to Time magazine: “We had to work with water up to our necks, some times higher. Then there were snipers. They were nipping us off. As I was working with two blokes on a tough bit of element, I suddenly found myself working alone. My two pals just gurgled and disappeared under the water.”

The British and Canadian forces were successful in seizing Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, as were the Americans at Utah beach. However, at Omaha beach, where the German defense was strongest, American forces suffered heavy losses. Air assaults missed their mark and landing crafts were unable reached the intended destinations near the beach, leaving invading soldiers with little protection.

Though they suffered an estimated 2,500 casualties, the Americans were able to establish themselves on Omaha beach by the end of the day. In all, more than 100,000 Allied troops had reached Normandy, forcing German forces inland and opening a new theater of war in Western Europe.

Background: Planning the Normandy Invasion

Nazi Germany had controlled France since June 1940, when the defeated French government agreed to surrender and British forces retreated from Dunkirk. Britain began planning for an invasion of France in September 1941, and was joined by the United States after its entrance into the war that December.

The Allied leadership began to build up an army in Britain for a spring 1943 amphibious invasion of northern France under Operation Bolero. The target date was delayed a year, however, after a costly attack of Dieppe, France, illustrated the difficulties of such an invasion.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin pressed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to invade Europe in order to divert Nazi forces from fighting the Soviets on the Eastern Front. When the three met in late 1943, as the tide on the Eastern Front was turning in favor of the Soviets, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to launch an invasion in May 1944.

The Allied leadership, directed by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower, drafted a plan of attack and began mobilizing for the invasion. Needing lots of moonlight and a high tide for the invasion, the leaders identified two windows for D-Day: June 5-7 and June 18-20.

Bad weather forced the initial target of June 5 to be pushed back; in the early morning hours of June 5, with the possibility of the invasion being forced back another two weeks, Allied commanders decided that the weather forecast for June 6 was good enough to launch the mission. Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in charge of the defense of Normandy, believed that a potential invasion could not be carried out under such weather conditions and went home for his wife’s birthday.

The Allies were able to keep the location of the invasion obscured, preventing the Germans from concentrating their forces at Normandy. The Allies placed dummy tanks and ships near Pas-de-Calais—located east of Normandy—and leaked information about an invasion led by U.S. Gen. George S. Patton.

“The Germans became so convinced that the Pas de Calais would be the Allied target that they held to the fiction until long after the actual attack had begun,” writes the Army Center of Military History. “As a result, nineteen powerful enemy divisions, to include important panzer reserves, stood idle on the day of the invasion, awaiting an assault that never came.”

The Fighting in Western Europe

The successful invasion of Normandy was just the start of Allied fighting in Western Europe. It would take three months before the Allies drove the Nazis across the Seine River and were able to liberate Paris. Intense fighting continued into the fall and winter, as the Allies gradually forced the Nazis out of France and Belgium and back into Germany.

PBS provides a timeline of the War in Europe, which ended in May 1945. The U.S. Army Center of Military History provides detailed accounts of the three major operations after Operation Overlord: the Lorraine Campaign, the Siegfried Line Campaign and the Battle of the Bulge.

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