2014 marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allies’ invasion of occupied Europe by air and sea. Hundreds of thousands of Allied troops breached the Atlantic Wall on 6 June 1944; tens of thousands were lost in the ensuing battle for Normandy. Steadily, a foothold was established in France and in the subsequent months, the Allies fought their way deeper into occupied Europe. The success of the operation was not inevitable. In this, the first part of an extensive series of articles, Elliott Marsh looks at the background to the invasion, and profiles GAR’s plans to mark the anniversary throughout the year.
Codenamed Operation OVERLORD, the Allied invasion of Normandy on ‘D-Day’, 6 June 1944, was the largest military invasion in history. Logistically, OVERLORD was a behemoth, incorporating tens of thousands of troops, vessels and aircraft, focusing the Allies’ full military might on Normandy in an attempt to breach the heavily fortified Atlantic Wall that stretched along the European coastline.
Throughout 2014, GAR will be publishing a series of articles looking at the role Allied air power played in the D-Day invasion, tracking the major effort to disable Germany’s military and industrial might in France and Germany from winter 1944 to 6 June and beyond, as well as taking an in-depth look at each of the beaches and drop zones in Normandy. We’ll also be looking at what modern day historic aircraft operators and airshow organisers will be doing to mark the 70th anniversary – more on that soon.
A number of the GAR team will also be visiting the battle grounds of Normandy for one week in April, and will then return to France early on 6 June itself, retracing the route taken by the British Armed Forces from Porstmouth to Sword Beach, 70 years to the day. We will then be reporting on the official commemorations across Normandy, providing extensive coverage of the key events throughout the summer.
By Spring 1944, Europe had been at war for almost five years. America had entered the European Theatre of Operations in 1942, beginning major operations the following year with daylight raids by heavy bombers, which, combined with the RAF’s night bombing raids, were steadily wearing down the German war machine. Plans to launch an Allied invasion of Europe were discussed just one month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt agreed upon a core strategy to first defeat Germany, before turning the full attention of both nations to Japan. Whilst the Americans manufactured huge numbers of weapons and armour, the UK and USA battled Germany in the European theatre both at sea, during the Battle of the Atlantic, and by air, during the assault on fortress Europe by the US Eighth Army Air Force and the RAF.
An Allied assault on the north-western coast of Europe wasn’t a tactic favoured by the British; breaching the complex German defences along the Atlantic Wall would be a massive undertaking, and one which would be pivotal to the success of any operation. General Erwin Rommel’s forces had built defensive fortifications on every French beach which was open to seaborne assault, laying extensive obstacles and minefields, both inland and along the beaches themselves, whilst machine gun nests and bunkers gave the Germans a solid base of fire from which to repel invaders, in some cases from an elevated position.
In order to gain a foothold in Europe by this method would require the Allies to storm the French beaches, overcome the defensive forces and establish a foothold in northern France whilst supplies crossed the English Channel to reinforce the units at the beach head, in order to push further inland. Any airborne attack would also have to overcome flooded fields and the anti-glider wires located throughout the countryside.
The British preference for an invasion in the Mediterranean region contrasted with America’s determination to invade Germany and free occupied Europe, thus ending the war, as an absolute priority. Direct action was favoured, and whilst the failed Dieppe raid and America’s struggle against the Japanese during recent invasions in the Pacific influenced the planning of the operation, a direct assault on the French coastline was still deemed to be the most effective route into occupied Europe.
Planning for the invasion of Europe intensified throughout 1943 under the command of Lieutenant General Frederick Morgan and, latterly, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Normandy, in the Bay of Seine, was chosen in July 1943 as the location for the invasion, favoured for its tactical naval advantage (the Cotentin Peninsula sheltering Normandy from the prevailing south-westerly winds that could prove catastrophic for any naval forces in the English Channel) and proximity to the two major ports at Cherbourg and Le Havre, the former of which the Allies were confident could be liberated within two weeks of the landings.
Throughout 1943 and Spring 1944, American forces had been mustering in the UK under the codename Operation Bolero, and, by June 1944, southern England was home to more than two million American and over 250,000 Canadian troops, together with tens of thousands of aircraft, tanks and weapons. British ports were rammed with vessels transporting military supplies to the UK from mainland USA, up until the eve of the invasion itself. The participating military divisions underwent extensive seaborne landing training, much of which was conducted along the Scottish coast, as far away as possible from Axis forces.
All the while, the Allies strove to mislead the Germans into believing an invasion was imminent further along the French coast to the east; mock army camps were erected in the Kent countryside, with thousands of dummy aircraft and vehicles giving the impression of a mass troop build up, presumably for an invasion fleet to be launched against Pas de Calais from Kentish ports. This elaborate deception worked, and the Germans positioned the 15th Army – its strongest military might – in the Pas de Calais. The 7th Army, meanwhile, would defend Normandy; whilst the 7th presented an undeniably formidable force, one has to surmise that had the 15th Army been positioned in Normandy at the time of Operation OVERLORD, the outcome of the invasion may have been very different indeed.
Allied air power played a vital role in weakening the German coastal defences, with north-western France being the target of World War Two’s largest aerial offensive. The Allies’ Combined Bomber Offensive fought to reduce German air supremacy over the Normandy coast, whilst flying enough diversionary sorties by way of similar coastal attacks to confuse the Germans as to the exact location of the D-Day landings. The offensive was also essential to the suppression of Germany’s ability to launch a counter attack and reinforce its defences once the invasion began, and saw the decimation of roads, railways and communications.
In the lead up to D-Day, German aircraft losses were as heavy as 2,000 per month, with the Luftwaffe fighters scrambled to intercept American daylight bombers themselves falling prey to the likes of the P-51 Mustang, P-47 Thunderbolt and P-38 Lightning. This persistent action ensured that the Normandy beach head went unmolested on 6 June. Inland, railways within a 150 mile radius of the beachhead were put out of action, with Allied forces flying 22,000 sorties against the rail network, dropping 66,000 tons of ordnance in the process. Many bridges in the Normandy region were also targeted the hinder reinforcement by road. A further 2,500 sorties were flown against German coastal batteries in the invasion area in the two and a half months preceding 6 June.
Reconnaissance aircraft also played a vital role from the outset of the planning for Operation OVERLORD, with beaches, landing zones, drop zones, airfields, military installations, batteries, and all manner of strategically important targets being heavily photographed at both high and low level. From 1 April until D-Day, almost 5,000 reconnaissance sorties were flown by Allied aircraft. All the while, the deception had to be maintained – any overflight of Normandy had to be supplemented by overflights of other key invasion sites. The Operation had largely been a success, but it came at a tremendous cost. More than 12,000 Allied airmen had been killed in action during approximately 200,000 sorties, and almost 2,000 aircraft had been lost. Their sacrifice was certainly not in vain.
The invasion itself would see Allied forces making a seaborne invasion on five beaches, spread across a 40 miles front, with five divisions launching the first wave of attacks, followed by a further four divisions within the 24 hours immediately after D-Day. The American forces, based in the west of the UK, would assault the most westerly beaches, codenamed Omaha and Utah, on either side of the River Vire estuary. The British and Canadian beaches, codenamed Gold, Juno and Sword, were further east, covering the coastline as far as Caen. Securing the flanks of either side of the beachhead would be British and American airborne divisions dropped by parachute and glider, to counter a German flanking manoeuvre which could lead to the eventual encirclement of the Allied invasion forces on the beaches.
D-Day was initially set for 5 June, but terrible weather in the Channel saw it postponed for 24 hours; to delay further could see the invasion put back until July. On 4 June, Eisenhower met with his commanders to receive a meteorological update which confirmed that the weather was due to clear for a very short window over the night of 5 June, into 6 June, before a low front was set to role in once again. Against the prospects of postponing the invasion for another month, Eisenhower had little choice but the give the order to launch on 6 June.
A previous attempted invasion of occupied Europe, on 18 August 1942, saw two thirds of a 6,000 strong force dead, wounded or captured as prisoners of war, when the joint British and Canadian raid at Dieppe was repelled with disastrous effect. This failure, coupled with memories of the disastrous Allied landings at Gallipoli some 29 years earlier, haunted Churchill, who bid his wife goodnight in the early hours of 6 June 1944 with the chilling words, “Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 men may have been killed?”.
Churchill’s reservations were felt elsewhere in the Allied camp; Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke, wrote in his diary, “…it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over”. Late on the evening of 5 June, Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, visited paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Divison and returned to his quarters bereft. Eisenhower had written a letter accepting full responsibility for the possible disaster on D-Day, anticipating the invasion’s failure in light of the tremendous odds faced by the Allied invasion forces.
On the eve of invasion, King George VI addressed Great Britain:
“I desire solemnly to call my people to prayer and dedication. We shall ask, not that God may do our will, but that we may be enabled to do the will of God; and we dare to believe that God has used our nation and Empire as an instrument to fulfill His high purpose. I hope that throughout the present crisis of the liberation of Europe there may be offered up earnest, continuous, and widespread prayer… At this historic moment surely not one of us is too busy, too young or too old to play a part in a nation-wide, perchance a world-wide, vigil of prayer as the great crusade sets forth.”
It began in the early hours of 6 June; D-Day. RAF bombers initiated a diversionary tactic by dropping chaff in the Pas de Calais as part of Operation BODYGUARD, simulating the radar profile of a massed invasion fleet – BODYGUARD also saw similar operations being carried out across Europe to further confuse the Germans as to the location of the invasion. Further west, Operation NEPTUNE was assembled in the English Channel, with over 7,000 vessels and approaching 200,000 personnel moving towards the Normandy coastline.
The first troops to set foot in Normandy were the British 6th, American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, landing behind enemy lines to secure the flanks of the beachhead. In the east, British gliders secured the Pegasus and Horsa Bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River, targets of key strategic importance, and others disabled the Merville battery which provided fire cover to the defensive forces at Sword Beach. The 6th Airborne Divison’s paratroopers continued the assault, establishing a protective rink around the eastern flank to defend the invasion forces against a German counter attack.
To the west, the American forces encountered stronger resistance, with heavy cloud cover and flak combining to scatter the paratroopers over an area of 1,000 square miles. However, this served to aid the invasion forces about to hit the Normandy beaches, as it caused confusion for the German defenders and helped to divide the enemy forces between the beachhead and inland.
At 0500, an immense naval bombardment began, firing on German defences along some 50 miles of coastline. At Pointe du Hoc, American Rangers assaulted the 100 foot vertical cliffs to disable the German guns which could fire on Utah and Omaha beach, in one of the most heroic and bloodiest engagements of the invasion. American forces landed first at Utah beach, suffering fewer casualties than the Allies had anticipated, whilst the 1st and 29th Divisions assaulted the beach at Omaha without armour support (the artillery support having floundered in the Channel).
The carnage at Omaha continued long into the morning, with thousands of American casualties suffered at the hands of relentless shelling and machine gun fire from the elevated defences. General Omar Bradley, US operational commander, had radioed Eisenhower requesting permission to evacuate the beach head at Omaha, but his call was lost in the radio traffic until after the American forces had overcome the defences, at a terrible cost.
Further east, British and Canadian forces fared well on Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches, supported by the 79th Armoured Division’s seaborne assault vehicles. Heavy casualties were suffered but the defences were overcome and Allied forces advanced inland to secure the beachhead; a late evening counter-attack by the 21st Panzer Division was fought back by Allied ground and air forces, and by nightfall on 6 June, the Allies held a steady foothold in Normandy. Once again, the dominance of the RAF and USAAF over Normandy proved essential to the success of Operation OVERLORD.
By the end of 6 June, around 156,000 Allied troops had landed in occupied France, breaching Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall along the Normandy coastline by sea and air. The statistics themselves make for staggering reading, with American forces numbering 73,000 and British forces, 83,115. Joining the British, Americans and Canadians were troops from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Poland.
Supporting this huge invasion seaborne force were 11,590 Allied aircraft, as well as a large force of almost 1,000 gliders from the RAF and US Army Air Force. The Allied Air Forces flew more than 14,500 sorties on D-Day, losing 127 aircraft. Whilst the Luftwaffe was largely absent, air support for the invasion was vital, be it through fighter sweeps over the beach head, fleet defence, ground attack, bombing, photo reconnaissance, battlefield liaison or transport and troop carrying.
The invasion came as a surprise to the Germans – it had been positioned within a small window between bad weather, and none of the German high command anticipated an invasion on 6 June. Rommel himself had left for Germany early on 5 June to celebrate his wife’s birthday, whilst the 21st Panzer Division’s commander was on leave in Paris, visiting his mistress.
The lines of communication had been so badly weakened that the German Army was unable to call into power its strongest forces – the armour held in the Falaise gap – for a counter attack without Hitler’s approval; unable to reach the Führer, any such counter strike was delayed to the extent that it came too late to halt the Allied advance into occupied France.
At 1800 on 6 June, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons for the second time and announced the success of the Normandy invasion:
“The airborne troops are well established, and the landings and the follow-ups are all proceeding with much less loss – very much less – than we expected. Fighting is in progress at various points. We captured various bridges which were of importance, and which were not blown up. There is even fighting proceeding in the town of Caen, inland. But all this, although a very valuable first step – a vital and essential first step – gives no indication of what may be the course of the battle in the next days and weeks, because the enemy will now probably endeavour to concentrate on this area, and in that event heavy fighting will soon begin and will continue without end, as we can push troops in and he can bring other troops up. It is, therefore, a most serious time that we enter upon. Thank God, we enter upon it with our great Allies all in good heart and all in good friendship.”
Five days later, D + 5, the Allies had landed a staggering 326,547 toops, 54,186 vehicles and 104,428 tonnes of supplies on the Normandy beach head. The Battle of Normandy was well underway, and on its success rested the Allies’ eventual victory in Europe. It was an operation like no other in history and 70 years on, we look back with awe and gratitude for all those who partook in the ‘Day of Days’, and the struggle to seize a foothold during the Battle of Normandy and beyond over the summer of 1944.
GAR’s major undertaking to cover the 70th anniversary of detail in depth will hopefully provide some historical context to this year’s commemorations, shining a spotlight firmly on the men and women who fought to topple the Third Reich 70 years ago, and those who today strive to honour the past.