The D-Day landing of June 6, 1944, ranks as the boldest and most successful large-scale invasion in military history.
On June 6, as Operation Overlord went forward, roughly 160,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel, supported by seven thousand ships and boats, and landed on the coast of Normandy.The seaborne invasion included nearly 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels, and 277 minesweepers. They established a beachhead from which the Germans were unable to dislodge them. Within ten days, there were half a million troops ashore, and within three weeks there were two million.
D-Day planning involved significant staging operations of thousands of troops. In the first week of May 1944, massive troop movements occurred throughout Great Britain. From England itself as well as Scotland, Wales, the Midlands, and Northern Ireland, regiments, divisions, and corps were assembled in pre-invasion staging areas.
The logistics of planning for moving hundreds of thousands of men and almost half a million vehicles were enormous. Each division went to a designated staging area along England’s south coast. The areas were labeled ‘‘sausages,’’ for their elongated shape; each was surrounded by a wire fence patrolled by military police. Security was tight; no one could get in or out without written permission. Yet if the troops felt confined and resented the order against warming fires, conditions were tolerable. They ate better than almost anyone in the United Kingdom; steaks, eggs, pies, even ice cream were abundant. The task of feeding so many men was a major chore, and the U.S. Army produced some four thousand newly trained cooks to meet the need.
By one reckoning nearly 175,000 soldiers were housed, largely under canvas and camouflage netting. The staging areas were crammed with supplies and equipment, and there was plenty to do. New weapons were issued to assault troops; vehicles and equipment were waterproofed; final organization and tactics were confirmed.
The buildup to D-Day was undertaken by Operation Bolero, a logistical effort of unprecedented magnitude. Sailing on now-secure sea routes, the U.S. Navy and merchant marine took 1,200,000 troops to Britain, where hundreds of camps and bases were established and supplied with everything from chewing gum to bombers. Britain’s existing infrastructure was inadequate to support the massive effort, so a thousand locomotives and twenty thousand freight cars were shipped from the United States, plus material for hundreds of miles of additional rail lines. Transatlantic shipments increased to the point that some 1,900,000 tons of supplies reached Britain in May 1944 alone, showing the scale of logistics.
The manpower required to meet the needs was enormous. Less than one-fourth of the Allied troops in France were in combat units, and only about 20 percent served as infantrymen. A four- or five-to-one ‘‘tail to tooth’’ ratio was not unusual in other theaters of war, either. In mechanized warfare, fuel and oil were essential to success, and Allied logisticians solved the problem of adequate petroleum supply. They designed and built the Pipeline under the Ocean (PLUTO) to pump the lifeblood of tanks, trucks, and all other motor vehicles directly to Normandy.
Other innovative projects involved prefabricated piers called Mulberries and block ships. The latter were twenty-eight merchant vessels intentionally sunk to provide breakwaters for artificial piers (leading to sunken treasures off the coast of Normandy still being found today). Most were old, worn-out vessels dating from as early as 1919, though a few were 1943 Liberty ships. In all, 326 cargo ships were involved, including two hundred American vessels.
With thirty-six divisions eventually on the continent, the Allies needed twenty thousand tons of food, fuel, ammunition, and equipment every day.
Allied training was a vast endeavor, stretching from North America to southern England. Firing ranges were at a premium, as space was needed for practice-firing weapons from rifles to naval gunnery and antiaircraft guns. However, the emphasis was upon amphibious operations, and some facilities had been in use long before June 1944.
Perhaps the most notable facility used by the British armed forces was the Combined Operations Training Center at Inverary, on the west coast of Scotland. It was established in 1940, originally to prepare for commando operations, but expanded when British amphibious doctrine shifted from large-scale raids to actual invasion. Later bases in southern England included Culbin Sands and Burghead Bay, in the area where the invasion fleet would assemble.
The U.S. Army set up at least eight training centers prior to D-Day, most notably at Woolacombe Beach, Devonshire (See Assault Training Center). Because of its topographical similarity to Normandy, the Slapton Sands region of the south coast was selected for amphibious rehearsals, leading to the disastrous Operation Tiger in April.
In the U.S. Army an infantry regiment was composed of three battalions, each with three rifle companies, a headquarters company, and a heavy weapons company. In early 1944 personnel strength was typically 150 officers and three thousand men. An airborne regiment consisted of 115 officers and 1,950 men. By 1944 U.S. armored divisions had three tank battalions rather than the previous two regiments. An armored battalion typically possessed forty officers and seven hundred men, with fifty-three Sherman medium tanks and seventeen Stuart light tanks.
The infantry regiments assaulting Utah and Omaha beaches were:
- First Division: Sixteenth, Eighteenth, Twenty-sixth Regiments (Omaha).
- Fourth Division: Eighth, Twelfth, Twenty-second Regiments (Utah).
- Twenty-ninth Division: 115th, 116th, 175th Regiments (Omaha).
Airborne infantry regiments descending on Normandy were:
- Eighty-second Division: 505th, 507th, 508th, 325th Glider.
- 101st Division: 501st, 502d, 506th, 327th Glider.
The regimental system was deeply ingrained in the British army, with some units tracing their lineage back three hundred years. For instance, the King’s Own Scottish Borders in the Third Division had been established in 1689. However, owing to varying overseas service and the inevitable need to mix and match for specific operations, few British regiments fought as such. The situation was further complicated by the fact that many regiments possessed only one or two battalions. Consequently, a British brigade usually was of regimental strength, with unrelated battalions serving together. In 1940 a full-strength British infantry brigade consisted of seventy-five officers and 2,400 men.
The following British and Canadian regiments landed on Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches:
Third Division: Eighth Brigade (First Battalion, Suffolk Regiment; First Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment; Second Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment); Ninth Brigade (First Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers; Second Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment; Second Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles); 185th Brigade (First Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment; Second Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment; Second Battalion, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry).
Fiftieth Division: Sixty-ninth Brigade (Fifth Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment; Sixth and Seventh Battalions, Green Howards); 151st Brigade (Sixth, Eighth, Ninth Battalions, Durham Light Infantry); 231st Brigade (First Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment; First Battalion, Hampshire Regiment; Second Battalion, Devonshire Regiment).
Third Canadian Division: Seventh Brigade (Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Regina Rifle Regiment, First Battalion Canadian Scottish Regiment); Eighth Brigade (Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada; North Shore, New Brunswick, Regiment; Le Regiment de la Chaudière); Ninth Brigade (Highland Light Infantry; North Nova Scotia Highlanders; Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders).
Sixth Airborne Division: Third Parachute Brigade (Eighth and Ninth Battalions, Parachute Regiment; First Canadian Parachute Battalion); Fifth Parachute Brigade (Seventh Light Infantry Battalion; Twelfth Yorkshire Battalion; Thirteenth Lancashire Battalion); Sixth Air Landing Brigade (Twelfth Battalion, Devonshire Regiment; Second Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry; First Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles).
By 1944 the German army fielded several types of infantry and armored divisions, and therefore different types of regiments. There were maneuver regiments and static (defensive) regiments, plus panzer, panzer grenadier (mechanized infantry), and parachute regiments. A representative infantry regiment had forty-five officers and 1,800 men, while a panzer regiment typically had seventy officers and 1,700 men, with a battalion of Mark IVs, and a battalion of Panthers. Panzergrenadier regiments might field ninety officers, 3,100 men, and 525 vehicles. The authorized strength of parachute regiments closely resembled grenadier units—ninety-six officers and 3,100 men.
However, all the foregoing figures were according to formal tables of organization. In reality the German army fought under-strength and with less equipment than authorized at least from 1942 onward.
Allied airborne divisions played a critical role in securing strategic points prior to D-Day.
On the night of 5–6 June, Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division air-assaulted into Normandy, securing beach exits from St. Martin to Pouppeville. On D+1 the 506th pushed southward from Cauloville and encountered stiff resistance near St. Come-sur-Mont. The next day, the 8th, the division engaged in the battle for Carentan, with the 502d fighting steadily along the causeway over the next two days. On the 11th the 502d Parachute and 327th Glider Infantry (reinforced with elements of the 401st) pushed the Germans into the outskirts of Carentan, permitting the 506th to occupy the city on the 12th, D+6.
The inevitable German counterattacks were repelled over the next two weeks, at which time the Screaming Eagles were relieved by the Eighty-third Infantry Division. In Normandy the division sustained 4,480 casualties, including 546 known dead, 1,907 missing (many of whom later turned up), and 2,217 wounded.
Overhead, the Eighth Air Force contributed 1,361 four-engine heavy bombers to support the landings on June 6. By now, the USSTAF boasted fifty-nine bombardment groups and more than 2,800 four-engine bombers, four times the number of a year earlier. Meanwhile, the combined efforts of the fighter commands of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces flew nearly four thousand fighter sorties on D-Day alone. These came after seventeen thousand heavy bomber sorties and fifteen thousand fighter sorties during May.
Concurrently, over the objections of his Anglo-American air officers, Eisenhower had transferred operational control of the four-engine heavy bomber assets from the Combined Bomber Offensive to SHAEF. During the weeks leading up to Overlord, the primary air mission was no longer strategic, but tactical. The idea was to “isolate the battlefield” by destroying the transportation network leading to northern France as well as the infrastructure supporting Luftwaffe operations there.
The plan worked. The battlefield had been isolated. Overhead, the fruits of Operation Argument and the Combined Bomber Offensive were also evident. The once-powerful Luftwaffe was virtually absent from the skies over Normandy. The air superiority over the invasion beaches, which had long been considered the vital prerequisite to Operation Overlord, had been achieved.
Overlord remains one of the classic examples of effective strategic deception. Allied planners worked tirelessly to mislead the Germans about the intended landing zone, attempting to focus their attention on the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy. False radio transmissions from a nonexistent army ‘‘led’’ by Lt. Gen. George S. Patton constituted one example of signals intelligence inserted to conceal the Allies’ actual troop strength. Other means included compromising every German intelligence agent in Britain, ‘‘turning’’ the enemy spies and forcing them to send misleading reports to their handlers. Those efforts were successful; by May 1944 Berlin was convinced that the U.S. Army had seventy-nine divisions in Great Britain compared to fifty-two actually deployed there. These actions were collectively known as Operation Titanic
Allied planners employed subtlety in leaking some schemes to the Germans. One example was the Zeppelin Plan, which theoretically called for a major offensive from Italy into the Balkans in the event that Overlord was canceled or delayed. As is often the case in military planning, Zeppelin was ‘‘modified’’ in May 1944 to target southern France, employing false radio traffic, double agents, and genuine requests for information or support from neutral nations. However, Zeppelin largely failed to convince German headquarters that the blow would fall anywhere but the Channel coast.
Among physical deception methods was the creation of thousands of imitation vehicles and aircraft, all located so as to convince the Germans that the invasion would occur in the Pas de Calais. Between them, the Royal Engineers and their American counterparts created tanks, trucks, artillery, and aircraft, which were arrayed in marshaling areas near ports on the east coast of England. Rubber decoys could be inflated by compressed air, while others were quickly assembled from wood and canvas. A ‘‘fighter squadron’’ of twenty-four airplanes could be built by a platoon of engineers in two weeks, including imitation hangars and support equipment.
Operation Titanic caused widespread confusion among German forces when rubber dummies were dropped throughout Normandy. Generically named ‘‘Rupert,’’ the imitation paratroopers added to the uncertainty already established the night of 5–6 June, when genuine airborne forces were landed far from their intended drop zones. Consequently, the defenders had no clear picture of what the opening moves of Overlord would be.
A ten-mile stretch between Omaha Beach to the west and Juno to the east, Gold was divided into sectors H, I, J, and K, with the main landing areas being Jig Green and Red plus King Green and Red. It was one of the largest of the landing beaches. Gold was assaulted by the British Fiftieth (Northumberland) Infantry Division and 47 Royal Marine Commando in the Item sector. Two good-sized towns fronting Gold Beach were La Rivère and Le Hamel, but the major objective was Arromanches at the west end, selected as the site of one of the Mulberry piers, meant to improve Allied logistics as soon after the landings as possible.
Gold Beach was held by elements of the 716th Infantry Division, with the 726th and 915th Regiments deployed north and east of Bayeux. However, they included a large proportion of Ost truppen, Poles and Russians who had been conscripted to serve in the Wehrmacht. A battery of four 155 mm guns was sited about half a mile inland.
Smallest of the D-Day beaches, Juno covered two miles between Gold Beach to the west and Sword to the east. Its three sectors were designated L, M, and N. The primary sectors were Nan Red, White, and Green to the east and Mike Red and White to the west.
Allied planners were concerned about a reef and reported shoals, which required a high tide landing at 0745, later than the other beaches. As it developed, the ‘‘shoals’’ were accumulated banks of seaweed and probably would have posed little problem to most landing craft.
Juno was ‘‘the Canadian beach,’’ seized by the Third Canadian Infantry Division. Like Gold, it was held by elements of the German 716th Infantry Division’s 736th Regiment plus the 440th Ost (Eastern) Battalion, composed of Russians and Poles. Initial resistance was fierce; one-third of the landing craft struck mines, and nearly half of the Canadian casualties occurred in the first hour.
Omaha was the most heavily defended of all the beaches; its bunkers, fighting positions, and obstacles were intended to repel any Allied landing. Though they exacted by far the heaviest toll of the attackers, its defenses delayed movement inland by only several hours.
Omaha spanned ten statute miles in seven sectors (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G), bounded by the Douve Estuary separating Utah Beach on the west and by Gold on the east. However, the first three sectors were not used. Before the landing craft touched shore, the area was attacked by hundreds of bombers, mostly B-24 Liberators, but their bombs fell too far inland. Forced to drop through an undercast, the bombers were concerned about ‘‘overs’’ that might endanger the naval force offshore. Consequently, no German defenses were damaged, and no bomb craters were available to provide cover for the GIs on the beach.
Omaha was by far the toughest assignment in Overlord. Inland from the tidal flats, with their mines and booby-trapped obstacles, was a line of barbed wire and an artificial seawall. Next came a level, grassy plain between 150 and three hundred yards wide, also strewn with mines and providing almost no cover. Dominating the entire scene was a line of bluffs about 150 feet high, defended by a dozen primary concrete bunkers, including concrete casemates for 50, 75, and 88 mm artillery. There were also innumerable fighting holes for riflemen and machine gunners, with carefully designed interlocking fields of fire. Additionally, mortars and artillery behind the bluffs, largely invulnerable to naval gunfire, could cover almost any part of Omaha Beach.
American soldiers wading toward Omaha Beach: U.S. Army via Martin K.A. Morgan. Omaha came under the Western Naval Task Force led by Rear Adm. Alan G. Kirk. In direct supervision of the Omaha landings was Rear Adm. J. L. Hall.
The first wave of the First and Twenty-ninth Infantry Divisions scheduled to hit the beach at 0630 in sectors designated (west to east) Dog Green, Dog White, Dog Red, Easy Green, Easy Red, and Fox Green. Apart from ferocious German opposition, winds and tidal currents forced most landing craft off course, and only the 116th Infantry of the Twenty-ninth Infantry Division landed where expected.
The landing sectors mostly lay within the operating area of the German 352d Infantry Division, with most of the landing sectors defended by the 916th Regiment plus the 726th Regiment of the 716th Division.
Easternmost of the landing beaches, Sword covered three miles adjacent to Juno Beach, with sectors O, P, Q, and R. Like all the British or Canadian beaches, Sword was fronted by vacation homes close to the sea wall. At Ouistreham some of the houses had been razed to improve the Germans’ field of fire, while others had been reinforced and turned into makeshift bunkers. An antitank ditch had been dug behind the seawall, but paved city streets lay beyond, some blocked by concrete walls. To the east was the Merville battery of four 75 mm guns, a target of Allied bombers and the Sixth Airborne Division. Within supporting range were 155 mm guns at Le Havre.
Sword was assaulted by the British Third Division, with attached units of British and French commandos plus the Twenty-seventh Armored Brigade. The First Special Service Force, under Brigadier Lovat, was piped ashore by Lovat’s personal bagpiper, Bill Millin. H-Hour was 0725, an hour later than at Omaha, owing to tidal conditions. Objectives of the Sword assault were important bridges three and a half miles inland.
The westernmost of the beaches, extending some eleven statute miles in four sectors (S, T, U, and V) running north-northwest to south-southeast. Utah joined the west end of Omaha Beach in a line projecting through tidal flats beyond the mouth of the Vire River.
Utah was the last landing area selected for Overlord, but its position afforded the U.S. VII Corps an excellent start at the vital port of Cherbourg, only thirty-five miles away. Though lightly defended, Utah Beach posed some difficulty in the flooded country and rough terrain to the north, in the direction of Cherbourg.
Commanding the Western Task Force responsible for landing troops on the American beaches was Rear Adm. Alan G. Kirk. The Utah landings were supervised by Rear Adm. Don P. Moon.
The greatest difficulty at Utah was the weather and sea conditions. Consequently, many landing craft offloaded troops some two thousand yards east of the intended beaches, which caused enormous confusion but presented an unexpected benefit. The actual landing sites were largely undefended in Victor Sector, away from Les Dunes de Verville. The error was unrecognized at first, as three of four beach control craft struck submerged mines, adding to the confusion.
At Utah, twenty-eight of thirty-two DD tanks reached the beaches, providing much-needed support to the infantry.
The Normandy invasion consisted of the following:
- 5,333 Allied ships and landing craft embarking nearly 175,000 men.
- The British and Canadians put 75,215 British and Canadian troops ashore
- Americans: 57,500
- Total: 132,715
- 3,400 were killed or missing.
The foregoing figures exclude approximately 20,000 Allied airborne troopers.
- The First U.S. Army, accounting for the first twenty-four hours in Normandy, tabulated 1,465 killed, 1,928 missing, and 6,603 wounded. The after-action report of U.S. VII Corps (ending 1 July) showed 22,119 casualties including 2,811 killed, 5,665 missing, 79 prisoners, and 13,564 wounded, including paratroopers.
- Canadian forces at Juno Beach sustained 946 casualties, of whom 335 were listed as killed.
- Surprisingly, no British figures were published, but Cornelius Ryan cites estimates of 2,500 to 3,000 killed, wounded, and missing, including 650 from the Sixth Airborne Division.
- German sources vary between four thousand and nine thousand D-Day casualties on 6 June—a range of 125 percent. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s report for all of June cited killed, wounded, and missing of some 250,000 men, including twenty-eight generals.
American Personnel in Britain:
- 1,931,885 land
- 659,554 air
- 285,000 naval
- Total: 2,876,439 officers and men housed in 1,108 bases and camps
Divisions of the Allied forces for Operation Overlord (the assault forces on 6 June involved two U.S., two British, and one Canadian division.)
- 23 infantry divisions (thirteen U.S., eight British, two Canadian)
- 12 armored divisions (five U.S., four British, one each Canadian, French, and Polish)
- 4 airborne (two each U.S. and British)
- Total: 23 American divisions, 14 British, 3 Canadian, 1 French and 1 Polish.
- 3,958 heavy bombers (3,455 operational)
- 1,234 medium and light bombers (989 operational)
- 4,709 fighters (3,824 operational)
- Total: 9,901 (8,268 operational).
- 850,000 German troops awaiting the invasion, many were Eastern European conscripts; there were even some Koreans.
- In Normandy itself the Germans had deployed 80,000 troops, but only one panzer division.
- 60 infantry divisions in France and ten panzer divisions, possessing 1,552 tanks,In Normandy itself the Germans had deployed eighty thousand troops, but only one panzer division.
Approximately fifteen thousand French civilians died in the Normandy campaign, partly from Allied bombing and partly from combat actions of Allied and German ground forces.
The total number of casualties that occurred during Operation Overlord, from June 6 (the date of D-Day) to August 30 (when German forces retreated across the Seine) was over 425,000 Allied and German troops. This figure includes over 209,000 Allied casualties:
- Nearly 37,000 dead among the ground forces
- 16,714 deaths among the Allied air forces.
- Of the Allied casualties, 83,045 were from 21st Army Group (British, Canadian and Polish ground forces)
- 125,847 from the US ground forces.
Military generals and heads of state visited Normandy following the conclusion of June 6, 1944. They were shocked by the sight. After an overnight trip to southern England aboard Winston Churchill’s private train, Arnold, Kuter, Marshall, Eisenhower, Admiral Ernest King, and their respective staff officers departed from Portsmouth Harbor for Normandy early on June 12.
“As we left the harbor we passed (30 knots) literally hundreds of ships of all kinds, escorted and proceeding singly,” Army Air Force General Hap Arnold wrote in his diary. “Such a mass one never saw before, uninterrupted and unimpeded. As we approached the coast of France there were liter- ally hundreds anchored offshore. What a field day for the [Luftwaffe] if there is a [Luftwaffe].”
As Arnold points out, a major air assault against the invasion fleet would have been devastating to the Allies, but it never came. It was a pivotal missed opportunity for Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe. They all realized that D-Day was the point in which the tide had turned.
“Trucks being driven from LSTs [ships carrying vehicles to the shoreline] over beach and up road,” Arnold wrote, jotting notes of his impressions of the Normandy beachhead in his diary.
The ever present sound of explosions: bombs, mines being set off by Engineers. Airplanes on the cliff top taking back wounded to [England]. A regular madhouse but a very orderly one in which some 15,000 troops a day go from ship to shore and some 1,500 to 3,000 tons of supplies a day are landed. But where is the [Luftwaffe]? After a tour of the harbor a DUCK [DUKW amphibious truck] comes alongside. We leave subchaser and start toward beach. The tide is low and we lift the top off an obstruction. Fortunately there were no mines; we slid off and continued through obstacles to beach. Passed by the wrecks and ships unloading, then out we climbed.
Like the rest of the world, Patton learned of the Normandy invasion by listening to the BBC at seven o’clock on the morning of June 6, 1944. Though he had been sidelined from the invasion, he made quick plans to influence the Allied invasion of Europe.
A month after the Normandy invasion, secretly landing at an airstrip near Omaha Beach, General George S. Patton entered a waiting jeep. When army and navy personnel rushed up to see him, Patton stood and delivered a short impromptu speech: “I’m proud to be here to fight beside you. Now let’s cut the guts out of those Krauts and get the hell on to Berlin. And when we get to Berlin, I am going to personally shoot that paperhanging goddamned son of a bitch just like I would a snake.”