On this, the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, Americans need to reflect on the sacrifices made by the Allied troops whose efforts played a vital roll in bringing to an end the conflict in Europe during World War II.
“Operation Overlord,” commonly referred to as “D-Day,” occurred on June 6, 1944 and began the liberation of Europe from the clutches of the Nazi invaders. The British term for the invasion in its early stages was “Roundup.”
Over the years, numerous questions have arisen as to the meaning of the “D” in “D-Day”. The English language offers a variety of “D” words which can definitely be used to properly illustrate the events of that historic day:
“Dangerous” when one considers what the Allied forces would face from the Nazis in this encounter.
“Decisions” were numerous as the Allies’ commanding forces came together to create the battle plans for D-Day.
“Deliverance” was the invasion’s goal.
“Deployment” involved a large number of troops who were transported from their home bases to the shores of Normandy Beach on the coast of France.
Numerous other “D” words can be added to this list, but probably the best “D” word of all would be “Deception.” It was only through the use of an incredible amount of deception the Allies stood even a remote chance of outwitting the Nazi forces and achieving the success they sought. The element of surprise was absolutely crucial due to the fact Germany already had 55 divisions based in France. On D-Day, the Allies would be working with a mere 8 divisions.
As plans were devised for the invasion, the main leaders chosen for the task were: US General Omar Nelson Bradley, British Lt. General Miles Dempsey, US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, British Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, British Admiral Bertram H. Ramsay, and US General Carl Spaatz.
The Nazis knew to expect an invasion from the Allies. It was the only way for the Allies to carry the ground war into Germany. The Allies’ goal was to deceive the Nazis into believing the invasion would occur in one area, though all the while plans were made for a different location. To start the ball rolling, General Eisenhower’s staff created a mythical 1st Army Group. General Patton was chosen to head this phantom force due to the fact he was the American general most respected by the Nazis.
Deceptive information was “leaked” to all known enemy agents regarding the status of Patton’s “force”. The element of deception was then heightened as the airways were flooded with radio broadcasts designed to feed Nazi intelligence analysts information about the operations of the bogus military organization.
Another method of deception used by the Allies was the construction of dummy installations. Built of plywood and canvas, these installations were designed to create the pretense of the phantom force’s base near Dover, across the Channel from the supposed target. An array of inflatable tanks and vehicles added to the deceptive appearance of the base, as did the vast armada of rubber landing craft harbored in the Thames River estuary; the goal being to attract the attention of Nazi reconnaissance pilots.
The deception continued as Allied naval units participated in prolonged maneuvers off the Channel’s coast, in close proximity to the phantom army. A carefully designed aerial bombardment crowned the deception as Allied airmen dropped a greater quantity of bombs on Pas de Calais than they did on any other location in France.
In addition to handling the deception process, Eisenhower had another major concern to take into consideration – the weather. This factor had the potential to do as much, if not more to harm the effects of the invasion than would the Germans. June 4th was the original date planned for the launch of Overload, however, Mother Nature pulled rank on the general. Using rain, waves and strong winds, she forced a postponement of the operations. This interference afforded Eisenhower a window of only 36 hours to invade; otherwise the attack would be delayed another month, creating ill effects for troops on the Siegfried line during the winter.
Five beaches would be involved in the operation – Utah, Omaha, Golden, Juno and Sword:
Utah Beach was the westernmost of the five. Located at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, Eisenhower added this area at the last minute to the plans when it was learned more landing craft would be available for the invasion. The USS Nevada was assigned to use its 14” guns to bombard the German batteries on Utah Beach.
Prior to D-Day, Omaha Beach was the stuff of which childhood fables and romantic tales are based. Painted with rocky cliffs, sandy bluffs and high plateaus, it was an incredible image for those who were blessed to behold it. On June 6, 1944, this pristine landscape played host to the deadliest of D-Day’s battles. The opening frames of the movie Saving Private Ryan, though providing a measure of understanding regarding what the conditions must have been, do little to educate the viewer as to the true horrors the Americans faced as they poured onto the shore of Omaha Beach. The World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is located on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur Mer, France.
The center of the five selected invasion locations, Gold Beach played host to the British and Commonwealth landings, including the 50th Infantry Division of the 2nd Army, led by Lt. General Miles Dempsey. H-Hour for Gold Beach was 0730. Spanning 10 miles wide, Gold Beach was home to three sea villages – La Riviere, Le Hamel and a small port to the west, Arromanches.
The presence of offshore rocks on Juno Beach necessitated a delay for the Canadian forces to come onshore. Prior to their arrival, additional time was needed for the tide to deepen sufficiently. The delay created a more dangerous situation for these troops, due to the fact enemy troops on Juno Beach would have been alerted to the attacks taking place in the other areas. If that was not enough, rough sea conditions forced a further landing delay of ten to thirty minutes. This resulted in the landing craft having to endure several hundred yards of beach, imbedded with heavily mined obstacles. Thankfully during the approach few craft were damaged; however, during withdrawal the story was different. Bad visibility did its part to aggravate the situation, as did the frustration experienced due to the fact the infantrymen arrived on the beach ahead of the amphibious armor which plans said would be there first.
Sword Beach was the most easterly and smallest of the five locations. Just wide enough to permit a brigade-sized landing force, the arrival of the 3rd British Division had its work cut out for it trying to land the number of troops necessary to push ashore, seize the designated target and then link up with the 6th Airborne Division. Sword Beach witnessed the day’s only notable activity of the German Navy when three E-boats materialized through the Allie’s smoke screen and fired a salvo of torpedoes. This attack sunk the Norwegian destroyer, Svenner.
Due to the fact the Germans were established on Normandy, the Allies would face an array of defenses already in place. The invasion was scheduled for low tide in an effort to minimize problems from the large quantity of water defenses the Germans employed. Two prime examples were the teller mines and hedgehogs. The teller mines were mounted on posts which were angled towards on-coming boats. These mines were situated 200 yards from shore and camouflaged during high tide. Hedgehogs were composed of obstacles six-feet high, constructed of steel rails which had been welded together and were tipped with mines. They were designed to rip the bottom from a landing craft and were undetectable during high tide.
The Allies would also be forced to circumvent additional booby-traps the Germans had in readiness. Antitank mines were attached to steel-framed structures standing ten-feet tall installed parallel with the shoreline. Ramps composed of logs were designed to hit an incoming ship, resulting in the vessel tipping over or being stuck. Mines attached to the log tips would then explode when touched. Any troop or armament which was able to get passed all of these dangers now had to deal with the pillboxes – small concrete bunkers built into the beach which were used to shield anti-tank guns and machine gun nests. The concrete bunkers were reinforced with steel to protect larger guns of 75 and 88 mm. Normandy was not a place for the faint-at-heart.
Just prior to the invasion taking place, General Eisenhower delivered the following message:
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking. ~ Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
In the beginning, the American commanders had misgivings about the effects of the deception on the Nazi forces. The results, however, proved to be far above their greatest expectations for success. The Allies so fully convinced the Nazis that Pas de Calais was the intended target, the Nazis strongly held to that thought even after the actual invasion began. This resulted in nineteen powerful Nazi divisions, including important panzer reserves, standing idle on the day of the assault. The invasion they were prepared for never occurred. Consequently, with the Nazi divisions distracted, it prevented the Allied forces from experiencing a greater casualty toll.
Astonishing Facts about D-Day:
• Until the actual invasion began, the fact of Normandy being the chosen location for the assault was the planet’s most heavily-guarded secret; so much so those who led the units responsible for handling the initial attack did not know their landing locations.
• Upwards of 17 million maps were used to support the mission. The training maps used were coded with fake names to enhance security of the operation.
• 7 millions tons of supplies were shipped by the United States, with 448,000 tons of it in ammunition alone.
• Normally overlooked, but extremely crucial to the operation’s success were the air-support operations. Significant losses were sustained during the 14,000 missions flown. Numbered in the losses were 12,000 airmen and 2,000 aircraft, with 127 of the planes on D-Day alone. By the close of the Normandy campaign, 28,000 airmen had died.
• The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer contains 9,386 graves. Each of the graves faces west, towards the United States. Of these, the names of 307 occupants are unknown. Listed in the Garden of the Missing are 1,557 names of troops who were never found.
• In addition to American losses, 4,868 British soldiers lie buried in the Bayeux Cemetery, along with the names of 1,837 British who were never found. The Normandy campaign also claimed 946 Canadians.
• Former President, General Dwight D. Eisenhower made his only post-war return trip to Colleville-sur-Mer five years before he died. As he looked out over Omaha Beach, he spoke from his heart as he said, “. . . these men came here – British and our allies, and Americans – to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom. . . . many thousands of men have died for such ideals as these . . . but these young boys . . . were cut off in their prime . . . devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope, and pray, that humanity will have learned . . . we must find some way . . . to gain an eternal peace for this world.” (Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life Carlo D’Este, p. 705.)