A perilous airborne strike and the mightiest assemblage of seaborne power yet seen heralded the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
By David R. Jennys
The road to the invasion of Nazi-controlled France began more than two years prior to its actual execution. In its early stages, the invasion plan was a British operation called Roundup, which would move troops onto the mainland in the event of a German collapse. When the United States entered the war, the idea was resurrected as a combined British-American operation to cross the English Channel and pierce Adolf Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” defenses.
Roundup had to wait, however, in favor of Operation Torch, the British-American invasion of North Africa. After Torch, the Allies began planning Operation Overlord, as Roundup came to be known, and fixed the target date for May 1, 1944.
The Germans also had been preparing. They knew that the Allies must invade France in order to carry the ground war into Germany. The Germans’ major unanswered questions were when and where the Allies would storm ashore. Most German strategists felt that the target would be the Pas-de-Calais area, where the English Channel was narrowest. Therefore, the strongest defenses were constructed there.
The German forces in Western Europe, commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, consisted of Army Groups B and G. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commanding Army Group B, was given the responsibility of throwing the Allied invasion force back into the sea.
Opinions on the best method of defeating the Allies differed greatly. Rundstedt and others advocated a central reserve that would be used to repel the invaders after their intentions were known. Rommel challenged that plan because he believed that Allied air superiority would prevent the central reserve from conducting an effective counterattack. The time to defeat the invasion force, Rommel believed, was when it first hit the beaches. To that end, he worked to have the strongest units stationed along the coastline and built coastal batteries and strongpoints, augmented by thousands of anti-invasion obstacles and millions of mines.
The result was a compromise between these two conflicting philosophies on defense, causing neither to be effective. Another factor that hampered the German defensive posture was that they, unlike the Allies, had no supreme military commander, so rivalries occurred between the individual departments, and there were numerous overlapping responsibilities.
D-Day was originally scheduled for June 5, 1944. SHAEF arrived at this date by considering two factors–moonlight and tide. H-hour would be near sunrise, when the amphibious troops would have a rising tide, which would enable them to land close to obstacles without coming ashore on top of them. The paratroopers needed a full moon for visibility. The days with the proper tide-moonlight formula closest to the target date were June 5, 6 and 7. The 5th was chosen for D-Day to allow a buffer in case the attack needed to be postponed.
An unprecedented level of security was imposed on the Allied army to prevent information leaks. Despite those efforts, some breaches of security still occurred. Those incidents were minor in the grand scheme of things, but they raised anew the myriad questions in the Allied planners’ minds. Had every detail been covered and sufficiently deliberated? Eisenhower, describing the situation, said, “The mighty host was tense as a coiled spring.” When the fateful month of June finally arrived, that human spring was ready to release its energy against the Germans defending the coast of Normandy.
With June, however, arrived the discouraging prospect of terrible weather. In fact, the weather was so bad that General Eisenhower was forced to postpone the invasion by one day. When the SHAEF staff members met to review their options, they were faced with the grim reality that June 6 did not look much better than the original D-Day. The meteorological report gave a thin ray of hope that a lull in the storm would allow enough time to launch the invasion, but no one could say whether the follow-up of the operation would be possible. The decision was a tough one, but the invasion would go ahead.
Meanwhile, almost providentially, critical errors in the German defensive structures allowed them to be taken completely by surprise. Due to the bad weather, the German navy canceled its usual patrol of the English Channel. Also, a practice drill scheduled for June 6 was called off. The German meteorological services were unaware of the break in the weather. On the eve of the attack, many of the top German leaders were absent from their commands. Rommel was in Germany visiting his wife on her birthday, and several officers were some distance away in Rennes or on their way there for a war-game exercise.
The assault on Normandy began at 12:15 a.m., when the pathfinders for the American airborne units left their planes and parachuted to earth. Five minutes later, on the other side of the invasion area, the British pathfinders made their jump. The pathfinders were specially trained to find and mark the drop zones. The main airborne assault was to commence within the hour.
The airborne attack became confused because of stiff winds and the evasive flying of the transport planes when they encountered anti-aircraft fire. As a result, the paratroopers were scattered over a wide area and most missed their drop zones, some by as much as 20 miles. Other complications were caused by the terrain, and the worst terrain was on the Cotentin Peninsula. The Germans, expecting diversionary attacks in Normandy and Brittany, had laced the open fields with anti-personnel and glider stakes and flooded the low areas. The flooding caused the most trouble for the Americans of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions.
The airborne units were to secure the flanks of the amphibious assault. That meant capturing bridges, crossroads and coastal batteries. After accomplishing those tasks, the paratroopers had to withstand any German counterattacks.
Widely scattered, the paratroopers fought little battles in the dark that were fierce and quick–preludes of what was to come. The troopers began to coalesce and organize their efforts. In addition to the many small victories, three significant successes were achieved. The first occurred within 15 minutes of the initial assault, when a group of British glider infantry captured key bridges over the Orne River and the Caen Canal. Later, members of the U.S. 82nd captured the valuable crossroads at the town of Ste. Mère Eglise. Just before the amphibious assault, paratroopers of the British 6th Battalion captured the coastal battery at Merville.
As the airborne units struggled to achieve their goals, the great fleet made its way across the channel to its appointment with destiny. The Allied fleet assembled first in Area Z, nicknamed Piccadilly Circus, approximately 10 miles southeast of the Isle of Wight. From there the individual invasion forces sailed in a southwesterly arc toward their prospective beaches. Leading that grand armada were the minesweepers. Behind them followed a vast array of naval vessels of every conceivable type. Never before had such a fleet been assembled. Including the landing craft carried on board, the combined Allied invasion armada numbered up to 5,000 ships. Approximately 150,000 men were to cross the English Channel and land at assault beaches code-named “Utah,” “Omaha,” “Gold,” “Juno” and “Sword.” Each landing area was divided into sections designated by letters, which were further subdivided into areas designated by colors. Each unit, therefore, had a specific place to land and a corresponding mission for its assigned area.
The first areas of French soil wrested from German control were the Isles-St.-Marcouf, located three miles off Utah Beach. SHAEF became concerned that these islands could be used as sites for heavy guns. The men of the U.S. 4th and 24th Cavalry squadrons were designated to take the islands prior to the main invasion. The assault teams found only land mines. The Germans had left the Iles-St.-Marcouf unoccupied.
Around 5 a.m., the German shore batteries opened a sporadic fire on the approaching fleet. At the same time, the German navy made its sole contribution, firing torpedoes from T-28, Möwe, Falcke, and Jaguar of the 5th Torpedo Boat Flotilla from Le Havre and sinking the Norwegian destroyer Svenner.
For the majority of the assault troops, however, the war had not begun yet. After spending as long as 48 hours aboard the various transport ships, many of the men were miserably seasick. Some could not imagine anything worse than they were already experiencing. On the other hand, there were some who were itching to go, particularly the veterans of the 1940 debacle at Dunkirk, who were about to make a comeback.
The naval bombardment began around 5:45 a.m. The air attack followed. The naval and air bombardments were designed to destroy the beach guns and obstacles, pin down the enemy and provide shelter for the ground troops on the open beaches by making craters. Both, however, largely failed in their objectives. Because of poor visibility caused by low cloud cover and smoke, it was decided that the bombers would delay the release of bombs 30 seconds to avoid hitting the assaulting troops. As a result, the bombs fell inland and missed their targets. Although the naval bombardment was more accurate, it was not much more effective against the hardened German gun emplacements.
The weather also was partially responsible for causing some of the assault craft to miss their assigned landing areas. Additionally, many of the landing craft and amphibious tanks foundered in the rough sea. In the Omaha area, most of the craft carrying artillery and tanks intended to support the incoming troops sank in the high waves.
At Utah Beach, a strange stroke of good fortune occurred when the assault craft encountered a southerly current that caused them to land in the wrong sector. The shore batteries that would have contested a landing in the original area would undoubtedly have taken a heavy toll. The landing at the new sector was virtually unopposed.
Despite that good fortune, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., of the 4th Infantry Division had a tough decision to make. The planned landing area fronted two exits from the beach; the Americans now faced only one. Should they push north and divert the support waves to the correct area, or should they remain on this relatively quiet beach and use the single exit? Roosevelt, the eldest son of former President Theodore Roosevelt and a cousin of the current president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the only general officer to land in the first wave. After conferring with his battalion commanders he decided to “start the war from here” and gamble on the one exit he had rather than trying for the proverbial “two in the bush.”
Twelve miles east of Utah, the men landing at Omaha Beach encountered the fiercest resistance anywhere on June 6. The Overlord planners expected Omaha Beach to be lightly defended. Allied intelligence had reported that a low-quality “static” division was defending that area. Somehow the presence of the crack 352nd Infantry had gone undetected. The high bluffs at Omaha also gave the defenders an excellent vantage point with crisscrossed fields of fire.
The approach to the beach was a race against death. Many of the landing craft never made it to shore; they either were hit by artillery or struck mines. Those that survived long enough to discharge their troops often did so in water over the heads of the soldiers who raced toward the open ramps. German strong points zeroed in on the men who made it to the beach and took cover behind beach obstacles and disabled landing craft. Although casualty rates varied, most were high. Within 10 minutes of hitting the beach, Company A, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, suffered 96 percent killed or wounded.
Compounding the situation were the problems the demolition teams encountered while clearing paths through the beach obstacles. The Germans soon became aware of the activities of the engineers and made special targets of them. Worse, the engineers’ own comrades often took cover behind the very obstacles about to be blown. The demolition teams had only been able to clear 5 1/2 lanes across the entire Omaha Beach area before the second wave arrived. As the tide came in, covering the obstacles, only one of those lanes could be marked. That meant that the next wave of fresh troops to come ashore would have to endure the same hazards as the first. Because of the high rate of casualties under withering German fire, many of the units on the beach found themselves leaderless. Incoming troops only added to the confusion.
One eyewitness to this seemingly complete disaster was war correspondent Ernest Hemingway. He described the dismal scene of burning tanks and landing craft and of the shocked, dead and dying troops that had stopped at the waterline. “The…[assault] waves lay where they had fallen,” he said, “looking like so many heavily laden bundles…between sea and first cover.”
As the debris of war piled up with the arrival of each succeeding assault wave, for many it seemed that their worst fears–complete failure of the landing–had been realized. By morning some considered evacuating the survivors and diverting the reinforcements to either the Utah or British sectors.
West of Omaha Beach was Pointe du Hoc, a rocky outcropping with almost vertical cliffs where a large coastal battery was believed to be situated. The U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion was charged with destroying the battery. What many thought impossible the Rangers achieved–they scaled the 100-foot cliffs under heavy fire. Once on top, though, they found that the guns were not there after all.
If the American experience at Utah was the best and at Omaha the worst, the experiences at the three British beaches were somewhere in between. The British came ashore after a longer bombardment and at a later H-hour. Because of the later H-hour, the troops landed on a higher tide and closer to the beaches, giving them a shorter assault run, possibly saving the British from high losses similar to those at Omaha. Commando units were used to cover the flanks of the British beaches. Also, two midget submarines, X-20 and X-23, were used to mark flanks and guide landings in Operation Gambit.
Like the engineers at Omaha, the British frogmen encountered numerous difficulties clearing the beach obstacles. As the first and later waves made their runs, it appeared that the invasion was going to be a rough show. It turned out, however, that the offshore obstacles were the toughest resistance some of the British troops encountered. Resistance from the German defenders was sporadic across all three of the British landing areas. In some places opposition was light; in others, it was murderously heavy. The 1st Hampshire Regiment landed in the teeth of the right flank of the German 352nd Infantry Division on the west side of Gold Beach. The Hampshire were nearly wiped out as they left their landing craft and struggled ashore. In most places, however, units were able to strike inland shortly after H-hour.
Of the three British beaches, the Canadians at Juno had the greatest difficulty. They had a delay of 25 minutes due to rough seas before their landing ordeal began. Upon hitting the beach, they found that many of the strongpoints had not been knocked out, and the fighting was intense. But as difficult as the fighting was, it was also brief. Within half an hour the Canadians were off the beach. Within a short time the sector could even be described as quiet, and the support waves had little trouble getting to shore. Before long, Gold and Juno beaches were linked by a single continuous front.
The smallest of the five Allied assaults was at Sword Beach, the easternmost landing area. The invasion there started without serious opposition, but each succeeding wave came under heavier mortar fire. Despite the growing resistance, the British moved steadily inland.
At 9:30 a.m., Sword Beach was the scene of the only German daylight air attack of the entire invasion. Prior to the Allied assault, the Germans had strengthened their home air defenses by withdrawing most of the aircraft in France. As a result, the only planes left within range of Normandy when the invasion began were two Focke-Wulf Fw-190As of Fighter Wing 26, flown by Lt. Col. Josef “Pips” Priller and Sergeant Heinz Wodarczyk, who strafed the beach at an altitude of 50 feet before escaping through a gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire.
All in all, the initial phase of the British landing was extremely successful. By the end of the morning, elements of all three of the British divisions had advanced several miles inland. As the pockets of German resistance were isolated or melted away, it looked as if the British would have no trouble reaching their D-Day objectives. Yet already some units had run into trouble. The commandos were unable to connect all of the beaches together, and the Germans were beginning to regroup.
The German reaction to the Allied invasion was slow and confused. The airborne assault was believed to be only a diversionary action. When the Seventh Army, positioned in Normandy, was put on alert, few of its commanders knew what they should do. Rundstedt ordered the activation of the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Youth” and Panzer Division Lehr and simultaneously sent word of his actions to Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, German supreme headquarters), asking for permission to use the two divisions. The 21st Panzer Division was in the immediate vicinity of the landings at Juno and Sword. The 21st had been on alert and ready to move throughout the early morning hours but had received no orders. Around 5:30 a.m., the 21st’s commander could wait no longer and ordered his unit into action against the British 6th Airborne on the Orne River. The orders finally came four hours later. The 21st was instructed to counterattack Sword Beach. That meant that the Germans must extract themselves from the fight with the paratroopers and move around the strategically vital town of Caen to get into position for the counterattack. Completing that maneuver took the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. Confusion seemed to reign in other parts of the front as well. The commander of the 352nd Infantry Division believed that the situation at Omaha was completely under control and that the Americans would soon be defeated. He decided then to commit his reserves to other areas.
On Omaha Beach, soldiers who had previously been paralyzed with fear came out of their shock and began to move inland. Instrumental in shaking the paralysis were a few brave soldiers who defied enemy fire and inspired the others to advance.
The U.S. Navy supplied critical fire support for the soldiers attempting to move off the beaches and take the commanding positions along the bluffs from their German defenders. Some destroyers came in so close to shore with their supporting fire that they risked running aground. Slowly, painfully, the men at Omaha began to overcome the German strongpoints that had previously pinned them down.
The officers at OKW were not convinced that the Normandy landing was the primary Allied thrust. They still feared a landing at Calais to the north, and the Allied advances in Italy seemed more distressing. Rundstedt was not permitted to commit the armored reserve. To the officers at OKW, the news did not warrant disturbing Hitler from his sleep. As was his habit, the Führer had gone to bed at 4 a.m., and no one dared wake him until more was known. Around 10 a.m. the officers found the courage to disturb him, and a conference was called. As the leader of Nazi Germany heard the sketchy news of the invasion, he remained convinced that the Normandy attack was only a diversion. Rundstedt’s request to use the armored divisions was never mentioned. The panzer units were finally released around 3 p.m.–much too late to do any good.
In the meantime, the only serious German counterattack on D-Day was preparing to get underway. The 21st Panzer had become splintered while moving into position and was unable to attack the British in full force. At the same time, the British had logistical problems of their own to deal with and were unable to take advantage of the Germans’ delayed reaction.
The clash finally occurred north of Caen at Périers and Biéville, hamlets that commanded the local high ground. The attack was over in a few minutes. The British had been able to establish defensive positions prior to the arrival of the German tanks, and they stopped the tanks’ advance with the help of naval gunfire. The Germans then withdrew and dug their tanks into positions outside Caen. That defensive move effectively stopped the British southward drive.
The infantry support element of the 21st had moved west of Caen and missed the battles at Périers and Biéville. Instead, the infantry drove north through the gap between Juno and Sword beaches. The tank commander of the 21st was unaware of the gap and never acted to exploit it. A follow-up attack was ordered in the evening with the combined panzer force, only to be foiled by a scheduled glider reinforcement drop. Through the course of the day, the 21st lost almost half its tanks.
By evening, despite earlier optimism, the 352nd was hard pressed to hold back the flood of invaders. All day it had been fighting the Americans at Omaha and the British at Gold. Now, with its reserves committed and its casualties high, the effectiveness of the once crack unit had ebbed.
The end of June 6 saw the Allies firmly established in Hitler’s Europe. At Utah, the VII Corps had penetrated a good five miles with only light casualties. The V Corps at Omaha, suffering 2,500 casualties, held a precarious one-mile-deep strip of coastline–yet the Americans were in control of their turf. The 2nd Rangers also held a small piece of territory at Pointe du Hoc. Even though this was a pointless attack, it had drawn some of the reserves of the 352nd away from where they might have been employed more effectively. The entire British Second Army had lost less than 3,000 men and had penetrated as much as ten miles in some places.
The Allies, however, had failed to achieve many of their goals. The British had not taken Caen and would not do so for another month. The city of Bayeux also was not taken. None of the invasion forces had reached their day-one objective lines, and there remained dangerous gaps between the OmahaGold and JunoSword areas. At Utah, the 4th Division still had not linked up with all of the 82nd Airborne, and the 1st and 29th divisions at Omaha were in danger of being thrown back into the sea if a concerted attack could be mounted against them.
The Germans, however, remained in the dark as to the Allies’ true intentions. Still believing that another invasion was to come at Pas-de-Calais, the commanders held the Fifteenth Army in reserve. It was not used until too late to make any difference at Normandy. Even though the 12th SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr divisions had been initially dispatched, they were held during the critical moment when their presence could have made a difference for Germany. The two quality units the Germans had at Normandy, the 352nd Infantry and the 21st Panzer, had suffered heavy casualties in the course of the day’s fighting. The Germans were able to contain the invasion of the first day but were never able to regain any ground. Air superiority and logistical capability were the telling factors in the Allied success.
Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had failed to hold back the Allied invasion. The invaders were not destroyed on the beaches as Rommel had hoped, nor were they thrown back into the sea as Rundstedt had planned. The Germans kept the Allied army contained for two months. When the breakout occurred in August, there was no holding the Allies back. From that point, Nazi Germany had only nine months more to live.
David R. Jennys has a degree in social studies education. For further reading on Operation Overlord, see: Cross-Channel Attack, by Gordon A. Harrison; The Invasion of France and Germany, 19441945, by Samuel Eliot Morison; and The Normandy Campaign, by Stephen A. Patrick.[ TOP ] [ Cover ]