What Was D-Day?
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the Allies launched an attack by sea, landing on the beaches of Normandy on the northern coast of Nazi-occupied France. The first day of this major undertaking was known as D-Day; it was the first day of the Battle of Normandy (code-named Operation Overlord) in World War II.
On D-day, an armada of approximately 5,000 ships secretly crossed the English Channel and unloaded 156,000 Allied soldiers and nearly 30,000 vehicles in a single day on five, well-defended beaches (Omaha, Utah, Pluto, Gold, and Sword). By the end of the day, 2,500 Allied soldiers had been killed and another 6,500 wounded, but the Allies had succeeded, for they had broken through the German defenses and created a second front in World War II.
Dates: June 6, 1944
Planning a Second Front
By 1944, World War II had already been raging for five years and most of Europe was under Nazi control. The Soviet Union was having some success on the Eastern Front but the other Allies, specifically the United States and the United Kingdom, had not yet made a full-fledged attack on the European mainland. It was time to create a second front.
The questions of where and when to start this second front were difficult ones. The northern coast of Europe was an obvious choice, since the invasion force would be coming from Great Britain. A location that already had a port would be ideal in order to unload the millions of tons of supplies and soldiers needed. Also required was a location that would be within range of Allied fighter planes taking off from Great Britain.
Unfortunately, the Nazis knew all this as well. To add an element of surprise and to avoid the bloodbath of trying to take a well-defended port, the Allied High Command decided on a location that met the other criteria but that did not have a port -- the beaches of Normandy in northern France.
Once a location had been chosen, deciding upon a date was next. There needed to be enough time to collect the supplies and equipment, gather the planes and vehicles, and train the soldiers. This whole process would take a year. The specific date also depended on the timing of low tide and a full moon. All of this led to a specific day - June 5, 1944.
Rather than continually refer to the actual date, the military used the term “D-Day” for the day of attack.
What the Nazis Expected
The Nazis knew the Allies were planning an invasion. In preparation, they had fortified all northern ports, especially the one at Pas de Calais, which was the shortest distance from southern Britain. But that was not all.
As early as 1942, Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler ordered the creation of an Atlantic Wall to protect the northern coast of Europe from an Allied invasion. This was not literally a wall; instead, it was a collection of defenses, such as barbed wire and minefields, that stretched across 3,000 miles of coastline.
In December 1943, when highly-regarded Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (known as the “Desert Fox”) was put in charge of these defenses, he found them completely inadequate. Rommel immediately ordered the creation of additional “pillboxes” (concrete bunkers fitted with machine guns and artillery), millions of additional mines, and a half million metal obstacles and stakes placed on the beaches that could rip open the bottom of landing craft.
To hinder paratroopers and gliders, Rommel ordered many of the fields behind the beaches to be flooded and covered with protruding wooden poles (known as “Rommel's asparagus”). Many of these had mines fitted on top.
Rommel knew that these defenses would not be enough to stop an invading army, but he hoped it would slow them down long enough for him to bring reinforcements. He needed to stop the Allied invasion on the beach, before they gained a foothold.
The Allies desperately worried about German reinforcements. An amphibious attack against an entrenched enemy would already be incredibly difficult; however, if the Germans ever found out where and when the invasion was to take place and thus reinforced the area, well, the attack might end disastrously.
That was the exact reason for the need of absolute secrecy. To help keep this secret, the Allies launched Operation Fortitude, an intricate plan to deceive the Germans. This plan included false radio signals, double agents, and fake armies that included life-size balloon tanks. A macabre plan to drop a dead body with false top-secret papers off the coast of Spain was also used.
Anything and everything was used to deceive the Germans, to make them think that the Allied invasion was to occur somewhere else and not Normandy.
All was set for D-Day being on June 5, even the equipment and soldiers had already been loaded onto the ships. Then, the weather changed. A massive storm hit, with 45-mile-an-hour wind gusts and lots of rain.
After much contemplation, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, postponed D-Day just one day. Any longer of a postponement and the low tides and full moon wouldn't be right and they'd have to wait another whole month. Also, it was uncertain they could keep the invasion secret for that much longer. The invasion would begin on June 6, 1944.
Rommel also paid notice to the massive storm and believed that the Allies would never invade in such inclement weather. Thus, he made the fateful decision to go out of town on June 5 to celebrate his wife's 50th birthday. By the time he was informed of the invasion, it was too late.
In Darkness: Paratroopers Begin D-Day
Although D-Day is famous for being an amphibious operation, it actually started with thousands of brave paratroopers.
Under the cover of darkness, the first wave of 180 paratroopers arrived in Normandy. They rode in six gliders that had been pulled and then released by British bombers. Upon landing, the paratroopers grabbed their equipment, left their gliders, and worked as a team to take control of two, very important bridges: the one over the Orne River and the other over the Caen Canal. Control of these would both hinder German reinforcements along these paths as well as enable the Allies access to inland France once they were off the beaches.
The second wave of 13,000 paratroopers had a very difficult arrival in Normandy. Flying in approximately 900 C-47 airplanes, the Nazis spotted the planes and started shooting. The planes drifted apart; thus, when the paratroopers jumped, they were scattered far and wide.
Many of these paratroopers were killed before they even hit the ground; others got caught in trees and were shot by German snipers. Still others drowned in Rommel's flooded plains, weighed down by their heavy packs and tangled in weeds. Only 3,000 were able to join together; however, they did manage to capture the village of St. Mére Eglise, an essential target.
The scattering of the paratroopers had a benefit for the Allies - it confused the Germans. The Germans did not yet realize that a massive invasion was about to get underway.
Loading the Landing Craft
While the paratroopers were fighting their own battles, the Allied armada was making its way to Normandy. Approximately 5,000 ships -- including minesweepers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and others - arrived in the waters off France around 2 a.m. on June 6, 1944.
Most of the soldiers on board these ships were seasick. Not only had they been on board, in extremely cramped quarters, for days, crossing the Channel had been stomach turning because of extremely choppy waters from the storm.
The battle began with a bombardment, both from the armada's artillery as well as 2,000 Allied aircraft that soared overhead and bombed the beach defenses. The bombardment turned out to be not as successful as had been hoped and a lot of German defenses remained intact.
While this bombardment was under way, the soldiers were tasked with climbing into landing craft, 30 men per boat. This, in itself, was a difficult task as the men climbed down slippery rope ladders and had to drop into landing craft that were bobbing up and down in five-foot waves. A number of soldiers dropped into the water, unable to surface because they were weighted down by 88 pounds of gear.
As each landing craft filled up, they rendezvoused with other landing craft in a designated zone just outside of German artillery range. In this zone, nicknamed “Piccadilly Circus,” the landing craft stayed in a circular holding pattern until it was time to attack.
At 6:30 a.m., the naval gunfire stopped and the landing boats headed toward shore.
The Five Beaches
The Allied landing boats were headed to five beaches spread out over 50 miles of coastline. These beaches had been code-named, from west to east, as Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The Americans were to attack at Utah and Omaha, while the British struck at Gold and Sword. The Canadians headed toward Juno.
In some ways, soldiers reaching these beaches had similar experiences. Their landing vehicles would get close to the beach and, if they were not ripped open by obstacles or blown up by mines, then the transport door would open and the soldiers would disembark, waist-deep in the water. Immediately, they faced machine-gun fire from the German pillboxes.
Without cover, many in the first transports were simply mowed down. The beaches quickly became bloody and strewn with body parts. Debris from blown up transport ships floated in the water. Injured soldiers that fell in the water usually did not survive - their heavy packs weighed them down and they drowned.
Eventually, after wave after wave of transports dropped off soldiers and then even some armored vehicles, the Allies started making headway on the beaches.
Some of these helpful vehicles included tanks, such as the newly designed Duplex Drive tank (DDs). DDs, sometimes called “swimming tanks,” were basically Sherman tanks that had been fitted with a flotation skirt that allowed them to float.
Flails, a tank equipped with metal chains in front, was another helpful vehicle, offering a new way to clear mines ahead of the soldiers. Crocodiles, were tanks equipped with a large flame thrower.
These specialized, armored vehicles greatly helped the soldiers on Gold and Sword beaches. By early afternoon, the soldiers on Gold, Sword, and Utah had succeeded in capturing their beaches and had even met up with some of the paratroopers on the other side. The attacks on Juno and Omaha, however, were not going as well.
Problems at Juno and Omaha Beaches
At Juno, the Canadian soldiers had a bloody landing. Their landing boats had been forced off course by currents and thus had arrived at Juno Beach a half hour late. This meant that the tide had risen and many of the mines and obstacles were thus hidden under water. An estimated half of the landing boats were damaged, with almost a third completely destroyed. The Canadian troops eventually took control of the beach, but at a cost of more than 1,000 men.
It was even worse at Omaha. Unlike the other beaches, at Omaha, American soldiers faced an enemy that was safely housed in pillboxes located on top of bluffs that soared 100 feet above them. The early-morning bombardment that was supposed to take out some of these pillboxes missed this area; thus, the German defenses were nearly intact.
The were was one particular bluff, called Pointe du Hoc, that stuck out into the ocean between Utah and Omaha Beaches, giving German artillery at the top the ability to shoot at both beaches. This was such an essential target that the Allies sent in a special Ranger unit, led by Lt. Col. James Rudder, to take out the artillery on top. Although arriving a half hour late because of drifting from a strong tide, the Rangers were able to use grappling hooks to scale the sheer cliff. At the top, they discovered that the guns had been temporarily replaced by telephone poles to fool the Allies and to keep the guns safe from the bombardment. Splitting up and searching the countryside behind the cliff, the Rangers found the guns. With a group of German soldiers not far away, Rangers snuck in and detonated thermite grenades in the guns, destroying them.
In addition to the bluffs, the crescent-shape of the beach made Omaha the most defensible of all the beaches. With these advantages, the Germans were able to mow down transports as soon as they arrived; the soldiers had little opportunity to run the 200 yards to the seawall for cover. The bloodbath earned this beach the nickname “Bloody Omaha.”
The soldiers on Omaha were also essentially without armored help. Those in command had only requested DDs to accompany their soldiers, but nearly all of the swimming tanks headed toward Omaha drowned in the choppy waters.
Eventually, with the help of naval artillery, small groups of men were able to make it across the beach and take out the German defenses, but it would cost 4,000 casualties to do so.
The Break Out
Despite a number of things not going to plan, D-Day was a success. The Allies had been able to keep the invasion a surprise and, with Rommel out of town and Hitler believing the landings at Normandy were a ruse for a real landing at Calais, the Germans never reinforced their position. After initial heavy fighting along the beaches, the Allied troops were able to secure their landings and break through German defenses to enter the interior of France.
By June 7, the day after D-Day, the Allies were beginning the placement of two Mulberries, artificial harbors whose components had been pulled by tugboat across the Channel. These harbors would allow millions of tons of supplies to reach the invading Allied troops.
The success of D-Day was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. Eleven months after D-Day, the war in Europe would be over.