Buildup and Training
For years, Allied leaders and military planners had debated about when, where, and how to land troops in northern Europe. Although plans for such an action had been in the works for years, it was not until December 1943, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, that preparations for the future operation, code named OVERLORD, intensified.
The buildup for an eventual cross-Channel action had begun in 1942, but a lack of resources and strategic shifts in the European theater moved the Allied invasion of the continent to 1944. Although the invasion was delayed with no definite timeline, American troops began arriving in Great Britain in record numbers in 1943. By the end of May 1944, there were more than 1.5 million US Army personnel in the United Kingdom to either participate in or support the cross-Channel action.
As the date for the invasion drew near, a tragic training accident highlighted the dangers of the operation that lay ahead. Read about how Slapton Sands taught the Allies lessons, at a high price.
Due to the success of Operation FORTITUDE, German High Command had bought into the deceptions of the operation, and fully expected a landing at the Pas de Calais. Planners instead had selected a 50-mile stretch of coastline in Normandy. The action was planned in two parts—NEPTUNE, the naval component and assault phase, which involved moving tens of thousands of Allied troops across the Channel and landing them on the beaches while providing gunfire support, and OVERLORD—the overall plan for the invasion and the subsequent Battle of Normandy. Approximately 160,000 Allied soldiers were to land across five beaches code named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah, while British and American paratroop and glider forces landed inland. Forces landing at each beach would eventually link up, establishing a beachhead from which to further push inland into France.
“You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.”
US Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall to General Eisenhower, February 1944
After numerous delays and major planning changes, D-Day was set for June 5. However, on June 4, as paratroopers prepared to board the C-47 Skytrains which would carry them behind enemy lines, weather conditions deteriorated. The decision was made to delay 24 hours, requiring part of the naval force bound for Utah beach to return to port. With a small window of opportunity in the weather, Eisenhower made the decision to go—D-Day would be June 6, 1944. Paratroops began landing after midnight as the massive invasion force took station off the coast. A short naval and aerial bombardment preceded the landings, which began at around 6:30 am.
Things went badly from the beginning for American forces landing at Omaha and Utah. At Omaha beach, the resistance was devastating for the early waves of troops. The landing force bound for Utah was blown off course, resulting in troops going ashore nearly a mile down the beach. American airborne forces of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were scattered behind Utah, sometimes tens of miles off target. To the west, the landings went more to plan for British and Canadian forces. Despite challenges and sometimes fierce enemy opposition, Allied forces persisted in establishing a beachhead in Normandy.
Heroic Beauty: Exposing Omaha Beach
How a Signal Corps photographic team took one of the most iconic images of Omaha Beach.
Allied planners envisioned a quick push into Normandy after establishing a beachhead. For all of the preparations made for OVERLORD, the Allied forces were ill-equipped for fighting in the hedgerows they quickly encountered in Normandy. Instead of wooden fences, Norman farms are enclosed by century-old hedgerows, man-made earth walls, deeply rooted with plants. Combined with the narrow, winding roads which passed between farms, this area known as the “Bocage” created a nightmare situation for Allied forces. German forces used the hedgerows defensively, creating deadly killing fields which Allied troops had to cross. This difficult terrain forced Allied troops to reevaluate tactics and come up with creative solutions for clearing the Bocage of German forces. This difficult situation slowed down progress in Normandy for the invading armies.
The Normandy Campaign Ends
In mid-June, American forces pushed west, isolating Cherbourg from German reinforcements. The well-defended, and vital port city did not fall to Allied forces until June 27. In the east, British forces secured Caen on July 9. Though the Allies had secured to major cities, progress in July was slow. Operation GOODWOOD, carried out by British forces on July 18 resulted in the loss of more than 400 tanks. On July 24-25, American forces launched Operation COBRA, aimed at breaking through the German lines near St.Lo. With the start of COBRA, the Normandy campaign came to an end and Allied forces turned their sites towards clearing northern France of German forces and liberating Paris and the Northern France Campaign began
Episode 103: Saving Private Ryan
Celebrated WWII epic Saving Private Ryan remains one of the most famous depictions of World War II to date. Is it true to history? Museum historians sought to answer that question.