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D Day June 6, 1944 – 76 Years Ago

This June 6, 2020 marks the 76th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion [or D Day] in WW II.

Operation Overload, as the overall invasion was code named, was the largest amphibious invasion in history. Initially, the Allies had planned to invade northwestern ports in France as early as 1943 under Operation Sledgehammer. Discussions between President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill delayed the 1943 invasion of Europe in favor of an invasion of N. Africa, called Operation Torch . Churchill convinced Roosevelt that an invasion of N. Africa, followed by an attack against “the soft underbelly” of Europe through Italy, would more likely meet with success.

 

The serious planning for the Normandy Invasion began in late 1943 and early 1944. The logistics for such an enormous operation required months of planning by thousands of Allied personnel. The distance across the English Channel from the staging area at Portsmouth, England to the beaches of Normandy, was about 100 miles. 

 

To understand the complexity of the largest amphibious invasion in history, you must look at the numbers:

             The invasion ground force was approximately 160,000 men

             6,939 ships were used to transport men and equipment

             Some 2,395 allied aircraft [powered] were used

             867 gliders were used

             7 million tons of supplies were shipped

             450,000 tons of ammunition was shipped

 

Such a massive operation required the utmost secrecy and deception in order to be successful. 

In the book, Bodyguard of Lies, Anthony Cave Brown writes about the obsession of Prime Minister Churchill with secrecy and deception. The title of his book comes from a famous Churchill quote:

 

              

   “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should      always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

 

The deceptions used by the Allies were many. Under Operation Fortitude, Gen. George Patton was set up with a fake army in East Anglia, in the southeast corner of England, near the narrowest point in the channel, across from the French port of Calais. Patton’s  23rd Headquarters Special Troops and his 1st US Army Group South [FUSAG] were actual troops that would later become a part of British Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s invasion force. Fake equipment produced by some of England’s design studios were used to simulate the arrival of tanks, guns and aircraft. In the buildup for the actual invasion, the Allies produced a scripted,  8 in. thick book of radio transmissions to simulate the radio traffic that would precede an actual invasion. In addition, double agents were used to further convince the Germans that Calais was the target. 

 

Two months before D day, Allied forces conducted a dress rehearsal for the Normandy landings on an evacuated English beach. “Exercise Tiger” was a disaster. Somehow, the Germans learned of the mock invasion and sent their torpedo boats to attack the landing ships. Over 749 US troops lost their lives. Many of the survivors, who were later part of the Normandy landings, described the rehearsal as more terrifying than D Day itself.

 

Even though troops and supplies were in place by May, bad weather delayed the start of the invasion. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in charge of Overlord, decided that the launch date would be June 6. The weather was still rough on June 5 but Gen. Eisenhower’s meteorologists suggested that it would clear up by the 6th. On June 5, over 1,000 British bombers dropped over 5,000 tons of bombs on Nazi gun batteries along the coast near Normandy in order to cripple the German defenses. 

 

In 1943, Hitler had assigned Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the task of fortifying the invasion beaches along the French coast. Prior to the Allied invasion, Rommel had completed construction of his “Atlantic Wall”, a 2,400 mile long line of bunkers, landmines, as well as beach and water obstacles. Some estimates put the number of landmines at over 4 million.

 

In the early hours of June 6, paratrooper units from the 82nd and 101st US Airborne units were dispatched to land behind the lines, inland of the invasion beaches. Preceding them were elite Pathfinder Units whose job was to light landing areas for gliders and mark landing sites for the paratroopers. The invasion beaches were divided as follows: the British and Canadians were given Gold, Juno and Sword , while US forces were given Utah and Omaha. The amphibious invasions began at 6:30am. The surprise location allowed the landings at Gold, Juno, Sword and Utah to meet light opposition. The landing at Omaha met with heavy resistance and by the end of the day, there were over 2,000 American casualties. However, over 156,000 troops had come ashore at Normandy by the end of the day. There was a high casualty rate among the gliders that landed troops inland of the beaches. General confusion during the early lowlight hours, combined with the fact that the Germans had flooded some fields, combined for a deadly reception for those troops. 

 

Operation Neptune was the naval component of Overlord . In addition to  the transport of the invasion troops across the channel, the navies had to conduct mine sweeping operations ahead of the transports. Prior to the landing of troops, Navy battleships, cruisers and destroyers bombarded the German coastal fortifications and inland supply depots. Navy landing craft that carried amphibious troops ashore were used to transport the wounded back to larger ships for treatment.

 

With Allied air power almost unchallenged, bombers were able to take out key bridges, forcing German troops and armor to take long detours to get to the front. Overwhelming air superiority was a major factor in the success of Overlord.

 

 

 

Five days after D Day on June 11, artificial floating harbors called Mulberrys  were towed from England and installed along the invasion beaches to facilitate the unloading of more men, equipment and supplies. By then, the beaches were fully secured and over 326,000 troops, 50,000 vehicles and some 100,000 tons of supplies had been brought ashore. Before the war was over, more than 2,500,000 men, 500,000 vehicles and 4,00,00 tons of supplies had crossed the temporary harbors. 

 

Confusion among the Germans played an important role in the early success of the allied invasion. On the day of the invasion, Rommel was visiting his wife in Germany and several senior commanders were away from their posts. Hitler was late to rise that morning and his aides were reluctant to awaken him, fearing that the first reports were false alarms. Operation Fortitude had been such a success, that even after learning of the invasion, Hitler remained convinced that Normandy was merely a feint, and that the real invasion would come later at Calais. Hitler remained convinced that Calais was the primary invasion site and many German divisions remained in reserve until released in July. 

 

A crucial factor for Allied success on D Day was the almost total absence of German air power and sea power. The British Bomber Command along with the US 8th Air Force had continuously sent large bomber strikes deep into Germany in an effort to tease the German fighters into combat against the superior allied numbers. By the time D Day took place, the German Luftwaffe was not a factor.  The German navy or Kriegsmarine was limited to a few attacks by U-boats. The surface fleet had been so decimated that no capital ships were left and those ships available were too small and underpowered to take on the Allied fleet. Some U-boats tried to deploy during the night of June 6, but were beaten back with the loss of two subs and 4 others were damaged severely. Allied planes were able to hunt down the U-boats, even at night, because of radar. Only those U-boats with snorkels [a special tube that could be raised to the surface so that the diesel engines could operate while the ship was submerged] were a factor and they were few in number. . Only 14 U-boats with snorkels were in the area of Normandy because their U-boat fleet had been almost eliminated by allied navies the previous year. A total of 20 German U-boats were sunk over the two months beginning on D Day. The Allied fleet lost only 8 ships during the same time frame. 

 

Casualty figures are from historian Stephen Ambrose. He  estimated that over 4,000 Allied troops lost their live on D Day. The US Army counted 1,465 killed, 1,928 missing and 6,603 wounded. The after action report [as of July 1] of the US Army VII Corps counted 2,811 killed, 5,665 missing, 79 prisoners and 13,564 wounded. Canadian forces counted 9465 casualties, including 335 killed. British forces were not published but there were estimates of 2,500-3,000 casualties. German losses are a little more difficult to pinpoint. They are estimated at between 4 and 9,000 casualties total on D Day. For the entire month of June, Field Marshall Rommel listed some 250,000 casualties which included 28 Generals. For the entire period covered by Overlord , from June 6 to Aug 30, Allied casualties , were estimated at 209,000 and German casualties at 216,000. The Allies captured over 200,000 German prisoners

 

By Aug 1944, Allied troops had reached the Seine River and Paris had been liberated. The entire Normandy operation created a psychological blow to the Nazis. Hitler was forced to keep his forces in France and thus unable to send them to the Eastern Front to combat the Soviet troops advancing toward Germany. The ultimate advance of the Allies from the West and the Soviets from the East, spelled the end of Hitler and Nazi Germany. On May 8, 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies.

John Vick

 

[Sources: History.net ; historyvault.com; historyonthenet.com  by Stephen Ambrose; Imperial War Museum; Archival history of the 82nd Airborne; The Eisenhower Presidential Library; Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown]