June 6th, 2018 marks the 74th anniversary of the famous invasion of Normandy, when, in the early hours of the morning, over 150,000 allied troops stormed the beaches of Nazi-occupied France in one of the largest naval assaults in history. Codenamed Operation Overlord, the day of the invasion colloquially became known as D-Day and is one of the most important milestones of World War II.
Preparing For The Invasion
The global war between the Allied Nations and Axis Powers had been waging for five years by 1944. Though it was initially a European conflict, America was drawn into the fray by a surprise attack by the Japanese on the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After the “date which will live in infamy,” the three primary Allied Nations, America, Britain and the Soviet Union, met regularly to discuss the best method to deal with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the unofficial lynchpin of the Axis Powers. Britain, which had suffered heavy bombings, was generally in favor of sporadic air and coastal assaults to dissuade any further Nazi assaults. America was blunter and promoted an all-out ground assault from the west. The Soviet Union didn’t have a specific tactic in mind but was desperate for its allies to initiate a second front to relieve the pressure of Germany’s invasion of Russia.
Apart from their personal disagreements, these nations were under pressure from Hitler’s proposed ‘Atlantic Wall.’ Aware of a possible attack from across the English Channel, Hitler directed General Erwin ‘Desert Fox’ Rommel to establish a series of forts and battlements along the northern coasts of all Nazi-occupied territories, stretching from the northernmost tip of Scandinavia all the way to the Spain-France border. Though incomplete and its strength was overexaggerated in Nazi propaganda, the Atlantic Wall was still a formidable defense that was constantly getting stronger.
Finally, in early 1944, a plan was formulated by British, American and Canadian military forces: an amphibious invasion of France supplemented by aerial assaults and ground troops. American general and future president Dwight Eisenhower pointed out that the most support for the Atlantic Wall would be where it was still being built, so the resource-starved defenses at Normandy beach were chosen as the target. Eisenhower was subsequently appointed the commander of Operation Overlord, leaving all strategy up to him. In one of the most ingenious and complex military tactics in history, Eisenhower leaked to the Nazi’s that an invasion was forthcoming, but it’s intended target was Pas-de-Calais, far along up the coast from Normandy. To sell the ruse to any potential spies, Eisenhower directed hundreds of tanks, dozens of ships, and thousands of arms to be delivered to a nearby English base to sell a ‘Phantom Army.’ He even went so far as to declare prominent general George Patton the commander of the non-existent forces.
The Day Of The Invasion
Eisenhower had originally intended for the invasion to take place on June 5th but was delayed due to poor weather conditions. By the night of the 5th, however, the invasion was ready to begin. Under the cover of night, over 20,000 paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines at Normandy so that key bridges and fortifications could be secured beforehand and the Allied attack could be expedited if the invasion were successful. Infantry divisions which numbered around 160,000 troops sailed out of England before daybreak, making it the largest naval invasion in history. They landed in France around 6:30 in one of five designated sections of beaches along the selected 50 miles of coast, nicknamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The first wave of troops was butchered by German fortifications, but the few survivors managed to establish footholds in all five beaches before the second and third waves could meet the same fate. Overhead, a massive armada of fighter planes created a no-fly zone over the beach to keep German bombers from interfering in the invasion.
Though none of the Allied’s main goals were achieved in the initial invasion, the Atlantic Wall was effectively broken and a secure landing point on continental Europe had been formed. Within a week, the five beaches were united to form a solid stretch of Allied-controlled territory. Once the infantry had established a base, over 50,000 tanks were able to roll onto the French beaches to provide armored support and push the Nazi defenses back further. The bridges and forts previously captured by the paratroopers let the new mobile divisions run rampant throughout northern France for weeks until the region of Normandy had been fully liberated and a western front could be created.
The Allied invasion was aided by the Nazi’s completed disarray. Though fighting from a superior position and with advanced equipment, the German Defenses at Normandy were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Rommel was on leave at the time and the Nazi forces in the region suffered from confusion and indecision without their leader. Matters were made worse for them by Hitler’s absolute disbelief that such an attack was possible. He believed that the reports from Normandy were a ruse to distract him from the fake attack that was headed for Pas-de-Calais and refused to send reinforcements to his desperate soldiers. It was almost a month before he began taking the invasion seriously, one of his most debilitating mistakes in the war.
D-Day was merely the first day of the Battle of Normandy which lasted into August 1944 and effectively ended with the liberation of Paris. Due to the chaotic nature of the battle, exact casualty numbers are difficult to estimate. The German dead number somewhere between 4,000 and 9,000, and, though only a little over 4,000 bodies of Allied soldiers were recovered, the most conservative estimate places Allied casualties at over 10,000 men. Their sacrifice was not in vain as D-Day is often credited as being a turning point in the war that firmly established the Allies’ victory over Hitler.
The invasion and the battles that followed are the subjects of many acclaimed movies. There are many memories, museums and military cemeteries in Normandy today, including the Normandy American Cemetery, the first American graveyard on foreign soil.