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D-Day June 6, 1944

by Sydney Alix

This day, June 6, 2024, marks the 80th anniversary of D-day, one of the most pivotal battles in the history of World War II, and what is now considered to be the largest amphibious/ seaborne invasion in the history of warfare (Pickrell, R.)(I.W.M.).

From the very onset of WWII in 1939, Hitler began to rapidly seize control of the European continent in his “Blitzkrieg” or “Lightening War.” Beginning with his invasion of Poland, to his conquests in Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and France, his grim campaign ultimately culminated at the battle of Dunkirk in 1940, during which the British and French armies faced devastating defeat at the English Channel. In the end, the British were able to evacuate many of the stranded troops across the channel to Great Britain, leaving Hitler and his Nazi regime as the seeming masters of the European continent, and further emboldening them in their efforts to achieve world domination. Recognizing the strength of his new position, Hitler went on to install his “Atlantic Wall,” an immense system of defensive networks that stretched all along the coast of the English Channel, to thwart any attempts from the allies to take back the precious ground they had lost (Dday.org).

In the years that followed, the British began planning an amphibious assault by way of the English Channel to push the Nazis out of Europe (Dday.org)(Pickrell, R.). They were eventually joined in their efforts by the United States (after its entrance into the the war in 1941), which soon went on to transport an estimated 7 million tons of supplies to Great Britain along with U.S. troops to begin training for the assault (Pickrell, R.). Ultimately, twelve different Allied nations would unite together to plan and execute the invasion (code named Operation Overlord), and were led in their endeavors by Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower (National WWII Museum).

By the end of 1943, the Allied leaders had determined to make the Normandy Beaches along the coast of France their main objective. This was largely due to the fact that the Nazis were anticipating any potential amphibious allied attacks to be centered on Pas de Calais, which was both the closest crossing point from Great Britain along the English Channel (Klein, C.), as well as the position where the majority of Hitler’s panzer divisions were stationed, making it the most heavily armed sector of the Atlantic wall. Since Pas de Calais was such an obvious prime target and ideal region for a Channel crossing, the Nazis did not expect an amphibious attack to be made at a location such as Normandy (which was located 150 miles away), and based much of their defense strategies around Pas de Calais (National WWII Museum).

The beaches along the French coast were heavily fortified by Hitler’s 2,400 mile wall of defensive bulwarks. These were still further protected by an intricate network of hundreds of thousands of beach obstacles and an astounding 6.5 million mines, while the fortifications themselves were manned by 300,000 German soldiers, and contained hidden batteries and thousands of heavily armed concrete and steal bunkers and pillboxes (National WWII Museum) (L.R.E.)(M.H.N.). In addition to Hitler’s formidable Atlantic Wall, the Nazis also possessed an overwhelming force of roughly 58 divisions in France (O’Donnell, P.) which outnumbered the allied forces by ten to one (National WWII Museum), along with approximately 2,000 tanks in mobil reserve, all of which were in a state readiness to defend Hitler’s coastal defenses at the first warning of invasion (O’Donnell, P.). Consequently, the allies did their utmost to keep their preparations for the invasion of the utmost secrecy, recognizing that covertness would most likely be the surest safeguard of their mission’s success (National WWII Museum).

The collective allied forces tasked with taking the beaches of Normandy were comprised of approximately 156,000 troops, and would be supported by an estimated 5,000 ships and 11,000 planes. They planned to concentrate their efforts on five Normandy beaches, code named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The landings on Omaha and Utah would be assigned to American divisions, while those on Gold, Juno, and Sword were allocated to the British and Canadian forces. Tens of thousands of airborne troops would also be deployed to the mainland along the Normandy coast by parachute or gliders to support the amphibious attacks from inland (Dday.org) (National Archives).

After months of meticulous planning and groundwork, the allied leaders set June 5 as the exact date for their invasion. However, they were forced to reconsider their plans after severe stormy weather moved in over the channel that would make their amphibious assault and attacks from the air next to impossible. Meteorologists predicted a short break in the bad weather on June 6, and at last, after consulting with his fellow allied commanders, General Eisenhower gave the final order that would set the invasion in motion for June 6, 1944 (Dday.org).

The attack on Normandy began shortly after midnight with the allies sending waves of aircraft to bomb various enemy positions, and drop off thousands airborne troops behind enemy lines to take part in the attacks from inland (Pickrell, R.). Unfortunately, a large number of paratroopers landed far outside of their drop zones, and tragically, many were shot down by the enemy before they even landed, while others, weighed down by their heavy gear, drowned in the swamplands, or got hung up on buildings or other structures, only to be eventually shot or captured by the enemy (Greenspan, J.). Undaunted by these setbacks, they courageously pushed on to complete their mission to hamstring the German defenses by destroying communication lines, seizing control of key towns, and ambushing any enemy reinforcements. Their efforts were so successful that the Nazis were tricked into believing the invading allied force to be much larger that it actually was, and diverted their troops accordingly, thus drawing their attention and forces away from the impending amphibious assault (O’Donnell, P.).

All during this time, the Allied naval armada, comprised of nearly 7,000 naval vessels bearing thousands of allied troops and sailors churned across the English Channel for the coast of Normandy, France (Pickrell, R.), reaching its destination just off the beaches in the early morning hours. Just prior to, and all throughout the troop’s landings on the beaches, the Allied naval ships heavily bombarded the Nazi’s defenses in an attempt to incapacitate or at least severely damage them before their soldiers arrived on the beaches (I.W.M.). At last, at 6:30am, the monumental amphibious assault on Normandy was launched (History.com). The hours that followed would dramatically change the course of the European conflict, and forever mark the events of that fateful day as some of the greatest exemplifications of courage, heroism, and sacrifice of all the battles fought during the second world war.

Of the five beaches, Omaha was the most underestimated and heavily defended. In addition to its heavy fortifications, it was encompassed by formidable cliffs, and defended by a much larger force of German soldiers than anticipated (Greenspan, J.). The allied bombings from both the air and sea had done very little to cripple the enemy’s defenses, which, together with the heavy surf, went on to greatly hamper the efforts of the American troops tasked with storming the beach (I.W.M.)(Greenspan, J.). Violently seasick from the rough surf, the soldiers disembarked from the landing craft and struggled through the waves to the shore. They were met by a withering storm of enemy machine gun fire, and hundreds of their ranks were cut down as they reached the shore, or attempted to exit the landing craft, and soon, the beach was covered with the bodies of the dead and wounded. The heavy enemy onslaught left the American troops pinned down on the beaches for several hours and inflicted so many casualties that U.S. Field Commander Lieutenant General Omar Bradley gave serious thought to aborting the attempted landing altogether (I.W.M.)(History.com). In the end, the troops were at last able to slowly make their way to the shelter afforded at the base of the cliffs, and with the mutual assistance of U.S. Army rangers, who scaled the cliffs and seized some the German’s heavy artillery, and several U.S. battleships that braved enemy fire to come within closer range to effectively bombard the German’s fortifications, they succeeded in securing the beach, and began fighting their way inland (Greenspan, J.)(History.com). Of the 34,000 American troops that landed on Omaha Beach, over 2,400 were left dead, wounded, or missing, making it the bloodiest of all the D-day beach landings (National WWII Museum)(Greenspan, J.).

The second U.S. D-day landing on Utah Beach was not nearly as bloody and intense as that on Omaha. The troop’s landing craft were swept an estimated 2,000 yards south of their objective by strong currents to a much less defended sector of the enemy’s fortifications. Thanks to the efforts of the American airborne troops that had landed in the area several hours earlier, a route had been secured that enabled the soldiers to push inward without facing severe opposition, and of the over 23,000 U.S. troops that landed on Utah Beach, only approximately 200 of their number became casualties (I.W.M.).

Gold Beach was attacked by roughly 25,000 British troops, and due to the rising tides and strong winds, they were greatly delayed, and launched their offensive nearly an hour after the landings on the Omaha and Utah beaches were underway (I.W.M.)(Greenspan, J.). The British battle ships and earlier aerial attacks had successfully disabled much of the enemy’s defenses, and many of their armored vehicles were able to safely reach the shore and clear the beach of obstacles and hidden mines, all of which allowed the British to seize total control of the beach in a relatively short period of time (Greenspan, J.).

Almost simultaneous with the commencement of the attack on Gold Beach, British troops also landed further east on Sword Beach. Several hours prior to their arrival, British and Canadian Airborne troops had either seized or destroyed key bridges and German artillery, thus successfully slowing the advance of German reinforcements (Greenspan, J.). However, between the stout German defense, severe weather conditions, and difficult topography of the beach, the British were unable to land crucial armored vehicles on Sword Beach to support their advance into the mainland. Consequently, though they eventually secured the beach and later successfully repulsed enemy reprisal attacks, they were unable to take their main designated objective, namely, the coastal city of Caen (which they would not completely secure until over a month later) (I.W.M.).

The Canadian forces at the D-day landings were tasked with seizing Juno Beach and joining up with the British landing forces from both Gold and Sword (I.W.M.). Unfortunately, they were significantly delayed by the rising tides, turbulent seas, and hidden shoals and enemy mines. When they at last succeeded in landing on the beach, they were met with heavy enemy fire and sustained severe casualties that crippled their leading assault teams. After a fierce struggle, they were able to force their way inland, where they were met with far less resistance than on the beach, allowing them to advance even more rapidly than either the British or American divisions on the other four beaches. Though they too, like the British forces on Gold Beach were unable to take their main objective (in this case, the Carpiquet airport), they successfully seized control of several key coastal towns, and eventually rejoined the British forces on Gold Beach (Greenspan, J.).

After a long, hard day of bloody conflict, the Allies were successfully able to land an estimated 160,000 troops on the beaches of Normandy (National WWII Museum). These would continue to be reinforced by newly arriving soldiers, until by the end of June, their numbers had increased to about 850,000. The Normandy Campaign was still far from being over, and the Allies would continue to fight their way across France throughout the ensuing weeks, slowly but surely forcing the Nazis into retreat. It wasn’t until late July that the campaign finally concluded after the Allied forces successfully broke through the German lines at the Battle of Saint Lô, thus demolishing one of the last key strongholds of the Atlantic Wall (Normandy1994.info). At last, by the end of August, the Allies liberated Paris and drove the German army out of northern France, signaling the beginning of the end of the Nazi occupation of Europe (History.com).

The invasion of Normandy is considered to be one of the most significant turning points of WWII. It would spearhead the Allie’s efforts to liberate Europe from Hitler’s fanatical, power- hungry grasp, and forge a path that would enable them to bring down the Axis powers once and for all. D-day cost the lives of an estimated 2,502 American soldiers, and an additional 1,913 Allied troops, leaving hundreds of others wounded, captured, or missing (Dday.org). In the face of certain death and overwhelming odds, these brave men were willing to run into enemy fire and face the untold horrors and carnage of the bloody beaches of Normandy, despite the fact that their actions would very likely cost them their lives. An incredible story of courage, devotion, fortitude, and sacrifice, may the history of D-day always be remembered and commemorated, and continue to inspire and remind Americans for generations to come that freedom is a sacred inheritance worth fighting, and even dying for.

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