On June 6th, 1944, thousands of Allied soldiers boarded landing craft off of the Normandy coast, for many of them, these would be the last hours of their life. The Allied invasion of the French coast was the turning point of Second World War. This single event paved the way for the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe. Hitler had worked his way into total seclusion from the Allies, except for the Soviet Union in the East, where the German Army was currently on the offensive. There were natural boundaries all around him, the Mediterranean to the south, the Atlantic and English Channel to the West, and the Arctic to the North. He knew that the Allies would have to stage a landing from the sea, and that was the way he liked it. Since the evacuation of the British and French armies from Dunkirk, not a single Allied soldier had set foot on the Mainland. The almost daily air raids by American and British bombers brought millions of tons of high-explosives deep into Germany. Despite the fury of these raids, the German war machine could not be stopped; factories were being built as fast as they were being destroyed.
For years, British and American Generals had been trying to devise a plan for an invasion of Europe. In 1944, they came up with what they saw as the best possible option, a sea and air invasion through France. The plans looked perfect on paper, but when put into action, there were many unseen flaws. Minesweepers would clear lanes through the English Channel, through which would sail the
Germans, it would still be a tough fight, as the soldiers would have to run across open beach while under fire from machine guns, mortars, and artillery. The element of surprise and deception of the enemy would play important roles in the planning of the assault. (Vail 7)
Facing the invaders was Hitler s Atlantic Wall . This was a wall of concrete and steel encompassing the entire French Coast, and bristled with machine guns, artillery, barbed wire, and anti-tank guns. Almost five million mines, eighty thousand troops, and seven hundred and fifty tanks would greet the invaders (Britannica)
There were two types of German troops in the Normandy area: garrison troops, and units there resting from the war on the eastern front with Russia. The garrison troops were the handful of soldiers assigned to protect the coast from a possible invasion. Many of them had been stationed in France since 1940. These troops also constituted an Army of occupation, and controlled the day-to-day operations of France. Since France was considered a quiet zone by the Germans, troops were sent there that had been mauled on the Eastern front, and were there to be brought back to strength (Patrick 30).
Unfortunately for the Allies, there were several other units in the area that had not been anticipated. These extra troops made the landings even more costly,
especially at Omaha beach where the veteran and extremely formidable 352nd infantry division was stationed.
It was Germany s attitude of superiority that lost them the Battle of Normandy. Several years before the invasions, Hitler had ordered Field Marshal Rommel to contrive tactics to defend the French coast from an attack. Rommel came up with several ideas that were pure genius, but for some reason nobody listened to him. The Germans had a new weapon, the V-1 Buzz-bomb , which was a primitive ballistic missile (Vail 104). Rommel wanted to use it to bomb the Allied troop concentrations that would undoubtedly form around the coast of England. His plan also called for the mining of British harbors, and raiding of docked ships with U-boats. This plan could have ended the assault before it could even commence, for an unknown reason, Hitler and his advisors paid little to no attention to this tactic. Rommel also drew up a secondary plan that outlined the defense of the French beaches and countryside in the event of an allied break-through. The Germans would defend the beaches for as long as possible, but at the first sign of a break-through, they would retreat to more defensible ground, and then quickly follow with a counter-attack. Hitler was outraged at this. He would not have his army run in the face of an enemy (Patrick 27).
Deception and trickery played a critical role in the allied victory. For months before June 6, the Americans and British had been sending easily de-coded messages between fake armies, making plans for an invasion one hundred miles from the actual one. They told of a huge invasion force consisting of hundreds of thousands of troops, and thousands of tanks. However, radio signals alone couldn t fool the German Recon planes that flew over Britain. If the Germans heard about this great army, but couldn t find it, they wouldn t believe it existed, so false staging areas were set up all around the coast of England. Inflatable tanks, ships, and artillery were set up, along with thousands of tents, to give the impression of a functional army base preparing for an invasion. To top it all off, a dead body was dropped from a ship off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea dressed as a high-ranking British General. He had a briefcase hand-cuffed to his wrist that contained fake documents about the invasion, placing it in the same place that the radio signals had said.
After nearly a year of preparation, the invasion force was gathered and ready. 1.5 million men, almost six thousand ships, and twelve thousand planes were ready to attack at a moment s notice. Allied air, and sea superiority was a deciding factor of the invasion. There was not a single Axis plane or warship to be seen on the morning of the attack.
At 0200 hrs, June 6, 1944, after two days of weather delay, the largest gathering of ships the world has ever seen weighed anchor from the five major bases around the southern English coast. Twenty thousand paratroopers and glider troops would be dropped behind German lines before the infantry hit the beaches. Their job was to seize bridges, roads, and other major transportation routes, to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the beaches. The French Resistance was also notified of the impending invasion, and set about wreaking havoc with Nazi communication lines. As a result of their work, German High Command was unaware of the attack until many hours after it had begun.
At 0015 hrs, the pathfinders touched down. These specially trained men were to designate landing zones for the airborne troops that were to follow them. They set up flares, radar beacons, and flashing lights. Even with these visual aids, many inexperienced American pilots dropped their paratroopers far from their designated landing sites. Only one unit landed exactly where it was supposed to be, others were as far as twenty miles from their LZ s. Many units lost many of their men and equipment even before the battle began. Men, artillery, and supplies were drowned or lost in swamps, never to be seen again.
At first light, the Germans found themselves facing thousands of ships that had appeared to materialize out of the night. They also were involved in skirmishes behind their own lines. At 0500 hrs, the Navy and the Army Air Force
opened up with the most intense shore bombardment ever. It hit enemy beach defenses, tank columns, supply lines, and railroads. Yet again, the allies utilized deception. In addition to the regular airborne drops, rubber dummies were dropped far from the actual battlefields. They were followed by firecrackers, rigged to detonate at different intervals, giving the impression of a firefight. Crucial German units were diverted from the real fighting to go to stop an enemy that wasn t even there. These diversions, accompanied with the shelling of beaches far from Normandy set the Germans into a state of confusion, as they now had no idea if Normandy was the real invasion, or just another diversion. As a result, German Generals sent troops to areas with no action, and they held back reinforcements until they were sure of where the actual invasion was; however by that time, the Allies had already overrun the defenders in some places, and it was to late.
The invasion from the sea, while not as mixed up as the airborne landings, had it s own problems. The landing craft, overloaded with men, jeeps, tanks, trucks, and artillery, were subjected to rough seas, machinegun fire, and artillery shelling for a good portion of their journey from the larger ships to the beaches. Many of the amphibious tanks, which were to aid in knocking out bunkers and pillboxes, foundered before reaching land. The soldiers hitting the beaches were at an extreme disadvantage. They had to run across almost 300 yards of open beach,
dodging mines, bullets, and the constant rain of shells. Their only cover was the wooden and steel obstacles that were placed by the Germans to prevent a landing. Juno, Sword, Gold, Omaha, and Utah were the five beaches scheduled to be hit simultaneously (www.nando.net). The British would take Sword and Gold, the Canadians would attack Juno, and the Americans would have Omaha and Utah. The British and Canadians came ashore to light resistance, and advanced far inland. The defenders at Utah put up a stiff resistance at first, but soon rumors, started by American POW s, circulated about a massive bombardment that was to take place soon. The Germans promptly surrendered, rather than be subjected to the shelling (Vail 89). On the other hand, the landings at Omaha were a disaster.
It was predicted in the planning stages that Omaha would be the hardest beach to take. The beach was narrow, and there were high vertical cliffs behind it. In addition, there also were twice the expected numbers of Germans defending it. The assault was plagued with bad luck from the beginning. Ten infantry barges, carrying more than three hundred men sank with no survivors, twenty-seven amphibious tanks capsized, and almost all of the landing craft carrying the 105mm howitzers succumbed to the rough seas. Being caught in a sinking landing craft meant almost certain death by drowning. The average infantryman carried 70lbs of equipment, plus his weapon (Patrick, 75). In the first few minutes, nearly one third of the men were hit before reaching the beach. Entire companies were killed
in a matter of moments (Vail 93). The morale of the troops was shattered. Many of them were already seasick, and the shock dealt to them from the death all around them made them panic. Most took cover behind the first shelter that they could find; a few made it to the seawall, a three-foot high rise of sand that marked high tide. Until 0800 hrs, the situation at Omaha was at a standstill, the Americans had not advanced off the beaches. A few officers, such as fifty-one year old Brigadier General Norman Cota, ran up and down the lines, and attempted to rally the men. Many soldiers were inspired by his brave display. Some finally moved out, and cleared paths through the barbed wire, and others climbed the cliffs, and encircled the German positions. The Navy destroyer Frankford moved in close to the shore, and directed her guns at the heavier gun emplacements. After the intense bombardment, many Germans panicked and surrendered. By late afternoon, Omaha was secured, and more troops began to land.
With the victory at Omaha, all of the beaches were secured, and the rest of the soldiers waiting offshore began to land. It was at this point that Hitler knew the war was over. He knew that if the Allies were allowed to gain a foothold on the beaches, there was no way that they could be beaten back. By the end of June, there would be eight hundred and fifty thousand men on the mainland (Encarta). Later in the war, there was a slight glimmer of hope for the Germans with the Battle of the Bulge, where the German army made a major break in the American
lines. But that last ditch attempt to force the Allies back to the sea was shattered. It was then only a matter of time until the mighty 3rd Reich would fall. Hitler committed suicide on April 29, 1945 in his under-ground bunker, along with his wife of only a few hours. The unconditional surrender of all German forces took place in Eisenhower s headquarters on May 7.
If not for the invasion of Normandy, there would have been no War in Europe ; Hitler would have stayed in power for many years more, while the Allies tried to scrape together another invasion force. Failure at Normandy would have meant the failure of the allied cause. It will never be known how much longer the war would have lasted if the invasion had not succeeded. The Allies might not have even won. If Germany was not forced to split it s forces and fight a two front war, they might have been able to defeat the Russians in the East, and then the Americans and British would have the full weight of the German army to deal with on their next attack. Normandy broke the stalemate that had existed ever since Dunkirk. For these reasons, Normandy was truly the turning point of the war.
Cappa, Robert. Encyclopedia Briannica Online. 1998 Version.
Tute, Warren. D-Day. New York: Nautic Presentations LTD, 1974
50th Anniversery of D-Day . Patch American High School. Online. 3 March, 1999. www.nando.net/sproject/dday