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Sunday, June 1, 2014

D-Day, June 6 1944 - Operation Overlord

Start of the Reconquest of Europe

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
American paratroopers about to drop on Normandy early on June 6, 1944. They were the first ones back in France, while it was still dark.

The story of D-Day, June 6th, 1944, is so well known it scarcely requires re-telling. I'll go through the highlights briefly, with a few odd little-known facts here and there to keep anyone reading from getting too bored.

US Paratroopers worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The start of D-Day - paratroopers at night.

The Western Allies had been engaged in a "peripheral strategy" against German-occupied Europe for two years at the time of D-Day, but it had been only marginally successful.

US Paratroopers worldwartwo.filminspector.com
'Mission Albany' Taking off just after midnight 6th June 1944, over 2000 airborne troops would spearhead the D-Day landings by dropping behind enemy lines 5hrs before the first troops got their boots wet on the Normandy beaches. (Colourised by Paul Reynolds)

North Africa had been conquered, but that was a sideshow and everyone knew it. Italy was a slow, endless grind that wasn't getting any easier.

German SS worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German soldiers in Normandy. Probably SS - they were required to wear full camouflage.

Pre-Invasion Strategy

Italy was proving extremely tough to reclaim and, quite frankly, more trouble than it was worth in military terms.

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German soldiers in Normandy. 1944 (Federal archive).

About the only positive news the public ever received about it was the capture of Rome a couple of days before D-Day.

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US Army M4 Sherman tanks and other equipment loaded in a LCT, ready for the invasion of France, circa late May or early Jun 1944. This is how wars are won.

The was was going to last a long time if the Allies were going to just rely on their forces in Italy and the Russian front. The Allies were bogged down by excellent delaying tactics on the Italian peninsula, and the Soviets were grinding it out but still faced strong German forces deep inside their territory.

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Hitler is visiting the French coast fortifications. Keitel, the yes-man commanding the High Command staff, is talking with the Luftwaffe adjutant. Right behind Hitler comes Hans Lammers, the chief of the chancellery. Hitler unusually wears his civilian trench coat, one of his favorite lighter outer garments. This appears to be 1943.

The time had come to launch an invasion on the short road to Berlin in order to string out the German defenders, and Normandy was chosen as the best spot.

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Famous shot of the D-Day landings, with barrage balloons and endless convoys of tanks and supplies

Why Normandy? Because that was within fighter range from British airfields. It also was the slightly less obvious of the two main possibilities for invasion, the other being the Pas de Calais (also within fighter range and thus the only other realistic place). It was the Allied, not the Axis, capabilities that determined the destination.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Winston Churchill walks to Parliament to announce the invasion. This was a great day in his (and the British people's) life. However, it also was a harbinger of his own political downfall. The British were winning the war, but suffering intense privations. Success on the battlefield brought a desire for less sacrifice, with Churchill the poster-child for sacrifice. Once the war was considered won, people wanted someone in charge who wasn't as hard on them. He was voted out of office within a year.

In war, tiny advantages matter. The Allies knew that the Germans would be waiting for them at the Pas de Calais because it was so obvious and the shortest route across the English Channel. On a clear day, you could see the French coast from Dover 20 miles across the Channel from England to the Pas de Calais. Everybody knew that was the "short route" across the water and on to Berlin. The Germans themselves would were planning to use a similar tactic as the Allies did - they were planning on landing on the Southern Coast of England, not take the short route to Dover. But the Germans seemed to lose a lot of strategic sense in 1944, both in the West and in the East.

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Another German coastal gun in Normandy. Many of the German emplacement remain, though the guns themselves are long gone.

There were multiple advantages for the Germans if the Allies in fact had chosen the Pas de Calais for their invasion. It was closer for reinforcement and re-supply from German factories and industrial centers such as the Ruhr. There also were major forces nearby in every direction. Since the success of the invasion depended upon building up forces in the beachhead faster than the enemy, the quick availability of reinforcement was vital, if not decisive.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Topographical illustration, apparently from a contemporary magazine, showing the view ahead from the water. Once you got ashore, there was some quick climbing ahead. Defenders above, firing down at you, are always the most dangerous because they have a clear field of view and fire.

On balance, for the Allies the balance of considerations favored keeping German supplies attenuated, making the more distant (from German factories and reinforcements) invasion location more attractive even though it was a bit further away for them, too.

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Troops and crewmen aboard a Coast Guard manned LCVP as it approaches a Normandy beach on “D-Day.” (June 6, 1944). Note the nice, big flag.

So, the Americans did their best to convince the Germans that the Pas de Calais was their destination while focusing on Normandy all along. This included creating an artificial army across the Channel from the Pas de Calais, sending radio signals from that location (where there actually were very few forces), and pretending that General George S. Patton was in command of the "invasion forces" there.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
During World War II, US Divisions tended to be raised in discrete parts of the country, sometimes entirely within a single State or two. This is the 90th U.S. Infantry Division, nicknamed “Tough ‘Ombres,” “Texas’ Own,” & the “Alamo” Division. It was activated in 1917 during WWI, then reactivated in 1942 at Camp Barkeley near Abilene. Comprised mostly of Texans & Oklahomans-what you see are some of Texas’ Own being transported to the Utah Beach sector. The closely spaced barrage balloons created a relatively safe "highway" for the transports.

The Grand Deception Campaign

The deception campaign by the Allies surrounding D-Day is part of the lore of the operation and fun for some patriotic people to reflect in self-satisfied fashion on how the Allies "pulled a fast one" on the "dumb Germans." This fits into a general framework that the Germans were decadent from four years of occupation duty in France and too stupid to make realistic appreciations of the developing situation, that they were confused and bewildered by all intricate Allied feints.

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Jun6 1944 0558: Daybreak – a cold grey day arrives Consolidated B-24H Liberators of 486th Bombardment Group, US Eighth Air Force, flying over part of the Allied invasion fleet gathered off the Normandy coast, 6 June 1944. They were part of a force of 380 aircraft of 3rd Bombardment Division despatched on the morning of D-Day to bomb villages through which access roads ran to the beachheads. For some reason they do not have Operation Overlord wing markings.

It is nice to think that not only are you stronger in a material sense than your opponent, but more clever as well and thus superior in a moral sense. The Japanese tried similar wildly complicated feints in the Pacific, for instance at Midway, which if they had any effect at all only hurt themselves. The bottom line is that the Allied deceptions on the day of the D-Day invasion were almost all ineffective, though they at least did not hurt the overall operation like the complex Japanese maneuvers did.

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A soldier writing the names of the deceased on canvas body bags following the D-Day invasion, which took place on June 6, 1944. This would have been censored.

There were several specific and separate deception strategies under the general rubric of Operation Bodyguard, the name for the overall deception strategy:

Operation Taxable - simulated an invasion force (using small boats, towed barrage balloons etc.) approaching Cap d'Antifer;
Operation Glimmer - simulated an invasion force approaching Pas de Calais;
Operation Big Drum - operated radar-jamming equipment off the French coast;
Operation Titanic - an airborne deception strategy.

Have you ever heard these names? Unless you are a top historian of the invasion, probably not. That's because they were almost all completely ineffective and unnecessary, thus not worth emphasizing by the victors. That's how official history works. Nice efforts, good concepts - and useless.

German prisoners Normandy worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German prisoners of war captured after the D-Day landings in Normandy are guarded by U.S. troops at a camp in Nonant-le-Pin, France, August 21, 1944.

Overall, the Germans did not fall for the deceptions - but then, they really did not react to much at all on June 6, even to the actual invasion itself. To the extent the deception operations confused and distracted a few random Germans on the coast (some Allied bomber feints were attacked by the Germans - but those Axis units would not have been used in Normandy anyway), they were probably worthwhile. Their true benefit was that they made the Allied decision makers more comfortable in their tough choices as "having done everything possible" whilst sending men to their deaths. The deception operations also may have comforted some soldiers approaching the French Coast who saw the operations headed in the other direction and concluded that the Germans were "looking the other way."

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The fields of Northern France are littered with gliders as the Douglas C 47s that towed them there leave the area. You can see that not all the landings were perfect. This also is a nice view of the venerable hedgerows that would influence the campaign in the following weeks.

However, the bottom line is that the elaborate deception strategies did not materially contribute to victory. In fact, in an attempt to justify the operations and prove their wisdom, post-war historians scoured the record for evidence that they were effective. They found very little. The overwhelming Allied naval and air force armadas covering the actual invasion beaches and the troops holding rifles staggering through the waves - they ensured victory. It is a lesson worth remembering.

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A German 40.6cm_(16 inch) coastal gun. The emplacement is still there and looks the same. The gun and German sentry - gone.

Pre-Invasion German Preparation

Preparation is everything in war, as it is in life. While semi-obsessed with the Pas de Calais route, the Germans hadn't neglected Normandy. Far from it. Hitler half-expected the invasion to take place there, saying that his "intuition" told him it was the destination (his "intuition" may have been aided by spy reports he did not wish to discuss). General Erwin Rommel was convinced that he had done everything possible to defend Normandy, and perhaps he was correct given the resources available to him. However, Hitler kept the Normandy coast relatively weakly defended, counting on a Panzer riposte to take care of matters if the time came. Rommel also appears to have been strangely over-confident about the strength of his fairly useless efforts there.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Americans composed the Western Task Force, British and Canadians the East. This was the last time, until the present day, where US forces arguably took a secondary role in a major operation except for the Arnhem paratroop assault in September, which was a primarily British operation

The Germans had laid mines everywhere in Normandy - literally millions of mines, some 4 million by the beginning of May 1944, and some of which are undoubtedly still there, buried deep beneath the sand. They built large coastal batteries, taking the guns from fixed defenses on the Siegfried Line and in East Prussia, and set up large beach obstacles in the surf. Normandy was not, however, as well defended as the Pas de Calais by troops and mobile forces because, as mentioned earlier, it was further from Germany, and it was considered that there would be more time to respond to an invasion there. That was true, but once the enemy was safely ashore and rapidly being reinforced, time to respond didn't matter much when you didn't have much to respond with. The Germans should have been mindful of their own experience at Crete in 1941, when their continual reinforcement from the mainland was the decisive factor. However, their strategic thinking in 1944 both in the East and the West was quite shaky, perhaps because Hitler had dismissed so many realistic top Generals by then and the remainder either were loyal Party members who could not even contemplate defeat, or were opposed to the war entirely and not inclined to help the German war effort.

Hans Speidel Erwin Rommel worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Rommel with his chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Dr. Hans Speidel. 

Rommel's Chief of Staff, Hans Speidel, is a key figure in this regard. Speidel soon after was involved in the 20 July 1944 plot against Hitler and was arrested by the Gestapo. Speidel is a murky figure to whom some ascribe pro-Allied motives, and it is known that he disobeyed some direct orders (such as an order to bomb Paris). Speidel was the man on the spot on D-Day (Rommel was on holiday back in Germany), and perhaps made some tactical decisions that covertly aided the Allied invasion. Let's just say that his heart was not completely vested in a German victory. How far that extended and what effect it may have had is an open question. Completely rehabilitated after the war, Speidel became a full General in NATO.

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Canadians disembarking on Juno Beach. They landed in between the two British sectors.

The Invasion: Lodgement Phase

The invasion began on June 5, when ships from distant ports left their harbors with the intention of being at the Normandy beaches at first light. Paratroopers from both the US and British armies embarked on gliders and transports and prepared to be flown inland to targets behind the beaches.

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French civilians giving info to US troops at Vierville-sur-Mer on D-Day, June 6th 1944. Allied troops were greatly assisted by the French Resistance in their identification of locales, roads, and German defensive positions throughout the bitter battles for securing the bridgeheads from German counterattacks.

In the British sector, for instance, Operation Deadstick went into gear. This was the seizure of key bridges just behind the beaches to give the invading forces time to consolidate before heavy German tanks and troop reinforcements could respond. Troops from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, the Royal Engineers and the Glider Pilot Regiment - 181 men - were packed into six Horsa gliders in Dorset, in south-west England. Tug planes towed their aircraft towards the skies above Normandy, then released.

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One of the Horsa Gliders that landed near the Pegasus Bridge. This picture makes it look isolated, but the photographer was standing next to another glider.

Five of the gliders landed as close as 50 yards from the bridge (the sixth was seven miles off). The bridge was taken within ten minutes with only two casualties. They also secured another nearby bridge a few hundred yards to the East. It was the first major success of D-Day, preventing early German reinforcements from attacking the landing beaches.

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Pegasus Bridge over the Orne River

At 00:16 on June 6, five of the gliders landed close to Pegasus bridge on the Caen canal - 50 yards away in one case, an epic feat of navigating in the dark - and a sixth landed close to a second crossing. Pegasus Bridge, a nothing little bridge, was captured within 10 minutes with the loss of two men from the Allied forces - the first to be killed under enemy fire in the D-Day invasion. Paratroopers also landed at many other places, though rarely with such precision.

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This shows nicely that the immediate objective was not east, but west - Cherbourg, a badly needed, isolated deep-water port that had to be taken as quickly as possible.

At first light, things revved up: the first wave of troops had to get ashore for everything else to follow. The morning was stormy, but vessels already were in motion from some of the more distant embarkation points and paratroopers were being dropped. Eisenhower decided that calling everyone back at the last second would be worse than simply following through no matter the deleterious effects of the overcast day even if it got worse. The Germans were slightly relaxed because of the weather.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com


British and Canadians disembarked on the eastern beaches near Caen while the Americans took the western ones near Cherbourg. The British had promising early success, but were stopped cold short of their primary objective a few miles inland, the strategically important city of Caen. Relatively speaking, the British and Canadians had less difficulty getting ashore and then more problems inland. Over the next week, General Montgomery tried repeatedly to capture Caen in Operation Perch and the aborted Operation Wild Oats.

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A German telegram on 7 June 1944 setting forth the state of play. It is curiously general for the second day of an invasion: "Since early yesterday morning, there has been an enemy attack...."

The Germans quickly brought forward the elite 1 SS Panzer Corps commanded by Hitler crony Sepp Dietrich:

  • 21st Panzer Division;
  • Panzer Lehr; 
  • 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend ("Hitler Youth").

While every German soldier in Normandy was fighting against tremendous odds, the 12th SS Panzer Division did the most to preserve the German position in Normandy. From D-Day straight through to the eventual withdrawal above the Seine in August, the Hitlerjugend held its position during its ferocious defense of Caen. If the 12th SS Panzer Division had collapsed, the war might have ended in 1944.

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Michael Wittmann

The bottom line was that the Germans stopped the British cold, including a legendary stand alone in a single Tiger by Michael Wittmann at Villers-Bocage, a key road junction southwest of Caen, on June 13. In less than 15 minutes, he destroyed 13–14 British tanks, two anti-tank guns and 13–15 transport vehicles. His actions and follow-up by his Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101 forced an immediate British retreat. In plain language, Wittman, a veteran of the Eastern Front including the Battle of Kursk, lit the British up and gave them a good spanking.

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Canadians study a German model of the beaches after capturing a German command post. Rommel was probably looking at this only days before.

The Americans, on the other hand, had more difficulty getting ashore (because of Rommel's minefields and other precautions, particularly on Omaha Beach toward the center of the entire invasion). Once ashore, though, the Americans were able to quickly fan out over subsequent hours, days and weeks (because re-supply from Germany and reinforcement was more difficult further west).

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General Omar Bradley was known as a "soldier's General." This picture illustrates why. He is going ashore with Admiral Alan Kirk on D-Day evening.

The Americans took the first important target, the port of Cherbourg, after two full weeks of hard fighting. Cherbourg had a deep-water harbour and was vital for serious re-supply and reinforcement. It was the single most important strategic objective of the invasion. In fact, if it was not taken, the Allied troops would be ripe for a panzer counterstroke, especially if - as actually happened - the weather turned bad and interfered with supplies to the beaches.

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U.S. Soldiers of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, move out over the seawall on “Utah” Beach, after coming ashore. Other troops are resting behind the concrete wall. Photo dated June 9, 1944, but probably taken on “D-Day”, June 6, 1944.

However, it took precious time to take Cherbourg. The Germans resisted furiously, and the city had very strong defenses. Cherbourg is not that far from Utah Beach, so the fact that it took so long to fall is proof that the Germans fought hard.

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.British Soldiers Captured in Normandy.Normandy, France -- According to the German caption accompanying this photo received in London from a neutral source, these men are British soldiers who have been captured by the Germans in Normandy..Credit: ACME.Date: 8-1-44

The Germans in Cherbourg were fighting like madmen and Hitler was all over the commanding officer to fight to the death, naming it his first "fortress" on the western front. However, the Germans there could not be resupplied once the Allies closed the roads from inland, so the German surrender was inevitable.

Korean D Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
This poor Korean fellow was taken prisoner whilst serving in the Wehrmacht in Normandy on D Day. Korea wasn't part of the Axis, but its men found their way to Normandy anyway. He had been serving for the Japanese, then for the Soviets after he was captured, and then for the Germans when they captured him. He got captured a lot... but that's better than being shot.

When the end became obvious, the German commander asked the Americans to use artillery at point-blank range to blow open the city gate before he surrendered so that his obeyance of the order to hold out as long as he could was not placed in question.

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A dead US soldier in the sand as other troops and tanks move off the beach, Utah Beach - 6 June 1944. He has been identified and labelled, his next of kin will get a telegram soon and a knock on the door.

The Americans were aided by Code Talkers who eliminated the need for time-consuming message encryption/decryption and made their troop movements more agile. The British, however, remained bogged down before Caen for weeks and had no major ports in their sector to capture.

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The first assault wave did not know what to expect. However, there were so many of them that the Germans would have had to be in place at this moment, firing like crazy, to have had any chance of success at preventing a beachhead from forming. Instead, the German defenders are nowhere to be seen.

The British, in their defence, faced the fiercest and most determined opposition once ashore. The Germans knew that if the British broke through to the East through Caen, the entire Normandy Peninsula (and France as a whole) would become quickly isolated and indefensible.

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A German soldier, probably SS and perhaps Hitlerjugend, in Normandy in June or July 1944 (Reich, Federal Archive, colorized).

In that case, a general withdrawal would be required, with all forces already there having to surrender. Thus, it was the critical spot.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Caption: "Soldiers of 130.Panzer Lehr Division study a map of the region surrounding Tilly-sur-Seulles during the Battle of Normandy shortly following the Allied landings in France. By the end of June 1944 the division’s armored component was severely depleted. Despite this, it continued to hold against the British and Commonwealth forces, engaging in heavy fighting near this town. Tilly-sur-Seulles, Calvados, Lower Normandy, France. 9 June 1944. "

The Germans, perhaps due to lack of confidence or raw fear, defended against the British frontally rather than trying a Manstein-style riposte against overextended flanks which might have had more success. It probably was the wisest short-term course given their lack of command of the air which made road movements dangerous and costly, but it doomed the Germans to eventual defeat as the Allies steadily built up their forces to overwhelming proportions. The British, however, never broke through the German block despite intense efforts, it was the Americans who finally broke out to the south.

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Climbing the seawall at Utah Beach. This was the western-most beach of the invasion and was added as an after-thought. As a non-obvious choice, the landing faced few defenders and little resistance. Omaha Beach, the obvious landing spot just to the east, was a vastly different story, with the Germans well-prepared.

The German forces in place for the defense of the Pas de Calais further north also were relatively close by to the British sector. They could directly meet the British head-on faster than they could loop around the British and then turn north to confront the Americans, or try a more intricate maneuver against the British.

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German prisoners taken during Operation 'Goodwood' under guard, 19 July 1944. I can't make out the collar tabs, so not sure what unit he's from. These guys were rough customers - the guy behind him still has the dirt on his face from the gunfire. They were lucky, two weeks later they'd likely have been killed at Falaise.

There was no subtlety, and too much road movement was both dangerous due to air attack and taxed scarce fuel supplies.

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12th SS Div. Hitlerjugend.

The heavy tanks of the 12th SS Panzer Division were quickly moved into good defensive positions to prevent a British breakout. They came under constant British attack but were ordered to stand fast.

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Officers of 12th SS-HJ . Left to right - SS-Untersturmführer Komodina, SS-Untersturmführer Porsch (KIA), SS-Untersturmführer Herbert Walther and SS-Obersturmführer Freitag. Freitag would be captured alongside Max Wünsche in Normandy

Stand fast they did, at the cost of thousands of their soldiers. The leaders were hardened veterans of the Russian Front, but inside many of the tanks were boys who had grown up under the Third Reich and knew no other way.

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PzKpfw. V “Panther” of 12.SS Panzer Division “Hitlerjugend” in Normandy, 1944. While the Panther was considered a medium tank, in fact it was heavier than anything the Allies had in France.

The Americans, paradoxically, were heading west away from Germany toward Cherbourg, not east toward German troop concentrations. As long as the British served as a blocking force for counter-attacks from the East, the Americans had a free hand in the West against light opposition. The Germans thought they were blocking the British, but in fact the British were blocking the Germans.

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Among Hitler's priorities was protecting the V-1 launching sites a little further north along the French coast.

There was one other vital reason for keeping the major German forces along the coast to the north of Normandy, which may have been the most important of all. It isn't mentioned very much in official histories, but Hitler himself alluded to it obliquely in his Directive No. 51 of November 3, 1943:
Everything indicates that the enemy will launch an offensive against the Western Forces of Europe, at the latest in the spring, perhaps even earlier. I can therefore no longer take responsibility for further weakening the west, in favor of other theaters of war. I have therefore decided to reinforce its defenses, particularly those places from which long-range bombardment of England will begin.
Directive 51 led directly to the appointment of Erwin Rommel, who was famous but ultimately had very impact against the invasion, and that is what everybody mentions. The part most people miss in the directive is the very last clause in the quoted selection: "particularly those places from which long-range bombardment of England will begin." Hitler knew something very few other people knew: that the V-1 launching sites were being built around the Pas de Calais area and could not be moved elsewhere due to range limitations. He had bet his chips on those advanced weapons winning the war or at least serving as a tool to keep demoralized troops fighting. Huge expenditures had been made, V-1s were just becoming ready to use, and they were terrifying new weapons with incalculable effects on enemy morale. Losing those sites was unthinkable. That was why he kept his forces to the north, not because of any Allied deceptions.

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Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (1891-1944), popularly known to both sides as the Desert Fox (Wüstenfuchs), somewhere in North Africa (ca. 1942). Overall commander of the German forces in Normandy, he was in Germany for his wife's birthday that day, assuming the weather was too bad for an invasion. He was a solid soldier, prepared diligently, did the right things, but the balance of forces was overwhelmingly against him. His ability to seal off the bridgehead for as long as he did with markedly inferior forces is an achievement vastly under-rated by historians. His troops were not accused of war crimes, and captured Allied soldiers were reported to have been treated humanely. In all theaters of his command, he ignored orders to kill captured commandos, Jews, and civilians. Everybody respected Rommel. He took over in Normandy after the November 3, 1943 directive No. 51.

Allied Command of the Air

German troop movement was severely constrained by Allied air attacks, so troop movement proximity to their destination was all-important. They lost a fraction of their troops for every mile they travelled. They would have lost a large fraction of their forces from air attack if they tried to skirt the British who were nearby and travelled much further over open roads to confront the Americans. The Americans had complete command of the French air that Spring. Besides, the Germans had enough problems just containing the British. In a way, the situation was quite similar to the roles that the British and the Americans played during the invasion of Sicily, when the British took the quick route to Messina and the Germans frantically and fanatically blocked them, while the Americans had a free hand in the western half of the island and occupied huge swathes of territory while the British were stalled on the east coast.

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American P-38s attacking a German FLAK tower guarding an airfield in preparation for Overlord

The French partisans also were stirred up and doing things to slow down the German troop movements (and some tragic massacres committed by the frustrated Germans resulted, such as at Oradour-sur-Glane to the south). The partisans greatly helped the Allied commandos who parachuted in ahead of the invasion and harassed the German attempts at reinforcement.

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Acting Sgt Jake McNiece of the 101st Airborne Division, ready to drop into Normandy, June 1944. He has warpaint and mohawk. He was the leader of the Filthy Thirteen - an elite demolition unit whose exploits inspired the novel and movie "The Dirty Dozen." War is serious business, these guys were ready to start blasting.

As it was, there was no way around it: German troops had to use the roads and railways to maneuver and were decimated by daylight air raids, including General Erwin Rommel being strafed and nearly killed in his staff car on July 17th. Every mile moved along the roads was a huge risk for the Germans, but their supplies didn't come that way anyway. They moved almost all of their supplies by rail, and distance there also was a major factor in how quickly supplies arrived due to incessant Allied attacks on the rails.

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The Luftwaffe was still in business, but any planes that appeared over the invasion front faced extreme odds. Lack of fuel hampered not only missions, but training and aircraft development, and the problem only got worse with time. Pictured is the first Luftwaffe airman to be shot down in the invasion area, standing dejected amongst other prisoners at a camp somewhere in England. June 9, 1944.

The Germans had to spread out forces across France to keep the indispensable railroads running: Flak crews, work gangs, sentries to guard against partisan attacks on rails, bridges and tunnels. The Americans would blow up railway bridges during the day and the Germans would repair them at night. Canals would be drained during daylight and refilled after dark. Everything possible was done to keep transportation operational.

D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
These prisoners from the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division were captured during the early portion of the battle for Caen.

The same reasons that would have made the Pas de Calais more convenient for the Germans to defend also made engaging the nearby British, and not the more distant Americans out on the peninsula, more feasible for the Germans - there was less open road and railway to travel over, repair after attack, and guard against sabotage. Nearby forces could be concentrated on the direct road to Paris.

12th SS Panzer Division D-Day worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A young Hitler Youth soldier near the front lines in France, 21 June 1944. Propaganda pictures from this period tend to highlight a sense of sadness and resignation, perhaps to conform to the feelings of the mothers back in the Reich as a tacit message that the Allied invasion was the cause of everyone's suffering. Tellingly, he is scanning the skies for aircraft. (Zschackel, Federal Archives).

While the Allied Navy may be said to have won the battle of Normandy, the Luftwaffe also may be said to have lost it. This was a well-known belief within the Wehrmacht and the source of much bitterness by the rank and file.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Many pictures of D-Day make it appear that all the soldiers simply jumped off the parked landing barges directly onto the beach and ran inland. In fact, many soldiers in the first waves had to wade in deep water, some drowning after slipping due to their heavy packs, tricky waves and currents, and uncertain footing. Plus, the enemy was firing at them. If you look closely, you can see numerous ships in the distance, which essentially covered the horizon.

Thus, for these reasons the Germans had their best troops facing the British on the east end of the perimeter while the Americans faced lesser opposition to the west. The Americans, though, did not have it easy, as the beaches in their sector were heavily defended from the outset by relatively good troops - the Germans did realize to some extent the factors outlined above and thus realized that winning at the beaches was all the more important further west in Normandy. Re-supply to the Germans farther west being limited, the going gradually got easier for the Americans. It also is the reason they ultimately were the ones who managed to break out of the bridgehead while the British remained stalled throughout.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Airborne troops landing on D-Day, note all the gliders scattered across the field

The paratroopers also interrupted immediate reinforcements. The invasion began with paratrooper drops several miles inland while it was dark. These landings were often off-target with the troops widely dispersed, and there were casualties from crashed gliders. This development, though, was actually a lucky break. The paratroopers appeared in the dark seemingly everywhere and caused chaos in the German rear, killing any Germans they saw and terrorizing the rest. They may have been more effective in helping the Invasion doing that than if they had all landed together and tried to seize objectives and hold them. The defeat at Arnhem in September showed how difficult that could be.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Luftwaffe FLAK crew in France, just outside Paris between there and Rouen. They were in position to protect vital and vulnerable supply lines across France

Post-Lodgement Strategy

Once the lodgement area had been secured by nightfall of June 6, the battle was won. Naval guns from the battleships and cruisers parked offshore could take care of any determined counter-attacks - the Allied had a lot of experience with this from Sicily, Salerno and Anzio. Given a secure perimeter, the Allies could re-supply faster by sea than the Germans could by land, given the Allied air forces' overwhelming superiority over the Luftwaffe. The beachheads linked up within days, forming one huge invasion bridgehead. That took a lot of the strain off the defenders.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Waffen SS near Utah Beach. The SS fought determinedly and managed to seal off the bridgehead, but they did not have nearly enough numbers to throw the invaders back into the sea.

Once settled in, the Allies gradually expanded their beachhead while they built up overwhelming superiority of material and troops. The going was difficulty through immense hedgerows that had been growing since the Middle Ages, but those same hedgerows also served as nice defensive barriers against panzer counter-attacks. The Allies fell behind projections set before the invasion for phase lines of advance, but made up for that after the breakout from Avranches in the south of the Normandy peninsula on August 31st.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Americans take a German panzer. The German 21st Panzer Division was in position behind the beaches and moved forward early on June 6th. It made it all the way to the beach, but did not have nearly enough power to roll up the entire invasion. When the Division Commander saw more US paratroopers being dropped behind him, he turned his force around and headed to safety.

When the time was right and they had overwhelming force, the Allies struck. The Americans broke out in Operation Avalanche to the south, away from the largest German concentrations to directly to the East, just as General Manstein in 1942 (Unternehmen Trappenjagd) had broken through the southern part of the enemy lines, away from their main concentrations, in the Crimea. There was nothing really new about what was going on, it was simply brilliant execution. Once the Americans established their breakout, France fell completely within a month. The Normandy landings were aided by another invasion in the South of France, Operation Dragoon, on August 15 that was hugely important but has been pretty much forgotten.


Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
6th June 1944: Allied troops exiting a landing craft in trucks on a beachhead during the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. 

Incidentally, the name "D-Day" has no special significance and is not short for anything. It was standard practice to code major operations in that way, the "D" comes from "Day" just for emphasis that it was the day for this major operation. It could have been anything and was a meaningless rhetorical flourish.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A vicious storm hit the Overlord beaches on 19-22 June 1944. These were tough on the "Mulberry" artificial harbors being used at "Omaha" Beach, here, and the other lodgement sites. This photo was taken apparently from a launch next to the old British dreadnought battleship HMS Centurion, sunk as a breakwater and anti-aircraft emplacement. As such, Centurion was one of the few pre-World War I battleships to fire some shots in anger and serve a useful purpose in World War II.

The Normandy landings succeeded, but there was still a lot of fighting. The Germans were beaten, but not defeated. The public in the Western Allies thought the war therefore was won and the boys would be home by Christmas. They were wrong. Rocket attacks, a German counteroffensive, and the discovery of the gas chambers was still to come. A long, cold, bitter winter awaited.

Below are additional photographs from all phases of the Invasion.

Additional Shots

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6th June 1944: Allied troops ride in an open truck while a landing craft sits on the shore in the background on a beachhead in Normandy, France, World War II, D-Day. 

Top D-Day movies:

  • The Longest Day (1962) John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore
  • The Big Red One (1980) Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill
  • D-Day the Sixth of June (1956) Robert Taylor, Edmond O'Brien
  • Band of Brothers (2001) Scott Grimes, Matthew Leitch

Everybody has their favorite movies. I picked these, in this order, for a reason.

"The Longest Day": epic scale, and there were some Germans involved, too, you know.

"The Longest Day" gives you absolutely the best overview of D-Day, with an iconic never-before-or-since helicopter shot of the invasion beaches, a rare look at the German side without them being simply caricatures, and perhaps the best cast in film history. On the other hand, the American characters do lean to the caricature side, which is the film's one huge failing. Yes, and John Wayne saves the day in heroic fashion, what did you expect.

Tom Sizemore adds a real human dimension to "Saving Private Ryan"

"Saving Private Ryan" gives a granular look at the big day, at a few men on a particular mission. Great, hyper-realistic action and Tom Hanks in a perfect role puts this in second place. However, great as the film is, it is wildly overrated for any number of reasons, including the somewhat maudlin/melodramatic interludes, the hokey set-up, and a bit too much razzle-dazzle such as blood spurting out of shot Germans and such. Soldiers are usually grunts, and this film, while great, does not nearly capture the tedium and muddling-through that is an essential part of a real soldier's experience and the way actual battles are won. I know you love it and probably hate me for saying the least bit critical about this iconic treasure, but just accept that there are different viewpoints. Besides, I did put it second, which is a common spot by reviewers of D-Day films.

Lee Marvin was a very real WWII hero in the PTO

"The Big Red One" is amazing because it follows the rugged First Infantry Division and places the D-Day invasion in some sort of personal context. Normandy wasn't the first invasion for the Big Red One (the division's nickname), but I'll let you watch the film without further ado. Oh, and one further thing: Lee Marvin.

Edmond O'Brien may be the most underrated actor in Hollywood history

My dark horse selection is 'D-Day The Sixth of June." I can pretty much guarantee you that you will not find this film on any other 'best' list. It is a bit of a chick flick which gives short shrift to the actual landing, and I know you probably won't like that aspect. However - and this is a big however - it has some amazing performances and gives a completely different perspective on the invasion, a human dimension in context, that is absolutely essential to understanding what real people (and not heroic caricatures like the John Wayne character mentioned above) went through. The best scene is "small": the Edmond O'Brien character, playing a wounded Canadian officer, describing what he went through during the failed Dieppe assault two years previously in very graphic terms. That one scene alone will stick with you and is worth watching the entire film, but the whole movie delivers.

"Band of Brothers" gets you up close and personal

"Band of Brothers" was a television mini-series, and it has the one huge advantage of going on and on and on, showing a lot of detail. It is a good production, not as iconic as the other films on this list and a bit melodramatic, but worth watching if you want to set aside the time.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Aerial view of the invasion of Normandy. The Americans and British had complete domination of the sky, with some 11,000 aircraft to barely any at all of the Luftwaffe.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Captain Kenneth l Johnson talking with partisan on 6 June 1944, San Marcouf. The American paratroopers relied on the partisans for information, as they generally were dropped in the wrong areas and had no idea where they were or what they faced. Captain Johnson's skeptical look is justified, he had no way of knowing if this particular Frenchman would help him, or betray him to the Germans.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Troops landing on the Normandy beaches during the D Day invasion. Rear-view image of a British Commando soldier ready to leave the landing craft and wade ashore to the beach. Note all the tanks already on the beach. 

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
General Eisenhower giving an inspirational talk to paratroopers the day before the Invasion.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Soldiers wading ashore on D-Day

The story of D-Day includes the Home Fronts. Everybody was kept in suspense about the success or failure of the Invasion throughout the day. It was nerve-wracking, but the results turned out OK for the Allies.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A sign outside Trinity Church, New York City, inviting worshippers to 'Come in and pray for Allied victory' in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, 6th June 1944.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A '2nd Invasion Extra' edition of the Worcester Telegram newspaper, published in Worcester, Massachusetts, reporting the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, 6th June 1944

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A newspaper seller in London on D Day - the start of the Allied invasion of Europe.
Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
An anxious crowd formed in Times Square, NYC, watching the zipper news feed for any news about the success of the invasion.

Normandy Invasion D-Day June 6 1944 worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Normandy Invasion D-Day worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Ten weeks of operations compressed into one map.

Below is a good documentary of D-Day, with narration.


Normandy Invasion D-Day worldwartwo.filminspector.com


2014


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