Zoom in on one of the most chaotic and crucial battles of World War II


On June 6, 1944, the largest air, land and sea invasion in military history took place on the Normandy coast of France. The Battle of Normandy, often referred to as D-Day and codenamed “Operation Overlord”, has been described by historians as a major turning point for Allied forces during World War II.

The 150,000 Allied troops, made up of American, British and Canadian forces, landed on the beaches of Nazi-occupied France and were then able to push inland towards Western Europe.

The bravery shown by these troops has been portrayed in many books and films, including “Saving Private Ryanand HBO’s miniseries-turned-book “Band of Brothers.”

D-Day planning

Hitler’s army had invaded France and aimed to conquer all of Europe. The Allies knew that a successful invasion of continental Europe was essential to winning the war.

In January 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Allied Commander for Operation Overlord.

Many locations were considered in the planning stages of the invasion. According to National D-Day Memorial FoundationNormandy was ultimately chosen, one of the reasons being its many weak sections along the Atlantic Wall, a series of concrete fortifications Hitler ordered built along the coast.

RELATED: WWII veterans flown to Normandy for D-Day anniversary

The D-Day Deception

In the months leading up to D-Day, the Allies set up decoy operations to confuse the Germans, according to the foundation. The code name for this deception was Operation Fortitude, and they intended to make the Germans believe that the main target of the invasion was Norway or Pas de Calais in northern France, rather than Normandy.

The Allies even created a “dummy army” called America’s First Army Group commanded by Lt. Gen. George Patton, according to military historian and author flint whitlock.

D-Day weather forecast

Eisenhower and the Allied leaders postponed the planned D-Day from early May to June 5, 1944. The invasion was postponed again a few days earlier due to bad weather.

After Eisenhower’s meteorologists predicted a short window of suitable conditions, he gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord.

“The weather was still not perfect on the day of Operation Overlord, but it did allow the Allies to gain a foothold on the European continent,” says an explanation on the National D-Day Memorial Foundation website.

The D-Day Invasion

A Message from Eisenhower was issued to every soldier, sailor and airman participating in the operation, which read in part:

“You are about to embark on the great crusade we have been striving for these many months. The eyes of the world are on you. The hopes and prayers of freedom-loving people walk with you everywhere.”

General Dwight D Eisenhower chatting with American paratroopers on the evening of June 5, 1944, as they prepared for the Normandy invasion, Greenham Common, Berkshire, England, June 5, 1944. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images )

In the early hours of June 6, 1944, more than 13,000 Allied paratroopers were dropped in the dark behind enemy lines, hours before the coastal landing. An additional 4,000 paratroopers would later be brought in by gliders. The paratroopers ended up being poorly dispersed, but “they fought hard, confusing the German commanders and occupying the German troops”, a description on US Army website bed.

“A skydiver, while descending, ended up having his parachute snag on a church steeple,” the description reads. “He was left hanging in the air and forced to play dead for two hours as the Germans moved under him.”

Thousands of planes also dropped bombs on the German defenses and a massive naval bombardment took place from the water.

Despite their importance, airborne and naval operations were only “support actions” and would not win the battle on their own, according to the D-Day Memorial Foundation.

“The landing on the beaches of Normandy would be where the battle was truly won or lost.”

D-Day beach landing

Allied troops began landing on the French coasts at 06:30 on D-Day. The 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast was divided into five landing zones: Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah and Omaha beaches. The Americans were to land at Utah and Omaha, the British at Sword and Gold, and the Canadians at Juno.

The description of the Allied landing by the D-Day Memorial Foundation reads in part as follows:

“The boat ramp descends, then jumps, swims, runs and crawls to the cliffs. Many of the first young men (most were not yet 20) entered the waves with eighty pounds They faced more than 200 meters of beach before reaching the first natural element offering protection. Covered by small arms fire and surrounded by artillery, they found themselves in hell.

American troops on D-Day.

American troops wading through the water after reaching Normandy and landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, 1944. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

At Utah Beach, success came at the cost of approximately 197 casualties of the 21,000 who landed there on the first day, with an additional 2,500 casualties of the 14,000 who had parachuted behind the beach.

Omaha Beach was more heavily defended than the Americans had anticipated, and it became the bloodiest of the beach landings, according to historians. There were approximately 3,000 casualties out of the 43,250 men who landed on Omaha on the first day.

Omaha Beach landings, D-Day, Normandy invasion, June 6, 1944. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

“Many were hit in the water and drowned,” said Sgt. Bob Slaughter of the 29th US Infantry Regiment reminded at National Geographic. “There were dead men in the water and living men playing dead, letting the tide wash them away.”

Robert L. Watson, who also survived the fighting on Omaha Beach, found a nightmare with German artillery shells exploding on the beach, sand riddled with machine gun fire, and dead soldiers strewn everywhere.

“It was awful,” Watson recalled to the War History Network. “Everyone is screaming for help, everyone is hurt.”

He thought, “Bob, pull yourself together. I don’t want to die here, I don’t want to die here.”

In total, German losses on D-Day were estimated at between 4,000 and 9,000 men, depending on the Historic Channel. Allied casualties were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead.

Where was Hitler?

Meanwhile, Hitler slept.

His subordinates had received “strict orders” not to wake him up under any circumstances, according to the Historic Channel. When he finally awoke around 11 a.m. or noon, he did not immediately send reinforcements to Normandy, “still blindly convinced that the whole D-Day invasion was a diversionary tactic”.

The result after D-Day

At the end of June, the Allies had seized the key port of Cherbourg, according to historians. About 850,000 men had landed in Normandy and the Allied forces were ready to push further through France.

At the end of August 1944, Paris was liberated and the Nazis had been expelled from northwestern France. This led to Allied troops later entering Germany, where Soviet troops were advancing east.

The Normandy invasion began to “turn the tide” against Nazi Germany. A History Channel description called it a “significant psychological blow”, preventing Hitler from sending troops from France to build his eastern front against the Soviets.

On May 8, 1945, the Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.

This story was reported from Los Angeles.

Editor’s note: A version of the article was originally published on June 5, 2019.


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