On the eve of June 6, 1944, Europe had been at war going on five years. No one who knew what was about to begin had any idea how the events of the day would turn out. The possibility of failure was real and terrifying. What they did know was that Dunkirk had been a narrowly averted catastrophe and Dieppe had been a complete disaster.
At Dunkirk in 1940, the retreating British and French armys had been surrounded and pinned down on the beach, with no place left to retreat to but the English Channel. Miraculously, 338,226 were evacuated by sealift to Britain to fight another day, but over 100,000 were killed or captured. It could have been much, much worse.
At Dieppe, a 1942 attempt to secure a beachhead and a harbor port on the continent met disaster. Of the more than 6,000 men that took part, which included a division of Canadians, over 1,000 British Commandos, 50 US Army Rangers, and a small number of Frenchmen, 3,367 were either killed or captured. The raid was, in hindsight, poorly planned, poorly prepared for, and poorly executed. Inexperience, bad timing, and a bit of bad luck, were to blame but the hard lessons were learned well, and put to good use for the Normandy landings.
Planning and preparation of Operation Overlord took several years of unprecedented and monumental effort. It would be by far the largest seaborne invasion in history, coupled with a complex airborne assault. Timing of the attack was also paramount. Even a well planned effort to take or defend a beachhead was an extremely risky roll of the dice. If the invasion failed for any reason, it would mean a tremendous loss of men, material, and equipment, setting back the effort to liberate Europe by years. If failure gave the Axis more time to reinforce their defenses and rebuild their armies, a better opportunity for the Allies might never come.
To defend his conquests on the Western Front, Hitler ordered the construction of “Fortress Europe”, a line of concrete bunkers and fortifications along the coasts designed to repel any seaborne Allied invasion. The fortifications were designed not only to protect the defenders from invaders, but also to create overlapping fields of fire with which to annihilate invasion forces. Additionally, obstacles and explosives meant to sink landing craft and stop tanks were emplaced on beaches, most of which were submerged and unseen at high tide but at low tide were in full view. Allied reconnaissance aircraft had taken numerous photographs of the defensive preparations, so invasion planners were well aware of the enormous difficulties landing troops would face.
Probably the greatest obstacle to the Allies turned out to be bad weather. Typical June weather was good, but June was not going to be typical in 1944. It had been decided (against the wishes of naval commanders) that low tide was most desirable, to allow demolition engineers to land before the main force and clear wide paths through the defensive obstacle emplacements with explosive ordinance. The optimum dates for low tide at Normandy were June 5, 6, and 7th. The weather forecast for those dates was prohibitive, and the next optimal low tide was some time off. Planners worried that the longer the invasion was delayed, the more likely the Germans would discover the actual landing site and be fully prepared for it.
However, Providence smiled on the Allies.
Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, commander of the German defenses, had been absolutely certain the Allies would only attempt to land at high tide. Also, German weather forecasters had predicted very bad weather for the entire first two weeks of June, rendering an invasion impossible in the minds of the German command. The combination of foul weather and high tide made the Germans so confident that many officers took time off and left the front. Rommel himself went home to Germany for his wife’s birthday. The defenders relaxed and were unprepared.
The Allies had a forecasting advantage. Weather patterns that affected the invasion area started in the far north of North America and moved east across the Atlantic. The Allies had weather stations in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, shipborne and airborne instruments in the North Atlantic, and secret weather stations in (officially neutral) Ireland. This gave Allied forecasters an insight the Germans didn’t have: the weather would clear on June 6, 1944, allowing a brief window of opportunity for a surprise invasion.
Approximately 156,000 Allied soldiers landed in France on June 6, 1944. Of these, about 24,000 were airborne (paratroopers and glider troops). About 132,000 came ashore on Normandy’s beaches, codenamed Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha, and Utah. The defenders at Omaha beach put up the toughest resistance. Withering fire from up high on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach caused the heaviest casualties of the day. As a result, the US 1st Infantry Division lost approximately 2,500 men.
The total number of Allied casualties on D-Day include over 10,000 wounded and 4,414 confirmed dead. Many more casualties would be incurred in the coming days and weeks before the Allies had enough troops, equipment, and supplies in Normandy to secure against a counterattack. From that point on, the Axis were never able to successfully turn back the advancing Allied forces. In eleven months, the war would be over in Europe.
The high cost of D-Day was not in vain. A major turning point in world history had just occurred. The Axis had meant to rule and oppress the entire world. Until the success of Operation Overlord, it had looked like tyranny might succeed. The courage of Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen, pulled the world back from the brink of totalitarianism, making June 6, 1944, D-Day, one of the most important days in history.
The website D-Day Overlord provides more facts and figures.
The US Coast Guard made an excellent short film with actual footage from D-Day which is available on YouTube.
Feel free to honor those who served in WWII with a tribute to them in the comments.
There are countless stories of heroics and bits of facinating trivia associated with D-Day. Do tell.