*** war and social upheaval: World War II campaigns -- D-Day assault

D-Day Assault (June 6, 1944)

D-Day assult
Figure 1.--As we have described so often in CIH, children are often involved in major historical events. Many children and even more youth actually fought in the War. The NAZIs especially targeted children in the Holocaust. Even if not directly involved, Children were still caught up in the War. Children were often killed or uinjured in the fighting or bombing raids. Women and children were disportinately killed in the Allied strategic bombing campaign because so many men were away at the front. Children were also at the front. Here we see French children accomopanied by their faithful pooch playing in ahell crater at Gold beach. Can you imagine what they wrote in their "What did you do on your summer vacation" essay. Source: Imperial War Museum.

The Allies on June 6 unleased their massive forces on Hitler's Fortress Europe. The assault has been described a an immense ciled spring suddenly released. Eisenhower selected Normandy because of the massive German deployment at the Pas de Calais, the more obvious location. The operations were primarily conducted by the Americans, British, and Canadians, but the Free French and about 12 other countries participated in the landings. It was the largest and most crucial amphibious operation in the history of warfare. Much of the future history of Europe would be settled in the beaches of Normandy. Incredibly given the size of the operation and the fact that the Germans were expecting it, the time and location came as a complete surprise to the Germans. Rommel had even decided to visit Germant for his wife's birthday. The surprise played a key roll in the outcome of the battle. Three Divisions of American and British paratroops initiated the invasion. Eisenhower debated the use of the paratroops knowing that losses would be high. It was his most difficult decession. Next the Allies struck with the largest armada ever assembled. The invasion armada had 200 ships which pounded the German positions at five Normandt beach sites (Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha, and Utah.

Airborn: Paratroop and Glider Assault (June 5-6)

Three Divisions of American and British paratroops initiated the invasion. The paratroopers were a new army force, formed only after the Germams ontrofuced paratroopers in the Wester offensive (May 1940). Many Army commanders were skeptical sbout them. Eisenhower debated the use of the paratroops knowing that losses would be high. It was his most difficult decession. Lee Malory the Commander of Air Operations estimated that casulaties might reach 60 percent. Eisenhower decided to go with them because it was critical to prevent the Germans from reinforcing the beach defenses when the landings began. It was a horrific experience for the paratroopers. One of the 101st Airborn paratroopers writes, "My parachute ooened immediately and as I sescenbded to earth all I kept saying to myself while looking head on at the tracers and bullets coming up was 'Keep your feet together ... Keep your feet togther.' It never ebntered my mind about thoe bullets just missing me, Between the antiaircraft fire coming up at us and oplanes getting hit and exploding it was just like a 4th of Juky celebrationout there in that night sky." [Devito and Womer] It was at this point that the landing force was the most vilnerable. The paratroops did play a key role in the success of the invasion. They were dropped on the flanks of the invasion beaches. The British 6th Airborne (gliders) landed on the left. The American gliders and the 82nd and 101st Airborne landed on the right. Their deployment made it difficult for the Germans to immediately deploy forces against the invsion beaches. Many missed their landing sites. This made have been fortuitous. They were spread over such a large area that they created chaos in the German rear areas. This caused German commanders to hesitate, complicating a decissive movement against the invasion beaches. The paratroopers proved to be some of the toughest formations in the American order of battle. One historian quotes a scene encountered by Private John Fitzgerald at Sainte-Mère-Église: "It was a picture story of the death of one 82nd Airboirn trooper. He had occupied a German foxhole and made it his personal Alamo. In a half circle around the hole lay the bodies of nine German soldietrs. The body cloest to the holewas only three feet away, a potato masher[grenade] in its fist. The other distorted forms lay where they had fallen, testimony to the ferocity of the fight. His ammunition bandoloers were still on his shoulders, wmpty of M-1 clips. Cartridge cases litered the ground. His rifle stock was broken in two. He had fought alone and, like many others that night, had died alone." [Lofard]

Beach Landings (June 6)

The primary Allied assault came with dawn. The largest armada ever assembled brought the invasion force to the Normandy beaches. The invasion armada had 200 ships which pounded the German positions. The landing force was under the command of Montgomery and totaled 130,000 men. The British and Canadian forces were the British Second Army under Miles C. Demsey. The American forces were the U.S. First Army under Omar Bradley. After dawn at 6:30 am came British, Canadian, and American landings on five Normandy beaches. The landing forcec faced Element C, ramps, and hedgehog obstacles. Fighting was intense, but the beacheads were quickly established, except at Utah Beach where the issue was in doubt until the afternoon. Many of the D-Day casualties occurred at Utah Beach.The British struck on the left at Sword. Sword was the most difficult British beach. They encountered heavy German mortar and machinegun fire. The British, however, managed to get their DD tanks shore which plyed a key role in supressing the beach defenses. The Canadians at Juno fought their way shore and quicky and succeded in landing tanks to move inland. The British at Gold were also able to quickly land tanks and move off the beach. As the Germans did not have their armour deployed close to the beach the American armour played a key role in the engagements establishing the beachhead. The Americans were on the right at Omaha and Utah. Omaha proved to be the most deadly. The beach fronted on 100 ft cliffs cut by four ravines. Hardened German positions and a sea wall provided cover for machine gun and motor fire that desimated the landing force. Most of the American tanks failed to make it to the beach and the first wave had little armour support against whithering fire from still in tact beach defenses. Here the issue was in doubt for several hours. The beach was littered with dead and wounded soldiers. Bradley for a time considered abandoning the beach. American destroyers came in close to provide covering fire and somehow small units made it up the cliff and overpowered the German defenders. The Americans at Utah landed at the wrong location. It proved to be lightly defended. Many of the deffending units were Ost Battalions, non-Germans drafted into the Wehrmacht. They readily surrendered or ran. The Americans on Utah quickly moved inland and the paratroopers dropped earlier made it impossible for the Germans to oppose the landings at Utah. The key to Overlord proved to be Allied airpower and the airboorne which made it impossible for the Germans to reinforce the beach defenses. The landings were a complete surprise, an incredible accomplishment for an operation of this size. Part of the reason was the weather, another the German assessment that the invasion would come at the Pas de Calais.

Artillery Support: Naval Gun Fire

One of the strongest component of the U.S. Army was the Artillery. This is a component too often neglected in World War II histories with an emphasis on air power and tanks. Rarely reported is that in both World War I and II, the primary killer was the artillery. This was the primary problem for D-Day, during that all important initial landing and first day, the landing parties and airborne would not have artillery with them and the Germans would. One solution was D-Day tanks which could be floated ashore. Few however reached shore. So on that first critical day there was no Army artillery supporting the beach head. This could have led to disaster, but fortunately for the soldiers landing on the beaches and pushing inland, the U.S. Navy provide fire support. Realizing this, the Allied armada brought powerful naval artillery to Normandy. It could not be used before the invasion, because that would have tipped off the location. But beginning on D-Day it was on full display. It was provided by seven battleships, twenty-three cruisers, ninety-three destroyers, two monitors, and two gunboats. Critical on that the first day was the destroyers moving into just just a few hundred yards off the beach and blasting German fortifications over-looking Omaha. Heavier firepower was provided by cruisers and battleships as units moved inland. It was critical on stabilizing the beachhead and the link up. The battleships could reach over 10 miles inland. This along with air attacks disrupted German efforts to assemble forces for an attack ion ythe beacheads uin strebngth. Thec air support wassebntial, but the planes did not have the emnense power if navakl gun fire. And after the first day, artillery was being landed to support the beachheads. The Germans kept their reserves inland, having experienced the power of Allied naval gunfire in Sicily and Italy. [Tillman] But the only hope of success was stopping the Allies on the beaches. It was Erwin Rommel, commander if the Atlantic Wall defenses, who would call it the "Longest Day" because of its importance. It was also Rommel who noted the strength of American artillery in Tunisia. Both infantry and airborne forces had gunfire spotters down to the battalion level, and some naval officers jumped with the paratroopers to provide spotter capability. In the American sector, the Battleships were World War I veterans, USS Arkansas and USS Texas with 14 inch main rifles. Royal Navy and Free French cruisers also provided fire support. The First Infantry Division chief of staff after the War stated that, "The Big Red One would not have been able to move off Omaha Beach without effective naval gunfire."

Linkups (June 7-8)

A vital aspect of the D-Day landings was linking up the various widely dispersed and still relstivelysmll assault forces. Until this occurred, the separate forces were vulnerabl to German counter attacks. The most exposed were tthe airborn forces deopped on the flanks of the invasion beaches. They were lightly armed and especially vulnerable to German counterattack, especially by German armored units. It was important for the allies to make the linkups as soon as possible before the Germans engaged their heavy units and reinforced positions like Carentan and Port-en-Bessin. Fortunately the Germans did not react immediately because Hitler kept control of the armored divisions and his aides did not wake him up until late. Allied air power also helped impede German movement. Still the airborn units were exposed, surrounded by superior, well-armed German forces. The airborn did their job because much of the German effort on the first day was to take positions held by the airborn units and not the crucial landing beaches. The link up withe airborn forces on rhe eastern flank would mostly came from the British Sword Beach. The linkup with the American airborn on the western flank would come from the Utah lodgemnent. Also important was to link up the five different beaches. The British-Canadian link up (Sword, Juno, and Gold) was fairly simple. They were fairly close together and there were no major topographical or fortified barriers in between. The American Utah and Omaha Beach were a different matter. An important American objective was Cherbourg. The Allies badly needed a port. But before the drive on Cherbourg could begin, a more pressing problem had to be addressed. The American beachheads on Utah and Omaha were the two most isolated lodgements and in addition seprated by the Douve River valley. Thus Carentan after the Allies had secured their initial lodgement emerged as a key strategic position. While only a small town. Carentan but it was a crossroads that sat astride the N-13 highway as well as the Cherbourg�Paris railroad. And Cherbourg with its invaluable port was a key Allied objective that the Allies desperately needed. Carentan itself was also located between the American beaches--Utah and Omaha. Carentan was thus needed to link the lodgements at Utah and Omaha beaches which were separated by the Douve River estuary. The Germans like Napoleon flooded the fields up to the town's outskirts. Carentin was also needed as a staging position for the drive on Cherbourg and Octeville. Cherbourg with its critically needed port was a major objective. In the immediate aftermath of the landings, however, it was linking Omaha and Utah that was the most pressing sitution. The other key link up was the American and British-Canadian beaches meaning linking Omaha and Gold. Here the major obstacle was a small fortified port-- Port-en-Bessin. The task was given to 47 Royal Marine Commando, a unit of 420 men who had landed at Asnelles, 12 miles east of Port-en-Bessin. The Commandos had already suffered significant casualties during the landing was moved toward the well-defended German held port. suffered 28 killed or drowned, 21 wounded, and 27 missing before they started on their mission. Port-en-Bessin would not only enable the lonking of Omaha and Gold, but would also serve to being in vital fuel supplies through Operation Pluto. This was the joint effort by British engineers, oil companies, and the military to construct undersea oil pipelines under the English Channel. engineers, oil companies, and themilitary to construct undersea oil pipelines under the English Channel.


Devito, Stephen C. and Jack Womer, Fighting with the Filthy Thirteen: The World War II Story of Jack Womer--Ranger and Paratrooper (2012), 304p.

Lofard, Guy. The Sword of St. Michael: The 82nd Airborn Division in World War II (2011), 768p.

Tillman, Barrett. D-Day Encyclopedia.


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Created: 2:26 AM 4/4/2006
Last updated: 12:25 AM 9/22/2022