Tomorrow, June 6, we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Nazi-held western Europe.
Joseph Stalin had been pushing for this cross-channel assault since early 1942, and American military leaders were also eager to get our troops into action against the main German armies. In 1942 we were not ready. British strength was not sufficient to go it alone, and our troops were still in the process of being armed and trained for the battle. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continued to fight for its life, and Allied leaders feared that the Soviets might be forced out of the war. As a compromise move, and in an attempt to relieve some pressure on the Eastern Front, in November 1942 American forces joined the British in the battle for North Africa.
The North African campaign, followed by the invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland in 1943, further delayed plans to open a second front in western Europe. But at the same time, it gave some of our soldiers valuable experience in fighting a battle hardened foe. Over 1943 and the first half of 1944 there was a massive build-up of men and materiel in Britain in preparation for the coming landings on the coast of France.
In November 1943 Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met for their first face-to-face conference at Teheran, and during the meeting Roosevelt consented to Stalin’s request to set a specific date for the invasion of Western Europe. Churchill was not as keen on the idea, which involved a dangerous crossing of the English Channel into northern France. The British had already tried a limited amphibious assault of their own, targeting the French port of Dieppe in August 1942, with disastrous results. Churchill maintained that the quickest way to defeat Nazi Germany was through the Italian Front into southern Europe. However, he was overruled by Roosevelt and Stalin, and a preliminary date of May 1944 was set for the seaborne invasion of northern France.
The Germans knew that an invasion was coming, but they did not know where or when. Calais was thought to be the most likely place and some day in May the most probable time.
Although heavily involved on the Eastern Front and in Italy, Germany still maintained powerful forces in France, including a considerable number of first line armored (Panzer) divisions. Most of the German units were battle tested and well prepared for the coming conflict. By contrast, most Allied troops, especially the Americans, were not experienced combatants, and though often drilled to exhaustion, they had lessons that could only be learned in the fire of battle.
Secrecy and deception were vital to success. Elaborate measures were employed to convince the Germans that the main thrust of the invasion would be in the Calais region. Fake radio networks were activated, and dummy military targets built, to cause German intelligence to believe that there was a large Allied military force in the south of England; and it was made to appear that this force remained in place, ready to move, long after the actual invasion began.
In the predawn hours of June 6th, American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions along with the British 6th Division parachuted into Normandy, attacking rear positions of the German 7th Army, while British glider troops seized key bridges. Additionally, BBC radio broadcasts included short declarative sentences which were special coded messages to the French Underground, spurring them to sabotage German communications throughout France.
On dawn of D-Day, the greatest seaborne invasion force ever assembled slowly approached the Normandy coast, taking the German soldiers there by surprise. Four thousand vessels carried the troops while over 2,000 American and British warships furiously bombarded the landing zones, five beaches stretching along a sixty-mile front. The British 2nd Army landed toward the east at beaches code-named Gold, Juno and Sword. The American 1st Army landed toward the west at beaches named Utah and Omaha.
The Calais deception worked beautifully. For a critical time after June 6th, Hitler remain convinced that the main invasion was still to come at Calais, and reinforcements to the Normandy area were delayed. Even so, the success of the Normandy invasion was not a sure thing. If the Germans had been able to immediately concentrate their forces it might have meant disaster for the invaders. Initially, the Allies were outnumbered and outgunned. Resistance in some areas, especially Omaha Beach, was fierce. Fortunately for the Allies, however, they had complete control of the air, and it was very difficult for the German units to move by day. That fact, along with the Calais deception, gave the Allies time to put sufficient men and materiel ashore to hold the beachhead. Supporting gunfire from American and British warships also played an important role in destroying German coastal fortifications and securing the landing site. Within a few days the Allied forces pushed inland. Though much difficult fighting remained, the liberation of western Europe had begun.
It was a difficult and bloody battle, and the sacrifice of those brave men who struggled on the beaches of Normandy must never be forgotten.