June 6th, 1944.
This is a monumentally important date in history, for on this day, forces of the Western Allies under the command of General Dwight D Eisenhower stormed beaches in Normandy, France.
The liberation of Western Europe from Nazi occupation had begun.
It was a massive operation that had been in the works for months. It took time for troops to be gathered in Britain and then properly trained for the attack. Another big problem was that the Germans knew an invasion of some kind was coming, but the German High Command didn’t know for sure exactly when or where it was going to strike. So the Allies conducted massive deception operations to try to the confuse the Germans. These included creating a phantom army with fake tanks and aircraft, fraudulent radio transmissions, and the use of double agents. The purpose of all this was to hopefully fool the Germans into thinking that the main attack was going to occur at Pas de Calais, which is the narrowest point between Britain and France. The deception operations also tried to mislead the Germans into thinking there were other possible targets such as Norway.
Another issue facing the Allies was about when atmospheric conditions would be optimal for an invasion. Planners had a set of criteria that they wanted met for an attack to take place. One example was going in under a full moon. You must remember that in those days, they didn’t have modern night vision goggles like today, so a full moon was important for the pilots, airborne/glider troops, and navy personnel who would be operating the night before soldiers would be storming the beaches. They also wanted the landings to occur at or just before dawn between low and high tides with the tide going in. Part of this was so that attacking forces could see some of the obstacles that the Germans had set up, but at the same time they didn’t want soldiers to be too far out since they would have to run across the open beaches under fire. Hitting at dawn also allowed the ships to get closer, hopefully undetected by the Germans. The result of all this was that there were only a few days each month that would work for the invasion. And the more postponements that occurred, the greater the chances that the Germans would see through the deception operations that were going on and realize the attack was going to be at Normandy. If that had happened, it would have been a disaster because German forces could have focused on the Normandy beaches and then badly outnumbered Allied troops trying to come ashore.
General Eisenhower and the High Command were initially going to invade June 5th, but it was postponed because meteorologists were predicting really bad weather that day. As a matter of fact, when word came of the postponement, some ships had already set sail so that they had to turn around and return. On the 5th, meteorologists predicted that there would be a window of better weather for June 6th, but as we all know, meteorology is not an exact science and there was always a chance they would be wrong. Trying to land troops in stormy seas would likely have been disastrous, but the longer the Allies waited, the greater the chances the Germans would see through the ongoing deception operations. So the decision of go or no go on June 6th must have been agonizing. But General Eisenhower and the High Command made it.
June 6th was set for D-Day.
Just after midnight, approximately 23,000 British and American airborne and glider troops began landing behind German lines. Their job was to sabotage targets like bridges and railway lines, seize important points, and create general confusion.
An armada of over 5000 landing craft and other ships had crossed the English Channel and at or around 6:30 a.m. begin landing troops on five different beaches. British and Canadian forces attacked three that had been codenamed Gold, Sword, and Juno while American forces attacked Utah and Omaha. Soldiers landed on the beaches, which held various obstacles designed to damage landing craft or tanks that got in too close, barbed wire, and mines (many of these were attached to the obstacles). Allied troops had to get through this in the open while under bullet, grenade, and artillery fire from German troops who were fighting from entrenched and fortified positions.
On that first day, progress had gone fairly well at Gold, Sword, Juno, and Utah beaches, but Omaha was another matter. The American forces who hit Omaha took heavy casualties. Germans had strong entrenchments and fortifications on the bluffs above and rained terrible fire upon the soldiers who were trying to cross the open beach below. Another complication for the Americans at Omaha was that of the 29 specially designed amphibious tanks, 27 sank in the choppy waters and never made it to the beach. And of the other tanks that had been taken to the beach on landing craft, many were knocked out. So it was pretty much up to infantry. They had to work their way across the open beach with little or no cover and deal with barbed wire while under withering fire and then battle their way up the bluffs to take out German soldiers who were fighting from entrenchments, bunkers, and pill boxes.
By the end of the day, Allied forces had established beachheads at all five sectors and had landed over 156,000 troops in France. But it came at a price. Allied casualties are estimated to have been over 10,000 on that day. Of those, 4400 were killed in action.
The liberation of Western Europe had begun.
June 6th, 1944.