D-Day 75th Anniversary sponsored by University of Maryland University College Europe

Understanding D-Day: Preface to the Normandy Landings

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Upon hearing the phrase D-Day, most would have no problem in associating this with the Allied invasion of Normandy on the northern coast of France carried out on June 6, 1944. The Invasion of Normandy is the term which refers to the operation as it stretched on into the summer months. Less frequently, it’s spoken about in terms of its military code names: Operation Overlord refers to the military operation as a whole, whereas Operation Neptune singles out the Normandy landings in particular.

In terms of the capital D in its name, the letter stands for nothing more than the word “day,” a designation traditionally used in the planning of any important military operation or invasion. In accordance with this logic, the day before June 6, 1944, was known as D-1 and the days to follow D+1, D+2 and so on.

On this fateful day, the Allied Forces, comprised of the military might of America, Canada, Great Britain and other nations, attacked German positions along a 60 mile stretch of the coast of Normandy, France with an overwhelming force of over 150,000 men. The battle is considered one if not the greatest military assault of all time and a critical turning point in World War II.

To better understand D-Day, it’s critical to understand the key events leading up to this point. First a bit of basic World War II history: The start of World War II is held to be Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany two days thereafter. In May of 1940, German forces invaded and conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, bringing all Allied land operations on the Western Front to a halt. The Americans entered the war only following the Japanese bombardment of the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

As early as 1942, the Allied forces had contemplated an invasion across the English Channel, with plans for its execution seriously ramped up the following year. The Germans, acutely aware of the threat, responded with the construction of the Atlantic Wall, a fortification made up of artillery, bunkers, landmines, beach and water obstacles running some 2,400-miles along the coast of continental Europe and Scandinavia.

General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed commander of Operation Overlord in January of 1944. In the months leading up to D-Day, a campaign was conducted to mislead the Germans into thinking the Allied invasion would take place elsewhere, specifically north of Normandy at Pas de Calais. Tactics employed in this carefully plotted deception bearing the code name Operation Fortitude included the deployment of fake equipment, suggestion of a phantom army based in England commanded by General George Patton, double agents and fraudulent radio transmissions.

While the date Eisenhower originally selected for the invasion was June 5, bad weather on prior days caused the delay of the operation by 24 hours. Following the forecast of an improved weather outlook the following day, more than 5,000 ships and landing craft carrying troops and supplies departed England and embarked across the Channel toward France on June 5. More than 11,000 aircraft were also mobilized in support of the impending invasion.

The first wave of the attack began with paratroopers, who began jumping shortly after midnight on June 6. Once behind enemy lines, their mission was to destroy key targets and capture bridges to pave the way for the beach landing. To confound the enemy, thousands of dummies were also dropped. In the next stage of the battle, planes dropped bombs on German defense positions and warships pounded the coast from the water. As the bombing continued, members of the French Resistance committed acts of sabotage including severing telephone lines and destroying railroads.

The main invasion force of over 6,000 ships laden with troops, weapons, tanks, and heavy equipment began to land on Normandy’s beaches from 6:30 a.m. The 60-mile stretch of coast chosen for the invasion was divided into five sectors codenamed Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. British forces were predominant at Sword and Gold to the east while Canadians led the way at Juno. American forces landed to the west at Omaha and Utah. While the Utah landing was considered successful, the fighting at Omaha beach was fierce.

By the end of D-Day, over 150,000 troops had landed in Normandy, and by June 17, over half a million Allied troops had touched down on French soil and begun the process of pushing the Germans out of the country. By the end of August 1944, the Allies had reached the Seine River, Paris was liberated and the Germans uprooted from northwestern France, in effect concluding the Battle of Normandy. The next stage of the war would see the Allied forces enter Germany and prepare to meet up with the Soviet troops who were moving in from the east.

The Normandy invasion represented a turning of the tide in favor of the Allied Forces. Not only was the victory a significant psychological blow to the Germans, it also prevented Hitler from sending troops from France in order to build up the Eastern Front in the face of the advancing Soviets. The Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945, bringing World War II to its end.

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