The invasion of Normandy, or the Normandy Campaign, was a battle fought between Germany and the Allies during World War 2. The Allied forces launched an amphibious and airborne assault on the French province of Normandy. After a successful D-Day, the first day of the invasion, the Allies were able to establish a beachhead in France and advance inland. The invasion was code named Operation Overlord. The Normandy campaign enabled the Allies to surround 50.000 Germans at the Falaise pocket. The campaign ended when French and American troops liberated Paris. Operation Overlord is considered to be the largest amphibious operation in history.
At the Trident Conference, the Americans, after a long and heated debate, finally obtained Britain's agreement for a target date for the cross-Channel invasion. However, the British were still reluctant regarding the potential success of the campaign as they feared that even if successful the troops would become bogged down in France and suffer heavy casualties. The Allies planned to storm the coast of Normandy near Caen, and then advance towards the important port of Cherbourg.
At the conference in Quebec, the American and British political and military leaders argued heatedly about their views of the future of the war, but ended up in general agreement. The overriding priority which the Americans wanted for ‘Overlord’ was not attained, but the final language made the success of ‘Overlord’ the main goal for 1944. Thus the Allies’ main focus shifted from the Mediterranean and Balkan fronts to the future western front.
The British and Americans had originally committed to making one landing on the Channel coast, to be followed shortly afterwards by another on the Mediterranean coast of France. A number of major issues had to be solved in order to convert these hopes and plans into reality. Dwight Eisenhower had been made the overall commander, with Bernard Montgomery leading the ground forces in the assault. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay headed the naval contingents and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory the aviation. The British Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder was appointed as Eisenhower's deputy. Though they worked together, these powerful personalities often clashed.
The Allies planned to storm the coast of Normandy in five sectors, codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The Americans would land at Utah and Omaha, the Canadians at Juno, and the British at Gold and Sword beaches. A sixth debarkation point was Pointe du Hoc. This was a prominent headland situated between Utah and Omaha. Here the American 2nd Ranger Battalion had to scale the cliffs in order to find and destroy the coastal battery gun located at the top. During the night, before the landings, an airborne assault would be launched on the French coast. The paratroopers had the mission of seizing bridges, crossroads and other critical objectives.
Allied weaknesses were especially glaring in the areas of weaponry, tactics, and training. Despite the bountiful production of Anglo-American industry, many of the mass-produced weapons—machine guns and tanks, among others—proved distinctly inferior to their German counterparts. A more serious weakness in the Allies’ preparations for the invasion lay at the tactical level. Allied troops had had four years to prepare themselves for Normandy; not all units did a good job.
The planners’ general scheme – for a massive invasion via Normandy – survived the intense personal examination and interrogations of George Marshall, Alan Brooke, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, although Churchill and Brooke never threw off presentiments of disaster for the operation. Churchill often spoke of seeing the Channel full of Allied corpses as a result of the failure of Overlord.
An essential factor in preventing the Germans from concentrating overwhelming forces against the invaders was to deceive them into believing that more than one landing on the Channel coast was planned. The Allies encouraged the Germans to believe that this landing was only the first of two, with the main one yet to come in the Pas de Calais area, the narrowest part of the Channel and the closest to Germany, or perhaps even in Norway. The deception operation (‘Bodyguard’) was conducted on a very large scale. The project was carefully worked out, continually monitored, and almost unbelievably successful.
The Germans decided that their key task was to defend the ports, which the Allies would obviously need in order to supply their invasion forces. The emphasis in the massive program of fortifying the coast of France and Belgium was therefore on the ports. This is where the mass of artillery and fortifications was located. The hope was that an Allied effort to seize a major port could be foiled, and that without a port to bring in supplies and reinforcements, any beachhead could be destroyed. The Germans build fortifications all along the Atlantic ocean, from Norway to southern France. This system of fortifications was known as the Atlantic Wall.
The Germans suffered from an excess of commanders who neither agreed on what to do nor had the authority to do what they wanted with the speed required by circumstances. Army Group B, which was nominally under the Commander-in-Chief West, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, was led by Field Marshal Rommel, and commanded the 7th and 15th Armies on the Channel coast. Army Group G of General Johannes Blaskowitz with the 1st and 8th Armies was to defend the Biscay and Mediterranean coasts. Directly under the Commander-in-Chief West was a Panzer Group West under General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg.
The Germans had been working for years on their defenses and were very confident of their ability to crush an invasion attempt. If they could come close to foiling the Allies at Salerno and Anzio, they could certainly succeed where they already had in place large forces, extensive fortifications and the ability to gather very substantial reinforcements. However, they also had significant problems. At this point their navy was small and could not defend the French coast effectively. Also, the years of fighting in Russia had significantly drained them of resources and manpower. They had also diverted a portion of defences to the Calais area.
During the night, the three airborne divisions were flown overhead to their drop zones. Dummy parachutists were dropped at several locations to confuse the Germans as the British 6th Airborne Division landed on the eastern flank to secure bridgeheads over the Orne canal and river. The American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions came down on the western flank to make sure the troops landing at ‘Utah’ beach, the westernmost of the five, could break into the open rather than being contained on the coast. The airborne landings were on the whole successful. In spite of substantial casualties, the main objectives were reached on both flanks.
On the beaches, the Allies could not advance inland on the first day as far as they had hoped, but substantial gains were made, with fewer losses than anticipated. The surprised Germans were overwhelmed by the combination of preliminary bombardment from air and sea and the force of the assault. The Allies succeeded in establishing a beachhead and begun pushing the Germans inland.
At Utah, 23,000 men got ashore with only 210 killed and wounded, partly because the current swept the 4th Division’s landing craft some 2 km south of the original area designated for attack, onto a relatively lightly defended part of the coastline. Twenty-eight of the thirty-two amphibious Sherman tanks got ashore.
At Omaha beach, the Germans had moved in an additional first-rate division at the last moment. This caused serious trouble for the Americans. The situation looked bad for several hours, with casualties mounting, units at sea unable to land, and the soldiers which had reached the shore having difficulties pushing off the beaches. By noon, however, brave men with strong naval gunfire support were pushing off the beach, while at the same time the Germans decided not to bring in more reinforcements, erroneously believing they had won.
There were no high cliffs at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, and the naval bombardment had more time to soften up the German defences. However, by late afternoon part of the 21st Panzer Division attacked in the gap between Juno and Sword beaches and almost made it to the Channel before being turned back by naval fire. The Canadians got the furthest inland on the first day, with their 9th Brigade advancing to within 5 km of the outskirts of Caen.
Although Hitler was not woken at Berchtesgaden with the news of the Normandy landings, it made very little difference. Even by the lunchtime conference, the OKW was unsure that this was the true attack rather than a diversion. Rundstedt was not certain either. So by the time two Panzer divisions were sent to the beaches 100 km away, much valuable time had been lost. This was not the fault of the adjutants who failed to wake the Führer, as much as it was evidence of the success of the Allies’ deception operation in confusing the minds of the Germans about where the main attack was going to take place.
The Allied success in establishing themselves and holding off the German counter-attacks at a time when the Germans had overwhelming superiority in troops, guns, and tanks in the West was due to the combination of several factors. German reaction to the initial landing was slow and hesitant, the Allied forces had overwhelming air superiority, and the French resistance also made life difficult for the Germans.
One of the keys to victory was command of the air: whereas the Luftwaffe flew only 309 sorties on D-Day, the Allies flew 13,688. Only a dozen German fighter-bombers ever made it to the beaches, and they could only stay long enough for a single strafing attack each before being chased off.
Once successfully ashore, the Allies had planned to strike across the Cotentin peninsula to isolate and then capture Cherbourg. The attack westward by the American VII Corps gathered speed on D-Day+14, and had reached the coast on D-Day+18, thus cutting off the peninsula and Cherbourg from possible reinforcement. At the end of the battle, the Germans surrendered the important port of Cherbourg, much sooner than they had anticipated. The Allies now had a big port from which they could land an impressive number of reinforcements. The destruction of its facilities by German demolition experts had been massive. The port had to be repaired.
While the Americans were cutting off the Cotentin peninsula and taking Cherbourg, the British 2nd Army was battering its way toward Caen. Held up by German armored units, repeated German counterattacks, and the reluctance of Montgomery and his subordinate army commanders to accept heavy casualties, the advance came to an early halt. Montgomery hoped to drive beyond Caen to Falaise, but German resistance stalled his drive. After a series of failed attacks he decided to build up his forces. The Germans in Caen, which Montgomery called the ‘crucible’ of the battle, held out for a month after the landings took place.
In the middle of the Allied front, progress had been very slow. The Americans were pushing toward St. Lô in order to secure a good basis for a drive into the open country at the western end of the Normandy front. But they were held up by the bocage, the hedgerow terrain which confined the tanks to narrow roads and the infantry to laborious field by-field advances under fire from well-concealed German defenders. The city was taken after heavy fighting. After the Allied bombardment, the city became known as ‘The Capital of Ruins’, with 95% of its buildings destroyed.
The steady series of defeats, added to the knowledge of enormous crimes and the fact of German responsibility for the outbreak and extension of the war, contributed to opening the eyes of opponents of the Hitler regime. There was an absolute need for an overthrow of the Nazi government, an overthrow that could come only if Hitler were removed from the scene. The internal opposition had made several attempts to kill Hitler and seize power. The bomb attempt of July 20, 1944 had, however, failed narrowly. Hitler survived the explosion.
The hopes of the Plotters that they could make peace with Britain suffered from the flaw that such decisions were no longer up to Britain alone. The British Government’s position was succinctly summed up by Sir D’Arcy Osborne, who when told by Pope Pius XII that the German Resistance groups ‘confirmed their intention, or their desire, to effect a change of government’ answered, ‘Why don’t they get on with it?’ It is also questionable what genuine aid the Allies could actually have given to the Plotters. Logistical support was hardly needed and moral support was of little practical help.
The introduction of a new weapon by the Germans was not able to disrupt plans for the big American push. Originally scheduled to be launched far earlier, the first salvo of pilotless jet planes, the V-1s, was fired at London on D-Day+6, with the major bombardment beginning three days later. Hitler was most enthusiastic about this project and seriously expected the attacks to lead to an evacuation of London and thus a disruption of the whole Allied effort. The V-1 was supposed to be followed quickly by the V-2, a ballistic missile, but the first of these was not fired until after the Normandy campaign ended. In the end, this was not enough to stop the Allies.
Both in repeated speeches to his generals and to industrial leaders, Hitler tried hard to enthuse those apprehensive about the situation. He looked to new weapons and to fanatical resistance to show the enemy that victory over Germany was impossible. In other words, he was coming to believe that a defensive victory was now Germany's great hope. He also stubbornly refused to allow his generals to conduct a mobile defense, insisting that the Wehrmacht should not give up ground. This strategy only delayed the inevitable.
The great offensive in the American sector code-named ‘Cobra’ had to be repeatedly postponed because bad weather prevented the air forces from providing the needed support. The American intention was to take advantage of the fact that the Germans’ attention was focused towards Caen, where British and Canadian forces were battling them. The attack succeeded and the Americans isolated the Cotentin peninsula. After stopping the German counterattacks, the Americans captured Le Mans, the headquarters of the German 7th Army.
The Americans, now reorganized as planned into the 3rd Army under George Patton on the right and the 1st Army under General Courtney Hodges on the left, with Omar Bradley advanced to 12th Army Group commander, pushed division after division through the gaping hole at the western end of the German front. The British and Canadians, after their capture of Caen, broke through the Wehrmacht's eastern flank. Thus, approx. 50.000 troops of the German Army Group B were trapped in a pocket. Many of them managed to escape. But they suffered heavy losses of both manpower and equipment.
Further south, the landing on the French Mediterranean coast, Operation ‘Dragoon’, had gone ashore successfully. This landing was preceded by an exceedingly bitter dispute as the British, with Churchill personally leading the charge, tried up until the last moment to call it off in order to maintain the strength of Allied forces in Italy. Once ashore, the United States 7th Army, consisting of one American and one French corps, quickly took the key ports of Marseilles and Toulon and pushed northwards. As a result, the Germans evacuated south-western France.
American troops approached Paris, which the Germans intended to defend and even destroy but could not hold in the face of onrushing Allied troops and the beginnings of insurrection in the city. The original plan to bypass the city was abandoned by Eisenhower, who allowed a French armored division the honor of liberating the capital of France. He followed that up by marching two American divisions through the city to make sure everyone understood that the Germans were finished in the area. On 24 August 1944, De Gaulle entered the city to the cheers of the inhabitants.
For political and prestige reasons, de Gaulle had asked Eisenhower to allow French troops to be first into the capital. The Supreme Commander was as good as his word, giving the order to General Leclerc to advance on the city. De Gaulle instructed Leclerc to get there before the Americans arrived. Because he did not wish to detract from de Gaulle’s limelight, Eisenhower did not visit the capital himself until 27 August.
The sweep of the Allied armies through France liberated most of the country and thereby had two immediate and significant implications for the subsequent course of hostilities. First, the German navy lost the most convenient of the bases on the Atlantic. Secondly, the land connection to Spain and across Spain to Portugal was now severed. This meant that, regardless of German efforts, critical raw materials, especially wolfram and chrome, could no longer be imported or smuggled out of the area. The German defeat was now only a matter of time, manpower and resources.
The general supervisory role of Montgomery over all land forces would end as Eisenhower took command of the land battle himself. This was clearly necessary for two reasons: political and personal. The political reason was simple. The American forces were growing while the British were shrinking. The personal factor only reinforced it. Montgomery had experienced great difficulties in working with American military leaders in Sicily and Italy. He had gone out of his way to antagonize Eisenhower in the weeks before the formal change of command.
For the moment, future operations would be problematic because of the Allies’ long supply lines. Montgomery wanted to cross the Rhine quickly, reach Berlin and end the war. The plan was however impractical. Eisenhower turned the project down but, influenced by the need to seize the great harbor at Antwerp, did give considerable support to Montgomery's drive. Although the American drive south of the Ardennes moved forward rapidly, eventually it literally ran out of gas.
Brussels fell to the Canadians of the 21st Army Group followed by Antwerp the next day. British forces racing to liberate Belgium seized Antwerp not only without any serious fighting but before the Germans could blow up the extensive harbor facilities. But the port would have to be swept for mines before it could be used. Any large-scale attack into Germany depended on opening this port. It took 2 months for the port to be ready to use. This delay enabled the Germans to regroup, and even counterattack. The fate of the war would be decided during the following year.