A (very) brief history of the D Day landings in France

Note: After a few requests to put them all in one place, below is a compilation of several social media entries I posted on Instagram and Facebook on June 6, 2018, the 74th anniversary of D Day. They were intended to be a short and digestible account, readable but with enough detail and lesser-known personalities to be interesting to regular (non-history nerd) readers. This endeavor is my small attempt to honor the men and women who sacrificed so much to help prevent a new Dark Age of fascist terror, bigotry and ignorance.

On June 6, 1944, 160,000 Americans, Britons, Free French, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Poles, Czechs and Belgians fought to cross the beaches of Normandy, begin the liberation of France and crush Hitler’s empire in the West. They knew that many of them would not make it through the day. They went anyway.

Though the plans were audacious in the extreme, the Allies were in fact wary of a direct assault on Northern Europe. The British in particular were haunted by the disastrous 1942 raid on the French port of Dieppe. The Americans were more brash and wanted an invasion by the quickest, most direct route to Germany, ending the war with haste.

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Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan

In early 1943 British Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan was appointed chief of staff for the invasion planning, months before Eisenhower was named Supreme Commander. The Germans expected an invasion, but judged that it would most likely come at the Pas de Calais. Calais was the invasion site closest to Germany and by far the shortest Channel crossing point between Britain and France. But Morgan was certain that Berlin expected the landings there and so he decided to throw them off the scent, choosing instead the long beaches of Normandy for the invasion. On June 6, 1944, Morgan’s plans were put to the test.

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Major Gen. Sir Percy Hobart, father of the “Funnies.”

Then another strong personality came to the fore. Because of the Allied thrashing by the Germans at Dieppe, the British set Major Gen. Sir Percy Hobart the task of finding ingenious ways to solve the problems raised there. The result was the specialized 79th Armoured Division, filled with what the troops called “Hobart’s Funnies.” These included tanks that could “swim” ashore, “flail” tanks to clear a path through German mines, a tank with huge mortars to crack concrete fortifications, to be followed by “crocodile” tanks with flame-throwers, and a “bobbin” tank to lay a firm path for vehicles across soft sand, among others.

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Hobart’s Funnies.

The British and Canadians used these fantastic devices to great effect on their invasion beaches. But the Americans only used the “swimming” tanks, deciding that all the additional training and new machines added too much complexity to an already difficult task.

In the lead up to D Day, the Germans were hardly idle. With America and her vast resources now in the war, and knowing invasion was coming sooner or later, in early 1942 Hitler issued issued Führer Directive No. 40, calling for the creation of an “Atlantic Wall” that would keep his empire safe in the West. Two years later, Hitler appointed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to stiffen its defenses. But Rommel and his nominal boss, Hitler’s Commander-in-Chief in the West, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt disagreed on how to defend against an invasion. Rundstedt thought only a deep defense would work, with German armor held in reserve, well inland, and then released to repel an invasion once it was clear where the Allies were landing. Rommel, mindful of overwhelming Allied air power (which had battered his Afrika Korps earlier in the war), argued that an invasion had to be stopped at the water line, throwing the invaders immediately back into the sea, since any reinforcements sent to the points of invasion would be destroyed by Allied aircraft en route. Hitler, who presented himself as a decisive leader, instead fretted for some time, and eventually settled on a compromise between his commanders. His middling decision meant that there were neither enough German troops defending the beaches, or in reserve. Crucially, he also retained the right to decide when and where the critical tank reserves could be used, hobbling his field commanders.

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Rommel and von Rundstedt.

In any case, both Rundstedt and Rommel were deeply skeptical that a concerted Allied invasion of France could be thwarted by any means available to them. On that last point, they were both proven right.

But expecting invasion wasn’t enough. The Germans needed to know where it would happen and when. Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” covered a vast area; he simply didn’t have the resources to defend all of it in force. It ran for more than 1,500 miles, from the northern coast of Norway to the Pyrenees along the French/Spanish border.

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So the Allies had to keep Hitler guessing until the very last moment about where and when it would happen. They therefore began a massively complex deception campaign, called Operation Bodyguard, approved on Christmas Day, 1943. Bodyguard was designed to convince the Germans that the invasion would take place much later than actually planned, and that the Pas de Calais would be the main invasion target in France, although (the Germans were to believe) the Allies might feint an attack in Normandy and elsewhere in an attempt to draw German forces away from Calais. Bodyguard was brilliant in many ways. The Germans were already inclined to think Calais the most likely invasion target, so Bodyguard reinforced these prejudices at every turn. The plan was to keep the German 15th Army, and its powerful force of tanks, idle at Calais while the Normandy invasion gained a foothold.

The name of the deception campaign came from a comment Churchill made to Stalin at the Tehran Conference: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

As part of this, the Allies created the massive but fictitious First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), fabricating inflatable tanks, landing craft and aircraft, faking tank tracks (all for the benefit of German reconnaissance) and mimicking the radio traffic of a vast army (for the benefit of eavesdropping Nazis), all the while German spies who had been turned double agents by the British fed their old bosses in Berlin a steady diet of false intelligence about the FUSAG buildup. Moreover, all this activity was in the British city of Kent, directly opposite Calais. The bogus FUSAG even had its own insignia and a famous commander, Gen. George S. Patton. The Germans were convinced that Patton would lead the invasion and so his presence in Kent in command of FUSAG reinforced the conviction in Berlin that Calais was the Allies’ real target.

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As June 1944 began, the invasion force was coiled up and ready to spring on France. The Bodyguard deception remained in full swing. The largest amphibious invasion in history was set for June 5.

But 44 year old RAF Volunteer Reserve Group Captain James Stagg was worried. In 1943, he had been appointed chief meteorological officer for Operation Overlord, the Allied code name for the invasion of France. At 4:15 a.m. on June 4, 1944, Stagg met with Eisenhower and his commanders at Southwick House in Hampshire, England. Decades before satellite weather maps and computer projections, the Group Captain told the Supreme Commander that despite years of meticulous planning, the weather simply would not cooperate on the planned D Day, June 5, as storms would be raking the Channel. But, he said, a window of clear weather looked probable on the following day, June 6. This would be their last chance for weeks to begin the invasion under the right conditions — low tides at dawn and a full moon, both desirable by invasion planners. If they waited, the troops would face nerve-shredding delay and the Germans would have more time to ferret out what the Allies were really up to. Eisenhower decided to take a chance on Stagg’s forecast.

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Group Captain James Stagg

The Germans missed the break in the weather entirely, in part because Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic meant that Berlin lacked weather data from this area. Berlin’s meteorologists, in contrast to Stagg, had predicted two solid weeks of stormy weather in the Channel. On the basis of this forecast, believing there was no immediate threat, many German officers left their posts to participate in war games further south or just go home for a few days, including Rommel himself who went back to Germany to celebrate his wife’s June 6 birthday. But Stagg’s reckoning, the most important weather forecast in history, proved spot-on.

Then came the invasion itself. Before 1944, the last successful invasion across the English Channel was the “Glorious Revolution” in 1688. The Dutch sailed a fleet of 53 warships boasting 1,700 cannon across the Channel to England.

256 years later, Eisenhower outdid them spectacularly. In the early hours of June 6 the largest armada ever assembled, some 5,000 ships and landing craft, carrying 160,000 men and 50,000 vehicles sailed from every sizable port along England’s southern coast toward 50 miles of Normandy shores. It was called Operation Neptune — the amphibious assault phase of Operation Overlord. Ahead of this vast fleet, 13,000 paratroopers would land behind enemy lines, fighting to secure key points and disrupt German operations. Overhead, 11,000 Allied aircraft filled the skies.

On Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the five invasion beaches, the Americans had to cross 200 yards of open beach before reaching cover beneath cliffs some 100–150 feet high. Atop those cliffs which commanded the beach below, 8,000 Germans waited with artillery, mortars, anti-tank guns, rocket launchers, and machine guns. They swept the beach with fire as the Americans crossed the shoreline.

In the famous image below, Americans from the 1st Infantry Division endure withering German fire as they wade through the surf, carrying as much as 80 pounds of gear, toward the beach.

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With the benefit of hindsight, it can be easy to forget the high price that was paid for success on D Day, and easy to improperly conclude that success was inevitable. On June 6, 1944, the Allies suffered more than 10,000 casualties, nearly half of those confirmed dead. Figures on the German side are less reliable but approach the same 10,000 figure. Within five days, 326,000 Allied troops had been landed in France, along with 54,000 vehicles. By the end of June, 850,000 Allied troops and 150,000 vehicles made it to France. Even so, the fighting was intense. The objectives Eisenhower and his commanders planned to reach by the 5th day of the invasion instead took 40 days.

But by then Allied troops were pouring into Europe. In addition to this massive assault, just weeks after D Day the Soviets began a new offensive, Operation Bagration, battering the German Eastern Front with thousands of tanks and more than a million men.

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Men, machines and supplies pour across Normany beaches in the weeks after D Day.

The writing ever more clearly on the wall, six weeks after D Day, some of Hitler’s officers tried to kill him. Within a year, after much more bloodshed, the Soviet flag few over Berlin, Allied troops occupied every corner of Nazi Germany and the Third Reich was crushed.

It’s a legacy we should never fail to appreciate. Hitler considered the democracies of the West weak and indecisive. In particular, he scorned Americans as hapless hedonists with no stomach for a real showdown with fascism. On June 6, 1944, we corrected him.

Written by

Father, business owner, writer, #NASAsocial alumnus, #STL Crime Commission member.

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