The most famous D-Day of the war was June 6, 1944, marking the invasion of France and breaking into Festung Europa by the Western Allies. The term was permanently attached to that extraordinary day after the Western Allies disembarked five infantry divisions and three British armoured brigades onto five beaches in Normandy: “SWORD,” “GOLD,” “JUNO,” “OMAHA,” and “UTAH.” The Western Allies landed 156,000 men by the end of the day, a powerful wedge of fighting men along with support personnel and thousands of military vehicles of all types. To move this massive force they assembled an enormous armada of 5,333 ships—ranging from battleships, cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers, to PT boats, miniature submarines, and many types of specialized landing craft. Escorting and protecting the invasion fleet or bombing shore positions in advance of the landings were 12,837 aircraft ranging from reconnaissance and artillery fi re-support scouts to heavy bombers and tactical dive bombers, as well as nearly 4,000 fighters. The Western Allies lost 127 aircraft on D-Day to all causes: accident, technical failure, and enemy action. The air armada included over 1,000 C-47s and nearly 900 gliders to transport 23,000 airborne troopers to the flanks of the invasion beaches during the night of June 5–6. British 6th Airborne Division, the “Red Devils,” landed east of the Orne River in advance of three British and Canadian divisions set to land on the left flank on SWORD, GOLD, and JUNO. The U.S. 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were dropped on the right flank behind OMAHA and UTAH, but were widely scattered across the Côtentin peninsula from Ste. Maire Eglise to Carentan. Paratroopers and glider troops on the left flank took critical objectives during the night, notably the Orne River Bridge brilliantly captured by British 6th Airborne. U.S. airborne troops took some of their objectives on the right flank of the invasion, but were mostly so scattered that their main effect was to sow confusion among the Germans as to what those objectives actually were. The chaos usefully delayed and confused German reinforcements heading to the beaches. Adding to that effect, thousands of “paradummies” equipped with fake machine gun noise and other battle sounds were dropped in areas the Western Allies had no intention of reaching with ground forces on D-Day.
As the airborne troops reassembled on the ground and concentrated to take critical bridges and crossroads to permit ground forces egress from the coast, or fought sharp but isolated actions against surprised but recovering German troops, the invasion fleet approached. Above the warships, transports, and landing craft many hundreds of barrage balloons were anchored by cable to disrupt lowflying strafing runs by Luftwaffe aircraft. Only a handful of squadrons were available to Luftflotte 3 at forward airfields in Normandy, most of which were heavily bombed over the prior weeks and days. Other aircraft and forward air bases, including hurried reinforcements flying to Normandy directly from Germany, were destroyed before dark closed out “the longest day” in the West, as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel once called D-Day. Neither the Luftwaffe nor the Kriegsmarine seriously disrupted the invasion, despite fanatical orders to spare no air assets or U-boat crews in the effort to do so. Facing the Western Allies along the shore was a mainly infantry German defense force of just three divisions, including several battalions of demoralized or forcibly conscripted Osttruppen who surrendered as soon as feasible. The defense was supported by a paltry 169 aircraft. There were a total of 50 German divisions nearby to reinforce and stiffen resistance. The main question was: could German reinforcements arrive fast enough to block and defeat the invasion before the Western Allies put enough men ashore to hold the beachhead, then expand it into a lodgement to provide operational room to move inland?
Advice from senior officers experienced in amphibious assaults in the Pacific theater of operations, notably Major General Charles Cortlett, had been brushed away in the planning phase by Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and other overseers of the OVERLORD landings. Contrary to experience that showed the critical role of protracted naval fi re, the D-Day bombardment was too short as well as imprecise: the beach assaults thus began with quick naval bombardments that proved mostly ineffective, as huge shells overflew defenses to kill trees and cows well behind the coast. It was not a mistake that would be repeated in later landings in France during DRAGOON . But on that terrible day in Normandy, insufficient naval support meant that most German defenses were intact when the infantry climbed out of their landing craft and headed ashore. British and Canadian troops were able to quickly overcome German obstacles and defenses in part through use of the excellent collection of specialized armor and other vehicles known as “Hobart’s Funnies.” These specialized armored vehicles included “swimming” tanks fitted with rubber floats and canvas screens; “crab” tanks, equipped with thrashers and flails for clearing mines; “bobbin” tanks that rolled out mesh as a temporary road over sand or clay; armored bulldozers; “Crocodile” flame-throwing tanks; “Armored Ramp Carriers” to bridge gullies and ditches; and other specialty tools such as demolition frames or fascine layers. One modified Churchill tank sported a petard spigot mortar that fired a 40 lb bomb for demolishing pillboxes.
Earlier X craft advance reconnaissance made of the British and Canadian beaches proved extremely valuable, ensuring that engineers had real success clearing obstacles and mines on D-Day. The Canadians were additionally fortunate that the OKW had just transferred to the Eastern Front a crack German division that had been defending the JUNO position, replacing it with a much weaker division. Canadian 3rd Division moved off JUNO while taking casualties of 340 killed, 574 wounded, and 47 taken prisoner. British 3rd Infantry Division suffered just over 600 casualties on SWORD but also cleared it relatively quickly, to press inland by mid-day. British 50th Infantry Division, 8th Armoured Brigade, Royal Marine Commandos, and elements of 79th Armoured Division together suffered 1,000 casualties on GOLD, but still made it off that beach more or less on schedule. They pushed hard against and past German 716th Infantry Division and elements of the crack 352nd Infantry Division. These casualties make clear that the impression that the other Western Allies somehow had it “easy” on D-Day compared to Americans must be set aside: by nightfall on June 6, British and Canadian casualties reached 4,300. There were also a number of Polish and Free French troops killed, wounded, or missing along the left flank of the invasion.
In the American sector, UTAH was taken relatively quickly by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, which suffered 197 KIA and 60 missing against a weak and uninspired defense by reluctant Osttruppen. Part of the reason for the rapid success at UTAH was good luck; to wit, an 1,800-yard navigational error in landing, which positioned 4th Division landing craft and assault waves outside presited ranges of German beach artillery. In addition, key German batteries behind UTAH were put out of action by the 101st Airborne. The worst fight of the day was on OMAHA, where the U.S. 1st Division and a regiment of 29th Infantry Division were mauled: most of the nearly 5,000 American casualties suffered on D-Day came fighting against the first-rate 352nd Wehrmacht division, which Allied intelligence had failed to identify. American troops were also denied critical on-beach assistance from “Hobart’s Funnies” because of an earlier, purblind decision by Bradley not to accept the British offer to use them. Just as he had turned aside from other advice gleaned through experience in the PTO, Bradley cavalierly rejected the offer of Hobart tanks. Instead of “Funnies” on OMAHA, 1st Division immediately lost 29 amphibious Shermans, which were deployed too far out in heavy swells and went under with their crews. Only five 1st Division tanks reached the beach, though more arrived later from 29th Division. These few tanks then spun and ground steel treads in fi ne wet sand that had not been properly assessed in advance, until they were all knocked out by German anti-tank fi re from pillboxes and beach guns left undamaged by the short naval bombardment. The infantry on OMAHA was therefore left exposed to pillboxes and other fortified defenses they did not have the weapons to overcome. Bradley’s arrogance about how to conduct amphibious operations cost men’s lives and nearly led to disaster at the outset of OVERLORD, as observers on either side of the fighting reported back to respective HQs that the OMAHA landing had failed. Lack of beach fi repower was made up by several destroyers which disobeyed their orders not to approach too close to the beach for fear of hitting mines. Traveling forward and then in reverse up and down the length of OMAHA, their 5- and 6-inch naval guns blasted pillboxes while providing cover to infantry crawling through several defiles leading out of the dunes.
With five small beachheads established, troops and war matériel poured ashore. Some 23,000 airborne went in ahead of the assault: 15,500 Americans, 7,900 British, and some Canadians and Poles. By the end of D-Day, another 23,000 American troops landed on UTAH, while 34,250 made it onto OMAHA. The British and Canadians put 83,115 troops into France that first day, about 3/4s of them British: 21,400 on JUNO, 24,970 on GOLD, and 28,845 on SWORD. The invaders spent the next several days moving inland from five distinct beachheads, straining the individual perimeters in an effort to link them into a continuous front against rapidly stiffening German resistance. The Germans launched a Panzer thrust to prevent enlargement of the beachhead. It looked to reach the sea and split apart the British and Canadian left flank, a preliminary to rolling up the OMAHA and UTAH line and defeating the invasion in detail. But the Panzers failed in hard fighting against the British and Canadians: Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” was breached, the beaches were linked into a continuous front, and the Normandy campaign was underway. It was an astonishing achievement of technical and organizational skill, as well as of mass production, personal and collective heroic effort, and democratic leadership in a world war. Stalin himself said of the D-Day landings: “the history of war has never seen a comparable undertaking.”
Western Allied air casualties included not just the 127 aircraft and crews lost on June 6, but 12,000 men and 2,000 planes lost in preparatory bombing operations from April to June. The air battles included wide-ranging bombing in the heavily defended Pas de Calais prior to and after the invasion, conducted as part of a key deception operation. There was also heavy bombing of French railheads, Luftwaffe air bases, and other rear area targets to disrupt German movement once the invasion began. The Allies lost 59 large and mid-sized ships on D-Day, along with over 100 more damaged to some degree. Best estimates of ground forces and airborne casualties suggest the British lost 2,700 men killed, wounded, or missing, while the Canadians lost another 946 men. The Americans suffered 6,600 casualties, of whom just over 2,400 were killed; the rest were wounded or missing. A large number of missing men later turned up alive or as German prisoners of war, most notably paratroopers from badly scattered light infantry that went in first and deepest on D-Day. German casualties are not reliably known, but best estimates place them at well over 5,000.
Suggested Reading: John Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy (1994); Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 (1959).