Normandy landing summary
Why a landing?
Recap of the international situation: During the Second World War, Axis troops controlled most of Europe, except England, which always defended itself against the Nazi invader. The United States is a rising power, and in 1944 it reaped decisive military successes in the Pacific while allied troops fought in North Africa.
Since 1941, the USSR troops have been suffering from German soldiers, even if they are supported by the Americans who send arms and ammunition. In the same year Stalin wished to see the creation of an operation by the allied forces in western Europe in order to reduce the number of German divisions fighting in the USSR, part of which would be sent to the west to defend this second front. After a few discussions, including the decisive one in Tehran in 1943, the Allied leaders (Roosevelt: USA, Churchill: Great Britain, Stalin: USSR) chose to open the second front in France, and more particularly in Normandy. It is decided that the invasion will take place from England. Hundreds of convoys cross the Atlantic from the United States to land thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tons of equipment in England. England becomes a veritable military camp, where thousands of soldiers train and store as much material as possible.
In August 1942, a “test” landing is organized in the north of France in Dieppe. Officially, it is an attack to install a bridgehead to the west and to open this second front that the Soviets demand. Unofficially, it is a test of the German defense system. Those who will be sent to the Pas-de-Calais will be sacrificed to allow the allies to time the German reaction. Thus, in August 1942, Canadians are pinned down on the pebbles of the French coast under a heavey fire, supported by tanks. The assault is a disaster: more than 3,378 men are left on the ground, killed or taken prisoner. Nevertheless this sacrifice will serve the allies in the study of the next landing, that of Normandy.
Why Normandy? Here are the reasons: the Brittany coasts are too far from England to be approached, the lands in Holland are flooded and do not allow the setting of a bridgehead, the currents of the Belgian coasts are very strong and therefore dangerous. Especially the Germans await the allies in the Pas-de-Calais because the distance between England and France at this place is the smallest. The Norman beaches are sandy beaches and on some places there are pebbles. The composition of the Normandy beaches is close to those of western England. Thus, the soldiers are able to train on this same type of beach.
Normandy is the place where the Germans least expect an Allied landing attempt, hence its selection by the latter. Nevertheless, the coast (from Norway to the Basque coast) is defended by a series of concrete protections with machine guns, barbed wire, minefields, called the Atlantic Wall. The crossing of the English Channel and the installation of a bridgehead is called operation Neptune. Neptune is part of greater military invasion, called operation Overlord, aiming at opening a front in Western Europe.
Preamble: a terrible storm rages in the English Channel, while the order of departure of the Allied ships for Normandy, on 4 June 1944 in the late afternoon, is given by Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief of operation Overlord. Meteorologists are formal, it would be madness to send warships through such a sea. The starting order is canceled and is postponed for 24 hours. The storm reassured the German officers who were convinced that the Allies would not attempt an invasion with such a weather. But on the 5th of June, a thinning appeared in the English Channel. Eisenhower, on whom rests the entire responsibility for the operation, will have this phrase that has remained famous: “O.K let’s go!“.
– Airborne operation
Before the sea assault takes place an airborne assault. Two assaults at each end of the amphibious assault action zone are scheduled: in the west, planes have to drop several hundred US paratroopers from the 101st and the 82nd airborne divisions to control the roads around Carentan and slow down future German counterattacks following the landing. To the east, the British of the 6th Airborne Division are responsible for carrying out the same work. Bridges such as the Pegasus Bridge near Bénouville, east of the invasion zone, are crucial objectives and the numerous paratroopers and glidermen have to capture a total of ten without destroying them to secure the invasion of German counter-attacks. German also have batteries capable of opening fire at very long distances, such as the Merville battery, also east of the invasion zone. So, shortly after midnight, June 6, 1944, the paratroopers jump into the night and with great difficulty, capture their objectives. Half of the 18,000 paratroopers will be killed or injured. But the Germans are disoriented and the communications no longer pass. The landing can then begin.
– Amphibious operation
Approximately 5,000 ships of all sizes are required to transport troops and equipment.
They cross the English Channel which separates England from Normandy during the night. It is the most important Armada in history. Warships escort the transport ships, which are also protected by captive balloons that prevent possible enemy planes from doing low passes. A single major allied ship is sunk during the night before the landing, the Svenner (Norwegian warship), torpedoed by German (S-boote) speedboats patrolling the English Channel.
Utah Beach and Omaha Beach (American sectors), Gold Beach, Juno Beach and Sword Beach (Commonwealth sectors) are located between the place called La Madelaine (in the Cotentin Peninsula) and Ouistreham (in Calvados). After night bombings by the Allied aviation of the Atlantic Wall and a naval bombardment by the armada, the soldiers land on the Norman shore. At 8:00 am, all the first assault waves are disembarked.
All the beaches are conquered within minutes of the assault, except at Omaha Beach where US troops were nailed to the ground by intense fire. It is only in the early afternoon that this beach is secured.
The allied casualties amount to 10,000 soldiers killed, wounded, missing or prisoners including 2,500 in Omaha Beach. Air support and naval artillery helped to meet most of the objectives. Indeed, gliders land behind the enemy lines with jeeps and various equipment as well as guns and small reconnaissance tanks.
Immediately after the military assault a race against time was set in motion: troops had to be supplied with fuel, arms and ammunition as well as food and clothing. But how to land all this material without having captured deep water port? The key to the solution lies in the Mulberry operation which consists of building two artificial harbors and placing them off Arromanches and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. They cross the English Channel in spare parts.
– French participation
177 French commandos landed at Sword Beach on June 6 at dawn. They were with the British 1st Special Service Brigade throughout the engagement and went to help English paratroopers in the early afternoon. French crews of heavy and medium strategic bombers took part in the bombings during the Normandy campaign. Free French Naval forces participated in the bombing of the coast on June 6, 1944 and in the refueling in the days that followed. A dozen Frenchmen were parachuted over Brittany with the particular aim of carrying out sabotage actions.
It is obviously necessary to recall the actions of the French Resistance which allowed to disrupt the German signals and the arrivals of the German reinforcements. The intelligence sent to England by the French Resistance was necessary for the victory in Normandy.
– Immediate consequences
The German army was surprised by the landing in Normandy, while it was waiting for it in the Pas-de-Calais. The Allies took advantage of this violent shock to install a solid bridgehead and land hundreds of regiments on the beaches. The Battle of Normandy begins. The port of Arromanches and the port of Saint-Laurent are installed in the days following June 6, 1944 and the pace of landing materials will not cease increasing. The fuel supply is provided by the PLUTO operation and an underwater pipeline is installed, linking England to the Normandy coasts. But a storm will destroy the two ports and only that of Arromanches will be recoverable. The repair period will prevent the disembarkation of equipment and a British offensive is postponed. The needs of a deep-water port such as Cherbourg became increasingly important, hence the bloody fighting to seize the city.
– Consequences in the months that follow
Russian front was marked by the departure of German divisions, sent as reinforcements against the troops freshly landed in Normandy. The Soviets regained strength and forced the German soldiers to retreat. The latter think that the landing in Normandy is a diversion and that the real landing will take place in the Pas-de-Calais. 150,000 troops remained there. This error will be fatal to the German army. The liberation of France went in an efficient and rapid way, Paris being liberated in August. The Allies have reached the Rhine at the end of winter 1944.
The landing of Normandy is a turning point of the Second World War.