Invasion of Normandy

D-DAY – 6TH JUNE 1944


Ever since the popular Hollywood epic, ‘The Longest Day’ (and more recently ‘Saving Private Ryan’), the public imagination has focused on the events of D-Day. It was however the product of years of planning and preparation. Furthermore, the invasion of Normandy was only the beginning of a long and arduous campaign in NorthWest Europe that was to last another 11 months until Hitler’s Germany was defeated in May 1945. The war against Japan continued until victory was achieved in September 1945.

Many popular accounts examine the experience of the Allies in Normandy during June 1944 when they had the problem of breaking into Normandy and establishing a secure beachhead. It must not be forgotten that they also faced the even more difficult task of breaking out of the beachhead.

With hindsight the success of Operation OVERLORD may seem inevitable to some. This was not how it was seen at the time. Despite the Allies’ superiority in numbers and materiel, victory still depended on the courage, leadership and sacrifice of individuals who dropped from the skies or waded ashore from landing craft, unloaded supplies under fire, advanced against an unseen enemy in the Normandy bocage, or engaged Tiger tanks in the open field around Caen.


“Unless we can land overwhelming forces and beat the Nazis in battle in France, Hitler will never be defeated.” Winston Churchill

May – June 1940 Fall of France. British Army evacuated from mainland Europe. September 1940 RAF victory in Battle of Britain ensures British survival. But the UK in no position to defeat Germany. June 1941 Germany invades Soviet Union. Russia will engage the main body of the German Army until the end of the war and play a key role in the victory over Germany. December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. USA enters the war. Hugh American resources make victory possible. Russian press for a ‘Second Front’ as soon as possible. August 1942 Canadian raids on Dieppe a disaster but valuable lessons are learned. January 1943 USA & Britain agree to invade NW Europe in 1944. Detailed planning for Operation OVERLORD begins. August 1943 D-Day for OVERLORD provisionally set for 1st May 1944 (D-Day was the nickname that could be given to the first day of any operation). December 1943 US General Dwight Eisenhower appointed Supreme Allied Commander for the invasion. General Sir Bernard Montgomery appointed Ground Force Commander. February 1944 Rommel takes over responsibility for the defence of Northern France and sets about improving the coastal defence, believing that any invasion had to be defeated on the beaches.


Four possibilities existed:

– Dieppe – Soon ruled out. The 1942 raid demonstrated the difficulties of a direct attack upon a defended port.

– Pas de Calais – Shortest crossing and the direct route to the heart of Germany. But Germans expect the invasion here – thus more fortifications & heavily defended.

– Brittany – Too far – out of fighter range.

– Normandy – Suitable beaches, within fighter range, less well defended. However a landing on the Cherbourg peninsula alone was ruled out for fear of being bottled up.


– Build up – The build up of US troops & equipment was relatively slow until 1944. This was due to shipping shortages, the U-boat menace and the diversion of resources to other campaigns.

– US troops in the UK

Jan 1942 …4,000 Jul 1942 …80,000 Jan 1943 …120,000 Jul 1943 …240,000 Jan 1944 …930,000 May 1944 …1,500,000

By D-Day the south of England resembled a huge military camp packed with vehicles, tanks, supplies and soldiers from many different nations.

– Training – Extensive training took place in the UK in the months leading up to D-Day. It from major Divisional exercises where all arms practised co-operation to individual training to prepare soldiers for the assault.

“We were sent to Scotland to train.. We carried our packs up mountains.. Route marches.. 25 miles a day; field firing exercises.. Boats on the loch to get used to landing craft. Company Commander 50th Division

– Deception – Operation FORTITUDE was a brilliant deception planned that kept the German 15th Army locked up in the Pas de Calais area deep into July 1944.

– ‘1st US Army Group’ under General George Patton in southeast England posed a threat to the Pas de Calais. It was a fantasy invasion force – comprising dummy vehicles, guns, tanks and radio traffic.

– Every German agent landed in the UK was captured and ‘turned’ to feed false information.

– Detailed aerial reconnaissance and heavy bombing took place in the Pas de Calais area.

– Bombing

– Between Feb-May 1944 US attacked German targets in order to force the Germans to defend them. The American Mustang P-51 long-range fighter (once it was fitted with British Rolls Royce Merlin engines) proved decisive and the Germans lost aircraft and pilots faster than they could replace them. This inhibited German air reconnaissance over the UK. By Jun 1944 the Luftwaffe was only capable of offering token resistance to the invasion.

– Heavy bombing took place to isolate the invasion area, destroy German defences and make it difficult for the Germans to reinforce or supply their troops.

– Reconnaissance – The Allies were well briefed on what to expect as a result of:

– Aerial photography by the RAF

– Information from the French Resistance

– Holiday photographs and post cards of the French coast were collected

– Secret landings took place to survey the beaches

“When we got ashore I recognised everything from the photos we’d been given” Sergeant, East Yorkshire Regiment

THE CROSSING – Count down to D-Day

6 May 5 June selected as D-Day 23-26 May Camps containing assault troops sealed off. Maps, models & photos of real invasion objectives made available. Prior to this false names were used. 1 June Loading of ships begins. 4 June 0415hrs. Forecast of bad weather causes postponement. All convoys at sea return to harbour. 5 June 0415hrs. Forecast of better weather for 16 hours. Eisenhower gives the go ahead for landings on 6 June. 6 June D-Day. Lacking up to date weather information, the Germans think that the bad weather rules out an invasion.


156,000 men were landed on D-Day from sea and air at a cost of approximately 10,000 casualties.

Between D-Day and the end of August 1944 more than 800,000 British and Canadian troops with over 200,000 vehicles landed in Normandy. 1.25 million US troops landed, with 250,000 vehicles. Polish, French, Dutch, Danish and Belgian units also fought in the campaign with individuals from many other nations.

No one who saw it ever forgot the sight of the invasion fleet – 6,483 vessels of all shapes and sizes. They included 9 battleships, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers, 71 corvettes, converted liners and merchantmen. To get the troops ashore, there were 4,000 landing ships – crafts and barges of all sizes. For some of the invasion troops, getting from the transport in to the assault craft, was among the most alarming experiences of D-Day.

“Scrambling down the nets from our ship was nothing like rehearsal in the Moray Firth. The water was choppy. My knuckles were all bloody. You’d be hanging onto the scramble net, get blown away from the hull and then be smashed back again.” Sergeant East Yorkshire Regiment Specialist vehicles were widely used by the British (and to a lesser extent by the Americans) to assist in the landing. They included:

– DD (Duplex Drive) Sherman tanks – fitted with canvas flotation screens and propellers driven by the tank’s engine

– Sherman ‘Crab’ tanks – fitted with flails that revolved in front of the tank to explode mines.

– Sherman ‘Crocodile’ tanks – flame throwers

– Churchill AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) tanks – fitted with 40lb mortar to destroy concrete defences.


Artillery 18
Royal Army Service Corps 15
Infantry 14
Pioneer Corps 10
Royal Engineers 13
Royal Armoured Corps 6
Medical 4
Royal Corps of Signals 5
Others 10


The Dieppe raid in 1942 had shown the Allies the difficulties of a direct attack upon a defended harbour. In addition it was expected that any captured port would need extensive repair. Therefore it was decided to pre-fabricate artificial ports in England and tow them to Normandy in pieces. Codenamed – MULBERRY, two harbours were built each as big as Dover Harbour. The first parts were in place on 7 June and by mid-June the harbours were nearly complete. However, a few days later a storm destroyed the American harbour and damaged the British one. Once repaired the British Mulberry ‘B’ achieved a daily discharge rate of up to 12,000 tons and 250,000 men were landed through it. It continued in use until 19 Nov 1944.


The German Army was a superb fighting instrument but a decisive factor in their ability to defend Normandy for so long, and to such effect, was the superiority of almost all its weapons in quality, if not quantity, to those of the Allied ground forces. Here are some examples:

– Allied tank units soon discovered the ease with which their tanks ‘brewed up’ after a single hit, while the 75mm guns of their own tanks were unable to penetrate a Panther, far less a Tiger tank (88mm gun), unless they hit a vital spot at close range. The exception was the ‘Firefly’ a proportion of British Sherman’s that were fitted with a 17 pounder gun. The Sherman was very reliable and fast across country. It also had a higher rate of fire and faster turret traverse than the German tanks but a Tiger could knock out a Sherman at 4,000 yards, while the Sherman could not penetrate a Tiger’s frontal armour at all. Fortunately for the Allies their superiority in materiel meant that losses were easily replaced whereas those of the Germans were not.

– Small Arms – The US semi-automatic Garand was an excellent rifle and the British bolt-action Lee-Enfield was adequate. Both were accurate weapons but only if a target could be identified. What made a difference was the weight of suppressive fire that could be brought down. The Germans possessed the superb MG42 and 34 machine guns (we called them Spandaus) whose rate of fire (1200rpm) vastly exceeded that of the British LMG (Bren – 500 rpm) and the US BAR. The German Schmeisser SMG was also superior to the British Sten gun. German ammunition also produced less flash and smoke than that of the Allies – a key element in target identification.

– The German ‘potato masher’ Grenade had a handle that meant it could be thrown further than the British or US equivalent.

– The Germans were masters in the handling of mortars that caused as many as 75% of casualties for much of the campaign. They possessed a range of types from 81mm, 120mm and three sizes of Nebelwerfer (150mm, 210mm, 300mm) – a much detested multi-barrel projector whose bombs were fitted with a siren that had a psychological effect – often more penetrating than their explosive power. Some of them were track mounted.

– German light anti-tank weapon (the Panzerfaust) was markedly superior to the British PIAT and the US Bazooka. The PIAT in particular required strong nerves from its operator who had to get within 50 – 100 yards to be sure of blowing a track off a German tank.

– Allied artillery and anti-tank guns were very good. But

– British 6 and 17pdr anti-tank guns had excellent ammunition but being towed, were less effective in the attack.

– The main work horse of the British Artillery was the 25 pounder with a range of 13,400 yards – excellent for keeping the enemies heads down but the ammunition lacked penetrative power against defended positions. For this, medium or heavy artillery was needed and there was not enough of it.

– The Allies did not possess any weapon with the ‘physical and moral effect’ (Hastings) of the German 88mm – a very high velocity anti-aircraft weapon that was used to great effect in the ground role. Time after time a screen of 88mm guns stopped Allied attacks dead.


Most of the casualties occurred amongst a relatively small number of troops. Infantry made up only 14% of the British Army but suffered 90% of its casualties. For the soldiers in the front line, Normandy was as dangerous as the Western Front in World War I.

Ground force casualties: D-Day to end of August 1944 (Source; Official History)

Killed Wounded Missing Total British & Canadian 16,138 58,594 9,093 83,825 US Armies 20,838 94,881 10,128 125,672 Total 36,976 153,475 19,221 209,672 German Army (estimated) 240,000 200,000 prisoners

Civilian deaths should not be forgotten. In the Calvados, Manche and Orne regions of Normandy it is estimated that around 15,000 civilians were killed during the D-Day campaign. 73% of Caen was destroyed.


– Superior Allied resources. The Allies could afford to replace their losses

– Despite superb low-level tactics, the German strategy was weak. The Command structure was complex and Hitler interfered with operational decisions.

– Allied air and navel supremacy (not just superiority). Reinforcements and supplies could cross the Channel virtually unmolested. Air attacks crippled German deployment/resupply


Gold Beach – Timeline

07.25 – The 231st and 69th Assault Brigades hit the beach. DD (swimming) tanks and beach clearance groups, delayed by bad weather, are landed directly on to the beach.

07.45 – Troops make slow progress against raking fire, but three beach exits are cleared within the hour.

08.20 – Follow-up battalions and No. 47 Royal Marine Commando land.

09.30 – Les Roquettes is captured.

09.50 – Stiff resistance at Le Hamel. Commandos head for Port-en-Besin to link with American forces. CSM Stan Hollis, 6th Green Howards, performs acts of bravery at Crépon for which he is later awarded the Victoria Cross.

10.50 – Reserve brigades begin to land; seven beach exits have been secured.

16.00 – Le Hamel is finally captured. 231st Brigade moves on to Arromanches. 69th Brigade encounters resistance in Villers le Sec/Bazenville area.

20.30 – 56th and 151st Brigades reach the outskirts of Bayeux and the Caen-Bayeux road.

21.00 – Arromanches is captured.

23.59 – A large bridgehead has been established, six miles wide and deep, linking up with the Canadians at Juno Beach. 47 Royal Marine Commando are ready to take Port-en-Bessin on the following day.

By midnight on June 6, the 50th Division had landed 25,000 men with approximately 400 casualties. They had penetrated 10 km (6 miles) inland and met up with the Canadians coming from Juno Beach at Tierceville. The 56th, 69th and 151st Brigades had dug in on a line between Vaux-sur-Aure and Coulombs. During the evening, patrols of the 2nd Gloucestershires reach the outer suburbs of Bayeux. To the west, Arromanches is reached at 2000 hrs and cleared an hour later. The link-up with the American troops cannot be made.

Men of the 47th Royal Marine Commando, after a day-long progression into enemy territory, had dug in on Hill 72 south of the Longues-sur-Mer battery. Their objective, Port-en-Bessin, did not fall until June 8.

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