When the BEF left France in a hurry in May 1940, they had always intended to return. In 1943, the conditions were right to begin planning. An increasingly confident and well-armed Soviet Union was fighting well in the east, and this coupled with Allied victories and successful landings in North Africa and Italy signalled serious efforts to begin planning the Second Front.
General Eisenhower was selected to lead the operation and take the role of Supreme Commander, not because of his supreme command ability but because he was a ‘Political General’, able to keep all the different personalities of the Allied staff happy. All the other senior positions were taken by British staff officers. Air Chief Marshall Tedder would take the role as Deputy Supreme Commander. General Bernard Montgomery was to lead the British, Commonwealth and later Polish 21st Army Group, whilst Air Chief Marshal Leigh Mallory oversaw efforts in the air. Admiral Ramsey would be Naval commander in chief whilst General Omar Bradley would oversee the US 1st Army.
Meeting of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), 1 February 1944. Front row: Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder; General Dwight D. Eisenhower; General Bernard Montgomery. Back row: Lieutenant General Omar Bradley; Admiral Bertram Ramsay; Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory; Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith
All in all, some 39 Divisions would be committed with British, Canadian, French, Polish and American troops landing across 5 beaches on the Normandy coast, chosen as it was the most promising of the 4 potential landing sites. The Americans, landing at Omaha and Utah beaches, would swing west into the Cotentin Peninsular, seizing the port facilities at Cherborg. The British and Canadians, landing on Gold, Juno and Sword, would protect the eastern flank and absorb any German counter-offensive action, and establish forward airfields. Parachute and Glider troops of Britain and the US would be landed behind the beaches to capture bridges required for German counter-action.
Originally scheduled for May, the invasion was pushed back to June to allow more landing craft to be manufactured, and then delayed by two more days whilst the weather in the channel cleared sufficiently to allow the landing craft to approach the beaches. With the weather favourable for an early June landing, a date was set. The 4th June. This however was delayed for 2 days, a weather front lingering for longer than expected. The invasion would now go ahead on the 6th. On 3 of the 5 beaches on the 6th of June, things went according to plan.
Landing Craft assembled at the docks in Southampton, waiting for D-Day. A23731 IWM-RN Official Photographer.
Unfortunately for the Americans, both of the beaches were plans failed were theirs. The 4th Infantry Division, landing on Utah, did not meet the resistance they were expecting, and landed with relatively light casualties. Despite this, they only advanced 4 miles inland, as linking up with the 101st Airborne was more difficult than expected with only 1 in 10 paratroopers landing where planned. This meant that their first day objectives of capturing bridges to the Cotentin were not achieved, or their expected breakout into the peninsular after Carantan and St Lô. In addition, the Rangers tasked with taking Pont-du-Hoc achieved their objective, but were rendered combat ineffective doing so, with only 75 of the 200 men tasked with climbing the cliffs still able to fight after the action.
American troops on board a landing craft approaching Omaha beach
On Omaha, things were not much better. The 1st Infantry Division, assigned to take the beach and establish a foothold on the clifftop above, encountered an entire division of troops defending their landing site, and not the regiment they were expecting. Having stalled entirely on the beaches, and with the troops on Utah apparently unaware of the plight on their sister beach, no fresh troops were landed after 8:30 to allow destroyers to move in and provide close gunfire support. Although the Americans eventually forced an opening in the defences around Omaha, these issues stalled the American advance significantly, and when coupled with the issues with the American paratroopers and 4th Infantry Division at Utah, further delayed the push into the Cotentin peninsular.
Casualties for the Americans on Omaha beach were horrendous. Here, one of the unlucky lies dead in the sand.
For the British and Commonwealth troops things got off to a better start. Although high winds off Gold Beach washed elements of the 50th Infantry Division further east than their planned landing sites, sometimes up to a mile away, the British achieved the majority of their first day objectives. The Hampshire Regiment captured Arromanches (the site of a future Mulberry harbour) and the Devonshire Regiment succeeded in knocking out the Longes-sur-Mere battery that had been harassing the support ships.
The Canadians landed at Juno, and despite some delays and stiff resistance, and quickly linked up with British units on their right flank and created a joint Gold-Juno beach-head a good 12 miles across, and 7 miles in diameter. They advanced the furthest of all the allied armies on D-Day, eager to get into action against a German foe they had not been able to engage 4 years previously, when they were landed and then withdrawn in May 1940.
British Infantry waiting to move off ‘Queen White’ sector of Sword Beach.
On Sword, almost all the Duplex Drive Shermans (tanks fitted with wading screens) landed without issue, and quickly forced two exits from the beach. Lord Lovat’s 3 Commando Brigade came ashore to the sound of blaring bagpipes from Regimental Piper Bill Millin, who walked up and down the beach under fire playing Hielan’ Laddie. Millin, when talking to captured German snipers after the battle, was amused to hear he wasn’t shot because the Germans thought he’d gone mad. Having beaten off a counter attack by German Armour, 3rd Infantry division set about their main objective: Caen. However, with delays in bringing up sufficient armoured support, Caen remained untaken at the end of D-Day.
British glider and parachute landings, undertaken by 6th Airborne Division, were as successful as the seaborne operations. Elements of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry successfully captured Pegasus Bridge and its sister bridge over the Orne intact in a lightning quick raid, landing their gliders only 20 yards or so from their objective. Paratroopers from 3rd Airborne Brigade quickly knocked out the battery at Merville, and the Canadians successfully blew up the bridges over the Dives to deny any German counter offensive.
Bill Millin, the D-Day Piper.
Overall, D-Day was a success for the Allies. Although it fell slightly short of the planned objectives (Caen, Bayeux, Carentan, & St. Lô were to be captured, and a continuous beach-head establishment were not met until a few days after the initial landings) the invasion did manage to establish a permanent presence for the Allies in France for the first time since the fall of France in 1940.
This was the first of our Historical Blogs series. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, let us know.
Next Week: The German Reaction to D-Day.