Normandy, Liberated France June 6, 1944

It was a cloudy late spring day, D-Day. Already Hermann Goering’s Luft­waffe, stalked relentlessly by Anglo-Ameri­can air forces, had sur­ren­dered air suprem­acy over the English Chan­nel. Equally embar­rassing, not one stealthy U‑boat of Adm. Karl Doenitz’s Kriegs­marine could pene­trate the Chan­nel. So it was 75 years ago on this date, June 6, 1944, in Normandy, France, that the U.S. First Army under Gen. Omar Brad­ley assaulted Utah and Omaha beaches, while to the east Brit­ish and Cana­dian units of the British Second Army under Gen. Ber­nard Law Mont­gomery fought their way ashore at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. The landing by the British Second Army was preceded by British frog­men—the first Allied pre­sence on Nor­mandy’s beaches. Their mis­sion: dis­mantle under­water mines and blow up obsta­cles through sev­eral lanes leading to the shore­line. Stretching nearly 50 miles and defended by roughly 10,000 Ger­man sol­diers, the inva­sion sec­tor was pro­tected by 600 Allied war­ships and 9,500 aircraft, which flew 14,674 sorties on D‑Day alone.

The stakes were high and the perils grave as H‑Hour approached, but in less than 24 hours a 45‑mile hole in Adolf Hitler’s vaunted Atlan­tic Wall had been bored. Into the breach poured 132,715 troops disem­barking from over 4,100 land­ing ships and landing craft, plus another 13,000 U.S. para­troopers dropping from C‑47 Sky­trains and aboard gliders into the flooded marshes and vil­lages behind Utah Beach, the most iso­lated of the five D‑Day beaches. Some 8,500 Brit­ish and Cana­dian para­troopers and glider-borne infantry­men landed behind Sword and Juno beaches near the stra­te­gic city of Caen just after mid­night, making them the first Allied soldiers on French soil on D‑Day. (The first two Brits to “step” on French soil were actually ejected head-first through the cockpit of their smashed Horsa glider.)

Within a week and a half, 278,000 troops and 15,000 vehicles were on Omaha Beach, the most heavily defended of the five invasion beaches. Not every­thing went according to plan. The Allies, for instance, were lucky that casual­ties (4,900 on D‑Day alone) were lighter than fore­cast. (German casual­ties on D‑Day are esti­mated at between 4,000 and 9,000.) Alas, for Hitler his night­mare scena­rio—a horri­fic war of attri­tion in the East that had com­menced with the Wehr­macht’s dis­aster at Stalin­grad (Septem­ber 1942 to Febru­ary 1943) and now the makings in the West of another dis­aster—was real­ized when the Wehr­macht could not dis­lodge Allied forces from their French beach­heads. The unstop­pable libera­tion of West­ern Europe now began and with it the lethal end of Hitler’s Third Reich.

For anyone interested in really knowing—I mean really knowing—what bloody Omaha Beach was like for the GIs who assaulted it on D‑Day, then you must read Alex Ker­shaw’s The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D‑Day Sacrifice, his deeply moving account of the hel­lacious Nor­mandy in­va­sion by the men of Com­pany A of the 116th Infan­try Regi­ment of the untested U.S. 29th Infan­try Divi­sion. Nineteen out of 35 men from Com­pany A were killed in the first 15 minutes ashore. Not sur­prisingly the dozen sur­vi­vors could not bring them­selves to talk about the war on their return. A sis­ter of one of the sur­vi­vors ex­plained, “People say the men who died on the beach were heroes. I think the heroes are the ones who came back and had to live with it for the rest of their lives.” Many men of the “Greatest Gen­er­a­tion” waited till their senior years to tell their stories. Or they took them to their grave. Kershaw has res­cued the stories of these young men, their parents, wives, and girl­friends from a small town in Vir­ginia—stories that make you weep knowing of their hero­ism and extraor­dinary sacrifice.—Norm Haskett

D-Day, June 6, 1944, Normandy, Northwest France

Operation Overlord: D-Day convoy, English Channel Operation Overlord: Landing craft approaching Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944

Left: A large landing craft convoy crosses the English Chan­nel in heavy seas on June 6, 1944. The major­ity of troops who landed on the D‑Day beaches were from Great Britain and Canada (75,215) followed by the U.S. (57,500). Close to 5,000 troops from other Allied coun­tries parti­ci­pated in the D‑Day landings and the en­suing Battle of Nor­mandy (June 6 to August 30, 1944). They were drawn from Aus­tra­lia, Bel­gium, Czecho­slo­va­kia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland.

Right: A U.S. Coast Guard-manned flatbottom LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Per­son­nel), better known as a Higgins boat, approaches Omaha Beach, Nor­mandy, France, June 6. Smoke on the bluff-restricted shore most likely ema­nates from sea­grass set on fire by naval shells. The assault phase of Oper­a­tion Over­lord was known as Oper­a­tion Nep­tune. This oper­a­tion involved landing the troops on the beaches, as well as all other asso­ci­ated sup­porting oper­a­tions required to estab­lish a beach­head in France. Operation Neptune began on D‑Day and ended on June 30, 1944.

Operation Overlord: "Into the Jaws of Death," Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944 Operation Overlord: Omaha Beach survivors

Left: “Into the Jaws of Death” is the description of this image taken by Chief Photo­grapher’s Mate Robert Sargent of the United States Coast Guard. Taken at 7:40 on the morning of June 6, it is one of the most widely repro­duced photo­graphs of the D‑Day landings. It depicts troops of Com­pany E, 16th Infan­try Regiment, 1st Infan­try Divi­sion departing their LCVP and wading through waist-deep water towards the “Easy Red” sector of Omaha Beach. An earlier wave of U.S. Eighth Air Force heavy bombers (B‑17 Flying For­tresses and B‑24 Lib­er­ators) had not even scratched the German defenses, much less created the promised instant fox­holes (bomb craters), on the 3.5‑mile stretch of exposed, con­cave-curved beach—the 13,000 bombs dropped missed their tar­get by 3 miles. The battle-hardened U.S. 1st Infan­try Divi­sion and the untested 29th Infan­try Divi­sion suf­fered around 2,000 killed or wounded (two-thirds of Com­pany E, the sol­diers seen in Sargent’s photo­graph, were among the casual­ties) as they ad­vanced up Omaha Beach into 4 bat­te­ries of artil­lery, 18 anti­tank guns, 6 mor­tar pits, 35 roc­ket launcher sites, 8 con­crete bun­kers, 35 pill­boxes, and 85 machine-gun nests. A high casu­al­ty rate of offi­cers and non-coms left many low-ranking sol­diers leader­less and con­fused on the inva­sion beach. Some of these sol­diers were given field pro­mo­tions by pro­cess of elimi­na­tion. German for­ward units reported to head­quarters that the invasion had been halted at the water’s edge, though by 12:30 p.m. there were 18,772 men on Omaha Beach with thousands more arriving each succeeding hour.

Right: Members of an American landing party lend helping hands to others of their unit whose landing craft or DD (duplex drive) amphib­i­ous Sher­man tank was sunk by enemy shore guns, mines, or rough seas that easily swamped them. (Out­fitted with a flo­ta­tion skirt, DDs, nick­named “Donald Ducks,” had a free­board of less than a foot and were launched too far from shore to make it to the beach.) Thirty-two landing craft and most of the 514 DD tanks, which were to provide 105mm fire support against bunkers and gun emplace­ments up and down the five inva­sion beaches, were lost this way. Of the U.S. 741st Tank battalion’s 29 DDs only two made it to shore. The sodden survi­vors in this photo reached Omaha Beach by using a life raft. Most of the GIs who landed on Omaha and Utah beaches survived their encounter with death.

Operation Overlord: British Second Army, Sword Beach, June 6, 1944 Operation Overlord: Royal Canadian Navy commandos, Juno Beach, June 6, 1944

Left: British Second Army infantry wait to move off Queen White sec­tion, Sword Beach, while under enemy fire on the morning of June 6. By night­fall the British had 28,850 men ashore, their Sixth Air­borne Divi­sion having seized the River Orne bridges in a classic oper­a­tion, a prin­ciple objective that day. Esti­mates of British casual­ties on D‑Day are between 2,500 and 3,000, including 650 from the Sixth Air­borne Divi­sion alone. The first Allied soldier to fire a shot on D‑Day and iron­i­cally the first to be killed in action was a platoon leader from the Sixth Airborne Division.

Right: Personnel of Royal Canadian Navy Beach Com­mando “W” land on Mike section, Juno Beach of the Normandy beachhead, June 6. Juno was the most exposed but smallest of the five inva­sion beaches, and the oppo­si­tion awaiting the Cana­dians was believed greater than that facing any other Allied force. By the time they had secured Juno Beach, one in six Canadians was dead (335) or wounded (611). Nearly half the casualties occurred in the first hour.

Operation Overlord: Moving out over the seawall on Utah Beach, June 6, 1944 Operation Overlord: Seeking safety offered by a chalk cliff, Omaha Beach, June 8, 1944

Left: Soldiers of the 8th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 4th Infan­try Divi­sion, move out over the sea­wall on Utah Beach after coming ashore in front of a concrete wall near La Madeleine, France, on June 6.

Right: In a photo taken June 8 on Omaha Beach assault troops of the 3rd Bat­talion, 16th Infan­try Regi­ment, U.S. 1st Infan­try Divi­sion, having gained the com­para­tive safety offered by the chalk cliff at their backs, take a breather before pushing inland. Two days earlier Col. George A. Taylor, com­manding the 16th Infan­try Regi­ment on Omaha Beach, encouraged his men, most of them traumatized crossing the killing ground, to move up on to the bluffs where the German posi­tions were, stating per­haps the obvi­ous: “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach—the dead and those who are going to die.”

Operation Overlord: British tank exiting Gold Beach, June 6, 1944 Operation Overlord: Landing cargo on invasion beach within days of June 6, 1944

Left: A 27-ton Cromwell tank, mounting a 75mm cannon, leads a British Army column from the 4th County of Lon­don Yeo­manry, 7th Armoured Divi­sion, after landing on Gold Beach on D‑Day in Ver-sur-Mer, France. Twenty-five thousand British soldiers crossed Gold Beach on D‑Day for a loss of 400 casualties.

Right: Ten LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks, known to their crew as “large stationary targets”) put badly needed tanks, heavy equip­ment, artil­lery, rifles, ammu­ni­tion, and other cargo ashore at Omaha Beach at low tide on D+3. Barrage balloons over the LSTs were meant to deny Luft­waffe air­craft low-level air­space. Toward evening on D‑Day itself the Omaha beach­head bustled with acti­vity, having been reported safe for wheeled and tracked vehicles. Kitchens were set up and ser­ved beans and wieners and hash browns to the survi­vors of the nearly 40,000 men who were landed there that day. More than 4,100 landing craft and ships were deployed to Omaha and the other four assault beaches that stretched across a forty-mile front. By D+26 the vessels had delivered one million troops, 566,648 tons of supplies, and 171,532 vehicles.

Operation Neptune and Operation Overlord: The Liberation of Europe Gets Underway