Normandy, Liberated France June 6, 1944

It was a cloudy and chilly late spring day, D-Day, arguably the least ordi­nary day of the 20th cen­tury. Already Hermann Goering’s Luft­waffe, stalked relent­lessly by Anglo-Ameri­can air forces, had sur­ren­dered air suprem­acy over the English Chan­nel. Sadly for him, the Luft­waffe chief had just 327 air­craft to oppose the Allied inva­sion! Equally embar­rassing, not one stealthy U‑boat of Adm. Karl Doenitz’s Kriegs­marine could pene­trate the Chan­nel. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, whom Adolf Hitler had charged with defending the French coast, was full of self-recrim­i­na­tion for being away from his com­mand head­quarters at so criti­cal a moment and was largely incom­mu­ni­cado and mum during his 10‑hour post­haste car ride back to France from Germany.

So it was that 80 years ago on this date, June 6, 1944, in Normandy, France, the U.S. First Army under Lt. Gen. Omar Brad­ley assaulted Utah and Omaha beaches, while to the east British, Cana­dian, and Free French units of the British Second Army under Lt. Gen. Miles Demp­sey fought their way ashore at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. The Allied forces on the ground were under the over­all com­mand of Gen. Ber­nard Law Mont­gomery. 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 some 50 miles/­80 km and defended by roughly 10,000 German sol­diers of Rommel’s Heeres­gruppe B (Army Group B), the Allies’ inva­sion sec­tor was pro­tected by 600 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/­72‑km hole in Adolf Hitler’s vaunted Atlan­tic Wall had been bored. Into the breach poured 132,715 Allied troops disem­barking from over 4,100 land­ing ships and landing craft, plus another 13,000 U.S. para­troopers dropping from C‑47 Sky­trains and 3,900 in­fan­try­men exiting from gliders into the flooded marshes and vil­lages behind Utah Beach, the western­most and iso­lated of the five D‑Day beaches. Roughly 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 D‑Day casual­ties (10,000 total) were lighter than fore­cast. Close to half the casual­ties were those who perished in the first few hours of the inva­sion: 4,414 sol­diers, sailors, air­men, and coast guards­men, of which 2,501 were Amer­i­cans and 1,913 were other Allies. (German casual­ties on June 6 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 of another dis­aster in the West—was real­ized when the Wehr­macht could not dis­lodge Allied forces from their rapidly solid­i­fying 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 a hail­storm of bullets and mortar shells 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

The “Longest Day”: D-Day, June 6, 1944, Normandy, Northwest France

Operation Overlord: D-Day convoy, English ChannelOperation 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, part of the greatest amphib­ious assault ever mounted. 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 ema­nated from sea­grass set on fire by naval shells. Oper­a­tion Nep­tune, the assault phase of Oper­a­tion Over­lord, involved landing the troops on five inva­sion beaches, as well as all other asso­ci­ated sup­porting oper­a­tions required to estab­lish a beach­head on one of the most heavily defended coast­lines on earth. Oper­a­tion Neptune began on D‑Day and ended on June 30, 1944.

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

Left: “Into the Jaws of Death” is the description of this colorized 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 heavily laden troops of Com­pany E, 16th Infan­try Regi­ment, 1st Infan­try Divi­sion—the Big Red One—departing their LCVP and wading through waist-deep water and under no cover toward the heavily forti­fied Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach. All around the men artil­lery and mortar shells exploded in the surf and machine-gun bullets whizzed by or tore them to bits, reddening the water with their blood. A prelim­i­nary wave of U.S. Eighth Air Force heavy bombers (B‑17 Flying For­tresses and B‑24 Lib­er­ators), flying over low over­cast, had not even scratched the German defenses, much less created the pro­mised instant fox­holes (bomb craters), on the 3.5‑mile/­5.6‑km stretch of exposed, con­cave-curved beach—the 13,000 bombs dropped missed their tar­get by 3 miles/­4.8 km, causing casual­ties only among Norman cows. 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 through mine­fields 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 NCOs 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 “swimming” 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 much to their surprise.

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

Left: Men from the 3rd Infan­try Divi­sion, British Second Army wait to move off Queen White sec­tion, Sword Beach, while under mur­der­ous enemy fire on the hazy morning of June 6. By night­fall the British had 28,850 men and 2,603 vehicles ashore, their 6th Air­borne Divi­sion having seized the Orne River bridges, a prin­ciple objec­tive that day, in a classic oper­a­tion. Esti­mates of British casual­ties on D‑Day are between 2,500 and 3,000, including 650 from the 6th 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 6th Air­borne Divi­sion. On the morning of D+1 the 3rd Infan­try Divi­sion linked up with Cana­dian troops from Juno Beach to the west.

Right: Personnel of Royal Canadian Navy Beach Com­mando “W” land on Mike section of 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 3rd Cana­dian Infan­try Divi­sion and the 2nd Cana­dian Armored Brigade in the form of close-in rifles, machine guns, anti­tank guns, and mortars was believed greater than that facing any other Allied force. As had happened at Omaha Beach, the Allied aerial bom­bard­ment mostly missed Juno’s defenders due to low clouds and increasing dust from the bombing itself. Naval guns were unable to neu­tralize German concrete defenses. By the time they had secured Juno Beach several days later and defeated several strong German armored counter­attacks, one in six Cana­dians was dead (335) or wounded (611). Nearly half the casual­ties occurred in the first hour of the beach assault. Depos­ited on the Cana­dian beaches were 3,200 vehicles and 2,500 tons of materiel.

Operation Overlord: French Commandos1, Sword Beach, June 6, 1944Operation Overlord: French Commandos2, Sword Beach, June 6, 1944

Above: At 7:32 a.m. two Landing Crafts, Infantry (LCIs) carrying 177 Free French Com­man­dos stood off the far left side of Queen Red sector, Sword Beach, awaiting their turn to storm ashore. They were the only con­tin­gent of French­men to fight on Nor­mandy’s beaches on D‑Day. Nick­named the Bérets verts for wearing green berets, the Free French volun­teer infan­try­men in No. 4 Com­mando served in Brig­a­dier Simon Fraser’s (15th Lord Lovat) elite 1st Spe­cial Ser­vice Bri­gade, 3rd Infan­try Divi­sion seen in the left frame wading through the surf. No. 4 Com­mando, con­sisting of 2 French and 2 British com­man­do units, was tasked with securing the most easterly flank of the 5 Allied beach­heads. The French com­bat­ants were led by Lieu­ten­ant Com­mander (Capi­taine de Cor­vette) Philippe Kief­fer and were ordered to advance into the sea­side com­mune of Quistre­ham-Riva Bella and silence several German strong­points (Wieder­stands­nester) that had been visited by Rommel days earlier (May 30), a block­house and a former casino. In the right frame sol­diers in Queen Red sector pre­pare the wounded for evac­u­a­tion while com­mandos of Lord Lovat’s 1st Spe­cial Ser­vice Bri­gade dis­embark from landing craft. The first day of the Nor­mandy Cam­paign for the Bérets verts was not with­out cost: 10 killed in action and 31 wounded, which included twice-wounded Kieffer.

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

Left: Claiming to be the first surface-borne Allied unit to land in Normandy on June 6, soldiers of the 8th Infan­try Regi­ment, U.S. 4th Infan­try Divi­sion, nick­named “Ivy” (IV for the Arabic num­ber 4), move out over the wind­swept dunes on Utah’s 9‑mile beach after coming ashore in front of a con­crete anti­tank wall near La Mad­e­leine, France. (The Germans con­sidered Utah Beach un­suited to major amphib­ious oper­a­tions.) Other troops rest in a trench next to the anti­tank wall upon which was con­structed a con­crete case­mate many feet thick for a 50mm gun. The German strong­point (Wider­stands­nest 5, or WN5) had two other 50mm guns, a 47mm anti­tank gun, mortars and machine-guns, all of which were pro­tected by an exten­sive net­work of mines and barbed wire. Disor­ga­nized earlier in the morning by U.S. aerial and Allied naval bom­bard­ments, the enemy was not able to offer stout resis­tance and by mid-morning La Madeleine was in Allied hands.
Right: In a photo taken June 8 on Omaha Beach cold, wet, and wounded 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 and dress their wounds before pushing inland. Two days earlier Col. George A. Taylor, the fire­brand who spear­headed 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 enemy’s posi­tions were, stating per­haps the obvi­ous: “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach—the dead and those who are going to die.” Many of the enemy who attempted to sur­render to the Allies after hours of killing, wounding, and shooting at them on the beaches encoun­tered no mercy. Other Germans, choking on cor­dite and con­crete dust, their ears and noses bleeding from con­cus­sions induced by naval bom­bard­ment on or near their strong­holds, were cut down by rifle fire in their scramble to escape capture or death.

Operation Overlord: British tank exiting Gold Beach, June 6, 1944Operation 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, the center beach of the inva­sion area, on D‑Day in Ver-sur-Mer, France. Twenty-five thou­sand British soldiers, along with 2,100 vehicles and 1,000 tons of supplies, crossed Gold Beach on D‑Day for a loss of 400 casual­ties. The British make contract with the Cana­dians on Juno Beach to the east but were stymied making con­tact with the Amer­i­cans on Omaha Beach to the west until June 8.

Right: Resembling giant floating bathtubs, 10 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. (Some fixed enemy posi­tions on the bluffs and key artil­lery posi­tions inland con­tin­ued to draw the ire of Allied bombers and fighters.) As light Chan­nel winds thinned the haze and smog from the day’s naval gun­fire, field 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 50‑mile/­80‑km front. The total number of arriving vessels from D‑Day to the end of June was 180 troop transports, 570 Liberty ships, 372 LCIs, 905 LSTs, 1,442 LCTs, and 788 British coastal freighters. By D+26 these 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