Normandy, Liberated France · June 6, 1944

It was a cloudy D-Day. Already Hermann Goe­ring’s Luft­waffe had sur­ren­dered air suprem­acy over the Eng­lish Chan­nel, when 71 years ago on this date in 1944 in Nor­man­dy, France, 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 Mont­gomery fought their way ashore at Gold, Sword, and Juno. 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 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 176,000 troops disem­barking from over 4,100 land­ing ships and landing craft, plus another 13,000 U.S. para­troopers dropping from C‑47 Sky­trains 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 air­borne troops landed behind the beaches near 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 alone. Not every­thing went according to plan. The Allies, for in­stance, were lucky that casual­ties were lighter than fore­cast. But Hitler’s 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 beach­head. The un­stop­pable libera­tion of West­ern Europe now began and with it the lethal end of the 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 U.S. 29th Division. Not sur­prisingly the dozen sur­vi­vors of Com­pany A 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 thirty-four 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

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

D-Day convoy, English ChannelLanding craft approaching Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944

Left: Large landing craft convoy crosses the Eng­lish Chan­nel on June 6, 1944. The major­ity of troops who landed on the D‑Day beaches were from the Great Brit­ain (112,824), the U.S. (52,889), and Cana­da (18,000). 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: An American LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Per­son­nel) approaches Omaha Beach, Nor­man­dy, France, June 6. Smoke on the shore ema­nates from Ger­man posi­tions. 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.

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

Left: “Into the Jaws of Death” is the descrip­tion of this photo taken of Com­pany E, 16th In­fan­try, U.S. 1st In­fan­try Divi­sion (the Big Red One) wading onto the Fox Green sec­tion of Omaha Beach at 8:30 on the morning of June 6. An earlier wave of B‑26 Mar­tin Marau­der twin-engine bombers had not even scratched the Ger­man defenses, much less created the promised in­stant fox­holes (bomb craters), on the 3.5‑mile stretch of long, exposed beach—the 13,000 bombs dropped missed their tar­get by 3 miles. The U.S. 1st and 29th Divi­sions together suf­fered around 2,000 casual­ties (two-thirds of Com­pany E were killed or wounded) 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 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.

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, high seas, or mines. Thirty-two landing craft and most DD tanks were lost this way. The 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.

British Second Army, Sword Beach, June 6, 1944Royal 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 and had seized the bridge over the River Orne, a prin­ciple objective that day.

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 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 or wounded.

Moving out over the seawall on Utah Beach, June 6, 1944Seeking 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.

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

Left: A Cromwell tank 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.

Right: Landing ships of all styles put cargo ashore at Omaha Beach at low tide during the first stages of the operation, June 1944. Indeed, toward evening on D‑Day, even the Omaha beach­head bustled with acti­vity, having been reported safe for wheeled and tracked vehicles. Kitchens were set up and ser­ved the sur­vi­vors beans and wieners and hash browns.

Operation Neptune and Overlord: The Liberation of Europe Gets Underway