by Gerald Boerner
In this final installment of our examination of the events leading up to and actuated on D-Day, we look at the forces facing each other on the Normandy Beaches in Northern France, along the English Channel. This was the culmination of a great deal of planning and preparation. The Allies were ready; the Germans were ready. All that was needed was the the signal to “GO!”
That signal was given late in the evening of June 5th. the command was given to commence. Throughout that day and the days that followed, the battle was in the balance. Finally, the Allies broke through the coastal defenses and progressed to the Seine. The march to Berlin had begun. GLB
[ This is Part 6 of 6 ]
“We know how far we still have to go, We know it is a long and difficult way. But we also know how much a united Europe and an America true to its values can achieve together.”
— Nicolas Sarkozy
“So the men we are celebrating today and commemorating those dead are the people who not only liberated Europe but made possible the freedoms we all enjoy today.”
— Gordon Brown
“There is an unbroken line from the Normandy landings to the fall of Berlin to the end of the Second World War and then to creation of a post-war society.”
— Gordon Brown
“It is a story that has never come easy, but one that always gives us hope, For as we face down the hardships and struggles of our time, and arrive at that hour for which we were born, we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us were somehow able to swallow their fears and secure a beachhead on an unforgiving shore.”
— Barack Obama
“The nations and leaders that joined together to defeat Hitler’s Reich were not perfect. We had made our share of mistakes, and had not always agreed with one another on every issue. But whatever God we prayed to, whatever our differences, we knew that the evil we faced had to be stopped.”
— Barack Obama
“It is a world of varied religions and cultures and forms of government. In such a world, it is rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal about humanity. The Second World War did that.”
— Barack Obama
“They were American, British, and Canadian. The sheer improbability of this victory is part of what makes D-Day so memorable. It also arises from the clarity of purpose with which this war was waged. We live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true.”
— Barack Obama
“Generations to come will know what happened here, but these men heard the guns. Visitors will always pay respects at this cemetery, but these veterans come looking for a name and remembering faces and voices from a lifetime ago. Today we honor all the veterans of Normandy and all their comrades who never left.”
— George Bush
Operation Overlord (D-Day): The Normandy Beaches
Operation Overlord was the code name for the operation that launched the invasion of German-occupied western Europe during World War II by Allied forces. The operation commenced on 6 June 1944 with the Normandy Landings (commonly known as D-Day). A 12,000-plane airborne assault preceded an amphibious assault involving almost 7,000 vessels. Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on 6 June; more than 3 million troops were in France by the end of August.
Allied land forces that saw combat in Normandy on D-Day itself came from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Free French forces and Poland also participated in the battle after the assault phase, and there were also minor contingents from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands, and Norway. Other Allied nations participated in the naval and air forces. Once the beachheads were secured, a three-week military buildup occurred on the beaches before Operation Cobra, the operation to break out from the Normandy beachhead, began. The battle for Normandy continued for more than two months, with campaigns to expand the foothold on France, and concluded with the closing of the Falaise pocket on 24 August, the liberation of Paris on 25 August, and the German retreat across the Seine which was completed on 30 August 1944.
The Normandy landings were the landing operations of the Allied invasion of Normandy, also known as Operation Neptune and Operation Overlord, during World War II. The landings commenced on Tuesday, 6 June 1944 (D-Day), beginning at 6:30 AM British Double Summer Time (UTC+2). In planning, D-Day was the term used for the day of actual landing, which was dependent on final approval.
The assault was conducted in two phases: an air assault landing of 24,000 American, British, Canadian and Free French airborne troops shortly after midnight, and an amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armoured divisions on the coast of France commencing at 6:30 AM. There were also subsidiary ‘attacks’ mounted under the codenames Operation Glimmer and Operation Taxable to distract the German forces from the real landing areas.
The operation was the largest amphibious invasion of all time, with over 160,000 troops landing on 6 June 1944. 195,700 Allied naval and merchant navy personnel in over 5,000 ships were involved. The invasion required the transport of soldiers and material from the United Kingdom by troop-laden aircraft and ships, the assault landings, air support, naval interdiction of the English Channel and naval fire-support. The landings took place along a 50-mile (80 km) stretch of the Normandy coast divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
The Allied invasion was detailed in several overlapping operational plans according to the D-Day museum:
"The armed forces use codenames to refer to the planning and execution of specific military operations. Operation Overlord was the codename for the Allied invasion of northwest Europe. The assault phase of Operation Overlord was known as Operation Neptune. Operation Neptune began on D-Day ( 6 June 1944) and ended on 30 June 1944. By this time, the Allies had established a firm foothold in Normandy. Operation Overlord also began on D-Day, and continued until Allied forces crossed the River Seine on 19 August 1944."
Only a few days in each month were suitable for launching the operation, because both a full moon during the hours of darkness and a spring tide were required: the former to illuminate navigational landmarks for the crews of aircraft, gliders and landing craft, and the latter to provide the deepest possible water to help safe navigation over defensive obstacles placed by the Germans in the surf on the seaward approaches to the beaches. Allied Expeditionary Force Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower had tentatively selected 5 June as the date for the assault. The weather was fine during most of May, but this deteriorated in early June. On 4 June, conditions were clearly unsuitable for a landing; wind and high seas would make it impossible to launch landing craft from larger ships at sea, and low clouds would prevent aircraft finding their targets. The Allied troop convoys already at sea were forced to take shelter in bays and inlets on the south coast of Britain for the night.
It seemed possible that everything would have to be cancelled and the troops returned to their embarkation camps (which would be almost impossible, as the enormous movement of follow-up formations into them was already proceeding). The next full moon period would be nearly a month away. At a vital meeting on 5 June, Eisenhower’s chief meteorologist (Group Captain J.M. Stagg) forecast a brief improvement for 6 June. General Bernard Montgomery and Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff General Walter Bedell Smith wished to proceed with the invasion. Leigh Mallory was doubtful, but Admiral Bertram Ramsay believed that conditions would be marginally favourable. On the strength of Stagg’s forecast, Eisenhower ordered the invasion to proceed. In the event, prevailing overcast skies limited Allied air support, and no serious damage was done to the beach defences on Omaha and Juno.
The Germans meanwhile took comfort from the existing poor conditions, which were worse over Northern France than over the Channel itself, and believed no invasion would be possible for several days. Some troops stood down, and many senior officers were away for the weekend. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, for example, took a few days’ leave to celebrate his wife’s birthday. While dozens of division, regimental, and battalion commanders were away from their posts at war games, the Allied forces were attacking.
Allied Order of Battle
The order of battle for the landings was approximately as follows, east to west:
British Second Army
- 6th Airborne Division was delivered by parachute and glider to the east of the River Orne to protect the left flank. The division contained 7,900 men, including one Canadian battalion.
- Sword Beach
- 1st Special Service Brigade comprising No. 3, No. 4, No. 6 and No. 45 (RM) Commandos landed at Ouistreham in Queen Red sector (leftmost). No.4 Commando were augmented by 1 and 8 Troop (both French) of No. 10 (Inter Allied) Commando.
- I Corps, 3rd Infantry Division and the 27th Armoured Brigade from Ouistreham to Lion-sur-Mer.
- No. 41 (RM) Commando (part of 4th Special Service Brigade) landed on the far West of Sword Beach.
- Juno Beach
- 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and No.48 (RM) Commando from Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to Courseulles-sur-Mer.
- No. 46 (RM) Commando (part of 4th Special Service Brigade) at Juno to scale the cliffs on the left side of the Orne River estuary and destroy a battery. (Battery fire proved negligible so No.46 were kept off-shore as a floating reserve and landed on D+1).
- Gold Beach
- XXX Corps, 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division and 8th Armoured Brigade, consisting of 25,000. from Courseulles to Arromanches.
- No. 47 (RM) Commando (part of 4th Special Service Brigade) on the West flank of Gold beach.
- 79th Armoured Division operated specialist armour ("Hobart’s Funnies") for mine-clearing, recovery and assault tasks. These were distributed around the Anglo-Canadian beaches.
Overall, the 2nd Army contingent consisted of 83,115 troops (61,715 of them British). In addition to the British and Canadian combat units, eight Australian officers were attached to the British forces as observers. The nominally British air and naval support units included a large number of crew from Allied nations, including several RAF squadrons manned almost exclusively by foreign air-crew.
U.S. First Army
- Omaha Beach
- V Corps, 1st Infantry Division and 29th Infantry Division making up 34,250 troops from Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes to Vierville-sur-Mer.
- 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions at Pointe du Hoc (The 5th BN and A, B, C Co 2nd BN diverted to Omaha).
- Utah Beach
- VII Corps, 4th Infantry Division and the 359th RCT of the 90th Infantry Division comprising 23,250 men landing, around Pouppeville and La Madeleine.
- 101st Airborne Division by parachute around Vierville to support Utah Beach landings.
- 82nd Airborne Division by parachute around Sainte-Mère-Église, protecting the right flank. They had originally been tasked with dropping further west, in the middle part of the Cotentin, allowing the sea-landing forces to their east easier access across the peninsula, and preventing the Germans from reinforcing the north part of the peninsula. The plans were later changed to move them much closer to the beachhead, as at the last minute the German 91st Air Landing Division was determined to be in the area.
In total, the First Army contingent totalled approximately 73,000 men, including 15,600 from the airborne divisions.
German Order of Battle
The military forces at the disposal of Nazi Germany reached its numerical peak during 1944. By D-Day, 157 German divisions were stationed in the Soviet Union, 6 in Finland, 12 in Norway, 6 in Denmark, 9 in Germany, 21 in the Balkans, 26 in Italy and 59 in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. However, these statistics are somewhat misleading since a significant number of the divisions in the east were depleted due to intensity of fighting; German records indicate that the average personnel complement was at about 50% in the spring of 1944.
The German defenses used an interlocking firing style, so they could protect areas that were receiving heavy fire. They had large bunkers, sometimes intricate concrete ones containing machine guns and high caliber weapons. Their defense also integrated the cliffs and hills overlooking the beaches. The defenses were all built and honed over a four year period.
The Germans’ first line of defence was the English Channel, a crossing which had confounded the Spanish Armada and Napoleon Bonaparte’s Navy. Compounding the invasion efforts was the extensive Atlantic Wall, ordered by Hitler in his Directive 51. Believing that any forthcoming landings would be timed for high tide (this caused the landings to be timed for low tide), Rommel had the entire wall fortified with tank top turrets and extensive barbed wire, and laid hundreds of thousands of mines to deter landing craft. The Allies chose to attack close to the sector boundary between the 7th and 15th German armies, on the extreme eastern flank of the former, to maximize the possible confusion of command responsibility during German reaction. The landings sector which was attacked was occupied by four German divisions.
Primary divisions occupied the areas immediately around the landing zones, including:
- 716th Infantry Division (Static) defended the Eastern end of the landing zones, including most of the British and Canadian beaches. This division, as well as the 709th, included Germans who were not considered fit for active duty on the Eastern Front, usually for medical reasons, and soldiers of various other nationalities (from conquered countries, often drafted by force) and former Soviet prisoners-of-war who had agreed to fight for the Germans rather than endure the harsh conditions of German POW camps (among them so called hiwis). These "volunteers" were concentrated in "Ost-Bataillone" (East Battalions) that were of dubious loyalty.
- 352nd Infantry Division was a well-trained and equipped formation defending the area between approximately Bayeux and Carentan, including Omaha beach. The division had been formed in November 1943 with the help of cadres from the disbanded 321st Division, which had been destroyed in the Soviet Union that same year. The 352nd had a number of troops who had seen action on the eastern front.
- 91st Air Landing Division (Luftlande–air transported) (Generalmajor Wilhelm Falley), comprising the 1057th Infantry Regiment and 1058th Infantry Regiment. This was a regular infantry division, trained, and equipped to be transported by air (i.e. transportable artillery, few heavy support weapons) located in the interior of the Cotentin Peninsula, including the drop zones of the American parachute landings. The attached 6th Parachute Regiment (Oberstleutnant Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte) had been rebuilt as a part of the 2nd Parachute Division stationed in Brittany.
- 709th Infantry Division (Static) (Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben), comprising the 729th Infantry Regiment, 739th Infantry Regiment (both with four battalions, but the 729th 4th and the 739th 1st and 4th being Ost, these two regiments had no regimental support companies either), and 919th Infantry Regiment. This coastal defense division protected the eastern, and northern (including Cherbourg) coast of the Cotentin Peninsula, including the Utah beach landing zone. Like the 716th, this division comprised a number of "Ost" units who were provided with German leadership to manage them.
Adjacent Divisional Areas
Other divisions occupied the areas around the landing zones, including:
- 243rd Infantry Division (Static) (Generalleutnant Heinz Hellmich), comprising the 920th Infantry Regiment (two battalions), 921st Infantry Regiment, and 922nd Infantry Regiment. This coastal defense division protected the western coast of the Cotentin Peninsula.
- 711th Infantry Division (Static), comprising the 731th Infantry Regiment, and 744th Infantry Regiment. This division defended the western part of the Pays de Caux.
- 30th Mobile Brigade (Oberstleutnant Freiherr von und zu Aufsess), comprising three bicycle battalions.
Rommel’s defensive measures were also frustrated by a dispute over armoured doctrine. In addition to his two army groups, von Rundstedt also commanded the headquarters of Panzer Group West under General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg (usually referred to as von Geyr). This formation was nominally an administrative HQ for von Rundstedt’s armored and mobile formations, but it was later to be renamed Fifth Panzer Army and brought into the line in Normandy. Von Geyr and Rommel disagreed over the deployment and use of the vital Panzer divisions.
Rommel recognized that the Allies would possess air superiority and would be able to harass his movements from the air. He therefore proposed that the armored formations be deployed close to the invasion beaches. In his words, it was better to have one Panzer division facing the invaders on the first day, than three Panzer divisions three days later when the Allies would already have established a firm beachhead. Von Geyr argued for the standard doctrine that the Panzer formations should be concentrated in a central position around Paris and Rouen, and deployed en masse against the main Allied beachhead when this had been identified.
The argument was eventually brought before Hitler for arbitration. He characteristically imposed an unworkable compromise solution. Only three Panzer divisions were given to Rommel, too few to cover all the threatened sectors. The remainder, nominally under Von Geyr’s control, were actually designated as being in "OKW Reserve". Only three of these were deployed close enough to intervene immediately against any invasion of Northern France, the other four were dispersed in southern France and the Netherlands. Hitler reserved to himself the authority to move the divisions in OKW Reserve, or commit them to action.
On 6 June, many Panzer division commanders were unable to move because Hitler had not given the necessary authorization, and his staff refused to wake him upon news of the invasion.
- The 21st Panzer Division (Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger) was deployed near Caen as a mobile striking force as part of the Army Group B reserve. However, Rommel placed it so close to the coastal defenses that, under standing orders in case of invasion, several of its infantry and anti-aircraft units would come under the orders of the fortress divisions on the coast, reducing the effective strength of the division.
The other mechanized divisions capable of intervening in Normandy were retained under the direct control of the German Armed Forces HQ (OKW) and were initially denied to Rommel.
Coordination with the French Resistance
The various factions and circuits of the French Resistance were included in the plan for Overlord. Through a London-based headquarters which supposedly embraced all resistance groups, État-major des Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (EMFFI), the British Special Operations Executive orchestrated a massive campaign of sabotage tasking the various Groups with attacking railway lines, ambushing roads, or destroying telephone exchanges or electrical substations. The resistance was alerted to carry out these tasks by means of the messages personnels, transmitted by the BBC in its French service from London. Several hundred of these were regularly transmitted, masking the few of them that were really significant.
Among the stream of apparently meaningless messages broadcast by the BBC at 21:00 CET on 5 June, were coded instructions such as Les carottes sont cuites ("The carrots are cooked") and Les dés sont jetés ("The dice have been thrown").
One famous pair of these messages is often mistakenly stated to be a general call to arms by the Resistance. A few days before D-Day, the (slightly misquoted) first line of Verlaine’s poem, Chanson d’Automne, was transmitted. "Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne" (Long sobs of autumn violins) alerted the resistance fighters of the Ventriloquist network in the Orléans region to attack rail targets within the next few days. The second line, "Bercent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone" ("soothe my heart with a monotonous languor"), transmitted late on 5 June, meant that the attack was to be mounted immediately.
Josef Götz, the head of the signals section of the German intelligence service (the SD) in Paris, had discovered the meaning of the second line of Verlaine’s poem, and no fewer than fourteen other executive orders they heard late on 5 June. His section rightly interpreted them to mean that an invasion was imminent or underway, and they alerted their superiors and all Army commanders in France. However, they had issued a similar warning a month before, when the Allies had begun invasion preparations and alerted the Resistance, but then stood down because of a forecast of bad weather. The SD having given this false alarm, their genuine alarm was ignored or treated as merely routine. Fifteenth Army HQ passed the information on to its units; Seventh Army ignored it.
In addition to the tasks given to the Resistance as part of the invasion effort, the Special Operations Executive planned to reinforce the Resistance with three-man liaison parties, under Operation Jedburgh. The Jedburgh parties would coordinate and arrange supply drops to the Maquis groups in the German rear areas. Also operating far behind German lines and frequently working closely with the Resistance, although not under SOE, were larger parties from the British, French and Belgian units of the Special Air Service brigade.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Operation Overlord…
Wikipedia: Invasion of Normandy…
Wikipedia: Normandy Landings…
Web Sites and Blogs:
Great Personalities: D-Day Quotes…