Editor: Michael Spilling and Consultant Editor: Chris McNab
The initial British–Canadian–American Normandy landings (Operation Neptune, the first stage of Operation Overlord), aimed “to secure a lodgement on the continent from which further offensive operations can be developed”. Many preconditions had to be met before the cross-Channel operation could be contemplated. The vast American forces had to be transported to Britain, requiring the defeat of the U-boats and the availability of huge amounts of shipping. This lead to a high degree of command of the sea and air in the area had to be achieved. Finally it meant an enormous amphibious forces had to be built up and trained.
Normandy was chosen because of the suitability of its beaches for landings and of the hinterland for the subsequent breakout. Because an assault here, rather than the Pas de Calais, would be unexpected. Therefore, careful intelligence preparation went alongside a meticulous campaign of deception to keep the defenders’ attention focused on the Pas de Calais and Norway. This allowed the Allies to achieve the surprise that was essential for success. The staggering logistical requirements would be guaranteed by two ‘Mulberry’ artificial harbors. This would be combined together with undersea oil pipelines and supplies landed over the beaches. Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander. He would undertake the bulk of the planning being conducted by the naval commander, Adm Sir Bertram Ramsay.
The Strategy of the Normandy Landings
The initial plan envisaged three divisions landing on three beaches over a 48 km front. Though this was later revised to five divisions assaulting five beaches along a 96 km front. This extended the landings to the Cotentin peninsula, allowing an earlier push for the port of Cherbourg.
In the east, British airborne forces took key bridges across the canals and protected the flank. British forces (with one unit of French commandos) landed on Sword Beach, British and Canadian at Juno, British at Gold. Then US troops at Omaha and Utah, with US airborne forces dropping on the western flank. The Allied forces conducting the Normandy Landings included 1213 warships from battleships to midget submarines, some 4125 amphibious ships and craft as well as hundreds of merchant ships, over 11,000 aircraft and 130,000 soldiers with 2000 tanks and 12,000 other vehicles. Atrocious weather caused Eisenhower to take the option of a 24-hour postponement; the decision to go ahead on 6 June was marginal, but while the continuing bad weather caused considerable problems for the airborne and amphibious forces, it also helped the landings to achieve surprise.
German forces had heavily defended the beaches with underwater obstacles, barbed wire and minefields backed by fortified artillery, machine-gun and infantry bunkers, with supporting defensive positions inland. Armored reserves, with which Germany planned to push the invaders back into the sea, were mainly held back some distance from the beaches. The Allies sought to defeat these defenses by heavy preliminary naval bombardment and bombing, airborne and commando assaults against key batteries, then by use of combat engineers, amphibious tanks and – on the British and Canadian beaches – specialist engineering vehicles known as ‘Hobart’s funnies’.
The defensive positions put up stout resistance for a time, especially at Omaha where the Normandy Landings came closest to failure, but they were eventually isolated and overwhelmed. The Allies suffered 10,300 casualties, but managed to land 132,000 men by the end of D-Day. Although the breakout would take longer than expected, the Allies had successfully breached Germany’s Atlantic Wall.
Dr. Chris McNab is the editor of AMERICAN BATTLES & CAMPAIGNS: A Chronicle, from 1622-Present and is an experienced specialist in wilderness and urban survival techniques. He has published over 20 books including: How to Survive Anything, Anywhere. An encyclopedia of military and civilian survival techniques for all environments. Special Forces Endurance Techniques, First Aid Survival Manual, and The Handbook of Urban Survival.