Operation Overlord

Eisenhower talks with 101s Airborne paratroopers prior to their jump into France. (Wikimedia Commons)

1943 was a turning point in WWII. Axis (German, Italian and Japanese) forces had been pushed out of North Africa, Allied forces were marching their way into mainland Italy and the Soviet Red Army had finally eliminated the German 6th Army at Stalingrad and begun their advance towards Berlin. Prior to 1943, it must have been hard for Allied command (and the soldiers and civilians whose fate depended on their decisions) to be optimistic; but the rapid successes of that year changed everything. American General Dwight D. Eisenhower was tasked with the inevitable task of invading Western Europe, and in August of 1943 he was appointed head of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (or SHAEF). British General Bernard Montgomery was tasked with leading the ground forces. The invasion was codenamed Operation Overlord, and it was to be one of the turning points of WWII.

ASAP: The largest beach-landing in world history opened the final front of WWII and enabled the Allies to advance on Berlin from the West.

Read on for details!
SHAEF. Eisenhower is seated, middle, and Montgomery is to his right. (Wikimedia Commons)

Overlord’s invasion plan was focused on Normandy, a region in Northwestern France. German intelligence expected the attacking force to land at Caen – which is significantly closer to England, where Allied forces were based – and Allied counterintelligence did everything they could to encourage this false notion. Operation Bodyguard involved everything from phony radio conversations, armies of fake inflatable tanks to be seen by German surveillance planes (in the wrong locations) and even a dead body washing ashore in France with misleading invasion plans in its jacket. The German Abwehr (military intelligence) was notoriously gullible, and as a result Hitler ordered his forces concentrated at Caen.

An inflatable M4 Sherman, part of Operation Bodyguard. (MNC)

Leading up to the invasion – which was planned for June of 1944 – Allied soldiers trained constantly for their landings on Normandy’s shores, ships and aircraft patrolled the British Channel (the stretch of water separating England and France which Overlord would have to cross) and SHAEF’s meteorological anxiously did their best to predict the ideal time for the invasion. The crossing was tentatively set for June 4th or 5th; however, high winds were predicted for the 4th, and the weather was supposed to dramatically worsen on the 10th-20th, so June 6th was picked by Eisenhower and SHAEF.

“The Desert Fox” Field Marshal Rommel (centre) inspects the Atlantic Wall defenses. (PSW)

SHAEF had many reasons beyond the weather to be worried, however. Europe was defended by the “Atlantic Wall”, a series of massive concrete and wire fortifications that ran from Spain to Norway. Although many of the German Wehrmacht troops defending the wall were old and worn out – the average age was 6 years older than their Allied counterparts – the Wall’s defenses were commanded by one of history’s brightest military leaders, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Rommel, a veteran of the African campaign nicknamed the “Desert Fox” for his skill in combat, believed (despite violent disagreements from Hitler and the Abwehr) that the Allied invasion would land at Normandy. Interestingly, Rommel’s view – that Operation Overlord would fail or succeed based on how fast Allied troops could get past the heavily defended beaches of France – was shared by SHAEF. But his German counterparts disagreed and insisted on keeping their Panzer (tank) divisions as far back as Paris.

The beaches of Normandy after the invasion had begun. Note the masses of trucks moving inland, the ships carrying in reinforcements and the blimps designed to protect against German air attack. (Wikipedia)

Prior to the invasion, Allied air and naval forces began shelling German positions at Normandy (and also at Caen, to maintain the illusion). Paratroopers from the British, American and Canadian armies were dropped far behind enemy lines in occupied France to spread confusion and begin sabotaging German supply lines. Early on the morning of Tuesday, June 6th 1944 – or D-Day – Allied ground forces set off for Normandy in their landing craft (flat-bottomed boats designed to land on beaches and, apparently, make their occupants seasick in the churning waters of the English Channel).

A map showing the invasion routes across the English Channel. (Wikipedia)

American men landed on Utah and Omaha beaches (the SHAEF codewords for 2 of the 5 landing sectors) at 6:30 AM. At Utah, the 4th Infantry Division was landed in the wrong place but managed to fight their way to their inland objectives with “only” 197 casualties. Omaha beach was another story: German defenses had been missed by most Allied bombs and so the Americans from the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions faced strong resistance. As the Atlantic Wall defenders poured machine gun and artillery fire onto the invaders from thick concrete bunkers, many men were killed on the beach. Many of Omaha’s “DD” (floating) M4 Sherman tanks were dropped too far from the beach and sank, and nearly 5,000 men became casualties. But by 12:00, the Germans ran low on ammunition and Omaha was largely secured. Pointe du Hoc – a steep cliff between the two beaches – was taken by American Rangers who scaled the point on net-ladders and destroyed its massive artillery guns.

Americans help one another ashore under heavy fire. (GCVF)

British and Free French troops landed at Gold and Sword beaches at roughly the same time. At Gold, the Allied troops were suppressed by massive artillery guns – but these were quickly knocked out by direct hits from Royal Navy cruisers in the channel. The British and French took 1,000 casualties on the beach while breaching various obstacles and capturing German fortifications. At Sword, the landing parties encountered dense minefields and rising tides, which rendered a lot of their armoured DD tank support useless. But the attackers pressed forward with musical accompaniment from Private Bill Millin, a British Commando bagpiper, and held back a Panzer counter-attack at 4:00 PM. Allied casualties at Sword were close to 1,000 men.

British Commandos in Normandy struggle ashore, loaded down with kit to help them survive the coming battles. (Flickr)

Finally, Canadians landed late at Juno beach without support from their DD tanks due to poor weather. Despite the setback, men from the 3rd Canadian Division blasted their way through German obstacles and took the beaches, sustaining 961 casualties. Juno was the second most heavily defended beach (after Omaha), but by nightfall of D-Day, the Canadians at Juno had made the farthest advance into occupied France of any Allied formation. Some historians attribute this success to the Canadians’ status as “shock” (or elite) infantrymen, although it must be said that the Allied troops at all beaches pressed on despite the unimaginable violence directed at them.

A Canadian infantryman guards German prisoners of war. (Wikimedia Commons)

By nightfall on D-Day, very few of SHAEF’s goals had been met. Allied paratroops were scattered all over France, fighting in groups of 1 or 2 to find their targets; almost none of the landing forces had reached their objectives; and the beaches were clogged with incoming men and vehicles from England. But as Eisenhower reflected later, “Plans are nothing, [but] planning is everything.” Overlord had succeeded. Hitler and many of his imbecilic generals held onto the belief that Normandy was a diversion for weeks after D-Day, and despite Rommel’s rising frustration the Atlantic Wall commander was unable to get adequate reinforcements. French civilians were alerted to the landings via secret BBC broadcasts, and ordinary human beings around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. The world’ largest amphibious invasion had not been a disaster, and finally, Allied troops were marching towards Paris and the rest of occupied Europe. The real question now was not whether the Axis would fall; it was who would get to Berlin first, the men of D-Day or the Soviets.

A British para, presumably quite lost, in an unidentified French village. (Pinterest)

In the weeks and months following Operation Overlord, mothers all over the world received letters informing them that their sons would not be returning home. Moments of such great historical significance like D-Day are always going to be bittersweet for those who personally experienced them. Historians tend to subtly glorify what happened in Normandy in June of 1944 (and all conflicts) and remember the cold facts like numbers, or percentages, or the cool names of military operations. Our task, as human beings who continue to benefit from the sacrifices of those who landed on the beaches – because if D-Day hadn’t succeeded, it’s anyone’s guess as to how long the German 3rd Reich would have lasted – is to honour their sacrifice by ensuring nothing like Operation Overlord ever has to happen again.

Main Points

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? Allied forces against German forces in occupied France. 175,000 ground troops as well as 195,000 sailors and many more airmen faced roughly 50,000 Germans in well-built bunkers. Allied forces were commanded by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower; the Germans, by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel AKA “The Desert Fox”.
  • Where? The Normandy beaches in Northwestern France, defended by the “Atlantic Wall” fortifications. Deception operations took place in Caen and on the British coast. Allied forces staged out of southern England and Scotland. Allied paratroopers found themselves far inland in France.
  • When? June 6th, 1944. The fighting in Europe continued into 1945.
  • What? Operation Overlord was the largest amphibious invasion ever undertaken. Allied troops (after months and years of planning) landed troops at 5 different beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword. Concurrently (and prior), paratroopers were dropped over France and most became lost. Allied naval and aerial bombardment of German positions largely failed to damage the Atlantic Wall’s artillery, but the invaders managed to gain a foothold and push farther inland in the following days and weeks.
  • Why? After Allied successes in the previous years, and mounting pressure from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for a second front to be opened in Europe, the invasion of France was overdue by 1944. Allied leadership (SHAEF, or Supreme HQ Allied Expeditionary Force) decided on Normandy as an ideal location (Hitler believed the landing would come at Caen). Civilians and soldiers too were becoming worn out at this point with the war that had been fought since 1939.
  • Result: Allied victory. The Normandy beaches opened the final front of WWII and enabled the Allies to push across Western Europe, eventually meeting the Russians in Berlin in 1945.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • What would have happened if the invasion failed?
  • Consider the political element of SHAEF. Why were certain people appointed certain jobs? Did their nationalities come into play?
  • Could D-Day have happened any sooner?
  • Was the airborne operation a success, or a failure?
  • What were the effects of D-Day on Normandy’s civilian population? How did civilians in North America and the rest of the world view the invasion?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
  • Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.
  • Berman, Mildred. “D-Day and Geography.” Geographical Review 84, no. 4 (1994): 469-75.
  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. “D-Day after Fifty Years: Assessments of Costs and Benefits.” Chapter. In Germany, Hitler, and World War II: Essays in Modern German and World History, 254–73. 
  • Wills, Henry. “Archaeological Aspects of D-Day: Operation Overlord.” Antiquity 68, no. 261 (1994): 843–45

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