One of the most important aspects that Americans fail to realize and understand along with the magnitude of the critically important combined operations that took place on D-Day⏤most don’t even know the name of the operation! “Operation Overlord,” the D-Day invasion sent roughly 156,000 Allied troops into Nazi-occupied France beginning on June 6, 1944. It was the single largest seaborne invasion in history and a turning point in World War II that came at a massive catastrophic human toll.
By the end of the Normandy campaign that began 75-years ago today (last night) at 00:48 hours, and witnessed hundreds of thousands of Allied and Axis soldiers and civilians had died and or had been wounded.
The greatest risks were borne by American troops who seized clifftop artillery, set up defensive balloons to defend comrades from aerial attacks, and arrived in the first wave.
As the sun-set on the blood-stained beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s message to the thousands of Allied troops dispatched to carry out the largest amphibious landing in military history rang true.
To better understand the criticality of the toughest missions set-upon, let me offer my knowledge from many years of my militaries studies of both the operation and World War II, as well as my perspective of what actually went down. Certainly, these were the most perilous jobs American troops performed to help make the D-Day landings a World War II turning point. Bottom line⏤it was bad enough but it could have been worse. Eisenhower knew that and prepared a separate speech to address just such a situation.
First are the Pathfinders – the earliest paratroopers of the U.S. Army’s 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions jumped into enemy territory in the dark just after midnight, facing unrelenting attacks with little back-up and a lot of pressure to light the way. Here’s what went down:
- Strategy and scope: Operation Neptune, the Allied invasion of well-guarded Normandy.
- Minutes after midnight on June 6⏤300 101st Pathfinders, nicknamed “the Screaming Eagles,” went in first. Jumping in behind German lines in lean, highly-trained formations, the Pathfinders were not out to engage in combat. They were to quickly set-up lights and flares to mark drop zones for paratroopers and landing paths for the gliders preparing to land just before daylight and the very dawn at first light.
- Simultaneous and follow-on mission was to “Operation Neptune,” the first combat operation of the D-Day invasion. 82nd and 101st forces conducted critical behind the lines ops, seizing rail lines, roads, disrupting German logistics, and providing vital Intelligence on German reactions, repositioning of forces, and resupply efforts… The Pathfinders paved the way for waves of paratroopers to follow, but paid a heavy price.
- Threats and losses: The equipment they carried – from parachutes and life jackets to lighting systems they were to set up once on the ground – made their packs so heavy that they had to be helped onto the planes.
As was expected and amid the bad weather and limited visibility that night, some were blown wildly off course after leaping from the C-47 Skytrains. Even those who managed textbook landings into the intended locations were at risk.
The Impact: The Pathfinders paved the way for waves of paratroopers to follow and paid a heavy price. While the Pathfinders saw heavy losses, they ultimately enabled more accurate, effective landings and ability for Allied troops to withstand counterattacks.
Secondly, was Pointe du Hoc and the U.S. Army Rangers Assault
Focus⏤the Rangers were required to climb 100-foot cliffs under fire in order to take out the critical heavy artillery batteries and bunkered machine-gun placements that were aimed at the Atlantic to target ships and landing craft and the beaches to bombard and strafe landing forces.
Strategy and scope: Once dawn broke on June 6, 1944, a force of 225 US Army Rangers of the 2nd and 5th Ranger battalions began their attempts to seize Pointe du Hoc. Their mission: Scale the 100-foot rock and upon reaching the cliff top, destroy key German gun positions, clearing the way for the mass landings on Omaha and Utah beaches.
From the standpoint of Strategic Context⏤The multifaceted naval bombardment sent the highly trained climbers hauling themselves up the cliffs using ropes, hooks, and ladders. Two Allied destroyers would drop bombs onto the Germans in an attempt to limit the enemy’s ability to simply shoot the Rangers off the cliffs.
The Rangers climbed the cliffs in sodden clothes while Germans above them shot at them and tried to cut their ropes.
Threats and losses: Beyond the challenging mountain climbing involved in getting into France via the cliffs along the English Channel, the Rangers faced choppy waters and delayed landings, which increased the formidable enemy opposition.
Nazi artillery fire sprayed at the naval bombardment. Landing crafts sank. Those who made it to the rocks were climbing under enemy fire, their uniforms and gear heavy and slippery from mud and water. The Germans started cutting their ropes. Rangers who reached the cliff top encountered more enemy fire, along with terrain that looked different from the aerial photographs they had studied, much of it reduced to rubble in the aftermath of recent aerial bombings. And they discovered that several of the guns they were out to destroy had been repositioned.
The Impact: The Rangers successfully climbed the cliffs despite their sodden uniforms and heavy amounts of equipment and ammo and munitions. Nevertheless, these Rangers located key German guns and disabled them with grenades. They also took out enemy observation posts and set up strategic roadblocks and communication lines on Pointe du Hoc. The 155mm artillery positions they destroyed could have compromised the forthcoming beach landings.
Third came the first assault on Omaha Beach
Soldiers of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions and the U.S. Army Rangers stormed the beach codenamed “Omaha” in the earliest assaults. As expected, these were the bloodiest moments of D-Day.
Strategy and scope: Beyond enemy fire, the Allies were up against physical barricades installed to prevent landings onto the six-mile stretch of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall.”
To breakthrough, infantry divisions, Rangers, and specialized units arrived to carry out a series of coordinated attacks, Engineers using demolition capabilities for blowing up and busting through obstacles in order to secure the five path ways from the beach to ensure U.S. and allied forces could move inland as rapidly as possible.
Threats and losses: In pre-invasion briefings, troops were told there would be Allied bombing power preceding them and that the Germans would be largely obliterated and washed ashore.
The scene was similarly gruesome for combat engineers moving in with Bangalore torpedoes to blow up obstacles, as noted. Meanwhile, amphibious tank operators tried to shield Allied infantrymen and to ensure and enable medics to make it ashore to try to administer emergency care while facing counterattacks and navigating around the dead and wounded.
Impact: A fraction of the first assault troops ever reached the top of the bluff. Some company head-counts went to single digits. But the troops who helped secure Omaha and the five paths off the beach in the coming days cleared the way for massive tanks, fuel, food, and reinforcements important to the rest of the campaign.
The Third major effort was the Balloon Barrage Battalion
These combat troops landed on Utah Beach and set up key lines of defense to prevent Luftwaffe raiders from strafing the incoming army of troops and supplies.
Strategy and scope: The Allies knew that as soon as the landings began, German air attacks would present a major threat to the masses of troops arriving in thousands of landing crafts.
- To defend against air raids, they turned to defensive weaponry units, including the 621 Black-American soldiers assigned with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, to land with 125-pound blimps and work in teams to anchor them to the ground.
- Each blimp was filled with hydrogen and connected to small bombs that could denote if enemy aircraft made contact with the cables.
Threats and losses: They came ashore on Utah Beach from some 150 landing crafts on the morning of June 6, facing the dangers of fellow infantry and the added threats that came with maneuvering heavy cables and balloon equipment on the beach under fire. They set up barrage balloons, digging trenches to take cover as waves of fellow soldiers landed.
Impact: As landing craft after landing craft came ashore on and after D-Day, the barrage balloon battalion provided Allied troops and equipment some protection, allowing them to move inland with less threat of being blown into the sand by German fighters.
The hydrogen-filled balloons they deployed along the coast created barriers between the Allied troops and the enemy aircraft out to decimate them. The most dangerous part of this effort was the fact that their actions setting up the defensive balloons under enemy fire were “as heroic as it gets.”
Finally, was the Air Campaign prior to and during the invasion
One of the most significant aspects of the D-Day invasion was the air cover which allowed Allied forces to move inland with less threat of being bombed or strafed by German planes.
While there were aerial bombings, the impact was not as planned. While some of the B-24s and B-17s flying overhead missed their targets, their overall effort and mission despite high losses was critical. German troops sprayed guns and mortars with clear views of the soldiers, stevedores, porters, and technical support charging the narrow stretch of beach. Men waded through rough, cold water from Allied landing crafts under withering heavy fire.
Strategy and Scope: The air campaign had three stages: disable the Luftwaffe; cut off main supply roads; and once the invasion began, focus on battle field interdiction and close air support.
The air cover allowed Allied troops to move inland with less threat of being bombed or strafed by German planes.
- From January to June 1944, the five months leading up to D-Day, the Allies had effectively clipped the wings of the German Luftwaffe. The allied air forces engaged the Luftwaffe wherever they found them while bombers sought out their “nests” in France and Germany.
- By the end of May, bombers had neutralized dozens of airfields and severely crippled Germany’s aircraft industry. As a result, on the eve of Normandy the Luftwaffe had been reduced to less than half of its original air assets. In May alone, 570 German aircraft were destroyed, which equated to roughly 25 percent of their total force in the span of 30 days.
- Another goal of the Overlord plan involved the destruction of the enemy’s rail communications. Of particular interest were the rail lines leading towards the Overlord beach areas. To meet this objective, allied air forces unleashed heavy and medium bombers to engage marshaling yards. Likewise at the same time fighters attacked rolling stock and troop concentrations.
- Pilots claimed 475 train locomotives and hundreds of railcars loaded with munitions, supplies, and troops. In turn, the attacks demoralized German forces which delayed reinforcements to the Overlord areas.
The Impact: The Allies were not without their own losses, though. In that period leading up to the invasion, the Allies lost more than 12,000 men and 2,000 aircraft. The Allied Air Forces on D-Day suffered the highest rate of casualties during the period from January – June 1944.
The Strategic Impact of D-Day
By the end of the day, the American and allied forces had disembarked more than 156,000 men and over 10,000 vehicles, tanks, artillery pieces on to the beaches, and established critical bridgeheads of varying depths inshore along the Normandy coastline. This came at the cost of over 5,000 allied troops being killed, with thousands more injured or missing. There were also heavy casualties among German troops of over 9,000 killed and over 50,000 wounded or missing. The Allies also captured some 200,000 German prisoners of war. Allied casualties on D-Day were over 83,000. There were nearly 20,000 French civilian casualties on D-Day.
Fierce fighting continued in the area until August. The ongoing plan relied on landing more and more troops into France, faster than the Germans could reinforce their positions. By 19 August, the allied forces had pushed down far enough to begin the battle to liberate Paris.
The other critical effort and success was the impact and role of intelligence and deception leading up to the D-Day operations. Operation Fortitude was the code name for a World War II military deception employed by the Allied nations as part of an overall deception strategy (code named Bodyguard) during the build-up to the 1944 Normandy landings. Fortitude was divided into two sub-plans, North and South, with the aim of misleading the German high command as to the location of the actual D-Day invasion, as well as timing and operational military aspects of forces, equipment, movements and communications.
Both Fortitude plans involved the creation of phantom field armies (based in Edinburgh and the south of England) which threatened Norway (Fortitude North) and Pas de Calais (Fortitude South). There were also other deception and diversionary plans to attempt to through off Hitler and the German General Staff and High Command of the German Armed Forces. The operation was intended to divert Axis attention away from Normandy and, after the invasion on June 6, 1944, to delay reinforcement by convincing the Germans that the landings were purely a diversionary attack.
In the end, the German troops in France surrendered the French capital on August ay 7, 1945. D-Day – Operation Overlord marked the largest and most pivotal military invasion in history.