D-Day: The Normandy Landings

On May 19, 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S President Franklin Roosevelt set the initial date for the cross-Channel landing that would become D-Day—May 1, 1944. At this point, D-Day was years in the planning. That date will prove a bit premature, as bad weather became a factor. Addressing a joint session of Congress, Churchill warned that the real danger at present was the “dragging-out of the war at enormous expense." And so, to “speed” things up, the British prime minister and President Roosevelt set a date for a cross-Channel invasion of Normandy, in northern France, for May 1, 1944, regardless of the problems presented by the invasion of Italy, which was underway.

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Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower selected June 5, 1944, as the date for the invasion; however, bad weather on the days leading up to the operation caused it to be delayed for 24 hours. On the morning of June 5, after his meteorologist predicted improved conditions for the following day, Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord. He told the troops: "You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you."

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On June 6, 1944, after Eisenhower's go-ahead, more than 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops stormed 50 miles of Normandy's fiercely defended beaches in Northern France in an operation that proved to be a critical turning point in World War II. Known as D-Day, the invasion was one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history and required extensive planning. Prior to D-Day, the Allies conducted a large-scale deception campaign designed to mislead the Germans about the intended invasion target.

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By daybreak, 18,000 British and American parachutists were already on the ground, landing inland on the Utah and Sword beaches in an attempt to cut off exits and destroy bridges to slow Nazi reinforcements. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion. At 6:30 a.m., American troops came ashore at Utah and Omaha beaches.

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The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where the U.S. First Division battled high seas, mist, mines, burning vehicles—and German coastal batteries, including an elite infantry division, which spewed heavy fire. Many wounded Americans ultimately drowned in the high tide. British divisions, which landed at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches, and Canadian troops also met with heavy German fire.

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Anticipating an Allied invasion somewhere along the French coast, German forces had completed construction of the "Atlantic Wall," a 2,400 mile line of bunkers, landmines and beach and water obstacles. The first waves of American fighters were cut down in droves by German machine gun fire as they scrambled across the mine riddled beach.

But by day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops–Americans, British and Canadians–had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches and were then able to push inland. At Omaha Beach, US forces persisted through the day long-long slog, pushing forward to a fortified seawall and then up steep bluffs to take out the Nazi artillery posts by nightfall.

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Though D-Day did not go off exactly as planned, as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery–for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France–the invasion was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe.

Over 4,000 Allied troops were confirmed dead and thousands were wounded or missing. German losses are estimated to have been between 4,000 and 9,000 soldiers.

  

For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. Adolf Hitler himself had slept in. At first, Hitler, believing that the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.

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Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east. Elbe Day, April 25, 1945, is the day Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe River, near Torgau in Germany, marking an important step toward the end of World War II in Europe. This contact between the Soviets, advancing from the east, and the Americans, advancing from the west, meant that the two powers had effectively cut Germany in two.

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The Normandy invasion began to turn the tide against the Nazis. A significant psychological blow, it also prevented Hitler from sending troops from France to build up his Eastern Front against the advancing Soviets. The following spring, on May 8, 1945, the Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Hitler had committed suicide a week earlier, on April 30.

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