As part of the D-Day 75th anniversary commemorations, The War Years will be adding a range of content over the coming week.
The Story of D-Day, Part One
The largest amphibious operation in military history, code-named Overlord, D-Day started in the early hours of June 6 1944. The objective was an 80 km stretch of the Normandy coastline. An armada of 7000 ships planned to land 175,000 men, 50,000 vehicles and all their equipment by day’s end. 11,000 aircraft, oil pipelines under the English Channel and even giant Mulberry Harbours would be towed across the sea.
Operation Neptune was the naval element of the Overlord plan. 7,000 vessels from battleships to landing craft, Neptune was truly an allied effort. British, American, Canadian, French, Norwegian, Dutch, Polish and Greek vessels all played a part in enabling the landing’s success.
The Allies planned to land on 5 beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The flanks or sides of the planned beach head would be secured by airborne forces dropped during the night and early morning June 5/6.
Strategically important, the bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River had to be captured to enable Allied tanks to operate east of the river, and prevent German counter-attacks against the landings.
Seized by daring glider assault the bridges were successfully captured by Major John Howard’s D Company, 2nd Battalion, Ox and Bucks Light Infantry at just after midnight, June 6 1944. Once captured it was vital Major Howard’s men held the bridges against counter-attacks until relieved by Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade at 1pm.
In the area immediately east of Sword Beach some 4,800 elite airborne troops landed by parachute and glider. Men of 9th Parachute Battalion took the German coastal battery at Merville that threatened the British landing beaches.
The American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions secured the flanks of the US beaches. However, the 6,600 men dropped were badly scattered that reduced their initial effectiveness, although this did confuse the German defenders. The paratroopers successfully secured the exits from Utah Beach and captured bridges en route to Carentan.
The Story of D-Day, part Two
The American Beaches
The D-Day landings started at the low water mark on a rising tide at 06.30hrs in the US sector and 07.30hrs for the British.
Strong coastal currents and obscuration of landmarks due to smoke from naval bombardment meant American invasion forces landed 2,000 yards south of their planned objective on Utah Beach. Luckily the area where troops from the 4th Infantry Division actually landed was less heavily defended, and casualties mercifully light.
Pointe du Hoc
Just as Pegasus Bridge was vital to the success of the British landings so Pointe du Hoc was important to the Americans. Intelligence reports prior to the landings indicated that six 155mm guns in concrete emplacements sat atop a 177ft cliff. The guns threatened the landings on Utah and Omaha Beaches and had to be destroyed.
The elite 2nd Ranger Battalion was tasked with destroying the guns at Pointe du Hoc by direct assault from the sea, which meant scaling the cliffs while under fire. However, when the Rangers fought their way up to the gun emplacements they found them empty. The guns had been moved inland. Later, the guns were found and destroyed.
The most difficult terrain and heavily defended sector, Omaha Beach was the objective of the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions. At 5.40am amphibious DD tanks launched 6,000 yards offshore, nearly all sinking in the heavy seas.
Only 5 tanks made it ashore to support the infantry landings. All but one of the 105mm field artillery guns also vital to the landings was lost. To make matters even worse, the naval and air bombardment had done little to reduce the German defensive positions commanding the exposed beach.
Seasick, heavily laden, troops of the nine companies in the first assault wave were decimated by German machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire. Those troops lucky enough to make it across the open beach took cover behind the sea wall.
The assault on Omaha initially stalled. However, gradually men formed small groups and started fighting their way up the bluffs that overlooked the beach. Later, navy destroyers came dangerously close to shore to give much needed fire support. By day’s end Omaha Beach was in American hands.
Brigadier General Norman “Dutch” Cota, several NCOs and Privates received decorations for gallantry during the action at "Bloody Omaha".
Today, 3rd of June 2019, we post a short video taken back in June 2010 on a visit to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery and Memorial.
The Story of D-Day, part Three
The British, French and Canadian Beaches
Westernmost of the British/Canadian beaches, code-named Gold, was assaulted by the 50th Division of the British XXX Corps. Specially developed armoured vehicles were landed ahead of the infantry to deal with beach obstacles, mines and the sea wall. Some 2,500 obstacles and mines needed to be cleared from Gold Beach alone. Allied forces quickly overcame German defences and moved inland.
During the advance of 69th Brigade, Company Sergeant Major, Stan Hollis of the Green Howards won the Victoria Cross, for repeated acts of valour, Britain’s highest military honour. This was the only VC won on D-Day.
Canada made a terrific contribution to the Allied war effort. Juno Beach was assigned to the Canadian 3rd Division. Like the British the Canadians used special armoured vehicles to help overcome beach obstacles, mines and strong points. These vehicles were nick-named Hobart’s “funnies” after their creator Major General Sir Percy Hobart.
The town of Courseulles was strongly defended by the Germans but duly taken. The Queens Own Rifles suffered severe casualties crossing the beach at Bernieres. The Canadians made contact with 50th Division on their right by day’s end.
The easternmost landing zone, Sword Beach, was assaulted by the British 3rd Division. The 3rd Division’s objectives were perhaps the most ambitious of the D-Day operation: capture or mask the Norman city of Caen by nightfall. The 3rd Division also knew it was likely to be counter-attacked by tanks of the German 21st Panzer (Armour) Division.
British intentions to quickly move off Sword Beach and drive inland were held up resistance from German strong points. British troops reached Lebisey Wood, just three miles short of Caen, but could advance no further.
Special Forces - The Commandos
French Commandos led by Philippe Kieffer took Ouistreham casino and secured the canal gateway. However, the French suffered heavy casualties and Kieffer was wounded twice during the fighting.
Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade landed on 'Queen Red' sector of Sword Beach at approximately 8.40 am, 6 June 1944. Commanded by Brigadier Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, 1st Special Service Brigade’s mission was to push inland and link up with the lightly armed British 6th Airborne Division holding Pegasus Bridge and bridge over the Orne River.
Today, we have added 241 photos to our Flickr site taken during visits to the D-Day beaches, Pegasus Bridge Memorial and Museum, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Omaha Beach Memorial Museum, Airborne Museum, Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and Sainte-Mère-Église in 2010 and 2014.