The Battle of Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord, was the most massive landing operation in history. It was carried out by the Allied forces in Normandy in north-western France during World War II. Considered the beginning of the end of the war in Europe, Operation Overlord was unparalleled in its scale as an amphibious operation involving land, sea, and air assaults.
The operation’s objective was to secure a bridgehead in Normandy that would allow the Allies to have a presence in Western Europe and “to secure a lodgment on the continent, from which further offensive operations can be developed.” The Normandy landings on June 6th, 1944 marked D-day, the beginning of the operation. However, the operation had been set in motion long before D-day and required extensive planning and strategizing, ultimately leading to this decisive victory for the Allies.
The Years Before
In 1942, Führer Adolf Hitler ordered the construction of the Atlantic Wall, which would provide the northern coast of France defensive fortification. This made the area mostly impenetrable to the Allies.
The ARCADIA Conference in Washington that took place between December 1941-January 1942 intensified U.S.-British resolve to undertake a cross-channel invasion. Operation JUBILEE, the failed raid conducted by British and Canadian troops at Dieppe in France on August 19, 1942, discounted any plans to seize a major French port directly. However, motivated by the victory in the invasion in North Africa and the successful landings in Sicily and Italy, the Allies remained determined to undertake an invasion of the Continent and defeat Germany.
After the Casablanca and Tehran conferences in 1943, General Frederick E. Morgan was appointed chief of staff to a small Anglo-American planning group called Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC). He undertook the difficult task of planning Operation Overlord, which was set to take place in May of 1944. They planned for weather conditions and any possible obstacles that the invading forces might face to ensure maximum chances for success. The staff of COSSAC decided on Normandy as the best place to launch the invasion, considering that it was within the maximum range of Allied air cover to support the landings and had beaches suitable for heavy vehicles. Also, it had the element of surprise on its side since the Germans expected any possible invasion to occur at Pas de Calais, the channel’s narrowest part of the English channel.
The Commanding Forces
General Dwight D. Eisenhower was named the Commander of the international coalition known as Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF). The 21st Army Group, a British headquarters formation comprised of the First Canadian Army and the British Second Army, had General Bernard Montgomery as Commander. The 21st Army Group and SHAEF collectively made up the land invasion force for the Battle of Normandy. The naval operation, codenamed NEPTUNE, was commanded by British Admiral Bertram H. Ramsay.
The initial draft of the plan laid out by COSSAC was accepted in August 1943, during the Quebec conference. Once revised by General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Bernard Montgomery, the Allies committed over a million troops and 39 divisions to the Battle of Normandy. Both Generals argued for the operation to be delayed for a month to increase the production of the necessary landing craft, and Operation Overlord was then planned for June.
On the other side of the war, Erwin Rommel, the Commander of Army Group B in Northern France, was in charge of defense operations against potential Allied assaults in the region. He had expected that the Allies would launch an invasion on the French coastline and had ordered the construction of defensive works around the shore. He also requested the stationing of mobile reserves as close to the coast as possible since he believed the fortifications were not enough as a defensive measure. However, he was opposed by Commander in Chief West Field Marshal Rundstedt, the Commander of Panzer Group West, General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg, and other senior commanders who believed that the assault could not be stopped on the beaches.
The reserves of Panzer Group-West deployed in France were made up of battle-hardened soldiers with experience from the Eastern front equipped with contemporary vehicles and war machinery. They would undoubtedly have given the Allied forces fierce opposition. In the end, three reserves remained in central France under General Geyr, three tank reserves were given to Rommel, and four were commanded by Adolf Hitler himself.
The Deception Plan
A critical part of Operation Overlord was the comprehensive deception plan that was set in motion. The British doublecross system had successfully pulverized the German spy network in the U.K. and continued to feed the Germans false intelligence. COSSAC launched a massive disinformation campaign with Operation FORTITUDE, which attempted to deceive the Germans about the invasion’s particulars. It was comprised of two parts. FORTITUDE North attempted to convince the Germans that the Allies were planning on invading Norway from Scotland by drawing off resources from France. At the same time, FORTITUDE South deceived them into fearing an invasion from Cas de Palais.
This was coupled with the fact that the Germans expected the infamously aggressive Lieutenant General George S. Patton and his “First U.S. Army Group,” fictitiously made up of 18 divisions and four corps headquarters, to lead the invasion of the Continent. The First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG) was actually just a phantom army stationed in the south-east of England, across the English Channel, reaffirming the Germans’ belief that the real invasion would occur at Cas de Palais.
Both Operations were successful, though FORTITUDE South was the most effective since it deceived Hitler into believing that the attack at Normandy was a feint and that the main attack would occur at Pas de Calais, up until several weeks after the invasion. The Germans heavily fortified Pas de Calais as a consequence.
The Germans believed that the Allies would not attack Normandy since they didn’t have access to infrastructure for a port in Normandy that they needed to engage in a combat operation. However, the Allies found a solution. They constructed, towed across the channel, and assembled large artificial harbors called Mulberries to solve the problem of inaccessibility to a landing port. The Mulberries were an impressive military engineering feat with a complementary pipeline under the ocean (PLUTO) for fuel. They assisted in the rapid unloading of cargo during the Battle of Normandy and helped the Allies successfully hold the beachheads.
Tanks were also modified to traverse the terrain and were converted into an amphibious vehicle, called Duplex-Drive (D.D.) tanks. This would allow them to help with the advance during the invasion as well as provide cover to the infantry. Military engineer Percy Hobart contributed significantly to Operation Overlord by constructing specialized tanks called “Hobart’s Funnies.” This technology was one of the main ways that the invading force was able to gain an advantage over German forces in the ensuing Battle of Normandy.
Their air superiority was the Allies’ decisive edge over the Germans. 11,000 aircraft were deployed by British and American strategic air forces in the days leading up to the invasion. Air attacks were carried out with 195,000 tons of bombs against roads, bridges, and railway lines in France to halt German reinforcements from reaching Normandy.
Around 2,700 vessels manned by 195,000 personnel moved towards Normandy in the days leading up to the assault. These vessels transported 130,000 troops, 2,000 tanks, as well as tens of thousands of tons of supplies.
The Battle of Normandy
Just after midnight on June 6, over 18,000 paratroopers from the Allies dropped into the invasion area. Their mission was to be tactical support on the beaches for the infantry divisions. 150,000 men landed on Normandy’s beaches on D-day, and they were supported by an impressive air support made up of 13,000 aircraft.
More than 5,000 ships were also employed in the landings.
The Normandy coast was divided into sectors for the invasion. The U.S. 1st Infantry and 4th Infantry Division landed on beaches codenamed Omaha and Utah respectively, the British 50th and 3rd Infantry on Gold and Sword respectively, and the Canadian 3rd Infantry on Juno.
The Omaha beach faced the most opposition during the invasion with heavy Allied casualties. This was because the preliminary air and naval attacks failed to damage the defensive works substantially. Perhaps more importantly, the U.S. 741st Tank Battalion planned to use 32 Duplex-Drive tanks during the invasion. However, due to the storm and poor weather conditions, 27 of those tanks sunk with losses of support artillery. The conditions were looking bleak for the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, and only after gunfire support ships and destroyers arrived did the situation begin to turn around, and the U.S. First Army prevailed. The Allied forces suffered around 10,300 casualties on the first day of the Battle of Normandy, with 4,300 of them being British and Canadian and 6,000 U.S.
After that, the invading forces quickly took and expanded the landing zones in Normandy and established Allied presence in the German-occupied continent. Forces liberated France from German occupation and later penetrated the western border of Germany. The crucial Battle of Normandy ended up going down in history as the turning point for the Allies and the beginning of the liberation of most of north-western Europe.