Three quarters of a century ago today at a quarter past midnight, the largest amphibious invasion in history commenced.
In what is commonly called D-Day, approximately 156,000 soldiers crossed the English Channel on June 6, 1944 to land on the French beaches of Normandy and begin the liberation of Europe from German control.
The thinking behind the invasion was first voiced by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill after trapped British forces were evacuated from the French port of Dunkirk in 1940. He believed the path to liberating Europe from Nazi Germany lay through France.
Meeting in Casablanca in 1943, British and American military planners created an overarching plan – codenamed Operation Overlord – to launch a massive amphibious landing of allied forces somewhere along the German occupied French coast.
Broad in scope and shrouded in secrecy, its intent was to “…secure a lodgment area on the Continent from which further offensive operations can be developed.”
It was decided that General and future President Dwight Eisenhower would be the supreme commander; that the amphibious landing would be codenamed Operation Neptune; and that D-Day would be June 5, 1944.
Named for the Roman god of the sea, it matched the operation’s objectives.
Neptune had a violent temper, and the trident he carried represented his ability to control the waters.
If Europe were to experience a rebirth of life lived in freedom, then Adolph Hitler’s control of the continent had to end. The majority of the military wrath needed to end Nazi tyranny would come from three countries – America, Great Britain and Canada.
Where to Land?
Two areas on the French Atlantic coast were considered. To the north was Pas de Calais; to the south was Normandy.
Pas de Calais presented a shorter route across the English Channel for the allied forces, but it was also heavily defended by the Germans.
Landing at Normandy required a longer channel crossing and unpredictable weather; however, it was not as heavily defended.
All things considered, Normandy became the objective.
Tuesday, June 6, 1944
The weather did not cooperate with allied planning. High winds and rain prevented the planned Monday, June 5th invasion, and Eisenhower ordered a 24-hour delay.
The weather did improve slightly, and Operation Neptune commenced from the air at fifteen minutes into Tuesday, June 6th.
In the first minutes of that morning, 24,000 American, British, Canadian and Free French troops parachuted and landed behind the German forces occupying the coastline of five beaches of Normandy.
Neptune’s fury built as 2,200 allied bombers launched at about 2:00 am to strike German defenses; an hour later soldiers from Britain, America, Canada, Belgium, Norway, Poland and France began transferring from assault ships to landing craft. Allied naval battleships commenced bombardment of German positions at 5:30 am.
Thirty minutes later 73,000 American, 61,700 British, 21,400 Canadian soldiers and their allies plowed across the choppy English Channel toward five beaches.
The beaches were codenamed Sword, Gold, Juno, Utah and Omaha. The British advanced on Sword and Gold; the Canadians and British headed for Juno; the Americans pressed on to Utah and Omaha.
The Americans landed first at 6:31 am.
Surrounded by steep cliffs and well defended, these American soldiers faced unparalleled German machine gun fire. Omaha soon became the bloodiest of the D-Day beaches.
The carnage was so great that for a while a withdrawal from the beach was considered. Slowly but surely, however, the soldiers inched their way across the sand and stones to the relative safety of a seawall by the foot of the bluffs.
During this action, Army Rangers secured another page in military history by scaling Pointe du Hoc, a massive promontory between Omaha and Utah, under German fire to silence their artillery.
By the end of the day, Operation Neptune had resulted in securing a hold on all five beaches.
The Move to Liberate Europe
From Normandy, the allied forces began a long, hard drive to defeat the Third Reich. With the Russian army approaching from the east, and after more hard fighting as the allies crossed Western Europe, Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.
It’s been more than 75 years since that June 6, 1944 landing; sadly, the number of participants is dwindling.
Of the 73,000 Americans involved in D-Day, only 30 are currently scheduled to attend this year’s anniversary at Normandy.
Recently departed John Lukacs, one of America’s notable historians, used to tell his students to understand the past on it terms alone.
In light of the historic significance of today, he was right.