Landing in Normandy
On May 8, General Eisenhower designated D-day as June 5, but because of bad weather he decided on June 4 to postpone the invasion to June 6. Though the weather remained poor, further delay would have necessitated waiting until June 19, when tidal conditions and the light of the moon would again have been propitious. In one of the most momentous decisions of the war he decided to proceed despite the unfavorable weather conditions. Meanwhile, the invasion troops had moved to concentration areas in the United Kingdom. There they received special equipment and waterproofed their vehicles. Then they marched to marshaling areas close to the embarkation points, where the troops received additional supplies, maps, and final briefings. About 60,000 men and 6,800 vehicles were scheduled to go ashore on D-day at Omaha Beach and equal numbers at Utah. On D plus 1 and 2, an additional total of 43,500 troops and 6,000 vehicles were scheduled to go ashore at both beaches. Roughly equal numbers were to land on the British beaches. Altogether in the United Kingdom, General Eisenhower had a force of 2,876,000 men, including 45 divisions.
Some 5,000 ships and craft made up the invasion fleet. During the night of June 5, despite a gusty wind blowing at a rate of 15 to 20 knots and churning up waves in mid-Channel as high as five and six feet, the invasion fleet took assigned places in the transport areas off the coast of France in the Seine Estuary. Minesweepers cleared and marked 10 lanes through minefields in the Channel. In the early minutes of June 6, RAF bombers ranged the entire invasion coast, striking at coastal batteries and other targets. In the second hour, paratroopers of the 82d and 101st Airborne divisions landed in the eastern part of the Cotentin Peninsula astride the Merderet River to facilitate the seaborne landings of the 7th Corps. The 101st Division secured its objectives with surprisingly light losses, but the 82d had to fight severely, taking heavy casualties, to secure Ste.-Mere-Eglise. At the same time the British 6th Airborne Division was securing the other Allied flank between the Orne and Dives rivers. As dawn approached, while fighter squadrons flying at from 3,000 to 5,000 feet maintained an aerial umbrella, the landing craft came toward shore through a heavy sea.
Because lack of planes in France denied adequate aerial reconnaissance, the Germans had no advance knowledge of the invasion. They also relied on the bad weather, considering it too inclement for the Allies to try an invasion at that time. Their first reaction occurred early in the morning of June 6, when several German torpedo boats left Le Havre to engage the invasion fleet. They were driven off by Allied naval fire and air attack. The German coastal batteries began to fire sporadically at the invasion fleet at 5:35 A.M. At 5:50 A.M., the Allied naval bombardment began. This fire not only detonated large mine fields, on which the Germans had counted heavily to block the invaders, but also knocked out many defensive installations.
At 6:30 A.M., H-hour for the United States beaches, American troops touched down on Omaha and Utah beaches. At Utah the 4th Division under the 7th Corps had little difficulty getting ashore against intermittent artillery shelling. The beach area was cleared in three hours, and the follow-up troops and supplies began to come ashore with little trouble. About 23,000 men landed that day. At Omaha, where the 1st Division of the 5th Corps assaulted with two regiments abreast, high seas, early morning mist, smoke, dust, and a lateral current scattered men and units badly. German fire was exceptionally strong, and many wounded Americans were drowned in the rising tide. In a daring operation two Ranger battalions took out large coastal guns at Pointe du Hoe after scaling cliffs with rope ladders, but after the first three hours of the invasion it appeared for a while that the Omaha invaders had been stopped on the beach. The presence of an elite German infantry division that for three months had escaped Allied intelligence accounted in large measure for the difficulties of the 5th Corps. Only through improvisation and courageous personal leadership were the troops at last able to get off the beach and onto the cliffs beyond. Even then the infantry had very few heavy weapons and no supporting artillery. The beach was congested with disabled and burning vehicles, and the beachhead was a strip of land less than 2 miles deep. Nevertheless, as night fell, 34,000 men were ashore.
Troops of the British Second Army meanwhile began to land at 7:20 A.M. On Gold Beach the advance elements of the 50th Division were pinned down at first by German fire, but gradually they worked their way around the resistance and pushed rapidly inland. By the end of the day they had advanced about 5 miles. The Canadian 3d Division on Juno Beach met even stiffer resistance, but once clear of the beaches the Canadians moved rapidly and by the end of the day had reached the Caen-Bayeux highway. The British 3d Division on the left also met intense opposition on Sword Beach, but by the end of the day linked up with the 6th Airborne Division.
Despite the immense problems at Omaha Beach, the Allies by the end of D-day had established apparently solid footholds on the Continent. Casualties everywhere, including bloody Omaha, were lighter than expected. They were lightest of all at Utah Beach (less than 200), though the airborne divisions behind the beach lost 2,499 men, including 338 known dead and 1,257 missing. At Omaha the Americans lost approximately 2,000 men. British and Canadian casualties were about 4,000.
Though German opposition had been firm on all beaches except Utah and particularly disturbing at Omaha, D-day passed with a surprising lack of counterattacks. Only near Caen, where a panzer division in late afternoon struck the British 3d Division, was there more than passive resistance, and the 3d Division stopped this thrust with little loss of ground. The most significant German development was the ordering of a panzer corps to the Caen area, a harbinger of the fact that the Germans saw the British landings and their threat to open ground leading toward Paris as the Allied main effort.
By the end of D-day, the Americans had landed the equivalent of 8 regiments amphibiously. By the end of the following day, 5 divisions (including the 2 airborne divisions) were ashore and operational, though all were deficient in transportation facilities, tank support, artillery, and supplies. An ammunition shortage was serious, particularly on Omaha. The Americans had planned to have about 107,000 troops ashore by the end of the second day, but the total was approximately 20,000 short. Only about half the planned 14,000 vehicles had been disembarked, and only a fourth of the anticipated 14,500 tons of supplies were on the beaches.
Meanwhile, Eisenhower ordered Bradley’s First Army to give priority to the task of linking the two American beachheads and of making contact with the British. In compliance with this order the 1st Division pushed eastward to gain contact with the British on June 8, the 29th Division took Isigny on June 9, and the 101st Airborne Division captured Carentan on June 12. With Carentan in hand and the beachheads joined, the 7th Corps turned its attention to Cherbourg. Halting further expansion inland of Maj. Gen. (later Gen.) Leonard T. Gerow’s 5th Corps, which had taken Caumont and was near the road center and departmental capital of St.Lo, Bradley on June 13 placed the bulk of the incoming resources at the disposal of Maj. Gen. (later Gen.) J. Lawton Collins’ 7th Corps. During the night of June 17, the 7th Corps cut the Cotentin Peninsula and sealed off Cherbourg from German reinforcement. Two days later, Collins began to push northward toward the port city with 3 divisions. Organized resistance in Cherbourg ceased on June 27. Meanwhile, headquarters of the 19th Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett, had entered the line near St.-Lo on June 14. Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Troy H. Middleton’s 8th Corps also arrived and took control of the forces at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula on June 15. The British had meanwhile captured Bayeux and expanded and enlarged their beachhead, but Caen, a D-day objective, remained out of reach.
In these early days the Allies used two methods to get supplies ashore: direct discharge onto the beach from landing craft and unloading the cargo carried by larger vessels moored offshore into ferry craft and DUKW’s (amphibious trucks) for transport either to the beach or to the artificial ports (Mulberries). Not until the destroyed facilities at Cherbourg were repaired in mid-July was this port to begin to take some of the logistical strain from the beaches. A great storm that raged between June 19 and June 22 wrecked scores of craft and smashed the artificial harbors. High winds demolished the American Mulberry beyond repair, but the British artificial quay was later restored to full use. Nearly 100 LCVP’s and LCM’s, plus many LCT’s and larger craft, were lost and 19 of 20 rhino ferries were destroyed. Despite this calamity, which stopped unloading operations for several days, the Allies developed an ability to bring ashore over the open beaches surprisingly large amounts of tonnage.
By July 1, three weeks after the initial landings, the first phase of the invasion came to an end. Almost 1,000,000 men, more than 500,000 tons of supplies, and 177,000 vehicles had been landed in the American and British zones. A total of 27 Allied divisions had arrived on the Continent, and more were about to come. The German’s golden opportunity to smash the invasion by decisive counterattack before the Allies were firmly established had passed. German failure to react in strength was attributable to the condition of the French railroads and to unrelenting air attacks that enabled German divisions to reach the battle zone only with utmost difficulty and after serious delays. Units arrived piecemeal, often lacking essential weapons and short of fuel and ammunition. Continuing pressure of Allied attacks then forced German commanders to commit the new divisions as they arrived so that a major counterattacking force could never be assembled. The two leading German commanders on the scene, Rundstedt and Rommel, both were convinced that they now had no chance to drive the Allies into the sea. Persuaded that Germany had lost the war, Rundstedt asked to be relieved from command. Granting the request, Hitler replaced him as commander in chief in the west with Field Marshal Hans Gunther von Kluge. Rommel, though discouraged, remained. The strategy enunciated by Hitler for the western front was essentially negative: hold fast until miracle weapons might turn the course of the war.