6th June 1944.
Operation Overlord, or D-Day, as it is commonly referred to, remains the largest combined military operation the world has ever seen, and with any hope, it is a record that will stay for a long time to come.
The numbers involved with the cataclysmic battle for Europe which began in 1944 are simply extraordinary. D-Day saw just over 156,000 allied troops land on the shores of Normandy and were faced by roughly 50,000 German soldiers. A total of 6,939 ships and landing crafts along with 195,700 sailors took part in the amphibious section of D-Day, known as Operation Neptune, while 10,440 aircraft were involved, dropping parachutists, bombs or patrolling the skies to prevent any incursion by the Luftwaffe.
The events of 6th June 1944 have been told countless times, and while we’re certainly going to be covering the event itself, we want to take a much closer look into just how the allies managed to organise and pull off such an astonishing invasion. As breathtaking as D-Day was, it was the meticulous planning over many years that really ensured its success.
While most know the details of what happened before D-Day let’s just have a quick re-cap.
Four years before D-Day the allies reached their lowest point. As Hitler’s army stormed through France, the British Expeditionary Force, and what remained of the French Army, became pinned down near Dunkirk. Nearly 400,000 allied soldiers now had nowhere to go, as the Germans approached. Only the quite extraordinary civilian flotilla which answered the government’s call for assistance had prevented all-out disaster and 338,000 soldiers made it back across the channel. Soon after, Winston Churchill was told that without American aid, British forces would not be going back anytime soon. But make no mistake about it, going back is exactly what they would eventually have to do.
By the end of 1941 something was becoming clear – well, actually two things. Britain was not about to collapse as many had predicted but Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union was. The BATTLE OF BRITAIN was supposed to be a way of breaking the will of the British people through countless bombing raids, and so softening the country up for an impending invasion. But Britain stood firm and eventually the many valiant pilots and their RAF planes began to push the Luftwaffe back.
If this was a set back to Hitler’s plans, the horrific circumstances that had developed after the German invasion of the USSR, was considerably worse. The appalling events at Stalingrad would be decisive – the imperious German war machine had finally been defeated.
At this point, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was feverishly petitioning President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to open us a second front by invading France. But this was an action still years off.
The planning that went into D-Day was mind-boggling. The allies had gone through some rocky amphibious operations, including painful lessons at Dunkirk, Dieppe, North Africa and Sicily.
A meeting in Tehran in late 1943 between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin set a rough time scale of when the invasion would happen, but the exact details were kept well under wraps – in fact, the majority of the most important decisions had yet to be made.
There was of course the small matter of where exactly the invasion would take place. Calais was close, but was it just too obvious? The beaches of Normandy came with pros and cons. It was a relatively broad area and would allow a huge thrust southward into France. The location was also close to Cherbourg and Caen, two ports that could be targeted. But the lack of port facilities on the actual landing zones was a problem and meant that an amphibious assault would be needed – on a larger scale than had ever been attempted.
While we all know about what happened on the morning of 6th June, in reality, the battle had begun long before. Whether it was the complex deception plans which managed to bamboozle the Germans or the relentless attacks on supply lines and enemy aircraft, D-Day was merely the culmination of months, if not years of hard work and perseverance.
OPERATION FORTITUDE may not be so well known, but it likely saved thousands of lives. Allied leaders knew the danger of a devastating counter-attack once they had a foothold on the beaches in Normandy. With the sea to their backs, a fierce attack by Hitler’s dreaded Panzer divisions could quite obliterate allied forces. They needed a way to confuse the Germans on where exactly the landing would take place, and so spread German defenders over an area as wide as possible. And the result was quite simply brilliant.
Through a series of fake camps, including dummy tanks and ships, and some of the most thrilling double agent escapades you are ever likely to hear that don’t come straight from a spy novel, the Allies were able to sow enough doubt in Hitler’s mind. By building fake military camps in Scotland they were able to give the impression that Norway might be the main target. Another camp near Dover showed that surely the Allies would land in Calais. Not only this, they even created fictitious units, including the completely mythical U.S 1st Army Group. To add authenticity General George Patton, who Allied commanders rightly believed the Germans feared more than any other General, was placed in command of this fake army group.
But if we want to mention a single person and their role in Operation Fortitude, it must surely be Juan Pujol García, codenamed Garbo. Garcia’s military involvement in D-Day itself was non-existent, but the work he did during its lead up was quite extraordinary. The Spanish spy acted as a double agent, but with an allegiance to Britain. Over two years, he fed fake information to the Germans through 27 separate fictitious spies that he and MI5 had created together, costing the Germans around $340,000 (just over $5 million today).
Many of Garcia’s reports were taken directly to Hitler and he was certainly responsible for why many of the Panzer divisions were not moved down from Calais after the invasion had begun. His vast and complex deception plan had worked better than most had ever envisioned and Garcia holds the peculiar honour of receiving an Iron Cross by Hitler in 1944 and an MBE from King George VI in the same year.
The Transport Plan, which was carried out between March and August 1944, was designed to cause huge damage to both German transportation routes and communication lines. Wave after wave of British and U.S bombers hit the not only the coastal region of Normandy but well into France also. This effectively crippled the French railway system in the area and significantly hampered the German response.
OPERATION POINTBLANK began a full year before the invasion of Europe got underway. From June 1943, Allied aircraft began attacking aircraft factories and airfields across occupied Europe to destroy as much of the Luftwaffe as possible and prevent it from playing a major role on D-Day. And that was exactly what happened.
General reconnaissance was another huge undertaking and over 3,200 sorties were flown in the months leading up to D-Day which carefully photographed the area. Back in Britain, a request by the government for holiday photos and postcards from Normandy was met with great enthusiasm as the British population proved eager to do their bit for the impending invasion.
While officially nothing was said about the invasions, with troops and equipment pouring into Britain, it certainly felt like something was building.
The logistics behind the invasion are often overlooked. It’s not quite as exciting to talk about how many razor blades were needed, or how they brought food in to feed over 100,000 men instead of the actual heroism during battle – but countless armies have learnt through history, when the supplies run out, you’re finished.
But it wasn’t simply getting all of this equipment and supplies across the English Channel that was the problem. The vast majority of it had been produced in the United States, and for the better part of two years, convoys churned back and forth across the Atlantic, slowly building up the most astonishing stockpile the world had ever seen.
Each man who landed in Normandy required roughly ten ship tons of equipment and supplies, with an additional ton every thirty days. The Army Service units began amassing huge amounts of just about everything you can imagine. Initially, considerable effort was put into trying to camouflage it all, but in the end, the amount became too big to even try to hide it all. Entire fields became ammunition dumps, truck depots or vast wooden boxes that carried everything an army on the move would need. Luckily, by this time the allies had gained a degree of air superiority, and few enemy aircraft were ever seen above Britain during the day.
And that was just in Britain itself. These depots in the green fields of southern England were just the end of the line in a monstrous supply chain that reached across the Atlantic and included an estimated 22.7 million sq meters (245 million square feet) of storage space in the U.S – which is almost exactly the size of the entirety of the Pacific nation of Nauru.
The timetable of equipment and supply movement usually came down to two things, requisitions from supply officers in England, and the availability of ships at the time. For this reason, some periods saw considerably more shipments than others. In one month alone, 1,500,000 tons of equipment left New York City-bound for the UK.
After the initial landing, two enormous prefabricated landing zones were assembled on the beaches, known as MULBERRY HARBOURS. It had taken 6 months, and 55,000 workers to construct the components for these harbours, using 210,000 tons of steel and 1,000,000 tons of concrete. That’s four times the amount of steel used on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and an astonishing tens times the amount of concrete used to build the Burj Khalifa.
While few would have ever claimed to have been prepared for the horrors of D-Day, it was a set of actions that had been practised time and time again. Through air reconnaissance, French resistance, small boats and even submarines, the allies had been able to build up a considerable picture of what the soldiers would face on D-Day.
On the beaches of southern England, a replica of Hitler’s famed West Wall which defended Europe had been constructed and those who would storm the real thing had plenty of practice. But it is one of the painfully overlooked aspects of the build-up that the number who died during these practices was enormous. There were many naval accidents, friendly fire-incidents and plane crashes to contend with. Though the number of those who died during the build-up to D-Day has never been fully established, some historians claim that it is, in fact, comparable to how many died on the day itself.
One of the largest of such rehearsals, OPERATION TIGER, came just two months before the real thing. It began on 27th April 1944, when a friendly fire accident on the first day left a large number dead. Eisenhower had ordered that troops get the kind of real-life experience they would face in Normandy and real ammunition was used to fire above landing troops. While it’s not at all clear what happened, as this was quickly covered up, there were rumours that 450 men had been killed during the incident, but that was never clarified. The next day a convoy approaching the coast was attacked by a group of German E-boats, and the resulting short battle led to the deaths of 749 U.S servicemen.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
A letter to Allied troops from Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day read,
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. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
Nobody would have dared to say it on the day, but the beginning of the end for the Nazi occupation of Europe was here.
A system called Movement Control was implemented so that ships would leave at the same time from 20 different locations across the southern English coast. The ships then rendezvoused at a spot close to the Isle of Wight nicknamed Piccadilly Circus where they formed into their conveys and eventually began to steam south. Ahead of them, minesweepers began combing the seas, clearing a path for the gigantic convoys. A little known fact about D-Day, the first casualties were not on the beaches, nor were they descending from planes. The first to die on the evening of 5th June 1944, were 6 sailors aboard the USS Osprey – a minesweeper that hit a mine and sank in the English Channel.
Just before midnight, 1,200 aircraft departed from airfields across southern England. Onboard were three divisions of Airborne troops (roughly 24,000 men) that would be parachuted behind enemy lines. The vast majority of these missed their landing zones, and the casualty rate among these soldiers was among the highest on D-Day.
As dawn broke, the German sentries saw for the first the giant armada that stretched across the horizon. At 5.45 am, twenty cruisers, sixty-five destroyers, and two monitors began to bombard the German positions.
At roughly 6.30 am, the first landing crafts involved in D-Day arrived at the beaches. The Americans at Omaha and Utah, the British on Gold and Sword and the Canadians at Juno. Omaha was by far the bloodiest battle with 2,000 men losing their lives on the beach. But even here, German resistance was eventually broken, and the Allies began moving off the beaches and further inland.
SUCCESS, BUT A HEAVY TOLL
There was, of course, much to come in the liberation of Europe – and indeed for the liberation of Normandy and then France, but D-Day had proven to be a success. The casualty rate had been lower than expected, but not by a huge margin and the numbers are still sobering. Just over 4,000 allied troops died on 6th June alone, while estimates of German losses range between 4,000 and 10,000. It’s believed that just over 150,000 German soldiers died between D-Day and the middle of August as their armies and eventually the Fatherland began to collapse.
The cost on the civilian population was also horrific. As many as 20,000 French civilians were killed during the liberation of Normandy, while estimates of those who died during the pre-invasion bombing are believed to be roughly 15,000.
It is sometimes said that Normandy was sacrificed for the greater good during the invasion of Europe – and there is certainly something to be said for that. The brutal battle for Caen had decimated the historic city, leaving just 8,000 liveable quarters for a population of over 60,000. In the small region of Calvados, where the invasion was centred, 76,000 people had become homeless. The Allies were pushing the Germans back towards Germany, but utter devastation was usually left behind.
D-Day remains perhaps the most iconic military campaign. It was a classic good vs evil that led to the end of the bloodiest war the world had ever known. Despite the carnage associated with the 6th June 1944, it is an event that we keep returning to – we replay the events again and again. There is something oddly transfixing about this titanic invasion. Had it failed it would be remembered in a very different light, but it did succeed and preceded the final fightback that ended World War II.
But it is only when you take a step back and look at the entire event that began over two years beforehand, involving vast supply lines, fake military camps, a wonderfully deceptive Spaniard and the largest force ever to arrive by sea, do we see D-Day for the truly extraordinary project it really was.
And one that we all hope we will never do again.