In the first days of June 1944, BBC transmitters beamed to the forces of the French Resistance the prearranged signal that indicated the start of the long-awaited naval, air, and land invasion of France that would open a critical second front against Germany.
The 74th anniversary of the Normandy landings is a useful moment to pause, reflect and ensure that the memory of this historic event doesn’t slip away. June 6, 1944 became historical shorthand for a generation of Americans, a date that needs as little explanation as “September 11” does for their progeny.
As General Eisenhower wrote in his June 6 Order of the Day, “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade towards which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.”
The Plan for Operation Overlord was codenamed D-Day. The “D” in D-Day is a general term for the start date of any military operation. The Allies selected Normandy as the landing site because it provided the best access to France’s interior.
Operation Overlord was the greatest technical feat of the war. The challenges of mounting a successful landing were daunting. Herculean preparations requiring remarkable coordination among the Allies for Operation Overload had been going on since 1942.
The forces assembled constituted the greatest amphibious force in history. An armada of more than 5,000 ships and landing craft were waiting to transport more than 150,000 British, Canadian, and American troops; 1500 tanks; and thousands of guns, vehicles, and supplies to five beach heads along a 50-mile strip of the heavily fortified Normandy coast. Leading the way were over 300 minesweepers that cleared a path through a minefield that stretched across the English Channel to the Normandy beaches.
The Americans landed to the west on Utah and Omaha beaches, while the British and Canadians landed on the east at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. Allied casualties on D-Day have been estimated at 10,000 killed, wounded, and missing in action, 60 percent of them American. The first 20 minutes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” captures vividly the horrible realities of the landing and the price paid by the soldiers.
They were supported by 12,000 planes, some of which had been systematically destroying bridges and access routes to seal off the invasion area from the interior while others—transports and gliders —prepared to drop paratroopers and demolition teams well behind the beaches to complete the job.
The invasion was a high-risk operation, the outcome of which was by no means certain. The defenders had been preparing their reception for four years, building a formidable Atlantic Wall of concrete, wire, machine guns, mines, and artillery. SS panzer divisions lurked in the wings. As General Rommel famously remarked: “the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive, the fate of Germany depends on the outcome … for the Allies as well as Germany it will be the longest day”.
Despite furious German resistance, the Allies carried the day on June 6 and established a precious beachhead. Once the Wehrmacht recovered from its surprise, resistance was fierce. The Americans could not take Cherbourg, the principal port of the invasion coast for three weeks. The British, who should have entered Caen on the evening of D-Day, fought their way in on D+34 (July 9).
Finally caught in the decisive Battle of the Falaise Pocket, the Germans had nothing to do but run. After that, the road was clear for the race to Paris and the drive for the Rhine. Rommel was right, 11 months later Nazi Germany crumbled onto the scrap heap of history.
D-Day, June 6, 1944, paved the way for the liberation of Europe with countless acts of sacrifice by the men and women of the armed services that still resonate today. Success on the “longest day” marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe.
Originally Published: Jun 2, 2018