The Allied landings in Normandy were the first action in the D-Day invasion. Facts about this famous and crucial operation are given here. Know more about the Normandy landings.
Did You Know?
Codenames related to the Normandy landings were published in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph as answers in its crossword puzzles in late May and early June, 1944―mere days before the actual landings. This raised a red alert in British intelligence forces and Leonard Dawe and Melville Jones, the creators of the crossword puzzles, were arrested on charges of espionage.
The D-Day landings in Normandy was one of the most influential events in the Second World War. It gave the Allies something to build on after Germany’s relentless march to conquer or control most of Continental Europe.
The Normandy landings were codenamed Operation Neptune, and took place on June 6, 1944. The operation was being planned since 1943. The landings themselves were part of a larger scheme of an invasion of northwestern Europe and making inroads into Nazi-controlled territory, called Operation Overlord.
The objective of Operation Neptune was to establish a connected Allied beachhead through five beaches in Normandy, codenamed, from west to east, Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.
Here’s some more info about the Normandy invasion, including facts about the precipitating factors that led to it, and the summary and timeline of the operation itself.
Operation Neptune: The D-Day Normandy Landings
The D-Day invasion of Normandy was necessitated by the overwhelming dominance of Nazi Germany over Continental Europe. As can be seen in the map given below, every country in Europe apart from the Soviet Union and neutral states was either allied with or controlled by Hitler.
The region representing Nazi Germany included the annexed German-speaking Czechoslovakian states of Bohemia and Moravia (Sudetenland), Austria, which was annexed to Germany after the Anschluss, and annexed areas of Poland. The regions occupied by Germany or Italy included those like Norway, northern France, and the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands). Regions allied to Germany or ruled by German puppet states included regions such as Italy, which was allied to Germany, Vichy France, a puppet state installed in southern France, and Romania, Bulgaria, etc. Allied countries in Europe included the United Kingdom and its territories and the Soviet Union. And the neutral countries included Turkey, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal.
The neutrality of Spain and Portugal meant that Nazi Germany controlled virtually the entire Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Europe. Using this to his advantage, Hitler had started to build a linked chain of fortifications along the Atlantic coast, called the Atlantic Wall. This would safeguard Germany from naval attacks by the U.S. and the UK.
Meanwhile, Hitler had violated Germany’s peace accord with the Soviet Union, which led Joseph Stalin to request the Allies to open a second, western front in Europe. Though Winston Churchill declined the request at first due to a lack of manpower, eventually the Allies saw the need for an amphibious attack on Continental Europe.
Four sites, all in northern France, were considered as possible landing sites for the D-Day invasion. However, two of them were peninsulas, which would make it very easy for the Germans, who were situated in the broader part of the peninsulas, to defeat the Allied forces. Another option was Calais, but since it was the closest to Great Britain, it was heavily fortified and guarded by the Germans as an obvious point for the entry of soldiers from Britain. This left Normandy as a viable option. It allowed for separate landings without being concentrated in the tip of a peninsula, and the planned landing beaches were very close to the ports of Cherbourg and Le Havre.
One of the main problems of the landing was that, even if the coastal fortifications of the Germans could be overcome, the area further inland was still teeming with Nazi battalions, patrolled by able generals such as the Field Marshals Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt. The Allies had to distract the Nazi army so that Normandy would lie unprotected.
Operation Bodyguard was launched to this end. This operation consisted of diverting the attention of German generals to other regions. Some of the methods used to achieve this objective were increasing radio traffic in a particular area, dropping dummy paratroopers, establishing fake military bases, etc. Even an actor with a close resemblance to General Bernard Montgomery was hired to fool the Germans into believing the regions visited by this fake Montgomery were regions worth keeping an eye on. Here’s a map of the regions worked upon in Operation Bodyguard; the titles signify the names of the operations for that particular location.
British double agents were used extensively in this operation. The role of one particular double agent, Joan Pujol Garcia, codenamed ‘Garbo’ by the Allies and ‘Arabel’ by the Nazis, was particularly noteworthy.
Garcia fed Germans reliable information about the Normandy attack, in order to make his espionage more believable. However, the information was relayed too late for the Germans to do anything about it. A more important part of his operations included convincing the Germans that a fictitious U.S. Army Division was stationed in the south of England, and would use the Normandy invasion as a diversion for an all-out attack on Calais. This information, relayed on June 9 and bolstered by the accuracy of Garcia’s information about the Normandy landings, convinced the Germans to keep extra regiments at Calais even after the D-Day Normandy invasion, which gave the Allied forces in Normandy more time to achieve their objectives. The illusion of the fictitious US Army Division was maintained by fake planes and tanks, including inflatables, and constant but meaningless radio traffic.
Garcia was motivated to work against the Nazis by his disgust of Fascism and Communism. He was so adept at his art that, at one point, he got the Germans to financially support a network of 27 spies. Excluding ‘Arabel’ himself, all the spies were fictitious!
Garcia’s standing in the German camp and the efficacy of his deception was such that ‘Arabel’ received an Iron Cross Second Class for his contribution to German war efforts, an award that required personal authorization from the Fuehrer himself! ‘Garbo’ later received an MBE from King George VI, making Garcia arguably the only person to receive felicitations from both the Allies and the Germans.
The Airborne Divisions Land
Before the landings, the French Resistance was told via coded messages to disrupt German communication and transport services in Normandy, an accomplishment that came in very useful in the latter stages of the landings. Though the heavy radio traffic in the days leading up to the invasion raised alarms in the German intelligence agencies, most defense posts ignored their warning, since countless failed warnings had been given earlier.
The Normandy invasion began with a large-scale bombing of the Normandy beaches where the troops would land. More than 2,200 Allied bombers peppered the beaches after midnight on June 6, 1944, in order to remove defensive structures established on the beach. The bombings were largely successful on all but one beach: Omaha. Overcast conditions at Omaha meant that the bombers couldn’t ascertain their targets visually. Many delayed the attack, and eventually found themselves in the position of not being able to release their warheads without risking damaging their own arriving ships and units. This left the German defenses on Omaha beach virtually untouched, a factor that would turn out to be crucial.
The first airborne operations began at 00.15 am, when American ‘pathfinders’ started to drop behind enemy lines in order to set up drop zones for the arriving forces. Bad weather conditions hampered their operation, and many of the airborne divisions landed scattered and disorganized as a result. As an unintended benefit, the German Army also became fragmented trying to follow all isolated groups of paratroopers.
The first military operation, however, began immediately after the arrival of pathfinders, at 00.16 am. This was a British operation at Sword Beach aimed at capturing and protecting the bridges on the Caen canal and the river Orne. These bridges were the only exit points for the incoming British infantry at Sword Beach, and failure to capture or stop the Germans from blowing them up would result in a massive disaster for the British 3rd Infantry Division. The bridges were captured by the British 6th Airborne Division, who also defended it against German counterattacks until further reinforcements arrived.
US paratroopers from the 101st Airborne started dropping on Utah Beach from 01.30 am. This division had the primary objective of securing the causeways behind Utah Beach and destroy other links to the beach, including road and rail bridges. These landings were highly erratic; due to the cloud cover and the confusing terrain, many paratroopers only reached the causeways after the 4th Infantry Division had already captured them after overcoming the defenses at the beach. The German 7th Army received news of the parachute drops at 1.20 am, but von Rundstedt misjudged the scale of the offensive and thought it could easily be suppressed by the defenses at the seaboard.
The 82nd Airborne Division started arriving at 2.30 am. They had the primary objective of securing the bridges on the river Merderet. This Division secured Sainte-Mère-Église, an important crossroads town in the region, but lost the bridges on the Merderet after having won them first. The bridges weren’t loaded with explosives, unlike the ones on the Caen Canal and the Orne, and crossfire over the bridges continued for several days.
The Naval Landings
The 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division landed on Utah Beach at 6.30 am. Like most infantry divisions, their landing craft had been blown eastward by the wind, but by good fortune, the eventual point where they landed was more beneficial for their objectives than the one they had planned. Soon joined by reinforcements, including engineers and demolition teams, the 4th Infantry quickly took Utah Beach.
The 1st Infantry Division and 29th Infantry Division landed on Omaha. This was the most heavily guarded beach, and the battle here claimed the most lives of all five beaches. As mentioned before, bombers hadn’t been able to deploy their loads over Omaha Beach due to cloudy conditions, due to which the defenses were mostly untouched. To compound the American tragedy, many troops had to disembark from their landing craft in deep water since the craft got stuck on sandbanks. This left them completely exposed to the firing from the German lines, while they sought to clamber up the beach. Specially modified amphibious tanks, called DD tanks, also had to be unloaded farther out than optimum, and 27 of 32 tanks sank. Aided by reinforcements, the objectives for Omaha Beach were eventually accomplished three days after D-Day (D+3).
High winds also disrupted the landings at Gold Beach. The primary defensive gun installment had been severely damaged by attacks from British Cruisers at 6.20 am. Only one of four guns was remaining, but its crew held out till the next day before finally surrendering. Another gun was disabled by a tank at 7.30 am. The Le Hamel gun installment was destroyed at 4 pm by a tank from the Armored Vehicles Royal Engineers. The only Victoria Cross awarded in the D-Day operations was awarded in the battle in the towns along Gold Beach, to Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis. By the end of the day, the Brits at Gold Beach had established contact with the Canadian army at Juno Beach.
Like at Omaha, bombers had missed many of their targets on Juno Beach, which hampered the progress of the 3rd Canadian Division. In addition to the failed bombardment, the DD tanks at Juno Beach had fallen behind the infantry, which left the soldiers completely exposed to defensive fire from the Germans. However, by nightfall Juno Beach was captured, and the beachhead was merged with Gold Beach.
Though the British 6th Airborne Division had already been fighting inland of Sword Beach for a few hours, Infantry divisions only landed at 7.30. The British 3rd Infantry got the most out of the DD tanks, with 21 of 25 tanks landing safely. The beach was taken during the day, but the 3rd Infantry faced a German counterattack from the 21st Panzer Division. This was the only armored counterattack on D-Day. The thrust of the counterattack was thwarted by the Brit division, but one company reached the beach and set about strengthening the defensive structures there. However, they abandoned the task when they saw the arrival of aerial reinforcements, though the reinforcements were actually intended for the 6th Airborne rather than the 3rd Infantry.
Order of Battle
Among the Infantry Divisions, the division of labor was as follows:
Utah Beach was taken by the American VII Corps, led by Major General J. Lawton Collins, and consisted the following Divisions:
- 4th Infantry
- 9th Infantry
- 79th Infantry
- 90th Infantry
- 82nd Airborne
- 101st Airborne
This army faced the German 709th Infantry Division.
Omaha Beach would be taken by the American V Corps, led by Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow, and consisted the following Divisions:
- 1st Infantry
- 29th Infantry
The V Corps faced the German 352nd Infantry Division.
Utah and Omaha beaches were the mission objectives of the American First Army, under the overall command of General Omar Bradley.
Gold Beach was taken by the British XXX Corps, made up by the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division led by Lieutenant General Gerard Bucknall.
Juno Beach was the objective of the British I Corps, led by Lt. Gen. John Crocker and consisting of the 3rd Canadian Division.
The Allied forces at Juno and Gold Beaches faced a combination of the German 352nd Infantry and 716th Infantry Divisions. The latter was also partially responsible for the German response at Sword Beach.
Sword Beach was also an objective of the British I Corps. The 3rd Infantry and 6th Airborne attacked Sword Beach.
The British 3rd Infantry faced the only armored German counterattack in the Normandy landings, from the 21st Panzer Division.
Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches were assigned to the British Second Army, under the overall command of Lt. Gen. Sir Miles Dempsey. The British 79th Armored Division provided support to all operations in the form of specially customized amphibious tanks called DD tanks. The British Second Army was not exclusively British despite the name, and in addition to the Canadian Division on Juno Beach, several Allied soldiers from various countries―particularly Australia―were included in many British regiments.
The US First Army contained 73,000 men, and the British Second Army contained 83,115. Of the latter, 61,715 were British.
Here’s a brief timeline noting the important events during and immediately after the Normandy landings.
Specific times given in the timeline refer to June 6, 1944.
1943-early 1944: Operation Bodyguard is carried out
Mid May-early June, 1944: French Resistance sabotages German communication and transport lines around Normandy
June 4, 1944: Original plans for an invasion on June 5 are postponed by a day
00.00 on D-Day: Aerial bombing of landing sites begins
00.15: American ‘pathfinders’ start to drop behind landing beaches
00.16: Paratroopers from the British 6th Airborne Division start to land behind Sword Beach
01.20: Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt receives word of the landings, dismisses them
01.30: Paratroopers from the US 101st Airborne Division start to land /behind Utah Beach
02.30: Paratroopers from the US 82nd Airborne Division start to land behind Utah Beach
06.30: US Infantry divisions start to land on Utah and Omaha Beach
07.30: British and Canadian Infantry divisions start to land on Gold, Juno, and Sword Beach
16.00: 21st Panzer Division makes the only armored counterattack of the invasion
June 7, 1944: British units start to build artificial ‘Mulberry’ harbors
June 9, 1944: Mission objectives for Omaha Beach are achieved, the last of all beaches
June 12, 1944: The five beaches are connected
June 21, 1944: Allies capture Caen
June 26, 1944: Allies capture Cherbourg
August 1, 1944: Allies break out of Normandy
August 15, 1944: A naval invasion, Operation Dragoon, is launched in southern France
August 25, 1944: Paris is liberated
The objective of the Allied armies on D-Day was to capture Bayeux, Caen, Carentan, and Saint-Lô, and establish a joined beachhead across all five beaches more than 10 km inland. None of these objectives were met by the first day. In fact, Caen was only captured on July 21. However, the Allies continued to inch on, expanding outwards from the beachheads they had established on D-Day.
More than two million Allied troops were sent into Normandy over the coming weeks. In spite of that, the army only succeeded in breaking out of Normandy in early August. There on, though, they achieved quick progress, liberating Paris on August 25 and liberating Luxembourg and Belgium by the end of September.
Close to 160,000 Allied troops crossed into Normandy on almost 5,000 landing craft and aircraft on D-Day. This makes the Normandy landings the largest naval invasion in human history.
The Allies suffered more than 12,000 casualties on D-Day; 4,414 deaths were registered. Close to 2,500 American soldiers died on D-Day, the most of any Allied nation.
Normandy Landings In Popular Culture
The Normandy beaches house several museums and memorials dedicated to the bravery of Allied forces during the activities of the D-Day invasion. Among the notable ones are the memorial to the American National guard at Omaha, a museum about the operations on Utah Beach at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, and the Juno Beach Center at Juno, funded by the Canadian and French governments as well as Canadian veterans.
The Normandy landings are one of the most iconic events during the Second World War, and have been depicted in various books, movies and TV shows. Notable modern depictions include the movie Saving Private Ryan and the TV miniseries Band of Brothers. The former is renowned for its unabashed depiction of the violence and brutality at the landing at Omaha Beach. The latter, which is based on the book of the same name by Stephen E. Ambrose, focuses on the “Easy” Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, and depicts several battles in the Normandy invasion from the view of various characters in the E Company.