Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent
For most people reading this, June 6th, 1944 is a date that needs no introduction
It marks the anniversary of one of the most important military events in human history: the invasion of Normandy, known as Operation Overlord. Allied forces began their first entry into Nazi German-occupied Western Europe with an audacious amphibious and airborne assault
"D-Day" for Overlord was originally planned for June 4th, but bad weather over the English Channel forced a postponement. On the 5th, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander of the forces participating in the operation, made the call to go on the 6th. That same night paratroopers and gilders from the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, as well as the British 6th Airborne Division, landed behind German lines. their objectives were to seize key bridges and road junctions so that ground forces from the beach landings
The largest amphibious assault in history commenced in the early morning hours of June 6th. Allied forces landed at 5 beaches along the Normandy coast. The Americans had Omaha Beach , where the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed, and Utah Beach, the objective of the 4th and 90th Infantry Divisions. The forces of the British Commonwealth landed at 3 beaches: Gold Beach, where the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division went ashore; Juno, assigned to the 3rd Canadian Division, and Sword, where the 3rd Infantry division hit the beach. Elements of the 79th Armoured Division provided support at all 3 beaches.
While the months of planning of Overlord provided a sound operational objective, plenty of things went awry. Airborne forces were scattered all over the place, creating huge command and control problems and leaving many units understrength for the objectives they needed to capture. Marginal sea conditions played havoc on some of the landings: troops were dropped at the wrong places, landing craft got beached far from the beach on sandbars, and tanks specially modified for amphibious landings were swamped, depriving the troops of crucial armored support to help them secure a beachhead.
And in some cases, Allied intelligence was way off the mark. This was most tragically seen at Omaha Beach, where first waves of soldiers from the 1st and 29th Infantry Division discovered that they where facing the entirety of the German 352nd Infantry Division, rather than the single regiment they were told would be there. Casualties were immense, with between 2,000 and 4,700 Americans killed or wounded by the end of the first day.
Despite these setbacks, Allied forces adapted and made determined gains. Airborne forces seized their objectives in daring small-unit actions, often without their full combat power available. Those on the beaches breached through the German fortification and secured their beachheads by nightfall. The invasion shocked the German forces who had not expected a landing in the poor weather, least of all at Normandy, the farthest landing area from Southern England. Allied deception operations and weather had dulled the German command into a state of indecision, and so any German countered attack was blunted. For the Allies, victory in Europe was finally within sight.
The legacy of D-Day is staggering: the sheer scale of the operation, the number of troops involved, the massive amounts of material, ships, planes, etc. But there's also the legion of personal stories; stories of those who found themselves at the center of one of the most important battles of the Second World War, and maybe one of the most pivotal moments in human history.