This month in history: D-Day

Military GraveyardOn 6 June 1944, 5 beaches on the heavily fortified coast of France’s Normandy region were stormed by 156,000 British, Canadian, and American troops. The invasion, known as D-Day, was one of the largest military assaults in history.

After the fall of France in June 1940, the Allies didn’t have sufficient forces to liberate the country for almost 4 years. It wasn’t until the Third Washington Conference in May 1943 that the decision to start a cross-Channel invasion was taken by Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt.

At the Quebec Conference 3 months later, the generals Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery were charged with overseeing the invasion of Normandy. A total of 39 Allied divisions would be involved – 22 American, 12 British, 3 Canadian, 1 Polish and 1 French – making a combined force of over 1 million troops.

In November 1943, Adolf Hitler, well aware of the threat of invasion along the French coast, tasked Erwin Rommel with spearheading defence operations, even though they didn’t know where the Allies would strike. The so-called ‘Atlantic Wall’ was built, a 2,400 mile fortification of bunkers, landmines, and beach and water obstacles.

In the weeks and months that followed, the Allies carried out a deception operation to make the German high command believe that the main invasion target was the area around Calais, rather than Normandy. Some of the tactics included building fake military equipment around the Dover area, using secret agents in France, and making fraudulent radio transmissions.

The initial assault from landing ships and craft was on a front divided into 5 landing beaches, codenamed (from west to east): Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The first two beaches were assigned to the largely American-manned Western Task Force, with the remaining 3 the responsibility of the British-dominated Eastern Task Force.

Eisenhower decided that 5 June 1944 would be the date of invasion, but poor weather and rough seas caused a 24-hour delay. In the early hours of 6 June, more than 7,000 vessels, the largest naval task force ever assembled, moved to the Normandy coast.

The armada transported over 155,000 men and nearly 30,000 vehicles across the Channel to the beaches. By the time the first waves of attack landed at dawn, 6 parachute regiments of over 13,000 men were already behind enemy lines, securing bridges and exit roads.

The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword, as did the Americans at Utah beach. However, American forces faced heavy resistance at Omaha, where there were over 2,000 casualties.

By the day’s end, approximately 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches. According to some estimates, more than 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives in the D-Day invasion, with thousands more wounded or missing.

Awards in recognition of ‘gallant and distinguished services in Normandy’ were published on 31 August 1944 (Gazette issue number 36679). To read The Gazette from 6 June, just follow this link issue number 36552.