How Allied Forces Overcame Disastrous Landings to Rout the Nazis

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Audio:Dwight D. Eisenhower, “D-Day Statement to Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force,” June 1944. Courtesy of the National Archives
In the summer of 1944, the Allied powers in World War II took the fight against Adolf Hitler directly to France. Planned for more than two years, the D-Day offensive was a full-scale invasion designed to push the Nazis back into Germany. No amphibious mission of its size had ever been attempted.

But almost nothing went exactly as planned on June 6, 1944.

The Stakes

The fate of the free world

At the height of Nazi power in 1942, Germany and its allies controlled large swaths of Europe and North Africa, from France and Holland in the west, to Poland and portions of Russia in the east, to Italy and Tunisia in the south.
Nazi Occupation Map
By 1944, Hitler had suffered a pivotal loss at Stalingrad and the Axis Powers’ hold on North Africa and Italy was slipping. Allied military leaders believed that a full-scale invasion of Western Europe could spread the German army thin and turn the tide of the war for good. After years of top-secret preparation, the stage was set for the largest amphibious assault in history. It was time for D-Day.

The Plan

Distract and Attack

The Allies chose to attack along the Normandy coast, where the Nazis had relatively lighter—though still formidable—defenses. Months prior to D-Day, tens of thousands of American and Canadian troops occupied temporary staging areas across southern England.
Germany’s “Atlantic Wall” Defense System
mile line of bunkers, landmines, and beach and water obstacles
landmines along Normandy’s beaches
workers, mostly forced labor, built the wall over two years
Imperial War Museum Map of Fance used during invasion planning.
Imperial War Museum
The Allied invasion stretched across five beaches codenamed “Utah,” “Omaha,” “Gold,” “Juno” and “Sword.” The plan was for heavy aerial bombing to take out Nazi gun positions and destroy key roads and bridges, cutting off Germany’s retreat as well as reinforcements. Then paratroopers would drop in to secure inland positions before the mass amphibious landing of 150,000 infantrymen from Britain, Canada and the United States, who would quickly overwhelm the crippled Nazi defenses.
A detail view of part of the original planning map in the Map Room of Southwick House in Portsmouth, England. (Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

But that’s not what happened.

The reality was far different. Bombers failed to destroy key Nazi heavy artillery bunkers, particularly at Omaha Beach. Paratroopers were either blown far off their marks, swamped in man-made lagoons or easy prey for snipers as they drifted toward the ground. Stormy seas made for rough beach landings, sometimes far off-course, and many amphibious tanks sunk before they could reach land.

Could the Allied troops improvise, regroup and persevere? This is the story of that day and the unlikely triumph that would go down in history.

A Massive Build Up

Enough materiel to sink England

By early June, more than two million Americans soldiers and another 250,000 Canadian troops had arrived in England to join their British comrades in preparation for the Normandy invasion. The U.S. military shipped 7 million tons of supplies to the staging area, including 450,000 tons of ammunition.
Dummy tank designed by British, made of rubber and inflated when used, compared to a U.S. Army Medium Tank, MARK IV. (Credit: The U.S. National Archives)

The Allies’ Trojan Horse

For months prior to the invasion, the Allied forces executed a brilliant and extensive deception campaign that convinced Nazi military leaders that the real landing site would be near the French port city of Calais. Codenamed Operation Fortitude, the deception tactics included a dummy army led by famed U.S. General George Patton, hundreds of inflatable decoy tanks and airplanes to trick German spy planes, fake radio transmissions and planted German double agents. Even after Allied troops landed in Normandy, Hitler was convinced that it was a feint to draw Nazi defenses away from the real invasion site in Calais.

De Gaulle Left in the Dark

Given the top-secret nature of the D-Day invasion plan, British and American leaders kept the exiled French General Charles de Gaulle almost entirely in the dark until days before the attack.
Portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Portrait of Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Portrait of Free French Leader De Gaulle
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images Winson Churchill: Credit: Popperfoto/Getty Images Charles De Gaulle: Credit: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Behind Enemy Lines

Daring paratroopers dropped in first

Guy Whidden
HQ 502nd PIR 101st Airborne
“I heard this thing hit my chest.”
Machine gunner Guy Whidden parachuted with the 101st Airborne on D-Day and credits divine intervention for allowing him to survive a close call with a mid-air mortar explosion.
In the early hours of June 6, under the cover of darkness, 18,000 American and British paratroopers attempted to drop behind the Nazis’ beachfront bulwarks and cut off key supply roads, bridges and inland defenses. But dense fog, high winds and intense anti-aircraft fire forced many paratroopers to jump at dangerously high speeds from low-flying planes.
American paratroopers attached to the static line just prior to jumping during the invasion of Normandy, France on D-Day. (Credit: US Army Air Force/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
As a result, many missed their target landing sites, some with devastating consequences. Paratroopers carried up to 200 pounds of equipment, and many drowned in inland marshes flooded by Nazi engineers. Others were shot out of the sky. Remarkably, several paratrooper divisions were able to carry out their missions, destroying strategic bridges and silencing some German gun batteries.
Allied troops dropped by parachute or glider
Douglas C-47 Dakota aircraft carried the troopers on the night of June 5-6, 1944
Allied aircraft lost on D-Day

Blood on the Beach

Allied landing craft took heavy fire

The June 6th Allied assault on the Normandy beaches was, and remains, the largest amphibious invasion ever attempted. It hinged on shuttling 150,000 infantry troops across the English Channel in treacherous seas and delivering them to the five target beaches. The invasion was postponed from June 5 due to bad weather, and Eisenhower’s decision to attack on June 6 was partly because the Nazis would never believe that the Allies would attempt a sea invasion during a storm.
Aerial view of American troops and tanks ashore as landing crafts continue to unload on first day of the invasion of France during D-Day. (Credit: US Army Air Force/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
The attack plans on each of the five beaches had to be altered on the fly as landing craft were pushed off course and amphibious tanks were swamped in the high waves. Even worse, some of the early morning bombing campaigns had failed to take out German artillery positions, leaving beaches like Juno and Omaha heavily defended. U.S. troops at Omaha suffered heavy casualties as they stormed from their landing craft directly into heavy machine gun fire. At Juno, the first waves of Canadian troops suffered a similar fate, cut down en masse by Nazi artillery.

The amphibious landings at Utah, Gold and Sword beaches were also plagued by high seas and fierce German resistance, but there the Allied bombing runs and paratrooper missions were more successful, resulting in fewer casualties and a faster occupation of the beach and surrounding areas.
Operation Neptune - Largest Amphibious Invasion in History
U.S., British and Canadian troops
Ships and landing vessels
Support aircraft
Youtube link to Frank Devita interview.
Frank DeVita
USCG Landing Craft Ramp Operator PA26-28
“My job was to drop the ramp.”
On the approach to Omaha beach, the machine gun bullets ricocheted off the front of the landing craft “like a typewriter,” says Frank DeVita, who will never forget the sacrifice of his fallen comrades.
Youtube link to Frank Devita interview.
Charles Norman Shay
Medic 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division
“It was my duty to save lives, not take lives.”
As a combat medic with one of the first infantry units to land on Omaha beach, Charles Norman Shay witnessed the high price of the D-Day victory first hand.

Omaha Beach: The Deadliest Assault

Grit + Luck = Victory

Tenacity and bravery won the day

Despite awful weather, chaotic beach landings and violent Nazi resistance, the Allied troops dug in, pushed forward against steep odds and ultimately won the day.

At Omaha beach, 2,400 American troops were killed, wounded or missing after the all-day slog across the beachhead and up the rocky bluffs. But by nightfall, Omaha was in Allied hands.
American Cemetery of the Normandy landings, located near Omaha beach. (Credit: Xabi G Photo/Getty Images)
Allied Deaths on D-Day
U.S. servicemen were killed on D-Day itself
more Allied troops gave their lives on D-Day
total Allied casualties (killed, wounded or missing)
At Juno, Canadian troops also overcame a disastrous landing — initial casualty rates were as high as 50 percent — to ultimately drive the Nazis inland. By the day’s end, the Canadian battalions at Juno captured more Nazi-held territory than any other troops on D-Day.

More than 4,400 Allied soldiers gave their lives on D-Day for the cause of Victory in Europe. Thanks to the successful taking of the Normandy beaches, the Allies were able to unload 2,500,000 men and hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies to begin their thrust toward the German fatherland.

Beginning of the End

The D-Day victory sent the Nazis scrambling

As Allied forces pushed inland, Germany was forced to throw many of its best men and weaponry at the new Western front in France. The months-long Battle for France was epic, with both sides suffering tremendous casualties, but once the Allies broke through and liberated Paris on August 25, 1944, it was clear that the Nazi war machine was outgunned.

On May 7, 1945, less than a year after D-Day, Germany signed its unconditional surrender.
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Editor: Rachel B. Doyle
Writer: Dave Roos
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