D-Day, 6 June 1944, a date that altered the course of history, saw the largest amphibious invasion ever launched. Led by troops from the US, Great Britain and Canada, and involving Allied divisions from across the globe, the invasion of Occupied France, codenamed Operation Overlord, had been years in the planning and subject to the utmost secrecy.
The Americans, it was decided, would land on the two western beaches in Normandy, codenamed Utah and Omaha; while the British would attack via the middle and eastern beaches, codenamed Gold and Sword; and between these two, the Canadians would land at Juno.
At 5.50, on 6 June, the 1,738th day of the war, 138 Allied ships, positioned between three and thirteen miles out, began their tremendous bombardment of the German coastal defences. Above them, one thousand RAF bombers attacked, followed in turn by one thousand planes of the USAAF. Between them, the aircrews flew 13,688 sorties over the course of D-Day alone.
From their ships, soldiers, weighed down with weapons and seventy pounds of equipment, scaled down scramble nets and into their flat-bottomed landing craft. It took over three hours for the vessels to traverse the eleven or so miles to the coast. The men, trembling with abject fear, shivering from the cold and suffering from severe seasickness, endured and held on as their tightly-packed vessels were buffeted by six-foot high waves and eighteen-miles per hour winds. At 6.30, the first US troops landed on Omaha and Utah beaches.
On all five landing spots, the most dangerous task fell to the men whose task it was to explode and neutralise the German mines littered across the beaches in order to clear a path for the first full wave of troops coming up directly behind them. The courage to attempt such a task is beyond imagination. The fatality rate was horrendously high, reaching 75 per cent.
The defences around Omaha were formidable. Erwin Rommel’s men had placed thousands of ‘dragon’s teeth’ on the beach, designed to take out the base of landing craft, and topped with mines. Gun emplacements had the entire length of beach within their range. The naval bombardment and subsequent aerial bombardment although effective elsewhere had made little impact on Omaha. Ten landing craft were sunk. Men, leaping into water too deep, drowned, weighed down by their equipment.
The US soldiers, led by General Omar Bradley, facing the strongest and most experienced German troops from the 352nd Infantry Division, jumped from their landing craft into a barrage of gunfire. All but two of their specially-built swimming tanks were sunk, their crews trapped inside, depriving the advancing Americans covering fire. With Omaha beach offering little in the way of shelter or protection, casualties among the Americans were appallingly high. Many returned to the freezing waters and floated on their backs, keeping their noses above the waterline.
Among the second wave, landing an hour later, was photographer Robert Capa. Under relentless fire Capa managed to take 106 pictures. (On returning to the Life offices in London with the unprocessed films, a laboratory assistant accidentally destroyed all but eleven of Capa’s photographs).
The congested beach at Omaha had become a killing field, littered with bodies, burning tanks and equipment. The noise of screams, gunfire and bombardment filled the air. Terrified men, sprinting, as best as they could across the expanse of beach, found a degree of cover at the base of the cliffs – if they managed to get that far; many did not.
Finally, at 8 a.m., as destroyers came close enough to pound and weaken the German defences, sufficient numbers had congregated to begin the climb up the cliffs. By 11 a.m., a contingent broke out and captured the village of Vierville. Their colleagues, still pinned down on the beach and with the tide now coming in, were in danger of being pushed back to the sea. But the German soldiers, in maintaining their constant barrage, were close to exhaustion. Finally, at 2 p.m., the first beach exit was cleared. By four p.m., tanks and vehicles were able to move off the beach. By the end of the day, 34,000 troops had been landed on Omaha beach for the cost of 2,400 killed or wounded.
D-Day had begun.
See also articles on the build-up to D-Day; Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the invasion; Bernard Montgomery, in charge of ground forces during the invasion; Juan Pujol Garcia, Britain’s most successful double agent; Charles de Gaulle; leader of the ‘Free French’ movement; and Exercise Tiger, the D-Day training exercise that went horribly wrong.