A Brief Overview of Operation Overlord

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The 65th Anniversary of D-Day

Known as Operation Overlord, the Normandy Landings were the first phase of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Operation Overlord began on June 6, 1944 at 6:30 AM British Summer Time. In 1943, the Allied planners of Operation Overlord used the term “D-Day” to designate the actual launch date of the invasion.

Planning Operation Overlord

The assault on the Normandy coast was to be conducted in two phases. The first phase would consist of an airborne landing by British, American and Canadian paratroops, shortly after midnight. The second phase consisted of an amphibious landing by Allied infantry and armour on the French coast.

Operation Overlord was the largest amphibious invasion ever attempted and comprised 160,000 men and a fleet of more than 5,000 ships, ranging in size from battleships to landing craft.

The success of the D-Day landings required very precise weather conditions. As a result only a few days each month were suitable for launching the invasion. This was because the invasion required a very high tide and a full moon so the pilots could see the paratrooper drop zones and so the landing craft could avoid submerged mines and other German beach defences.

General Eisenhower initially selected June 5 as the tentative date for the invasion, however, as the weather in early June, 1944, rapidly deteriorated it seemed that the invasion would have to be postponed. This would have been a considerable logistical undertaking, as the first wave of the invasion force had already been loaded aboard troop transports and set sail for France. Additionally, the troops comprising the second wave were already being moved to their assigned pre-departure checkpoints. Fortunately, Eisenhower’s chief meteorologist, Captain JM Stagg predicted a marginal improvement in the weather the next day, June 6.

Meanwhile the German units guarding the coast took comfort in the bad weather. The Germans believed that the invasion would be delayed by several days while the Allies waited for the bad weather to clear. As a result many of the German officers were away from their posts, taking part in training exercises or visiting with their families.

The Allied Invasion Force

The Allied Order of Battle for Operation Overlord consisted of the following:

British Second Army

  • 6th Airborne Division
  • 1st Special Service Brigade
  • No. 41 Commandos
  • 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, 2nd Canadian Armoured Division
  • XXX Corp-50th Infantry Division, 8th Armoured Brigade
  • 79th Armoured Division
  • 4th Free French Special Air Service Battalion

US First Army

  • V Corp-1st and 29th Infantry Divisions
  • 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions
  • 101st Airborne Division
  • 82nd Airborne Division

The Atlantic Wall

Barring the way inland from the English Channel was Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Built over a period of four years and stretching from Norway to Spain, the Atlantic Wall was designed to repel any invasion force. Construction of the Atlantic Wall was overseen by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Rommel fortified Europe’s west coast with barbed wire, machine gun nests, reinforced concrete bunkers and over a million land mines.

The German defences were designed with overlapping arcs of fire, supported by mortars and field artillery. Despite Rommel’s careful planning, however, the Atlantic Wall was defeated by careful planning and the development of specialized weapons and tactics.

The success of the amphibious landings depended on the establishment of a secure foothold from which the Allies could expand their beach head and eventually break through the German lines. In order to slow the German counter attack, paratroopers were used to seize key objectives such as bridges and road crossings. They were also used to neutralize German coastal defences, allowing the invasion force to secure the beachhead more quickly.

The Normandy Beaches

The Allied front was divided into seven sectors.

  • Gold Beach-Great Britain
  • Sword Beach-Great Britain
  • Omaha Beach-United States
  • Juno Beach-Canada
  • Pointe du Hoc-United States
  • Utah Beach-United States

Omaha Beach

Of all the Allied beaches, Omaha Beach is the most closely associated with D-Day in the public’s collective consciousness. On June 6, 1944 elements of the 1st and 29th US Infantry Divisions stormed Omaha Beach and discovered that the fortifications that were supposed to have been destroyed by the Allied naval bombardment were largely intact. Defending Omaha Beach was the 352nd Infantry Division, one of the best units in the German Army. One of the most heavily protected sectors of the front, Omaha Beach was protected by barb wire, high cliffs, mortars and machine guns. Eyewitness reports from Omaha Beach indicated that almost as soon as the assault force had landed most of the officers and senior enlisted personnel were killed and Omaha Beach was nearly abandoned as a result. Despite these setbacks the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were eventually able to infiltrate and overcome German defences. In total, more than 5,000 people were killed on Omaha Beach, earning it a place among history’s great battles and the nickname, “Bloody Omaha.”

Sources

The Landings in Normandy – Veterans Affairs Canada

Hakim, Joy (1995). A History of Us: War, Peace and all that Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 157–161.

“D-Day June 6, 1944”. http://www.army.mil US Army Official website.. Retrieved on Jun.5/09

Ambrose, Stephen E. (1994). D-Day. New York: Simon & Schuster

Bradley, John H. (2002). The Second World War: Europe and the Mediterranean. Square One Publishers. pp. 290

Wilmot, Chester (1952). The Struggle for Europe

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