Air and Naval Bombardment
The German Response
The D-Day landings of 6 June 1944 were one of the most significant moments of the Second World War, and marked the point when the combined military force of the Western allies were finally brought to bear fully against Germany. The landings themselves were the biggest single day amphibious assault in history, and by the end of the day 156,000 men had landed in Normandy. The support operations were on an equally vast scale – 11,590 aircraft made 14,674 sorties in a single day, while 195,700 men were needed to man the nearly 7,000 ships of all sizes involved in the landings. Facing them was a large, apparently well dug in German army led by Rommel, one of the best respected German commanders of the war. The D-Day landings marked the start of Operation Overlord, the invasion of north-western Europe.
The landings took place on a massive scale. 155,000 fighting men would be land by sea and air in France on D-Day, supported by another 195,700 men on 6,939 ships off all sizes and by 11,590 aircraft which between them flew 14,674 sorties. An elaborate deception plan (Operation Bodyguard) meant that many senior Germans believed that the massive landings in Normandy were merely a feint to draw their reserves away from the Pas de Calais, while a massive bombing campaign (the transportation plan) isolated the battlefield, cutting road and rail links across France and making it almost impossible for the Germans to rush their troops to France.
Only one enemy couldn't be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the invasion plans – the weather. The Allied armies moved onto their transport ships on 4 June, ready to invade on 5 June, but poor weather forced the invasion to be postponed. By the evening of 4 June the forecasters were predicting that better weather could be expected on 6 June, and the final decision to go on Tuesday 6 June was made by Eisenhower early on the morning of 5 June 1944.
The first Allied troops to land on French soil were the airborne troops of the American 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne Divisions and British 6th Airborne Division. The 101st had the task of capturing the western end of the causeways that crossed the flooded areas behind Utah beach, to prevent the Germans from using them to trap the invaders on the beach. The 82nd were to land further inland and occupy the area between Ste-Mère-Eglise and Pont-l'Abbé. The British division had three tasks – to destroy bridges over the River Dives to prevent the Germans from using them to rush reinforcements to the beaches, to capture the bridges across the River Orne and Caen Canal (most famously Pegasus Bridge) and to capture the German batteries at Merville.
The airborne assault began just after midnight (British double summer time) on 6 June, when pathfinders from all three divisions and the first glider troops all landed in France, followed one hour later by the main paratrooper landings.
The 101st Airborne was scattered over an area 25 miles long and 15 miles wide. At dawn only 1,100 men were under orders, and the total had only risen to 2,500 by the end of the day. Despite this poor start a number of individual forces soon managed to come together, often containing men from a mix of different units, and the division successfully achieved its most important objective – the capture of the western end of the causeways at Utah Beach. Its northern and southern flanks were weak, and it failed to capture the Douve bridges, but the confusion behind the German lines ensured that no major counterattack would be mounted.
The 82nd Airborne was very badly affected by the scattering. Two of its three regiments landed in the swamps around the Merderet River, and spent the entire day attempting to recover from their bad start. The 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment was the only part of the division to reach its landing zone intact. By dawn the regiment had achieved its main objective – the capture of Ste. Mère-Eglise, and managed to hold the town against a German counterattack.
The British 6th Airborne Division had three main tasks – to destroy the bridges over the River Dives at the extreme eastern edge of the battlefield; to capture the Orne bridges; and to destroy the big guns at Merville. Just after midnight five of the six Horsa gliders carrying a small force led by Major John Howard landed close to Pegasus Bridge and captured the important pair of bridges across the River Orne and Caen Canal at Bénouville. The paratroops followed close behind, and by dawn they had successfully achieved all of their objectives. All that remained was to hold out until troops with heavier equipment could reach them from the beaches. At just after 1.00pm Lord Lovet's commandos reached Pegasus Bridge, and the airborne bridgehead began to be secured. A half-hearted German counterattack later in the afternoon was defeated by naval gun fire, so for most of the day the airborne troops only faced the local German garrisons.
Air and Naval Bombardment
The beach landings were preceded by a massive naval and air bombardment, which had generally disappointing results.
The air bombardment began at midnight when RAF Bomber Command attacked Caen and a number of coastal batteries. At first light 1,200 B-17s and B-24s attacked the beaches on the Calvados coast, but the poor visibility meant that the vast majority of bombs overshot their targets. A low level attack by B-26s on Utah Beach was more effective, destroying a key position at La Madeleine.
There is a surprising amount of disagreement on the size of the naval bombardment force. Six battleships and two monitors are agreed on, but the number of cruisers varies from 18 to 22 and of destroyers from 43 to 93!
The naval bombardment began at 5.50am (with some ships opening fire earlier in response to German fire). On the American beaches it ended at 6.20am, while on the British and Canadian beaches it continued on for another hour. The immediate impact was awe inspiring, but the actual impact was less impressive. Many German gun batteries survived direct hits, and in many cases the biggest impact of the guns was to keep the Germans pinned down away from their guns.
More valuable was the close range destroyer fire, which could be directed onto particular German strong points, and which played a major role in the success on Omaha Beach.
The battleships had a duel role. After taking part in the pre-invasion bombardment of the German coastal defences they were expected to take on some of the big guns in the German coastal batteries. The Le Havre battery in particular wasted most of the day in a dual with HMS Warspite.
There was only one German naval challenge, when half a dozen E-boats emerged from Le Havre. One torpedo sunk the Norwegian destroyer Svenner, but after one of the E-boats was sunk by the Warspite, the survivors fled and the German navy wasn't seen again.
Utah beach was the most westerly of the D-Day beaches. It was chosen as a landing beach when the scale of the D-Day landings was increased from three to five divisions, and was to be the jumping off point for the campaign in the Cotentin Peninsula and the capture of Cherbourg. The beach itself was suitable for attack, but behind it was a low-lying marshy plain which the Germans had flooded. As described above the US Airborne troops were given the task of capturing the western ends of the causeways across the swamps, to prevent the Germans from using them to pin down the troops on the beaches. Despite being badly scattered, the two Airborne divisions managed to cause enough confusion and capture enough key points to ensure that the Germans were unable to launch a proper counterattack at Utah Beach.
The detailed plans for the attack on Utah Beach fell apart even before the first troops hit the sand. Three of the four control craft allocated to Utah were lost on the approach, and the landing was led in by Lts. Howard Vander Beek and Sims Gauthier on LCT 60. They landed half a kilometre to the south of the official landing point, and most of the remaining troops landed even further to the south. In the first wave was General Theodore Roosevelt Jr, the President's eldest son, and he and Colonel Van Fleet, CO of the 8th Infantry Regiment, decided to head inland from this new position rather than attempt to move back up the beach. This quick decision helped turn the Utah Beach landings into the least costly of the day, for the defences behind the accidental landing point had been badly damaged by B-26 Marauders, while those at the correct point were still largely intact. By the end of the day the 4th Division and its support troops had only suffered 250 casualties, had captured most of their D-Day objectives, and had advanced up to five miles inland. At 11.10am, only four and a half hours after the first landings, the first troops from the beach reached the western end of the causeways where they joined up with part of the 101st Airborne.
Ten miles to the east, on Omaha Beach, very little went as planned, and the landings came very close to disaster. Omaha beach was not an ideal landing point. The beach ended in a steep shingle bank, which formed an excellent anti-tank barrier, and was backed by a high bluff, or escapement. Five narrow valleys cut into the bluff were the only routes on or off the beach suitable for vehicles. Despite these disadvantages Omaha was still the best possible landing ground between Utah beach, essential of the capture of Cherbourg, and the better landing beaches further east. Omaha beach simply had to be attacked if the Allies were to have any chance of forming a single beachhead along the Norman coast.
The Germans were equally aware of the importance of Omaha Beach, and so the bluffs above the beach contained one of the more complete sections of the Atlantic Wall, manned by three complete infantry battalions – two from the 716th Static Infantry Division and one from the 352nd Infantry Division. The stone built villages at the top of the bluffs were also defended, giving the Omaha Beach defences more strength in depth than was normally the case.
The American attack began to go wrong from the start. The aerial bombardment did very little damage as poor visibility made it difficult for the bomber crews to hit their targets. The naval bombardment was too short, lasting from 5.45am until 6.25am and also did little damage. The 9,000 rockets launched by the Landing Craft, Tank (Rocket)s fell short. More powerful tides than expected pushed the American landing craft east along the beach, and many American troops landed below some of the strongest sections of the defences. About half of the tanks allocated to the attack were lost on the way in as was most of the artillery.
For most of the morning the Americans were pinned on the beach, with a few tenuous footholds on the bluffs, and both the American and German commanders began to believe that the landing had failed, but in fact slow progress was being made. The Germans failed to take advantage of their initial advantage, and their defences were slowly being worn down. A flotilla of American and British destroyers played a major part in the battle, coming dangerously close to shore to fire their 5cm guns against German strong points, and just after noon American troops reached the top of the bluffs on the eastern part of the beach. The Germans continued to resist all afternoon, but by the end of the day some parts of the beachhead were one mile deep, all five exits from the beach were in American hands and 34,000 troops had been landed. It had been a close run-thing, but the Omaha Beach landing had succeeded.
Gold Beach was in the central landing beach and the first of the British beaches. Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches were similar in appearance. The beaches sloped gently up to a sea wall. A coastal road ran behind the sea wall, and a series of tourist villages lined the coast. The Germans had built many of their strong points in existing buildings, which made construction easier but also made them more vulnerable to the naval bombardment. Behind Gold and June beaches there were very few defensive positions.
Gold Beach was the target of the 231st and 69th Brigade Groups of the 50th (Northumberland) Division. The landings began at 7.25am, one hour after the American landings, which meant that the naval bombardment was nearly three times as long. Along most of the beach the German coastal defences were quickly overwhelmed. The British tanks landed successfully, and played a key part in this victory. Only at le Hamel, garrisoned by part of the 352nd Division, did the Germans hold out into the afternoon, and their strongpoint in the sanatorium at le Hamel had to be blasted apart by the petard tanks.
By the end of the day the British had advanced five miles into France. They failed to achieve their main D-Day objectives – the capture of Bayeux or the cutting of the Bayeux-Caen road, but both of these objective were achieved on D-Day+1. By the end of D-Day 25,000 men had landed on Gold Beach, and had joined up with the Canadians on Juno Beach to form the biggest Allied beachhead.
At first the Canadian landings on Juno Beach threatened to develop into another Omaha Beach. The Canadian 3rd Division was scheduled to land at 7.45am, making it the last of the landings, but the rough seas delayed the landing until around 8.00. This meant that there was a gap between the end of the naval bombardment and the landings, and this allowed the shell-shocked Germans to recover and man their guns. It also meant that the tide had risen far enough for the German beach obstructions to become dangerous, and an unusually high proportion of landing craft were lost or damaged on Juno Beach. When the infantry from the 7th and 8th Canadian Brigade Groups went ashore they faced the same intense German fire as on Omaha Beach, and suffered similar high casualties reaching the sea wall.
This was when the nature of the battle changed. The German defenders of Juno Beach didn't have the protection of a shingle bank, or a bluff behind the beach, or convenient high cliffs at each end to mount flanking fire. A much higher proportion of the tanks allocated to Juno Beach landed intact, and Juno Beach was much more suited to their use. Once the Canadians reached the sea wall they were soon able to overwhelm the German defences, and by 9.30 the Canadians were advancing inland through virtually undefended countryside.
The slow start and confusion on the beach did contribute to a slower than hoped for advance toward Caen. One small armoured unit reached the Caen-Bayeux Road, but was forced with withdraw by a lack of support, but despite this the Canadians reached further inland than any other seaborne troops on D-Day.
The troops landing on Sword Beach had two important objectives – to link up with the 6th Airborne to their east and to capture Caen. Of these the first was the most important, for if the airborne had been overwhelmed then the entire Allied beachhead might have been exposed to a German armoured counterattack from the east. The landing on Sword Beach was to be made by the 8th Brigade Group of the British 3rd Division and the 1st Special Service Brigade of the Commandos. The German defences were based around the gun batteries at Merville and Le Havre, neither of which played much of a part in the fighting.
The coastal defences were breached easily, but behind Sword Beach the Germans had actually begun work on their planned second line of defences, and the British advance was held up by a series of strongpoints, first on Périers Ridge where strongpoint 'Hillman' held out for most of the day. Not enough troops were able to bypass this strongpoint for the attack on Caen to have any chance of success, and when they ran into elements of the 21st Panzer Division any chance of capturing that city disappeared.
On the left flank the linkup with 6th Airborne was achieved successfully, if a little late in some places. The feared German armoured counterattack from the east never came, for the German command system meant that the 12th SS Panzer Division and Panzer Group Lehr were not able to move until the end of the day. 21st Panzer made the only armoured counterattack of the day, but without any great success.
The German Response
The German response to the Allied landings was very poor. It was not helped by the absence of an impressive number of senior officers. Rommel, who had always claimed that the first twenty four hours after the landings would be crucial, was absent for most of D-Day. Reassured by the poor weather forecast for early June he went to Swabia to celebrate his wife's birthday on 4 June, and then on to a meeting with Hitler. General Dollman, the commanding officer of the Seventh Army, which was directly responsible for the defence of the beaches, was attending war games at Rennes. 'Sepp' Dietrich, then the commanding officer of the 1st SS Panzer Corps, was in Brussels. General Edgar Feuchtinger, the commanding officer of the 21st Panzer Division, was probably visiting his mistress in Paris (he later claimed that he had been at his HQ all day, but most evidence suggests that he was lying, and he was an indifferent commander at best).
The absence of so many senior commanders and Hitler's refusal to release command of most available Panzer reserves meant that there was almost no organised response on D-Day itself. This meant that the only resistance that was encountered on most of the beaches came from the static troops present at the start of the day.
The most famous German reaction to D-Day was Jodl's unwillingness to wake Hitler at 3.00am when von Rundstedt first asked to be given control of the 12th SS Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr, the nearest armoured reserves to Normandy. In fact the real delay came after Hitler had woken up, for the German High Command continued to believe that the Normandy landings were a feint, intended to draw German reserves away from the real landing zone in the Pas de Calais. Von Rundstedt was finally given command of the two divisions at 16.00, forcing Panzer Lehr to move in daylight on D-Day+1. In the ninety mile drive from Lisieux to Caen the division lost 5 tanks, 84 armoured vehicles, and 130 soft-skinned vehicles and was so badly disorganised that it was impossible to use it to mount a forceful counterattack.
By the end of 6 June the Allies had landed 155,000 troops on the French coast at a much lower cost than had been expected – even the battle for Omaha Beach had been less costly than the planners had feared. On the British and Canadian front the beachhead was already six miles deep, and the main danger had passed on Utah Beach. Only at Omaha Beach was the situation less secure, and even there the main crisis was over. Rommel had been quite right – the first 24 hours of the invasion were indeed the most important, and the Allies had ended the day as clear victors. Harder fighting would follow, especially around Caen and around the hedgerows of the bocage, but the Allies had successfully established their foothold on the continent of Europe, and the battle of the build-up was about to begin.