D-Day, 6 June 1944, was the start of the largest amphibious assault in history. To pursue the strategy of “Germany first”, the Allies landed on five beaches in France. The plan was to gain a foothold in Europe, and invade Germany, forcing Hitler to surrender. Japan would follow.
If you’ve seen the film Saving Private Ryan, you could be forgiven for thinking D-Day was an all-American effort. It wasn’t – only two of the five beach landing sites were assaulted by US troops. The other three were attacked by British forces, who stormed two beaches, and Canada, who took one. But it cannot be denied that the vast amount of equipment, ships, aircraft, and ammunition was hugely bolstered by the USA, and in fact overall command was in the hands of General Eisenhower, an American Army man.
Les Elliott, interviewed recently, was in the British Royal Marines, having joined up because he “wanted to do something rather than sit under the staircase” – his parents’ house was in part of the mainland Britain area under regular attack by the Germans. “I wanted to hit back,” he says. After completing basic training Les was selected for officer training, and then posted to 653 Flotilla, which commanded 16 landing craft, each capable of carrying one tank, or two trucks, or a lot of men. The Marines were seaborne assault troops; who were to be the first ashore as a spearhead, and who would clear the way for the rest, who would then leapfrog them.
Les recalls: “It was one big adventure with no time to be scared. The sea was alive with ships and boats; constantly overtaken above by hordes of gliders and aircraft. The naval gunfire support was firing over our heads.“
His section of eight landing craft got ashore only to find his commander had been killed. “The beach had been taken,” he says, “but it was still being strafed by the odd German fighter. We were unprotected on our left flank, and got hit by low flying aircraft.”
Les was on one of the four beaches on which operations were chaotic, but where the plan had been fairly well followed. The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan does give a reasonably accurate picture of the hell on earth that was Omaha Beach, the beach most fiercely defended.
The usual practice in amphibious assaults was to hit the defences with gunfire from ships, and bombs from aircraft, so heavily that almost all of the enemy positions were obliterated. This worked well on most of the assault frontage: on Juno, Gold, Sword, and the other US beach – Utah – opposition was comparatively lighter. On Omaha most of the US tanks didn’t make it ashore, the air bombing was almost completely inaccurate, and the 40 minutes of naval bombardment was too short for its purpose. In acts of determined bravery, skill and resourcefulness the cliffs were scaled and taken.
Operation Overlord, the Allied code-name for the assault, worked so well in part because an extensive deception operation had been in place for several months prior to the attack. Spearheaded by the mercurial General Patton of the US Army – he had recently been in trouble for slapping an enlisted man for supposed cowardice – Patton made various speeches referencing the attack.
The German High Command knew that an invasion would be mounted in the west – there was already an operation to invade through Italy, but that would not be sufficient to take Germany. They also knew that Britain and America would not let the Soviet Union be the sole invader. Patton’s efforts, backed by acres of dummy guns and aircraft which German aircraft photographed, convinced them that the attack would be at Calais. When it wasn’t made at Calais, General Rommel, in charge of the defence, was convinced that the Normandy invasion was a feint. But it wasn’t, and soon the Germans began rushing more troops to the beaches.
The numbers were impressive.
156,000 American, British and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch. Hundreds of aircraft dropped thousands of paratroops, and the operation was supported by hundreds of ships.
Two huge artificial harbours, named Mulberries, were towed across from Britain and assembled to let the many tonnes of equipment come ashore. There was even an undersea pipeline which carried fuel for the vehicles which would now make their way through Europe. The Allies had arrived, and World War II was in its last phase.
Researched and written by TTR Historian Dr Tom Lewis