By Danielle DeSimone
“Thanks for the memory, of D-Day over there, on land, on sea, in air. Our boys tonight defending right of freedom everywhere, and we thank them so much.” - Bob Hope
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On June 6, 1944, U.S. and Allied forces began an incredibly daunting task: to cross the choppy waters of the English Channel and launch the largest seaborne invasion in history. Their objective was to gain a foothold in Nazi-occupied France, so they could push inwards towards central Europe and dismantle Adolf Hitler’s regime.
The odds were never in the Allies’ favor.
“Operation Overlord,” as the entire D-Day was called, was an incredibly challenging plan to begin with. Even German officials thought Normandy was an unlikely location for a seaborne invasion due to its challenging geography, and that the Allied invasion would instead be taking place 150 miles north at Pas de Calais.
Faulty radios, last-minute adjustment to plans and poor weather made the chaos on the beaches of Normandy even more challenging, but through it all, the Allied forces persisted.
It was the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany.
In honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day this June, here is a deeper look at how the U.S. military, in particular, launched its assaults against the shores of Normandy – by air, by land, by sea.
In World War II, the U.S. Air Force had not yet been officially founded, so aerial attacks and paratrooper landings were conducted by what was then-called the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), the direct predecessor to the Air Force as we know it today. According to the U.S. Army, the Allied airborne assault on the D-Day was the largest use of airborne troops at that point in history.
At midnight on June 6, 1944, six and a half hours before Allied forces were due to land on the Normandy beaches, U.S. bombers joined British and Canadian planes in attacking targets along the French coastline, beginning the Allies’ aerial assault.
Soon after, U.S. forces began one of the most dangerous missions of D-Day: dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines. The famous 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Army Divisions were the two primary units that undertook this incredibly dangerous task, along with the now-inactive 50th, 52nd and 53rd Troop Carrier Wings, which became part of the U.S. Air Force after the war.
The weather proved unpredictable during the drops. With clouds obstructing the view, pilots had to fly much lower than originally planned and came under enemy fire. Some paratroopers had to jump from such low heights that their parachutes did not have time to open and they were killed on impact. Many units landed miles away from their intended targets.
Still, thousands of Allied paratroopers persevered and succeeded at their mission. Upon landing, many soldiers quickly regrouped and fought to block German approaches to the Utah and Omaha beaches. Others pushed their way through the countryside, securing crucial bridges and roads for Allied forces landing on the beaches.
Arguably, this initial aerial assault helped clear an inland path for the Allies and laid the groundwork to begin the liberation of France.
The land assault on D-Day brings many iconic images to mind: Soldiers wading through water. Troops crawling hands-and-knees across booby-trapped beaches. Men scaling rope ladders up impossibly-high cliffs while destroyed tanks sank in the ocean as planes flew overhead.
Truly a joint effort, the Allied forces worked together to invade the Normandy coastline around 6:30 in the morning with thousands of soldiers. The U.S. Army forces took on the Utah and Omaha Beaches, while the British and Canadian armies tackled Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches.
At Utah Beach, troops from the U.S 4th and 90th Infantry Divisions leapt into the water and waded ashore, followed soon after by tanks, demolition teams and backup weapons and supplies.
The 8th Infantry Regiment, which also landed at Utah Beach, arrived slightly off-course due to strong currents. However, their final location ended up being more ideal than their intended target. Once ashore, units began attacking German positions along the cliffs and quickly disabled the enemy’s main beach stronghold by noon. U.S. forces at Utah Beach lost 1,200 men.
Meanwhile, at Omaha Beach, the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions struggled with the assault of the most heavily defended and largest beach of the invasion. U.S. bombers, afraid of hitting their own men, did not batter the coastline of Omaha Beach as heavily as Utah Beach, leaving many the German obstacles and mines undamaged and live along the shore – an unwelcome, added hazard for U.S. foot soldiers.
Additionally, during their approach, many U.S. landing craft ran aground on sandbars far from the beach. This forced soldiers to wade and swim in frigid water around German obstacles – all while under enemy fire – to make it to shore. Once ashore, troops then had to steer clear of enemy mines, booby-traps and German firepower with little to no cover.
However, against the odds, small groups of U.S. forces slowly made their way across the beach using destroyed tanks and boats as cover. Eventually, after hours of fighting, U.S. forces worked their fought their way up to Germany’s defensive position on top of the cliffs and gained control of the beach.
By the end of D-Day, the units of Omaha Beach had successfully captured and liberated some of their targets – the towns of Vierville, Saint-Laurent and Colleville – but at a great cost. On June 6 alone, Omaha Beach saw 2,400 U.S. casualties.
It would be another two days before the units successfully accomplished the rest of their D-Day objectives.
The morning of “Operation Neptune,” the Allied aquatic assault on D-Day, required immense precision from the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard and the seven other navies involved. A total of 6,939 naval vessels were involved in the Normandy landings, with 53,000 U.S. sailors aboard the various warships, landing craft, ancillary craft and even merchant vessels.
Invasion planners had chosen June 6 for the exact set of weather and tide conditions that would be ideal for a successful amphibious, air and land assault. If all went to plan, the tide, which would be just starting to come in at the start of the offensive push, would assist the Allied vessels approaching the beaches before dawn, while still allowing for soldiers to make it to shore relatively unexposed.
Before the main offensive push began at dawn, Naval minesweepers, many of whom sailed in wooden ships to counteract magnetic fields of the German mines, landed on the Normandy beaches around midnight. In the few hours they had before dawn, these sailors worked to clear as many mines as possible to make the route clear for the advancing forces arriving hours later.
As the main, three-pronged assault began, the Navy and Coast Guard provided crucial support and cover for forces at Omaha and Utah Beaches, all while battling German torpedoes and enemy firepower from shore.
Navy Seabees joined some of the first combat units going ashore at Utah Beach and, as part of Naval Combat Demolition Units, cleared and destroyed the German-made barriers built into the beaches and water – all while under heavy enemy fire.
Famously, the USS Texas, USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont kept up a steady rain of fire and rescued the injured – sometimes only just yards from the shore – in support of the Ranger Battalions, who were tasked with scaling cliffs to disable five, powerful 155 mm German guns at Pointe du Hoc. The Rangers eventually accomplished their mission at Pointe du Hoc but suffered incredible losses; of the 255 men who landed on the beach, only 96 survived.
D-Day operations were a masterpiece of strategy, but shifting tides, unexpected movements from the enemy and equipment failures all proved that the most important element of D-Day was the relentless courage and ingenuity of the Allied fighting forces.
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With the 75th anniversary of D-Day taking place this year, we acknowledge the incredible strength and sacrifice of all our fighting forces on D-Day, which led to the liberation of France, the liberation of Europe and, eventually, the end of World War II.