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The Battle of Normandy

American troops onboard the LST 25, a Royal Navy cargo vessel, heading towards the Normandy beachhead

American troops onboard the LST 25, a Royal Navy cargo vessel, heading towards the Normandy beachhead

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World War II is the most devastating war that humanity has ever seen. With over 60 million dead, untold more injured, and economic devastation to the tune of nearly half of the world’s wealth, the war scarred the psyche of the human race for generations after – and this is without taking into consideration the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States.

A number of events contributed to the war, but among the most notable ones are the rise of Adolf Hitler of Germany, the ambition of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in Italy, and the imperialistic dreams of the Japanese empire. Together with Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, the three countries formed the Axis Powers, which pitted its might against the Allies, consisting of the United States, Britain, Russia and fourteen more countries, for the grand prize of world domination.

As the war rages on, the Allies finally decided that the liberation of France would not only be a public relations coup for battle-weary citizens of their respective homelands, but it would also provide a strategic advantage towards recapturing the German-held nations of Europe. In addition, the advancing Russian forces from the east would also spread the Germans thin, and failure to take advantage of this opportunity would be foolhardy.

Enter Normandy.

Allied ships dropping supplies on Omaha Beach during low tide on June 9, 1944
Allied ships dropping supplies on Omaha Beach during low tide on June 9, 1944

Battle of Normandy

By 1942, Allied forces and Germany knew that the final conflict in Europe had to come from an Allied offensive targeting the exposed coastlines of Western Europe. For the next two years, both of them prepared for the inevitable confrontation. The Allies strategized an invasion plan and gradually increased the size of their forces and infrastructural strength in Britain. By 1944, almost a million soldiers from various Allied nations were stationed there. The Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) was headed by future American president Dwight E Eisenhower, while Sir Bernard Montgomery of the United Kingdom led the Expeditionary ground forces for the planned offensive.

SHAEF had determined that the assault would be focused along Normandy’s 50-mile stretch of coastline, from Caen towards the Cotentin Promontory. The details were kept secret except to a select few and were not communicated to the rank and file until D-Day itself.  From east to west, five beaches were targeted for attack by the infantry divisions. The beachheads involved were codenamed Sabre (English Third Regiment), Juno (Canadian Third Regiment), Gold (British Fiftieth), Omaha (U.S. First and 29th) and Utah (US 4th).

Protecting this section of the heavily fortified Atlantic Wall was the German 7th Army, led by General Friedrich Dolman, and a division of German Army Group B, commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The rest of Rommel’s forces, the Fifteenth Regiment, commanded by General Hans von Salmuth, kept watch north of the Seine River. The German Commanding Officer of the West was Field Marshal Karl von Rundstedt, who had 36 infantry and 6 Panzer companies on the shore facing the English coast.

One of the German Adolfkanone (40.6 cm SK C/34 ) naval guns tasked with repeling Allied forces along Normandy beach. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-364-2314-16A / Kuhn / CC-BY-SA 3.0
One of the German Adolfkanone (40.6 cm SK C/34 ) naval guns tasked with repelling Allied forces along Normandy beach. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-364-2314-16A / Kuhn / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Operation Overlord

The offensive commenced on the dawn of June 6, 1944. It will forever be remembered as one of the most spectacular amphibious landings in history.  The expeditionary forces were carried to Normandy by a fleet of more than four thousand ships under the command of Sir Bertram Ramsay, an Admiral from the British navy. From the air, 5,000 fighter planes and 6,000 bombers under the command of UK Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory rammed at the German coastal defenses with 15,000 sorties over the first 24 hours. The preceding day, the US 101 and 82nd Airborne divisions had parachuted behind Utah Beach to take control of roads into the Cotentin Promontory, while the British Sixth Airborne had dropped at the east boundary of Sabre Beach to seize the bridges connecting the Orne River and Caen Canal to protect approaches from the west.

At dawn, the initial infantry waves of Operation Overlord fought their way ashore under heavy fire through the organized defenses of the well-prepared German army. Supported by naval bombardment and close air support, the sea-borne attack clawed out of the five targeted beaches by sundown of D-day.

On the eastern flank, the three expeditionary landing groups of Gen. Miles Dempsey’s 2nd English armed forces held their ground. At Gen. Omar Bradley’s US First Army line of defense, the First Division hold on Omaha Beach was getting a little loose, but the Utah company had battled through five miles inland.

The Allied casualties for the first night totaled 2,500 deaths and over eleven thousand injuries, which was a lot less than initially predicted, as callous as that may sound. In the subsequent six days, the invading forces linked up their beach camps to form an entrenched barrier 80 miles along the coastline.  Simultaneously, an additional eight combat divisions landed, and the success of the invasion was starting to become a certainty.

Although surprised by these series of bold maneuvers, the top German command responded slowly, fearing that this was another diversionary move for an impending main thrust up north around the Pas-de-Calais area. On the left line of the beachhead, the powerful German Panzer corps engaged the British 2nd Army out of Caen for weeks. Meanwhile, out on the right flank, three units of the American First Army shielded the perimeter from Chaumont to Carentan. At the north of Carentan, General Lawton Collins’ VII Corps thrust westward across the base of the Cotentin Peninsula.

The dreaded Panzer Lehr Division, part of Germany's strategic armored units, managed to hold back Allied forces for five days at Caen before they were eventually outflanked and defeated by the 22nd Armoured brigade of the British 7th Armoured Division. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-494-3376-08A / Zwirner / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The dreaded Panzer Lehr Division, part of Germany’s strategic armored units, managed to hold back Allied forces for five days at Caen before they were eventually outflanked and defeated by the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the British 7th Armoured Division. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-494-3376-08A / Zwirner / CC-BY-SA 3.0

After five days of fierce fighting through hedgerows, the Allied forces reached the Atlantic coast on June 8. From there, heading due north, the 9th, 79th, and 4th Infantry divisions reached the outer defenses of Cherbourg in two days. An unrelenting six-day attack, from June 22 to 27, eventually forced the surrender of the stubborn Fascist garrison. Although German saboteurs seriously damaged the unloading piers, the Allies had quickly repaired the port to help supply the rapidly swelling forces on Normandy’s beachheads.

On the other major battle zones in Normandy, the fight had turned into a slugfest. The Allies continued to replenish and enhance their men, weaponry and supplies, to strengthen themselves for the final push to break out of the lodgment. The Nazis hastily rerouted reinforcements, especially the deadly Panzer units, in a last ditch effort to maintain the lodgment.

Cracks were beginning to appear in the German high command. On June 28, the German Seventh Armed Forces Chief, Friedrich Dollman, was killed and replaced by a non-army General, Paul Hausser of the Secret Service. In addition, on July 3, Adolf Hitler personally relieved General Von Rundstedt of his duty and handed the command of Western Europe to Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, the acclaimed commander of the Russian blitzkrieg campaign.

On July 3, the US First Army initiated a southward offensive that spread across most of the surrounding areas ahead if it. However, the Germans held their ground and only minimal gains were made. The US forces took Lessay and Saint Lo on July 8 to tighten the squeeze on the Germans. The five companies attacking the two cities suffered almost 11,000 casualties in 12 days. During the same period, the British Second Army captured a large tract of Caen, west of the Orne River on July 8. A successful follow-up attack was launched on the city from the south on the 20th of July. Although the occupying Allied forces were in control of only about one-fifth of the targeted region, by July 24 they were ready to try for a major offensive to recapture the neighboring areas.

The After Effects

The success of the Normandy campaign was the beginning of the end for both Germany and Hitler. The fact that the Germans were being crushed from two directions (remember the Russians coming from the east?), bore a remarkable similarity to World War I, and the fact that the Germans were also defeated then was not lost to anyone.

Snapping at the heels of the retreating Germans, the Allies liberated Paris on August 25, 1944. The demoralized Germans were handed another setback on Jan 16 when they lost the mother of all air combats, the Battle of the Bulge (now, that’s another story altogether), with Britain atoning for the four years of German bombardment with a single stroke. Keeping up the pressure, the harried Germans had their wind knocked out of them when American troops crossed the Rhine and entered into Germany proper. Adolph Hitler committed suicide on the 30th April 1945, and one week later, the Germans surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Forces.

 

Song of the day: Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust

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