The D-Day Invasion of Normandy, a.k.a The D-Day Landings, saw history’s greatest ever amphibious invasion. Over 150,000 Allied soldiers crossed the British Channel from Southern Britain to five beaches in Northern France. Involved was a logistical puzzle involving 7,000 sea-faring vessels and almost 12,000 airplanes. The secrecy, scale and audacity of the beach landings largely caught the Axis force off-guard.
This article is the culmination of several questions I’ve had about the invasion, inspired by my interest in the 2nd World War conflict. An interest in the military history goes hand-in-hand with the collection of miniatures and wargames such as Flames of War or Battlegroup.
D-Day where did they leave from, and go to?
Location: The invasion force departed Southern England and travelled in convoy via the English Channel to Normandy, Northern occupied France.
British troops landing at Gold and Sword beaches left in convoy from the Southern English ports of Southampton and Eastbourne.
The Canadians, destined for Juno Beach, departed from Portsmouth.
The American troops aiming for the infamous Omaha beach launched from Poole, Weymouth, Portland, Plymouth Falmouth and Fowey.
American troops destined for the Western beach of Utah set sail from Plymouth, Dartmouth, Torquay and Exeter.
When did D-Day happen?
What was the date? The morning of June 6th, 1944. The D-Day Landings were originally planned for June 5th. Due to forecasts of bad weather in the Channel, Eisenhower delayed the landings by 24 hours1Read IWM’s article on the delaying weather-report.
How long ago was D-Day? At the time of writing, the invasion of Normandy occurred ~77 years ago.
Which war was D-Day a part of? The invasion was a key milestone in World War 2. Despite popular opinions, the invasion took place in the later parts of the global conflict.
What countries were involved in the invasion?
What nations were involved? The D-Day invasion landing force consisted largely of British, American and Canadian troops. A lot of other nations were also involved at several stages of the invasion, just in much smaller numbers. Forces from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Poland also took part.
How many troops were involved? The D-Day invasion landing force consisted of approximately 62,000 British troops, 57,000 American troops and 21,000 Canadian troops2Breakdown of troops involved can be found at TheDDayStory.com.
How did D-Day end?
Outcome: Officially it ended with an Allied victory; a significant military presence installed back on mainland Europe. This victory however came at the approximate cost of 4,900 Allied3HistoryOnTheNet quote Ambrose on Allied lives lost and 4,000-9,000 Axis lives.
Despite it being classed as a victory for the Allied forces, nearly all of the military objectives for day-one were not achieved. It would be many more days before the forces had achieved all they had hope to do within the first 24hrs of operation Neptune.
Why is D-Day called D-Day?
Ever wondered what the ‘D’ in D-Day stands for? Many people have. Many people still misunderstand or disagree on it’s origins. Lets clear that up.
The military phrase ‘D-Day‘ simply marks the start of a large scale operation. In the wider civilian and historic sense, it has become synonymous with the beach landings of Normandy in World War 2.
Why use the term D-Day at all?
Military plans using ‘D-Day’ instead of a specific date (e.g. 6th June 1944) for three very good reasons.
- It allows military planners to draw up plans, at a day-by-day level of detail, long before the known start-date of an operation is known,
- It allows for the operational timeline to be brought forward or pushed back without recalculating all dates involved. This can be done using notation such as D-Day+1 (or simply D+1), meaning the day after the operation has begun. Equally, D-1 is the day before the operation begins.
- By concealing the dates involved in an operation, it also allows for a level of secrecy if the plans were intercepted by the enemy.
The phrase H-Hour allows for finer details.
Operation Overlord vs Operation Neptune
Operation Overlord is the Allied military code name often mistakenly used when referring to the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches. In reality, Operation Overlord was the whole invasion of Western Europe, consisting of several sub-operations, including Operation Neptune. Neptune was the operation focused on the assault and landings at Normandy, France5Good 1-page D-Day summary PDF document from Defense.gov.
Both Allied military operations started on June 6th, 1944, however Operation Neptune (invasion of the Normandy beaches) lasted only until June 30th, while the larger operation of Overlord continued until mid-August.
Storming of the beaches
Despite popular beliefs, the troops “storming the beaches” were not the first Allied force in Normandy on D-Day. Hours before the beach assaults occurred, thousands of troops parachuted behind enemy lines. These elite men were tasked with destroying gun batteries, cut off supply and communications lines, and sow disarray within the Axis forces.
Operation Overlord came to a close when the Allies pushed the Axis force back over the river Seine (France), on 30th August 1944. At this point the Allies they had sustained over 225,000 casualties6Figured provided by Anthony Beevor in his D-Day book during the operation. Equally, the Germans force had taken over 200,000 casualties with a further 250,000 surrounded and captured7Andrew Whitmarsh – D-Day in Photographs. Although historians and sources vary on these numbers, the sheer scale of them shows the phenomenal high-cost of Operation Overlord.
How many paratroopers were involved in D-Day?
While this article focuses on the invasions of the beaches, we have to mention the incredible D-Day paratroopers.
To destabilise the occupying German force, some 13,000 American paratroopers8Airborne Operations is a great short read by DDay.org and 5,000 British paratroopers9How D-Day was fought from the Air – IWM dropped behind enemy lines. The paratroopers jumped from their aircraft in the early morning of June 6th.
The elite American paratroopers were made up of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. While the elite British paratroopers were from the British 6th Airborne Division.
Were paratroopers successful on D-Day?
Yes the paratroopers were very successful on D-Day. Large numbers of the troops landed miles away from the designated landing zones. Fortunately the resolve and grit of the elite troops meant they still went on to achieve great gains for the Allies.
How many planes were used by paratroopers?
While official records seem to vary somewhat on the number of planes used by the paratroopers on D-Day, it is in the region of 1,200. The iconic Dakota / Douglas C-47 Skytrains planes were used to transport the paratroopers on D-Day. Thousandths of CG-4 Waco and Horsa gliders were also used in the beginning hours to bring additional men and arms behind enemy lines.
Why the 5 invasion beaches of Normandy?
By this part of the World War 2, Germany occupied large swathes of Europe, including France.
Normandy (Northern France) contains an 80 kilometre wide, shallow-inclined sandy beach front. This beach front, then-and-now a popular holiday destination, is punctured by headlands, cliffs, land spurs and river mouths. Germany were in the slow process of bolstering the coastal defences along this edge of coastline, a project known as the Atlantikwall (Atlantic Wall).
No deep water ports
When prioritising the defences of Europe, one thing German high-command had taken into account was the location of deep-water ports in Normandy. With no deep-water ports at the landing beaches, no Allied ships full of troops and vehicles could easily disembark. High-command deduced the beaches were unlikely to be the key location of any amphibious invasion. Instead they thought the Allied invasion would begin at Pas de Calais.
Rommel however, did not completely agree with this decision. He ordered the construction of additional beach obstacles and defences to be built immediately.
The separate landing zones were carved from an 80km wide stretch of beaches. The FIVE D-Day beaches in Normandy, from East to West, were codenamed:
For some truly astonishing D-Day photographs (and general information), the great 2021 book ‘D-Day and Normandy’ by Anthony Richards can not fail to impress. No matter how many numbers you read on a webpage, you need to SEE the Normandy beaches to grasp the scale of Operation Neptune.
Richards compiled this collection of over 220 pages of war-time photographs, objects and interviews. The book is published by the highly respected Imperial War Museum.
Where did the beach names come from?
The five beach names we know are the Allied beach codenames; you would not have been able to look at any French map and pointed to Omaha or Gold beach. To this day I am not sure if the beaches have any actual names.
Juno beach was originally designated Jelly Beach10According to Monty and Rommel by Peter Caddick-Adams, as all the three British/Canadian beaches were named after fish; Goldfish, Jellyfish and Swordfish. Churchill however, decided that a beach on which countless lives would be lost, should not be called ‘Jelly’, and changed it to Juno.
Utah and Omaha were apparently picked completely at random when an American General picked two servicemen and asked where they were from.
D-Day on Sword Beach
This beach was the most Eastern landing zone of the invasion. The British 3rd Infantry Division were tasked with securing Sword Beach. After taking the beach the original goal for the infantry was to push forward. They were to meetup with the paratroopers at the Orne River and secure the French city of Caen. This city was a key strategic location that the Allies were desperate to take, however the German forces fought fiercely for it.
After securing Sword Beach however, the infantry’s advance onto Caen was halted by a counter-attack from the 21st Panzer division. While the Allies did eventually get to Caen, it would not fully achieve their day-one objective for another 6 weeks.
Did the Allies bomb civilians in Caen?
In an attempt to force Axis units out of Caen, a controversial series of aerial bombardments conducted by the Allies razed the city to the ground. It is estimated that 75% off the medieval city was completely or significantly destroyed. The population of the city itself fell from 60,000 to almost 17,000 in a matter of weeks.
It is reported over 1,200 civilians were killed in Caen. As the Allies ‘liberated’ Caen, as many as 35,000 civilians were left homeless.
D-Day on Juno Beach
Juno beach was the narrowest of landing zones for the Allied forces. The Canadian Army were tasked to take the beach and push inland to their objectives. Large preliminary bombardments proved to be very ineffective against the German 716th Division defences. This failure, combined with bad weather pushing landing craft off course, resulted in high casualties early on in D-Day.
The Canadian Army, after taking the beach, were to secure a vital supply road. They were also tasked to secure Carpiquet airport12Read more about the airport assault at The Battle for Carpiquet Airport by Paul Woodage and then join up with the British Army from both Sword and Gold beaches.
Heavily defended by the German SS, Carpiquet airport would act as a strategic forward operating base, if only the Allies could take it. Operation Charnwood, amongst other objectives, saw the Canadians finally take the airport on July 9, 1944.
D-Day on Gold Beach
This beach was the very central landing zone for the whole of Operation Neptune. It’s Western edge was flanked by large cliff faces while rough-seas and high-winds made getting to the beach particularly difficult.
The British Army tasked with taking the beach, were met by almost 2,000 infantrymen from the German 352nd and 716th Infantry Divisions. Thankfully the naval and air bombardments proceeding the amphibious invasion had knocked out 3 of the 4 heaviest German gun batteries nearby.
The British 50th Infantry Division however still were caught in heavy enfilade machine-gun fire. These machine-guns fired from strategically placed MG nests and bunkers.
Simon Trew13Gold Beach – Battlezone Normandy by Simon Trew quotes that 1,000 British were wounded or killed, while at least that many Germans were captured. An unknown number of German casualties were also taken.
D-Day on Omaha Beach
The United States Army had the unfortunate responsibility of taking Omaha beach. The veteran 1st Infantry Division was given the East half of Omaha, while the Western side was given to the green 29th Infantry Division.
The defence of Omaha beach was given to German 352nd Infantry Division.
The German army had increased the defences on Omaha beach ahead of D-Day, as well as benefitting from the natural cliffs on either edge of the beach. Tasked with bolstering the Atlantic Wall in early ’44, Rommel immediately had additional beach obstacles added along the Normandy beaches. This included the heavy use of mines to prevent landing vehicles on the shoreline.
A low-tide invasion
This simple addition forced the Allies to land at low-tide instead of the originally planned high-tide. No where was this more evident than on Omaha, due to the geography of the beach.
After disembarking their transporters, the troops had to traverse a large 400-yard swath of beach littered with mines. They then had a further 200 yard gap to the beach edge. All while under machine gun and anti-tank fire from German bunkers and casements high up on clifftops.
If you have seen the brilliant film Saving Private Ryan, the awful beach scenes at the start are meant to take-place on Omaha:
Omaha easily saw the highest Allied casualties on D-Day itself. It is estimated that 3,000-5,000 Allied servicemen were killed or wounded on Omaha beach before it was secure. On the Axis side, approximately 1,200 men from the 352nd were reported as killed or seriously wounded14Page 334 of Cross Channel Attack by Gordon Harrison.
If podcasts are your thing; I can recommend Episode 92 – D-Day: Omaha of WW2 Podcast (Spotify). In that Omaha episode, Angus Wallace talks with military historian Robert Kershaw about his book release, The Fury of Battle: D-Day as it Happened, Hour by Hour.
D-Day on Utah Beach
Utah was the most Western beach of the amphibious landings. It was also further separated from the other 4 beaches by a large headland, series of steep cliffs and a wide river mouth. These intervening cliffs saw the action of Pointe du Hoc, mentioned below.
The amphibious assault of Utah was primarily assigned to the US 4th Infantry Division, supported by the 70th Tank Battalion. They were tasked with taking the beach and securing the Cherbourg peninsula.
High winds and navigational mistakes saw the men arriving further East than planned. Despite this, supported by Sherman tanks, the 4th Infantry Division made fast progress up the beach.
The brave infantryman who stormed this beach took 197 casualties by the end of the day, relatively few compared to the bloodshed occurring just East of them on Omaha.
The catastrophe of Exercise Tiger
In a bitter twist of irony, the storming of Utah Beach was practised on Slapton Sands in Devon (UK) as part of Exercise Tiger15Read more about Exercise Tiger on Wikipedia. It was during this full-scale live-firing exercise that catastrophe hit, twice.
On the first morning, a communications breakdown saw several landing craft dropping off troops on the practise beach at the same time as the naval bombardment began. Approximately 450 men were killed by this blue-on-blue tragedy.
The next day, multiple German E-Boats intercepted the Allied landing crafts mid-exercise. Several LST ships full of American servicemen were sunk by German torpedos.
No fewer than 749 American’s drowned before survivors were picked up.
While taking Utah during Operation Neptune saw relatively few causalities, the forces involved lost almost 1,500 men leading up to and including D-Day.
Pointe du Hoc
No article on the D-Day landings and beaches could really be complete without a mention of Pointe du Hoc. The strategic and incredible mission on a site sandwiched between Omaha beach and Utah beach.
The task, assigned to ~200 Rangers, saw them being dropped off by boat at the base of a 30m sheer cliff, just West of Omaha beach. The Rangers had to climb the cliff-face using ladders and grappling hooks, to catch a German gun battery at the top off-guard.
Taking this 155mm gun battery was vital, as it could rain-down fire on the Utah and Omaha beaches.
While they climbed the near-impossible cliffs, two Allied destroyers provided dangerously close covering fire over their heads.
What was the target at Pointe du Hoc?
Their primary target, the German gun battery, had actually been moved further inland days beforehand. Despite fierce fighting, the Rangers still located and destroyed the battery. Unsupported for over 24 hours and facing counter-attacks, the Rangers took up German weapons as they ran out of ammo in their own. Eventually they were relieved by a Allied tanks, but over 130 of the original 200 Rangers had already been killed.
Tim Saunders Pointe du Hoc book is on my reading list; it comes highly recommended by a lot of historians.
Operation Bodyguard – Lies & Deception
A large scale military operation, codenamed Operation Bodyguard, was setup to simply confuse and distract the German’s prior to D-Day. The operation was so successful that when Hitler was informed the Allies were invading Normandy, he dismissed it simple deception!
Part of Bodyguard, Operation Quicksilver was the fabrication of an entire fake army group, 1st United States Army Group16Wikipedia’s article on 1st United States Army Group. This ghost army, stationed in Dover, was made to look like it was preparing to invade Calais. The operation involved complex paper trails, falsified radio chatter, troop movements and fake landing crafts!
English Heritage and Fortitude South
The English Heritage society have a great short read about Operation Bodyguard, with some lovely accompanying photographs. Instead of just lifting them and placing them in my article, I recommend heading over to the EH site and having a browse.
The startling success of Bodyguard, and especially of Fortitude South, is reflected in German belief in the existence of FUSAG as late as August 1944, two months after the D-Day landings. As a result, the Germans kept vital units away from the main fighting front in Normandy, because they were still expecting a second, larger invasion in the Calais area. Operation Fortitude South saved thousands of Allied lives and helped to ensure that a firm foothold was established at the beginning of the liberation of Europe.Paul Pattison at English Heritage
This was the first Easy History article I have put together, to improve and consolidate my own knowledge of World War 2. Hopefully you have found it useful too. If you are looking for more reading on Operation Neptune and the D-Day Landings, the two books below are likely to be of interest to you.
Suggested D-Day books
Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings, by Craig Symonds.
Seventy years ago, more than 6000 Allied ships carried more than a million soldiers across the English Channel to a 50-mile-wide strip of the Normandy coast in German-occupied France. It was the greatest sea-borne assault in human history. The code names given to the beaches where the ships landed the soldiers have become immortal: Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah, and especially Omaha, the scene of almost unimaginable human tragedy…Craig L. Symonds
Normandiefront: D-Day Through German Eyes by Vince Milano
You probably already know the basic story of what happened on D-Day – but it is almost certain that your knowledge is based upon books written from the Allied perspective. “Normandiefront” provides a fresh and unique exploration of the greatest seaborne invasion in history. It also explains just why the Americans on Omaha beach suffered the Longest Day of all…Vince Milano
- 1Read IWM’s article on the delaying weather-report
- 2Breakdown of troops involved can be found at TheDDayStory.com
- 3HistoryOnTheNet quote Ambrose on Allied lives lost
- 4Read The meaning of D-Day by Time Magazine
- 5Good 1-page D-Day summary PDF document from Defense.gov
- 6Figured provided by Anthony Beevor in his D-Day book
- 7Andrew Whitmarsh – D-Day in Photographs
- 8Airborne Operations is a great short read by DDay.org
- 10According to Monty and Rommel by Peter Caddick-Adams
- 11Figured provided by Anthony Beevor in his D-Day book
- 12Read more about the airport assault at The Battle for Carpiquet Airport by Paul Woodage
- 13Gold Beach – Battlezone Normandy by Simon Trew
- 14Page 334 of Cross Channel Attack by Gordon Harrison
- 15Read more about Exercise Tiger on Wikipedia
- 16Wikipedia’s article on 1st United States Army Group