The Normandy Landing was the third major invasion operation crossing the English Channel in the last 900 years.
William the Conqueror led the first major invasion across the Channel in 1066. The Conqueror led a Norman armada of 700 warships of various sizes. Other vessels entering the fray included enough skiffs and small boats to make up a fleet of about 6000 vessels crossing the English Channel from Normandy in the south to England in the north.
When William jumped off his ship, he tripped and fell on his hands and knees in the English soil. The troops thought this was a bad omen. However William made light of it, saying that the land, itself, was welcoming him as the Conqueror. The Battle of Hastings followed, and the Norman conquest was successful. William was crowned king on Christmas day in 1066.
The second invasion across the English Channel took place in the 16th century when King Phillip of Spain sent his Grand Armada to approach England across the Channel from Calais in France. This fleet had 197 ships and 163 of those were merchantmen carrying troops. The English navy at that time had only 60 ships in the royal fleet but still beat the Armada back. The weather aided in the Spanish defeat. It was Queen Elizabeth’s finest hour.
The D-Day Invasion
The Allied Forces conducted the third invasion on June 6, 1944. The fleet crossed the Channel in the opposite direction, this time from England south to the northern coast of Normandy in France. In total, over 3 million troops from the twelve Allied countries, including Australia, Canada, Belgium, France, Czechoslovakia, Greece, New Zealand, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, the United States and the United Kingdom participated in the D-Day invasion at Normandy.
The Atlantic Wall
Before the invasion, Hitler and his staff anticipated how the war might unfold during the coming years. The Nazis expected to take most of Europe and would have to defend their conquest from the possibility of attack from the Allied invasion forces. Hitler ordered his soldiers to begin building the Atlantic Wall in March, 1942. Its permanent fortifications along the Dutch, Belgian and French coasts facing the English Channel consisted of batteries, bunkers and minefields laid during 1942-44 by forced slave laborers from the countries overrun by the Nazis.
Then, in 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel set out to improve the fortifications. He did not think they would hold, so he set up reinforced concrete pill boxes along the beaches which housed machine guns, anti-tank guns and light artillery. His men planted mines and anti-tank obstacles along the beaches and hidden off shore of northern France in Normandy. Rommel warned that Germany would be defeated unless the invasion was immediately stopped on the beach where the Allied infantry would most likely first set foot. A note of interest here is that on June 6, his wife’s birthday, he was with his family and not present to preside over the wall during the invasion.
A major confrontation had to happen sooner or later. The Allied armies, as well as the Nazis, knew it. Hitler had violently seized most of Europe and the Allies had to stop the Nazi advance. The only question was of the timing.
Only a few days each month would be suitable for the landing. It was essential to have a nearly full moon for visibility and the weather had to be fairly calm. General Dwight D. Eisenhower noted that his son would graduate from West Point on this day, June 6, and he was sorry that he couldn’t attend. However he chose the date for the full moon. The weather had been suitable through the month of May but early June conditions consisted of high winds, choppy seas and low clouds. If they didn’t do it on the 6th, the next chance would be well into July. Meanwhile the troops and provisions would be on standby, just waiting. Meanwhile, the Germans figured the weather was too rough for the Allies to attempt a landing in early June.
The invasion was conducted in two phases, beginning at midnight with the airborne assault, dropping gliders filled with troops and paratroopers behind the German lines at the Atlantic Wall. Then the assault of British, American, Canadian, and Free French would follow. Beginning at 6:30 AM, with the rising of the sun, the largest amphibious invasion force ever assembled (160,000 troops) hit the beaches running and shooting. The landings took place on five beaches (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword) along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast.
Behind the Lines
The first phase of the invasion came at midnight as British planes towing gliders flew across the French skies and dropped their lines. The gliders held thirty men and hundreds of pounds of equipment. Their goal was to land near the town of Caen, France. Once on the land they would fan out to capture bridges and roads in the vicinity.
Following the pathfinder planes as they dropped flares over the areas to hit, over 900 planes flew over Normandy and dropped 13,000 paratroopers in the largest airborne assault ever attempted. Once on the ground, the paratroopers faced different dangers depending on where they landed. Some made it down to the ground, cut the chute lines and took off. Others, not as fortunate, landed in trees and hung up there unable to get loose and some landed in lakes, swamps and ponds and drowned. The Germans shot some of them in the air as they drifted down from the planes.
Near a village in Ste.-Mere-Eglise, a house was on fire. The residents rang the church bell and set up a bucket brigade to get water to the fire. But suddenly dozens of paratroopers floated helplessly into the town because their pathfinder made an error when he saw the fire, thinking it was a series of flares. German soldiers shot and killed many soldiers before they hit the ground. However many did survive to dig in and support the troops who charged in from the beaches at dawn.
On the Beaches
To many Germans guarding the shore, June 6 began as just another boring day. A fog obscured visibility out to sea, and they were relaxed and sleepy. When the fog lifted, they looked out to sea and saw their worst nightmare. The noise started with a thunderous roar as the warships opened fire with fourteen inch shells. Planes blanketed the sky dropping bombs. Some of the Nazis who sought shelter in the pill boxes and the bunkers along the wall could only cover their ears, feel the earth shake, and wait to see what would happen next.
The Allied troops who landed at “bloody Omaha” beach took a terrible hit from the German artillery on the high ground along the cliffs. The beach was studded with 15 foot poles, mines and barbed wire. Many were killed in the water within a few yards of departing their landing boats. But the Allies just kept coming. Sheer numbers of troops carried the day.
Other more fortunate troops landed at the wrong place near Utah Beach encountering some random gunfire. When they realized the mistake, they wondered if they should get back in the boats and move on to the original destination. General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. famously said, “We will start the war right here,” and his men moved on inland.
The Day’s End
It was a long day and the war in Europe was just beginning for many Allied troops. An estimated 155,000 Allied soldiers landed on the Normandy beaches and moved inland, pushing the Nazis back. By nightfall, the troops had freed 80 miles of French soil, and their struggle had just begun. Within a year, the war would wind down; Hitler would kill himself; and the rest of the world would begin the healing process.
The French later erected a sign near Pointe du Hoc which reads: “Here the warriors sleep. The chaos of battle has united them for eternity.”