D-Day 1944

Ralph Zuljan

On the morning of June 6, 1944, an Allied armada arrived off the coast of Normandy, in France, and launched the largest amphibious assault in history. By the end of that day, American, British and Canadian troops were firmly established on each of the five beachheads. After a week of desperate fighting, the Allies could confidently claim that Hitler's Festung Europa had been permanently breached and the coup de grĂ¢ce had been delivered to the Third Reich. An Allied victory in Europe was certain. That was not the case when the invasion was ordered.

In the four years since the British evacuated Dunkirk, there had been no direct challenge to the German occupation of the Low Countries and northern France. The overwhelming material superiority of the Wehrmacht made an invasion of northern Europe unthinkable at first. Even after the Third Reich attacked the Soviet Union and committed the bulk of the German army to the eastern front, the daunting scale of the resources required to mount an invasion of northern Europe produced wariness in British military and political circles. They preferred a peripheral strategy that attacked the Nazis where they were weakest -- North Africa, southern Europe, in the Atlantic and, of course, nighttime aerial bombardment. Stalin's sometimes vehement clamoring for a "Second Front" in Europe was politely dismissed as unrealistic by Churchill and Roosevelt. American commanders seemed to show less hesitation, but the logistical realities behind mounting such an operation -- with a reasonable chance of success -- seemed to weigh in favor of British caution.

Planning and preparation for a sea borne invasion of northern Europe proceeded in spite of hesitation about actually carrying out the operation. An enormous buildup of military forces took place on the British Isles. Any thoughts Hitler may have entertained about carrying out "Operation Sea Lion" after a successful conclusion to the war against the Soviet Union were certainly fantastic by 1942. However, achieving the Anglo-American requirements for a successful Allied invasion of Europe seemed equally fantastic. It would take another two years before they would consider themselves ready to try.

In the meantime the Axis war machine was ground down on the Eastern Front with the USSR. The vaunted Luftwaffe was being destroyed in the defense of the Reich against the Anglo-American bombing campaigns. Axis forces were defeated in the Atlantic, in North Africa and Sicily. The latter operations, along with the invasion of Italy -- which proved to be less of a "soft underbelly of Europe" than Allied leaders had hoped, provided necessary operational experience in mounting large scale sea borne invasions. By the end of 1943, the strategic situation had shifted enough in favor of the Allies to make an invasion of northern Europe worth planning.

The Anglo-American military staff responsible for the invasion of northern Europe was announced in December 1943. An American, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was given supreme command of the Allied forces. A British marshal, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, was designated as his deputy. Also prominent among the senior leaders of the invasion was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. "Monty" was formally responsible only for British ground forces but he also had a significant impact on the overall operational plan and ultimately commanded all of the ground forces in the critical first months. The Allied Expeditionary Forces staff reflected political choices as much as it did military realities. American human and material contributions to the war effort were relatively greater compared to those of Britain and the selection of an American for overall command reflected this fact. British commanders, many of whom had military experience that exceeded that of their American counterparts, were forced to accept American superiors -- some for the first time. The ultimate success of the undertaking depended as much on the willingness of the forceful personalities involved to cooperate as it did on the material capabilities of the combined armed forces.

The challenges faced in planning the cross-Channel invasion were enormous. Unlike any of the previous landings the Allies attempted, here the Germans were known to have a distinct advantage in reinforcement capabilities because they already had a large number of combat units deployed throughout northern France -- they were waiting for an invasion attempt to take place. A satisfactory balance had to be struck between the weight of Allied forces available for the initial landings and the ability to deny significant reinforcements to the German forces. Since the size of the landing force was fixed by the amount of transport available, the more successful Allied efforts were in denying German units near the target beaches reinforcement, the more viable the relatively small initial invasion force would be. A massive bombing campaign against the road and railway networks in France was aimed at significantly reducing the German ability to move additional units towards their beach defenses. Sabotage and intelligence gathering (on the location German units in France), by the French resistance also contributed to the Allied effort to limit German reinforcement capabilities.

Also critical to the success of an invasion was the ability to deceive the Wehrmacht's intelligence gathers and its leadership about the target location of the intended landings. Failure to do so would negate any efforts to deny local forces reinforcements and allow the Germans to allocate the bulk of their available forces near the invasion site. Such a situation probably would have ensured an Allied failure since their logistical limits for mounting the operation were relatively small in comparison to the German forces available in northern France. To keep the Germans guessing until the last possible moment, an entire "paper" army was created in Britain under the command of George S. Patton (probably the most prominent American general in Europe not to be given a role in the Normandy invasion).

Ultimately, an operations plan was agreed upon, all preparations were completed, the Allied invasion forces were marshaled and the date for the invasion was set: D-Day was to be June 5, 1944. It was postponed because of poor weather.

Originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on September 1, 2000.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on July 1, 2003.

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