The Normandy Invasion

Home History The Normandy Invasion

A soldier can feel no greater frustration in combat then to lack equipment, support, or orders. That describes the condition for numerous German soldiers defending the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944. Watching Allied paratroopers fall from the sky inland, or peering at the massive armada from a casement, junior officers urged senior staff for reinforcements. The response was slow since so many high ranking German officers felt the invasion would occur further North at the Pas-de-Calais, the shorter distance across the English Channel. Thinking the reports of invasion in Normandy to be an Allied diversion, no one was willing to wake up the sleeping Fuhrer to release Panzer divisions to Normandy. Such was the unique and sometimes paralyzing command structure in the Wehrmacht (German Army).

Normandy is a geographic region in the North of France that became one of the most decisive invasion points in the history of warfare. SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force), commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, code-named the invasion Operation Overlord. The primary goal of Overlord was to establish a lodgement to launch the liberation of Western Europe from the Nazi regime. The Axis powers occupied much of Western Europe in January 1943 when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt met at the Casablanca Conference to determine the next major phase of the war.[i] Although the Eastern Front was static, and inroads were progressing through Italy, a large-scale invasion was necessary for the march to Berlin.

This research paper will explain the abundant work of intelligence, planning, and logistics that encompassed the invasion, particularly the decision and struggles with the choice of Normandy as the invasion point. Although far too numerous to cover them all, several individual actions will be highlighted to offer the perspective of specific groups such as infantry, paratroopers, rangers, sailors, civilians, British troops, and Canadian troops. In addition, the German viewpoint and response to the invasion is vitally important to understanding their counteroffensive strategies. Finally, the battles in the few weeks following D-Day such as the capture of Cherbourg, Caen, and Falaise Gap will serve to shape the full picture of the Normandy invasion.


D-Day Minus: Planning and Preparation

The Axis powers occupied much of Western Europe by the summer of 1944 and had constructed an enormous defensive line known as the Atlantic Wall. The Pas-de-Calais was the obvious choice for an invasion point and the Allies avoided it for that reason. Although heavily defended, the Northwest coast of France provided numerous advantages. First, England was just across the English Channel furnishing a huge marshaling area for troops and supplies, where training could take place free of attack, and aircraft could launch pre-invasion bombing as well as delivery of paratroopers and glider troops. Second, the beaches of Normandy had the minimum necessary accessibility for troop and equipment landings. Although no port existed, temporary harbors would suffice until the capture of the port of Cherbourg and the Cotentin Peninsula was controlled. Third, French Resistance could support the effort to some extent with its unique knowledge of enemy troop strength, gun emplacements, purposely-flooded fields, and future mobility needs such as bridges and roads. Finally, once the Normandy region was under Allied control, the advance toward Germany, in addition to Allied advances from Italy in the South and Russia in the east, caused what was essentially, an enormous pincer movement to force Germany’s surrender.

Fortunately, for the Allies, the Germans did not consider Normandy the most likely invasion point. The German high command suffered from lack of a cohesive counter invasion plan.[ii] Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of German forces in the West, and Erwin Rommel, commander of the German defense of the French Coast differed on counter invasion strategy. No one doubted the Allies would launch a massive invasion force but the three main questions were when the attack would come, where the landing would tack place, and where should reinforcements be placed to support the coastal defense. Rommel believed in stopping the Allies at the beach knowing that the German army would suffer from a land battle. The Allies owned the skies and would be able to give ground troops tremendous support. He personally supervised the fortification of the vast Atlantic Wall with encased gun emplacements, anti-glider stakes, the flooding of fields, and thousands of mines. Gerd von Rundstedt proposed marshaling their troops, allowing an invasion, and then retaining the freedom to engage the enemy and make use of German superiority in open warfare.[iii] The most stifling aspect of the German defense was Hitler’s insistence that only he could order major troop movements delaying German response to invasion points.

Operation Fortitude, the Allied plan to deceive the Germans on when and where the invasion would take place, enhanced the lack of coherent planning by the Germans. The scope and breadth of the operation forced the Germans to consider invasions from a nearly every point other than the East. One such deception was the fictitious invasion of Norway, alliance with Sweden, and invasion of Germany though Denmark.[iv] Other leaked invasion points were the Pas-de-Calais in Northern France, the coast of Belgium, and from the southeast through the Balkans. Additional deception devices were false intelligence reports, artificial radio traffic, and fake troop movements. The area in Northern France known as the Pas-de-Calais was the most obvious choice for an invasion point so the Allies pointed the greatest amount of deception there. General George Patton, thought by the Germans to be the most capable field commander in the Allied arsenal, moved to areas of England where he supposedly prepared the Pas-de-Calais invasion. To present the appearance of marshaling an invading force, the Allies constructed a false army of rubber tanks and dummy paratroopers and conducted pre-invasion bombing and commando raids to keep the Germans attention there.

SHAEF chose the Calvados Beach at Normandy for the actual invasion point and divided it into five sectors named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The Americans would land at Utah and Omaha with the British and Canadian forces landing at the remaining beaches. Paratroopers would land just after midnight with the objective of securing roads, bridges, and other structures as well as oppose German reinforcements headed to the beach. Air and Naval gunfire would soften the beach defenses in the few hours before the landing of troops. Those troops would land in waves aboard various landing craft to secure the beach for the massive amounts of personnel and equipment needed to support the inland fighting. The British created ingenious temporary harbors called Mulberries to support larger ships and purposely sunk old ships to create a breakwater. Over the first few weeks, land forces would control the entire Cotentin Peninsula with the vital capture of Cherbourg to give the Allies a deep port to support any Allied shipping needs. With a successful lodgement, the Allies could begin the massive march to Berlin. That was the plan, but it was not perfect.

The decision to invade at Normandy was far from perfect and held many obstacles. The failure of the raid at Dieppe in 1942 was a painful reminder of the danger of amphibious landing. Landing on a beach means contending with tides, swells, and weather for which predictions are by no means an exact science. Allied divers performed reconnaissance on the Normandy beaches discovering mine placements, various elevations, German defensive positions, and degree of sturdiness of the sand for heavy equipment. Mines presented an enormous challenge with very few disabled prior to the invasion. Pre-invasion bombing destroyed some of them but most would require diffusion by engineers on the beach after the initial invasion. Unfortunately, no effective means of mine removal existed that could be applied to the Normandy beaches.[v] By far, the greatest obstacle at Normandy was the need for a direct, daylight assault against a determined, well-entrenched enemy. The Allied command knew that there would be high casualties and nearly everyone knew that it was necessary.

Logistically, the Normandy invasion was an enormous challenge. The allocation for the exact number of troops, equipment, and supplies needed consistently changed due to intelligence reports, weather, German movements, and other events in the theatre. Operation Bolero, the codename for the troop buildup to carry out the invasion, began in the spring of 1943 although troops had arrived in England just after Pearl Harbor.[vi] A major strategy was developed to allocate resources among the Japanese theatre of war, the invasion of Italy, the remaining forces in North Africa, and new troops from the United States without signaling to the Germans exactly how the invasion was to progress. Since the Germans planned for a large invasion likely coming from the West, the marshaling of a massive amount of troops and supplies in England was no secret, nor was the training of troops for parachute, glider, and amphibious landings. Preparation for landings during the day and night and on beaches of various topography, weather, and swells prevented the Germans from deducing where and when the invasion would take place. By June of 1944, 1.4 million troops and nearly 11 million tons of cargo had flowed to the United Kingdom.[vii] The importance of logistics for strategic planning and success is as old as warfare itself.

The science of intelligence gathering must contend with the huge variable of people. Numerous factors can compromise intelligence such as agents who purposely deceive, agents that misconstrue information, or innocent bystanders to war who provide a poor interpretation of events. French citizens were vital to providing all sorts of intelligence but German troops and agents closely monitored their activities. The German’s occupation included a familiarity with citizens in a given town and scrutinized any newcomers or visitors. In addition, anyone involved in French Resistance actions such as espionage met severe and swift punishment. However, numerous pieces of intelligence flowed out of France. The American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) performed a small amount of intelligence work but the majority of intelligence flowed through the British MI5 and MI6 intelligence units. Abwehr, their German intelligence opponent, equally carried on counterintelligence and counterespionage operations.

The vast majority of historians consider the planning and preparation of the Normandy invasion the greatest ever undertaken. United States Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall desired to lead the invasion but President Roosevelt felt him too important to leave Washington. Given the command was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led a huge staff that included senior leadership from several of the Allied commands. All final decisions were his including the very difficult decision to delay the invasion one day when weather appeared too bleak for flying or beach landings. To delay another day would jeopardize the invasion for weeks since the tide needed for invasion reached its end cycle on June 6. He finally gave the order to invade and accepted full responsibility for any failures. Leading the ground troops was Bernard Montgomery, the boastful but brilliant British general that led victories in North Africa and Italy. Leading the American ground contingent was the “soldier’s general,” Omar Bradley. It would not be an overstatement to suggest that the best and brightest joined forces for the greatest invasion in history, from General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of the former president, who earned a congressional medal of honor for stirring on troops at Utah Beach to Private Carlton Barrett who earned his medal of honor at Omaha Beach.


D-Day: Invasion

The average soldier on D-Day had little, if any, combat experience. They would have joined the armed forces in 1942 or 1943 and spent several months training in the United States and then England. Some had combat experience in North Africa or Italy but most who landed behind enemy lines or ran up beaches would experience something for which no training could fully prepare them. Some were taxi drivers, farmers, factory workers, and professionals. They were highly motivated and extremely patriotic but just as scared as the soldier next to him. They were aware of their enemy but did not really know them. Their non-commissioned and commissioned officers may or may not have had combat experience but they had faith in one another and followed their orders. They knew that fighting Nazi tyranny and defending freedom were worth risking their life.

The weather was far from perfect before D-Day and the prediction on what the weather might do was uncertain for favorable conditions. General Eisenhower gave the order knowing that to delay might be disastrous. Because of the weather, much of the aerial bombing was ineffective and the naval bombing did not begin as soon as planned. German soldiers awoke from another night of waiting and much of the high command was far away. Throughout the morning, reports of paratroop landings flowed in, but German officers failed to believe many of the reports from the Normandy coast because they were so convinced the invasion would happen at Calais, much in part to the success of Operation Fortitude. The French Resistance, hearing the secret call for the invasion over the radio, began their work of cutting communication wires and other minor actions of espionage.

Pegasus Bridge lay far to the left of the Allied invasion but war planners considered it vital to the German’s ability to bring heavy artillery and tanks to reinforce troops at the beach. Major John Howard of the British light infantry led the first troop landing on D-Day aboard glider craft just a few minutes past midnight on June 6, 1944. The first Allied casualty of the D-Day invasion was Lieutenant Denholm Brotheridge as the British troops met light resistance but accomplished their mission to secure and hold the bridge until reinforced by troops from the beach landings.[viii] Many military tacticians consider the action at Pegasus Bridge a textbook coup de main accomplished by a small glider unit. Glider aircraft were towed by larger planes to a specified point, released, and piloted into a designated landing point. They encountered several problems due to the larger than expected hedgerows, anti-aircraft flak, and the “asparagus” poles Rommel had ordered which were stakes in the ground affixed with mines designed to block smooth landings. Many gliders did successfully land, unloaded their troops quickly, and accomplished their missions.

Also just after midnight, thousands of paratroopers dropped in behind enemy lines with a myriad of tasks to perform such as securing exits, blocking German reinforcements, capturing towns, and general harassment of frontline German defenders. Due to the weather and aircraft disabled by flak, paratroops were misdropped all over Normandy. Many of them regrouped as quickly as possible or reformed into makeshift units. Some unfortunately drowned in the many, flooded fields. Brought to life by Band of Brothers, written by Stephen Ambrose, and the HBO mini-series of the same name, is the story of Major Dick Winters and Easy Company of the 506th P.I.R. Winters was truly a citizen soldier, joining the army after college at the onset of the war and trained to command a paratrooper company. He too was misdropped but quickly formed up his company. Masterfully orchestrated and successful for attacking a fixed position, Winters led a squad to disable 88mm German guns firing down on Utah beach.

The cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc extending into the sea held several casements of captured French guns intended to rain down enfilading fire on troops landing at Utah Beach to the West and Omaha Beach to the East. The Rangers charged with climbing those cliffs to disable the guns were some of the most thoroughly trained soldiers in the U.S. Army. Using grappling hooks, they climbed the cliffs while German soldiers threw hand grenades and shot down at them. The Rangers eventually overcame the cliffs and secured the guns, fending off German counter attacks until reinforced, performing one of the most heroic, small unit actions of the Normandy invasion. Led by their formidable commander, James Rudder, the Ranger unit suffered just over 70 percent casualties.[ix]

Not every action was a success on D-Day. Control of the town St. Mere-Eglise meant the Allies could prevent German attacks north and south from the main road that ran through town, as well as use its tall cathedral as a vantage point for the entire area. Col. Edson D. Raff was a paratrooper charged with leading an armored task force for support of paratroopers and protecting an airfield for American gliders. Encountering minefields, heavy enemy troop strength, and unexpected hedgerows prevented Raff from accomplishing the objective with disastrous results for gliders. Raff, an experienced and capable officer, was not specifically trained for leading an armored attack and is a good example of the motivated but sometimes misapplied U.S. Army at Normandy.[x]

The beach landings, all eventually successful, came at an extremely high cost. No beach was free from casualties with the majority happening in the first few waves. Troops controlled the beaches of Sword, Juno, Gold, and Utah in a reasonable amount of time and began the work of securing batteries, linking up with glider and paratroops, and preparing the beach for heavy equipment delivery. The nightmare of Omaha beach was another matter. Machine gun fire mowed down hundreds of soldiers as the landing craft door lowered, and for much of the morning, only pockets of infantry made it onto the beach. Weighted down with pounds of equipment, many drowned as the landing craft dropped them off in water over their heads. Those that waded ashore were welcomed with more machine gun, sniper, and artillery fire. Men, body parts, and blood covered the beach and filled the water. By the end of the day, American casualties numbered 3000, but the beach was secure enough to continue operations.[xi]


D-Day Plus: Battles

The first few days of the invasion saw numerous skirmishes, confusion on both sides, lost soldiers, frightened civilians, and a tremendous amount of men and material landing in what was to be a massive and successful lodgement. With the beaches secured, the exits almost secured, many vital bridges held, and several towns liberated, each side pondered their options. The average Wehrmacht soldier at Normandy was far from elite and was much older or much younger than the average soldier, and in some cases, not even German. The German army forced many Poles, Russians, and other nationalities to fight for them. When the German high command finally agreed that the invasion was happening at Normandy, Hitler ordered Panzer divisions to move in and reinforce. Despite the lateness of that order, Rommel’s defenses were still effective, and Allied soldiers struggled through the huge hedgerows to win each field, one at a time. The initial invasion was a success but the war was far from over.

American armory, thought non-existent on D-Day, actually accomplished many of their objectives. The myth that all of the tanks and tank dozers sank is untrue. In fact, more than half made it ashore and performed their duties of infantry support and obstacle clearance.[xii] Although the terrain created a huge obstacle for moving the tanks inland, crews performed heroically and engineers fulfilled numerous goals with this equipment. The British primarily assigned their tanks for engineering duties, equipping and retrofitting them for a multiple of tasks. The Americans used tanks for both engineering and combat, supporting infantry troops throughout Normandy.

In the first few weeks, the Normandy coast became a huge marshaling area and temporary launching point for all Allied operations. The next phase of the invasion plan called for control of the entire Cotentin Peninsula with major objectives of bridges, airfields, railroads, towns, and the port of Cherbourg. The mulberries, the temporary harbors devised by the British, were performing their function, but Cherbourg provided a deep-water port allowing the Allies to bring in large ships. Like many locations in the past, Hitler ordered the defenders to hold Cherbourg at all cost. Major J. Lawton Collins, the U.S. VII Corp commander, drove his men through one skirmish after another, eventually capturing the port city by the end of June.[xiii] To the east, the battle for Caen was a major Allied objective, but not secured until August and typified the tough, slow fighting to gain the Cotentin Peninsula.

One of the great stories of the Normandy campaign is that of the Polish Army. Run over in 1939, the Poles suffered defeat, death, and troops taken prisoner thereby decimating their ranks. From splinter groups, they eventually reformed and fought heroically at the Battle of Falaise Pocket in Normandy. Falaise and its surrounding towns held a strongpoint of the Germany army with an enormous amount of troops. The Allies attempted to enclose and capture them in a pocket. George Patton, sidelined and a decoy on D-Day, now commanded the Third Army and pressured the Germans from the south. British, Canadian, Polish, French and additional American troops nearly encircled the Germany army.[xiv] Although thousands of Germans escaped, the Allies considered Falaise Pocket a success. In a touching tribute, Polish commander Stanisław Maczek was giving an Iron Cross, taken from a German prisoner who had won the decoration in the Polish defeat earlier in the war.



The close of the Normandy campaign is somewhat disputed, but by the liberation of Paris on August 30, 1944 the Allies had successfully controlled northwest France and forced a major retreat by the Germans. The German high command was in a state of turmoil. Senior leadership disagreed with Hitler’s decisions knowing that his earlier victories were largely due to superior force rather than tactical knowledge. There was even an attempt to assassinate him July 20, 1944 and many implicated high-ranking officers committed suicide or faced execution. The objectives for the Normandy invasion numbered in the thousands with every major and critical objective achieved. Never had such an invasion taken place and a future one is almost unthinkable. The invasion, years in the making, succeeded through years of planning, intelligence gathering, deception, training, battlefield decisions, and most importantly, bravery. The territory controlled by the ever expanding and conquering German army was one of the largest in modern history and required a measured response. The Normandy invasion was that successful response.

One of the most famous film clips of World War II is of a French man crying as the Nazi’s marched into Paris. The Normandy invasion began the long-awaited liberation of people just like that French man, and although no one knew it at the time, the liberation of thousands of Jews held in concentration camps. The Allied losses were huge, particularly for the American soldiers landing at Omaha Beach. Upon establishing a beachhead, the Allies encountered multiple obstacles, such as huge hedgerows, flooded fields, and a counteroffensive from the German Army. Although suffering a huge setback from Operation Market Garden in September 1944, and month long struggle in the Battle of the Bulge beginning later that year, the Allied advance never wavered from the work begun on D-Day.






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[i] Gordon A. Harrison, Cross Channel Attack. (Washington: Center for Military History United States Army, 1951), 44.

[ii] Hans Speidel. Invasion 1944: Rommel and the Normandy Campaign. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1950), 50.

[iii] Ibid, 57.

[iv] Jock Haswell, D-Day: Intelligence and Deception. (New York: Times Books, 1979), 106.

[v] Adrian R. Lewis, Omaha Beach: A Flawed Victory. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 274.

[vi] Ricahrd M. Leighton, “Preparation for Invasion: The Problem of Troop and Cargo Flow Before D-Day.” Military Affairs, 10, no. 1 (Spring, 1946): 3.

[vii] Ibid, 25.

[viii] Stephen E. Ambrose, Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), 108.

[ix] Douglas Brinkley, The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion. (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 93.

[x] Kevin M. Hymel, “D-Day Dilemma.” WWII History (Aug/Sep, 2008): 53.

[xi] Lewis, 32.

[xii] Steve Zaloga, “The Great D-Day Myth.” World War II (Jun/Jul, 2008): 40.

[xiii] Harrison, 415.

[xiv] John Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy. (New York: Viking Press, 1982), 250-51.