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The Battle of Normandy

D-Day and beyond

Codenamed Operation Overlord, the Battle of Normandy was the Allied offensive that began with D-Day on 6 June 1944 and rolled the Germans back, leading to the Liberation of Paris and allowing the Allies to sweep through northern France forcing the Germans back across the Seine on 30 August 1944. This was effectively the end of the Battle of Normandy. 

The challenge was immense: the French coastline (Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’) had been heavily fortified and the Germans had long anticipated an assault – it’s just they did not know where. 

Indeed, for months in advance cat-and-mouse disinformation games were played in deadly seriousness with bluffs and feints deployed by the Allies to try and fool the Germans. That such a vast, complex and detailed operation could be launched after months of planning without the Germans getting some inkling of it is simply remarkable. 

The pivotal battle 

Once under way, the battle was tough and hard-fought. Both sides knew the strategic importance of the outcome: control of Normandy was, at this point in the war, synonymous with control over the rest of France. 

The Allies, for all their planning and weight of numbers, struggled with the natural obstacle of the Normandy bocage – the scrubby hedges that provided excellent cover for anti-tank guns and machine gun emplacements.  

The American Sherman tanks were lighter than their German counterparts and their less heavily armour plated undersides were vulnerable when crossing the bocage hedgerows.

For their part, the Germans found it difficult to manoeuvre their heavy Tiger tanks along the sunken roads of rural Normandy. All too often they became stranded and sitting ducks for RAF Typhoons. 

In addition the Germans struggled to maintain supply lines, particularly of fuel for the fearsome but thirsty Tigers. The Allies and the French Resistance blew up roads and bridges, preventing the arrival of supplies and causing High Command with a major headache – it was impossible top plan effectively without certainty of having sufficient fuel.


Key leaders 

General Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander. General Montgomery was commander of the 21stArmy Group, all Allied ground forces involved.  

Field Marshal Rommel led the Germans, instructed by Hitler to hold and fortify the Atlantic Wall in anticipation of an Allied invasion. 


The battle’s significance 

The operation was quite simply the largest maritime invasion in history. It successfully distracted the Germans and drew both attention and resources from the Eastern Front, allowing the Soviets to advance more quickly towards Berlin.  

The opening of another front was not only a distraction but a psychological blow for the hard-pressed Germans who were preoccupied on all fronts. They surrendered less than a year later, on 5 May 1945.

Many commentators point to a longer term significance in the Battle of Normandy: as the Allies and the Soviets bore down on Berlin, it paved the way for the post-war tensions of the Cold War as the future shape of Europe was re-configured.


D-Day in numbers

The Beaches

Utah

The US 4thInfantry Division landed in the face of light resistance, having being pushed by the current south of their landing zone

Nevada fires upon shore by Official U.S. Navy photograph - http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/g250000/g252412c.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=732832
Nevada fires upon shore by Official U.S. Navy photograph - http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/g250000/g252412c.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=732832

Omaha

In the most heavily defended sector, the US 1stInfantry Division experienced more casualties than all other beach landings combined. The Germans occupied the cliff tops, 46 metres high, leaving only 5 gullies as possible exits.

Into the Jaws of Death by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17040973
Into the Jaws of Death by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17040973

Gold 

High winds caused problems for the British forces who landed under fire from the Le Hamel 75mm gun. Eventually the Hampshire Regiment took Arromanches and linked up with the Canadians.

Infantry of the 50th Division near St Gabriel on 6 June by Sergeant Parkinson. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37084586
Infantry of the 50th Division near St Gabriel on 6 June by Sergeant Parkinson. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37084586

Juno 

Turbulent seas were a real problem here, with many Canadian casualties during disembarkation. The beachhead was established and by the end of the day had linked with Gold and stretched along 12 miles of coast.

Canadian Soldiers on Juno Beach By Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie - http://www.archivesnormandie39-45.org/specificPhoto.php?ref=p004593, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8028451
Canadian Soldiers on Juno Beach By Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie - http://www.archivesnormandie39-45.org/specificPhoto.php?ref=p004593, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8028451

Sword

British forces, the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, landed and advanced to the outskirts of Caen before meeting resistance

Film still from the D-Day landings showing commandos aboard a landing craft on their approach to Sword by No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Wilkes (Sgt). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25343174
Film still from the D-Day landings showing commandos aboard a landing craft on their approach to Sword by No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Wilkes (Sgt). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25343174

5 quick highlights 

Caen Memorial The Memorial de Caen is both museum and memorial and offers a fascinating experience. It’s educational, reflective and puts the whole history of the Battle of Normandy into context. 

Mulberry harbour  At Arromanches you overlook Gold Beach and Mulberry harbour. 115 concrete pontoons were sunk to create a makeshift port and 22 remain today, a sombre reminder of a turning point in the war. 

Bayeux War Cemetery  The largest of all World War Two cemeteries with 4,648 graves, it is immaculate, beautifully tended and very moving. 

Ouistreham  A seaside town with cemeteries, memorials and remnants of the battle. Pegasus Bridge is a must-visit, hopefully with a coffee stop at the historic café there, full of memorabilia and memories.

Ste Mère-Eglise  Probably the most famous D-Day village, this is where an American paratrooper’s parachute snagged on the church spire – a parachute remains dangling to this day as a commemoration of the village’s liberation. 

Discover Northern France

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