At 5.50, forty minutes before H-Hour, 138 Allied ships, positioned between three and thirteen miles out, began their tremendous bombardment of the German coastal defences. Above them, 1,000 RAF bombers attacked, followed in turn by 1,000 planes of the USAAF. Between them, the aircrews flew 13,688 sorties over the course of D-Day alone.
From their ships, soldiers, weighed down with weapons and seventy pounds of equipment, scaled down scramble nets and into their landing craft. It took over three hours for the vessels to cross the eleven or so miles to the coast. The men, trembling with abject fear, shivering from the cold and suffering from severe seasickness, endured and held on as their tightly packed vessels were buffeted by six-foot high waves and eighteen miles per hour winds. At 6.30, H-Hour, the first US troops landed on Omaha and Utah beaches.
On all five landing spots, the most dangerous task fell to the men whose job it was to explode and neutralize the German mines littered across the beaches in order to clear a path for the first full wave of troops coming up directly behind them. The courage to attempt such a task is beyond imagination. The fatality rate among these courageous select was horrendously high, reaching 75 per cent.
US troops landing at Omaha beach on D-Day.
The defences around Omaha were formidable. Rommel’s men had placed thousands of ‘dragon’s teeth’ (small concrete pyramids) on the beach, designed to take out the base of landing craft, and topped with mines. Gun emplacements had the entire length of beach within their range. The naval bombardment and the subsequent aerial one, although effective elsewhere, had made little impact on Omaha. Ten landing craft were sunk. Men, leaping into water too deep, drowned, weighed down by their equipment. The US soldiers, led by General Omar Bradley, facing the strongest and most experienced German troops from the 352nd Infantry Division, jumped from their landing craft into a barrage of gunfire. All but two of the DD amphibious tanks were sunk, their crews trapped inside, depriving the advancing Americans of covering fire. With Omaha beach offering little in the way of shelter or protection, casualties among the Americans were appallingly high. Many returned to the freezing waters and floated on their backs, keeping their noses above the waterline.
Among the second wave, landing an hour later, was photographer Robert Capa. Under relentless fire Capa managed to take 106 pictures. (On returning to the Life offices in London with the unprocessed films, a laboratory assistant accidentally destroyed all but eleven of Capa’s photographs.)
The congested beach at Omaha had become a killing field, littered with bodies, burning tanks and equipment. The noise of screams, gunfire and bombardment filled the air. Terrified men, sprinting as best they could across the expanse of beach, found a degree of cover at the base of the cliffs – if they managed to get that far. Many did not. At 8 a.m., as destroyers came close enough to pound and weaken the German defences, sufficient numbers had congregated to begin the climb up the cliffs. By 11 a.m. a contingent broke out and captured the village of Vierville. Their colleagues, still pinned down on the beach and with the tide now coming in, were in danger of being pushed back to the sea. But the German soldiers, in maintaining their constant barrage, were close to exhaustion. Finally, at 2 p.m., the first beach exit was cleared. By 4 p.m., tanks and vehicles were able to move off the beach. By the end of the day, 34,000 troops had been landed on Omaha beach at the cost of 2,400 killed or wounded.
Wounded US soldiers after landing on Omaha beach.
Back in Germany, Rommel was told of the invasion at 10.15 a.m. Although assured that the attack was little more than a feint, Rommel, having been ordered by Hitler to push the invaders back to the sea by midnight, immediately embarked on the long drive back to France. He arrived at his French HQ at 6 p.m. Hitler, staying at Klessheim Castle near Salzburg in Austria, also thought that the invasion was little more than a diversionary tactic. Still believing the main thrust of the invasion would appear at the Pas-de-Calais, he kept most of his forces under alert – and, crucially – inactive. Hence, the immediate German response was, on the whole, lacklustre and haphazard. Eventually, at midday, Hitler ordered a panzer counterattack. It was all he could do – Germany’s aerial response was nullified by the Allies’ vast supremacy in the air. The Luftwaffe simply did not possess the resources to match the combined forces of the RAF and the USAAF. In response to the Allies’ 13,688 sorties on D-Day, the Luftwaffe managed to respond with only 319, shooting down just one Allied plane.
While the American troops on Omaha beach struggled to gain a foothold, their colleagues to the west, on the three-mile-wide Utah beach, faced relatively lighter opposition. However, this did not diminish the daunting task that still faced them. The objective of those landing at Utah was the occupation of the nearby port of Cherbourg, which, Eisenhower hoped, would provide the Allies’ first port for delivering further troops and supplies from England.
Luck played into the Allies’ hand at Utah. Strong currents had forced the landing crafts a mile south of their intended target. There the US 4th Infantry had come across a lightly defended stretch of coastline.
Utah beach was secured within a couple of hours, having forced the German defenders into surrender. By opening a number of sluice gates, the Germans had deliberately flooded the fields behind the beaches at Utah to restrict movement inland, but the Americans managed to advance over the causeways. By midday, they had linked up with the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division who, together with the 82nd, had been dropped two to five miles inland. By midnight, 23,250 troops had landed in France via Utah beach at the cost of 210 men killed or wounded, considerably less than the casualties sustained during Exercise Tiger on Slapton Sands, and had advanced four miles inland.
British tank coming ashore on Sword Beach on D-Day.
The objective of the British commandos landing on Sword beach was to advance towards the city of Caen, eight miles inland. By 8 a.m., they were already breaking out behind the five-mile wide beach, the furthest east of the five beaches, and advancing on the nearest German-held villages, hoping to reach Caen by nightfall. Behind them, arrived more waves of British troops. By 1 p.m., the commandos had linked up with the paratroopers guarding Pegasus and Horsa bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne. But heading towards them was a division of 127 panzers.
Hitler’s panzers, realizing the enemy had taken Pegasus Bridge, were forced to cross the Orne at a bridge further south, hence losing valuable time. Meanwhile, at 8 p.m., the 192nd Panzer division threatened to split the British and Canadians at Sword and Juno beaches but was eventually repulsed by aerial attacks and Allied tanks that had already secured their position on Sword. By midnight, 29,000 British troops had been landed at Sword for the cost of 630 casualties and had penetrated six miles inland.
In Caen, the Gestapo hastily gathered eighty of their prisoners, leading members of the French resistance, and executed them. Having done their work, as Allied bombs rained down on the town, they prepared to evacuate south to the town of Falaise, taking with them resistance members that had been spared for further interrogation.
The five-mile-wide Gold beach, the central beach, was to be the site for one of the two Mulberry Harbours. The objective for the British troops landing at Gold was the capture of nearby Bayeux and to enable east–west communication along the Caen–Bayeux road. Landing at 7.45 a.m., troops secured three beach exits within the hour.
By 9 p.m., troops had reached the outskirts of Bayeux and seized the town of Arromanches. By midnight, having landed 25,000 troops for fewer than 400 casualties, they had linked up with Canadians at Juno beach.
German soldier captured by Canadian troops near Juno beach, 7 June.
The objective for the Canadian troops landing at Juno was to link-up with their British colleagues landing at Gold and Sword beaches either side of them. Beach mines destroyed a third of the landing craft. Despite coming under heavy fire, they secured the first beach exit within three hours. By midnight, 21,000 troops had landed via Juno, at the cost of 1,200 casualties, and the advance guard had pushed seven miles inland.
At 9.32, the morning of D-Day, the BBC announced the invasion: ‘D-Day has come. Early this morning the Allies began the assault on the northwestern face of Hitler’s European fortress.’ Next came a pre-recorded message from Eisenhower, extolling the French resistance to play their part as previously instructed and telling all citizens of occupied Western Europe: ‘the hour of your liberation is approaching’. At midday, Churchill addressed the House of Commons. De Gaulle, having initially refused to broadcast to the French people, finally relented and did so: ‘Submerged for four years but at no time reduced nor vanquished, France is arising to do its part there.’ Pétain was also quick to the airwaves, urging French citizens to ‘Obey the orders of the Government… The circumstances of battle will lead the German army to take special measures in the zones of combat. Accept this necessity.’
In her diary for 6 June, Anne Frank wrote,
Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation? The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale ever to come true? Will this year, 1944, bring us victory? We don’t know yet. But where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.
And so as 6 June became 7 June, the Allies had landed 156,000 men in France for the loss of about 9,000 casualties, of whom 4,571, over half, had been killed.