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June 6, 1944, Normandy, France: The Invasion Began

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The most fitting introduction to this week's column...

"'This is D-Day,' the BBC announced at 12 o'clock. 'This is the day...' The invasion has begun... 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... the best part of the invasion is that I have the feeling that friends are on the way... [The] Germans have oppressed and threatened us for so long that the thought of friends and salvation means everything to us!"

- Anne Frank, diary entry, June 6, 1944.

Normandy Invasion

Supreme Commander

-- General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Allied Expeditionary Naval Forces

-- Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay

21st Army Group

-- General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery

Allied Expeditionary Air Forces

-- Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh- Mallory

United States Forces Western Task Force

First Army
V Corps
VII Corps
1st Infantry Division
4th Infantry Division
29th Infantry Division
82nd Airborne Division
101st Airborne Division
Eighth Air Force
Ninth Air Force

Prelude to Operation Overlord

- During the first six months of 1944, the United States and Great Britain concentrated land, naval, and air forces in England to prepare for Operation Overlord, the assault on Hitler's "Fortress Europe." Before the invasion, 12,000 planes of the Allied air forces swept the skies, while the Allies' naval components organized and loaded a mighty flotilla to land the assault forces in France. Meanwhile, the nine army divisions (three airborne and six infantry) from the United States, Britain and Canada trained and rehearsed their roles in the carefully choreographed operation.

D-Day - Operation Overlord

- In a single day over 150,000 American, British, Canadian, and French troops had entered France by air and sea, at a cost of nearly 5,000 casualties. From the American airborne on the far right to the British airborne on the far left, the invasion front stretched over 50 miles. The first men to see action on D-Day were the airborne troops. Three airborne divisions, two American and one British, dropped behind the landing beaches in the hours before dawn. Over 20,000 men, the largest airborne force ever assembled, entered Normandy by glider and parachute. Six divisions would assault the five landing beaches. Each beach had a code name. Utah Beach was assigned to the U.S. 4th Division. The US 29th and 1st Divisions would land at Omaha Beach. Further east, the British 50th Division would assault Gold Beach and the Canadian 3rd Division would attack at Juno Beach. The British 3rd Division would take Sword Beach. More than 5,000 ships, from battleships to landing craft, escorted and landed the assault force along the Normandy coast.

Omaha Beach

- The landing on OMAHA Beach was even more difficult than expected. Enemy positions that looked down from bluffs as high as 170 feet, and water and beach obstacles strewn across the narrow strip of beach, stopped the assault at the water's edge for much of the morning of D-Day. By mid-morning, initial reports painted a bleak portrait of beachhead conditions. Slowly, however, as individuals and then in groups, soldiers began to cross the fire-swept beach. By D-Day's end they had a tenuous toehold on the Normandy coast, at the cost of 2,200 lives.

Utah Beach

- In the predawn darkness of June 6, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were air dropped behind UTAH Beach. Numerous factors caused the paratroopers to miss their drop zones and become scattered across the Norman countryside. Ironically, not only did they accomplish their missions, but with the paratroopers' wide dispersion the Germans never developed adequate responses to the airborne and amphibious assaults. While the initial landing went smoothly, they landed 2,000 yards south of the planned beach - one of the Allies' more fortuitous opportunities on D-Day. The original beach was heavily defended in comparison to the light resistance and few fixed defenses encountered on the new beach. Within hours, the new beachhead was secured, at the cost of 200 men, and they started inland to contact the airborne divisions scattered across its front.

Pointe du Hoc

- Between Utah and Omaha Beaches stands a large promontory called Pointe du Hoc. Allied planners learned the Germans had placed a battery of 155 mm howitzers here. With a firing range of 14 miles, these guns threatened the assault forces on both American beaches. Allied planners gave two battalions of U.S. Army Rangers the job of neutralizing the German guns. These elite troops were trained to make an amphibious landing on the beach in front of Pointe du Hoc, scale its 100-foot cliffs, and destroy the German battery. On D-Day the Rangers used rocket-propelled grappling hooks attached to ropes and ladders to climb the cliffs. As they worked their way up, the Germans dropped grenades on them and cut some of their ropes. Still, within five minutes, the Rangers made it to the top and drove off the defenders. They then made a startling discovery, the German guns were missing. A short distance away the guns were found and destroyed. For the next two days the Rangers faced intense German counterattacks. They took over 50 percent casualties.

At Day's End

- As in the OMAHA zone, the UTAH Beach forces had not gained all of their planned objectives. However, a foothold in enemy territory was secured, and, most important, once again the American soldier's resourcefulness and initiative had rescued the operation from floundering along the Normandy coast.

--- Regards, Walt Schmidt