D-Day, the battle to end WWII in Europe

  • Published
  • By Jessica Lawson
  • 944th Fighter Wing Historian

"The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere marches with you…The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!”
-General Dwight Eisenhower

June 6, 1944.

A day would define a generation and bring freedom to an entire continent. D-Day would become known throughout history as the battle that successfully ended the Nazi German occupation of much of Western Europe. The Allied nations, being led by American forces under the command of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, began planning this epic assault in early 1944. The planning was precise and had to be as accurate as possible for this initiative to succeed; after all, the world was depending on it to.

In April, the Allied Expeditionary Air Force began their photo reconnaissance sorties by taking over 3,200 photos of the northern French coastline. Even holiday postcards of the region were being used in Britain and the French resistance helped provide details of German movement and construction techniques used for their defensive installations. Intelligence was gathered by British code breakers that had managed to break the German’s famed Enigma machine code.

Christened “Operation Overlord,” this maneuver was the largest amphibious invasion landing in history which also earned it the codename Operation Neptune, worthy of the Roman god of the sea. Some have speculated that the “D” stood for Decision but in fact it just stands for Day. The designation “D-Day” was given to any operation during the war that hadn’t been given an operational title so there were many other “D-Days” (the invasion of Italy from North Africa, for example) that had preceded the one we have come to know the best.

The Allied forces were able to pull off this operation by tricking the Germans into believing they would be invading somewhere else on another day.

Operation Fortitude was a ruse. The deception was one of the largest in modern military history. The Allied forces had to convince the German government that the actual operation was the decoy and that they would be invading elsewhere, mainly with the “goal” to land in Pas de Calais by the end of July 1944. The Allies used almost every trick in the book to fool the Germans even down to using dummy planes and landing craft along with creating an entire fictitious unit, the First United States Army Group. The fabricated group even had patches designed for the divisions and were “commanded” by Gen. George Patton. The plan had worked and Germany began fortifying their defenses in the region of Calais, redirecting personnel and equipment away from the Normandy beaches. The deception also ensured that one of Germany’s top generals, Field Marshal Rommel, was on leave back in Germany for his wife’s birthday during the actual invasion of Normandy.

D-Day was originally planned for the morning of June 5 but adverse weather delayed the effort by 24 hours. Since the planners had taken into account the phases of the moon for the most advantageous high tide, any further delay would have pushed the attack at least another two weeks. The Atlantic Wall that Adolf Hitler ordered built, was only 18 percent complete in some areas since resources had been diverted to those areas where the Germans believed the Allies would land.

The 50 mile stretch of Normandy had been divided into five different sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. High winds blew much of the invasion force to the east, especially at Utah and Omaha, the latter reported the heaviest losses of all the beaches. With nearly 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels, and 277 minesweepers, the 160,000-strong force crossed the English Channel on June 6. Over 10,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded, or went missing on those beaches in the initial 24-hours of the incursion. This total still remains as an estimate. As John Long, director of education at the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, explained it, “their mission was to win a World War against Hitler not to keep records that would satisfy peacetime researchers 75 years later.”

By the end of June 1944, over 875,000 troops had disembarked in Normandy and began their march through France. Allied victory was nothing short but inevitable. German defenses were ill-prepared and their supply lines had been disrupted by the French Resistance. The Allies also maintained air superiority and the overly complicated command structure of German high command further hindered their efficiency.

By the end of August 1944, the Allied forces had reached the Seine River, liberated Paris, and drove German forces out of northwestern France. This was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe as the Allies then began their march into Germany. Less than one year later came the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.