By early 1944, the tides were starting to turn against Germany. Their forces in Russia, Poland, Italy and other perimeter countries were beginning to weaken and be pushed back.
On January 6, 1944, Russian troops move into Poland to confront the German forces.
On January 22, 1944, combined Allied forces, including US troops, land at Anzio, Italy.
On February 16, 1944, Germany launches a counter assault against the Allied troops at Anzio.
On March 4, 1944, saw Germany’s vulnerability when the Allies dropped bombs on Berlin for the first time. At the same time, Russian forces launch an offensive against the German forces in Belorussia.
On March 18, 1944, British bombers unload 3,000 tons of bombs on Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg was an important port city and home to one of Germany’s key U-boat and shipyard facilities. It was also the site of oil refineries and industry.
On April 8, 1944, Russian forces move into Crimea.
On May 11, 1944, Allied forces battle German forces at the Gustav Line, a defensive line established by the Germans south of Rome that reached from the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west to the Adriatic Sea on the east.
On May 12, 1944, Russia drives German forces out of Crimea.
On May 15, 1944, German forces begin retreating north from the Gustav Line.
On May 25, 1944, German forces withdraw from Anzio.
On June 5, 1944, Allied forces reach and enter Rome as the German forces withdraw northward.
On this day, June 6, 1944, combined Allied forces consisting of over 160,000 troops, launch the D-Day invasion, formally known as Operation Overlord, along 50 miles of coastline in northern France. The operation took months to plan and involved more than 5,000 naval vessels and 11,000 aircraft.
Plans for D-Day began in 1943. In December 1943, the planning groups selected American General Dwight D. Eisenhower to be the military commander of the Normandy invasion. He saw the plan as a do or die campaign with defeating the Germans as the only acceptable option. In referring to Operation Overlord, Eisenhower stated:
“This operation is not being planned with any alternatives. This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be. We’re going down there, and we’re throwing everything we have into it, and we’re going to make it a success.”
However, just two days before the planned invasion, a large storm settled in over the English Channel. Eisenhower was faced with the decision of whether or not to go ahead with the invasion or postpone it. He agonizingly made the decision to delay the invasion from the morning of June 5 to June 6 in hopes that the storm would weaken or move out of the Channel.
The Germans had heavily fortified the beaches with row after row of barbed wire and razor ribbon. Concrete bunkers armed with German machine guns and riflemen, overlooked the beaches.
In the early morning hours, the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions parachuted behind the German fortifications at Utah Beach. The British 6th Airborne parachuted behind the German lines at Sword Beach.
At dawn, the naval armada began sending troops to 50 miles of beaches. One observer said the horizon was nothing but ships as far as the eye could see. The first to hit the beaches took heavy casualties, but as the day trudged on, the Allied forces, consisting of American, British, Canadian and French troops, gradually made their way across the beaches to the bases of the cliffs leading to the German bunkers. Inch by inch the Allied troops climbed upward, many of them being picked off by the Germans.
When darkness fell around 10pm, over 150,000 Allied troops had landed on the beaches or parachuted behind the enemy lines. Many of the German bunkers had been destroyed and the Allied troops took up positions formally occupied by the Germans. The first day casualties were estimated to be around 5,000 dead and wounded.
On June 7, 1944, the American troops began moving inland, but with great difficulty. For centuries, farmers had marked off their farm boundaries with high hedgerows which collectively formed miles of maze-like lines. Most of the hedgerows consisted of earthen ridges 8-10 high that were covered with thick brush and trees. The Germans had anticipated the possibility of an attack and had previously placed artillery and mortars in place, all of which had been pre-sited for the pathways between the hedgerows. They also dug additional rifle pits as well as tunneled through many hedgerows for their machine gun placements.
As the American forces advanced, they had to fight for each and every hedgerow. Progress was slow, resulting in loss of time and troops. One of the few advantages the Americans and other Allied forces had was that Hitler and other Nazi leaders believed that invasion at Normandy was a diversion and that the real attack was going to be elsewhere, so the area was not as heavily fortified with German troops as it could have been.
Hedgerow by hedgerow, the Americans slowing pushed the Germans further and further inland. The D-Day invasion was a success in driving the German forces back and out of France. The Allied forces eventually marched their way through France and into Belgium and Germany and played a vital role in the eventual surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945.
The cost of the D-Day invasion was high with over 4,000 Allied troops killed and at least another 6,000 wounded. However, those men that sacrificed their lives on the beaches of Normandy helped pay for the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and end to the European Theater of World War II. I pray their sacrifices are never forgotten. They remind me of one of my dad’s favorite quotes: ‘Freedom is only truly understood by those who fought to preserve it.’ Amen!
Sources for the above includes: D-Day; The National D-Day Memorial; D-Day: June 6, 1944; D-Day; First Wave at Omaha Beach; D-Day, Normandy, France June 6, 1944; D-Day Fast Facts; D-Day; World War II in Europe.