On 6 June 1944, the biggest combined naval, military and air operation ever seen took place. Code-named 'Overlord', the D-Day landings on the coast of Normandy marked the start of a campaign which led to eventual Allied victory in Europe in May 1945.
By Imperial War Museums
Preparations for the liberation of Western Europe had begun soon after the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk in 1940. By the end of 1941, Britain had been joined by the Soviet Union and the United States in the ‘Grand Alliance’ against Hitler. In 1943 the Allies met in Tehran to plan their strategy. This exhibition looks at the planning that was needed to ensure the success of Operation 'Overlord' as well as the events that unfolded on D-Day itself.
In November 1943 the Allies met in Tehran to plan their strategy. Britain and the US agreed to launch a cross-Channel attack in the following spring. The Soviet Union had been demanding a ‘second front’ in the west since July 1941.
In December 1943 a command team was formed to plan and lead the Allied air, sea and ground forces for the forthcoming invasion. General Dwight D Eisenhower was named as Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces. The ‘D’ in D-Day simply stands for Day. The terms D-Day and H-Hour were used by military planners to designate the day and hour of a forthcoming operation where the exact date and time were still to be confirmed or were secret.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder became Deputy Supreme Commander.
Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was appointed Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief.
Frederick Morgan was Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander.
General Sir Bernard Montgomery, as Commander-in-Chief 21st Army Group, was to command all the Allied ground forces during the assault phase in Normandy.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory became the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force.
The success of the D-Day operation depended on careful preparation. While factories in Britain worked round the clock to produce the huge quantities of weapons, ammunition and equipment needed by the invasion forces, a wide variety of specialists contributed their unique skills and knowledge.
Detailed information was compiled about the German defences, the terrain and the weather conditions. Inventors and engineers devised special equipment to help forces land safely in Normandy. False information was fed to the Germans to draw their attention away from the real invasion site.
Many special ships were developed for D-Day. As well as Tank Landing Craft, there were tiny Assault Landing Craft and huge Landing Ships.
The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was founded in June 1939 to free up RAF personnel for front line duties. By 1943, the WAAF had 182,000 members.
The Allies could not rely on capturing an undamaged port, so two artificial harbours were planned, one in the British sector and one in the American. Each was assembled from 400 prefabricated sections.
Each Mulberry component was given a code-name. The pier heads (Whales) and their roads ashore rose and fell with the tide on adjustable legs (Spuds). Submerged concrete caissons (Phoenixes), floating steel tanks (Bombardons), and sunken blockships (Corncobs), which formed an outer defence (Gooseberry), protected the piers.
February 1944 onwards, Allied bombers had been attacking the French road and rail network to isolate the invasion area and prevent the rapid movement of German reinforcements and equipment. To disguise the fact that Normandy was the invasion zone, many other targets in northern France were also attacked. At dusk on 5 June, RAF bombers began to drop bundles of metal foil strips, code-named 'Window', over the Channel to create confusion on German radar operators' screens. On D-Day, the Allied air forces flew over 14,000 sorties in support of the landings, almost unchallenged by the Luftwaffe. In the early hours of 6 June, three Allied airborne divisions landed troops by parachute and glider to seize and protect the flanks of the invasion beaches.
To defend coastal areas against a possible Allied invasion, the Germans built huge fortifications known as the Atlantic Wall. They included concrete pill boxes, bunkers and gun positions. When, early in 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel took command of the German forces from the Netherlands to the River Loire, the defences were strengthened, particularly in the sectors facing the English Channel.
By mid-May 1944, some 6,500,000 mines had been laid and over 500,000 beach obstacles installed. In the Normandy area, the defences were manned mainly by the German 716th Infantry Division, which included a number of Polish and Russian-born conscripts. However, around Omaha Beach, the battle-hardened German 352nd Infantry Division was engaged on anti-invasion training on 6 June 1944.
The naval element of Operation 'Overlord' under Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was code-named Operation 'Neptune'. By June 1944 nearly 7,000 warships, landing craft and other vessels were assembled in the ports of southern England. Minesweepers cleared lanes across the Channel. On D-Day, as well as bombarding coastal defences, two naval task forces landed two British, one Canadian and two American divisions on the Normandy beaches. Naval forces provided fire support for the armies and ensured that supplies to the beachhead were maintained. Many landing craft were sunk or damaged, but by nightfall the Allies had put over 132,000 troops ashore.
This message from Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief, was read to all troops shortly before they left for the invasion beaches.
Juno Beach was assaulted by the Canadian 3rd Division. It was heavily defended with emplacements and formidable beach obstacles. Rough seas delayed the landings. The Germans opened fire as the Canadian infantry landed, and the first wave suffered heavy casualties.
Casualties among the first men to land on D-Day were looked after by the army medical personnel who landed with the assault waves. Wounded men were stabilised and taken back across the Channel in landing ships. Military hospitals around Britain were on standby to receive the wounded. Once the beachhead had been secured, field hospitals were set up in Normandy, and the women’s nursing services crossed the Channel to care for the casualties.
75,000 men were landed on Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches before midnight on D-Day, at a cost of around 3,000 killed, wounded or missing. 23,250 men were landed on Utah Beach at a cost of under 250 casualties. Of the 34,000 US troops who landed on Omaha Beach, where the German resistance was strongest, some 2,000 casualties were suffered - a high proportion of the total Allied losses on D-Day.
In all, the Allies suffered approximately 10,200 casualties on 6 June. This figure was lower than the planners and commanders had been expecting, but each death represented a sad loss for families and comrades.
Contributor: Project Lead—Carolyn Royston
Contributor: Technical Manager—Jeremy Ottevanger
Contributor: Exhibition Curator—Amanda Mason
Contributor: Exhibition Content Developer—Jesse Alter