Friday, 6 June 2014

The Normandy Landings

by Ross Watkins


Preparations for Operation Overlord, Portsmouth Harbour

The Normandy Landings, commonly referred to as D-Day, were among the most crucial events which ever took place. They required particular planning by the British and American central command and even a campaign of deceit by using double-agents against the Germans. In all, the D-Day landings included the largest fleet ever assembled pitched against the best defended coastline known to man to cumulate in an event which has gone down in history as the day in which the allies turned the Germans on their heels and allowed the Allies to eradicate the plague of evil which had infected Europe.
The   planning for D-Day did not just cover all conventional areas; the variety of territory which was covered is remarkable to this day and the Allied Commanders left nothing to chance. One of the main areas of planning was not to do with the actual invasion but was to persuade the Germans that the Allies were in fact going to land in Calais. This was done with a plethora of methods and was successful to the extent that the Germans actually believed that the Allies were going to open up this Western Front by landing in Calais. The way this was done was effective and many point this out to being one of the key reasons for the successful landings on the 6th June, 1944.


Soldiers advance up one of the Normandy beaches
One of the ways this was done was by creating fake radio communication to make the Germans believe that an attack was due on Norway; another done with similar methods was in Calais. These initiatives under the name Operation Fortitude were extremely effective at diverting attention away from areas which the allies were to land in. Arguably, the most important type of deception carried out by the Allies was the use of German agents for their own means. Due to the breaking of the Enigma Code, the British knew exactly where and when German spies would land in the country.  This subsequently meant that the British could arrest the spies immediately and stop them from causing any harm.  But, more importantly the British then realised that they could use these spies as double-agents. They persuaded them by reminding them that the punishment for spying was death and said they could escape this by working for the British. They would have them send false information to the German spy masters telling them false troop numbers and false locations. This deception was so effective that the Germans even kept 15 divisions in Calais after the Normandy Landing as they believed that an attack would still come to Calais. This was all vital to the overall success of Operation Neptune (the D-Day landings) and therefore Operation Overlord.
The daring operations of the airborne divisions were vital in stopping counter attacks by the Germans and for securing the beachheads. The main aims of the airborne landings were to seize key strategic positions such as bridges, road crossings and terrain features. The American airborne landings began at 00:15 but there were difficulties mainly with cloud cover. Paratroopers from the 101st division landed around 1:30; their mission was to control the causeways behind Utah beach and to destroy road and rail bridges over the Douve River. Due to the heavy cloud cover the mission did not go to plan. The troops were dropped far away from their intended landing zones and many were picked off by Germans, very few reaching their target locations. The 82nd airborne division was more successful with around 75% of their troopers landing near the drop zone and within two hours they captured the important crossroads at Saint-Mere Eglise and they managed to start work on protecting the western flank. The British airborne divisions were also subjected to the same weather conditions which led to troubles occurring elsewhere, such as only 160 out of 600 men of the 9th Battalion coming to the rendez-vous point. The British paratroopers engaged in the first fighting of the Normandy Landings when they captured the Pegasus Bridge intact with very few casualties. Once again the art of deception and confusing the Germans was intertwined with airborne divisions landing at false locations to try to persuade them that the landings were elsewhere.
I want to focus in particular on Operation Neptune, which took place on the 6th June. The landings involved were spread over five beaches with different nations responsible for each beach, code-named Juno, Gold, Utah, Omaha and Sword. There was also another landing at Pointe du Hoc.

The troops arriving at Juno were delayed due to choppy seas. This had the consequence of men arriving in front of their supporting armour.  This meant that many soldiers were made casualties during disembarkation. Furthermore, the naval bombardment had missed the German defences, making it even harder for the landed troops to advance. By the end of the day they managed to clear the beach and create several exits. The casualties by the end of the day were 961 men.
Sword Beach had slightly higher casualties, estimated at around 1,000. The initial landing at Sword went smoothly with 25 DD tanks arriving safely ashore to provide cover for the infantry who began disembarking at 7:30. The high number of casualties was in part due to the fact that the beach was heavily mined and loaded with obstacles making clearing the beach a very dangerous job. Another problem facing the allies on the beach was the high winds and the rising tide. The combination of the two created a situation in which the beach became crowded. In the afternoon the British faced a counter attack from the Germans between Sword and Juno beaches. The allies defended well and fended off the attack making the Germans falling back to assist an area between Caen and Bayeux.
The high winds coupled with the tide also created problems at Gold Beach.  These factors led to the DD tanks being released much closer to the beach than originally planned. Even with this problem, three out of four gun emplacements were neutralised. The landing force cleared heavily defended houses inland and advanced. The only Victoria Cross awarded on D-Day was to Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis for attacking two pillboxes at the Mont Fleury high point. Not all objectives were seized – Bayeux remained in German hands- but it was considered to be of reasonable success; casualties on Sword Beach were around 1,000.
Utah Beach was assigned mainly to the Americans. Strong currents pushed the landing craft and the soldiers found themselves nearly 2km away from their designated landing zones. This miscalculation turned out to bring benefits as in this new location there was one less strongpoint. In addition to this the area in which they landed had been heavily bombed and had many obstacles on the beach providing effective cover for the advancing troops. Once officers onshore had realised the advantages they ordered all further landing to be re-routed. The beach was cleared quickly and the sea wall was blown up in area to hasten the advance of troops and armoured vehicles. In all the number of casualties was remarkably low - only 197 out of 21,000 landed troops. Not all objectives were met, mainly due to the force landing so far to the south away from their designated area, but because of the amazingly low casualty numbers many consider the landings here to be reasonably successful.

The most infamous beach on D-Day was arguably Omaha. It was the most heavily defended beach and was assigned to the 1st infantry division. Due to the landing craft arriving late the American bombers delayed their bombing attacks for fear of hitting the landing craft meaning that when the troops landed there was little damage to defensive structures. Also the DD tanks which were supposed to land hit problems and 27 of the 33 tanks sank with 33 men lost. Any tanks which did reach the beach but were disabled managed to provide covering fire until they ran out of ammunition.  Omaha had the highest casualty numbers at around 2,000.  Problems with clearing the beach meant that the beach commanders had to call off any more landing as the beach was too crowded. They could only advance when destroyers arrived to bombard the German positions. Even with the naval bombardment, the advances had to be taken through very small heavily defended gullies and by late morning only around 600 men had reached high ground. By late afternoon the naval bombardment began to take its toll on the defenders and with the Germans running out of ammunition the Americans were able to make advances. The beachhead was slowly expanded over the coming days and the hold on it remained tenuous. The D-Day objectives for Omaha were not met at all on the first day and it took three days after the landings for them to be completed.
Operation Neptune highlighted the skill and bravery of the men fighting for the allies. The landings had heavy losses and many young valiant men were killed way before their time to help rid the world of the Nazi threat. Their sacrifice was not in vain and it allowed the allies to rapidly advance through France towards Berlin and, in less than a year (May 1945) force the Germans to unconditionally surrender.  Many would argue that luck played an important role in the landings and that if some things had not gone to plan the Germans could have easily defended the beaches. But I would argue against that and say that chance was eliminated by planning and skill. The planning of the officers and the sheer valour of the men on the beaches highlighted key values that everybody should honour and emulate. On the 70th anniversary of these landings, I hope that we can remember those who lost their lives on that day, on both sides, and that we will not forget that the Allies were fighting against an evil ideology. I hope this will allow us to make sure that something like this never has to happen again.

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