On June 6th, 1944 the largest ever invasion fleet was massed off the coast of France. Code-named “Operation Overlord” the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy (code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches) marked the return of Allied troops to Western France, including U.S., British, Canadian and Free French forces and another major step in the defeat of Nazi Germany (they officially surrendered in May 1945). Around 160,000 troops were landed that day from 7,000 ships and landing craft supported by 13,000 aircraft.
Apart from the D-Day beach landings there were also massed landing of paratroopers behind enemy lines via air drop and glider landings. 17,000 paratroopers were sent into Normandy by parachute drop or glider. Their job was to capture strategic points such as bridges and towns; and to knock out German gun emplacements (more can be read about that in my previous blog). The seaborne landings were preceded by massive naval and air bombardments to “soften” up the German defences before troops started to land on the beaches (this didn’t always work out so well as the bunkers and gun emplacements were made from massive slabs of concrete – the psychological effect on the defenders can never be underestimated though).
I recently travelled around the D-Day landing sites and many other areas involved in the Normandy invasion. One fascinating sight is on Gold Beach (site of the British landings) and the nearby sea of the town of Arromanches. The remains of a massive artificial harbour – the Mulberry Harbour. Designed by the British and towed in pieces from Britain, it provided temporary harbour facilities to supply the Allied invasion troops following the D-Day landings (until actual ports could be captured such as the port of Antwerp in Belgium).
The other landing beaches are peaceful seaside locations now. Each beach has some form of D-Day memorial on them and associated museums nearby.
Today many bunkers that formed the German Atlantic Wall defences remain and pieces of military equipment are dotted around Normandy along the beaches and further inland. One place in the Gold beach sector that is still quite intact is the Longues-Sur-Mer Battery with its massive concrete gun emplacements and mighty 152mm naval cannons (the only battery today with its original guns). There are four gun emplacements there but one is smashed to rubble (it was heavily bombarded by the Allies but remained in action until 6pm on D-Day).
Battery de Maisy in the Omaha beach sector is very different. in 1944 it was a series of open gun batteries interlinked by trenches and bunkers. A British family excavated the site that was covered over at the end of the war, digging out the original trenches that were hidden for 62 years and placing 150mm howitzers back in the gun emplacements to recreate what was once a major part of the German Atlantic Wall defences. It was quite interesting wandering about through the 3.2km / 2 miles of trenches where in 1944 US Army Rangers had to attack and capture the bunkers dotted around the battery.
Speaking of the US Army Rangers, they had an important role at probably one of the most difficult beaches. The Omaha beach sector is dominated by cliff faces which the Rangers had to climb (the Germans thought them unassailable). One place that was a difficult nut to crack was Pointe-du-Hoc which has gone down in legend in the US military. It was a major strategic point in the German defences where the guns were perceived to be a major threat to the beach landings, as such the defences had been extensively bombarded from the sea and air prior to the invasion (even today it is dotted by bomb craters and smashed concrete bunkers).
The Rangers scaled the cliffs of Pointe-du-Hoc quite quickly under dangerous conditions involving intense enemy fire and slippery surfaces and ropes, once they made it to the top the enemy had withdrawn from the bunkers to rear defences. The Rangers soon discovered that the guns were fakes (telephone poles were being used as decoys until the real guns could be installed)! This was not the end of the battle though as a real gun battery was not far away and the Rangers faced fierce opposition over two days of German counter attacks. They held on without reinforcement throughout those two days with only 90 men remaining combat capable from the original 225 when they were finally relieved by other units.
The remnants of the D-Day landings and the German defences of the Atlantic Wall are a strong reminder of what took place in this region of France, but the sheer scale of the fighting is really brought home when you see the number of graves in the various military cemeteries in the area. So many men on both sides never made it home. At the American Cemetery and Memorial overlooking Omaha beach almost 9,400 military personnel lay at rest, not too far away in La Cambe in the German Military Cemetery there are over 20,000 troops buried there. These places are maintained in immaculate condition for those who sacrificed all for their countries.