The beginning of the end of World War II started on June 6, 1944.
"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.
The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.”
~ General Dwight D. Eisenhower
Commander, Operation Overlord
D-Day was the first day of the Allied invasion into Nazi occupied France, when troops from the United States, Great Brittan and Canada simultaneously landed on the shores of five separate beaches in the Normandy region of northern France. The path to victory had been in the making for two years, and on that day, citizen soldiers by air, land and sea changed the course of history.
With the advance of Nazi forces across Europe in World War II, Allied forces had been planning an invasion across the English Channel since 1942. Aware of this possibility, Hitler instructed his forces to build up a 2,400-mile barrier dubbed the Atlantic Wall along the coast of occupied France up to Denmark. The fortification consisted of barbed wire, bunkers, obstacles and landmines, and was envisioned to shield a whole continent as Germany marched toward what they hoped would be world domination.
But Hitler’s vast wall, firepower and armies would not prove unstoppable to Allied courage and zeal. The citizen soldiers, who had come from all walks of life to fight, risked life and limb to meet this dangerous feat with a bravery and strength that shall be celebrated for generations to come. D-Day was the defining moment to spark an end to this treacherous war, and it was because of the men that stepped into unknown peril, from air and sea, that the US and its Allies emerged triumphant.
The invasion of Normandy, years in the making, was the largest use of airborne troops in the history of warfare at the time and is still the largest combined air, land and sea operation in history.
During the years of planning and preparation, Allied forces successfully led a deception campaign that mislead the German forces as to where and when an invasion would take place. They used fake equipment and radio transmissions, double agents, and a phony army to throw the enemy off the plan. Years of strategizing and tactical preparation laid the best possible groundwork for a successful invasion, yet defeat of the Nazis was never guaranteed.
D-Day itself came on the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944. Days of inclement weather had delayed the departure across the English Channel, testing the patience and nerves of the troops.
The images of troops storming the beaches are iconic, but they only tell a small portion of the story. Before they came ashore, 13,000 paratroopers leapt from their C-47s into total darkness behind enemy lines to secure bridges and exit routes. This task was one of the most difficult – landing at night in hostile territory, scattered off their targets and missing much of their equipment. 5,000 additional men arrived in gliders later that day to reinforce the paratroopers. Although many were killed or badly injured, their bravery and fierceness in battle paved the way ahead of the 156,000 troops that would storm the beaches.
By air and by sea, Allied naval and air forces began pounding the shoreline with their firepower before dawn, aiming to cripple enemy resistance before the troops would disembark from their transport boats for land. The soldiers who came ashore at the five landing sites walked into battle with no natural cover from incoming fire. They were soaking wet, cold and seasick from the cramped boats that were taking on water and pummeled by waves.
Even with these difficult circumstances, the troops were able to open up a breach in the Atlantic Wall and gain a toehold on land that would allow a mass of forces into France – 326,000 troops, more than 50,000 vehicles and 100,000 tons of equipment pushing through. The success of this mission, and a shot at ending the War, depended on these citizen soldiers. If they had not secured a path for greater forces to push into France, we would be living in a much different world right now.
By the numbers
156,000 troops stormed five Normandy beaches, coming in from the sea
5,000 ships and landing craft
11,000 aircraft for air cover and support
13,000 paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines from 925 C-47s before the beach landings
4,000 additional men arrived on 5,000 gliders to reinforce the paratroopers
Over 2,000 causalities were recorded at Omaha beach alone on D-Day
Over 4,0000 men lost their lives on D-Day, with thousands more missing or wounded
9,000 lives lost over the course of the invasion
June 6, 1944, 12:20 a.m. – The first wave of paratroopers hit the ground in enemy territory
3:15 a.m. – British bombers hit the area with 6,000 tons of bombs
6:00 a.m. – US heavy bombers drop an additional 3,000 tons
6:15 a.m. – US medium bomber and fighter bombers sweep the whole coast
6:30 a.m. – Start of amphibious invasion
June 11 – All beaches fully secured
August 25, 1944 – Paris liberated
May 8, 1945 – Formal Nazi surrender to Allied forces; Victory in Europe Day