D-Day 70th Anniversary: The Story Of The Longest Day

By Gavin Greenwood | 27 April 2004 | Updated: 05 June 2014

We continue our series of features and trails exploring the D-Day landings with a closer look at the events on 6th June 1944 and explain how the Allies attacked and held the beaches of Normandy.

a black and wghite photograph of soldiers coming ashore from a landing craft
Troops from 50th Division coming ashore from an LSI(L), Gold area, 6 June 1944. A Sexton 25pdr self-propelled gun of 147th Field Regiment (Essex Yeomanry), 56th Infantry Brigade, can be seen on the left.© IWM (B 5262)

By May 1944 military preparations for D-Day were in place. The invasion force would land along an 80 km front of Normandy’s expansive beaches, with the eastern flank anchored on the River Orne and the western flank at the narrowest point of the Cotentin peninsula.

General Eisenhower and his staff had determined that the invasion force should land on June 5, when a near full moon and an early morning low tide gave airborne and sea borne assault troops the maximum advantage. Then the only variable was the weather.

Perhaps predictably, a period of fine dry and calm weather that had dominated the Channel for the week before the planned invasion date was dramatically replaced on June 3-4 by wind and rain.

shows a black and white photograph of a ships deck. Taken from above it offers a clear view of tanks and other vehicles lined up together.

Photo: in the days following the landing, Allied reinforcements keep flowing in. Photo courtesy: USIS

With no ‘plan B’ for the poised invasion force, cancellation would have been a catastrophic blow to the Allies effort to cross the Channel in 1944. Eisenhower ordered a 24-hour postponement while all attention focused on what the weather would do.

Meteorologists, under intense pressure to somewhat ‘make’ the weather conform to the plan, advised that a relatively calm ‘window’ of indeterminate length would begin on June 6.

For a more in depth discussion of the role of the Met Office during D-Day read the Imperial War Museum pdf file by clicking on this link

In the early hours of June 5 Eisenhower ordered the invasion to proceed and for most of the Allied forces involved in the D-Day landings, the operation began that evening.

At scores of airfields across southern and central England, the first of more than 2,000 transport aircraft and 870 gliders carrying more than 23,000 airborne troops from two American and one British parachute divisions began taking off at 9.00 PM for the flight to their drop zones at the eastern and western extremities of the Normandy battle front.

Shows a black and white photograph of four parachute commanders synchronising their watches. They are standing in front of a fighter plane - you can see the propeller in the background.

Photo: four parachute commanders synchronising their watches at about 11.00pm on June 5, just prior to take off from RAF Harwell © Imperial War Museum, London

Operation Neptune, the naval component of the invasion, formally began around the same time though ships from the five assault convoys had began moving towards their assembly points south of the Isle of Wight since late afternoon.

More than 6,000 vessels, ranging from battleships to Thames River tugs and crewed by nearly 200,000 naval and merchant sailors were involved in carrying nearly 110,000 troops across the Channel on D-Day.

A few minutes after midnight on June 6 nearly 2,700 US Eighth Air Force heavy and medium bombers dropped almost 3,600 tons of bombs on German positions between Le Havre and Cherbourg. B-17s, B-24s and medium bombers in the early hours of June 6, the invading troops were hung up on the beach.

shows an aerial view of a beach after D-Day. Taken from the seaward side, many ship and other vessels can be seen - forming a harbour 100 metres or so from the shore.

Photo: American Liberty Ships are sunk along the sea side to be used as emergency piers. Photo courtesy: USIS

The missions were intended to destroy German coastal defences, wreck communications and demoralise the defenders. Most the raids were conducted through cloud and aircrews had been briefed to ‘over-bomb’ the targets rather than risk their loads falling on the invasion force moving towards the French coast.

In the event, the bombers created short-term damage to the German troops, but not sufficient to prevent them vigorously defending their sectors when the landing forces came ashore a few hours later.

The invasion of Normandy began before dawn on June 6 (D-Day) when more than 800 C-47 transports (‘Dakotas’ to the British) and 100 gliders dropped the 101st and 82d Airborne divisions behind enemy lines.

shows a colour photograph of a map of the French coast.

Photo: One of the maps prepared by the allies of the French coast in 1944. Picture courtesy Alan Godfrey Maps/British Library.

Of the 821 troop carriers dispatched, 805 reached their dropping zone and 21 were lost. Of the 104 tugs and gliders, all but one reached the landing zone and only two aircraft tugs were lost.

The American drops were marked with confusion and a high casualty rate as men were dropped too early – some into the sea – too late or into larges areas flooded by the Germans as part of their anti-invasion measures.

Many heavily-laden parachutists drowned in few feet of water, unable to free themselves from their parachute rigging lines. Nevertheless, scattered and often disoriented ‘sticks’ of paratroopers regrouped and quickly overcame local German defences before preparing for the inevitable counter-attacks.

On the eastern flank more than 7,000 men from the British 6th Airborne landed by glider and parachute to seize key bridges over the rivers Orne and Dives and silence gun batteries. Despite the usual problems of ‘scatter’ the 6th Airborne achieved its primary objectives and its lightly-armed paras began to prepare for the inevitable German response.

It is estimated that at least 4,000 airborne troops (2,500 American and 1,500 British and Canadian) were killed, wounded or posted as missing on D-Day.

The Germans were slow to respond to the implications of these two widely dispersed actions. Many senior officers were attending a military exercise in Rennes while General Rommel, commander of the ‘Atlantic Wall’ defences, was in Germany for his wife’s birthday.

You can find out more about the role of the Parachute Brigades during D-day by visiting the Airborne Assualt Museum at IWM Duxford. Read more about the regimental history during the Normandy campaign at http://www.paradata.org.uk/events/normandy-operation-overlord

Photo: even light tanks were prepared for glider-borne operations in Normandy. Picture courtesy: Bovington Tank Museum.

The German navy began reporting a large Allied force off the coast of Normandy at around 3.30AM, but no action was taken to either attack it or alert Hitler.

Two hours later the Allied naval bombardment against German defences on all five invasion beaches began, followed 30 minutes later by air attacks against fortifications on the American Utah and Omaha beaches. At 6.30AM the first US troops landed on Utah, at the western end of the invasion area, and Omaha some 25 km to the east.

Within the hour British troops began landing at Sword beach, at the eastern extremity of the invasion area and Gold, nearest Omaha. The Canadians followed by landing at Juno, between the two British beaches.

First news of the landings had reached the military command in England shortly before 7.00 AM. German radio began broadcasting news of the invasion, which it dismissed as a failure. At 9.00AM General Eisenhower gave permission for the invasion to be made public.

Explore the story of the D-Day landings at the UK's only dedicated museum dealing with the Normandy landings - the excellent D-Day Museum at Southsea..

The Beaches

OMAHA (US) 10-km front - 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions

Shows a black and white photo of soldiers in sea water behind anti-tank obstacles.

Photo: American Forces behind Czech Hedgehogs on Omaha Beach. Picture courtesy: IWM Duxford.

Omaha was the largest of the invasion beaches and heavily defended by experienced Germany infantry well entrenched in a large complex of bunkers, trenches and machine-gun posts. Air and naval bombardment had little impact on the German troops, who laid down well-coordinated and accurate fire as soon as the US landing craft came within range.

Scores of tank and infantry landing craft were sunk or damaged and 27 DD tanks foundered as they struggled through the four-foot seas. The few tanks that were landing directly on the sand were quickly hit and destroyed.

Photo: American troops at Omaha - without armoured support - struggle ashore under fire from strongly held German positions. Photo courtesy: IWM.

This left the infantry exposed on the huge beach without any armoured support and their best chance of survival in somehow breaching the German defences. At great cost in dead and wounded, the 1st Infantry Division, the most experienced American army formation at D-Day, slowly made their way to the German defence line.

Meanwhile, US Rangers scaled the heights of Pointe du Hoc to the west of beaches and destroyed a key German artillery battery.

Photo: Pointe du Hoc is taken by the American rangers. Photo courtesy: USIS

By nightfall on June 6 some 34,000 men and more than 1,000 vehicles had landed, though the troops were barely clear of the beach. Around 2,000 men were killed, wounded or missing, a rate of loss significantly higher than for any of the other troops who landed on the other four beaches.

UTAH (US) 5-km mile front (landing on 1.5 km front) - 4th Infantry Division

Photo: American troops leave their landing craft and wade ashore under fire at Utah Beach. Picture courtesy: IWM

The landings at Utah were intended to support the capture of Cherbourg, a port seen as pivotal for ensure the Allied forces could be supplied for their push out of Normandy. Due to a navigational error, most troops landed nearly two kilometres from their targets in a lightly defended area.

They were also able to get almost all their DD tanks ashore, and lost less than 10 landing craft in the operation. Within hours of landing the first troops had linked up with the elements of the 101st Airborne.

By the end of D-Day more than 23,000 men and around 1,700 vehicles had been landed on Utah at cost of about 200 casualties.

GOLD (UK) 8 km-front - 50th Infantry (Northumbrian) Div

Photo: British troops take cover behind a tank on Gold beach, D-Day, June 6th. Photo courtsey: IWM.

The British 50th Infantry Division land at Gold beach, some 25 km east of Omaha, at around 7.30AM. Despite sustained German resistance the assault troops were supported by Hobart’s specialist armour that enabled them to quickly break through the beach obstacles and overwhelm the defenders.

By nightfall around 25,000 men had been landed at a cost of some 420 casualties.

To find out more about the different types of tank or Hobart's Funnies, developed for the D-Day landings Click here.

JUNO (CAN) 10 km-front - 3rd Canadian Infantry Div

Photo: as the tide came in on 6th June Canadian troops and commandos were forced to disembark from their large LST's almost directly onto the beach. Picture courtesy: Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA.

Canadian troops and Royal Marines began landing at 8.00AM and instantly took extremely heavy casualties, mainly due the infantry advancing without armoured support and losses among landing craft leaving the beachhead.

Once the Canadians had regained their momentum, they began to make good progress as opposition - often from ‘conscripted’ non-Germans from Russia and Central Europe – slackened. By the end of D-Day 21,400 Canadian troops and Royal Marines were ashore at a cost of 1,200 casualties.

SWORD (UK) 8-km front - 3rd Infantry Division

Shows a black and white photograph of lots of soldiers on the beach. They are in combat gear. In the background you can see other soldiers wading through the shallows towards the shore.

Photo: support troops of the 3rd British Infantry assembling on 'Queen Red' Beach, Sword Area, at La Breche, at approximately 8.40am on June 6 © Imperial War Museum

The division began landing at 7.30 AM and despite the lack of fire support from their DD tanks, hampered by strong currents, the assault troops quickly gained their initial objective. Once again, Hobart’s ‘funnies’ proved invaluable in breaching defences and clearing mines.

Photo: Lord Lovatt and his Commandos wade ashore at la Breche, Sword Beach. Accompanied by his piper, Bill Millin they linked up with airborne forces holding Pegasus Bridge on the River Orne later in the day. Picture courtesy: IWM

The division was also the only unit to face a determined German counter-attack on 6th June, when an armoured thrust by a Panzer regiment was stalled by anti-tank artillery. The only naval engagement of the landings occurred near Sword, when three German E-Boats based in Le Havre torpedoed and sank the Norwegian destroyer Svenner before being driven off by other Allied warships.

The few other naval losses on D-Day were caused by sea-mines or the weather. By nightfall some 29,000 men landed on Sword at a cost of 630 casualties.

For an insight into the first day of the invasion you can visit the D-Day Experience at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. This permanent exhibition includes a reconstructed landing craft, a German Hetzer tank destroyer and various reconstructions, interactives and recordings that tell the story of the Normandy landings.

Air operations

shows a black and white photograph of a burning plane on a runway. Soldiers in the foreground are hosing the burning plane.

Photo: an American P47 after crash-landing on an Aerodrome in England Picture courtesy: Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA.

The invasion force was protected and supported by 2,500 fighters and fighter-bombers and 700 medium bombers from the RAF and USAAF tactical air forces, all them sporting the broad black and white ‘invasion stripes’ painted on wings and fuselage in an effort to reduce the high losses to ‘friendly fire’ experienced during the Italian landings the previous year.

More than 170 squadrons of fighters covered the crossing, the beaches or attacked German defence positions. This huge number of aircraft reflected the lessons learned at Dieppe. In the event, however, only three German aircraft were recorded over the invasion beaches on D-Day, while a further 12 were intercepted before they got close to the beaches.

Conclusion

Photo: American troops prepare German prisoners for the long march into captivity. Picture courtesy: Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA.

By the end of D-Day it was clear that while the Allied forces had failed to achieve most of their objectives set by perhaps overly optimistic planning staff, they had gained a beachhead in France the Germans would be unable to destroy.

A combination of factors, notably planning, training, deception, intelligence, courage and luck, had in the space of little more than a working day seen more than 155,000 troops and thousands of vehicles carried across nearly a hundred miles of sea and landed by ship or aircraft on a hostile shore.

Photo: American trops have found an accordian in the early days of the Normandy campaign. Picture courtesy: Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA.

There has never been an official casualty toll for D-Day, partly because of the fast moving and often chaotic nature of the landings. Many of those who were killed may have died at any time within the first week or so after the invasion as far their units’ records would show.

A study of the probable casualty total estimates the ‘butcher’s bill’ for the invasion was more than 9,000, of whom 3,000 were killed. Estimates of German casualties on D-Day vary between 4,000 to 9,000.

Photo: the aftermath - a beach in Normandy strewn with wreckage as the reinforecement of the beachhead continues. Photo: US Army/eto hq

For more information on the casualties sustained by all sides during Operation Overlord, Click on this link

Omaha offered a glimpse of how D-Day could have ended had the Germans been ready and waiting at Normandy. In the event, it was to take days before Hitler - who believed any cross-Channel invasion would be defeated by the weather rather than his army - ordered the release of reinforcements from the units waiting to meet the expected attack on Pas-de-Calais.

Photo shows a black and white picture of a German soldier waving a white flag.

Photo: a German soldier surrenders as the US army prepares to attack St Lo. Picture courtesy: Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA.

What may have happened had these German troops arrived earlier or had been deployed closer to the beaches became only too clear to the Allied forces once they began to move inland in the days following the invasion and began what was to become some of the most intense and costly fighting of the entire war.

You can find out more about the human cost of the D-Day invasion at the Imperial War Museum D-Day exhibition in London.

Read Gavin Greenwood's feature exploring the background to the D-Day landings

Read Gavin Greenwood’s feature about the training, logistics, build up and deception involved in the D-day landings

Explore some of the locations and museums in Normandy today that tell the story of D-Day

Read about the Mulberry Harbours and how they kept the supplies rolling after the D-Day landings

Read our feature on the different types of tank or Hobart's Funnies, developed for the D-Day landings

Read our timeline of events leading up to D-Day

Click here to explore D-Day web links