D-Day 75th anniversary: Impossible to exaggerate vital importance of success of the Allied landings

Historian Gordon Lucy on the significance of a military operation that changed the course of world history

US troops on board a landing craft approach their target beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944.  More than 130,000 Allied troops took part in the landings
US troops on board a landing craft approach their target beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944. More than 130,000 Allied troops took part in the landings

In advance of D-Day Allied strategists sought to achieve total air and sea supremacy to ensure the successful liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Meticulous planning brought together an incredible concentration of men and material but could not deliver immediate overwhelming superiority on the ground through lack of sufficient landing craft and paratroop transports.

To offset this, the Allies deployed two main strategies. First, months of intensive air attacks were carried out against roads, railways and bridges all over France to make it difficult for the Germans to move reinforcements to Normandy.

Secondly, an elaborate deception plan had been put in place to convince the Germans that the Pas de Calais (the shortest route across the English Channel) rather than Normandy would be the focus of the Allied invasion.

After the invasion the Allies continued this strategy to persuade the Germans that the landings in Normandy were simply a feint so that they would retain significant forces in the Pas de Calais.

Yet even meticulous planning is no guarantee of success. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the Royal Navy officer in overall charge of the naval dimension of D-Day, confided to his diary: ‘We shall require all the help God can give us.’

He added: ‘I cannot believe that this will not be forthcoming.’

That same evening Winston Churchill told his wife: ‘Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 men may have been killed?’

The sheer scale of the operation to liberate Europe was staggering: nearly 5,000 landing ships and assault craft were escorted by six battleships, four monitors, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers, 152 escort vessels and 277 minesweepers.

The timing of the invasion was one of the greatest challenges faced by the Allied High Command during the war.

Dr James Stagg, the UK’s leading meteorologist, carried an immense burden of responsibility: he had to analyse the complex meteorological data to avoid rough seas, low cloud and bad visibility.

Amphibious operations are notoriously difficult. The British were haunted by the fear of failure and a repetition of the grim disaster at Dieppe in August 1943. The Americans, though more bullish, had been obliged to learn many harsh lessons in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

Hitler believed he could defeat the invasion and knock the British and Americans out of the war and concentrate his attention on the war in the east.

The Führer placed great faith in the so-called Atlantic Wall whereas Rundstedt, the German commander-in-chief West, was much closer to the mark when he described it as ‘just a piece of cheap bluff’.

There were five landing beaches designated (from west to east) Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Utah and Omaha were allocated to the US First Army and the remaining three were allocated to the British and Canadian troops of the British Second Army.

Two US airborne divisions landed by parachute and glider inland from Utah and one British airborne division was deployed on the east flank of Sword.

Altogether 75,215 British and Canadian troops and 57,500 US troops were landed on D-Day. There were about 4,300 British and Canadian casualties, and 6,000 US ones.

An unusually high proportion of these were killed rather than wounded.

Although the Allies did not accomplish all their objectives on the first day, they had not been driven back into the sea and they had secured a foothold on continental Europe that they gradually expanded with the capture of Cherbourg on June 26 and of Caen on July 21.

The break-out from the beachheads proved much more difficult and costly than expected. Indeed, the battle for Normandy made the casualties suffered on D-Day appear light in comparison.

The terrain of mixed woodland and pasture with twisty side-roads and lanes bounded on both sides by banks surmounted with high thick hedgerows greatly assisted the German defenders.

A trooper in the Sherwood Yeomanry told a newly arrived colleague: ‘You’ll get a shock after the desert. We could see the buggers and they could see us. Here they can see us but I’ll be buggered if we can see them.’

Furthermore, the Germans fought with great cunning and ferocity. An American officer bitterly observed: ‘The Germans haven’t much left but they sure as hell know how to use it.’

The Royal Ulster Rifles enjoys the unique distinction of having both its regular battalions land in Normandy on D-Day, one by air and one on the beaches.

A lieutenant in the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles overheard one of his troops comment on the overhead arrival of their sister unit by glider: ‘I suppose that’s what the 1st Battalion calls a route march.’

The 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles fought their way into the village of Cambes but were forced to retreat by a newly arrived detachment of 12th SS Hitlerjugend. They had to leave their wounded in a ditch outside the village where they were probably murdered by the Hitlerjugend.

After stiff further fighting the Ulster Rifles succeeded in retaking the village and dug in. When they counted their casualties, they found that they had lost 11 officers and 182 NCOs and other ranks.

The King’s Own Scottish Borderers came up at dusk to reinforce the depleted battalion just as a sudden mortar ‘stonk’ began.

One of the Jocks, taking cover, jumped into the nearest trench, unwittingly clapped the commanding officer of the Ulster Rifles on the back and observed, ‘Well, Paddy, you old bastard, we never expected to see you again.’

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the success of D-Day.

If the invasion of Europe had failed, as it might well have done if, for example, it had coincided with violent storm of June 19-22 (which at one stage was a distinct possibility), the Red Army might have advanced well beyond the Oder-Neise line and reached not only the Rhine but the Atlantic seaboard.

Both the map and history of post-war Europe would have been radically different.