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CHIPS Articles: At First Light… 75th Anniversary of Operation Overlord

At First Light… 75th Anniversary of Operation Overlord
By Naval History and Heritage Command - June 6, 2019
At dawn June 6, 1944, nearly 7,000 U.S. and British ships and craft carrying close to 160,000 troops waited off the Normandy beaches, surprising German commanders, who had overestimated the adverse weather’s impact and were also expecting landings to the northeast, in the Pas-de-Calais area.

Following assembly, and a 24-hour delay, the invasion fleet had proceeded across the English Channel along five lanes cleared by minesweepers toward the French coast. The waters off the U.S. Utah, Omaha, and British-Canadian, Gold, Juno, Sword, landing beaches were divided into transport off-loading areas, fire-support channels and areas, and lanes for the assault craft.

Cruisers and battleships bombarded enemy coastal fortifications and strongpoints, followed by tactical air strikes. In each of the initial attack waves, LCTs—landing craft, tanks—carried specially configured amphibious tanks that were to serve as immediate infantry fire support once ashore. Patrol boats served as control vessels off each beach. Destroyers and other small combatants stood by to provide gunfire support, and loaded landing craft proceeded from their line of departure, otherwise known as the “Dixie line,” toward the beaches.

The Normandy invasion took place in the Bay of the Seine, on the south side of the English Channel between the Cotentin Peninsula and the port of Le Havre. Some 55 miles broad and 20 deep, its waters were shallow, had a considerable tidal range, and, when the wind blew from the northward, could be very choppy. The planned landing beaches covered about 45 miles of the Bay's shoreline. Westernmost was "Utah" Area, stretching 8 miles southward along the low-lying southeastern coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. Directly to the east was "Omaha" Area, covering 12 miles of generally hilly terrain.

U.S. forces were assigned to take both of those areas, with important assistance from the navies of Great Britain and other Allies. British and Canadian troops would assault the areas code-named "Gold", "Juno", and "Sword", which ran 20 miles eastward from Omaha. This sector ended at the mouth of the Orne River, some 15 miles west of Le Havre, where the German navy based a group of potentially very dangerous torpedo boats.

The actual landing beaches occupied a fraction of the width of each area, but were intended to provide sufficient initial footholds to allow rapid reinforcement and expansion inland, with the attacking soldiers joining their flanks to create a continuous beachhead perimeter before the enemy could mount a major counterattack. Each area would be attacked by men from an army-sized division or less, with initial landings being made by much smaller units at 6:30 a.m. in the American areas, and about an hour later in the British. Their arrival on the shore was to follow a bombardment by ships' guns and aircraft ordnance—kept relatively brief to maintain as much as possible the element of surprise.

As a result, German shore defenses mostly remained intact, and would prove troublesome to both the landing forces and ships conducting operations offshore.

To protect the invasion zone's western extremity, and to facilitate the "Utah" landing force's movement into the Cotentin Peninsula, the U.S. Army 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions descended by parachute and glider in the small hours of June 6. Though badly scattered and lacking much of their equipment, these brave paratroopers kept the Germans occupied and helped ensure that the "Utah" Beach assault went relatively easily. The British and Canadian attacks, assisted by an airdropped-division on their eastern flank and a longer naval bombardment, generally went well.

Not so in the "Omaha" area, where deep beaches backed by steep hills meant that the U.S. troops landing there were exposed to intense fire from enemy small arms, machine guns and artillery. Casualties were very heavy and the assault only succeeded after a day of brutal fighting, with warships coming in close to provide direct gunfire in support of the struggling soldiers.

By nightfall on the sixth of June, the situation was favorable, even on Omaha. The event came to be called The "D-Day", in popular culture and it has retained this name ever since.

The Normandy landings and subsequent hard-fought Allied breakout from the beachhead into German-occupied France set the stage for the liberation of Western Europe and final victory in May 1945.

The following articles provide insights about the background, execution and aftermath of Operation Overlord:

"Neptune/Overlord: From Concept to Execution—Planning the Invasion of France, 1942–44," a detailed overview of the extensive planning process leading up to the Normandy operation

"Exercise Tiger: Disaster at Slapton Sands, 28 April 1944," historical essay by Adam Bisno, PhD, NHHC Communication and Outreach Division

" Operation Neptune: The U.S. Navy on D-Day," historical essay by Guy J. Nasuti, NHHC Histories and Archives Division

"U.S. Navy Ships at Normandy: Command Ships, Battleships, Cruisers, Destroyers, and Destroyer Escorts of the Western Naval Task Force During Operation Overlord"

Additional editing by CHIPS Magazine.

Troops crouch inside a LCVP landing craft, just before landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Photograph from the U.S. Coast Guard Collection in the U.S. National Archives.
Troops crouch inside a LCVP landing craft, just before landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Photograph from the U.S. Coast Guard Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

The forward 14-inch/45-caliber guns of USS Nevada (BB-36) fire on positions ashore during the landings on Utah Beach, 6 June 1944 (NHHC 80-G-252412).
The forward 14-inch/45-caliber guns of USS Nevada (BB-36) fire on positions ashore during the landings on Utah Beach, 6 June 1944 (NHHC 80-G-252412).

Landing ships putting cargo ashore on one of the invasion beaches, at low tide during the first days of the operation, June 1944. Among identifiable ships present are USS LST-532 (in the center of the view); USS LST-262 (third LST from right); USS LST-310 (second LST from right); USS LST-533 (partially visible at far right); and USS LST-524. Note barrage balloons overhead and Army half-track convoy forming up on the beach (26-G-2517). Photograph from the U.S. Coast Guard Collection in the U.S. National Archives.
Landing ships putting cargo ashore on one of the invasion beaches, at low tide during the first days of the operation, June 1944. Among identifiable ships present are USS LST-532 (in the center of the view); USS LST-262 (third LST from right); USS LST-310 (second LST from right); USS LST-533 (partially visible at far right); and USS LST-524. Note barrage balloons overhead and Army half-track convoy forming up on the beach (26-G-2517). Photograph from the U.S. Coast Guard Collection in the U.S. National Archives.
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