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D-Day invasion
EVENT
On June 6, 2004, a series of U.S.-sponsored events were held in Normandy, France, to
celebrate the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the largest amphibious landing operation in history. The success of DDay led to the liberation of France in late August 1944 and to the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945.
Although D-Day was a combined effort by the Allied forces, the United States played a major role in the
planning and execution of the bold operation, which has been reenacted for movie and television audiences
time and again.
The Allies' plan for an invasion of Western Europe began soon after Germany declared war on the United
States on December 11, 1941. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who began the war as the assistant chief of staff to U.S.
Army head George C. Marshall, quickly developed two plans for an Allied victory in Europe: one in 1942 called
Operation Sledgehammer, in case the Soviets were routed in the east, and a 1943 invasion plan called
Operation Roundup. In June 1942, Eisenhower was appointed to lead U.S. forces in the European theater of
operations. Meanwhile, back in America, Marshall continued to expand the U.S. Army into a force of millions
that would be able to fight a large-scale war against superbly trained and equipped, battle-hardened enemy
forces.
The invasion of Western Europe was initially put on the back burner as British officials
persuaded Americans leaders to focus on Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, and later on
operations in Sicily and Italy. However, by November 1943, the Allied forces of the United States, Great Britain,
and the Soviet Union seized the initiative from Nazi Germany and began to take the offensive on all fronts. That
month, the three nations' leaders—U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston
Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—met at the Tehran Conference to discuss future strategy. Stalin felt
that his country had borne the brunt of Nazi aggression because of American and British hesitation about
launching major offensives, and he was determined to force the two countries to strike hard at Germany.
Roosevelt and Churchill were now agreeable to a major attack, but the three leaders had difficulty deciding
where such an assault should take place. An Allied attack into the Balkans was seriously discussed, since
German forces and defenses were weak there. (Historians still debate whether that idea was Churchill's or
Roosevelt's.) A Balkans strike would put American and British forces directly on the German flank and provide
the Soviets with the most direct assistance. However, Stalin argued in favor of an Anglo-American landing on
the coast of France. By striking the German rear, it would force Hitler to fight a two-front war rather than
concentrate his troops only in the east. Churchill and Stalin were both likely looking ahead at a postwar world.
Churchill did not want to see communism extended past the Soviet Union's borders into the Balkans, while
Stalin did not want to see British and U.S. forces, his potential enemies, on his doorstep.
Roosevelt also saw into the political future, but his focus was elsewhere. In November 1943,
the U.S. Marine Corps was just beginning its island-hopping campaign in the Pacific theater and had met fierce
resistance from the Japanese. The president's advisers had estimated an extremely costly campaign to capture
the Japanese homeland, and Roosevelt wanted help. He reasoned that, if he cooperated with Stalin on the
European strategy, he could get Stalin to provide troops to fight Japan when the war in Europe was completed.
That hope helped lead him to support Stalin's demand for an invasion of France in May 1944, with the Soviets
promising to mount an attack on German forces to coincide with the European invasion.
In December 1943, Eisenhower was designated supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe. He
immediately set out to fine-tune the Allies' invasion plan. Even though Churchill had been reluctant to launch an
Allied invasion of Western Europe, British lieutenant general Frederick Morgan had been working on an
invasion plan called Operation Overlord since the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. The landings were
to be at Normandy, between Caen and the Cotentin Peninsula. Three Allied divisions were to be part of the
landing, and two other divisions were to be air-dropped, with 11 other divisions to land within 14 days. Two
artificial harbors were to be towed from England, and once a foothold in Europe had been established,
additional divisions would be shipped from the United States and from across the channel. With Eisenhower
and Marshall's participation, the plan went through some major changes, but the location of the landing
remained the same.
The United States had been massing forces in Great Britain for months. Though many of
them had gone on to fight in North Africa or Italy, many more were on British bases waiting for the big invasion.
In September 1943, Gen. Omar Bradley was placed in charge of the U.S. 1st Army in England. By that time,
American and British air forces had already begun strategic bombing of industrial sites on the Continent and, in
the first months of 1944, began hitting targets in France as well. Meanwhile, Eisenhower oversaw the largest
armada ever assembled. More than 5,000 warships and landing craft gathered off England's shores in
preparation for the invasion. However, logistical problems and poor weather postponed the scheduled May
operation until the first week in June.
The Germans, aware that something was afoot, had brought one of their most skilled generals, Erwin Rommel,
to supervise the construction of defenses along the English Channel coast. Concrete bunkers and gun
positions covered the beaches from Calais to Cherbourg, with most of the works concentrated near Calais,
where the channel is narrowest and therefore the easiest location for bringing in supplies and reinforcements.
The Allies went to great lengths to convince the Germans that they were defending the correct place. A huge
disinformation campaign, using false radio traffic and troop movements, attempted to confirm the German belief
that the Pas-de-Calais region was the invasion site. The Allies also created an entire phantom army
supposedly under the command of U.S. general George S. Patton—complete with inflatable aircraft, tanks, and
trucks—in southeastern England to give the impression of an Allied buildup there. The landing site in
Normandy, farther southwest, was successfully hidden until the landings actually took place.
Despite threatening weather, Eisenhower ordered the forces to invade on June 6. American
and British airborne forces landed in the dark, with mixed success, to seize bridges and roadway junctions to
slow or halt German reinforcement. When the naval bombardment opened at dawn, the Germans were
completely surprised. One Canadian, two American, and two British armies landed at five beaches, some of
which were easily secured while others were not. The American forces landing at the beach farthest west
(designated "Omaha") met the most resistance and suffered the greatest casualties. However, by the end of
the day, all the armies had men in the nearby countryside and had secured a beachhead. On German leader
Adolf Hitler's orders, German reinforcements were not allowed to move from the Calais area to counter the
invasion because Hitler was convinced that the landing was a diversion. By the time German forces were
released to counterattack two weeks later, it was too late.
Still, Allied progress in France was not easy. Though the beachhead was secure and supplies began to flow in
through artificial harbors created by the Allies, German resistance in the farm country of Normandy was
intense. Each small field was surrounded by an impenetrable hedgerow that made it very easy to defend and
extremely difficult to capture. On August 1, a massive carpet of bombs from a huge air assault paralyzed the
Germans, and an Allied armored attack finally broke through. The race to Germany was on, and Patton was
determined to be at the forefront. On the same day as the carpet bombing, Patton led the 3rd Army in the
breakout from Normandy. His troops relentlessly pressed the retreating Germans, driving them back 30 miles a
day. Meanwhile, a combined U.S.-French force liberated Paris from the Germans in late August, by which time
a second invasion had occurred along the French Riviera, and American forces were racing northward to link
up with troops of the first invasion. By September, they had outrun their supply lines and had to halt along the
German frontier.
Eisenhower ordered the Allied armies to consolidate their positions and dig in for the winter;
once fully supplied in the spring, they would drive into Germany. Only a Allied defeat during Operation Market
Garden at the Dutch city of Arnhem in September 1944 and Hitler's Ardennes offensive from mid-December
through mid-January—the famous Battle of the Bulge—gave the Allies any pause. At the Battle of the Bulge,
Patton saved the day, completing one of the most intricate marches of the war by disengaging in front, rotating
his army 90 degrees northward, and hitting the Germans in the flank. On December 26, 1944, Patton's 4th
Armored Division under Col. Creighton Abrams relieved the siege of Bastogne, leading to the defeat of
Germany's last major offensive in January.
Patton resumed his offensive in January 1945 by fighting his way through Oppenheim and crossing the Rhine
River on March 22, a day ahead of his rival, British general Bernard Montgomery. That same month, the U.S.
1st Army, led by Gen. Courtney H. Hodges, had reached Remagen on the Rhine and seized the bridge there.
In addition, the U.S. 9th Army under Gen. William H. Simpson had fought its way to the Rhine in the area of
Dusseldorf. The U.S. armies were all ordered to put on the brakes to allow Montgomery's main force to launch
a major assault across the Rhine, which occurred on the night of March 23. The U.S. armies then advanced
into Germany, eventually linking up with the Soviet forces that had swept into Germany from the east. On May
8, V-E Day, the war in Europe officially ended.
The courageous performance of the Allied forces on D-Day and in the subsequent march on
Germany has been celebrated in Europe and North America since the end of World War II. In the United
States, the invasion of Normandy lives on in the form of movies and television. The first major Hollywood
extravaganza to tackle D-Day was The Longest Day (1962), which showcases the international flavor of the
attack. The film boasts an impressive cast, including American actors John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Robert
Mitchum, as well as numerous international movie stars from England, France, and Germany.
More recently, director Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), the winner of five Academy Awards,
featured a graphic opening sequence on the D-Day landing that raised the bar significantly in portraying the
reality of the battlefield. On the television side, in 2001, HBO aired the highly acclaimed Band of Brothers, a 10part miniseries based on Stephen Ambrose's best-selling World War II book. Band of Brothers focused on the
real-life exploits of the 506th regiment of the 101st Airborne Division as it parachuted into Normandy on D-Day
and fought its way through France, the Netherlands, and Germany. The commercial and critical success of
Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers makes it likely that U.S. audiences haven't seen the last of the
Normandy invasion on the silver screen and television.
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ID: 598021
FURTHER READING
Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992; Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen
Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944May 7, 1945. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997; Keegan, John. Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to
the Liberation of Paris, June 6th-August 25th, 1944. New York: Viking Press, 1982; Kershaw, Robert J. D-Day:
Piercing the Atlantic Wall. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994; Tute, Warren, John Costello, and Terry
Hughes. D-Day. New York: Collier Books, 1974.
CITATION: MLA STYLE
"D-Day invasion." American History. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 28 Apr. 2010. <http://www.americanhistory.abcclio.com>.
View All Citation Styles