Friday, 6 June 2014

Recollections of War: 6 June 1944 - An Overview of Overlord: Special Post!

This post is dedicated to those who did not return from the D-Day attack.


AN OVERVIEW OF OVERLORD
        Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944, was a remarkable achievement. It provided the springboard from which forces from Britain, the United States, and Canada, as well as men from other countries under Nazi domination could liberate Europe from the hand of the Third Reich. After an assessment of the options, among which included the narrow, yet heavily defended Pas de Calais, it was decided that an initial assault force of 150,000 men would land on the beaches of Normandy, in northern France.  Here the English Channel was wider than at the Pas de Calais, but Normandy was chosen because its beaches were close to English ports, were within range of Allied aircraft stationed in England, and had the French port of Cherbourg a few miles away.
        The final plan demanded that three airborne divisions be delivered to Normandy, to protect the flanks of the main invasion force of five divisions assaulting the beaches.  The details of this plan were worked on during the winter of 1943, and on 1 April 1944 heavy bombers began to soften up the German defences all along the Channel coast.

THE AIRBORNE FORCES
        Meanwhile, the British 6th Airborne Division was preparing for two major airborne assaults.  Seven bridges on the east plank of the landing beaches had to be captured: five had to be blown up, and two held until reinforcements could arrive.  This would prevent the German Army Group 'B' from counterattacking the Allied landings.  Two German Panzer units did attack the Allies landing on Juno and Sword Beaches, but were beaten off successfully.  The British 6th Airborne, totaling around 12,000 men, traveled in C-47 Dakota airplanes, like the one pictured below, or Horsa gliders.  (To learn more about the Horsa gliders and their role in the invasion, see my film, Operation Deadstick.)
An RAF Dakota, which dropped paratroopers on D-Day
        In the early hours of 6 June 1944, two American and one British airborne division began landing in Normandy.  The 13,000 strong American Airborne force landed on the west side of the Allied landings, south of the Cherbourg peninsula.  It encountered some problems, including thick cloud and heavy German anti-aircraft fire, but in spite of many casualties, the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions captured their objectives by the end of D-Day.
        As the American 82nd and 101st were traveling towards their objectives, the British 6th Airborne Division was minutes away from battle.  The first gliders, with Major John Howard's Company of the Oxforshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, landed near the Caen Canal at 00:16hrs (sixteen minutes past midnight) and the rest quickly followed.  After a short but fierce fire-fight the bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River were captured, and a few minutes later the signal was received that the other five bridges over the river Dives were blown up.  Then the rest of the 6th Airborne gathered themselves together and prepared to defend the captured territory.

THE SEABORNE FORCES
        In the mean time, the beach assault troops, packed into their landing craft and supported by a huge number and variety of naval vessels and aircraft, approached the Normandy coast.  After a ferocious bombardment by many warships of the beach defences, known as Hitler's Atlantic Wall, the signal was received to move in.  The beaches were attacked at different times due to the tide, beginning at 04.55 hours with an assault in the American sector at what had been code-named 'Utah' beach.  Unfortunately some of their 'swimming tanks', which were Sherman tanks fitted with heavy canvas inflatable skirts so they could float and propellers for propulsion, sank due to their being launched too far from the shore and being swamped by the waves.
American Troops Landing on Utah Beach
The second landing took place on the American 'Omaha' beach, which had the most dead and injured of the day at around 3000 men.  Then came the Anglo-Canadian assaults on 'Gold' and then 'Juno' beaches, before the British hit 'Sword' beach at 07.25 hours.  A gallant attack by the 3rd Canadian Division on Juno Beach resulted in a firm foothold in Normandy, but with a cost of 946 casualties.

        The men who were to reinforce the airborne troops at Pegasus Bridge were men of Lord Lovat's Brigade who landed early on D-Day on Sword Beach.  Within twenty-four hours of the invasion, they had teamed up with Major Howard's forces at Pegasus Bridge.  Forty-eight hours later, the main bulk of the assault forces had firmly established a foothold on Fortress Europe, and the beginning of the end of WWII had come.

VICTORY ON D-DAY
        The landings were a great success, although there were heavy casualties on Omaha Beach and the British failed to take Caen as planned. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, 150,000 men had managed to get ashore and a firm foothold had been established for the cost of 2,500 dead.
Canadian Forces Landing on Juno Beach
        The cost in life would have been far higher if it had not been for the determined attack and defense by the British 6th Airborne Forces on the bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River, which prevented what might have been a successful German counterattack.  I believe it is one of the most heroic and marvelous events in World War II history, and it gives great honour to the history of the British Armed Forces.

A GREAT PRIVILEGE
        When I was over in Europe last summer, I had the great pleasure of being able to go to Juno Beach, and actually walked along the same stretch as is shown in the picture just above.  It was a great reminder of the sacrifice, heroism, and honour that is being commemorated this 70th Anniversary of D-Day.


Written and Posted by William A Moore

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        Don't forget to watch the film, Operation Deadstick, at this link: Operation Deadstick: The Movie.

        Most of the information for this short history of D-Day was taken from the books: Dawn of D-Day, by David Howarth; The Normandy Landings, by Derek Blizard; and from the BBC History website.

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