D-Day Battlefield Tour
This blog follows my recent tour of the D-Day and Normandy Battlefields. I was unsure of how to put this blog together, but I feel that it made more sense to somewhat follow (a brief) timeline and key events of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy (as we looked at during the tour) and give each a short overview, rather than a day-to-day of the tour itself. As with my previous battlefield tour to the Ardennes, walking the beaches and battlefields gives a whole new perspective on the fighting in Normandy and helped me to further understand the challenges and the enormity of the task faced by both Allied and German Forces.
Many thanks to our wonderful Battlefield guide, Peter and to Leger for a brilliant trip. I highly recommend the three museums we visited (all linked below) especially the Utah Beach Museum. I will be going back! I have also included links at the end of the blog for anyone looking for further information.
The Airborne Landings
Pegasus Bridge (British Sector)
At either end of the main invasion beaches, airborne landings began on the night and early hours of 5th/6th June 1944. In the eastern (British) sector, under the command of General Richard Gale, ‘D’ company, 2nd Airborne Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, part of the British 6th Airborne Division, landing by parachute and gliders, were tasked with capturing the bridges over the Orne River at Benouville (Pegasus Bridge) and over the Caen Canal at Ranville (Codenamed - Operation Tonga). 181 men under the command of Major John Howard, landed near to their objectives. Three of the gliders would land less than 50 meters from the bridge at Benouville and one glider would land around 150 meters from the bridge at Ranville and one glider landed 10km away.
Partly due to the element of surprise, both bridges were captured, intact, in less than ten minutes. At Benouville, Lieutenant Dan Brotheridge was killed crossing the bridge and Lance Corporal Fred Greenhalgh was drowned in the nearby pond where his glider had landed. The capturing of the two bridges prevented German armour and infantry from crossing the canal and attacking forces landing on Sword Beach and as they were intact, they could be used by troops exiting the beach. The 6th Airborne Division were also tasked with capturing the Merville Battery on the left flank of the Sword Beach landings.
Sainte-Mere Eglise and the La Fiere Bridge (American Sector)
At the same time, at the opposite end of the landing zones, in the western (U.S) sector, the U.S 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions landed 13,000 men on the Cotentin Peninsula. As with the British landings, their role was to secure vital inland bridges and causeway in the areas on the Peninsula to ensure U.S troops could get off their landing beaches and German reinforcements were unable to move towards the beaches. Preceded by the Pathfinder landings, the airborne drops consisted of two Missions. Mission Albany began with the 101st Airborne Division landing at 00.50am. Their objective was to capture the causeways from Utah beach, destroy German defences and gun battery at Sainte-Martin-de-Varreville and capture key bridges over the Douve River.
Mission Boston followed one hour later with the 82nd Airborne Division landing to the west of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Their objective was to capture the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and the bridges at La Fiere and Chef-du-Pont.
Heavy German anti-aircraft attacks and poor weather conditions mean that many men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne missed their drop zones. Many were killed in the landings and equipment and supplies were lost. Despite this the 101st would achieve many of its objectives. This would not be the case for the 82nd. While they captured the town of St-Mere-Eglise, the men of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment faced strong german counterattacks on the bridge at La Fiere. Three days of intense fighting ensued. On 9th June General Gavin, in command of the 82nd Airborne, lead at assault on the bridge that finally overwhelmed the Germans. Around 2,500 men of the U.S airborne would be killed on D-Day alone. Many more would be killed and wounded in the Battle for Normandy.
D-Day - 6th June 1944
The landings in Normandy would be the greatest amphibious operation in history. On the 5th of June 1944, 5000 ships carrying troops and supplies would leave ports in southern England heading for the coast of France. There would be around 7000 ships assisting operation Neptune, 11,500 allied aircraft supporting the landing 20,000 allied airborne troops. On the D- day alone, over 150,000 allied troops and 6000 vehicles would land in Normandy. By the end of the day on June 6th 1944 the Allies suffered around 10,000 casualties and the Germans ten times as many. Although not all landing objectives were achieved the Allies established a foothold on the coast of France.
The landings in Normandy would be the greatest amphibious operation in history. On the 5th of June 1944, 5000 ships carrying troops and supplies would leave ports in southern England heading for the coast of France. There would be around 7000 ships at sea in support of Operation Neptune, 11,500 allied aircraft and 20,000 allied airborne troops. On the D- day alone, over 150,000 allied troops and 6000 vehicles would land in Normandy. By the end of the day on June 6th 1944 the Allies suffered around 10,000 casualties and the Germans ten times as many. Although not all landing objectives were achieved, the Allied forces established a foothold on the coast of France.
· Allied Forces: 3rd British Division, 6th British Airborne (landing at the inland bridges), No. 41 Commando (landing at the western end of the beach) No.4 Commando and 117 French Commandos (landing at the eastern end)
· German Forces: 716th Infantry Division, 711th Infantry Division and 21st Panzer Division
Objectives on Sword beach: To establish a bridgehead, capture Ouistreham, link up with the 6th Airborne inland and capture the key city of Caen.
Result by the end of 6th June: Airborne landings had succeeded, and the bridges captured. Strong German defences along the beach and high tides meant that advance inland was slow. Ouistreham was captured but the Allies had failed to capture Caen. Of the 29,000 troops of the 3rd Division who landed on Sword, 630 men were killed and 21 of 117 French Commandos would lose their lives.
· Allied Forces: 3rd Canadian Division
· German Forces: 716th Infantry Division
Objectives on Juno beach: To secure the main road heading inland and take the Carpiquet airfield and high ground to the west of Caen. Following this they were to link with forces who landed at Sword and Gold beach and form a bridgehead.
Result by end of 6th June: The beach was heavily defended, and high tides resulted in a narrow beach which then became blocked by vehicles and equipment. Once inland they were able to capture the seafront village of Courseulles but, despite advancing inland several miles, they failed to move inland enough to capture the airfield or high ground. 21, 000 troops landed on the beach and by the end of the day there was over 1, 250 casualties with 1,000 men losing their lives.
· Allied Forces: 50th British Division (No. 47 (RM) Commando at Port-en-Bessin)
· German Forces: 716th Infantry Division and 352 Infantry Division
Objectives on Gold beach: To capture the ridgeline over the beach and establish a bridgehead. Advance and capture the Caen-Bayeux Road and head toward the city of Bayeux, then link up with troops from Omaha and Juno beaches. No. 47 (RM) Commando were to capture the port of Port-en-Bessin which lay between the two beaches. They were then to link up with Canadian forces who landed at Juno.
Result by end of 6th June: Despite strong German defence and high tides the 50th British Division succeeded in occupying the land above Arramonches, where Mulberry harbour would soon be installed, and No. 47 (RM) Commando captured Port-en-Bessin. 25,000 men would land at Gold Beach and 450 would lose their lives. They also linked up with troops from Juno beach after advancing inland around six miles.
· Allied Forces: 1st U.S Infantry Division, 29th U.S Infantry Division and U.S Rangers
· German Forces:716th Infantry Division and 352nd Infantry Division.
Objectives on Omaha beach: To form a bridgehead, take the main road heading inland and head for the town of Saint Lo. Link up with the forces who had landed at Gold and Utah. U.S Rangers were to attack coastal guns and defensive positions at Point du Hoc.
Result by end of 6th June: Omaha beach would be the most heavily defended at the landing beaches and the high, steep bluffs
above would prove difficult terrain. 32,000
troops would land here, and 3,000 men would lose their lives. After heavy attacks from the Germans, the 1st U.S Infantry Div. had broken through the defences and managed to advance inland up to a mile in some areas. The U.S Rangers had succeeded in destroying six coastal guns at Point du Hoc at great cost, losing 90 out of the 225 men who landed. They still hadn’t linked up with forces from other beaches.
· Allied Forces: 4th U.S Division (82nd &101at Airborne Divisions)
· German Forces: 709th Infantry Division, 6th Parachute Regiment and 91st Airlanding Division
Objectives on Utah beach: To advance along four of the causeways leading away from the beach though lowland areas which had been flooded by the Germans and establish bridgehead on the Cotentin Peninsula. They were to the link up with US Airborne troops.
Result by end of 6th June: The landings at Utah would place the U.S force just 60 km from the port of Cherbourg. Due to high winds and high tides, the first wave of troops landed 2,000 yards south of their intended landing position. They managed to advance five miles inland. Of the 3,000 men who landed, 200 lost their lives.
Ranville War Cemetery
Ranville was the first village to be liberated. The CWGC cemetery at Ranville contains 2,236 Commonwealth war graves as well as 323 German graves. There are also graves of other nationalities including French. The churchyard located next to the cemetery contains 47 Commonwealth Graves and one German grave.
Normandy American Cemetery
The Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer overlooks Omaha Beach. The cemetery is the final resting place of 9,386 soldiers, most of whom lost the lives during the landings and in the subsequent weeks that followed. The names of 1,557 of the missing are located on the memorial in the cemetery. Each gravestone marks a story that many of us will never hear.
In the cemetery lies Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of former President Roosevelt, who landed on the beach at Utah with the first wave of troops alongside the 8th Infantry Regiment and 70th Tank Battalion. He was initially denied his requests to land on D-Day and would be the highest-ranking officer to land on the beaches. Roosevelt Jr. died on 12th July 1944 and would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour.
After his burial, his younger brother Quentin, a pilot who was killed July 1918, was moved from his resting place in Chamery, France, to have his final resting place next to his brother in Normandy. Theodore Roosevelt Jr's. son, also named Quentin, landed with the first wave of troops at Omaha beach.
(Above Images: Maria Ogborn)
The Battle for Normandy
Following the landings on the beaches of Normandy, the advance inland would not be as rapid as the Allied forces had hoped. The Battle for Normandy would continue for a further three months and the allies would face strong German counterattacks and difficult fighting in the Bocage countryside, before the exhausted Germans would be encircled.
12th June - U.S soldiers captured the town of Carentan which meant that finally all the Allied bridgeheads to be linked up.
25th June - Operation Epsom was launched by the British Second Army. British and Canadian forces attempt to capture the city of Caen from the west but after strong counterattacks from the Germans, they fail to capture the city.
27th June - U.S troops who fought their way from Utah beach, captured the key port of Cherbourg.
8th July- Operation Charnwood is launched against Caen. British and Canadian force entered the ruins of Caen but still did not capture the city. Two key areas needed to be captured by the allies. Firstly, Carpiquet airfield, which was finally taken by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions on 9th July. The second key area was Hill 112 (Operation Jupiter).
The hill overlooking Caen was essential to the complete capture of the city. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel stated that “He who controls Hill 112 controls Normandy”. The fight for Hill 112 would continue until 4th August when the soldiers of the 43rd Wessex, 53rd Welsh, 15th Scottish and 11th Armoured Divisions finally defeated six SS Panzer divisions.
18th July - Operation Goodwood- British needed to break out of their sector at Caen. Operation Goodwood aimed to outflank German forces to the east of Caen. The operation would be one of the most complex in the Battle for Normandy, involving large numbers of men, tanks and aircraft. How successful the operation ended up being is often debated as it resulted in vast tank losses.
25th July - Operation Cobra - Planned by U.S 1st army commander General Omar Bradley, this operation (much like Goodwood) aimed to break though German defences in the U.S sector and move out into Brittany. This operation was a success unlike the British attempt.
31 July - Operation Bluecoat is launched by VIII Corps and XXX Corps of the British Second Army to capture Mont Pinçon and the town of Vire and push German armour towards the area of Falaise-Argentan. The operation allowed British forces to keep a large number of German armour and troops away from Caen.
7-8th August – Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge launches Operation Luttich with five Panzer Divisions, between Avranches and Mortain, with the aim of cutting of Patton's Third Army. Allied artillery and the use of Thunderbolt and Typhoon bombers meant that this operation was short-lived and resulted in the loss of over 100 Panzers and heavy German casualties.
8th-9th August- Operation Totalize- 2nd Canadian Corps launch operation 5km south of Caen on the Caen-Falaise Road and push towards Falaise.
17th August- German begin their retreat.
19th August - British, Canadian and Polish forces link up at the in the areas between Falaise and Chambois to begin the encirclement of German forces (Operation Tractable). German counterattacks in the area mean that many Germans escape before the pocket was finally closed.
21st August - The Falaise pocket was finally closed at Mont-Ormel by the 1st Polish Armoured Division. Within the pocket there would be 60,000 Germans surrounded and over 500 German tanks destroyed. The Battle for Normandy ends shortly after.
Image: 1st Polish Armoured Divisions near Chambois (IWM:B8823) and the Polish Memorial at Mont Ormel (Image: Maria Ogborn)
Bayeux War Cemetery
The city of Bayeux was the first French city to be liberated in the Battle for Normandy on 7th June 1944. German forces had left the city by the time it was
liberated and therefore it was captured intact. Field hospitals were subsequently set up to the southwest of the town and many of the 4,144 graves in the cemetery would have been men from these hospitals. This includes men of No. 47 Commando who landed at Port-en Bessin on 7th June 1944. Here, there are also 500 graves of men from Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Italy and other nations.
La Cambe German War Cemetery
In La Cambe German Cemetery lies over 21,000 Germans soldiers. In 1944 it had been a temporary cemetery for U.S and German soldiers. After the war, all of the American troops located here were moved to the Normandy American Cemetery or repatriated to the US. By 1948, German soldiers previously buried in other areas of Normandy were moved and buried in La Cambe. One of the graves is that of SS tank commander Michael Wittmann, who was killed alongside his crew on 8th August 1944. In the centre of the cemetery lies 207 unknown soldiers and 89 more that have since been identified.
Further Information and Links
(All images by Maria Ogborn)