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D-Day: The first 72 hours


In the early hours of 6 June 1944, 20,000 British and American airborne soldiers descended by parachute and glider in the areas of Ranville and St Mère & Église in Normandy. Employing 1,200 transport aircraft and 188 gliders, this was the largest airborne landing executed to that date. It was, however, merely the opening phase of a larger operation, the next stage of which commenced six hours or so later.

A fleet of 6,000 assorted vessels, ranging from battleships to miniature submarines, delivered getting on for a quarter of a million Allied soldiers onto a sixty-mile stretch of the Normandy coast, extending from the mouth of the River Orne in the east to the coast of the Cotentin Peninsula in the west. Years in the making and codenamed Operation Overlord, this was and remains the largest amphibious invasion in history. It began the liberation of German-occupied North West Europe and led ultimately to Allied victory within the year.

Unsurprisingly, such a momentous event has generated a great deal of interest. Leaving aside the official histories, which do a creditable job of covering all the angles in detail, the largest category tends to focus on the strategic ‘big picture’ and deals with the Normandy campaign as a whole, up to the breakout after Falaise or the liberation of Paris. Within this treatment, the initial assault usually merits a few pages at best or a few lines at worst. Works in the other category take the opposite tack and concentrate almost exclusively on the events of activities of specific units or arms of service within that narrow time frame. A similar tendency exists in the treatment of the airborne and amphibious elements of the invasion, which are frequently dealt with in virtual isolation and along national lines.

These approaches are of course perfectly valid, and in sum provide thorough coverage of Operation Overlord from inception to completion. However, the problem with minimising or maximising the initial assault is that it gives a distorted impression of that event and its relevance in the wider context. The casual observer reading two randomly selected works, for example, could be forgiven for forming the view that the Normandy invasion consisted of a twenty-four hour flurry of activity on the beaches, seamlessly followed by three months of massed tank attacks near Caen that went on until the Americans rode to the rescue from the west and closed the Falaise Gap. They would likely not be aware that in reality the initial assault went on for three days, or that the course of events in that period totally shaped the following three-month campaign and arguably what came after.

Neither would they be aware that the initial assault also highlighted command, doctrinal and organisational shortcomings that were to dog Allied operations for the rest of the war in North-West Europe.

It took seventy-two hours for the assault force to achieve most of their D-Day objectives, and the end of the period marks the point where the burden began to pass from the assault divisions to follow up formations. By looking at these seventy-two hours again, a critical eye will be cast on received wisdom regarding the D-Day invasion. The American landings on the Utah beaches, for example, are almost invariably lauded for their low casualties and efficient disembarkation and logistics build-up. Rather less attention has been paid to the performance of the US 4th Infantry Division once ashore, although this was to have serious implications at the time and later. Similarly, much is made of the alleged failure of the British 3rd Infantry Division to seize the city of Caen on 6 June as ordered, but the question of whether or not that objective was realistic or indeed achievable is rarely addressed, if ever.

On the German side, there has been an unquestioning acceptance that the British airborne lodgement around Ranville could have been swiftly eliminated had the senior commanders not reacted in a sluggish and hesitant manner. The biggest piece of received wisdom, however, relates to the American Omaha landing beaches. Over the years events these have attained near-legendary status as the unparalleled Calvary of D-Day, a perception reinforced by the feature film Saving Private Ryan. This has led to a widespread assumption that the beaches assigned to the British and Canadian forces were a pushover in comparison. The Omaha defences are thus automatically assumed to have been formidable, although there is no shortage of evidence to challenge the assumption, and the possibility is rarely considered that there might have been deeper problems among the American assault troops. 

By William F. Buckingham

D-Day operation 1944

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