What Happened on D-Day? (The Battle for Normandy)

Beyond the five beaches of Normandy and D-day itself, the brutal Operation Overlord spanned just shy of three months of intense fighting.

Dec 18, 2022By Turner Collins, BA History

d day battle for normandy


On the morning of June 6th, 1944, the largest amphibious invasion in history began along the coast of Normandy; it would be known as D-Day. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, seamen, and air force personnel would participate in the landings across five major beaches and countless other objectives further inland through both sea and airborne assaults. The landings themselves were of an impressive scale, and by all accounts, the performance of those involved was exceptional. Despite this, Allies failed to meet the overwhelming majority of their objectives on the first day of the invasion. With their foothold tentative at best and lacking any real ports or direct means of resupply, D-day would require a massive logistical undertaking in order to supply this new front and to open the crucial western front once again to finally bring an end to the Nazi regime in Europe.


D-day: The Day of Days

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Allied troops landing in France, via National World War 2 Museum, New Orleans


The landings of D-day were the product of months spent preparing, planning, and misleading German forces by the Allies. Massive amounts of war material and manpower had been moved and organized for the largest naval invasion the world had ever seen. Across five beachheads on the coast of Normandy, one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers would land with the support of nearly two hundred thousand naval personnel from virtually every western Allied nation against some fifty-thousand German defenders.


Prior to the D-day landings, the skies themselves had been filled with aircraft as some twenty-five thousand American, British, and Canadian paratroopers were dropped across the region to take and hold various points of importance so that the landing might succeed. Thanks to many of the hard lessons learned at Dieppe by the Canadians, the forces invading France were far better prepared and experienced for Operation Neptune.


There was, however, still one large obstacle to overcome: the question of resupply and logistical support. While it might be possible to land troops in France, keeping them combat-ready was another matter entirely without a port from which to land supplies, ammunition, and reinforcements. It was here that Operation Overlord would make some of its most impressive measures. Until this point, it was common belief that a naval invasion would require the taking of a major port city within a very short time after the landings in order to keep the attacker’s forces supplied. Because of this, German defenses were sensibly centered around the region’s ports, and it is likewise this very reason why the Allies chose to invade across Normandy on D-day rather than nearby major ports of Cherbourg, Le Havre, or Calais.

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The Mulberry Harbors

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One of the Mulberry Harbors in use with sunken ships as breakwaters visible, via The Conversation


With no available ports to support a massive invasion of continental Europe, the Allies devised an impressive and thus far unseen solution to the issue of resupply; they would make ports of their own. This in and of itself was an undertaking unlike any other before, as no amphibious invasion in history had required the construction of port facilities to offload such immense amounts of supplies and manpower.


Leaving little to chance, a number of beach surveys were conducted in secret using a small, eleven-meter-long boat. Over the winter of 1943/1944, several excursions were made to determine just what locations along the Normandy coast would be suitable for constructing these harbors on D-day.


So fine was the preparation and detail put into planning that a number of Royal Engineers landed on one of the beaches at night just to collect samples of sand to decide if the beach was suitable to support armored vehicles. With the sites selected down to the most minute detail and the ports designed in England, they would be assembled in pieces, with each harbor consisting of breakwaters made up of scuttled ships and reinforced concrete floats, piers, and even floating roads to connect each section.


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Ramp made to offload ships at one of the Mulberry Harbors, via Institution of Civil Engineers UK


Known as “Mulberry harbors,” these were entirely prefabricated harbors built and assembled in England, moved across, and intended to be set up in mere days. After the beachheads had been taken as early as the afternoon of June 6th, the first wave, some four hundred sections and parts, were towed out of England, bound for France.


A mere two days later, on the 8th of June, work would begin at the first site, with the first port opening by the 18th. A storm off the coast of Normandy would damage one of the harbors at Omaha beach, requiring it to be abandoned. By the end of their service, ten months after the landings, they would see over two million men and half a million vehicles pass through the hastily built artificial harbors, ensuring that not just Operation Overlord would remain well supplied but subsequent operations as well.


Pushing Off the Beaches 

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German artillery near Cherbourg, via World War II Database


There were a number of immediate targets that the Allies wished to take, many of which had been intended to be taken on the opening day of the invasion, though ultimately, only one Canadian division would reach its day one objectives. Undaunted, the D-day Allies would continue with the invasion regardless of any delays they faced. One of the most immediate goals was to link Utah Beach, the farthest west beach, to the rest of the beachheads and then secure the entirety of the Cotentin peninsula and the vital deep-water port of Cherbourg.


A large number of American paratroopers had been dropped behind enemy lines, securing and holding the strategic town of Carentan until US forces were able to relieve them some time later. American troops would then press on to the west, where the German defenders found themselves cut off and largely ignored by their own command, as many of their reserves were involved in fighting in the east to hold Caen.


Hitler, ever insistent that he be involved in military planning despite having no military experience, demanded that the now cut-off defenders dig in and defend a line around the city of Cherbourg rather than the city itself. It would only take days for many of the German forces to surrender, already fought to exhaustion in the two weeks since the start of the invasion, leaving the city isolated. The final pockets of German troops inside the city would finally surrender by the 1st of July, but only after the port and city had suffered horrific amounts of damage, preventing it from being put into use for months after its capture.


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Allied Sherman tank moving through Caen, via ThoughtCo


In the east, the joint British and Canadian forces focused on the major city of Caen, considered a regional linchpin for further ground and air operations in northern France. The first attempt for the city was known as Operation Perch, which began in the immediate aftermath of the landings on June 6th.  A week of heavy fighting in which they were repeatedly beaten back and counter-attacked by the German armored reserves along with poor weather delaying reinforcements meant that this initial assault would be seen as a failure.


Subsequent attacks at the end of June and start of July would likewise be met with stiff resistance and slow progress by the British and Canadian forces. However, in doing so, Germany had been forced to divert troops intended to reinforce against the Americans in the west and commit the entirety of their reserves into the fighting around Caen. It would not be until late July that the German forces were entirely pushed out of the city and its surroundings, along with simultaneous assaults by the Americans in the west towards the town of Saint-Lo after Cherbourg had been captured.


By the end of the fighting, Caen and the surrounding villages had been reduced to rubble, mostly through Allied naval and air bombardments along with fierce fighting. While the Allies had been victorious in liberating the city, it was at a very high price, with tens of thousands dead and wounded with hundreds of tanks destroyed. At the same time, German casualties, although unknown, were believed to be extremely heavy, along with some five hundred and fifty tanks destroyed. With Caen in the east and St. Lo in the west both secured, the Battle of Normandy would rapidly shift and spell the doom of the German forces in Normandy.


The Falaise Pocket

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Germans soldiers captured by Allied soldiers, via National Army Museum, London


Germans had committed almost the entirety of their reserves and most of their tanks to the battle of Caen. During this time, Americans launched what was known as Operation Cobra, which broke through the western flank of the defenders in Normandy. At the same time, the British and Canadian forces renewed their assaults against the strongest points of the German lines, forcing them to commit there as the US troops rapidly moved south and then east, working to surround the embattled German Seventh Army.


The German troops began to withdraw, though a lack of fuel caused complications with their retreat. Worse still for the Germans was Hitler, now operating against most of his generals after the failed 20 July plot on his life by senior members of the military meant that he was less willing than ever to work with the army and ordered often suicidal actions with more frequency. One of these was his demand for the Germans to attack west to resecure lost territory. The already depleted and tired forces were stopped and had only managed to push themselves even deeper into the encirclement. While the German forces found themselves increasingly surrounded, there was a desperate attempt to break out to the east despite Hitler’s orders.


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German equipment destroyed by airstrikes in the Falaise pocket, via WW2 Photo Archive


This stage of the D-day Battle of Normandy would be known as the battle of the Falaise pocket, or Falaise Gap. The task of closing the gap would fall to the 1st Polish Armored Division fighting alongside the First Canadian Army. The fighting would be incredibly fierce, especially around the Polish positions located on a site known as Hill 262.


While roughly 10,000 Germans would manage to break through the lines and escape out of the pocket, the Canadians and Polish troops could hold their positions and re-secure their lines, closing the pocket fully as further Canadian troops reinforced the line. With this, the 7th Army was nearly wiped out, with some fifty-thousand soldiers being captured along with the entirety of their vehicles being destroyed.


The Aftermath of D-day 

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Allied soldiers on parade through Paris, via AP images blog


With the majority of the 7th Army encircled and forced to surrender, German generals knew that the situation in France was untenable between a lack of supply and the strong Allied momentum. While the battle of Normandy was essentially decided with the establishment of the Falaise pocket, Operation Overlord would continue until the end of August. A separate landing in the south of France, known as Operation Dragoon, on the 15th of April further sealed the fate of Germany’s occupation.


The liberation of Paris soon followed, with the city’s garrison surrendering on August 25th, despite Hitler’s demand that the city be held until there was nothing left but rubble. By the end of August, German forces in their entirety had retreated east over the Seine River, marking the official end of D-day, the largest amphibious invasion in history, and signaling beyond a shadow of a doubt that the end of the war was drawing near.

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By Turner CollinsBA HistoryTurner has always had a passion for history and a love of sharing this with others. Having worked with a number of museums on his native Vancouver Island he hopes that his interest proves infectious with others. Having completed his BA in History in 2021 he looks forwards to continuing with his academic learning in pursuit of a MA. When possible he loves to travel, seeking to gather as many new experiences as possible wherever he can.