Remembering D-Day, 6 June 1944 When The Allies Began Liberation of Europe

[Note this has been updated with new source information and the inclusion of Eisenhower’s message to troops on the eve of the invasion. MT 2024]

“Into The Jaws of Death”
U.S. troops from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division disembarking landing craft on 6 June 1944.
Photo:Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent
Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration)

In June of 1944, Nazi Germany held total control over Western Europe except for Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland who remained neutral. However its invasion of Russia had collapsed at this point with the German army now forced to retreat. It had already been forced out of North Africa and Allied troops had landed in Sicily in 1943 and by 1944 were in Italy. Mussolini had been deposed in 1943, rescued by German paratroopers, and put in charge of a German supported puppet state in Northern Italy. The Germans knew the allies were planning a major invasion along the coast of France. The question was when and where.

Crossing the English Channel was going to be an enormous challenge. Despite what some want to believe, it was easier in concept that actual implementation. While cries of a second front had been going on for years, it required a vast amount of resources to pull off. You not only needed the men, but they all had to be trained, fed, and properly outfitted. Not just the foot soldiers but also the special units. Then you needed ships not only to bring them over to England, but camps to house them and continue their training. The Army Air Corp needed runways and facilities. The list goes on and on. Imagine a list of needed items that stretches, when laid out flat, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and you get an idea of how enormous an operation this was going to be. And that is just on the planning and supply side.

Then the problem of getting men over to France was a major hurdle. Landing craft at the start of the war were not very good and unreliable. New ones would have to be devised (they were, the Higgins boats) that would allow troops to be dropped off as close to shore as possible. Then you needed accurate intelligence to tell you what the troops were going to face. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had put up every possible fortification on the beaches and the area around. From mines in the water to barbed wire to turrets filled with guns and German troops. Hitler wanted an Atlantic wall and Rommel was pretty darn close in getting it done.

Thanks to cunning deceptions, the Germans were led to believe the attack would be at Calais. They also did not figure the Allies would attack without a long clear window. And the North Atlantic is a tricky place where weather can be a good one day and stormy the next. Despite all the planning and training, nearly all the top leaders including Eisenhower knew how risky the operation was. And that once begun, it would not go to plan. And they had to consider the possibility the Germans would be able to repel and push back the invasion.

What made the difference was the sheer martial weight thrown at the Germans. With most field officers incapacitated or killed approaching beaches or not long after arrival, it was up to noncoms and ordinary soldiers to put their training and discipline to work. Unlike what was shown in movies, most of the troops did not land on beaches but in the water. Many drowned because the weight of the gear sunk them. Others were killed by gunfire, mortars, mines striking the craft. Yet despite all these odds especially when they landed on the wrong places, allied troops managed to push in and take on the Germans.

It was a bloody day and casualties were high (sometimes 70-80% in some units). One of the big blunders were not understanding the famous hedgerows. These were not hedges like you think of but thick and gnarly. Germans could hide in them and fire on soldiers below. And they were impassible even to tanks. Special ones had to be fitted out to go through the hedges to drive German soldiers out.

Although the term D-Day is used routinely as military lingo for the day an operation or event will take place, for many it is also synonymous with June 6, 1944, the day the Allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.

With Hitler’s armies in control of most of mainland Europe, the Allies knew that a successful invasion of the continent was central to winning the war. Hitler knew this too, and was expecting an assault on northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944. He hoped to repel the Allies from the coast with a strong counterattack that would delay future invasion attempts, giving him time to throw the majority of his forces into defeating the Soviet Union in the east. Once that was accomplished, he believed an all-out victory would soon be his.

On the morning of June 5, 1944, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious military operation in history. On his orders, 6,000 landing craft, ships and other vessels carrying 176,000 troops began to leave England for the trip to France. That night, 822 aircraft filled with parachutists headed for drop zones in Normandy. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.


“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is will-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower message to troops on 6 June 1944. It was sent out with the Order of the Day and distributed to 175,000 on the eve of the invasion. He also recorded the message so that others involved with D-Day would hear it as well. You can listen to it here.


By dawn on June 6, 18,000 parachutists were already on the ground; the land invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where 2,000 troops were lost and it was only through the tenacity and quick-wittedness of troops on the ground that the objective was achieved. By day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops–Americans, British and Canadians–had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches.

For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing that the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.

Though it did not go off exactly as planned, as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery–for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France–D-Day was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe.

National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Virginia
Photo:Public Domain

The heroism and bravery displayed by troops from the Allied countries on D-Day has served as inspiration for several films, most famously The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was also depicted in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001).

Further Information & Suggested Reading

  1. Books

Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. 1992.

—. D-Day: June 6, 1944 — The Climactic Battle of WWII. Simon and Schuster, 1994.

—. The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II. 1998.

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. Macmillan, 2004.

Keegan, John. Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris; June 6 – Aug. 5, 1944; Revised. Penguin Books, 1994.

Ryan, Cornelius. Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D Day. Simon and Schuster, 1994.

2) Websites

McGrath, John. Normandy. history.army.mil/brochures/normandy/nor-pam.htm.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

Normandy Landings, Operations Overlord and Neptune. www.naval-history.net/WW2CampaignsNormandy.htm.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

World War II: D-Day, the Invasion of Normandy | Eisenhower Presidential Library. www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/research/online-documents/world-war-ii-d-day-invasion-normandy.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

Heijink, Eric. “Veterans Remember Normandy Invasion 1944.” Eric Heijink, normandy.secondworldwar.nl/index.html.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

3) Films & TV

The Longest Day. Darryl F. Zanuck Productions, 1962.
This is an excellent adaptation of the book. It is mostly accurate though there are some places where they decided to cut short what really happened or altered it for the film. Many of the actors who were in the movie served in World War II and at least one actor was actually part of the invasion.

Ambrose, Stephen. Band of Brothers. DreamWorks, HBO Films, Playtone, BBC, 9 Sept. 2001. HBO, www.hbo.com/band-of-brothers.
This miniseries is based on the book of the same name and includes interviews by the real people who were there. It does follow the book accurately though there are some small differences between the book and miniseries. The actors were in contact with their real counterparts and learned from them how they reacted to the battles they were in. I highly recommend you read both the book and watch the miniseries. The book goes into details not covered in the miniseries. Note for parents: There is a lot of violence depicted and uses very foul language at times (though it was toned down considerably from what was really used).

Saving Private Ryan. Directed by Steven Spielberg, DVD, Amblin Entertainment, Mutual Film Company, 1998.
While the story is fictional, it is based on real events that took place during World War II. This movie really shows graphically what happened on D-Day as the troops landed. Many movies shy away from showing the true horror of the day, so be warned as what is depicted is very graphic to show what happened to our brave soldiers who came under withering German fire.

 

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