'The Great Crusade'

Invasion Preparations

Planning for the opening of the long-awaited Second Front in Western Europe – codenamed Operation OVERLORD – began in earnest in the spring of 1943. Normandy was chosen as the target for the invasion in preference to the Pas de Calais, because there the beaches were more heavily defended and German fighter aircraft in the Low Countries much closer. Elaborate deception plans were then devised to convince the Germans that the Pas de Calais and other sectors of the European coastline were the real Allied targets.

In preparing for the assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe, valuable lessons had been learnt from the failure of the Dieppe raid in 1942, in which the Canadian army played a major role and suffered heavy losses. New landing craft were developed together with a ‘siege train’ of specialised armoured vehicles – nicknamed ‘Funnies’ – including amphibious tanks, and others adapted for mine-clearing, bridge-laying and flame-throwing. Plans were made for overwhelming firepower to be brought to bear on the German defences.

Fundamental to the preparations for Operation OVERLORD was the build up of American forces in Britain – codenamed BOLERO. The ‘friendly invasion’ began in 1942, and during the next two years more than 1,500,000 American service personnel arrived in Britain. In addition five million tons of invasion supplies and equipment were brought across the Atlantic. By the spring of 1944 hundreds of square miles of Britain were crowded with American air bases, ammunition dumps, truck and tank parks, supply depots, repair shops and camps.

On both sides of the Atlantic men and women of the civilian work force laboured in factories and dockyards to produce the resources needed to support the Allied plans. Scientists and engineers made their contribution. As there was no hope of capturing a major French port intact, the planners decided that two artificial harbours, known as ‘Mulberries’, would have to be prefabricated and towed across to the Normandy coast. As well as piers and floating roadways, more than two hundred giant concrete caissons (‘Phoenixes’), weighing up to 6,000 tons, were built to form breakwaters. Another major engineering feat was the supply of fuel to the Allied forces on the continent by means of pipe-lines laid on the bed of the English Channel. According to General Eisenhower, Operation PLUTO (Pipe-Line Under The Ocean) was 'second in daring only to the artificial habours'.

From the beginning of April 1944 a coastal strip ten miles deep from Land’s End to Lincolnshire was closed to visitors. Southern England became a vast armed camp as the movement of forces towards the coast began. Bridges and roads were widened and strengthened to cope with the heavy traffic. Additional docking facilities and embarkation points were prepared. Advanced landing grounds were made ready for the Allied air forces. Special trains and long lines of vehicles brought troops and equipment to the marshalling areas, where woodland sites provided natural cover. Final exercises were held on south coast beaches resembling those of Normandy, so that by D-Day the essential understanding between the Services had been established and all knew what to expect.

Finally, on 26 May the troops were confined to their camps. Detailed briefings and kit inspections began, though it was not until the men were on board ship that they were told their target was Normandy. When Eisenhower gave the word, vessels carrying the invasion forces streamed out from their anchorages along the south coast, watched over by the Allied air forces. In all some 7,000 ships and craft and 11,000 aircraft were ready for action on D-Day. The great armada made its rendezvous at what was dubbed ‘Piccadilly Circus’, south-east of the Isle of Wight, before turning south down the mineswept channels to the Normandy beaches.


The Allied invasion of Normandy began soon after midnight on 6 June 1944 with airborne forces landing to secure the flanks of the seaborne assault. To the east the British 6th Airborne Division achieved almost complete success. The Benouville and Ranville bridges over the river Orne and the Caen canal were captured intact; bridges over the river Dives were demolished; and the Merville battery, threatening SWORD beach, was taken. To the west the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were widely scattered after a difficult drop, but this helped to confuse the Germans. The Americans managed to regroup and consolidate their positions, taking control of Ste-Mère-Eglise and the vital causeways leading off the beaches across the fields flooded by the Germans.

Bad weather had delayed D-Day, but it had also put the Germans off their guard. When dawn came, however, there could be no doubt that this was the invasion as the defenders were subjected to heavy air and naval bombardments before the seaborne landings began. The American landings on UTAH and OMAHA beaches were timed to begin first. On UTAH beach the US 4th Infantry Division encountered only light opposition, good fortune having brought the leading assault craft in about a mile further south than intended, where the German defences were relatively weak. But on OMAHA beach the progress of the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions was very different. The preliminary bombardments had failed to subdue the defences; a crack German division was on exercise on the coast; and many of the Americans’ amphibious tanks failed to reach the shore. The Americans were pinned down on the beach and 3,000 men became casualties before they were able to fight their way inland.

To the east the British 50th Infantry Division mounted the assault on GOLD beach, the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division on JUNO beach and the British 3rd Infantry Division on SWORD beach. Helped by the ‘Funny’ tanks and despite stiff German opposition in places and congestion on the beaches, a beachhead was firmly established at far less cost than was anticipated. Despite all Rommel’s efforts to strengthen the German beach defences before D-day, the defenders of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had failed to throw the Allies back into the sea. By the end of D-Day 57,500 American and 75,000 British and Canadian troops had been landed on French soil by sea, and a further 23,000 men by air.

The Battle of Normandy

Although hopes of a deeper penetration inland on D-Day, including the capture of Caen, had not been realised, by 12 June the Allies had secured a solid lodgement area in Normandy, and were building up their forces to go on the offensive. The two artificial Mulberry harbours were in the process of construction at Arromanches and St Laurent. Then a storm in the Channel (19-22 June) wrecked the American Mulberry, and badly delayed the Allied build-up. Nevertheless, by the end of July more than 1,500,000 men and 1,603,000 tons of supplies had been landed by way of the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, through the small ports of Normandy and across the beaches.

The progress of the Allied campaign was slow as the thick hedgerows of the bocage country favoured the German defenders. But the German commanders were never able to wrest the initiative from the Allies, who had the all-important mastery of the air. The British and Canadians had a bitter struggle to capture Caen, much of which was left in ruins, but they succeeded in drawing the German armoured divisions to the eastern end of the Allied line. To the west the Americans overcame the German forces in the Cotentin peninsula and captured Cherbourg, then turned south seeking a way to break through the German defensive lines. Throughout the campaign the French Resistance played its part, as it had in the vital months before D-Day, disrupting German communications, sabotaging transport and providing intelligence.

St-Lô fell to the Americans on 18 July, and their break-out – Operation COBRA – began on 25 July. Armoured forces raced into Brittany and also turned east towards Le Mans. Hitler ordered a counter-attack towards Avranches on 7 August. It failed, leaving the German Seventh Army trapped in a pocket as, to its east, the Canadians fought their way to Falaise and the Americans swung north to meet them. Closing the gap proved problematic, but the German line of retreat was finally cut on 21 August. The battle of Normandy was over. The liberation of Paris followed on 25 August. Much hard fighting lay ahead before VE-Day in May 1945, but France was free once more.

The Great Crusade

General Eisenhower's message to the invasion force (click to enlarge)