Codenamed Operation Neptune, the largest seaborne invasion in history commenced at 0630 on June 6, 1944.
After months of planning and training, allied infantry and armored divisions began landing along a 50 mile stretch of the Normandy coast in 5 distinct sectors. From west to east, they were: Utah, Omaha, Gold Juno and Sword. (In the D-Day Conneaut historically inspired recreation, our beaches are in reverse order with Sword represented on the west and Utah to the east.)
Nearly 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels, and 277 minesweepers participated in the invasion and almost 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on D-Day. By the end of June, the Allies had landed some 875,000 men.
The landings were preceded by extensive aerial and naval bombardment and the airborne assault by 24,000 US, British and Canadian paratroopers the night before.
Strong winds blew the landing craft east of their intended positions, particularly at Utah and Omaha. The men landed under heavy fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches, and the shore was mined and covered with obstacles such as wooden stakes, metal tripods, and barbed wire, making the work of the beach clearing teams difficult and dangerous.
Casualties were heaviest at Omaha, with its high cliffs while at Gold, Juno, and Sword, several fortified towns had to be cleared through house-to-house fighting.
Members of the 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division were the first to land on Utah Beach, arriving at 06:30. Their landing craft were pushed to the south by strong currents, and they found themselves about 2,000 yards from their intended landing zone, to a point that was more lightly defended. Officers in the first wave had subsequent waves redirected to this spot because of the light resistance. The initial assault battalions were quickly followed by engineer and demolition teams to remove beach obstacles and clear the area directly behind the beach of obstacles and mines.
Gaps were blown in the sea wall to allow quicker access for troops and tanks. Combat teams began to exit the beach at around 09:00. The 4th Infantry Division landed 21,000 troops at the cost of only 197 casualties.
The capture of Pointe du Hoc, a prominent headland situated between Utah and Omaha, was assigned to two hundred men of 2nd Ranger Battalion. Their task was to scale the 30 yard cliffs and destroy the coastal gun battery located at the top. While under fire from above, the men scaled the cliff, only to discover that the guns had already been withdrawn. The Rangers located the weapons, unguarded but ready to use, in an orchard some 600 yd south of the point, and disabled them with explosives.
Omaha Beach, the most heavily defended beach, was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division and 29th Infantry Division. Strong currents forced many landing craft east of their intended position or caused them to be delayed. Many of the landing craft ran aground on sandbars and the men had to wade 50 to 100 yards in water up to their necks while under fire to get to the beach. Problems clearing the beach of obstructions led to the beachmaster calling a halt to further landings of vehicles at 08:30.
A group of destroyers provided fire support so landings could resume. Exit from the beach was possible only via five heavily defended gullies, and by late morning barely 600 men had reached the higher ground. By noon, as the artillery fire took its toll and the Germans started to run out of ammunition, the Americans were able to clear some lanes on the beaches. They also started clearing the gullies of enemy defenses so that vehicles could move off the beach.
At Gold Beach, high winds made conditions difficult for the landing craft, and the failure of aerial attacks to destroy embrasures and artillery meant that the British soldiers had to land under enfilading fire. An 88mm gun from a casmate emplacement was disabled around 0730 but a second gun continued to take its toll until 1600 when it was destroyed by a tank.
Once upon the beach, infantry began clearing the heavily fortified houses along the shore and advanced on targets further inland. Allied casualties at Gold Beach are estimated at 1,000.
On Juno Beach, rough weather forced the first waves of 3rd Canadian Division soldiers to be delayed until 07:35 and the men arrived ahead of their supporting armor. Several assault companies of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada took heavy casualties in the opening minutes of the first wave. Exits from the beach were created, but not without difficulty. However, strength of numbers, as well as coordinated fire support from artillery and armored squadrons, cleared most of the coastal defenses within two hours of landing.
The subsequent push inland achieved mixed results because of delays and heavy resistance. When all operations were ordered to halt at 21:00, The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada had reached its D-Day objective and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division had succeeded in pushing farther inland than any other landing force on D-Day. By nightfall, the contiguous Juno and Gold beachheads covered an area 12 miles wide and 7 miles deep. Casualties at Juno were 961 men.
On Sword Beach, units of the British 2nd Army were began landing at 07:25 am. Resistance on the beach was weak; however, the beach was heavily mined and peppered with obstacles, making the work of the beach clearing teams difficult and dangerous and the windy conditions caused the tide came in more quickly than expected. Yet, within 45 minutes, the fighting had been pushed inland. On the east flank Commando units linked up with British paratroopers by 13:00.
The only significant German counter-attacks on D-Day came at Sword Beach. Starting around 16:00, the 21st Panzer Division made two attacks against the British forces and were not fully neutralized until late evening. By the end of 6 June, the German 716th Infantry Division had been almost entirely destroyed, many having fought to the death.
Estimates of Allied casualties on Sword Beach are as high as 1,000. Though the Allied invasion plans had called for the capture of several towns, with all the beaches (other than Utah) linked with a front line 6 to 10 miles from the beaches these objectives were not achieved.
The five bridgeheads were not connected until 12 June and Caen, a major objective, would not be completely captured until July 21, 1944. Successful Allied deception campaigns, incomplete German fortifications, Allied air superiority and disruptions to the French transportation infrastructure all helped ensure victory in the Normandy campaign. German casualties on D-Day were around 1,000 men. Allied casualties were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead.