It was in 1943, at the Quebec Conference that the decision was taken to attempt a large-scale invasion, code-named Overlord, against the continent of Europe in the spring of 1944. However, instead of aiming their operation at the coast of northern France close to Britain, as the Germans had expected, the Allies chose to come ashore in the Bay of the Seine.
Landing in lower Normandy, on shores less heavily fortified than those in the Pas de Calais, gave the Allies the advantage of surprise. In the absence of a large port in the area to unload the heavy equipment, it had been arranged for two artificial harbours to be constructed, one off Arromanches at the western end of the British sector, and the other off Omaha Beach, in the American sector.
So as to disorganise the enemy defences, the Allied air force and navy were brought in to provide heavy bombardment of the Atlantic Wall fortifications. Special armoured vehicles (amphibious tanks, bulldozer tanks, mine-clearing tanks and flame-throwing tanks) were designed to support the assault troops during the attack.
The landing operation began during the night of 5th to 6th June when three airborne divisions were dropped on either flank of the front. The paratroops’ mission was to capture certain keypoints (the Merville battery, the bridge over the Caen canal, roads, locks etc.).
A little later, several hundred Rangers managed to capture the fortified position at the Pointe du Hoc, after a particularly daring assault. Meanwhile, between 0630 and 0730 hours, 135,000 men and roughly 20,000 vehicles were brought in by sea on five landing beaches as planned.
Although the objectives fixed for the evening of D-Day (Caen, Bayeux, Isigny, Carentan), were not achieved, overall the operation was a success. Except at Omaha Beach (Colleville-Saint-Laurent-Vierville) where despite a show of extraordinary courage from the Americans the beachhead for long hung in the balance, casualties were lighter than expected.
It then remained to link up the five assaults beaches and face the German counter-attack.
The Battle of Normandy (June-August 1944)
After joining up the five beaches and establishing a firm bridgehead covering 50 miles along the Channel coastline, the Allies proceeded to implement their plan.
Whilst the British brought pressure to bear in the Caen direction, drawing the German tank divisions around the regional capital, the Americans broke out from Utah towards Barneville to cut off the Cotentin Peninsula.
Following the capture of the major continental port of Cherbourg in late June, they attempted to break through the German defences southwards whilst at the other end of the front the British made efforts to clear the Caen sector.
The second fortnight in July saw three great successes: the liberation of Caen, the capture of Saint-L and the breakthrough southwards towards Granville and Avranches. After a fruitless attempt at cutting off a section of Patton’s army in the Mortain counter-attack, the Germans, whose resistance was weakening, began their withdrawal to the Seine.
However, in a great two-pronged attack by the British, Canadians and Poles in the north and the Americans and Lerclerc’s French coming from Alen on in the south, part of two German armies were trapped in the Falaise-Chambois pocket (the “Corridor of Death” at Montormel).
This brought the battle of Normandy to a close, at Tournai-sur-Dives on 21st August 1944. The Allies had pulled off their first victory on the continent. Three days later, they crossed the Seine and entered Paris.