WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
Seventy-five years ago on June 6, 1944, the allied powers in World War 2 embarked on the largest amphibious landing of all time and one of the largest airborne assaults with more than 150,000 troops onto five beaches on the northern coast of German-occupied France in Normandy.
By that time, France had been occupied for almost four years after the German invasion in 1940 and subsequent surrender of the French government. A year after the fall of France, German forces along with those of their fellow Axis powers (excluding the Japanese Empire) invaded the Soviet Union.
Despite the allied invasion of Italy in 1943 there was a need to open a second major front in Europe and liberate the countries that had been occupied since 1939 and 1940. The western allies chose Normandy as the ideal location to begin their operations on the continent.
The Airborne Assault
During the early hours of the operation, American and British paratroopers and glider-borne infantrymen landed around key bridgeheads behind the beaches where the main wave of troops would later land. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army and the British 6th Airborne Division were the first troops to land in Normandy.
To the west, the American objectives included the towns of Carentan and Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the latter being the first to be liberated in the operation.
Farther east, the British seized several other bridgeheads and knocked out a German artillery battery which could have threatened the allied landings.
Due to weather and navigational issues, airborne forces were often separated, landing far from their intended drop zones. This resulted in many mixed-member units, which came together and targeted the objectives nearest to them, wreaking havoc behind the German lines.
The airborne operations were able to secure key locations and prevent the possibility of German armored units from attacking the allied forces landing on the beaches while they were most vulnerable.
The Battle for Normandy and Closing the Falaise Gap
After the landings, allied forces pushed inland and expanded the beachheads rapidly. American forces from Utah beach encircled the Cotentin Peninsula and advanced towards Cherbourg, a critical deep-water port to allow more supplies to make it through to the front lines.
The terrain in Normandy is well suited to defensive fighting with narrow roads and dense hedgerows breaking up the landscape.
Behind Omaha Beach towns like Saint-Lo were significant obstacles to the advances with heavy defenses and half-destroyed buildings from the bombing before the battles providing additional cover for the defenders.
For British and other commonwealth forces, Caen was the biggest obstacle as heavy fortifications and strong resistance prevented its capture.
While the British forces were stuck in heavy fighting around Caen, American forces were able to break through German lines and mostly surround the German 7th Army around Falaise. As the defenses around Caen broke down British and Canadian forces pushed south while the Americans pushed north leading to heavy fighting around Chambois.
As the gap closed more than 50,000 German troops west of the Seine River were surrounded where they were quickly destroyed or captured leaving the road to liberating Paris open. The liberation of Paris marked the end of Operation Overlord at the end of August 1944.
The German forces that escaped however, would make operations later in the war more difficult leading up to the last major German efforts of resistance in the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes forest around the German-Belgian Border.
After those battles and crossing the Rhein River in Germany, allied and soviet forces would race to Berlin bringing an end to the war in Europe by early May of 1945.
What Made it possible
Operation Overlord and the chain of events that followed June 6, 1944, would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the extensive preparation that preceded it.
The failed raid on Dieppe in 1942 along with the invasions of Sicily and Southern Italy in 1943 taught the allied forces and leadership many lessons for amphibious and airborne operations.
One of the lessons learned at Dieppe was how armor worked in amphibious landings and how it struggled. A series of modified M4 Sherman and Churchill tanks were developed and nicknamed Hobart’s funnies after British Maj. Gen. Percy Hobart. These special variants included swimming Shermans and ones with flails to clear mines along with Churchills armed with flamethrowers and heavy mortars to clear out fortifications.
Extensive training was also needed for the many airborne forces and the soldiers who would be taking part in amphibious landings as they carry additional considerations from embarking on gliders and landing craft to clearing coastal fortifications.
Whiteman AFB, originally the Sedalia Glider Base, and later the Sedalia Army Airfield, operated as one of the eight bases responsible for training glider pilots who would prove essential during airborne operations. Gliders allowed more heavily armed troops to participate in the operations while also carrying light vehicles, anti-tank guns and light pack howitzers which couldn’t be dropped with a parachute from a conventional cargo aircraft such as the widely used C-47 Skytrain.
Throughout the years leading up to D-Day, allied bombers relentlessly targeted German industry and infrastructure through a campaign of strategic bombing. The Royal Air Force Bomber Command started the bombing campaigns. They switched to night bombing early on due to heavy German anti-aircraft defenses and interceptor aircraft.
After the United States joined the war, the 8th Air Force played a key role in the strategic bombing campaigns, despite incurring heavy losses during daylight raids.
Bombers upgraded with better defensive armaments, escorted by fighters with drop tanks filled with extra fuel, flew deeper into German-occupied Europe.
In addition to the operational and training aspects of the preparation there was extensive deception that also played into it.
Allied counterintelligence services and their assets worked extensively to make the German high command believe that the attack would come through the Pa de Calais which was the closest part of the French coast to Britain.
One of the largest components of the deception was the 1st U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), a fictional army group lead by Gen. George S. Patton. FUSAG was used to show a build-up in England with decoy tanks, trucks and bases with a very small contingent of troops moving around the fake equipment and sending out transmissions full of false information for the Germans to intercept.