For two and a half years, the Russians had begged for a second front, a cross-channel invasion into France. For just as long, the Allied forces had delayed. First, the priority had been to take North Africa, largely so that that Churchill could strengthen British interests in the Mediterranean. This led American and British forces, somewhat logically, into Italy. But by 1944, only an attack across the channel into German-occupied France made any sense. Therefore, on 6 June, British and American forces mounted the largest, most complex amphibious assault in human history against the German armies entrenched n the coast of western France.
The sheer numbers coordinated for the attack were staggering. Six hundred warships and 11,000 planes, 176,000 men in the first attack wave carried on 4000 landing craft. The German defenses were just as quantitatively daunting. Seventeen million cubic yards of concrete and 1.2 million tons of steel had been poured into strengthening shoreline defenses.
Understandably then, months of planning went into the invasion. Portable harbors were built in England then dropped midway in the channel to facilitate re-supply. And during the weeks immediately preceding the actual invasion, intensive Allied bombing softened German defenses and isolated Normandy’s beaches from the interior German lines.
On the night of the attack, bad weather threw an unanticipated monkey wrench in all of the careful calculations. Planes veered off course; paratroopers and gliders were blown miles from their drop targets—some landed in the ocean where they were dragged under by their equipment. But the weather also led German officers to believe that there would be no attack on that particular night. And even when it did occur, the scattering of the Allies wind-blown forces actually left the Germans confused as to the exact center of the attack
The Allied invaders also benefitted from some confusion within the German high command. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (almost always right) had argued that the Germans’ only hope was to meet and beat the Allies at the water’s edge. With Allied planes controlling the skies, the Germans would never be able to shift their reserves to match the Allied army once on the march. In other words, if the Allies were allowed to land, the German cause was lost.
But Hitler actually welcomed the attack. Given the Allies’ naval and air superiority, they would have to come to him. And if they did, he promised to give them “the thrashing of their lives.” He believed that German reserves could be effectively moved to counter movement among the Allied forces. On the ground, German forces could make up for what they lost in the air and the sea.
But Hitler was more brazen than smart. Rommel proved correct about the Germans’ inability to keep up with a mobile Allied army. In addition, Hitler was completely duped by Allied efforts to disguise their actual point of attack. Barges carrying rubber trucks and tanks were floated in front of German spy planes off the coast of Scotland to suggest that the Allies planned to attack in Norway. Similar ploys were used to convince Hitler that the attack would come at the northern tip of France, at Pas de Calais. And on this latter ruse, the clever despot bit. When the attack on Normandy commenced, he was convinced that it was just a diversion and insisted that the bulk of the defensive effort be directed at Pas de Calais. A month later, he was still refusing to move divisions from Pas de Calais to the south.
Even with all this, the fighting on the first day was intense—especially on Omaha Beach, one of the landing points assigned to the Americans along a 60 mile front. The sandy beach backed into a series of rock outcropping on which the Germans placed their heavy guns. These pelted the Americans as they came ashore. If the landing troops managed to survive the withering German fire, they had to navigate their way through rows of barb wire and land mines in order to scale the bluffs that surrounded the beach.
Two-thousand Americans were killed on Omaha Beach on the first day. The entire landing operation at Normandy cost more than 10,000 Allied lives. Yet a beachhead was established. Over the next month the Allies would land more than a million men—60 American and 20 British and Canadian divisions. But over the next two months, little new geography was gained. While some in the German command argued that the Germans should drop back and establish new lines. Hitler insisted that every inch of ground be contested. Therefore intense battles were fought within miles of the coast. In July, the Allies won major engagements at Caen and Cherbourg, the latter giving them a valuable port. But the real breakthrough came on 25 July near St. Lô. Intensive bombing preceded a massive attack. German troops were forced to retreat, and the Allies managed to open a major hole in their lines. Men and tanks poured through this opening.
Just five days before, Hitler had narrowly survived an assassination attempt in East Prussia. Colonel von Stauffenberg had placed a briefcase bomb alongside a conference table; an unsuspecting officer had pushed the suitcase further beneath the heavy table that then shielded the Fuehrer when the bomb exploded. A hopeless coup attempt followed; the plotters were arrested, tortured for information, and then executed. Even those suspected of disloyalty, like Rommel, were arrested and then executed, or in Rommel’s case, allowed to commit suicide.
July, therefore, marked a deciding moment in the war. After the breakthrough at St. Lô, Allied forces steamrolled toward Paris and then the German border. After the failed assassination attempt in East Prussia, German officials, soldiers, and civilians had no other choice but to accept the disastrous course of events pressing irreversibly toward them.