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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : D-Day, Normandy Landings

6 June 1944

Theatre: North West Europe
Location: Beaches on the Normandy coast in north western France.
Players: Allies: General Bernard Montgomery's 21st Army Group comprising General Miles Dempsey's 2nd Army and General Omar Bradley's US 1st Army; 6th Airborne Division; US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions; Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey's Allied Naval Expeditionary Force. Germany: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Army Group B comprising General Friedrich Dollmann's 7th Army and General Hans von Salmuth's 15th Army; four Panzer divisions held in army reserve.
Outcome: The establishment of Allied beachheads on the Normandy coast, a successful start to the Allies' invasion of North West Europe.

'As yet there is no immediate prospect of invasion.' - General Karl von Rundstedt, Wehrmacht Commander-in-Chief West, 5 June 1944

American soldiers disembark from their landing craft at the shores of Normandy
American soldiers disembark from their landing craft at the shores of Normandy©
The Normandy landings were a massive joint services operation, with naval, aerial and paratroop elements supporting the main amphibious assault. They required specific meteorological conditions: a late-rising full moon, a receding tide, good visibility, sparse cloud cover and low winds. The unreliable Channel weather made this an elusive combination. After one postponement, the operation was scheduled for 6 June 1944; even then conditions were less than ideal, with blustery seas and 50 per cent cloud cover.

The operation began on the morning of 5 June, when minesweepers cleared ten lanes through German minefields in the English Channel. They were followed by an armada of nearly 5,000 vessels. That night, alerted by a coded message broadcast on the BBC, French Resistance groups sabotaged rail and communication links. A massive deception operation was mounted, creating the impression of an attack on the Pas de Calais with fake radio broadcasts and radar deception measures. Dummy paratroop drops were staged all over Normandy: a double-bluff designed to reinforce the German focus on Calais.

Meanwhile in eastern Normandy, British and US aeroplanes were bombing gun emplacements and dropping glider- and parachute borne troops; despite heavy losses, 6th Airborne and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne achieved most of their objectives. Finally, at 5.30am on 6 June, nearly 200 Allied ships began bombarding German defensive positions along 80km (50 miles) of coast. The bombardment lasted two and a half hours, continuing as the first landings began.

The coastline chosen for the invasion, running from Carentan in the west to Caen in the east, was divided into five beaches. At the western extreme was Utah, near the estuaries of the Rivers Taute and Vire at Carentan. To the east, the coast was impassable for several kilometres; the next available landing site, more than six kilometres of shingle and sand dunes, was designated Omaha beach. Both were assigned to the US 1st Army - Utah to 7th Corps and Omaha to 5th Corps.

West of Omaha, a 30km stretch of beach ran from Arromanches to the estuary of the River Orne at Ouistreham, north of Caen; this was divided, west to east, into Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. These were assigned to the 2nd Army, with 30th Corps taking Gold and 1st Corps taking Juno and Sword. Landings were scheduled for low tide: 6.30am at Utah and Omaha, an hour later in the east.

Disoriented by Allied deception operations, the Germans had not taken the overnight operations seriously enough to alert Rommel or Hitler, both asleep in Germany. As a result, their ability to repel the landings was fatally compromised; four tank divisions under Hitler's personal command were not mobilised until late afternoon, and played no part in the first day's battles.

The landings were further secured by air and naval support. Even the near disastrous Omaha landings - where high flying bombers had left much of the coastal artillery intact - ended with the establishment of a precarious beachhead. The outcome of the landings was a tribute to the care with which they had been prepared.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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