June 6, 2022 marks the 78th anniversary of the launch of Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day. The beach landings in Normandy, France, are perhaps the most enduring symbol of Allied courage in the face of Nazi aggression, and are particularly symbolic this year: many of the same Allies are pushing back a new war of aggression in Ukraine, the first major land war in Europe since the end of World War II.
On June 6, 1944, Allied forces under General Dwight D. Eisenhower took advantage of a narrow weather window and stormed the beaches of Normandy, France. It was the largest amphibious assault in history and a momentous step towards the end of the war.
To support the operation, the Allies had a force of 150,000 soldiers, 11,000 aircraft and 7,000 ships, including 4,000 landing craft and 860 merchant ships. Despite its massive size, “Operation Overlord” was kept secret until the assault began, a success attributable to a careful campaign of deception.
The target 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast has been divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. While the weather on D-Day was less than ideal, the postponement would have meant a delay of at least two weeks, as invasion planners had requirements for the moon phase, tides and time. of the day which meant only a few days of each month would work.
Despite the weather, the landings were a success. By the end of the first day, Allied troops were down and ready to drive the Nazi forces out of France – but at a heavy price. The men landed under heavy fire from gun emplacement overlooking the beaches, and the shoreline was mined and covered with obstacles such as wooden stakes, metal tripods and barbed wire. 4,400 Allied personnel died making their way up the beach, including 2,500 American soldiers. The landing at Omaha Beach claimed almost half the casualties, as the steep terrain and limited fire support made things particularly difficult.
Within a day, naval forces began designing the installation of a temporary seaport on Omaha and Gold beaches. Dozens of merchant ships were dismantled, sent to the site, and sunk in place as block ships to create rudimentary breakwaters, making it easier to bring landing craft onto the beach. The armed crew of these stranded block ships endured aerial bombardment and artillery fire for weeks. Within weeks, engineering teams transformed the bridgehead into a rudimentary port, complete with jetties and floating causeways. It handled four million tons of cargo to fuel the fight over the next 10 months. Remnants of this engineering marvel can still be seen today in the seaside town of Arromanches, France, which is home to the D-Day Museum.
The immediate aftermath of the landings: an instant port for the LSTs, arriving by the dozens (USN)
The busy “Port Winston” logistics hub, Arromanches, France, September 1944 (USN)