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World War II Europe: The Western Front

The Allies Return to France

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World War II Europe: The Western Front

US Army troops come ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration
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The Second Front

In 1942, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt issued a statement that the western allies would work as quickly as possible to open a second front to relieve pressure on the Soviets. Though united in this goal, disagreements soon arose with the British who favored a thrust north from the Mediterranean, through Italy and into southern Germany. This, they felt, would provide an easier path and would have the benefit of creating a barrier against Soviet influence in the postwar world. Against this, the Americans advocated a cross-Channel assault which would move through Western Europe along the shortest route to Germany. As American strength grew, they made it clear that this was the only plan they would support. Despite this, operations did commence in Sicily and Italy, however the Mediterranean was understood to be a secondary theater of the war.

Planning Operation Overlord

Codenamed Operation Overlord, planning for the invasion began in 1943, under the direction of British Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick E. Morgan and the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC). The COSSAC plan called for landings by three divisions and two airborne brigades in Normandy. This region was chosen by COSSAC due to its proximity to England, which facilitated air support and transport, as well as its favorable geography. In November 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was promoted to Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) and given command of all Allied forces in Europe. Adopting the COSSAC plan, Eisenhower appointed General Sir Bernard Montgomery to command the invasion's ground forces. Expanding the COSSAC plan, Montgomery called for landing five divisions, preceded by three airborne divisions. These changes were approved and planning and training moved forward.

The Atlantic Wall

Confronting the Allies was Hitler's Atlantic Wall. Stretching from Norway in the north to Spain in the south, the Atlantic Wall was a vast array of heavy coastal fortifications designed to repel any invasion. In late 1943, in anticipation of an Allied assault, the German commander in the West, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, was reinforced and given Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, of Africa fame, as his primary field commander. After touring the fortifications, Rommel found them wanting and ordered that they be expanded both along the coast and inland. In addition, he was given command of Army Group B in Northern France which was tasked with defending the beaches. Having assessed the situation, the Germans believed that the Allied invasion would come at the Pas de Calais, the closest point between Britain and France. This belief was encouraged and reinforced by an elaborate Allied deception scheme (Operation Fortitude) which used dummy armies, radio chatter, and double agents to suggest that Calais was the target.

D-Day: The Allies Come Ashore

Though originally scheduled for June 5, the landings in Normandy were postponed one day due to foul weather. On the night of June 5/6, the British 6th Airborne Division was dropped to the east of the landing beaches to secure the flank and destroy several bridges to prevent the Germans from bringing up reinforcements. The US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were dropped to the west with the goal of capturing inland towns, opening routes from the beaches, and destroying artillery that could fire on the landings. Flying in from the west, the American airborne's drop went badly, with many of the units scattered and far from their intended drop zones. Rallying, many units were able to achieve their objectives as the divisions pulled themselves back together.

The assault on the beaches began shortly after midnight with Allied bombers pounding German positions across Normandy. This was followed by a heavy naval bombardment. In the early morning hours, waves of troops began hitting the beaches. To the east, the British and Canadians came ashore on Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches. After overcoming initial resistance, they were able to move inland, though only the Canadians were able to reach their D-Day objectives. On the American beaches to the west, the situation was very different. At Omaha Beach, US troops quickly became pinned down by heavy fire as the pre-invasion bombing had fallen inland and failed to destroy the German fortifications. After suffering 2,400 casualties, the most of any beach on D-Day, small groups of US soldiers were able to break through the defenses opening the way for successive waves. On Utah Beach, US troops suffered only 197 casualties, the lightest of any beach, when they were accidentally landed in the wrong spot. Quickly moving inland, they linked up with elements of the 101st Airborne and began moving towards their objectives.

Breaking Out of the Beaches

After consolidating the beachheads, Allied forces pressed north to take the port of Cherbourg and south towards the city of Caen. As American troops fought their way north, they were hampered by the bocage (hedgerows) that crisscrossed the landscape. Ideal for defensive warfare, the bocage greatly slowed the American advance. Around Caen, British forces were engaged in a battle of attrition with the Germans. This type of grinding battle played into Montgomery's hands as he wished the Germans to commit the bulk of their forces and reserves to Caen, which would allow the Americans to breakthrough lighter resistance to the west.

Beginning on July 25, elements of the US First Army broke through the German lines near St. Lo as part of Operation Cobra. By the 27th US mechanized units were advancing at will against light resistance. The breakthrough was exploited by Lt. General George S. Patton's newly activated Third Army. Sensing that a German collapse was imminent, Montgomery ordered US forces to turn east as British forces pressed south and east attempting to encircle the Germans. On August 21, the trap closed capturing 50,000 Germans near Falaise.

Previous: North Africa, Sicily, & Italy | World War II 101 | Next: The War in the Pacific Begins
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