On the evening of June 5, 1944, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for the largest amphibious military operation in history: Operation Overlord, code named D-Day, the Allied (U.S., England, Canada, Soviet Union) invasion of northern France.
By daybreak the next morning, 18,000 British and American parachutists were already on the ground. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion. At 6:30 a.m., American troops went ashore on Utah and Omaha beaches.
The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; as did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where the U.S. First Division battled high seas, mist, mines, burning vehicles — and German coastal batteries, including an elite infantry division which spewed heavy fire. Many wounded Americans ultimately drowned in the high tide. British divisions, which landed at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches and Canadian troops also met with heavy German fire.
But by day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops — Americans, British and Canadians — had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches and were then able to push inland. Within three months, the northern part of France was freed and the invasion force prepared to enter Germany, where they met up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.
Before the Allied assault, Hitler’s armies had been in control of most of mainland Europe and the Allies knew that a successful invasion of the continent was central to winning the war. Hitler knew this too and was expecting an assault on northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944. He hoped to repel the Allies from the coast with a strong counterattack that would delay future invasion attempts, giving him time to throw the majority of his forces into defeating the Soviet Union in the east. Once that was accomplished, he believed an all-out victory would soon be his.
For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays.
He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support that took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support which helped protect advancing Allied troops.
Though D-Day did not go exactly as planned as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery — for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France — the invasion was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe.
The heroism and bravery displayed by troops from the Allied countries on D-Day inspired several films, most famously The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was also depicted in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001).