1 June 2019
Universal History Archive via Getty Images
To us is given the honour of striking a blow for freedom which will live in history,’ General Bernard Montgomery, commander of Allied land forces, told his troops on the eve of D-Day, ‘and in the better days that lie ahead men will speak with pride of our doings. We have a great and righteous cause.’
He was right, and three quarters of a century later we are astounded by the sheer scale of Operation Overlord – the invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944 – which was the greatest amphibious assault in the history of mankind.
The statistics speak for themselves, especially in our modern era when Britain’s military capacity has been bared to the bone. No fewer than 6,800 vessels, 11,500 aircraft, 4,000 ten-ton landing craft and 156,000 men took part on D-Day alone, with over a million men landing in France by 1 July.
In southern England the storage space for the supplies covered 57 million square feet, housing over 450,000 tons of ammunition.
The stakes could hardly have been higher: if D-Day had failed it would have postponed the liberation of Western Europe by at least a year, perhaps longer.
ith the Germans developing new weaponry such as one-tonne warhead rockets, refuellable U-boats, advanced underwater mines and jet aircraft, the war could have dragged on far longer, especially if large numbers of Wehrmacht troops had been redeployed to the East to fight the oncoming Red Army.
qually, if the Russians had destroyed the German armies there, nothing could have prevented the whole of Western Europe – perhaps even as far as Paris – falling to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Nor was the outcome of D-Day by any means a foregone conclusion, despite the Allied preponderance in men and material. ‘If the Germans decided to bring their maximum forces to the beachheads,’ estimated the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, ‘the Allied armies could have been defeated on the shore.’
here had already been a long history of failed amphibious operations in both world wars – Gallipoli, Dakar, Dieppe and Anzio among them – and landing troops on hostile shores against determined enemy resistance was always hugely risky.
And Nazi Germany was indeed prepared, deploying no fewer than two million slave labourers over four years to construct the Atlantic Wall, a coastal defence system on continental Europe and Scandinavia, against expected attack from Allied troops.
I hope to God I know what I’m doing,’ General Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, told his staff as the operation began. Thankfully, he did.
inston Churchill, the British wartime premier, had been planning for a return to the Continent almost as soon as the British Expeditionary Force had been driven off it in June 1940.
n May 1942, for example, he resuscitated an idea he had originally proposed in the First World War, to build and transport artificial harbours to the invasion beaches.
‘The anchor problem must be mastered,’ he wrote to Admiral Mountbatten, the head of Combined Operations, of the invention that was to be code-named Mulberry. ‘Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.’
In order to dupe the Germans into thinking that the attack was going to take place at the Pas de Calais – the shortest route across the English Channel – rather than 120 miles away in Normandy, the Allies conducted the most impressive deception operation in the history of warfare.
Juan Pujol García, a Spanish double agent whose code name was ‘Garbo’, led the Abwehr (German intelligence) to believe that he was running a network of 27 agents in Britain, who had discovered that the targeted invasion point was the Pas de Calais. All 27 were fictitious.
Operation Fortitude South kept half a million German troops near Calais until 26 June, while Operation Fortitude North tied up 372,000 German troops in Norway.
A non-existent First US Army Group under the command of General George S Patton was visited by King George VI; an actor posing as Montgomery was sent to Gibraltar; dummy tanks and aircraft were built: every effort was made to deceive the enemy about where the attack would really come.
n the run-up to the invasion, all diplomats were prevented from leaving Britain, military leave was cancelled, movement around southern England was banned, and even the postal service stopped. Not a word leaked. Ordinary people stayed patriotically silent in the national interest.
uring the 16 weeks prior to D-Day, 22,000 sorties dropped 66,000 tons of bombs on French rail servicing and repair facilities around Normandy, leading to several thousand French civilian deaths, but also the dislocation of the Germans’ capacity to reinforce the front line.
Operation Overlord itself was an overwhelming success, although not without its setbacks and nerve-racking moments. Some of the 18,000 paratroopers dropped behind Sword and Utah beaches landed miles off target; three quarters of the three battalions of British sappers who went ashore to clear mines were killed by German machine-gun fire; no fewer than 27 out of the 29 tanks destined for Omaha Beach sank on the way, as did 20 artillery pieces; the strategic town of Caen did not fall for several weeks.
Overall, however, extraordinary courage combined with years of intensive training brought victory. Among many acts of valour, Company Sergeant-Major Stanley Hollis of the Green Howards won the Victoria Cross when he rushed a German pillbox and took 26 prisoners.
hat must it have been like to parachute into occupied Normandy in the early hours before dawn on 6 June 1944? ‘The first Skytrains appeared,’ recalled one observer, ‘silhouetted like groups of scudding bats.’
With flak hitting the planes ‘like large hailstones on a tin roof’, the paratroopers waded across floors made slippery by vomit and lined up to fling themselves down thousands of feet, sometimes through cloud and fog, weighed down with up to 100 pounds of weaponry, ammunition and supplies.
Below was the certainty of murderous opposition – those whose chutes got caught in trees were sometimes burnt alive by flame-throwers – on a battlefield lit only by the moon and tracer-fire. What men they were, and how few of them are still alive today for us to honour.
Operation Overlord represents the greatest single service that the English-speaking peoples ever rendered civilisation. Although it took nearly another year to extirpate Nazism, Hitler’s downfall became a matter of when, not if.
In the better days that did lie ahead after the horror of war, as Montgomery had predicted, we have indeed spoken ‘with pride of their doings’.
Andrew Roberts, is published by Penguin (£14.95)hurchill: Walking with Destiny, by