Throughout the first half of 1944, America and Great Britain assembled land, naval, and air forces in England where they prepared for the assault on Hitler’s “Fortress Europe.”
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers from America, Canada, and Britain trained and rehearsed their roles in the largest and most complex military operation in human history. More than 5,000 vessels brought the assault force across the English Channel to land on the Normandy coast in the early morning of June 6, 1944.
During the night before troops landed on the coast, some 17,000 American and British paratroopers dropped to the ground behind the German beach positions, to secure the beach exits and diminish German forces’ ability to counter attack.
At 3:00 AM, gliders carrying heavier equipment and reinforcements began to arrive in the area. The paratroopers who had landed earlier were able to secure the immediate area for landing, but were unable to silence the German anti-aircraft guns. As a result, the tow planes were forced to climb and release at a higher altitude – making the gliders even more vulnerable. The enormous, fence-like hedgerows that crisscrossed the countryside made glider landing especially treacherous. As a result, glider casualties were extremely high.
In one day, amphibious vessels landed some 130,000 troops on five beaches along 50 miles of the Normandy coast between the Cotentin Peninsula and the Orne River. Allied air forces controlled the skies overhead. The first troops landed on the beaches at about six AM.
German resistance was most deadly at the beach code-named Omaha. When the first wave landed at 6:30 a.m., the men found that naval gunfire and bombing that were supposed to “soften up” German defenses had been ineffective and largely missed German positions. Obstacles erected on the narrow strip of beach, and German machine guns firing from the bluffs overlooking the beach pinned the assault troops down at the water’s edge for most of the morning of D-Day. Finally, a few at a time, incredibly brave men sprinted across the beach and made their way up to the top of the bluffs where they destroyed the German firing positions.
An accurate count of casualties was not possible in the chaos of D-Day combat, but there are authoritative estimates. In April and May of 1944 Allied Air forces lost nearly 12,000 men and over 2,000 aircraft in bombing operations against German infrastructure. On D-Day itself, an estimated 1,465 Americans were killed and 3,184 were wounded.