Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Longest Day


Because of the tides there were only three days in early June of 1944 when the Allied invasion of France could be launched. They were June 5, 6 and 7. On Sunday June 4, a gale blew, but there was a forecast of clear skies for Tuesday morning, with weather closing in by evening.
The decision was up to Eisenhower whether to gamble that invasion operations could be sufficiently advanced before the newly threatening storms or to postpone the invasion for a considerable period. "I went to my tent alone and sat down to think", Eisenhower later recalled in his "Crusade in Europe". He took the gamble, D-Day was set for Tuesday, the 6th June.
Reporting D-Day minus one, Charles Christian Wertenbaker, who headed TIME’s news staff assigned to cover the invasion, cabled from headquarter ship USS Acamar, in the English Channel: "Monday morning at six o’clock the final confirmation came. The day was cloudy and cold. The staff officers looked at the sky, shrugged and put their trust in the weatherman. A sleepy colonel said: "Win, lose or draw – and there ain’t no draw – they can’t call it off now, thank God!"
At precisely fifteen minutes past midnight on June 6, 1944 the Allied invasion of Europe, code named Operation Overlord, began – in the first hour of a day that would be forever known as D-Day. A few specially chosen men from the American 101st and 82nd airborne divisions stepped out of their planes into the moonlit night over Normandy. Five minutes later and fifty miles away, a small group of men from the British 6th Airborne Division plunged out of their planes. These were the pathfinders, the men who were to light the drop zones for the paratroops and glider-borne infantry that were soon to follow.
The Allied airborne armies clearly marked the extreme limits of the Normandy battlefield. Between them and along the French coastline lay five invasion beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Through the hours before dawn, as paratroopers fought in the dark hedgerows of Normandy, the greatest armada the world had ever known began to assemble off those beaches – almost five thousand ships carrying more than two hundred thousand soldiers, sailors and coastguardsmen. Beginning at 6.30 a.m. and preceded by a massive naval and air bombardment, a few thousand of these men waded ashore in the first wave of the invasion to regain a foothold on a terrorised and devastated Continent.
The naval component of the operation, code named Operation NEPTUNE, comprised large numbers of warships, auxiliaries and landing craft. On 5 June 1944, the thousands of ships and craft taking part in Operation NEPTUNE put to sea and began gathering in assembly areas southeast of the Isle of Wight. From there, many passed through the channels swept through the German defensive minefields and moved into their respective waiting areas before dawn on 6 June. Hundreds of antisubmarine escorts and patrol planes protected the flanks of these assault convoys. Between 0530 and 0550, the Allied gunfire support task groups began bombarding prearranged targets along the beaches.Underwater obstacles bottled up many of the amphibious craft and the congestion provided easy targets for German gunners. The landing bogged down and it took a combination of short-range destroyer gunnery support, aerial bombardment and desperate infantry assaults to break the German defences. After overrunning the German beach defences, the Allies rapidly expanded the individual beachheads. By 25 July, the Allies were strong enough to launch Operation COBRA and begin the liberation of France.
The invasion of Normandy is considered the decisive battle of the war in Western Europe. Before this battle the German Army still firmly occupied France and the Low Countries, the Nazi government still had access to the raw materials and industrial capacity of Western Europe, and local resistance to Nazi rule was disorganized and not very effective. After the successful invasion of France and the expansion of the initial beachheads, the Allied armies moved over to the offensive. The successful Allied landing in France was a psychological blow to the German occupation of Europe. It called into question the German Army's ability to control western Europe, dramatically increased partisan activity against enemy occupation, and heartened the spirits of all those fighting against Nazi tyranny. From that point on, the Allies would begin the drive into Germany that ultimately destroyed the Nazi regime on 7 May 1945.

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