The alliance between Britain and America in the west and Stalin in the east shared the intention to defeat Hitler. But this alliance was riven with mutual suspicions. British and American leaders could not help remembering that Stalin had been allied with Hitler for two years earlier in the war and that his presence in the alliance made it difficult to claim that this was a war for democracy.
For his part, Stalin, hard-pressed by the German invasion, was desperate to see the Allies open a Western front, preferably in 1942. They failed to do so. Then they compounded their negligence, as he saw it, by not opening the Western front in 1943. For another year, Soviet armies faced almost the full brunt of the Wehrmacht. Only in the summer of 1944 did Anglo-American forces finally launch a full-scale invasion of western Europe, “Operation Overlord.”
Churchill, Roosevelt, and their generals knew how difficult the operation would be. This was the largest seaborne invasion in the history of the world, against hardened targets and veteran defenders. For two years, American and Canadian men and materiel were assembled in southern Britain, while heavy bombers from British airfields pounded Germany’s industrial cities night and day.
Finally, on Tuesday, June 6, 1944 (so-called “D-Day”), the invasion force sailed for France. Deliberately leaked intelligence had led Hitler and his generals to believe that their target was Calais, at the English Channel’s narrowest point. Entire phantom divisions crowded the Kent countryside, with dummy tanks and guns, to maintain the illusion. The real target was farther west, in Normandy, to which the sea-crossing was much longer, but where the defenses were lighter and the element of surprise might be decisive.
The allies, led by General Dwight Eisenhower, had singled out five major invasion beaches. They were code-named, “Utah,” “Omaha,” “Gold,” Sword,” and “Juno.” The night before the landings, paratroopers and glider-borne troops landed behind enemy lines to cut bridges, block roads, and prevent German reinforcements from moving up to these beaches. Bombers attacked the reinforced concrete pill-boxes along the coast but were unable to inflict decisive damage. Battleships and cruisers escorting the invasion fleet also turned their heavy guns against the defenders.
The landing craft arrived at dawn, many of them carrying tanks. Opposition at some of the beaches, especially Omaha, was fierce and American casualties were heavy, a situation vividly recreated in the film, Saving Private Ryan. But the Allies’ overwhelming numbers and their domination of both sea and air enabled them to seize all five beaches. They moved inland, creating a beachhead or safe zone behind them, into which reinforcements and supplies could be landed. A mobile harbor, codenamed “Mulberry,” made of prefabricated concrete sections, was floated into place and then sunk by design, enabling ships to pull alongside and offload cargo in bulk. Planners had recognized the need for this device, since they were not landing near a deep-water port.
This buildup was interrupted for three days by fierce storms in the Channel, which damaged the Mulberry Harbors, but it resumed on June 22. Meanwhile, the front-line troops were making slow progress in the “bocage,” the broken French landscape that was criss-crossed by dense hedges and sunken roads. “Friendly fire” mistakes cost many Allied soldiers their lives, and the local French population suffered heavy casualties in the bombing of Caen, the largest local town.
The next stage of the battle came with the breakout from the Normandy bridgehead, “Operation Cobra,” beginning on July 25, 1944, which forced the Germans to abandon Normandy and begin their long retreat from France. Although the war would last another nine months, the outcome, an Allied victory, was now certain. Tomorrow, we will return to the Pacific theater of war to show how a secret weapon of previously unimaginable power finally forced Japan to also admit defeat.
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