Operation Overlord was the code name used for the Allied attack on German-occupied Northern France in the summer of 1944. The organization responsible for planning this task was SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, and the officer in command of Overlord was Major General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Command of ground forces was given to General Bernard Montgomery, while naval forces would be commanded by Admiral Bertram Ramsay. Air forces were under the control of Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallary, and supply and logistics the task of Lt. General John Lee.
The extensive buildup of troops and supplies required to support Overlord began in April of 1942. Known as Operation Bolero, this effort eventually saw the movement of over 1.5 million military personnel to England, as well as the materials required to house, clothe and feed them. The total number of soldiers participating in all aspects of the invasion numbered 2.8 million.
The overall effort to deceive the Germans was known as Operation Bodyguard, and consisted of ten smaller operations including Operation Fortitude North, Operation Fortitude South, Operation Graffham and Operation Royal Flush. Operation Fortitude was specifically designed to provide deception for Operation Overlord. Among the many tools used by Fortitude were double agents, fake radio traffic and inflatable vehicles and craft designed to convince the Germans that the buildup of forces were intended to strike at Norway and/or the Pas-de-Calais region of France.
The seaborne aspects of Operation Overlord were known as Operation Neptune, and involved the embarkation of the troops, their transport across the English Channel, and their landings at Normandy. The Neptune forces were also responsible for providing covering gunfire during the landings and for continued supply operations following the landings.
By early June of 1944 the Allies had achieved air superiority over the skies of France, and had reduced the Luftwaffe to an almost token force. The Allied control of the air would play a key role in limiting the Germans ability to maneuver their forces once the Overlord landings began. With complete control of the skies, Allied planes could easily identify and destroy German forces moving during daylight.
American Order of Battle
The U.S. First Army forces chosen for Operation Overlord were as follows:
Utah Beach (VII Corps)
- 4th Cavalry Squadron
- 24th Cavalry Squadron
Pointe du Hoc
Omaha Beach (V Corps)
British/Canadian Order of Battle
The British Second Army forces chosen for Operation Overlord were as follows:
Gold Beach (XXX Corps)
- British 50th Infantry Division
Juno Beach (I Corps)
- Canadian 3rd Infantry Division
Sword Beach (I Corps)
- British 3rd Infantry Division
- British 6th Airborne Division
Needing full moonlight for the paratrooper operations and a rising tide to assist the landing craft, the Overlord planners were restricted to the days of June 5th through June 7th. In order to allow for possible delays, the date of June 5th was originally chosen for the attack. Bad weather forced a one-day delay, and the actual assault began at 12:15 a.m. on the morning of June 6th with the landing of American and British pathfinder paratroopers behind Utah and Sword beaches.
Following closely behind the pathfinders, who had marked drop zones behind the beaches, the 82nd, 101st and 6th Airborne Divisions commenced their jumps. For numerous reasons, including overreaction by the C-47 transport planes to anti-aircraft fire from below, most of the paratroopers landed far from their designated landing areas. Also participating in these early morning operations were glider-based infantry. The 82nd and 101st were tasked with capturing or destroying bridges that crossed the Douve and Merderet Rivers, as well as capturing other important objectives designed to prevent the Germans from counterattacking the beach landings or reinforcing their own units.
Starting at approximately 5:45 a.m., naval vessels began to bombard the Normandy coast in order to soften up the German defenders. Bombers were also sent to hit the beaches, but both aerial and naval attacks were relatively ineffective. The naval attacks on hardened German emplacements were not as effective as hoped, and most of the bombers dropped their bombs too far inland in order to avoid any chance of hitting the approaching landing craft.
The first of the assault craft were scheduled to land at their respective beaches at 6:30 a.m. on June 6th. At this time the naval bombardment would switch from coastal targets to those inland.
4th Infantry Division troops landing at Utah Beach found themselves in the wrong positions due to a current that pushed their landing craft to the southeast. Instead of landing at Tare Green and Uncle Red sectors, the 4th came ashore at Victor sector, which was lightly defended. Casualties suffered by the division were relatively light, and by nightfall the 4th had progressed 4 miles inland and were close to positions established by the 101st Airborne.
Unlike their counterparts at Utah, the 1st and 29th Infantry Division soldiers faced heavy German resistance at Omaha Beach. Many landing craft failed to make it ashore, and those that did landed their men directly into the gunsights of the German defenders. Few of the amphibious DD Tanks designed to support the landings made it ashore, and the naval and aerial bombardments had proved particularly ineffective at Omaha, leaving its defenders intact and giving the attacking soldiers no craters for cover. Despite these and other setbacks, the soldiers at Omaha were eventually able to fight their way off the beach and proceed inland to their objectives.
Because high tide occurred later at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, the British and Canadian forces were set to land at 7:25 a.m. at Gold Beach and Sword Beach, and 7:45 a.m. at Juno Beach.
Although the initial wave of LCTs at Gold Beach suffered damage from obstacles and mines, German infantry defenses had been significantly reduced by pre-landing naval bombardments and the British 50th Infantry Division was able to accomplish almost all of its objectives by the end of the day.
The landing craft at Juno Beach were first faced with natural barriers offshore, and then the challenge of navigating through partially submerged beach obstacles. Due to a delay in the landing of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, the tide had risen higher than was planned and the obstacles were more difficult to locate and disable. Although the fighting at Juno Beach was more intense than that at Gold or Sword, the Canadians managed to exit the beach only a half an hour after landing.
The British troops at Sword Beach encountered relatively little initial resistance from the Germans, but were later tasked with repelling a counterattack by the German 21st Panzer Division. Although the 3rd Infantry Division did manage to link up with the 6th Airborne forces, most of their initial objectives, including the capture of Caen, were not met.
In spite of the myriad of problems encountered by the various landing forces, especially those at Omaha Beach, the Allied forces had established positions inland by the end of June 6th. The Germans, still suspecting that the Normandy landings were a diversion from expected landings in the Pas-de-Calais, failed to launch any significant counterattacks. With beachheads established, air superiority over northern France, and relatively little organized resistance from the Germans, the Allied forces began setting up the necessary supply lines that would be needed for their push into France and on to Germany.
Fact vs. Fiction
One common complaint leveled at Saving Private Ryan is the lack of non-American forces in the film. While the D-Day landings were conducted by American, British and Canadian forces, there would not have been any significant amount of British or Canadian soldiers in or around Omaha or Utah Beaches between June 6th and June 13th. One notable exception was the presence of a small number of British coxswains who piloted LCAs that carried soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion. Saving Private Ryan follows the story of an American Ranger unit trying to find an American paratrooper in a part of France that American units were operating in. The events depicted in the film do not lessen the British or Canadian contributions to D-Day, but the scope of the film simply does not cover these forces.