(Map 1: Normandy Landings)
Earlier today I did a post on the 74th anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy landings. This focused on the US, specifically as it highlighted the 82nd Airborne Division’s reenactment of their portion of the campaign over twitter. D-Day, however, was not just about the US’s efforts. It is important, given the current realities of the US’s relations with its closest allies, to remind ourselves what our allies and partners not only contribute as allies and partners, but what they are capable of doing. So before the 6th turns to the 7th, I wanted to take a moment and focus on Britain’s, Canada’s, and the Free French Forces’ portions of Operation Overlord, which were the landings on the Normandy coast’s named Gold (Britain), Juno (Britain and Canada), and Sword (Britain and France).
The planning for Operation Overlord was met with skepticism by Canadian and British military leadership as a result of the failure of the Allied raid at Dieppe on the French coast in 1942. From the BBC:
The British and Canadians had suffered their own disaster at Dieppe on 18 August 1942. More than two thirds of a 6,000-man raiding force had been left behind on the shingle beach, dead, wounded and prisoners.
On the eve of D-Day the Allied leadership was in a state of neurotic anxiety. Just after midnight on 6 June, a restless Churchill, haunted by memories of the disastrous Allied landings at Gallipoli 29 years earlier, bade his wife goodnight with the words, ‘Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning twenty thousand men may have been killed?’
The same night, the chief of the imperial general staff, General Alan Brooke, confided to his diary that ‘… it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over ‘.
Allied aircraft paved the way for the landings, bombing the coastal defence in the months leading up to the attack. On June 6, 1944—D-Day—a massive Allied force crossed the English Channel to engage in Operation Overlord. Their destination: an 80-kilometre stretch of the heavily-defended coast of Normandy. There were five landing zones, given special code names: Juno Beach (Canada); Gold Beach (United Kingdom); Sword Beach (United Kingdom and France); and Utah Beach and Omaha Beach (United States).
Seven thousand vessels of all types, including 284 major combat vessels, took part in Operation Neptune, the assault phase of the D-Day offensive. Destroyers and supporting craft of the Royal Canadian Navy did their part and shelled German targets while many Royal Canadian Air Force planes were among the 4,000 Allied bombers (plus some 3,700 fighters and fighter bombers) which attacked the German beach defences and inland targets.
More than 450 Canadians parachuted inland before dawn on June 6 and engaged the enemy. A few hours later, some 14,000 Canadian troops began coming ashore at Juno Beach in the face of enemy fire. Their mission: to establish a beachhead along an eight-kilometre stretch fronting the villages of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernières-sur-Mer, and Saint Aubin-sur-Mer. Once secure, the troops would push inland to capture the city of Caen, an important communications centre for the Germans.
Many Canadian soldiers in the Normandy campaign were young and new to battle, but their courage and skill meant they often helped lead the Allied advance against a determined enemy. Canadians soon captured three shoreline positions on D-Day and established themselves near the village of Creully, but this was to be only the beginning of the struggle to liberate France. Savage fighting in Normandy continued and grew even more intense as Canadian forces faced powerful German Panzer tank divisions in the struggle for Caen.
Through the summer of 1944, the fighting continued through choking dust and intense heat. The conditions were terrible and the enemy was ruthless, but the troops moved forward. Canadians played an important role in closing the “Falaise Gap” in mid-August as the Germans finally retreated in the face of the Allied offensive. On August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated by the Allies, bringing the Normandy campaign officially to a close.
And once again the BBC (emphasis mine):
On Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, British and Canadian troops were supported by the specialised assault vehicles of 79th Armoured Division. On all three, German strongpoints initially inflicted heavy casualties, but a combination of Petard mortar and Crocodile tank soon smashed the defences.
On Gold and Juno, British and Canadian forces pushed inland rapidly. On Sword, British 3rd Division was held up three miles short of Caen by a network of German defensive positions along a ridge. Finally, late that afternoon, the 21st Panzer Division launched a counterattack. Some units managed to reach the coast, though they were too weak to hold their positions.
The world learned the invasion was underway from German state radio, which announced landings in Normandy on its 07.00 news service, and promised the invaders would be swiftly annihilated.
A special BBC news bulletin came two-and-a-half hours later. John Snagge announced that D-Day had come and all was going according to plan. At 12.00 Churchill repeated this news in a statement to the House of Commons. Despite Eisenhower’s worries about the situation on Omaha beach, by mid-afternoon it was clear that even on Omaha the battle was running in the Allies’ favour.
When Churchill again addressed the House of Commons at 18.00 it was to announce an astounding success. To secure a lodgement on the coast of France, the Allies had taken 10,000 casualties, 3,000 of whom were dead – mostly airborne troops or those who had landed at Omaha Beach.
Losses were far lighter than anticipated, a tribute to years of planning and preparation, a bold command decision, and a lot of good luck.
I want to make sure to include the Free French Forces’ contribution. There weren’t a lot of them involved in the landing and assault on Sword Beach, but they fought with distinction.
On June 6, 1944, the Free French land forces deployed on Sword Beach are composed of two troops and a section. There are 177 commandos (1er Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins) led by Commandant Philippe Kieffer.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, four sticks of 8 paratroopers from Free France belonging to the 3rd battalion under Bourgoin were dropped over Brittany.
The Free French air forces that participated in Operation Neptune from June 5 to 6, 1944, are the following: 3 fighter squadrons and 2 light and heavy bomber squadrons (which had previously fought in North Africa).
On many Allied war ships participating in Operation Overlord, one could find some crewmen French Libres. There are four Free French ships (which had been almost all built by the British):
In front of the German coastal artillery battery of Longues-sur-Mer (between Omaha Beach and Gold Beach) are deployed the Free France cruisers “Montcalm” and “Georges Leygues”.
In front of Omaha Beach is the Free France destroyer “Roselys”.
In front of Juno Beach is the Free France destroyer “La Combattante”.
(Image 1: Kieffer Commando’s Monument)
Here’s a documentary about the Allied – British, Canadian, and Free French – portion of Operation Overlord: