Axis occupied territory, June 1944

The Normandy Landings

A map of the 6th Airborne Division's area



The Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, Gold Beach


The fighting all over Normandy had been a very slow, hard-fought and costly affair. Although the 6th Airborne Division had settled into a static defence comparatively quickly, the Allies everywhere else had to advance in order to create the space for the masses of men and equipment that needed to be landed. At this time, only the 1st US and 2nd British Armies were fighting in Normandy, but space was needed to land both the 3rd US and 1st Canadian Armies. The Germans had quickly recovered from the shock and ferocity of the invasion and they fought desperately to make the Allies pay for every inch of ground. The terrain was more suited to a defence than it was to an attack, simply by virtue of the thick "bocage" hedges that were the dominant feature of Normandy. These made the movement of tanks extremely difficult.


Caen became the focus of all eyes in Normandy. Field Marshal Montgomery's plan had been to capture it on the first day of the invasion and use it as a pivot on which the entire front line was to hinge. The capture of Caen was, however, rendered impossible by the unexpected appearance of the 21st Panzer Division in its suburbs on D-Day. Nevertheless, it still suited Montgomery's purposes in trying to give the impression that the British were to attempt the break-out, a feeling which was greatly reinforced by the position of the 6th Airborne Division across the River Orne, which clearly threatened an advance eastwards along the coast, or south around the eastern flank of Caen.


Montgomery encouraged the importance of Caen by continually attacking towards it, and in so doing drew the cream of German manpower into the British sector. The real break-out, however, was to be made by the 1st US Army in the west. After landing, the chief priority of the Americans was to secure the Cotentin Peninsula and, above all else, the port of Cherbourg. After hard fighting, Cherbourg was taken on the 26th June, and its fall, together with the capture of the 25,000 strong garrison, heralded the first major victory for the Allies in France. The conquest of the remainder of Cotentin soon followed and, with General Patton's 3rd Army now landing, the Americans were free to direct their efforts southwards. The British, in late July, had finally been able to seize a devastated Caen, however the German positions ahead of them remained prepared and formidable.


The human cost of the Battle of Normandy is not often appreciated. The Allies suffered enormous casualties in order to gain small patches of ground; entire battalions could be all but wiped out in a matter of hours, indeed at times the cost of the Normandy fighting rivalled if not exceeded the very worst battles of the First World War. Yet these losses, however grim, were more acceptable to the Allies, particularly to the Americans with their great reserves of manpower, than they were to the Germans. Normandy was a battle of attrition, in which Army Group B had been committed to the fight and gradually worn down, and after several weeks the strain was beginning to tell on them. As Generalfeldmarschall Rommel had predicted, their reinforcements had great difficulty in moving against the beachhead due to being under constant attack from the air. In addition, all of the bridges leading to the front line had been bombed, necessitating wide detours.


The German command structure was also suffering. On the 3rd July, Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt, the Commander-in-Chief in the West, believed that the position in Normandy was in such peril that he asked Hitler for permission to withdraw to a new defensive line. Greatly angered by this, the Führer sacked von Rundstedt and replaced him with Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge. Several weeks later on the 17th July, Rommel also left the battlefield, having been seriously injured when an Allied aircraft strafed his car.


On the 20th July, a bomb exploded at Hitler's Headquarters in East Prussia; it had been planted by senior figures in the military who saw that the only way to save Germany from an inevitable and total defeat was to overthrow the Nazi regime. Hitler survived the assassination attempt, but he was left very badly shaken and became intensely paranoid. A witch-hunt ensued, and although neither are believed to have played a part in the attempted coup, both von Kluge and Rommel were known to have met with the conspirators. Hitler dismissed von Kluge on the 17th August, and he committed suicide on the following day, whilst Rommel, who had recovered from his injuries, did likewise on the 14th October; his only alternative being a show trial that would be as humiliating for himself and his family as it would have been for Germany.


Confronted with the loss of such senior figures within just a few weeks of each other, the Allies sought to take full advantage of the fractures that had appeared in the ranks of their enemy. General Bradley, now commanding the 12th US Army Group, had devised a plan to break out of Normandy, and to support this he requested that the British launch a preceding offensive of their own, in order to draw all the German armoured reserves away to their sector. The British and Canadian attack, as described earlier, was Operation Goodwood. Montgomery had hoped to go further with this offensive and beat the Americans to the break-out, however the attempt came to a halt in the face of fierce resistance, deteriorating weather and difficult terrain, but nevertheless the German armoured reserves were lured towards the Caen sector.



On the 25th July, the Americans launched Operation Cobra, and on the 31st July they broke through the German lines at Avranches. A desperate attempt was made to halt them but it failed. Masses of American armour swarmed into the open countryside beyond the front line, some heading westwards, others southwards, but the main force, true to Montgomery's plan, headed east in an attempt to surround the Seventh Army in what was to become known as the Falaise Pocket. The break-out had come at last, and the collapse of the German front in Normandy was inevitable.


For the Germans, Falaise was a disaster that had, until then, been second only to their massive defeat at Stalingrad. Most of the fifteen divisions of the Seventh Army could have escaped, but Hitler, constantly interfering in military decision-making and utterly deluded in his judgement, ordered them to attack the American breach and so cut off the forces that had broken through. The attempt was a complete failure and resulted only in the Seventh Army driving themselves deeper into the trap. With the British and Canadians advancing from the north and the Americans cutting across their rear, the Germans were gradually surrounded in the Falaise Pocket and finally cut-off on the 21st August. Allied aircraft had complete superiority in the skies above and they inflicted terrible damage upon the Seventh Army. When the battle was over, General Eisenhower toured Falaise and was sickened to observe the extent of death and destruction that lay strewn across the landscape. Ten thousand Germans had lost their lives here, and fifty thousand were made prisoners.


The Allies, however, had failed to cut off the Pocket in time, and although they had to abandon all of their equipment, forty thousand men of the Seventh Army had managed to slip away along a narrow corridor. This failure created some friction between the Allies, and neither side could appreciate the reasoning of the other. In the south, infesting the Normandy countryside and sweeping onward in all directions, there was a limit to how fast the Americans could move, even though they were using open roads and were confronted with only rapidly improvised opposition. In the north, the British and Canadians were not able to advance anywhere near so quickly because the Germans to their front lay in long-prepared defences, whilst to their rear their supply chain struggled back and forth along heavily congested roads which passed through the rubble of towns that had been devastated by several months of bombing and shelling.


Nevertheless, the Battle of Normandy had been won and throughout the remainder of August and into September, the Allies pursued the retreating Germans with tremendous speed.