After a night of confusion and rumours of Allied Airborne drops in Normandy, German observation posts along the beaches looked to the sea for signs of enemy shipping, but they saw nothing. Time passed and still nothing came. It was beginning to look as if the talk of invasion had been premature, but then, out of the mist, emerged a spectacle that no one had seen before or since. From east to west, there suddenly appeared Allied warships, thousands of vessels of all shapes and sizes; battleships, cruisers, destroyers, minesweepers, troop transports, landing craft; six thousand five hundred of them in all, all heading directly towards the beaches. For both attacker and defender, the size of this armada was incredible to behold.
As the coastal garrisons stood in awe at the sight unfolding before their eyes, the first softening up blows fell upon them. The Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force had nine thousand aircraft of every type in the air on D-Day, to the fore of which were the heavy bombers which proceeded to batter fortifications all along the shoreline. At 05:30, the Royal Navy brought its guns to bear on Gold, Juno and Sword, and their relentless bombardment was followed twenty minutes later by the US Navy opening fire on Omaha and Utah. From battleships to destroyers, every warship played a part in pounding the strong-points on the beaches, some engaging in private duels with the coastal batteries which, initially dumbstruck, quickly recovered and returned fire, scoring a few hits. Paying little attention to the navy's shells, the air attacks continued as bombers emptied their loads over the German positions whilst fighters strafed with cannon, machine-guns and rockets. From Utah to Sword, forty miles of the Normandy coastline was on fire.
In choppy conditions, the first wave of assault infantry were already aboard their landing craft and heading towards the beaches whilst the Navy's shells thundered overhead; the noise was deafening. The first landings were due to take place on the American beaches at 06:30, whilst the British and Canadians would not begin their own assault for a further hour.
Of all the invasion beaches, Omaha produced the most bloody and uncertain fighting. The strategic importance of this beach, which provided the vital central link between the landings at Utah and the British beaches, had not been lost on the Germans and as such the formidable defences overlooking Omaha had been designed to create an inescapable killing ground. The Allies had expected immediate German resistance along the Omaha-Sword front to consist of just the weak and over-stretched 716th Division, but, shortly before the invasion fleet had set sail, it had been learned that a new formation, the 352nd Division, had taken over the Omaha area. To make matters worse, the Navy's bombardment of this beach was too brief to sufficiently reduce the defences, whilst the bombers, struggling with low clouds and fearful of stray ordnance landing amongst their own men, had ineffectively released their loads two miles inland.
The first hours of the assault upon Omaha were nothing short of slaughter. Of the thirty-two amphibious tanks which were intended to tip the balance in favour of the attackers, only five made it to the beach, the remainder sank in rough seas. All three waves of assault infantry were pinned down by artillery and machine-gun fire so dense that it seemed impossible to break cover without being hit. Whole units were cut to pieces, some had not even been able to get out of their landing craft before they were gunned down. Shocked and leaderless, the American infantry clung to the seawall as the fire continued to take a toll upon them. There was no hope of reinforcement, and the degree of enemy fire was such that an evacuation from Omaha was impossible. Unless the beach could be won, the invasion would fail.
Eventually Omaha was won, partly by the courageous example of the remaining officers and NCOs who urged their men forward, and also by US destroyers which, having bravely come so close to the shore that their keels were touching sand, proceeded to engage the German strong-points at point-blank range. The broken infantry units formed ad hoc groups and, after gathering weapons and ammunition from the dead and wounded, renewed the assault and exploited chinks in the defences. After a bloody struggle the beach was won, and by nightfall, at a cost of over four thousand casualties, the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were just over a mile inland. Unsurprisingly, they were far short of where they had hoped to be by the end of the first day.
An equally bloody fight had been expected at Utah, but the rough seas had nudged the assault troops a mile to the south of where they should have landed, and as such the 4th Division were comparatively unmolested as they came ashore. Recognising the error in their deployment and deciding whether to head north to capture the original beach, Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. ordered that the subsequent waves of infantry and vehicles should instead be brought to where the Division now stood, famously adding, "We're going to start the war from here." Having suffered entirely negligible casualties, the 4th Division moved inland and proceeded to link up with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.
Fortunes on the British beaches were mixed. Some soldiers made their way ashore without so much as a shot being fired, others were cut down on the shoreline. On Gold, the 50th (Northumbrian) Division quickly secured enough of the beach to allow the full machinery of unloading and dispersal to be working efficiently by noon. They had, however, suffered significant losses in some sectors. In the west, No.47 (Royal Marine) Commando lost forty-three men when three of their landing craft struck underwater mines, and the 231st Brigade encountered heavy resistance as they came ashore and then struggled against several machine-gun positions around Le Hamel until well into the afternoon. On the other side of Gold, it took the 69th Brigade several hours to win the beach, but by the afternoon they were inland and in the process of routing two battalions of German infantry. Events proceeded much more politely in the centre of Gold, and from here the 50th Division could have captured Bayeux by nightfall, but the commanders on the spot, anticipating a counterattack that their opponents had no capacity to mount, were cautious and let the chance slip away in favour of consolidating their beachhead.
The heaviest casualties on the British beaches were suffered by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on Juno. At 07:35, the first landing craft reached the beach but an unusually high number were destroyed by underwater mines; of the three hundred and six landing craft used, ninety were lost or disabled during the day. Many of the assaulting units suffered very heavy casualties on the shoreline, and once this resistance had been overcome it was found that the terrain beyond was teeming with German infantry. The Canadians, however, battled on and won through, and although this severe opposition had slowed them sufficiently to deny them their intended first-day objectives, they swept inland with great dash.
Sword beach had been divided into four sectors, however the planning phases had revealed that two and a half of these were completely shielded by offshore rock formations, impassable to landing craft. The 8th Brigade of the 3rd British Infantry Division landed at 07:25 along an uncomfortably narrow front, and they found that the German defences had suffered under the Royal Navy's guns but remained unbroken. The troops wading ashore were met with a sharp and costly struggle for possession of the beach, but nevertheless within a few hours the 8th Brigade were victorious and in the process of securing the beachhead.
The main objective of the 3rd Infantry Division on D-Day was the capture of Caen, ten miles south of Sword. Given any level of opposition, this was a most ambitious prize, however the unexpected arrival of the 21st Panzer Division in the suburbs of Caen rendered it completely unachievable. This very well-equipped Division, the only Panzer formation in Normandy on the 6th June, not only denied Caen to the British by its mere presence, but the city provided them with a firm base from which to counterattack. Early attacks of German armour were decisively beaten off, but by nightfall the 3rd Infantry Division were hard pressed and struggling to hold their gains. Furthermore, these probing attacks had revealed to the Germans that there was a gap in the British lines between Sword and Juno, courtesy of the inaccessible sectors of Sword. Although some German units drove into this gap and reached the coast, the possibility of driving a wedge between the British lines, and thereby destabilising the entire left flank of the invasion, was fortunately never exploited.