British troops moving up to the line during fighting in the Odon valley in Normandy, July 1944.
On 6 June 1944, D-Day, Allied troops landed on the coast of Normandy. It was the start of the campaign to liberate Europe and defeat Germany.
The Battle of Normandy was a hard-fought campaign. British divisions bore the brunt of German resistance on the eastern flank of the front, enabling US forces to stage a breakout in the west. The typical bocage landscape of small fields surrounded by thick hedges and narrow sunken lanes favoured the defenders. Casualties - especially among the infantry - were heavy. But the Germans were constrained by Hitler’s refusal to let his commanders make tactical withdrawals when required, which meant that the bulk of their forces were eventually trapped and destroyed by the Allied breakout. By the end of August, the Germans were in full retreat out of France.
The rapid Allied advance to the German frontier could not be sustained, which allowed the Germans to regroup. In September, Field Marshal Montgomery launched a daring but unsuccessful airborne operation to capture a bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, and outflank the defences of the Siegfried Line. As winter approached, the Allied campaign ground to a halt.
Soldiers from the US 83rd Infantry Division man an anti-tank gun during the 'Battle of the Bulge'. The Germans' surprise offensive into Belgium achieved some success, but was eventually repelled by American and British forces in January.
Hitler’s desperate last-ditch counter-offensive in the Ardennes in December failed to stave off defeat. The surprise counter-offensive achieved some initial success, but was soon contained by US forces. When the weather cleared, Allied air attacks completed the destruction of the German spearheads. Hitler’s gamble had drained what was left of his army’s manpower in the west – reserves of men and equipment were now gone.
The Allies resumed their advance and in March 1945 crossed the Rhine - the last remaining obstacle into the heart of Germany. The Rhine Crossing at Wesel on 23 March 1945 was Field Marshal Montgomery’s last set-piece battle of the war. Casualties were heavy among the two airborne divisions which dropped on the east bank, but US forces had already crossed the river at a number of locations further south. In April, British and American troops linked up with the Russians on the Elbe. The war in Europe ended with German surrender on 7 May 1945.