On 6 June 1944 – ‘D-Day’ – Allied forces launched the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare. Codenamed Operation ‘Overlord’, the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy marked the start of a long and costly campaign to liberate north-west Europe from Nazi occupation. On the morning of D-Day, ground troops landed across five assault beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. By the end of the day, the Allies had established themselves on shore and could begin the advance into France.
Over 23,000 men of the US 4th Infantry Division landed on Utah beach, the westernmost of the assault beaches. Strong currents swept the first wave of troops into a more lightly defended sector of the assault area – 2,000 yards south of their original target. Airborne troops had dropped into the area behind Utah in the early hours of 6 June. After periods of intense fighting, the paratroopers secured the causeways across the flooded lowlands, providing a route for troops on the beach to move further inland. By the end of the day, the 4th Infantry Division had advanced approximately four miles at a cost of about 200 killed, wounded or missing.
Troops from the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed on Omaha beach on 6 June. Omaha was the most heavily defended of the assault areas and casualties were higher than on any other beach. Preliminary Allied air and naval bombardments failed to knock out strong defence points along the coast and the Americans had difficulties clearing the beach obstacles. The experienced German 352nd Infantry Division was taking part in anti-invasion training in the area and was able to reinforce coastal defence units. Despite these challenges, the Americans were able to gain a small foothold on the beach by the end of the day. At the nearby Pointe du Hoc, US Rangers completed a costly assault on German gun emplacements at the top of the cliff.
Nearly 25,000 men of the British 50th Division landed on Gold beach on D-Day. Their objectives were to capture the town of Bayeux and the Caen-Bayeux road, and to link up with the Americans at Omaha. High winds caused the tide to rise more quickly than expected, concealing the beach obstacles underwater. But unlike on Omaha, the air and naval bombardment had succeeded in softening German coastal defences. By the end of the day, British troops had advanced about six miles inland and joined with troops from the Canadian 3rd Division, who had landed on Juno beach to the east.
The Canadian 3rd Division’s objective was to secure Juno beach and link up with British forces on Gold to the west and Sword to the east. Rough seas delayed the landing and the rising tide reduced the width of the beach, which eventually became jammed with incoming vehicles and equipment. Juno was heavily defended and casualties were high, especially among the first wave of landing infantry. By midnight, the Canadians had yet to link up with the British at Sword but had cleared exits off the beach, advanced several miles inland and joined up with the British at Gold.
Bad weather and strong German resistance hindered the British 3rd Division's assault on Sword beach, the easternmost of the beaches. Rising tides and the geography of the assault area created a narrow front, causing congestion and delays and making it difficult to land the armoured support needed for the advance inland. Although the 3rd Division successfully repelled a German counter-attack, it failed to take the strategically important city of Caen - its key objective for D-Day. The capture of Caen became a focal point of British strategy in the weeks after D-Day and the city was not fully occupied until mid-July.