Operation Overlord: The Beginning of the End

17 Feb

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On the night of June 5th, 1944, 6,000 British and American ships left the southern coast of England bound for the northern shores of France carrying over 150,000 British, American, and Canadian troops. In the skies, American aircraft ferried over 13,000 British and American paratroopers to targets inside Normandy. It was the largest invasion force ever assembled, and it was designed to tackle Europe’s greatest obstacle: the vaunted defenses of Erwin Rommel’s Atlantic Wall. Participating in what became known as Operation Neptune, these men were part of the assault phase of Operation Overlord, the greatest invasion in the history of mankind, designed to liberate France the tyranny of Nazi oppression, and it had been two years in the making.

On December 11th, 1941, just four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and three days after President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on the Empire of Japan, as well as four months after the forming of the Atlantic Charter between Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States, followed shortly thereafter by Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. Neither Axis leader was obligated under the terms of the September 1940 Tripartite Pact with Japan to go to war with the United States, yet they did so anyway. Hitler had his own designs on the United States, and war between the two powers was inevitable. As 1941 turned to 1942, war in Europe seemed stagnant, as all of the continent was placed under the heel of the Nazi jackboot, while German forces were kept at bay from Moscow by well-organized Soviet resistance, although neither the German nor Soviet forces could break through each others lines. By summer of that year, Operation Blue had been placed in effect, and German troops of Army Group South, spearheaded by Frederick Paulus’s 6th Army, were marching toward the metropolitan center of Stalingrad through sweltering heat. In North Africa, fighting had changed from eastern Libya to western Egypt upon the arrival of General, later Field Marshal, Erwin Rommel at Tripoli with his Afrika Korps, later Panzerarmee Afrika, in February of the previous year. Italian forces under General Rudolfo Graziani had proved their mettle against the evenly-matched British, although the war had ground itself into a stalemate that was only broken through offensive action, taken by the British under General Richard O’Connor in the form of the December 1940 Operation Compass. The operation punched a substantial hole in Italian lines and drove hard into eastern Libya. Originally designed to break Italian forces along the border, O’Connor soon realized that a strike at Tobruk, the primarily supply port for the Italian forces in Libya, could become a reality, and after both Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his commanding officer Field Marshal Archibald Wavell urged him on, he pushed hard for the port, seizing it and finally halting at El Agheila, almost five hundred miles from Sidi Barrani, O’Connor’s starting point in Egypt. The Italian 10th Army under Graziani had been obliterated, with 115,000 men being killed or captured in the intense combat. An entire Italian army had disappeared virtually overnight, and a war that Mussolini had wished to keep strictly between the Italians and the British rapidly transformed with the arrival Rommel and his infamous Afrika Korps, two elite panzer divisions that would come to reshape the war in Africa. 

Originally a war fought between masses of infantry, primarily due to the sheer toll the grainy sand took on engines, the arrival of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, consisting of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, at Tripoli in February 1941 altered drastically the style of the war in Africa. Neither the Italian military nor the British military possessed large quantities of armored vehicles, and the ones they did manufacture were of sub-par quality, and failed to match the German Panzer in any category. The German Panzer possessed thicker armor and not only a heavier gun, yet also one with superior range. Although the Panzer was slower and could be outmaneuvered by quicker British tanks, the Panzer crewmen were also more experienced, many of them having seen combat in France and the Low Countries, the Balkans, Scandinavia, or even Spain, while the British only possessed the experience of the stalemated war they fought against the Italians, not an ample proxy for the formidable German armored divisions. Another factor plaguing the British was a series of conflicts unfurling in British Palestine, Transjordan, French Syria, and British Iraq, where British troops had to be ferried constantly to crush suspected pro-Nazi rebellions, as well as mounting a joint invasion of Iran alongside Soviet forces and deposing the pro-Nazi shah, as well as combat against the Italians in Abyssinia, where deposed leader Haile Selassie attempted a return to combat the Italians who had taken the country in 1936, as well as fighting in Eritrea, along the Kenyan border, and in British, French, and Italian Somaliland.  Many of these marginal campaigns sapped available combat troops away from the hotly contested Western Desert of Egypt, where the fate of the campaign would be decided. By the summer of 1942, the Afrika Korps had stunned the British, who had attempted to launch two counterattacks in the summer and winter of 1941, Operations Crusader and Battleaxe, both failing to reach any discernible success, the latter leaving a South African and Australian garrison at Tobruk abandoned and subject to a siege by Rommel. Although Rommel’s Korps seemed like a fast-moving armored juggernaut, it was rapidly being worn down by problems of its own. Rommel frequently fell ill to hepatitis and later nasal diphtheria and was withdrawn on numerous occasions, leaving the command of the Afrika Korps in a lesser officer’s hands, even being absent during the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942. Another issue plaguing Rommel’s forces was oil. In June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest land battle in history, his long-awaited invasion of the Soviet Union. Three million German and Eastern European troops crossed the border into the USSR, and by fall, Army Group Center was in sight of the spires of the Kremlin, while Army Group North had surrounded the metropolitan center of Leningrad and Army Group South had captured Kharkov and Kiev and drove hard across the steppes of the Ukraine toward Sevastopol on the Kerch Peninsula and Baku and Grozny in the oil-rich Caucasus Mountains. Fighting in the Soviet Union bogged down following a Soviet counterattack launched outside Moscow one day prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and soon Hitler, who obsessed over the combat on the Eastern Front in his East Prussian headquarters at Rastenburg, gave priority in supply to the men of Army Groups North, Center, and South, while Rommel, who seemed far more apt to take Cairo well before any German forces took Moscow, was forced to push across the Western Desert with what he had, his advance often stalling or even stopping altogether, giving his beleaguered foes ample time to consolidate. Another issue was increasing Royal Navy dominance of the Mediterranean, which severely hampered supply lines from Italy and Sicily to Tripoli and Tobruk. The Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica had attempted on several occasions throughout 1941 to destroy the British naval base at Valletta, the capital of the island nation of Malta, then under British rule, although the island did not fall, and German and Italian forces chose rather to bypass it, although the Royal Navy continued to grow exponentially in size, controlling not only Malta yet also Gibraltar, in Spain. German and Italian ships en route from Italy to Libya were subjected to the full might of Royal Navy sea power and Royal Air Force air superiority, altering the course of the war so as to severely damage Rommel’s already over-extended supply lines snaking across Libya and western Egypt, which were already subjected to British air assault. Supplies, primarily oil, stopped to a trickle, and Rommel’s advance took a severe beating in the process.

In autumn 1942, after the British, now under the command of the tenacious and firebrand leadership of Harold Alexander and the spearhead of the British Army, the 8th Army, now under the command of the methodical and hard-hitting Bernard Montgomery, had repulsed the German assault on the small train station of El Alamein in northern Egypt, just over one hundred miles from Cairo, the stage was set for the Second, and far more climactic, Battle of El Alamein. The high ground of Alam Halfa was the overall target of Rommel’s advance, and if taken, Rommel could shell the British defenders into submission. Yet it was held tightly in British hands. Montgomery had also learned from the failure of his predecessors, considering they had all fallen trap to Rommel’s signature move: flanking. Generals Claude Autchinleck and Archibald Wavell had been replaced due to their inability to cope with this new strategy, changing the static combat in Africa to one that was incredibly dynamic and decided by armor. At the Battle of Gazala earlier in 1942, a British line had been established under the command of General Neil Ritchie spanning from the impassible Qattara Depression in the south to the Mediterranean coast in the north to ensure that flanking was an impossibility, yet Rommel had yet again struck hard and broken through near the Qattara Depression at an area manned by Free French Foreign Legionaries, who broke and fled as Rommel’s tanks overran them, forcing Ritchie to retreat, leading to his replacement by Montgomery. Montgomery now held the high ground, and as Rommel’s armor threatened his position, Montgomery matched him blow for blow. As the two men slugged it out through the last week of October 1942, another Allied forced loomed just over the horizon: American forces of the 1st, 3rd, and 9th Infantry Divisions and the 1st Armored Division under Generals Lloyd Fredendall and George S. Patton, the men who would execute Operation Torch. Originally designated Operation Gymnast, Torch was aimed at a three-pronged landing to be executed at Oran and Algiers in Algeria to the east and Casablanca and near Fesbala in Morocco to the west. The idea was to take pressure off Montgomery’s 8th Army and simultaneously catch the German forces in the Western Desert off guard by forcing them to cope with combat on two fronts. If successful, Torch would then push into Tunisia and cramp the German forces together between Patton to the west and Montgomery to the east. The one issue facing the landings was not logistics or troops, but the men who would be opposing the American landings: the Vichy French.

In June 1940, following over a month of combat and the final epic withdrawal of over 300,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk, the French Third Republic under President Albert Lebrun capitulated to the German military, signing surrender terms in the same train car the Germans had surrendered to the French in following the First World War. In an effort to preserve some degree of French independence from Germany, former French general Charles de Gaulle entered exile in England and established the Free French, at first a motley crew of underground French resistance fighters known as the Maquis, but later composing infantry and armored division within the Allied war effort, fighting in Italy alongside Mark Clark’s 5th Army, and later fighting as part of Jacob Devers’s 6th Army Group in southern France. On another side of the spectrum sat Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, who chose to take an opposite approach to de Gaulle and signed an armistice with the German military, establishing a collaborationist state in southern France with its capital at the city of Vichy. The Vichy Republic would support the German war effort, reluctantly, in exchange for independence from German rule. Overseas territories once under French control would also fall under Vichy control. These included Senegal, Mali, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Vietnam among others. The French Navy would also fall under Vichy control, and the Vichy government immediately dispatched it about the Mediterranean, sending a portion to Syria and another to Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria. A third portion defected from the French and entered British ports to surrender piecemeal. The reason for this fracturing of the French Navy was to keep the formidable French fleet out of German hands, which was expressly stipulated in the terms of the armistice. In July 1940, a British naval task force, out of fear that the fleet at Mers-el-Kebir would fall into German hands, assaulted the ships moored there and destroyed one battleship, damaged another, damaged three destroyers and a cruiser, and ran a destroyer aground, killing more than 1,200 French sailors in the process with the loss of only six aircraft. The attack on Mers-el-Kebir severely damaged Anglo-French relations, and forced British troops of No.6 Commando wading ashore alongside American troops at Algiers and Oran to wear American uniforms so French troops who may have held their fire at the sight of Americans would not open fire at the sight of British troops. The attack also prompted the French government to withdraw the fleet from Syria and order it back to Marseilles, where it was kept until scuttled following a German invasion in November 1942. The French forces in North Africa fell under the command of General Henri Giraud, while the Navy was commanded by Admiral Francois Darlan, and in order for American forces to gain an accurate assessment of Vichy French sentiment toward the Americans, the British submarine HMS Seraph took General Mark Clark ashore at Cherchell in Algeria to meet with twenty one French officers, among their ranks was Giraud. Clark was attempting to not only gain an assessment, yet also strike a deal with the French, so when American forces came ashore, the Vichy troops manning shore defenses would not open fire. Giraud said he wished to take command of all Allied forces coming ashore in exchange for his men holding their fire, yet Clark informed him of the impossibility of that task, considering that command was already in the hands of General Dwight Eisenhower. Giraud told Clark he would see what he could do, and on the morning of November 8th, 1942, D-Day for Operation Torch, American troops were issued with armbands emblazoned with the American flag to display that they were American troops, because no one knew if the French would hold their fire or not. Just two days prior to the American landings in North Africa, Montgomery launched Operation Supercharge, and drove the Germans back from El Alamein, inflicting not only severe casualties, yet also the first defeat of the Afrika Korps. When American forces waded ashore on the morning of November 8th, they came under intense machine gun fire from French forces in pillboxes and machine guns nests along the shore, and after several hours of fighting, American forces broke through. After just two days of combat, the French surrendered to the Americans, and Francois Darlan was established governor of all French territory under Allied control in North Africa, although he was assassinated just one month in to that command. In response to the French surrender, the German military launched an invasion of Vichy France, known as Operation Anton, which prompted the Vichy French to scuttle their fleet inside Marseilles to deny its usage by the German Kriegsmarine. By January 1943, the British had pushed the Germans back across Libya and into the defenses of the Marith Line in southeastern Tunisia, while American forces were pushing through the impregnable Atlas Mountains in a broad front along the entirety of Tunisia’s border with Algeria. The Afrika Korps, now under the command of General Hans-Jurgen von Arnim, was attempting to fight a delaying action against the battle-hardened British while simultaneously lash out against the American forces and keep them at bay. That lashing out came in the form of a German counterattack at the Kasserine Pass in February 1943, and although the German forces overwhelmed American troops defending the Pass, the lack of ample supply forced von Arnim and Rommel’s troops to withdraw and fortify a position around Tunis, the Tunisian capital, but by May 1943, the remnants of Rommel’s forces had either surrendered or withdrawn to Sicily. The war in Africa had been won.

Allied attention turned swiftly to Sicily, the largest of three islands off the Italian coast. If Sicily could be taken, Allied forces could utilize it as a stepping stone for further offensive action against the German and Italian forces in Italy, what President Franklin Roosevelt regarded as the “soft underbelly” of the Axis war machine. Following the loss of the 10th Army and the arrival of the Afrika Korps, the Italian people gradually felt that Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, having virtually replaced King Victor Emmanuel III as ruler of Italy, was nothing but a Nazi puppet. That assessment was entirely correct, and his popularity plummeted as American and British forces waded ashore at Sicily in July 1943. The Allied planners chose Sicily due not only to its proximity to Italy, with the cities of Messina and Calabria being separated by the 2-mile wide Strait of Messina, yet also the mass of Axis forces on the island following their withdrawal from North Africa and its proximity to Allied positions in North Africa. The German forces on the island, under the overall command of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, consisted mainly of remnants of the Afrika Korps and the elite Hermann Goering Division, supported by elements of the Italian 6th Army under General Alfredo Guzzoni. The Allied forces attacking were the American 7th Army under General George S. Patton, and the British 8th Army under General Bernard Montgomery, supported by elements of the American 82nd Airborne Division and the British 1st Airborne Division. Operation Husky, as the landings came to be code-named, would see the first large scale utilization of Allied paratroopers during the war, although the American 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division had seen combat during Operation Torch. The paratroopers’ objectives were to seize key roads and bridges to deny their use by German and Italian forces as potential avenues for counterattack and also to cause chaos and mayhem behind enemy lines. The parachute drop would take place under cover of darkness, which not only caused mayhem behind enemy lines yet also severely jumbled the effectiveness of the Allied drops, with men dropping far from their designated drop zones and broken bones skyrocketing. The American landings, with the American 1st, 3rd, 9th, and 45th Infantry and 2nd Armored Divisions, would take place near Gela, while the British landings, consisting of the British 5th, 50th Northumbrian, 78th, 51st Highland Infantry Divisions, along with support from the Canadian 1st Infantry Division, 23rd Armored, 231st Infantry, 4th Armored, and Canadian 1st Armored Brigades, landing at Syracuse. The overall strategy was to have Montgomery’s forces advance along the eastern coast in the direction of Messina, take the city, and prevent German forces from retreating to the Italian mainland, while Patton, Lucian Truscott, and Omar Bradley’s forces protected his western flank against a potential counterattack. Patton had always hated the British, and both he and Montgomery were notorious glory hounds. Patton had gained notoriety in Allied press for his exploits in Morocco and Algeria, while Montgomery had gained notoriety for his victory at El Alamein. The two men were vicious rivals, and Patton was disgusted with the thought of allowing Montgomery to take Messina, the veritable jewel of Sicily. Patton had ulterior motives in place when the landings went underway on July 10th, 1943.

German and Italian forces on Sicily were taken almost completely off guard by the Allied landings, thanks to the deception of Operation Mincemeat, in which a deceased British drifter who had committed suicide with rat poison was dressed in a Royal Navy uniform, given false documents, and even pictures of his “wife”. The man was given a complete back story and made out to look like a real officer when his body was dumped off a British destroyer near the southern coast of Spain in spring 1943. Attached to his wrist was an attache case packed with documents regarding an operation that would take place with landings on the island of Sardinia in conjunction with Allied landings in Greece. Spanish authorities picked up the body, and, although they were technically neutral, they relayed the information to their secret allies, Nazi Germany. In response, defenses in Greece and Sardinia were bolstered, and when Allied forces came ashore on Sicily, they came ashore against minimal resistance. As the landings got underway, rather than stick to the original plan, Patton chose to alter his attention to advancing along the southwest coast of Sicily, then heading north toward Palermo, the administrative capital of Sicily, before turning east and advancing toward Messina along the northern coast of Sicily. If his strategy went as planned, he could take both cities before Montgomery. In abandoning Montgomery, the British forces became bogged down in heavy fighting near Mount Etna, and American forces soon took Palermo, yet heavy resistance in northern Sicily caused Patton to mount a series of amphibious landings along the coast to punch holes in the German lines and force them to back toward Messina. Alexander attempted to force Patton to stick the original plan of advancing just straight for Messina, yet Patton ignored him and pushed for Messina through Palermo. With Montgomery forces to deal with the bulk of German resistance, his advance was severely slowed, and in August 1943, after a little under a month of fighting, Montgomery arrived in Messina, just hours after Patton. Although Patton had seized the glory, he had unwittingly allowed a mass of German troops to escape to mainland Italy in the process, yet he would not be worried with such affairs. During the fighting, Patton had slapped two shell shocked American soldiers who he regarded as cowards. The incident was covered up by Eisenhower, who demoted Patton to lieutenant general and placed him under the command of his former subordinate Omar Bradley. As Sicily was subjugated, in Italy, the Fascist Grand Council in Rome had grown angry and tired of Mussolini, and issued a warrant for his arrest on July 25th, 1943. Mussolini immediately went to the home of King Victor Emmanuel III, asking for his assistance, with the King replying that he could to home of the only person in Italy who did not hate him. Mussolini was captured by Italian troops and imprisoned in the Campo Imperatore Hotel, a ski resort on the Gran Sasso massif in the Apennine Mountains. Mussolini was replaced with Marshal Peitro Badaglio, a moderate in the Fascist Grand Council and former subordinate of Mussolini, who immediately set about negotiating an Italian surrender. The German military, now housed securely inside Italy, had drawn up plans for a hypothetical scenario in which the Italian government surrendered, and when the surrender was finalized on September 8th, 1943, the German military set about disarming and arresting Italian military personnel throughout the peninsula. With Sicily secure in hand, and with Elba, Corsica, and Sardinia soon to fall, the Allies were prepared for the invasion of mainland Italy, code-named Operation Avalanche.

Avalanche consisted of three prongs, similar to Operation Torch. The first two were to be executed by British forces in the forms of Operations Baytown and Slapstick, the former an amphibious landing near the port of Taranto, bombed by the British during Operation Judgement in November 1940, and the latter being an amphibious landing launched across the Strait of Messina against Calabria. Both Baytown and Slapstick fell under the command of General, later Field Marshal, Bernard Montgomery, while the third phase, Avalanche itself, would be launched just south of the metropolis of Naples around the town of Salerno and would be executed by the 5th Army, under the command of General Mark Wayne Clark. A contingency plan was drawn up for a paratrooper drop around the landing site for the 5th Army, code-named Operation Giant, although Giant was later scrubbed and a second plan, known as Giant II, was authored for a paratrooper drop directly into Rome. Giant II was designed to drop the American 82nd Airborne Division, under General Matthew Ridgeway, into Rome, and hold the city until Allied forces arrived to relieve him. The 82nd Airborne’s executive officer, General Maxwell Taylor, was dispatched to the city to confer with Italian officers, and they informed him that an airborne landing would be impossible with the sheer volume of German forces in the area. Taylor relayed this information back to Ridgeway, who informed Eisenhower, and Giant II was cancelled just prior to the first aircraft packed with paratroopers leaving the runway. Ridgeway had opposed the drop the entire time it had been on and left the drawing board, claiming it was suicide, and luckily it was scrubbed. Rome was not taken until the day prior to Operation Overlord, the landings in Normandy, June 5th, 1944. Many issues were facing Allied commanders during Avalanche, the worst of which was the distance between Clark’s and Montgomery’s forces, a distance of over 300 miles. Montgomery stated that if Clark became bogged down in heavy fighting near Salerno, he would not be able to arrive and relieve him in time, and just such a thing happened. On the second day of the landing at Salerno, which was hotly contested by German forces because they knew of the landings before they happened because overconfident American sailors had broadcast the surrender of Italy of loudspeakers on their ships, Clark’s troops were counterattacked by a German armored division brought down from the Rome area. The landing beaches near Salerno were divided along the river Sele, with troops landing to the north and to the south of the river, and the German troops attempted to utilize this division to drive a wedge between the American troops and defeat them piecemeal. The German counterattack had almost worked, except the United States Navy had arrived in time to begin shelling German forces, driving them back from the beachhead with heavy casualties. Montgomery’s forces, having landed in an area of Italy that possessed almost no German forces, advanced rapidly northward along the Apennine Mountains, yet the mountain range, running north to south along the peninsula, divided Clark’s and Montgomery’s troops, so Clark’s forces would be forced to fight on the western coast, and Montgomery’s on the east. As September turned to October, the Allied forces advance began to slow as torrential rains turned roads into muddy quagmires, hampering the speed and effectiveness of Allied armor the campaign relied so heavily upon. By January 1944, Allied forces had arrived at the vaunted German Winter, or Gustav, Line, a defensive network high in the Apennine Mountains spanning the length of the east-west rivers Sangro and Garigliano. The Italian topography was ideal for mounting a defense, considering it consisted of mountains criss-crossed by rivers that were nearly impassible under artillery fire from the snowy peaks. The Winter Line’s defensive network denied the Allies their road to Rome, and American planners soon targeted what they felt to be the weakest link the German line, a small town near a 400-year-old Benedictine monastery, the very same one Charlemagne had been crowned king of Franks in, Monte Cassino.

Cassino would prove a vicious nut to crack, and in an attempt to circumvent the German defenses and hopefully prompt German forces to withdraw from the mountain fortress, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered an amphibious landing to be mounted near the town of Anzio, just south of Rome and north of Monte Cassino. The operation, code-name Shingle, would fall under the command of American general Lloyd Fredendall, an overly cautious commander who would cost the Allied invasion considerable offensive ability during the landings. Executed on January 22nd, 1944, while fighting raged near Monte Cassino, Fredendall’s troops waded ashore near Anzio without any enemy resistance. There were actually no German forces in the area, and if Fredendall had chosen to advance on Rome, he could have done it, but instead he chose to consolidate his forces for a potential German counterattack he thought would surely come, and in doing so actually prompted said German counterattack, which soon pinned American and British forces down, some from the newly arrived 1st Special Service Force, or Devil’s Brigade, an elite force of American and Canadian troops who had fought against the Japanese on Kiska and Attu islands in the Aleutian Archipelago off the western coast of Alaska. The Germans soon brought in two Krupp K5 11-inch (283mm) railway siege cannon, similar to the Schwerer Gustav 800mm gun being utilized against the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Fredendall’s inaction spelled his defeat and eventual replacement by the more tenacious General Lucian Truscott. As Allied forces were now pinned down in two locations, the fighting in Italy had come to a standstill. In spring 1944, American bombers of the 15th Air Force launched a strike against Monte Cassino, razing the 400-year-old monastery to rubble, considering Allied commanders believed the stubborn German resistance was thanks to artillery spotters inside the structure, although this had no factual backing and the building was actually vacant. The bombing turned the building and the town into a wasteland ideal for the defender, and the bombing actually assisted German troops. Yet by May 1944, their position had become untenable, and Free Polish troops took the summit of the mountain, breaking the Winter Line, and the men pinned down at Anzio and Cisterna were soon capable of a break out as German troops fled north toward Rome. Truscott had had the opportunity to capture a massive volume of retreating German forces if he had attempted to swing his army in a southeasterly direction, but Clark, eager to take Rome, had ordered him to instead push for the city and let the German troops flee. On June 5th, 1944, Allied forces entered the city, yet they were soon overshadowed by something far greater.

In November 1943, General Secretary Josef Stalin, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and President Franklin Roosevelt met in Tehran, the capital of Iran that two years earlier had been invaded by a joint Anglo-Soviet army, to discuss the prospect of opening a second front in western Europe. When Nazi Germany had declared war on the United States on December 11th, 1941, American forces were soon deployed to Great Britain, and American generals were eager to launch Operations Sledgehammer and Roundup, two plans designed for an invasion of continental Europe, primarily in France. The British had declared that it was impossible with the way the war was moving at that stage, and informed the Americans that focusing on the Mediterranean and wearing German troops there down would be more beneficial in the long run, by not only wearing German forces down, yet also garnering a greater number of Allied forces and commanders with real combat experience. The Americans had believed this to be a British ploy to gain leverage in peacetime and expand their territorial ambitions and their Empire following the end of the war, and chose rather to attempt an invasion. The British explained again that it was impossible, and in August 1942 chose rather to show them than try to explain. 6,000 Canadian troops, U.S. Army Rangers, and British commandos under Lord Louis Mountbatten landed at Dieppe, on France’s western coast. The battle lasted just two days, and resulted in the death or capture of the majority of the men, with only a handful escaping capture and fleeing back to Britain. The landing clearly showed that an invasion of Fortress Europe was not possible this early in the war, and estimates for when it could be attempted were set for early 1944. At Tehran in November 1943, over one year later, Stalin urged President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill to open a second front, as he was forced to bear the brunt of German resistance. With the fighting at Stalingrad alone, 1,150,000 Soviet troops had been killed, wounded, captured, or gone missing, during the Soviet counterattack near Moscow in December 1941, nearly 1,200,000 Soviet troops had been killed or wounded, and in the first three weeks of Operation Barbarossa, 2,250,000 Soviet troops had been killed or captured in suicidal, over-zealous defenses of cities such as Kharkov, Kiev, Smolensk, and Vitebsk. Stalin needed a second front to opened, and even if his troops had been victorious at Stalingrad, with fighting ending there in February 1943, or finally taking Kharkov after three separate battles there in March 1943, as well as defeating German forces at Prokhorovka and Kursk in July 1943 in the largest armored battle in history, Stalin still needed to relieve some of the pressure on his troops so as to take the fight to Germany and away from his people, as not only military yet also civilian casualties were mounting. Roosevelt and Churchill told him it would be done, and planning went underway for Operation Overlord, the planned invasion of France.

The target was set for Normandy, a region along the northern coast of the Contentin Peninsula jutting out just north of the larger Brittany Peninsula, which housed the majority of Germany’s submarine fleet as well as the massive ports of Lorient and Saint Nazaire. The operation was broken into several phases, with Operation Neptune being the code-name for the actual landings in Normandy and Operation Cobra for the Allied breakout from the Normandy area into the whole of France. Overlord would be the largest amphibious landing in history, a title that originally went to Operation Husky. Between 150 and 175,000 Allied troops, namely British, Canadian, and American, would strike five beachheads along the Normandy coast, designated Gold and Sword (British), Juno (Canadian), and Omaha and Utah (American). Between Omaha and Utah sat Pointe-du-Hoc, a bluff of one-hundred foot chalk cliffs Allied planners believed the Germans were utilizing to house 155mm French Hotchkiss guns captured from the French during Case Yellow in may 1940. Allied troops coming ashore in France would be up against formidable resistance, namely in the American sector, where troops would be coming ashore against the defenses of the vaunted Atlantic Wall, a massive series of fortifications running from Norway to the northern coast of Spain. The Wall was not actually a wall, but a jumble of pillboxes, rifle pits, machine gun nests, and bunkers constructed by Organisation Todt under the direction of Field Marshals Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Rundstedt, recently arrived from the Soviet Union. Neither man thought the Atlantic Wall had any real practicality to it, yet they placed their confidence in it regardless. The Allied planners were aware of the strength of the Atlantic Wall and the sheer number of German tank divisions in the area, primarily at Saint-Lo, and so chose to dispatch several airborne divisions to facilitate ground movement once men came ashore. What was needed for the airborne divisions was a full moon, and with foul weather over the English Channel, the Operation actually had to be postponed several days to allow for a full moon to help guide the pilots into the proper drop zones, and the operation was postponed from late May until June 6th, 1944, when it became plausible. The paratrooper divisions were seize key roads and bridges and prevent a potential German armored counterattack that could threaten the landings and throw them back into the sea. To prevent such a potential assault, the Allied planners also worked on a series of two deception operations, code-named Operations Bodyguard and Fortitude.

Both Bodyguard and Fortitude took full advantage of the Double Cross System, in which German spies were turned into double agents to be utilized against the German military and bring in significant amounts of information to the Allied planners. Bodyguard would convince the Germans that the invasion would fall at the Pas-de-Calais, a peninsula north of Normandy and separated from England by the Strait of Dover, a 20-mile strait and the shortest distance between the two nations. The Germans also recognized this as the easiest access point to France, and in accordance with the volume of Allied radio traffic, the Germans bolstered their defense in that area. Fortitude was designed by a British magician to disguise Allied troop movements inside England. With the sheer number of Allied troops in southern England, disguising those movements would be impossible, and so the Allies needed some way to give the intelligence being sent out by MI5 in regards to landings in the Pas-de-Calais some teeth. Moving tanks, infantry, and armored vehicles to northern England would take them away from southern England, where they were needed for the actual landings in Normandy, and so the British invented inflatable tanks and trucks and placed in northern England, making entire ghost armies, and placing them under command of General George S. Patton, a formidable American general who possessed the respect of German commanders. With German spotter aircraft seeing this and reporting it back, the Germans were now convinced a landing in either northern France or Norway was a possibility, and deployed troops there to protect those regions from a potential Allied assault. With Ultra Intelligence tapping into German communiques inside France at Bletchley Park, England, the Allies knew of German intentions and troop movements, and in early 1944, major Allied commanders were being withdrawn from the Italian campaign to assist in Overlord, and the disastrous Exercise Tiger was underway. Stalin responded with ordering two operations, Operation Bagration and the Lvov-Sandomierz Offensive, to be launched simultaneously in the Ukraine and Poland. The stage for the invasion was set.

The American 4th Infantry Division was to land at Utah Beach, the furthest south, with their landings being supported by the 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne Divisions, while the American 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions would land at Omaha Beach, and the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions would land at Omaha or Pointe-du-Hoc. The men landing at Pointe-du-Hoc would be forced to scale the chalk cliffs under intense fire and neutralize the German guns there with thermite grenades. Next was Gold Beach, where the British 50th Northumbrian Division would come ashore, with their target at Bayeux, and to the north would by the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division at Juno Beach. The Canadians would be forced to overcome several reefs lacing the coast in order to reach the beachhead. The Canadians would then move inland and neutralize a German airfield before linking up with the 50th Northumbrian Division and the men of the British 3rd Infantry coming ashore at Sword Beach, then moving inland toward their overall objective, Caen. Behind enemy lines, men of the 82nd Airborne Division under Matthew Ridgeway would be landing as part of Mission Boston, with their targets being crossing over the river Merderet, while the American 101st Airborne Division, under General Maxwell Taylor (having taken the position after the 101st’s original commanding officer, Major General Bill Lee, suffered a heart attack), would land just south of the 82nd Airborne during Mission Albany. The 101st’s targets consisted of the towns of Saint-Marie-du-Mont and Saint-Mere-Eglise, as well as a German garrison at Mesieres, the German battery at Brecourt Manner, the German coastal battery at Saint-Martin-de-Varreville, two foot bridges over the river Douve, a lock in the river Douve, the destruction of several bridges over the river Douve near Saint-Come-du-Mont, and the overall goal of securing the river Douve valley, four causeways running through fields ordered flooded by Rommel in anticipation of Allied paratrooper drops, and the capture of the crossroads town of Carentan, which, once taken, would link Omaha and Utah into one continuous beachhead and consolidate the forces there for an offensive. Both Missions Albany and Boston would also be supported by glider landings during Mission Chicago, in which the executive officer of the 101st, Brigadier General Donald Pratt, was killed when his neck broke due to whiplash.

Further north, the British 6th Airborne Division during Operation Deadstick would seize a bridge over the river Orne, code-named Pegasus Bridge after the divisional insignia. The division was to seize Pegasus Bridge through a glider assault, while the other portion of the division would parachute into Normandy during Operation Tonga and seize two key bridges over the river Orne and Caen Canal, denying their utilization by the Germans for a potential armored counterattack, and then destroy any remaining bridges, and finally neutralize a German gun battery at Merville. The Allied paratroopers were to take and hold these objectives until the arrival of Allied troops after their breakthrough at the Atlantic Wall. The roads and bridges that were kept intact by Allied forces were done so to allow their usage by Allied forces to facilitate movement into Normandy, with the overall American goal being the town of Saint-Lo, the objective of Operation Cobra, and the British objective of Caen. The Allied paratroopers would jump behind enemy lines at around midnight or 0100 hours, with the 101st coming in over their target two hours after the 82nd Airborne Division. Pathfinders would jump in prior to the main force, and set up Eureka and Rebecca radio transmitters to assist the Allied pilots in dropping their troops in the proper drop zones to avoid another repeat of Operation Husky, yet during the landings, the sheer number of inexperienced pilots, coupled with heavy wind, thick fog, and massive amounts of German antiaircraft fire caused the paratroopers to be dropped horribly off course, and the men were forced into patchwork units that still seized their objectives effectively. The main amphibious landings would commence between 0600-0700 hours, yet the Canadian troops coming ashore at Juno, were delayed twenty five minutes by the reefs, and the Canadian armor actually hit the beaches before the infantry. Around 0300-0400 in the morning, as paratroopers were seizing their objectives, Allied bombers with white and black invasion stripes painted on their wings flew over the Atlantic Wall near Omaha Beach, which was believed to be the most heavily defended sector of the wall, and attempted to pummel it with high explosive ordinance, yet this failed and actually woke the defenders to the coming American landings. As troops came ashore in the early morning of June 6th, 1944, the men on most beaches came ashore under minimal resistance, and only a few hundred men were wounded or killed overall, yet the situation on Omaha Beach was becoming dire by midday, with casualties peaking the 2,000 mark. Watching from a destroyer out at sea, General Omar Bradley asked to withdraw the men on Omaha and attempt another day, yet Eisenhower ordered him to continue with the landing as planned. As the landing craft came ashore at Omaha, men reported being able to here German machine gun rounds ricocheting off the steel bow ramps as German gunners anticipated the ramps opening and being able to slaughter the men inside. German obstacles at sea, such as Belgian gates, Czech Hedgehogs, and tetrahedrons, were also taking their toll on the landing craft by making them susceptible to German artillery fire, which was incredibly accurate considering the beach had been presighted. With Utah having been the primary focus of the brunt of the American effort, with German artillery positions there taking priority there in being neutralized and the American paratrooper landings taking place near there as well, American planners had somewhat neglected Omaha, and they were paying dearly for it. Similarly, on Pointe-du-Hoc, American Rangers came ashore and scaled the chalk cliffs under heavy resistance only to find that the guns they thought were there were actually telephone poles set up to trick Allied pilots into thinking the guns were there, and the real guns had actually been withdrawn back into the hedgerows. Fighting their way back into the hedgerows, the Rangers neutralized the guns, and on the next day even withstood the brunt of a German armored counterattack. On Omaha Beach, around 1600 hours, high tide came in and forced the men to huddle close to the Atlantic Wall, and soon they began to breakout, a heavy cost. The sheer number of men killed or wounded had actually turned the tide red with blood.

The landings at the British beaches had gone incredibly well, except around late afternoon when a German armored counterattack was attempted but fortunately driven back. The news of the landings was not given to Hitler until midday, and he promptly dismissed the news, claiming it was an Allied diversion to get his attention away from Calais, which he maintained was the primary Allied target until mid-June, when he realized his fault in judgement. The British were ordered to take Caen the first day of fighting, but were unable due to heavy resistance in the hedgerows around the beaches, and Caen would actually not be taken until August 6th after Montgomery mounted Operations Perch, Martlet, Epsom, Windsor, Charnwood, Jupiter, and Goodwood with mounting casualties and only breaking through with the assistance of the fresh 7th Armored Division, having seen combat in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Carentan was soon taken by the 101st, and a German counterattack spearheaded by Panzers supported by elite Fallschirmjaeger threatened the 101st’s perilous position, yet they held and linked the American beachheads together. In late July, after fierce fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy and with Cherbourg secure, Bradley’s forces took Saint-Lo and broke out as part of Operation Cobra, and with the capture of Caen the next month, the Allied armies trapped German Army Group B under Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge in a pocket near the towns of Falaise and Chambois. During fierce fighting there from August 12th-21st, Kluge’s 100,000-man strong army attempted a vicious breakout, and they eventually succeeded and battling their way past a position manned by Canadian and Polish troops who were attempted to close the gap and trap von Kluge’s men. In the process of the battle of the Falaise Pocket, Kluge lost 60,000 of his 100,000 men, prompting him to commit suicide rather than face the Fuehrer. On July 20th, 1944, several officers in Hitler’s staff led by Claus von Stauffenberg, an officer who had served in Tunisia and lost his left eye, left hand, and several fingers on his right hand, attempted to assassinate Hitler at his Rastenburg headquarters in East Prussia, yet the attack failed and the men implemented in the plot were executed, including Erwin Rommel, who was given a state funeral. On August 25th, General Dietrich von Choltitz surrender Paris to the Allies after refusing to burn the city, and by September, American forces had pushed to the Rhine, while British forces under Miles Dempsey and Canadian forces under Harry Crerar pushed into Belgium to the Dutch frontier. On September 17th, 1944, the largest airborne invasion is history, a 40,000-strong landing made 60 miles behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Holland code-named Operation Market Garden, was undertaken, and by March 1945, the Allies had secured the entire western bank of the river Rhine after taking Aachen and throwing back two German counterattacks, one launched in the Ardennes in December 1944 and another launched in Alsace-Lorraine in January 1945. Germany had fallen.

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