D-Day - the Allies launch the largest amphibious invasion in history, successfully land on the beaches of Normandy, laying the foundations for a further push into Europe
With Hitler’s armies in control of most of mainland Europe, the Allies knew that a successful invasion of the continent was central to winning the war. Hitler knew this too, and was expecting an assault on northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944. He hoped to repel the Allies from the coast with a strong counterattack that would delay future invasion attempts, giving him time to throw the majority of his forces into defeating the Soviet Union in the east. Once that was accomplished, he believed an all-out victory would soon be his.
On the morning of June 5, 1944, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious military operation in history. On his orders, 6,000 landing craft, ships and other vessels carrying 176,000 troops began to leave England for the trip to France. That night, 822 aircraft filled with parachutists headed for drop zones in Normandy.
By dawn on June 6, 18,000 parachutists were already on the ground; the land invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where 2,000 troops were lost and it was only through the tenacity and quick-wittedness of troops on the ground that the objective was achieved. By day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops–Americans, British and Canadians–had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches.
For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing that the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.
Though it did not go off exactly as planned, as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France) D-Day was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe.
Liberation of Europe - the Allied armies push the Germans back while resistance movements across Nazi-occupied Europe join the fight to liberate their countries
A great sense of expectancy dominated Europe in the spring of 1944. Resistance groups in German-occupied countries across the continent burned with impatience. In many cases they wanted to take liberation through into revolution and settle accounts with those who had collaborated or profited.
Following the landings on D-Day, the allies also needed to isolate the invasion region to hinder German supplies and reinforcements sent to the Normandy front. A plan known as "Transportation" involved bombing bridges, railway lines and marshalling yards, which proved costly to French civilians, with close to 15,000 perishing in the bombardment. Nearly 70,000 French were killed by allied bombing and shelling during the whole war, more than the total number of British non-combatants killed by the Luftwaffe and the flying bombs. The allies' reliance on massive bombing and shelling, in the hope of reducing their own losses to avoid angry questions at home, revealed perhaps the worst paradox of democracy at war.
But once German panzer divisions arrived, the British and American armies found themselves bogged down in a terrible war of attrition. The savagery of the fighting meant that the German casualty rates alone were double the average on the eastern front. General Montgomery was forced to make a virtue out of a very sore necessity. With his British and Canadian forces facing the bulk of the SS panzer divisions, all he could hope to do was to tie them down until the Americans were able to break through in late July, launching Operation Cobra. This drive southwards, parallel to the Atlantic coast, enabled General Patton's Third Army to break out into Brittany and then swing east towards the Seine.
Normandy was devastated by the fighting, but its martyrdom saved the rest of France from serious damage. Amid scenes of the wildest jubilation, General Leclerc's Second Armoured Division advanced into the centre of Paris on 25 August following a rising by the French resistance. After the euphoria of liberation had subsided, many French began to denounce neighbours and rivals as collaborators and there were plenty of instances of head-shaving of Frenchwomen accused of collaboration horizontale with German occupiers.
At this point many were optimistic that the war would be over by Christmas. The Red Army was close to East Prussia and sweeping into the Balkans. The Romanians had surrendered. The Finns had sought an armistice with the Soviet Union. The British were dashing across Belgium towards Holland, Patton's Third Army had already reached the Moselle, and in the centre other American forces had crossed the border from Luxembourg on to German soil.
On 17 September, Montgomery, with uncharacteristic rashness, ordered paratroop drops on the bridges over the Maas, the Waal and the lower Rhine at Arnhem. The British XXX Corps would charge up the road to relieve them, but constant delays meant that they never got through. Also, British commanders discounted intelligence reports that two SS panzer divisions had recently moved to the area. Operation Market Garden, as it was called, collapsed after 10 days. All the exaggerated optimism earlier in the month evaporated. It was to be a hard winter for the allied troops along the German frontier and in Italy. The Americans were to suffer particularly badly in the fighting for the Hürtgen forest and combat exhaustion casualties mounted alarmingly.