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A Brief History of WWII

D-Day -- The Cross-Channel Attack

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Preparations for an attack on German-occupied France continued as did the campaigns in the Mediterranean. The defeat of the German U-boat threat, critical to the successful transport of men and materiel across the Atlantic, had been largely accomplished by the second half of 1943. The success of the war against the U-boats was immeasurably aided by secret intelligence, code-named ULTRA, garnered by Anglo-American breaking of German radio communications codes. Such information also proved valuable to the commanders of the ground campaign in Italy and France.

By early 1944 an Allied strategic bombing campaign so reduced German strength in fighters and trained pilots that the Allies effectively established complete air superiority over western Europe. Allied bombers now turned to systematic disruption of the transportation system in France in order to impede the enemy's ability to respond to the invasion. At the same time, American and British leaders orchestrated a tremendous buildup in the British Isles, transporting 1.6 million men and their equipment to England and providing them with shelter and training facilities.

Detailed planning for the cross-Channel assault had begun in 1943 when the American and British Combined Chiefs of Staff appointed a British officer, Lt. Gen. Frederick E. Morgan, as Chief of Staff to the as yet unnamed Supreme Allied Commander. When General Eisenhower arrived in January 1944 to set up Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), Morgan's work served as the basis for the final plan of assault. The Allies would land in Normandy and seize the port of Cherbourg. They would establish an expanded lodgment area extending as far east as the Seine River. Having built up reserves there, they would then advance into Germany on a broad front. Ground commander for the invasion would be General Montgomery. The British Second Army would land on the left, while the American First Army, under Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, landed on the right. Intensive exercises and rehearsals occupied the last months before the invasion. An elaborate deception plan convinced the Germans that the Normandy landings were a feint, and that larger, more important landings would take place farther east, around the Pas de Calais. Here the Germans held most of their reserves, keeping their armored formations near Paris.

Developments on the Eastern Front also aided the success of the invasion. In early 1943 the Russians destroyed a German army at Stalingrad. The Germans tried to regain the initiative in the summer of 1943, attacking a Soviet -held salient near the Russian city of Kursk. In the largest tank battle known to history, they suffered a resounding defeat. Henceforth, they remained on the defensive, in constant retreat, while the Soviets advanced westward, retaking major portions of the Ukraine and White Russia during the fall and winter and launching an offensive around Leningrad in January 1944. By March 1944 Soviet forces had reentered Polish territory, and a Soviet summer offensive had prevented the Germans from transferring troops to France.

On June 5, 1944, General Eisenhower took advantage of a break in stormy weather to order the invasion of "fortress Europe." In the hours before dawn, June 6, 1944, one British and two U.S. airborne divisions dropped behind the beaches. After sunrise, British, Canadian, and U.S. troops began to move ashore. The British and Canadians met modest opposition. Units of the U.S. VII Corps quickly broke through defenses at a beach code-named UTAH and began moving inland, making contact with the airborne troops within twenty-four hours. But heavy German fire swept OMAHA, the other American landing area. Elements of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions and the 2d and 5th Ranger Battalions clung precariously to a narrow stretch of stony beach until late in the day, when they were finally able to advance, outflanking the German positions.

American and British beachheads linked up within days. While the Allies raced to build up supplies and reserves, American and British fighter aircraft and guerrillas of the French resistance blocked movement of German reinforcements. On the ground, Allied troops besieged Cherbourg and struggled to expand southward through the entangling Norman hedgerows. Earthen embankments hundreds of years old, matted with the roots of trees and shrubs, the hedgerows divided the countryside into thousands of tiny fields. The narrow roads, sunk beneath the level of the surrounding countryside, became deathtraps for tanks and vehicles. Crossroads villages were clusters of solidly built medieval stone buildings, ideal for defense. Small numbers of German infantry, dug into the embankments with machine guns and mortars and a tank or two or a few antitank guns for support, made advancing across each field costly.

With time short and no room to maneuver, the struggle to break out became a battle of attrition. Allied troops advanced with agonizing slowness from hedgerow to hedgerow, in a seemingly endless series of small battles. Advances were measured in hundreds of yards. Requirements for fire support far exceeded preinvasion planning, resulting in a severe shortage of artillery shells. The British made several powerful attempts to break through to the open country beyond the town of Caen, but were stopped by the Germans, who concentrated most of their armor in this threatened area. By 18 July the U.S. First Army had clawed its way into St. Lo and, on 25 July, launched Operation COBRA. As heavy and medium bombers from England pummeled German frontline positions, infantry and armor finally punched through the defenses. Pouring through the gap, American troops advanced forty miles within a week.

Rejecting his generals' advice, Hitler ordered a counterattack against the widening breakout by Germany's last available mobile forces in France. U.S. First Army forces stopped the Germans and joined Canadian, British, and Polish troops in catching the enemy in a giant pocket around the town of Falaise. Allied fighter-bombers and artillery now aided a massive destruction of twenty enemy divisions. Suddenly, it seemed the Allies might end the war before winter. Calling off a planned halt and logistical buildup, Eisenhower ordered the Allied forces to drive all-out for the German frontier.

With enemy forces in full retreat, French and American troops rolled into Paris on 25 August 1944. Meanwhile, veteran U.S. and French divisions, pulled out of Italy, landed on the beaches of the French Riviera. While French forces liberated the ports, the U.S. Seventh Army drove northward in an effort to cut off withdrawing German troops. Moving rapidly through the cities of Lyon and Besançon, they joined up with Allied forces advancing from Normandy on 11 September.

Victory seemed to be at hand. But by mid-September Allied communications were strained. Combat troops had outrun their supplies. British and Canadian forces advanced into the Netherlands, and American troops crossed Belgium and Luxembourg and entered German territory. Then both met strong resistance. Bad weather curtailed unloading of supplies directly across the Normandy invasion beaches, while the ports on the North Sea and the Mediterranean were in ruins. As logistical problems piled up, Eisenhower rejected as too dangerous British pleas to channel all available resources into one deep thrust into Germany. He did, however, sanction one last bold gamble: Operation MARKET-GARDEN. Two U.S. and one British airborne division were to open the way for a British armored thrust to seize a bridge across the lower Rhine at Arnhem in the Netherlands. The airborne troops took most of their objectives, but German resistance was much stronger than expected, and the operation failed to gain a bridgehead across the Rhine.

This text has been converted from "A Brief History of the U.S. Army in World War II" published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History.

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