D-Day: before the storm

2 mins read

The decisive victory of World War II in Western Europe took place 80 years ago this summer. On 6 June 1944, after months of planning, around 150,000 men from five divisions – two American, two British, and one Canadian — fought their way on to five designated beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coastline, soon to be followed by hundreds of thousands more Allied troops in the largest amphibious invasion in history. Codenamed Operation Overlord, this unprecedented seaborne assault was, of course, a landmark success — kickstarting the liberation of France, and paving the way for final victory over Hitler’s armies in the west.

By opening a long-awaited ‘second front’ against Nazi Germany, the Allies were delivering on a promise made by Winston Churchill four years earlier. ‘We shall go back!’, the Prime Minister had assured the House of Commons in a famous speech on 4 June 1940, just hours after the British Army had been evacuated from Dunkirk amid the horror of the German blitzkrieg. But that promise would prove hard to keep, with the armies of the Reich taking an iron grip on mainland Europe in 1941, and a run of catastrophes — from the fall of Singapore (described by Churchill as the ‘greatest disaster’ in British military history) to a devastating series of setbacks in North Africa – pushing Britain to the brink in 1942.

What really changed things were Hitler’s calamitous decision to invade Russia in June 1941, and Japan’s ill-fated attack on Pearl Harbor six months later — a move that led the United States officially to enter the war. With the world’s two most powerful nations now fighting on the side of the Allies, a fightback in Europe would finally become achievable — and by the time Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, the leaders of the new Allied ‘Big Three’, met formally for the first time at the Tehran Conference in late 1943, it had already begun. In the Mediterranean, a turning of the tide in North Africa had provided a springboard for the invasion of Sicily and the beginning of the long fight for Italy; while in Russia, the Soviets had defeated German forces in the titanic struggle for Stalingrad, which broke Hitler’s eastward advance.

But if a full-scale, cross-Channel invasion was now possible, lingering doubts remained in the months leading up to 6 June 1944 — not only for the Allies, but also for the Germans awaiting their next move. When, where, and how, remained very big questions indeed, on which many thousands of lives would soon depend. In our special for this issue — the first of two devoted to the D-Day anniversary — we look at preparations on both sides. Taylor Downing examines the Allies’ elaborate deception plans, designed to catch the enemy off guard; while Graham Goodlad analyses the Germans’ defensive strategy, and the so-called ‘Atlantic Wall’ on which their security would depend.

This is an extract from a special feature on D-Day from the April/May 2024 issue of Military History Matters magazine.

Read the full article online on The Past, or in the print magazine: find out more about subscriptions to Military History Matters here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.