The Normandy Beachhead, June 1944

May 1944 had been the time chosen at Washington in May 1943 for the invasion. Difficulties in assembling landing craft forced a postponement until June, but June 5 was fixed as the unalterable date by Eisenhower on May 17. As the day approached, and troops began to embark for the crossing, bad weather set in, threatening dangerous landing conditions. After tense debate, Eisenhower and his subordinates decided on a 24-hour delay, requiring the recall of some ships already at sea. Eventually, on the morning of June 5, Eisenhower, assured of a weather break, announced, "O.K. We'll go." Within hours an armada of 3,000 landing craft, 2,500 other ships, and 500 naval vessels--escorts and bombardment ships--began to leave English ports. That night, 822 aircraft, carrying parachutists or towing gliders, roared overhead to the Normandy landing zones. They were a fraction of the air armada of 13,000 aircraft that would support D-Day.

The airborne troops were its vanguard, and their landings were a heartening success. The American 82nd and 101st airborne divisions, dropping into a deliberately inundated zone at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, suffered many casualties by drowning but nevertheless secured their objective. The British 6th Airborne Division seized its unflooded objectives at the eastern end more easily, and its special task force also captured key bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River. When the seaborne units began to land about 6:30 AM on June 6, the British and Canadians on Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches overcame light opposition. So did the Americans at Utah. The American 1st Division at Omaha Beach, however, confronted the best of the German coast divisions, the 352nd, and was roughly handled. During the morning, its landing threatened to fail. Only dedicated local leadership eventually got the troops inland.

Meanwhile, the German high command, in the absence of Rommel, who was home on leave, began to respond. Hitler was initially unwilling to release the armoured divisions for a counterattack. When he relented after midday, elements of the 21st Panzer Division drove into the gap between the British 3rd and Canadian 3rd divisions at Sword Beach and Juno Beach and almost reached the sea. Had they done so, the landings might have failed. Fierce resistance by British antitank gunners at P?riers-sur-le-Dan turned the tide in late evening.

On June 7 the beachhead consisted of three separate sectors: the British and Canadian between Caen (not taken) and Bayeux; that of the American 5th Corps, between Port-en-Bessin and Saint-Pierre-du-Mont; and that of the American 7th Corps, west of the Vire River behind Utah Beach. The narrow gap between Gold and Omaha at Port-en-Bessin was quickly closed, but it was not until June 12 that the American corps were able to join hands after a bitter battle to capture Carentan. The beachhead then formed a continuous zone, deepest southwest of Bayeux, where the 5th Corps had driven nearly 15 miles (25 kilometres) inland.

Meanwhile, work had been proceeding pell-mell to complete the two artificial harbours, known by their code name, Mulberry. The outer breakwater of sunken ships was in place by June 11. The floating piers were half-finished by June 19, when a heavy storm destroyed much of the material. The Americans then decided to abandon their Mulberry, while the British harbour was not in use until July. Most supplies meanwhile had to be beach-landed.
Source: Normandy