June, 1944: Operation Overlord

The Allied invasion of German-occupied France in June, 1944, remains one of the most famous events in World War II history. Crossing the English Channel from England to the French coast of Normandy, the forces waging the attack constituted the largest amphibious operation undertaken in military history.

The Allied invasion of German-occupied France in June, 1944, remains one of the most famous events in World War II history. Crossing the English Channel from England to the French coast of Normandy, the forces waging the attack constituted the largest amphibious operation undertaken in military history.

To command this challenging effort, Western Allied leaders appointed General Dwight D. Eisenhower as commander in chief of Allied Forces in Western Europe. Arriving in England in January, 1944, to oversee the complicated project, he spent many months directing the planning for the cross-channel invasion. Excellent cooperation between the Western Allies was essential for successfully planning and implementing the attack. The second highest military appointment was, therefore, assigned to a prominent British general, Bernard Montgomery.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives encouragement to American paratroopers preparing to join the assault on German positions in Europe in June, 1944. (Library of Congress)

Allied Planning

Defining the attack’s size, scope, and location required careful consideration. Normandy was selected because of its proximity to Great Britain. German defenses in Normandy were weaker than elsewhere on France’s northern coast, although Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had strengthened his fortified positions in early 1944. Beach and tide characteristics also made Normandy a likely choice. The original plan for “Overlord,” the operation’s code name, designated three army divisions for the initial invasion. Eisenhower and Montgomery expanded the size of the target area and increased the divisions to five for the coastal attack: two U.S. divisions, two British, and one Canadian.

Allied deception played an important role before the attack. Adolf Hitler and most German military leaders predicted an invasion would occur in the Pas de Calais region to the northeast. Significant German forces therefore were positioned there, and did not play a role when the actual invasion began. Allied schemes increased Hitler’s belief that the Pas de Calais was the intended target. Phantom armies were “located” in eastern England and fake radio transmissions misled the Germans. Eisenhower also ordered widespread air attacks on railroad centers, bridges, and other transportation targets within France to hinder German reinforcements from reaching the coast when the invasion eventually began. The Normandy attack was therefore nearly a complete surprise.

Normandy Invasion, 1944

The plan required the landings to begin at dawn, so troops would have a full day to establish a beachhead and begin to move inland. Other requirements included a full moon the night before, so parachute forces could be dropped in predawn hours behind enemy lines to cut communication lines and control key bridges and road junctions; a low tide at dawn, so beach obstacles could be cleared; and a fairly calm sea, as soldiers had to land from small assault craft. Early June would meet these requirements, assuming favorable weather. General Eisenhower selected June 5 as D day for the attack. The right combination of tide and moon would not occur again for several weeks, and planners did not wish to postpone the invasion.

The Invasion

In early June, soldiers boarded ships in English embarkation ports, but bad weather on June 3 and June 4 made the scheduled June 5 invasion impossible. An updated weather forecast indicated a break in the storm might occur the night of June 5–6. Eisenhower decided on June 5 to take the risk. The weather improved, and more than five thousand ships, carrying more than a hundred thousand troops, headed for the continent. Paratroopers dropped inland during the night, the first Allied soldiers to land in occupied France. By daylight on June 6, bombers and fighter planes were flying overhead, as ground forces moved toward the beaches. Warships pounded German fortifications with heavy artillery from the sea. Each of the five army divisions had an assigned coastal sector (identified by a code name) to attack and secure: “Utah” and “Omaha” were assigned to the United States, “Gold” and “Sword” to the British, and “Juno” to the Canadians. The landings succeeded in the face of heavy German resistance, although the United States troops at “Omaha Beach” had the greatest difficulty and highest casualties. By the end of the first day, approximately 150,000 soldiers had landed in Normandy.

The invasion forces gradually consolidated and expanded their positions. By the end of June, more than 850,000 Allied troops were in France. The Germans, because of the disruption of their transportation systems from air attacks, could not bring sufficient units to launch effective and sustained counterattacks. Rommel’s preferred strategy favored using all available German forces to drive the Allies into the sea. However, Hitler in Berlin and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt adopted a policy of using their forces on a more selective basis. Thus, the German defense was not well coordinated at the highest levels.

American soldiers pour ashore at Normandy under heavy German machine fire. Most of the landing craft in such amphibious operations were operated by Coast Guard sailors, who suffered among the highest casualties of any branch of the service. (National Archives)

German forces occasionally succeeded in blocking Allied advances from the beachhead. British and Canadian troops on Montgomery’s left flank were unable to capture the city of Caen, a D day objective, until mid-July. On the right flank, General Omar Bradley’s U.S. First Army finally succeeded in capturing the port of Cherbourg on June 27 but was unable to break out of the Cotentin Peninsula quickly.

Greater Allied firepower, both on the ground and in the air, finally broke the impasse. By August 1, Bradley’s troops were in open country, and General George Patton’s U.S. Third Army headed to the south and east. The German Seventh Army, nearly cut off in the “Falaise pocket,” sustained major losses of troops and equipment by mid-August. U.S. and French forces liberated Paris on August 25.


Casualty figures for Operation Overlord vary, in part because of incomplete data. Considering the large numbers of troops in the operation, contradictory totals seem inevitable. Tallies of battle losses also differ according to the period included in any tabulation. Descriptions of the Normandy campaign often cover the weeks between June 6 and the Allied breakout into the French interior by the end of July. Some figures include the liberation of Paris in late August. Casualties on D day (June 6) alone are estimated to be between 10,000 and 10,500 for the Allies and 6,500 for the Germans. Eisenhower referred to 60,000 casualties in three weeks. Another source placed casualties from June 6 to the end of August at approximately 84,000 British and Canadian, 126,000 U.S., and 200,000 German.

Relations between Eisenhower and Montgomery eroded during the campaign. Eisenhower believed the British commander was overly cautious in advancing toward Caen. Montgomery favored holding German forces there while urging Bradley to break out to the west. Eisenhower was displeased when Montgomery did not push his British forces toward Falaise, where, if they had linked with U.S. forces advancing from the west, they would have cut off an entire German army. In both cases, Montgomery believed he had acted correctly and resented Eisenhower’s assessment.

Western scholars emphasize the significance of the Normandy invasion in the overall history of World War II. Veterans and the general public correctly interpret Operation Overlord as a major step toward the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany. In June, 1994, on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, an elaborate commemoration of the campaign was held in the locale where this dramatic and violent conflict had occurred.