Operation Overlord after 70 years

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert Kane
  • Air University historian
For most Americans today, what they know about Operation Overlord, which began in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944, 70 years ago, is probably what they glean from two movies shown mostly around Memorial Day and Veteran's Day.

The 1962 docudrama, "The Longest Day," based on the 1959 book by Cornelius Ryan, covers the 24 hours from evening June 5 to evening June 6. The 1998 movie, "Saving Private Ryan," is a fictional story, using the D-Day landings as the historical setting, about a U.S. Army Ranger squad detailed to find the fourth son, an American paratrooper somewhere in Normandy, of a family who had already lost three sons to the war.

While the first movie provides a fairly accurate historical view of the D-Day landings, the second movie, filmed in combat photography style, depicts a more realistic, more personal view of the young American soldiers, many of whom were recent high school graduates drafted into the Army, who still unflinchingly waded ashore in a hailstorm of German defensive fire during the first hour of the landings. The first 25 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" brings home to many the sacrifices of all of the Allied forces who landed in France that fateful day to begin the liberation of millions of Europeans from Nazi tyranny and oppression.

Over a year in planning, Operation Overlord began right after midnight June 6 when 24,000 American and British soldiers parachuted or air-landed by glider into designated landing zones around Normandy.

Several hours later, just after sunrise, the first of 132,000 assault troops from 13 nations began landing from 4,000 transports and landing craft of all sizes onto five designated beaches between Cherbourg and Le Havre. By the end of the day, more than 100,000 allied troops had landed and established secure but tenuous beachheads at a cost of about 4,400 dead and 8,000 wounded. Over the next several weeks, the allied liberators expanded the beachheads and began preparations for Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy in late July that, less than a year later, led to the liberation of the rest of France and eventually all of Western Europe and the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 7, 1945.

Operation Overlord was not only the largest amphibious operation of World War II but also involved the largest air operation of the war.

For several months prior to the invasion, several thousand allied bombers and fighters attacked targets from the Pas de Calais to the north to the French port of Cherbourg to the west and more than a hundred miles inland to isolate the Normandy area of operations and hamper the ability of German commanders to reinforce their forces in Normandy once the invasion began. This interdiction plan even hampered the arrival of sufficient concrete to complete some of the German defensive works along the Normandy coast. After the war, commanders of the German forces in Normandy consistently reported that allied airpower had greatly impaired their ability to receive troops, equipment and supplies once the invasion began.

In addition, incessant allied air attacks on German airfields in France during spring 1944, combined with the growing intensity of the allied strategic bombing of Germany, caused the German air force high command to pull most of its fighters back to Germany. As a result, the German air force had only about 200 aircraft in Western France on June 6, 1944. By dusk that day, the allies had launched more than 20,000 sorties throughout Normandy, but the German air force mustered less than 200. From early May to the onset of overcast weather in mid-December, which the German military used to launch its last major offensive of the war in the West, allied airpower literally ruled the skies over France during daylight hours.

On June 6, 1984, 40 years after that momentous event, the late President Ronald Reagan stood at the Point du Hoc, a German artillery emplacement high above Omaha beach, which U.S. Army Rangers secured on June 6, 1944 (both movies depicted this event), and commented, "We are bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. ... The strength of America's allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe's democracies. We were with you then; we are with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny. ... Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. ... Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died."

That is the legacy of Operation Overlord.