The Great Crusade

Today is June 6th. Seventy years ago, on a very bleak and windy Tuesday morning, Operation Neptune, the code name for the naval invasion of Normandy started as thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen began the Allied liberation of Europe. The overall operation was called Overlord and was scheduled to last until D +90. At that point, the Allies believed they would be on the south side of the River Seine with the Germans holding the north side. From there, the breakout would happen and Eisenhower’s broad front strategy would slowly consume the German army in the west. Of course, it didn’t happen that way.

There were five invasion beaches, Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, running west to east along the Calvados Coast. The Americans came ashore at Utah and Omaha, while the British used Gold and Sword with the Canadians at Juno. British paratroopers dropped behind Sword Beach to secure vital bridges over the River Orne. American paratroopers dropped behind Utah to secure vital causeways off the beach and to take the important town of Sainte-Mère-Église. At Omaha Beach, the German’s had the entire landing area zeroed in and the casualties were high. Eventually, in small groups, sometimes as small as one or two men, the 1st and 29th Divisions moved inland and secured the Omaha beaches. The invasion went much smoother at the other four beaches with the Canadians at Juno advancing the farthest on that Day of Days.

The Germans reinforced the area around the city of Caen and British General Montgomery failed miserably in his bid to take the city on D-Day, eventually having to destroy the town to take it. Montgomery’s men had most of the German armor facing them while the Americans under General Bradley had to contend with the Norman hedgerows. After nearly two months of brutal fighting, Bradley unleashed Operation Cobra. The Army Air Forces would carpet bomb an area near St. Lo, and the ground troops would rush through the shell-shocked Germans. At that point, General Patton took over 3rd Army, General Hodges took 1st Army from Bradley, and Bradley moved up to command 12th Army Group. Patton replaced the infantry spearheads with armor spearheads and broke out into the flat country south of the Cotentin peninsula. Patton swung his forces west to take the Brest peninsula and also east on a rampage that would end up with 3rd Army helping to seal off the German army and take bridges over the River Seine. Less than a year later, in May of 1945, the German Army surrendered and The Great Crusade was over.

One of the finest books on the subject is D-Day, by Stephen E. Ambrose. If you haven’t read it, do so. It details the details of the invasion. The most fascinating detail to me was the order in which every unit had to hit each specific beach. On a floor in Allied HQ, thousands of 3×5 cards containing information about each unit were placed in the order of when they would hit the beaches. If any data changed for a unit, someone had to go retrieve the card, make the change, and then put it back. These cards were shuffled to and fro until the commanders were satisfied. The entire invasion was planned and executed without the aid of any computer. Amazing! And the most amazing thing was that they were able to keep the invasion secret. The Germans never knew the invasion area was to be Normandy, even with thousands of little 3×5 cards floating around.

For those that put themselves in harm’s way to keep us from harm — Thank You.