Join us this weekend to learn more about the Allied invasion of Normandy through a free screening of Ike: Countdown to D-Day on Saturday at 2pm, and Portrait Story Days: Dwight D. Eisenhower on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
“Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.” — General Dwight D. Eisenhower
The plan was not a simple one. The goal was to strike at Nazi-occupied France with the largest amphibious invasion in the history of the world. As historian Williamson Murray notes, “Of all military operations, the most difficult and complex is that of projecting combat power from the sea, across the beaches, to the land beyond.” The invasion, called Operation Overlord, was intended to be launched on June 5, 1944, but the landing had to be postponed for a day because of foul weather.
The movement of the troops over water, the supply logistics, the air support, and the assault over the beaches and the cliffs of Normandy against the well-fortified, well-positioned German army all served to complicate the great task. There were boats, tanks, airplanes, and weapons to do the job, but the greatest intangible asset belonging to the Allies was the sheer courage of those 156,000 troops who disembarked from the Higgins boats that day, June 6, 1944. From the moment that massive force touched the sands along the fifty mile front of France, Hitler’s vision of a thousand year Reich was doomed.
Williamson Murray, in his essay “A Visitor to Hell: On the Beaches,” further captures the enormity of the event:
Amphibious forces confronted a number of intractable problems. First, they had to suppress enemy forces defending the beaches—in some cases in fortified positions. Then, the landing force had to seize a beachhead sufficiently deep and broad to allow follow-on forces to defeat enemy reinforcements, arriving by train or automotive transport. And finally, it had to funnel supplies, ammunition, and troops across beaches in sufficient numbers and strength to sustain the battle.
All of this had to go on, as Murray emphasizes, while enemy fire was pouring down on the landing force. There would be Allied support from the air regularly striking at German positions beyond the beach. The success of the invasion, though, rested on the shoulders of the invaders—that is, the American, British, and Canadian troops who stormed the beaches of France at the five designations in Normandy—Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.
The supreme commander of the Allied forces was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, an officer who graduated from West Point in 1915, and later served on the staffs of both General John J. Pershing and General Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower was a respected soldier, who had led the Allied invasion of Africa (Operation Torch) in November, 1942. He was given command of D-Day operations in January, 1944. His leadership in battle would be remembered and his efforts in this theatre would be extolled by those who would nominate him for president in 1952; he would go on to serve two terms in the White House.
The success of Operation Overlord meant that France would soon be free of its German occupiers. Murray emphasizes the importance of D-Day’s events, noting, “The Allies were well on the way to winning the battle… before it had begun. In the end, Overlord’s success rested entirely on the success of Allied amphibious forces in securing the five bridgeheads, through which Allied armies and supplies could pour over the coming months.”
--Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Murray, Williamson. “A Visitor to Hell: On the Beaches.” Cited in D-Day, editor, Jane Penrose. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2004.