Copyright Canadian War Museum (CN 12469).

D-Day - The Assault, by Captain Orville Norman Fisher.

Under attack, Canadian soldiers struggle across the beaches of Normandy.

While the Italian campaign had allowed the Allies to gain a foothold in Europe, strategists knew that Hitler's "Fortress Europe" would have to be assaulted in the north to achieve final victory. Because air support was so essential to the success of an amphibious invasion, the choice of potential landing sites was limited to northern France and parts of Belgium. Ultimately, Allied commanders decided upon the beaches of Normandy as their location. Normandy met several criteria required for a successful invasion: it had good beaches on which to land; it was located within supply range of ports in southern Britain; and, most importantly, the Germans were expecting the Allies to land in the Pas de Calais area, where the English Channel was narrowest.

Indeed, the Nazis did not guard the region as vigilantly as they did other areas of northern France. The Pas de Calais, for instance, had better beaches and was much closer to England. It was the logical invasion site, and, hence, the Germans concentrated their defences in this region. The Allies encouraged the Germans to believe that Pas de Calais was the intended target through an elaborate program of deception called Fortitude South, which, was one of a series of deceptions collectively known as Bodyguard. In addition to troop movements designed to arouse the suspicion of German spies, the Allied espionage teams created fake installations, landing craft, air bases, and tanks all seemingly poised to be launched at Calais. The air campaign reinforced this deception by ensuring that for every sortie flown over Normandy five were flown over the Pas de Calais. The object of the exercise was to convince the Germans not only of what they already suspected-that Pas de Calais was the target for the invasion-but also that any attack on Normandy was only a feint, designed to draw German defences away from the true objective. As one of the most successful military intelligence campaigns of the war, Fortitude South made a significant contribution to the success of the Normandy invasion.

United States, Library of Congress, American Memory Collections. [20 March 2000].

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, England, 6 June 1944.

Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Western Europe, converses with his troops in preparation for the D-Day invasion.

British General Bernard Montgomery and American General Dwight Eisenhower, who became Supreme Allied Commander at the end of 1943, spearheaded the invasion. Their plan called for five divisions to land in Normandy over a 50 mile beachfront. Supported by naval and aerial bombardment, the Americans would land on the right while the British army, which included the Canadian forces, would land on the left. From the initial landings, the beachhead would be expanded rapidly with a continuous build-up of troops and equipment. First Canadian Army, for example, would see 3rd Infantry Division, under the command of Major General R.F.L. Keller, and 2nd Armoured (tank) Brigade land at Juno Beach on D-Day. 2nd Infantry Division and the rest of General Guy Simmonds' II Canadian Corps would be in place by mid-July. By the early August, 4th Armoured Division would complete the Canadian component of First Canadian Army which for much of the north-west Europe campaign also included the Polish Armoured Division and British formations. The two divisions of I Canadian Corps were, after all, still fighting up the spine of Italy and would not rejoin their comrades on the Channel Coast until the end of the year.

D-Day Landing on Juno Beach, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.
National Archives of Canada (PA-122765, photo by Gilbert Alexander Milne).

D-Day Landing on Juno Beach, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.

Troops of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the Highland Light Infantry disembark from their LCI (L) 299 Landing Craft. Some of the soldiers in the foreground are carrying bicycles for ground transport. The burning buildings in the background are the result of earlier aerial and naval bombardments.

Delayed by poor weather, the allied force launched the invasion on 6 June, a day later than originally scheduled. Only one Canadian division participated in the initial D-Day operations. With other Canadian divisions scheduled to land in stages over the following weeks, Major General R.F.L. Keller's 3rd Infantry Division with the 2nd Canadian Armoured [tank] Brigade under command, landed on Juno Beach. The Canadians' first objective was to consolidate a beachhead and then to move inland, seize the airfield at Carpiquet, and then advance as far as Caen. Discovering that German defences were largely intact in spite of heavy bombardments, the Canadians realized that moving inland was virtually impossible. Most of their efforts that day went to establishing and consolidating a beachhead and repelling determined German counterattacks.

City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A98-96, Box 4).

Canadian Soldiers at Juno Beach, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.

Soldiers leave their landing vessel and prepare to attack the enemy

Like the Canadians, the British and the Americans fought their way ashore. British troops landed on Gold Beach without suffering major losses. Yet the German defence proved strong enough to prevent the British from taking their objective, the town of Caen. Some American units encountered formidable opposition. At Omaha Beach, German defenders, entrenched within their bunkers and pillboxes on high ground, decimated the invading U.S. First Infantry Division. The Americans fared better on Utah Beach, where they established a beachhead against little German resistance.

DocumentDocument
Major Charles Dalton Provides a Brief Account of the D-Day Landing.

Ypres Salient.

Dalton recalls the carnage that surrounded him as he struggled toward the beach.

The Allies had learned from the disaster at Dieppe two years earlier. For D-Day, the landing vessels and the communication links between the various components of the operation were greatly improved. The Allies also provided much greater aerial and naval support for the attack troops. The British even developed a series of specialized tanks. In addition to the amphibious tanks that swam ashore to land with the infantry, there were engineer tanks designed to bust bunkers, bridge gaps, and clear paths through lethal minefields. The Americans rejected these innovations, a decision that may have cost them dearly at Omaha Beach.

Nonetheless, the success of the Allied forces was won at enormous cost. The United States' contingent suffered over 6,000 casualties. The Canadians saw 340 of their men killed, 574 wounded, and 47 captured.

 

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