Overlord: Invading the Atlantic Wall (High School)


The date was June 6, 1944; the time, 6:30 A.M., designated as “H-Hour” (Oliver). The Allied invasion of the French province of Normandy was beginning, under the campaign Operation Overlord (Hanson). Within minutes, thousands of troops stormed the beaches, facing heavy German resistance resonating from Adolph Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” (Ambrose). Although the attack was coordinated and planned to every minor detail, the pre-invasion measures the Allies had taken to ensure a safe landing of infantry had largely failed. More than 13,000 planes of the Allied Air Corps had swept the German defenses along the shoreline, yet because of heavy fog and pilot error, many had missed their targets completely. Naval barrages sailed clear of their intended targets; mortars landed harmlessly in the ocean. Perhaps the most complicated of matters was the fact that many troops came ashore in the wrong sector, or on the wrong beach altogether, driven off-course by the stormy waters of the English Channel. Even with these flaws, the invasion was an overwhelming success. Only about 2,500 Allied soldiers were killed, far less than the preparatory estimate of around 10,000. With so many blunders, how did the Allies pull off such a stunning victory?

Many feel that the answer lies in several key points. First, every scholar or historian will agree that the Allied invasion was pulled off with a varying degree of luck. Second of all, the misguided beach landings and the disorganized drops of airborne infantry duly confused the German defenders. And third, the German chain of command may bear some responsibility for the failure of the German defenses; no German officers were one hundred percent sure who was in command of the forces. Three officers (Field Marshals Gerd von Runstedt and Erwin Rommel, along with Supreme Chancellor Adolph Hitler) all claimed command. This was surely a confusing and complicated situation for the Germans, who were unsure, even after the invasion was underway, whom they were to obey.

Allied soldiers landing on the five beachheads (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword) faced murderous fire from the German defenders, making the beaches a living hell (Ferguson). On the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha, casualties were horrendous (Chinn), while the two British landings on Gold and Sword were less bloody. Canadians landing on Juno fared best, slashing their way through the defenses and leading the most technically proficient (Grodzinski) landing of the invasion.

Though the going was rough, the Allies did receive help in the form of luck. United States Army Rangers assaulting the cliffs of Point du Hoc found the massive artillery battery located there “unmanned and unprepared” (Priddy). This allowed the Rangers attacking the cliffs an easy passage.

Due to low tides in the Channel, German beach defenses such as “Czech hedgehogs” and mines were ineffective against Allied landing craft. The Allies did not count on these strokes of luck, but they were certainly welcomed.

German forces looking down from the cliffs above the beaches would have seen a literal debacle: landing crafts coming in at almost random intervals, troops scrambling into cover behind sea walls, and naval destroyers “risking running aground to blindly fire at German pillboxes and artillery posts” (Ferguson). This must have been quite a confusing sight for the defenders, who were certainly expecting to see a well-organized, clustered attack.

Before the beach landings were made, Allied airborne units were dropped into German territory. Members of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions made up most of the paratroop force. The paratroopers “were to secure the flank and to protect the roads and bridges necessary to fan out after the troops were on the beach” (Oliver).

During the drop, high winds drove the soldiers well off course, some even landing more than thirty miles from their target drop points. This had the effect, however, of “baffling the Germans and made them think an extremely subtle plan was underway, which mistaken idea caused them a crucial loss of time” (Priddy).

This delay provided just enough time for struggling Allied forces to beat German reinforcements inland and breach Hitler’s “impregnable European fortress” (Associated Press). Five hundred miles away in Berechtsgaden, Bavaria, Hitler had just fallen asleep with the help of sleeping pills. None of his aides dared wake him, so Hitler was unaware of the